The last thing a tourist would anticipate to unearth in Cartagena de Indias is a mosque in the middle of an unthinkably impoverished, underprivileged slum on the outskirts of the city close to the beach bordering the Caribbean Sea in La Boquilla.
To understand the notion of being an absolute minority, one can compare the population of Colombia, standing at about 49.8 million to the country’s Muslim populace: minimally no more than 14,000! So, for a city like Cartagena with about 1.2 million residents, you might need a magnifying glass to find the Muslims.
The only mosque in Cartagena is situated somewhere that even many locals residing here for so many years couldn’t identify on a map or had never heard of. After swinging between the idea of going to Sector Marlinda Calle Segunda in La Boquilla where the mosque was supposedly located, and not opting to go because nobody was sure if a mosque were there at all, we eventually hit the road and took a taxi to go to the place which eventually turned out to be a wonderland.
The discovery was in the offing. We were three people: me, my friend – who contributed invaluably to this expedition, and the taxi driver who was ready to help out, plus an address which said there should exist a Muslim worshipping house, although with no guarantees.
We inched forward and passed by the luxurious districts and streets to get into a road that would connect us to La Boquilla, known as an inconspicuous fishing and kitesurfing haven 7 kilometers north of Cartagena. On the road, the driver slightly got confused and nearly lost the way, but as we were proceeding slowly on the road, he slammed on the brake at the edge of the thoroughfare and approached the shoulder where two Afro-Colombian women and a child were sitting restfully on their benches. My friend asked them if there was a “mezquita” nearby, and they nodded in unawareness. He instantly expounded on the idea of “mezquita” as “un templo musulman”, and then they immediately realized what we were looking for. They gave us the directions – at which point I was ensured there should be a mosque, and we headed off to where they had indicated.
The taxi-trekking continued as we made progress into a coastal area. The Caribbean Sea was on our left hand, and we had actually gone into the shores. Although it was a beach, few signs of opulence and luxury could be noticed. One would just fall upon semi-ruined cottages, straw-roofed eateries with local men fanning the barbeques, dumps of garbage, wandering dogs and cats and topless men playing football passionately.
We got to the spot where the indigenous ladies had told us, but nothing was there; only rubbles and remains of deserted buildings. In front one of the ruins sat two men and a 5, 6-year-old child. The taxi driver drew out his head from the window to ask them if they were aware of the temple’s whereabouts. After a few seconds of whispering, one of the men asked the child to get to our cab and take us to the mosque. Amazing! In a jiffy, we were guided by the kid to the entrance of a bricked, austere, un-domed building guarded by a couple of palm trees that we were told was the Mezquita Abu Bakr. So, that was the initiation of excitement and bewilderment. We made it!
Nobody was in the building, the doors of which were left open. In line with the Islamic tradition, we had to take out our shoes to step into the main prayer hall. As we were kneeling down to untie the shoelaces, I heard the words “Assalmu Alaykum” being uttered from the distance. I turned back, and saw a middle aged, brown man in baggy short pants, appearing to welcome us. The Arabic greetings and the crescent moon symbol in his necklace, which I discerned as he got close to shake hands with us, convinced me that the mosque boasted some kind of prayer leader, or a superintendent who would take care of its affairs, and most importantly, was a Muslim.
The 55-year-old “Imam” – who was not actually an Imam or a Sheikh, but fulfilled such a role in the absence of a qualified, full-fledged Imam – had adopted two Islamic names: Ibrahim, as a tribute to his Sunni “brothers”, and Abu-Hassan as a name to appeal to the Shiite brethren. But originally, he was born Abercio Mercado, and my friend revealed to me that it is such a rare and uncommon name in Colombia.
The construction of the mosque, primarily entitled Mezquita Bilal Al Habashi, started in 2003 and ended in 2005. It was actually his personal property, which he decided to build a mosque on. He constructed it with the assistance of a Spanish psychology professor, named Miguel, from Andalucía, who was a Muslim, and lived with his family in Cartagena.
So, how did he become a Muslim?
“30 years ago, I was a member of the youth wing of the Communist Party and followed the philosophy of the Soviet Union,” Ibrahim explained, talking of his association with the Juventud Socialista. “There was a revolution in Iran in 1979 led by Imam Khomeini, and I took it as an inspiration.”
Ibrahim saw similarities in the Quran and the teachings of socialism, and so he decided that he would want to convert to Islam. He went to an Imam called Mustafah in a mosque in Barranquilla and asked him to ordain him. The Saudi Imam invited Ibrahim to take a shower, or conduct the ritual of “Ghusl”, the equivalent of which in Christianity would be Baptism. Subsequently, he uttered “Shahada”, the confirmatory testimony to attest that there’s only one God but Allah and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.
He cautiously noted that he is a Sunni, but welcomes the Shiite brothers, including the Iranian people to his mosque. Even the former Iranian ambassador to Colombia Abdolrahim Sadatifar had paid a visit to his small mosque in 2008 and stayed with his family for a couple of nights. Ibrahim believes the Sunni and Shiite people should come together and form a union, or some sort of fraternity. He despises the people talking about the Shiites in a derogatory and offensive manner.
Does he feel isolated or secluded because of the religion he practices? This is what I was seriously thinking about after my encounter with him. So I posed the question to him. “No, I don’t feel isolated,” he responded.
“It’s been like a process. People have some kind of respect for what I do, and they respect our religion. My purpose is to become a social leader, and help the poor children,” the Cartagenero convert opined.
There was something quite fascinating about what he has been doing in his pretty small mosque since he founded it, which I still fail to believe in its entirety: he provides one meal per day for 85 children throughout the whole week. It includes 50 meals for the children who live in the slums close to the mosque, and 35 children who live in the far-flung areas and cannot afford to travel and eat at the mosque. He says if he stops feeding these children, these destitute kids may simply lose the only meal they can eat during the day.
“What we give them is perhaps the only meal they can have in a whole day,” he lamented.
In a city where the climatic demands and cultural habits render the clothing so skimpy and tight, I was really wondering whether there are Muslim women who follow the modest Islamic dressing code, “Hijab,” in Cartagena.
“Yes of course,” he reassured me. “I have a daughter, and my wife also – both of them are Muslims, cover their heads and wear proper Hijab.”
So, the essential question: how many Muslims are living in Cartagena? Ibrahim puts the number at 35, and says all of them are Colombian. However, for the daily congregational prayers, usually 8 to 10 people gather at the Abu Bakr Mosque to worship at the same time. He says there are sometimes Malaysian, Indonesian and Pakistani tourists who travel to Cartagena and attend his mosque, as well.
Then, a major concern for every Muslim living in a non-Muslim country would be the provision of proper food supplied in accordance with the special dietary regime “Halal.” Do the Muslims of Cartagena de Indias get Halal food, including meats, fish and poultry? What do they really eat?
“It’s difficult for us to follow the strict diet and find Halal beef and meat. What we do is that we eat a lot of grains, beans, lentils and we have a swamp and also the sea. So we catch our own fish and have our own cattle and sacrifice them the right way,” he replied.
The Abu Bakr Mosque, whose name comes from one of the prime companions of Prophet Muhammad, is totally dependent on public donations and philanthropy. However, Ibrahim refuses to tell us how much financial assistance he usually gets, whether from the public institutions or the individuals interested in promoting Islam in the region.
He emphasizes that the mosques’ activities are targeted at the juveniles, and he wants to nourish and feed as many underprivileged children as possible. This way, he promotes the peaceful message of Islam and draws public attention to the altruistic and humane dimension of the religion.
Ibrahim has got his own ambitions and future plans, as well. He wishes to build a school for the poor children in the neighborhood somewhere next to the mosque.
The Imam desperately bemoans the fact that some people associate Islam with violence and extremism. He remembers when he was erecting the mosque, some local inhabitants said Muslims are Satanists and drink the blood of animals during their religious rituals! “We are Muslims, not monsters,” he asserts.
We don’t have too much time to talk to Mr. Abercio Mercado – Ibrahim or Abu-Hassan, if you like – more. The cab is waiting out there, because without it, we would virtually have no way to leave the slums and return to the city. Looking around the tiny yet outstanding mosque, I’m enchanted by finding copies of the Holy Quran in Arabic in the bookshelf, which he says he has got from the mosque in Barranquilla. The Imam of Barranquilla mosque usually comes to lead the Friday prayers here in Cartagena.
We get prepared to bid farewell to the mosque and Ibrahim. He puts the palm of his right hand on his chest and says some Spanish words, which are translated like, “God bless you, the Iranian brother.”
As we get out of the mosque and make a semi-turn to catch a final glimpse of the facade, we realize that the small child is still in the cab expecting us. He is immensely shy and speaks with the lowest tone possible – only a few intermittent words, but he waited for us all the time so that he could show us the way to exit. My Colombian friend gives him a 2,000-Pesos tip. Even though he had offered help out of empathy and an innocent generosity, the 2,000-Peso note would perhaps make an equivalent of the pocket money he can get from his father during a whole month. We’re departing for the Hotel Monterrey, from where you simply discover an outlook over the Torre del Reloj and the walled city, not the slums in which an undecorated and austere mosque can be counted the most bountiful and lavish building.