Previous Story

Gang of Four: The Sequel

All Features

Next Story

Death by Newsroom

A Serious Man

What could make a professional basketball player return a six-figure sum to his team in midseason? Ask former University of Pennsylvania star Ibby Jaaber.

On an island in the middle of the Nemunas River, beside the Lithuanian city of Kaunas, sits a basketball madhouse. It is Žalgiris Arena, the nearly 16,000-seat home of Žalgiris Kaunas, one of the top clubs in Europe. The team was founded in 1944 — two years before the NBA — and when its players don their green-and-white uniforms for big home games, the atmosphere is like a crazed mash-up of college hoops and European soccer. The supporters club is called “Green Death,” and for good reason. When former NBA player Rudy Fernandez visited in March with his Real Madrid squad — on the heels of a previous dust-up with Žalgiris — fans came with signs at the ready and showered him with boos, taunts, and chants of “Fuck you, Rudy.” One giant bedsheet held up in the stands declared:

     ACTOR
            DUMB
COWARD
 SCURVY

I fear something was lost in translation on the final insult, but there wasn’t much ambiguity after the game, when a Žalgiris supporter physically assaulted Fernandez as he was leaving the arena.

The attack on Fernandez — always a bit of a flopper — however, was not the most shocking moment of the Žalgiris season. Something much more surprising happened two months earlier, in a much quieter place: a bank, less than a mile away from the arena, on a tree-lined street called Laisvės Alėja, translated into English as Freedom Avenue. It was here on a cold January day that the point guard for Žalgiris, Ibby Jaaber, arranged to voluntarily return every penny he’d earned from the team.

He remembers stepping off the busy street and into the bank. Jaaber, 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, and a month shy of his 29th birthday, looked his usual self — skinny and angular — but he says something had changed inside of him. A lightning-fast guard from Elizabeth, New Jersey, he had played for the University of Pennsylvania from 2003 to 2007, where Jaaber used his long arms and quick hands to set the Ivy League record for career steals. He also took home three Ivy League championships, twice being named the league’s player of the year. Since graduating, he’d built a lucrative career playing for top teams in Europe. He’s got 12 siblings, and his success had helped support the Jaabers back home. His one-year deal with Žalgiris was worth more than $500,000.

But the money was no good to him anymore. The team’s jerseys featured the logo of a beer company called Kalnapilis: a small red triangle with the brewery’s name in script below it. As a devout Muslim, the beer ad offended Jaaber. So did the squad’s scantily clad cheerleaders, with their low-cut tops and barely there bottoms. The cheerleaders’ racy routines weren’t so different from anything you’d see in an NBA arena — OK, maybe there were a few extra thrusts and gyrations — but as Jaaber put it, “To me, they’re naked women.” He even found the music pumped through the arena to be too profane.

He’d been with the team for more than three months and things were going smoothly, but then it hit him one day like a basketball to the head: To keep his faith, he had to go. “It was really like an epiphany,” Jaaber says. He told the team that he would be leaving immediately and that, since the money he’d earned from them was tainted, he didn’t want it anymore. So here he was at the bank, meeting a Žalgiris official. “I laughed with the team manager about the situation,” Jaaber says. “How can somebody do this? Everybody lives for money.”

The bank teller confirmed the transfer. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were wired from Jaaber’s account to the team’s. He walked out of the bank and prepared to leave Kaunas with his wife and newborn son.

“I understand that maybe I will never earn money from basketball because of this decision,” he said at the time, “but I am ready to do such a sacrifice for my beliefs.”

Jaaber is hardly the first Muslim — or even the first devout religious person — to play professional sports. But he is the first, or at least one of the very few, to quit so suddenly and so dramatically due to his faith.

What makes him different? Forget Lithuania — to find that answer, you’ve got to start in New Jersey.

It’s now June, and Jaaber is sitting on a panel at the New Jersey Dawah Conference, an Islamic convention being held at a highwayside Marriott in Whippany. Seated at the head of a function room, he’s dressed in a white thobe that flows down to his ankles, with a maroon kaffiyeh on his head. The crowd is about 50 or 60 deep, with men sitting on one side of the room and women, all covered, on the other. The current speaker, Ammar AlShukry, is ticking through best practices for converting nonbelievers, emphasizing the need to sell Islam without disparaging others’ religions. “They’re not going to say thank-you for insinuating that my grandparents are in the hellfire,” he says, and the audience chuckles. Jaaber — with his wide face, high cheekbones, and a beard springing out from his chin — watches intently. When AlShukry finishes, they do a role-play: Jaaber pretends to be a non-Muslim and AlShukry tries to convert him. Jaaber’s acting isn’t very convincing — when I grab him after the panel wraps up, he makes a joke about how hard it was to pretend to not be Muslim.

We start to walk out of the function room and toward the convention space, where Jaaber’s new company, Color Me Muslim, has a booth set up. After leaving Žalgiris, Jaaber did a quick stint playing in Iran — the basketball was bad and the religious aspect left something to be desired. “I’m more strict, as compared to them,” he says. When he returned home, he started Color Me Muslim, a small publishing and production outfit with the goal of promoting Islam and reaching out to Muslim youth. On the table next to us are an array of Muslim-themed T-shirts, wristbands, DVDs, and books. Jaaber has long been involved with performing spoken-word poetry, and Color Me Muslim promotes his different events, often at conventions like this. He tells me he has also spent much of his newfound free time doing community work out of his mosque in Elizabeth.

When I had talked to him on the phone a few weeks before the convention, he sounded like he still couldn’t quite believe he’d returned all that money. “Yeeaaah, yuuuuup,” he began, when I brought it up. “Well, the thing is, Islamically, the money is considered to be unlawful … If I’m leaving this situation because it’s unlawful, then the money isn’t lawful.” Laughing, he’d added, “I pretty much played four months of basketball for free.”

Now, though, he says he never had any doubts about the decision. When he signed the money away, he says it felt good. “It was a very liberating experience,” he explains. His family supported him all the way.

One of the books for sale at Jaaber’s booth is a reflection on the American Muslim experience, written by his father, an imam named Muhammad ibn Heshaam Jaaber, and we get to talking about Jaaber’s childhood. After being born in Brooklyn, he bounced around with his family between North Carolina and Virginia. When he was 13, his father took him to Morocco to spend a year studying Arabic. He came back to Virginia for another year before the family moved to New Jersey, where his grandfather, a former associate of Malcolm X, lived.

In Elizabeth, the family was never desperately in need, but life wasn’t easy. Both Jaaber’s parents worked hard. “It was a grind,” he says. “We always had that talk about your needs and your wants,” his mom, Aisha, recalls. “The needs are important and you get to wants sometimes.” Islam was always a big part of Jaaber’s life, but as a teenager in New Jersey, he says he struggled with his religious identity. “I was really sensitive, shy,” he says. “Even though I had a strong love for Islam, I wasn’t as courageous about being outspoken.”

One place where things came easy, though, was the basketball court. It was clear early on that he could play, which, in Elizabeth, was a good thing. “I dodged bullets just by being in the gym,” Jaaber says. “A lot of guys I went to high school with are basically in the ground now. A lot of guys who were more talented than me as an athlete and as a basketball player — even the football players — got involved in the wrong things.”

Elizabeth was one of the country’s true high school hoops hot spots, boasting powerhouses like St. Patrick High School, which produced the likes of Kyrie Irving, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Al Harrington. But Jaaber attended the public school, Elizabeth High, where there wasn’t quite so much tradition to fall back on. His coach, Pat Brunner, was only at the school for a couple of years, but he recalls having to kick some players off the team for disciplinary reasons when he arrived. With Jaaber, though, there were never any problems. And his family showed up at every game to cheer him on (they were easy to pick out in their Muslim attire). After the games, Aisha remembers, “He used to run up in the bleachers and give me a hug and a kiss.” For a high schooler, that’s bold behavior.

“Ibby was a great kid,” Brunner says. “Ibby was one of those kids that kind of was a little bit older than his age.” Jaaber fasted during Ramadan, but still managed to make it through games and practice without tiring. Other than that, Brunner says, religion never came up. He remembers Jaaber more for the kind of player he was. “Ibby was very competitive. Always wanted to cover the other team’s best player,” he says. “He covered Randy Foye three times that year.”

Despite leading Elizabeth to the Union County Championship title in his senior year, 2002, Jaaber, skinny as a rail, was lightly recruited. Rather than take a scholarship at Division II Stonehill College, he opted for a postgraduate year at the Peddie School, in Hightstown, New Jersey. It was there that he started to attract notice, including that of Penn assistant coach Dave Duke. “He really had good body control for a skinny guy, could dunk easy, shot the 3, great defender, drove, could get to the foul line,” Duke says. Jaaber’s maturity and good grades sealed the deal. Head coach Fran Dunphy came down for a look, and he also came away impressed. The Ivy League hadn’t even been on Jaaber’s radar, but now the kid from Elizabeth had earned a chance at a golden ticket. He was on his way to Philadelphia.

Ibrahim Jaaber #2 of the Pennsylvania Quakers has his jersey pulled by Quentin Thomas #11 of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels on January 3, 2006 at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Cranberry vodka. That was the official drink of the Penn basketball freshman class of 2003, according to Steve Danley, Jaaber’s old college teammate. Or at least that was the joke on the team. “That’s all Ibby would drink,” Danley explains, “because he didn’t like the taste of alcohol.” Jaaber didn’t drink before coming to Penn, but he and his teammates liked to tip a few back at the campus bar, a sticky-floored place called Smokey Joe’s. It was nothing crazy, but Jaaber enjoyed being out, going to parties, and working the athlete circuit. “He was religious, but didn’t really have it too much in my face,” says Mark Zoller, his teammate and freshman-year roommate. “We lived a normal college life. Went to parties, hung out with girls,” Zoller says. They played a lot of video games — especially the latest NBA2K titles. I attended Penn while Jaaber was there, and although I didn’t know him personally, I remember seeing him slink around the school’s West Philadelphia campus, most often in a hoodie and sweats, looking like any other college kid too lazy to get dressed.

In reality, though, Jaaber was having a tough time adapting to college. He’d done fine that year in Morocco, but Penn was different. Specifically, it was different from Elizabeth. “He talked about adjusting,” his mom, Aisha, says, “and I think it did have a lot to do with people around him having money.”

Just his dorm alone was enough to blow you away — it was located in the Quad, a gargoyle-studded complex of 19th-century gothic buildings covering two city blocks. The place practically had privilege oozing out of the cracks in its walls (not to mention radiating from the designer clothes of many of its inhabitants). “It was a little bit of a culture shock,” Jaaber says. “It was like an entirely different world from where I came from. It was like a movie.”

As a Catholic, Danley bonded with Jaaber over their mutual devotion to religion. After practice, they’d go eat at a dining hall and, before starting, Danley would cross himself while Jaaber performed a cleansing ritual. Danley, a 6-foot-8 big man from Germantown, Maryland, remembers how his teammate took pride in being different, of coming from a tough neighborhood.

The hoodie and sweats, it turned out, weren’t Jaaber being lazy. It was his way of striking back at what he saw around him: He wasn’t going to wear fancy clothes to impress a bunch of wealthy kids from the suburbs — at least that’s how he saw things back then. “I had a chip on my shoulder,” Jaaber says. “I felt like a lot of people doubted me, a lot of people underestimated me, on and off the basketball court.”

One of the first friends he made at school was Chris Mizell, a 6-foot-4 tight end from the Bronx who played on Penn’s football team. They bonded over coming from tough neighborhoods, and Mizell remembers how, even though Jaaber was plenty popular on campus, he often had his friends from home come visit. It was clear that maintaining that connection meant something to him. “Penn’s got plenty of kids with money, plenty of kids without money, plenty of kids from all sorts of neighborhoods,” Mizell says. “It’s a very diverse place. But on the whole, I don’t think people really understood where he was from. One, because he was from Elizabeth, and two, because he was a very strict Muslim. People would always make sure to respect Ibby’s religion when they could, but he wasn’t always willing to let them do that. He was very private about it.”

One way Jaaber dealt with all the thoughts whirring around inside his head was to write — since high school, he’d kept a journal and he continued scribbling down prose and poetry during his years at Penn. “I was still somebody who really was a mystery to a lot of people,” Jaaber says. “I had a place for myself that nobody could come into.”

He opened up in part by joining the campus spoken-word group, called the Excelano Project. Danley, who’d also joined Excelano, remembers that they used to sit in the back of the bus during road trips and write and perform and freestyle. One night at a party, he says, Jaaber got up and freestyled for 45 minutes straight. “He almost considered himself a philosopher, especially on urban and social issues,” Danley says. “It was a lot about the culture of the street and what that’s like and what sports means to that culture. What hip-hop means to that culture. And what it means to be academic in that culture. What does it mean that he loses street cred when he goes back to a community having gone to Penn?”

Just like in high school, though, life became simpler to navigate on the basketball court. Jaaber made an immediate impression his freshman year — especially in practice. He wasn’t afraid to challenge the older guys on the team, to let them know that he should be getting their minutes. “He definitely wasn’t a guy who was going to back down,” says Jeff Schiffner, the team’s star senior when Jaaber was a freshman. “He had that type of swagger.”

By his sophomore year, Jaaber was starting, helping lead the Quakers to an Ivy League crown. It was already clear that he could take over games with his defense, but, in his junior year, his offensive production shot up from 11.5 to 18.2 points per game. Penn won another title and Jaaber nabbed his first league player of the year honor. As in high school, Jaaber impressed his coaches and teammates with his ability to keep his game up while fasting during Ramadan. But other than that, Dunphy says religion hardly ever came up. Jaaber grew into a leader on the team — he wasn’t a rah-rah guy, but whether it was busting his ass during conditioning drills or focusing before games, he set the example that everyone else followed. There was only one Penn basketball jersey available for sale at the team’s souvenir store: Jaaber’s no. 2.

It was around that time that Jaaber realized he might be able to play professional ball, either in the NBA or in Europe. He’d seen the alums who returned to campus after making big bucks abroad, and it dawned on him that he could smoke those guys. “I would be like, ‘How much is he getting? And he’s in the top league? Wow,’” Jaaber says. “And I took it to another level: I started lifting and taking basketball a little bit seriously.”

His teammate Zoller says that when Jaaber dedicated himself to something, it was impossible to knock him off course. Now, he was zeroing in on a chance to support his family. “That was something that definitely we spoke about openly,” Zoller says. “He was definitely more focused on providing for his family.”

Jaaber’s new commitment to training was on display during one particularly memorable play at the end of Penn’s home opener at the Palestra his senior year. The Quakers were hosting Florida Gulf Coast,1 and as the clock was winding down on a Penn blowout win, Jaaber went streaking down the left side of the court. His old roommate Zoller lobbed an alley-oop, but the pass was off and Jaaber, already in midair, had to reach far behind his head to catch it with one hand and throw it down.2 It was the kind of elite-level athletic play you just didn’t see in the scholarship-free world of the Ivy League. As Jaaber crashed to the floor, the house came down with him. “That was one of the most amazing experiences,” Jaaber says. “That single play.”

Jaaber was changing off the court, too. His whole time in college, he’d been wrestling not just with the disparities between Penn and Elizabeth, but with the balance between fitting in on campus and following his faith. “It was an internal struggle,” he says. “When you feel like you’re supposed to be doing one thing and you’re actually doing another, if you’re a conscious person and you have a sincere heart, then at some point it’s going to be overwhelming to you. And from time to time that would happen. I would be kind of overwhelmed with the culture shock.”

By his senior year, Jaaber’s answer was to push toward a deeper level of religious orthodoxy. As a result, he pulled back from Penn’s social scene. There were no more parties or cranberry vodkas. “I was in places that I wasn’t supposed to be,” Jaaber says. “Bars, mixing environments.” As he continued to excel on the court — leading the Quakers to a three-peat of Ivy League championships — Jaaber spent more time writing, thinking, and being around a smaller inner circle of friends. By the time he graduated in 2007, he was a different person from the one who’d enrolled four years earlier.

“He’s a guy who’s always going to ask a lot of questions,” Danley says, “and religion seemed to provide a lot of answers.”

That July, Jaaber played for the Detroit Pistons’ summer league team, but rather than stay in the U.S. and chase the NBA, he opted for sure money abroad. He signed with a team in Greece, called Egaleo, and after tearing up the Greek league — he led it in steals (2.8) and points per game (22.4), including one 40-point outburst — bounced up a level to Roma. There, he turned heads playing alongside U.S. high school phenom Brandon Jennings, who had decided to spend a year in Europe while waiting to become eligible for the NBA draft.

Come the summer of 2010, Jaaber was turning heads again, this time in America, playing for the Lakers’ summer league team. “He’s had a really good 10-day period with us,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told a reporter for ESPN Los Angeles at the time. But Jaaber wasn’t interested in sticking around to try to take a shot at the roster. “A lot of people don’t know I’ve got 12 brothers and sisters,” he told a Lakers reporter that summer. “So I try not to be selfish in my decision making. When I say secure my future, I’m not talking just about myself, I talk about the people around me I have the part of helping.”

In other words, he planned on heading back to Europe. “I think financially to secure my future, it’s better to get the money while it’s available,” he added. Soon after, Jaaber signed a two-year deal with AJ Milano reportedly worth more than $1.5 million.

Things were on the up-and-up and, feeling more settled in life, Jaaber decided he was ready to get married. College had been a culture shock, but he felt like he was hitting his stride in Europe. “After I had been removed from all the negativity and purified myself, I was actually prepared to be married,” Jaaber says. There was a woman who was the daughter of longtime family friends and, as Jaaber put it, “the call was made.” They met first over the phone and then got to know each other in person. Soon, they wed.

Sitting in the lobby of the Marriott, I ask him if he’d dated much before deciding to get married. After all, he’d spent that time in college with Zoller and his teammates, hanging out with girls and going to parties. “Da-ted?” he responds, rolling the word around in his mouth like some bitter candy. “I don’t date. We don’t date.” The “we” seems to refer to the steady stream of people in thobes and hijabs walking by us in the convention space.

In 2011, after the end of the NBA lockout, Jaaber went to camp with the Houston Rockets. He didn’t make the roster, but Rockets GM Daryl Morey thinks he could have stuck in the league. “If the right opportunity/team fit came along,” Morey e-mailed, “he had a solid chance to be an NBA roster player and an outside chance to be a rotation player.” At one point the Washington Wizards brought Jaaber in for a workout — their vice-president of basketball administration, Tommy Sheppard, put it another way: “If jersey numbers were roster spots, he’d be number 16.”

While Jaaber bounced around Europe, his faith continued to grow on the same trajectory it followed toward the end of college. He was churning through books on Islam. His mom noticed the uptick in his reading — “I don’t think it was Harry Potter,” she says. After the Rockets cut him, Jaaber decided to take some time off to go on his hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are supposed to make at least once in their lives.

Come this past fall, though, he was ready for basketball again, and signed with Žalgiris. As he prepared to leave for Lithuania, the team helped him find an apartment near a mosque. It also exempted him from any Christmas activities in the community, which other players were required to participate in. “We obviously knew that Ibby was a religious person and devoted to God and we helped him in every step,” Almantas Kiveris, a team spokesman, told me in an e-mail. The club also helped make hospital arrangements for his wife, who was pregnant with a boy, all the way down to helping arrange for a circumcision (not a common practice in Lithuania, but a religious duty for the Jaabers).

Creeping up in age, Jaaber wasn’t the same star player for Žalgiris that he’d been earlier in his career, but through about 30 games, he often started and was getting solid minutes. “Basketballwise, everything seemed fine,” says his American teammate, center Jeff Foote. “Ibby was a fantastic teammate.” Foote, a Cornell alum, was also Jaaber’s roommate on the road, and he remembers seeing Jaaber wake up early to pray in their hotel room. But religious conflicts never seemed like a serious issue, he says.

Then one day in January, Jaaber took stock: On the front of his jersey, there was the beer ad. On the sidelines, the cheerleaders. Over the loudspeakers, the music. If those things were going to exist in the world, he didn’t want to be the one promoting them. Jaaber isn’t sure why his epiphany hit him exactly when it did. It might have had something to do with being a new dad. “I knew first off I didn’t want my son to be there,” Jaaber says. “I didn’t want him to be hearing the foul music or seeing the half-naked women between timeouts. I didn’t want him to see the alcohol advertisements.” It also might have just been the result of his, as he put it, “exponentially” growing spirituality. In any case, the dam had burst. He talked it over with his wife, called his parents back home. And that was it. It all happened quickly. “I was putting myself in a dangerous position,” he says. Playing for Žalgiris, he explains, was “detrimental to my afterlife.”

“That’s not something I would want to die upon. Who’s to say that I won’t die tomorrow night in practice, and that will be what I die upon. So I can’t go back — I couldn’t give two weeks’ notice.”

He wrote a letter to the club explaining his decision. His teammates were shocked. They were heading into the meat of their Euroleague schedule, and the timing could hardly have been worse. “Truthfully, I’m still pretty confused about why he left,” Foote says.

“The club was definitely surprised,” Kiveris, the spokesman, e-mailed. “We understood his determination and while we tried to [convince him] to stay, we didn’t make any obstructions for him to leave.” In his letter, Jaaber had offered, unprompted, to return the money. As much focus and effort as he’d put into getting to the point where he could earn that type of cash, the Žalgiris money was now anathema to him. To put it in his mother’s phrasing, it had gone from a “need” to a “want.” As for all the family members he’d been helping support, he says he’s comfortable they’ll be fine. “Everyone is capable of doing their own thing,” he says.

“I’m working for a company that’s promoting things that are against my beliefs — that are diametrically opposed to who I am supposed to be,” he says. “So the money is impermissible for what I’m promoting. If I accept the money I am accepting sin.”

Jaaber bade farewell to his teammates and prepared to go. “I still love basketball — that’s not a question,” he says. “However, I love my Lord more.”

Ever the writer, Jaaber also produced an essay explaining his decision and posted it to his Color Me Muslim website. “It is not the thousands of points scored, or the blocked shots and the rebounds that will be the reason for anyone to be granted entry into paradise,” he wrote. “The trophies, the rings and the banners hanging high in the rafters will not intercede for anyone on the day of judgment.”

Ibby Jaaber - Pui Yan Fong - Illustration

Back at the conference in the highwayside Marriott, I ask Jaaber about his basketball future. On the phone a few weeks earlier, his agent had played up summer league interest from NBA teams, and sounded bullish. The truth is, Jaaber’s age makes his NBA chances slim. Not many teams are interested in Euroleague vets who are pushing 30. Summer league is in session now, and he’s not there. “You kind of move on to the next thing,” the Wizards executive Sheppard says. “He wouldn’t be on our radar.” Besides, Jaaber isn’t even sure that he could justify playing in the NBA — arenas here have liquor ads and dancers in skimpy clothes, too. Europe’s also pretty much out. “Maybe Kuwait, Dubai, the Emirates,” he says. “I think it would be beneficial, religiously.”

Jaaber’s dedication to his faith and willingness to sacrifice for his beliefs are, without doubt, unique. Even Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, the Denver Nugget who said his Islamic beliefs prevented him from standing for the national anthem, continued to play on. After the NBA, he extended his career for years by playing overseas, including in Europe. But Jaaber simply dropped out and gave back his loot. He says he hopes that other Muslim athletes will follow his lead.

But while we sit on a bench at the convention, I point out that in today’s modern economy, no matter where he goes and what he does, it will be difficult for him to disassociate from any money linked to sin. Our roads are paved with cigarette taxes; our schools built with lottery proceeds. Ads for beer and liquor are ubiquitous, and the money reaped from their sale trickles all through the economy. Even if he were to play in Kuwait, there’s a decent chance that his new team owner’s fortune would be somehow tied to selling oil to sinful Westerners.

The slippery slopes abound: When Jaaber played for Roma, he wore a lottery ad on his jersey. Even though gambling is as offensive to him as drinking, he’s held on to his money from his stint in Rome, and he even used it to help fund his business ventures aimed at spreading the good word of Islam. The distinction, he says, is that Žalgiris was an open contract. By his interpretation of Islamic law, that’s what required him to return the cash.

“I don’t make the rules, I just follow them,” Jaaber says.

I point out that the very Marriott we’re sitting in — the place where he’s participating in a conference on Islam — may not even exist, if not for its ability to sell alcohol to guests (to say nothing of the available in-room entertainment). Patronizing this particular hotel, he replies, “is completely different than actually working for that company.” As a player for Žalgiris, he says, he felt like he was actively promoting its product and, therefore, its values.

So would he work for a Marriott? Jaaber says he’d want to consult those with deeper religious knowledge than his own first, but he suspects he would no more work for Marriott than he would play for Žalgiris.

“For example,” he goes on, “if I work at a grocery store and that grocery store sells alcohol and somebody brings that alcohol across my register, do you think I’m going to ring that up?” The answer is no.

I ask him if totally separating himself from all of these influences is truly possible. “That’s the challenge!” he replies. “The thing about Islam that people haven’t understood is that it’s a religion where the goal of the person is to accomplish purity — socially, culturally, spiritually, financially — at every level. Because we see that purity as a prerequisite of entering paradise.”

Like any religion, there’s no single interpretation of Islam. Jaaber’s version — shaped by his upbringing, his teen years in Elizabeth, and his culture shock at Penn — sits at the orthodox edge of the spectrum. It seems to be pushing him away from the rest of society. After all, if you can’t work at a hotel or a grocery store, how many places can you work?

“There’s a Christian thought: Live in the world, not of it,” says his old college teammate Danley, “and sometimes I wonder if the decisions he makes don’t even let him live in the world. That’s my worry, but it’s hard for me to say.”

Tonight, Jaaber is slated to perform spoken word in the hotel’s main hall, closing out the day’s activities. At about 11:30 p.m., he takes the stage, dressed in dark jeans, a yellow T-shirt, and a white knit cap. His first piece is called “Long Live the Deen.” The word “deen” is Arabic and refers to the path Muslims must follow in order to be righteous. As Jaaber blasts out his lyrics, one verse stands out:

No more schemes, no more screens, no more fiends addicted to morphine,
No more streams of blood spilled by more teens,
No more wars over worldly things,
Long live the deen!

That is the world that Ibby Jaaber is striving to live in, even if it may never truly exist.

Jason Schwartz (@SchwartzHub) is a senior editor at Boston magazine.

Filed Under: Magazines, Star