Friday 30 November 2018

Muslims in Non Muslim Countries: Cuba

It has been awhile that I have been sharing the presence of Islam and Muslims in Non Muslims countries and to share their experiences as minority and their emergence with main stream dominating population. Recently a friend reading my series on the subject, shared a documentary by BBC about life and living of Muslims in Cuba, which gave me a cue to write about Muslims in Cuba. The very opening scene of the documentary shows a man, clad in shalwar and qameez - the traditional dress of Pakistan, leading the prayer of a very small group of Muslims further intensified my interest in Cuba and I was amazed to find that it were the students from Pakistan which first became a sizable Muslim community in Cuba.

The Muslims first stepped on the Cuban soil in the 16th century, generally Moors from Muslim Spain. The Muslims, mostly traders from the Middle East started doing business of sugar for many generating. Many stayed, mostly in Havana or around Santiago de Cuba, the second-largest city at the far east of the island. 

While Fidel Castro took control of Cuba in 1959 and instituted a communist government, all other religions and their religious places were were shuttered and religious schools of all kinds were forced to pack up and leave the island and everyday Cubans took to praying to God in private. In recent years, there has been some relaxations and religious freedom is creeping in at a slow pace.

The presence of Muslims today in Cuba is mostly attributed to students that came to Cuba for higher studies. A large group of students from Pakistan, besides Rwanda and Nigeria, served as the vanguard for other students to follow the suit in the 1970s. It is said that the dominant population that went to study at Cuba was the Pakistani students who were about 936 in strength. 

During the 2005 massive earthquake in Pakistan, in which over a hundred thousand perished, Cuba sent more than 2,000 doctors and other medical specialists to help the earthquake affected areas. The following year, it offered 1,000 scholarships for young people from across Pakistan and were given scholarships by the government.

According to a 2011 Pew Research Center report, out of  a total population of 11 million, there were then 10,000 Muslims in Cuba who constitute 0.1% of the population. By 2012, most of the 10,000 Cuban Muslims were converts to the religion. Ninety-nine percent of Cuban Muslims are converted to Islam and not descendants of Arabs.

This journey of Islam in Cuba has not been easy. Hajji Isa, formerly Jorge Elias Gil Viant, a Cuban convert and artist, a Cuban revert says very proudly: 
"Many brothers from other countries have said to me that we Cuban Muslims are the real Muslims, because it is so much harder to observe here than in a country where many people share the same beliefs and practices." 
Embracing Islam by former Froilan Reyes, now Hassan Jan, 43, is interesting. For a fun loving audio technician at the University of Medical Sciences in Santa Clara, his life changed in 2010 when during month of Ramadan, he was required to work with a group of Pakistani medical students studying at the university. "At first I was very uncomfortable working with them," he admits. But his interaction with the Pakistani students induced in him a quest to embrace Islam.Seven months later, he converted and changed his name. "Allah showed me through the way they behaved that Islam was something else: Islam is peace, it's the will of God. Allah gave me the opportunity to understand that. It was a gift for me," says Hassan. The first reaction came from his wife who was first hesitant. "I didn't want to convert because of the things people said - that they abused the women. But I read, I read a lot, I looked for books so that I could understand better," she says. She converted five months after her husband and changed her name to Shabana.

For one Ahmed Abuero, 48,  the transition was a difficult one who converted after reading Malcolm X's biography 17 years ago. "It was difficult at the beginning because I had to stop drinking alcohol, seeing women, playing, eating pork and drinking rum, things every Cuban does," he said. "The night I converted to Islam, I could not sleep. I knew the following day my life would change forever." 

Hajji Jamal who reverted to Islam in 2009 shares his experience of embracing Islam after living a life of a Christian all along: "I was a member of the Baptist church. I knew a lot about Christianity, but I could never really understand the Holy Trinity. Then I met a Cuban Muslim who'd been Muslim for many years, and started to talk with him about Islam. He gave me a Quran to read: 
"It took me a while, but then eventually I did read it and I could see a logic there, it seemed very sincere, very real and it was this which attracted me to Islam." 
Jamal is now an informal representative of Santiago's Muslim community. "We're trying to give the best possible example of Islam, for at the moment there's a lot of negative messages in the media. People generalize, thinking, 'If you're Muslim, you must be a terrorist'," says Jamil

Due to scanty information about Islam, it is difficult for the Cuban reverts to face numerous face challenges, specially the non availability of the halal meat. Thus a Muslim confess: "Food is difficult because everything's forbidden. The meat we eat most is pork, though forbidden in Islam but we do no have any choice. To be honest, it is a bit difficult, but Allah gives you the strength to go on."

Hijab has always been a challenge to Muslim women anywhere in the world and so in Cuba. Some of the Cuban Muslim women who wear a headscarf have faced objections and discrimination from the authorities in their workplace or universities. According to  Shabana, mentioned above, "such situations are usually resolved through discussion and explanations of what Islam is about." Shabana, however, says that for her "it got complicated" and she left her job. She now provides childcare at home for the son of a Muslim student.
Masjid Abdalla, Cuba

Jorge Miguel Garcia, whose Muslim name is Khaled, is a part owner of a café in Santiago which serves as an informal meeting place for the Muslim community besides also being popular with the non-Muslim Cubans. "Unlike other cafés, we don't serve alcohol and that's never been a problem," says Khaled.  
"People who come for the first time always ask me about Islam and I like that, that they are interested. Many come back specifically because they see it as a healthy place where everyone is treated with respect. Those are the principles of Islam: peace, love and submission to Allah."
However, Khaled sells dishes which include pork, but believes that one day to run the café completely in accordance with Islamic precepts.

In 2015, a museum in Calle Oficios in Old Havana was turned into a prayer house with the support of the Office of the Historian, the body responsible for the restoration of central Havana. The makeshift mosque allows Muslims in Havana Friday prayers. Elsewhere, Muslims have shared small places in their homes where Muslims can come and offer prayers. 

Pedro Lazo Torres, known as the Imam Yahya, said there used to be so few Muslims in Cuba that they could hold their prayers inside someone's home. As they grew, their prayers spilled out into the street. Torres is now president of Cuba's Islamic League and says the number of Cubans asking to convert continues to increase. Yahya is presently Imam of a mosque that was inaugurated in June of 2015 thanks to funding from Turkey's president, Erdoğan. Located in Old Havana, the mosque sits next to an Islamic museum, known as The Arab House, and has brand new Spanish-Arabic copies of the Koran.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey are in forefronts to help the Cuban Muslims. a Saudi funded language lab operates in both Havana and Santiago and in 2014 had a stand at the Havana Book Fair where literature about Islam and copies of the Quran in Spanish were distributed. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who died in January last year, sponsored five Cubans to make the Hajj pilgrimage in 2014 - something a near-impossible dream for most Cuban Muslims. Jamal and Isa (mentioned above) were fortunate to be among the five. "When I arrived at Jeddah, at the airport, the first thing I heard was the sound of prayer, I began to cry, "Jamal recalls.

Despite indifferences and lack of information about Islam and media blasting of "radical Islam", Muslims are continuing their efforts of blending Islamic values and Latin American customs in Cuba by regularly celebrating Islamic festivals of Eid which follows after a month long fasting in Islamic month of Ramadan.

You may like to watch the documentary by BBC on What is it like to be a Muslim in Cuba, which inspired me to write this post:

Photo: Mosque Abdallah | References: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 |
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