Nuha Elkugia does a "roll call,"
as each player makes up a rhyme about herself.
Hers was, "My name is Nu/I'm gonna block you/
Don't you cry or don't you sue." ( Photo : Meryl Schenker / P-I )
Eastlake's Nuha Elkugia is Muslim, and just one of the girls
By JOHN IWASAKI
19 December, 2006
SAMMAMISH -- Cheers rattled through the gym as visiting Eastlake High School took on Lake Washington High in a spirited girls basketball rivalry.
In one frenetic sequence, Eastlake's Nuha Elkugia, a backup center who was born in Libya, scooped up a loose ball in the lane and swished a short shot, then raced to the other end of the court on defense.
Drawing to her full 5-foot-11-inch height, she trapped a Lake Washington player under the basket and swatted her shot. When a referee whistled Elkugia for a foul, she whirled around with a look that said, "No way."
Nothing seemed unusual about the intense competition. Except, while all the other players wore standard uniforms -- their hair in ponytails or pinned up -- Elkugia, who is Muslim, wore a cream-and-green headscarf that covered her hair and neck.
She also wore a long-sleeved T-shirt under her jersey top, and long, loose athletic pants instead of shorts.
No bare shoulders. No exposed legs. The only visible skin was her face and hands.
Her modest, head-to-toe attire is rare for a female athlete in Washington, state athletic officials said. But as the action swirled around her, Elkugia blended into the game -- a girl who chooses to be different, but who is still one of the players.
That's the way she likes it, on and off the court.
Elkugia is not a basketball star for the Lady Wolves, but her story illustrates how new generations of immigrants, like others before them, practice their faith and cling to aspects of their culture while growing up in American society.
Elkugia -- her full name is pronounced NEW-ha al-KO-ja -- has spent about half of her 17 years in Libya, a north African nation on the Mediterranean Sea, and half in the United States.
"There are two groups of people: Those who forget their culture and totally become American, and people like me, who want to have the best of both worlds," she said. "That's why America is so great. You have the opportunity to succeed."
Her classmates at Eastlake in Sammamish voted her homecoming queen this fall in a landslide, a testament to her popularity and acceptance at a large suburban school with fewer than a dozen Muslims and nearly 90 percent white students.
Getting recognized in front of a cheering crowd during halftime of the Garfield-Eastlake football game was a "surreal experience," said Elkugia, who holds a 3.8 grade-point average, speaks three languages and gives advice to friends in notes signed "Dr. Phil."
"I thought, 'Wow. People finally judging you on your personality and how you act, not just how you look.' I felt honored," she said.
Mari Rossi, a senior forward and co-captain of the basketball team, said the choice was obvious.
"Nuha is nice to everyone," said Rossi, 18. "She's smart. She's athletic. Plus, she's different, but she's just herself. Everyone just respects her. It's not an issue of what religion she is. All the people who were nominated were neat girls, but Nuha is awesome."
Elkugia's good friend, senior Arianne Aslamy, 17, said students "truly felt she deserved to be honored that way."
In the clique-driven world of high schools, Elkugia is "not into gossip or slamming others," said Sue Epeneter, her counselor and adviser at Eastlake.
"What I appreciate most about Nuha is her ability to communicate with diverse groups of people and maintain friendships with students from all social groups," she said
Elkugia earns high grades in challenging courses -- her schedule includes college-level English, Advanced Placement government and biology, plus calculus and physics. She gave a presentation on Libya at this year's Northwest Folklife Festival. She coaches basketball for first- and second-graders at Medina Academy, an Islamic school in Bellevue, where her mother teaches.
"She is one of the most well-rounded students I have encountered in my career" of 14 years at Eastlake, Epeneter said.
Elkugia hopes to attend the University of Washington and major in one of the sciences. She would like to work in the medical field, perhaps to help north African nations.
"With her personality, the way she carries herself, I know she's going to do something great," Aslamy said. "I've felt that way ever since I met her."
Elkugia's family lived in Seattle before moving to the Eastside. She speaks Arabic at home, watches "Oprah" and Food Network's Rachael Ray, loves eating couscous and lamb, and drives a silver 1993 Toyota Corolla.
At Eastlake, she is one of seven Muslim girls, four of whom choose to cover their heads with a hijab, a headscarf. The school has 1,300 students.
Carolina Covelli, 17, an immigrant from Colombia, said Elkugia was the first Muslim she had ever met.
"My first impression was, why is she wearing this scarf?" she recalled. "Because she wanted to, or because she was forced to?" Afraid that she would offend her new friend, Covelli waited a couple of months and finally asked her.
"She was actually glad," Covelli said. "She hated how people ignored her or were (uneasy around her). She told me that the reason she wore it was not because she was forced to, but because she wanted to. She wanted guys to see her for who she was, and not just her looks."
Elkugia's full coverage of her body contrasts with many girls her age wearing short, tight outfits. Yet she does not criticize them, staying consistent with her belief that people shouldn't be judged mainly by their appearance.
She started covering her head regularly when she was in the sixth grade.
"When you reach a certain age, you are expected to, because it is the foundation of the religion," Elkugia said. "It's a form of modesty. I understood at an early age, I don't have to dress like everyone else."
What's more important than covering their heads is for Muslim women to carry themselves with dignity, she said.
She looked to her mom, Fatma, for guidance. Her dad, Mohamed, is a software engineer at Microsoft. Growing up with three younger brothers, Elkugia said modesty is second nature.
Wearing an alternative uniform requires approval each season from the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association. WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese said his organization receives one or two requests per year from Muslim athletes.
Her sports attire invariably leads observers to wonder the same thing, Elkugia said with a sigh: "Do I get hot?" Her practiced reply: "I was born in north Africa. I'm used to 100 degree weather."
Much harder is when practices take place during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month when Muslims abstain from food and drink during daylight hours as a form of spiritual reflection and discipline.
Elkugia started on the junior varsity team the past two seasons, leading the Lady Wolves in rebounding. This season, she comes off the bench for the varsity team, which had a 1-3 record going into its game against Liberty on Monday night.
In about 10 minutes of playing time per game, Elkugia averages five points, four rebounds, two steals and 1.25 blocks.
"Every time she steps on the floor, the energy level picks up," Eastlake coach Scott Sartorius said.
Elkugia doesn't like talking about her individual performance, preferring to highlight her team.
During games, she often subconsciously touches the top of her head, as if to make sure her scarf doesn't fall off; it never has. She wears No. 32, the same as her hoops hero, Shaquille O'Neal of the Miami Heat.
The voice mail greeting on her cell phone tells callers, "I'm either hitting the books or slam dunking."
That's Nuha, said Steve Jones, her JV coach, who enjoys her cheerful personality. "I tease her in the hall and she dishes it right back at you," he said. More seriously, he respects her religious beliefs.
"Especially in this day and age," Jones said, "it's kind of a challenge to be a Muslim in the U.S."
Sartorius said Elkugia's presence and attitude have been eye-opening for anyone who has watched her play.
"I don't see her head scarf. I just see a player," he said. "I remember other teams would see her and not be familiar with her. They'd go, 'A Muslim playing basketball? How weird.' When she plays, they forget about that. She's swatting their shots 20 feet into the stands."