Sunday, 15 August 2010

An innocuous Muslim

Lenin Statue in Yalta
When I travelled with three of my Muslim friends to Ukraine from Dubai, right before the start of Ramadan, we got some interesting reactions and probing questions. What is there to see in Ukraine? What do you plan to do at night? Why? At the outset, let me be clear, the trip on the whole was halal (generally).

Ukraine, a country of 45 million people, straddles the divide between Russia and political Europe. There are certain stereotypical things that come to mind when thinking of the country: Kiev (or the chicken related to it); Chernobyl; the Orange Revolution; and "the most beautiful women in the world" according to Vice President Joe Biden. However, amidst the night life, the Borscht, and the pebbled beaches of Crimea in Eastern Ukraine, live the Tatars, observing their Islam out of the view of the rest of the world (unrelated to tartar sauce fame). When a so-called ground zero mosque causes a stir, and the extremist Taliban cut off noses, it is caricatures of Muslims that rise to the public imagination. We tend to forget the wider world of a religion that is just a simple part of the day-to-day life of 1.5 billion people spread across almost every country of the world. And it is a natural part of Western civilization that has been around for centuries, including in the proverbial 'whitest' of places such as Ukraine.

Church near Lavra
After my first day out in Ukraine, with my neck strained from observing the 'scenery' in downtown Kiev, I would not have been able to imagine what was in store for us on our last day. On our first night, we checked out the Arena Entertainment complex, which was an abrupt welcome to the interesting world of Eastern Europe. Through the days, we saw many interesting sights and sounds, from the Lavra caves and home of Ukrainian Orthodox Christianity, to other spectacular churches, to the beach scene in Crimea. On our last day, tired of the crowded tourist scene in Yalta, we made our way to spend some time and the night in the town of Bakchisaray, a relatively nondescript place in Crimea.

Amidst the anonymity, however, lies the Hansaray or Khan's palace, as Bakchisaray was in fact the capital of Crimean Khanate for several centuries. Although most of the history of the Khanate and the Tatars was wiped out in a series of Russian occupations, particularly by Catherine the Great in 1783, this place remained intact. Why? Well, it was romance that prevented Catherine the Great from destroying this palace complex, including its mosque. The famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote a poem entitled "The Fountain of Bakchisaray" dedicated to the love story between the Khan and a mistress who died very soon after he met her (a fountain to mark his tears of sorrow was built by his court). This poem moved the Russian empress who could not bring herself to destroy the palace.

Mosque in Bakchisaray
It was, however, Stalin who deported the Tatars en masse in 1944 that caused true devastation to the community. Although most have returned from exile in Uzbekistan, they are still recapturing their history and place in their own communities. The Tatars, a Turkic community in origin, are spread across Russia, Central Asia, Europe, and the Caucuses. An estimated quarter million live in Ukraine. On the first day of Ramadan, my friends and I prayed in the mosque that Catherine the Great refused to destroy. We met a couple of the Tatars who prayed with us.  Abdullah and another named Abdulmajeeb were ecstatic to meet us, curious about our journey that brought us to their world.

This community - which is part and parcel of the fabric of Crimea - continues to persevere despite tremendous historical hardship. And they are part of the 1.5 billion worldwide Muslim community. Yet, when I met them I didn't think of Obama's speech in Cairo in 2009. I didn't think about how the U.S. needed to reach out to them. I didn't think how they needed to convince me that they weren't extremists. I didn't think that we needed to resolve their poverty because they may join a militant group. I simply was touched by their kindness and thought they were a humble people who happen to be Muslims.

The Tatars are but one example of the many communities that make up the pluralistic fabric of the proverbial Muslim world. They remind us that away from the politics, the proposed clashes of civilizations, the diplomatic maneuvers and so on, are people simply concerned with their daily lives, who happen to be Muslims. Simple as that.

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