In November of 2009 I went to Cuba to visit my ailing Tía a week after I got married. Although, it was difficult at times; I would have rather been honeymooning with my husband. I feel blessed that I was able to make the trip to benefit my Tía Rosa’s health and I also had the opportunity to meet Cuban Muslims. Before my trip to Cuba I searched online for Muslims through Islamic Finder. There I found a masjid in Holguín, an hour away from my family. I wrote down their info and called them when I got to Cuba. The number I had was not of a mosque but to a lovely woman, Daisy. Her husband was Lebanese and Muslim who ran a group for many years when he was alive. She told me the Muslim community was small but active. She would find Abdul Latif and leave him a message to call me. Most people in Cuba do not have their own phones. A few days later Aisha, Abdul Latif’s wife called me and my adventure began. I was to visit them and for Eid al-Adha, the Muslim celebration after the pilgrimage, Hajj.
Here is my story, in parts, about my weekend in Holguín with Cuban Muslims. Please be patient with me and my writing. I am very pregnant right now waiting for the arrival of my son, Omar Ali João, inshaAllah. My goal is to finish this story before Eid al-Adha 1431/2010, inshaAllah. Please keep us in your prayers.
There were eleven of them. I met them after a long car ride squeezed between a man with a big backpack and my cousin. I did not speak. If I did it was only in whisper. Foreigners can not ride in Cuban owned vehicles that are not designated for tourist use. They can not ride and pay the equivalent of two dollars like I did to go to Holguín from Victoria de las Tunas. I was born in a Brooklyn hospital five years after my parents left Cuba. In Cuba I am a yanquí.
When we arrived in Holguín we picked up our bags from the trunk of the old American car. There we found my bag soaked with petroleum. I was confused. Why was there petroleum in the trunk of the car? In the US we don’t do that. We don’t need to go from house to house while traveling with our own petro if we want to make a good meal. One of the passengers must have been traveling with petroleum to use in the kitchen, I was told. The container was not securely sealed. She walked away before we fully realized what was happening. There was no point in chasing her down and asking for an apology. My bag was soiled, my best clothes was damaged. I was going to Holguín to celebrate Eid with Cuban Muslims I did not know smelling like a gas station.
My cousin and I rode a bicitaxi to the address I had in my planner. As we rode I put a scarf over my head. It was thin and brown, a scarf my friend brought home from Medina. It was light enough to deal with the Cuban heat. In the days I spent at my aunt’s house in Cuba I did pray my five prayers a day but could not find the motivation to cover myself. Every time I go back to Cuba I am stared at. I didn’t want to give people another reason to look at me. A few days earlier I had talked to Aisha, my contact in Holguín. We made plans. I would go on Friday and spend jummah with them. They knew of a place I could stay. I would learn from them and share Eid at their home. I would give them 700 pesos to buy a lamb. 700 pesos is the equivalent of $29. I didn’t have much money for this trip but I could do that. It would be their first Eid even though they have been practicing Muslims for six years. I made the mistake of telling her I was a part-time hijabi. She told me she was going to get on my case about that. She was Cuban after-all, I wouldn’t expect anything less.
My cousin didn’t know if we were on the right street. I looked at the houses as we slowly rode by. I always disliked riding a bicitaxi. It seems a bit inhumane. I’ve only been in one three times and each time besides the one in Holguín I got off half way through the ride and paid full fare because I couldn’t bear for someone to carry my weight. I saw men in kufis in front of a house, they were waiting for us. I was greeted by the brothers then the sisters inside. We sat around in a circle I told them about the petroleum ordeal. Right away Aisha’s mother took my bag and began washing my clothes. She had a small washing machine. I had never seen one in Cuba. In my Tía’s backyard my clothes are washed over a board and hung up to dry. In this new home there was potential that I would be able to wear something nice for Eid.
Aisha, her husband Abdul Latif and their daughter Maryam shared a house with her parents, her sister, brother-in-law and her six years old niece, Laura. Although she was not Muslim she came home from school and shook everyone’s hand and said Asalaamu Alaykum.
I was sitting in a room filled with Cuban Muslims. I looked at the corner of the room and saw a bóveda, an altar for spirits and ancestors. I used to have one in my living room. My mami has one, my abuela had one. I come from a line of espiritistas. There I was in a room full of Muslims who I didn’t have to explain my family’s spirituality to. In that room lived two worlds. Maybe even three.
There are no mosques in Cuba. There are no structures that make you think you are in the Middle East. There is one official space for Muslim prayer, La Casa de los Arabes, that is open on Fridays for jummah in La Habana for foreigners and diplomats. Cuban Muslims pray out of their homes, they get together to read Qur’an and learn hadiths. In Aisha’s living room we sat in chairs facing Abdul Latif. Shaped like a crescent moon there were men sitting next to women. He gave the khutbah, the sermon, his words lost in my head. I sat there knowing that this was a unique experience and I would never have anything like it. When it came time to make salat we all didn’t fit in the bedroom that they use to pray, eat and sleep. There are more Muslim women than men in Holguín. We prayed dhuhr first leaving the room after making dua giving the men space to be one with God.
They wanted to know about me. I wanted to know about them. We spent the afternoon giving each other brief bios on our lives and our paths to Islam. In this room the youngest Muslimah was nineteen, beautiful Zaynab. She met Aisha at the university, they were both art students. Zaynab a lot younger than Aisha followed her around asking her questions about Islam. She came from a home of atheist intellectuals. Zaynab believed in monotheism and found comfort in Islam. Her parents aren’t supportive of her faith. She puts on a scarf after she leaves her home and turns the corner of her block. Aisha has tried to talk to her mother. It has not worked. Zaynab loves her parents and knows that patience and respect is all she can give them right now until they come around, inshaAllah. She is very shy and sweet. When she talks she can’t look at you in the eye but you feel her heart beat and the light that beams from it. I am fifteen years older than her and I wondered what it would have been like if my parents stayed in Cuba and if I would have found Islam at nineteen. I wondered if I would be as peaceful as her at such a young age.
to be continued…