Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How Muslims cope in touchy-feely Cuba

How Muslims cope in touchy-feely Cuba
By Shasta Darlington, CNN
August 18, 2010 -- Updated 0946 GMT (1746 HKT)

* There are around 1,500 Muslims in Cuba, they worship at home as there
are no mosques
* Cubans are generally tolerant of religions, but Muslims sometimes
encounter prejudices
* Being a Muslim is hard in Cuba, few can pray at work and it's hard to
adopt certain customs

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Every Friday, Pedro Lazo Torres, clears the
furniture out of his second-storey apartment in a potholed Havana suburb
and lines the floors and balcony with carpets.

For Havana's Muslims, he is Imam Yahya, and the home that he shares with
his wife and two adult children, is their place of worship.

"You can be a Chinese, Cuban or Russian Muslim and the laws are the same
for everyone," Yahya told CNN. "The cultures can be different, but
someone who embraces Islam must accept what Allah orders, it's that simple."

There are about 1,500 Muslims in Cuba, but no mosques. That's why, at
the end of each week, Yahya, dressed in an immaculate white cap and
tunic, welcomes people for Friday prayer. Women head inside, sitting on
the living room floor, while men tend to kneel on the shady balcony.
Gallery: Being Muslim in Havana

Most Muslims in Cuba are international college students from countries
like Pakistan and Indonesia. Three medical students from Guyana were
among those gathered at Yahya's house for Friday prayer.

Cuba is traditionally Catholic, but many don't actively practice the
religion and others adhere to Afro-Caribbean beliefs like Santeria.

Yahya was introduced to Islam by exchange students and converted more
than a decade ago.

Cubans are generally very tolerant of religions, Yahya told CNN. But
Muslims do sometimes encounter some of the same prejudices found in
other countries.

Muslims in Cuba also face some unique challenges. Pork, for example, is
the most popular meat here. "Pork has the problem that it's very
attractive," Yahya said. "Just like all things that are bad."

The faithful say they have to be flexible. Before Friday prayer, they
perform ablutions, or cleansing of the body, in Yahya's small bathroom.
But the water supply is often turned off in Havana and adherents have to
scoop water out of buckets filled in the shower for these kinds of

Noalia Gladys Carmen Perez, who wears a headscarf, told CNN she and
other adults have encountered some resistance to their faith.

"I've had good reactions, people who greet with you respect, and people
who don't like it," she told CNN. "They'll say, 'It must be so hot,'
[and] comments like that as a form of criticism."

Headscarves have never been an issue in schools, in part because Islam
is relatively new in the country. However, few can pray at work, either
because their schedules or social norms won't allow it.

Many also find it hard to adopt certain Muslim customs here in the
touchy-feely tropics. In Cuba, men and women usually greet each other
with a kiss.

Ibrahim Kinsan, a physical therapist, says most of his co-workers are
women. "Now I've converted to Islam, but I can't just turn into an
alien," he told CNN. "Most of them greet me with a kiss and that
tradition isn't going to disappear."

Many Muslim countries have offered to donate the money for a mosque, but
Yahya wants the gesture to come from Cuba. The country inaugurated its
first Russian Orthodox Church in 2008.

"I think we could see something similar for Muslims in the near future,"
he said.

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