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Fieldnotes: Ramadan in Havana

By Huma Mohibullah, University of British Columbia

Having been fascinated by Muslim beliefs, practices and aesthetics around the world, I was excited when the 2018 CASCA-Cuba meetings allowed me to explore the nation’s tiny Muslim population. Even better, the conference fell during Ramadan[1], letting me experience the holy month as Cuban Muslims do.

Upon arriving in Havana, I located Mezquita Abdullah, one of the very few well-established Muslim places in Cuba. Located in Havana Vieja, it stands across from Casa de los Arabes, an Andalusian building once owned by an Arab immigrant in the 1940s, where Friday prayers were conducted until it could no longer accommodate the growing Muslim population.

I asked my taxi driver, Norberto, if he had ever heard of the mosque. He hadn’t, and was completely unfamiliar with the concept of a mezquita. “Una iglesia para los Musulmanes,” I explained. “Los Musulmanes?” he wondered, clearly never having given Muslims much thought. He then told me what other Cubans did when they learned I was from Pakistan: there were many Pakistanis in Cuba who came to study medicine there and with whom “Cuba had no problems” (a comment made relative to tensions with the US). Perhaps the mosque was a Pakistani hub, he guessed.

It’s true that Muslim immigrants to Cuba included many Pakistanis who conducted Islamic missions. But the acceptance of Islamic institutions by the Cuban government is also strongly tied to foreign policy. As John Andrew Morrow explains in Religion and Revolution: Spiritual and Political Islam in Ernesto Cardenal (2012), Cuba has a long history of solidarity with Muslims struggling against American hegemony, for example, Fidel Castro’s warm meeting with Malcolm X in 1960. Backing mosques, then, is an act of cooperation with allies in the Muslim world, such as Iran. In 2007, the Cuban government legally sanctioned the Liga Islamica de Cuba, fulfilling a promise Castro made to Turkish aid workers; in 2008, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs approved the construction of a mosque; in 2009, Cuban Muslims were allowed to leave the country to perform pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca. Five years later, on the first day of Ramadan, Mezquita Abdallah was inaugurated.

During our drive, Norberto was very excited to see what a “Muslim church” looked like. As we approached the address, he announced that we had arrived, exited the taxi, turned toward a building, proclaimed “It’s beautiful!” with his arms outstretched, and quickly departed. Standing on the cobble stone street, I looked around and realized that he had mistaken an old Catholic church for the mosque, and that I was in the wrong place. Luckily, with some direction from helpful habaneros (people from Havana), I was eventually able to find my destination. The mosque was obvious: an 1891 building modified with a slim minaret and a gold plaque bearing its name in both Arabic and Spanish. “Inaugurada el 17-06-2015,” it read, “correspondiente al primer día del mes de Ramadán 1436 H.”[2]

Inside, the foyer served as a common room adorned with geometric, Islamic patterns. Two men set up plastic dishes, tables and chairs for iftar, the sunset meal with which Muslims break fast. I could smell it—chicken and rice. Beyond the foyer were the side-by-side men’s and women’s sections. They were identical and separated by a porous wall through which “brothers” and “sisters” could walk to, hear, or interact with each other.
I sat cross-legged in the sister’s section, where most everyone socialized, except two women who quietly read a Spanish-language Quran. There was a sense of community among the regulars, who greeted each other with warmth and affinity, while awkwardly smiling at me and offering formal salaams. I scanned the room for the familiar faces of Pakistani immigrants, but in a country where so many are of mixed-heritage and racially ambiguous, it was impossible for me to connect race to ethnicity as we often do in American society. In fact, I approached one woman in Pakistani clothing only to find out that she, too, was Cuban. “There’s only one immigrant here,” she told me, pointing to a jovial woman speaking rapidly in Spanish with the others. “That woman in the orange scarf; she is from Iran.”

Meanwhile, the brothers on the other side of the wall were having lessons in Quran recitation as they waited for sundown. They recited the verse An-Nas (“Mankind”) and repeated after the imam: “Qul a’uzu birabbin naas.[3]Qul,” the imam corrected as Cuban converts struggled to perfect the glottal “Q” in Arabic. “Qul,” they echoed. “Qul.”

A young man came to the women’s section and distributed dates to us, a sign that sundown was moments away. Soon, the imam sounded the call to prayer, we broke fast with our dates and lined up for worship, after which we piled into the foyer for dinner. An older Afro-Cuban man, who appeared to be one of the mosque’s stewards, cheerfully handed meals to everyone. Each plate was piled high with rice and beans, a chicken breast, a modest salad, and a piece of sweet corn bread for dessert.
I dined with Isabela, an Afro-Cuban woman in her mid-fifties who was eager to talk about her path to Islam. She revealed that after hearing about the faith from her Muslim daughter, she was guided to it by a vivid dream in which God spoke to her. The next day, she went to the library to learn more about it and converted shortly thereafter. She shared a book that continued to inspire her, and showed me a passage that explained the role of mosques as educational centers that strengthen community and positively influence individual Muslims.

Mezquita Collage

From my short time visiting Mezquita Abdullah, I noticed plenty of similarities between Cuban and American mosques. The space was structured to separate genders and was adorned with ubiquitous Islamic calligraphy; prayers were performed in Arabic; Cuban Muslim women generally dressed not in any syncretic Cuban-Islamic attire but in Middle Eastern garb, reflecting a standard of modesty that is increasingly common among non-Arabs around the world. These similarities are unsurprising, since Arabs and other immigrants have also shaped the majority of American mosques. Just as mosques in the US are evolving to become uniquely American, it remains to be seen how transculturation overtime might give rise to an Islam that is markedly Cuban, both theologically as well as in the production of distinctly Cuban Muslim spaces. What might Mezquita Abdallah look like fifty years from now?

[1] The ninth month of the Islamic calendar, during which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.

[2] The “H” stands for Hijri, a term indicating years in the Islamic lunar calendar.

[3] “Say: I seek refuge with the Lord of Mankind.”

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