They speak little Arabic and don’t have a real mosque, but Cuba’s small Muslim community practises the faith and will quietly mark the end of Ramadan as best they can.
In Havana’s old quarter, one can see a green and white minaret on top an old colonial-style building. It is here where Cuban Muslims have gathered for the past year to pray.
Inside, the walls of the prayer hall are decorated with Arabic calligraphy and a Palestinian flag. The copies of the Quran have been translated into Spanish.
“Salam aleikum,” says a smiling man named Javier as he welcomes visitors in Arabic on a hot summer afternoon.
He was born into a Catholic family but converted to Islam two years ago.
“The text of the Bible seemed incomplete to me, so I changed religion,” Javier said about his decision, an unusual one in a country where 70 percent of the population observes a blend of Christianity and Afro-Cuban beliefs.
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There are as many as 10,000 Muslims in Cuba, making up less than 0.1 percent of the island nation’s population.
According to experts, Islam was introduced to Cuba by Muslim students who came from countries such as Pakistan in the 1970s and 80s.
“Tourists often come through this street and they are so surprised when they realise they are looking at a mosque,” said Ahmed Aguelo, who converted to Islam 17 years ago and runs the prayer hall where some 200 worshippers gather for Friday prayers.
“I am not officially an imam, as there is no training course here,” he said. “But I know the basics.”
A few hundred metres away, a sign advertises the construction of a purpose-built mosque on a two-hectare piece of land. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised it to Cuba in February 2015.
But building has yet to begin. In June 2015, the Cuban government gave the go-ahead for the inauguration of the prayer hall in the heart of Old Havana as “Cuba’s first mosque.”
“We write ‘mosque’ at the entrance because it works like one,” said Rigoberto Menendez, director of Arab House, which is behind the project.
“A real mosque would have more space” but “the main thing is for Muslims to be able to come together in one place”.
Cuba’s Muslims have been clamouring for their own house of worship for 25 years.
“We would meet in apartments around the city,” said Pedro Lazo Torres, who converted in 1988 and is considered Cuba’s first Muslim. “I can practise my religion totally freely in Cuba.”
It can be difficult being an observant Muslim in Cuba during the holy month of Ramadan.
Tradition holds that Muslims break their obligatory fast by eating dates, but in Cuba there aren’t any.
“Everything is imported. The Saudi embassy supplies us with dates, traditional garments, ‘halal’ meat. With the help of God, we get by,” said Lazo Torres, who goes by the name Yahya.
Alen Garcia, 33, said he gave up a lot when he converted to Islam.
“I lost friends when I told them I wanted to become a Muslim. To convert was to renounce drinking rum, eating ham, going to parties and dancing salsa,” he said. “In other words, it meant renouncing much of Cuban culture.”
Garcia explained that Arabic-speaking students from Chad, Afghanistan and Libya who attend the Latin American School of Medicine here give Cuban Muslims free classes in the language of the Quran.
As the time approaches to break the day’s fast, the prayer hall fills. Children play and squirm on the side of the room reserved for their mothers, who wear veils.
The man who distributes food is named Leonel Diaz, but he goes by Mohamed. He converted at age 73.
“It is never too late to welcome a good thing,” he said.
He agrees to discuss Guantanamo, the US prison for terrorism suspects that opened at a US-held naval base in eastern Cuba after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“States must find a solution to close this prison,” he said.
He noted that Colombia recently reached a peace accord with FARC leftist rebels after a half century of war.
“I would like the same agreement for the Muslims who are held in Guantanamo,” said Diaz.
Yaquelin Diaz, who goes by the Islamic name Aisha, lived in Spain for eight years and it was there that she converted, thanks to a Pakistani brother-in-law.
“Because of our habits, lots of people think we are foreigners. They cannot imagine that there are Muslims in their country. But Islam is expanding in Cuba.”
Aisha said that the only thing missing in Cuba is a shop that sells religious garments.
“Our brothers from Saudi Arabia give them to us, but we cannot keep living off their charity. We need our own stores, in our own style. We must be able to promote Islam in Cuba.”
After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Cuba became an officially atheist state and limited practice of all religions. But over time the restrictions eased.
“Everything can evolve over the course of a country’s history. Look, the United States killed thousands of blacks in the last century. And now it has a black president,” said Ahmed, the imam.
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