by Shukri Elmi
I spent the first few days of last Ramadan in Havana. I searched for ‘Islam in Cuba’ before I left. Articles I saw online said that the government had approved for a masjid to be built, but nowhere was it confirmed whether the project had been completed. I then saw a photo of the mosque on Instagram and so I noted the name and location. I also came across articles on Imam Yahya Pedro, the leader of the Islamic League in Cuba. The articles talked about how he and his wife would clear their living room every Friday for over two decades so that the small Muslim community of Havana could pray Jummah.
I first visited the masjid with my friends a week before Ramadan. The masjid was closed between the prayers so we sat in a café nearby in the outdoor area. This guy (Yusuf) walked past and told us that they would be reopening for Asr prayer. He also asked where we were all from, and when I said Somalia he got really excited and said his wife was Somali too, and that we could speak properly later. After we prayed, they made us tea and Yusuf started telling us about his journey to Islam, how he met his wife who was Somali-Canadian. After that. he started translating everyone’s story. Ahmed was one of the older men and he became interested in Islam after reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Others said they were inspired by their Muslim friends at university who came from Muslim countries to Havana to study. The oldest amongst us was named Daud and he spoke very good English. He told us about his life in Cuba before, during and after the revolution. He also told us about how he had embraced Islam fairly recently.
After travelling the island for a week, three of my friends went back to London, so only Meryem and I were left. Yusuf told us that most of the small Muslim community breaks fast together at the masjid. So on the first day of Ramadan, after somehow finding the energy to walk around the city all day we went to the masjid around Asr. There were so many more people compared to our first visit; especially the woman’s side. One evening, an elderly woman was standing beside me in salah, and she kept looking over to see how my hands were arranged, and fixing hers accordingly. In that moment I realized how truly blessed I am to have been born into this beautiful religion.
I was so surprised to see two Somali girls, both from Djibouti studying engineering in Havana. I also met a Somali guy at the masjid, who was waiting on documents from the government so he could travel to the United States. It was hilarious speaking Somali in Havana of all places, but I live for strange moments like that. We saw these same beautiful women every evening, my Somali sisters helped translate a few conversations with them. It became such a routine that I really didn’t want to leave. I would’ve loved to see how they celebrate Eid!
One of the evenings we met Imam Yahya, he was so chill and easy to speak to. Before we left we asked if we could meet his wife and visit him in his home to see where everyone used to pray before the mosque opened. He happily agreed and Yusuf took us the next morning (our last day in Havana) and it was probably my favourite day of the whole trip. We sat in Imam Yahya’s living room for a while, looking at pictures of Eid prayers in Paseo del Prado, pictures of him in Mecca and pictures with the Turkish president Erdoğan. He told us about his travels, and the things he hopes to do for the Muslim community in Cuba such as providing local halal meat, since they currently only have halal chicken imported from Brazil and the supply is inconsistent.
After that we took a walk around his neighbourhood. He picked up bread from the bakery with his ration card and would later bring it to the masjid with him for iftar. He was so well respected in his area and it was so cute seeing all the teenagers stop to greet him. It’s only when people actually know Muslims that they can have an accurate perception of the religion. I’m sure a lot of people in Havana are clueless about Islam, but those that know Imam Yahya will probably associate the religion with him and he definitely does it justice. I always try to remember that the best dawah is my actions and character, since my religion does shape these both in some form.
More of Shukri's work can be found on her website https://www.shukriel.com/