Varsity Kansas

Wichita tennis player hears Muslim slur before match, responds unexpectedly

Collegiate tennis player Gehad Qaki, who is Muslim, overheard a religious slur before starting his match Friday.
Collegiate tennis player Gehad Qaki, who is Muslim, overheard a religious slur before starting his match Friday. Courtesy of Collegiate Athletics

Gehad Qaki has dealt with it for much of his life, but he didn't expect to experience it on the high school tennis court Friday afternoon.

Before a match at the Smoky Valley Invitational, Qaki, a Collegiate junior, was warming up with his partner, Adam Krichati, and their opponents. One of the opponents hit an errant shot and looked at his partner.

"Allahu Akbar," the player said to his partner.

The opponents laughed, but Qaki took offense. A Muslim, Qaki was shocked — not because of what was said but how and when the opposing player said it and the effect that phrase has had on society, he said.

"People automatically associate that phrase with terrorism or as a joke or bombs, terrible things that aren't even related to the nature of Islam," Qaki said.

"Allahu Akbar" is an Arabic phrase that is commonly used in Islam. It is translated as "God is great." Qaki said it is a beautiful phrase that was used inappropriately and in an untimely manner.

When he heard it, he looked to Krichati, his friend from elementary school, and questioned whether he had heard right. Krichati said he had heard it, too.

"That caught me off guard," Qaki said. "I am just hitting balls with this guy."

Qaki had to be sure he had heard his opponent correctly. As the ball was hit to him, he stopped it and asked the player what he said. The player told him repeatedly that he was talking to his partner, not Qaki. Before the match started, all four players approached the net to wish each other luck.

Qaki was still shaken. He asked again.

"I said Allahu Akbar," the player told him.

Qaki asked whether the player knew what the phrase meant. He said no.

"He threw it out there in a manner that really offended us both," Qaki said. "I was trying to explain to him how I felt, and I was kind of tearing up. I was kind of losing it, because these kids have no idea that people are affected.

"I don't know if he said it because he saw my beard and assumed I was Muslim or if he really didn't know what it meant."

After Krichati told the player that both he and Qaki are Muslim, Qaki said the player's eyes widened and he looked to be shocked.

When the match began, Qaki was clearly still off his game. He and Krichati lost the first game quickly, and during the second changeover, coach Dave Hawley took notice and asked whether everything was OK.

That was when he found out that not everything was OK.

"I was seething," Hawley said. "I have been more mad at other behavior that was in your face but not anything religious or racist."

The pair couldn't climb out of the hole, and as the match drew to a close, Hawley asked Qaki what he was going to do afterward.

Hawley said what he heard taught him a lesson he had not learned in 41 years as the Collegiate tennis coach.

"I’m going to give him a great handshake," Qaki said. "I don’t have to be defeated by his small mind."

Hawley said he talked with the opposing player's coach and handled the situation appropriately. Qaki said other players from the opposing team approached him and apologized for what their teammate had said.

But Qaki said the player who uttered the phrase never directly apologized.

Qaki said he could have reacted negatively. He wanted to send a different message.

"I want people to be gracious and educated," he said. "I think when people say that, they think they are saying a terrorist chant, but I want this to be a chance to educate people that it's not just any joke."

Collegiate athletic director Mitch Fiegel said some people might be surprised with Qaki's poise in that moment, but anyone who knows him would not be shocked.

Hawley called what happened Friday "a new low" in a Facebook post but said he learned a lesson that will always stick with him.

"He was so measured," the coach said of Qaki. "You can learn from young people when sometimes you may think, 'What does a 16- or 17-year-old have to tell me?'

"They could tell you a lot. They could tell you a whole lot."