Maintaining the tradition

The small Muslim community in the Brazilian metropolis Recife meets every evening in the city's only Muslim centre to break their fast with the iftar dinner. Most of the people in the community are African immigrants. Ekrem Güzeldere reports

By Ekrem Güzeldere

Since June 26, the name Recife is suddenly a familiar one to the majority of people in Germany. That was when the country's soccer team delivered a narrow 1:0 victory against the United States in the Arena Pernambuco on the outskirts of the city.

Recife, which derives from the word for "reef", is Brazil's fifth-largest city, with 3.7 million residents in its metropolitan area. That includes Olinda in the north, which was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1982.

By Brazilian standards, Recife is quite an old city. The Portuguese settled it in 1537, and from 1630 to 1654 it was ruled by the Dutch. This period also saw the establishment, in 1636, of the first synagogue on the American continent. It was founded in Recife's Old City, which is spread across two islands, explaining why Recife is sometimes referred to as the "Venice of Brazil".

Not far from the synagogue, which became a museum in 1991, lies the city's only Muslim community centre. The Rua da Glória – Street of Glory – is part of the extended Old City, but it sits on the mainland rather than the islands. Its days of glory, however, seem to be a thing of the past. The plaster is peeling off the older, mostly single-storey houses. Above house number 353 hangs the sign: "Islamic Centre of Recife".

Small community

The modest venue resembles a long tube, with its uninterrupted corridor. At the entrance is a small room in which the imam Mabrouk al Saway Said, the centre's religious leader, his wife, and two Brazilian Muslims are waiting for the sunset, which will start as early as 6:15 p.m. It's winter in Brazil, so it gets dark early and the evenings are rather cool.

In the middle of the house, one room has been turned into a prayer room. A kitchen and bathrooms are at the back. Imam Mabrouk, aged 75, is an Egyptian who studied at Al-Azhar University. In 1988, he came to Sao Paulo to work in an Islamic centre there. Four years later, he moved to Recife, and has been the local religious leader ever since. "Our community consists of about 40 families - Brazilians as well as foreigners," he says.

The exterior of the "Islamic Centre of Recife". Photo: Ekrem Güzeldere
Die gemischte muslimische Gemeinde trifft sich jeden Abend zum gemeinsamen Fastenbrechen im Islamischen Zentrum.

The term "families" may sound good, but it doesn't describe the situation of the many young, unmarried Africans here who came to Brazil alone. These African Muslims come from Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and, as of recently, Cameroon. Additionally, there are also Muslims from the Palestinian territories, from Lebanon and Iraq. While the imam says the majority of his congregation are now Brazilians, they represent a small minority of two men and one woman at the iftar dinner, among a crowd of around 20 non-Brazilians.

Maria Isabel is Brazilian through and through. She hails from a small town near Recife. "I come from a very conservative Catholic family," she says. "At the end of my thirties, I felt like something was missing for me in Catholicism - this more direct connection to God. The conversion wasn't easy for me and my family, but after about three years, they accepted it."

Maria Isabel veils herself strictly. She is wearing a headscarf, a long-sleeved blouse buttoned up to the neck, and a long skirt. "That's not exactly the way Brazilian women dress, particularly not here in the damp, warm northeast," she says. "It's hard for people to get used to. Sometimes they ask if I'm sick, or have an earache, but otherwise I haven't had any problems with it."

Alberto converted to Islam eight years ago, which is when he started to practise fasting. "The first time was the hardest," he says, enjoying his dates and coffee. "You don't know exactly what to expect, or how to behave, but by the second time it's not a problem any more."

Alberto explains why people from Senegal constitute the majority of the small congregation. "Our Senegalese brothers worked as merchants in Argentina," he says. "But because of the economic crisis there in recent years, one of them came over to Recife, and since there are better work opportunities here, some others followed him."

Mutual support

One of them is Abu Bakr, who came to Recife five years ago and works in an import-export business. "Fasting in Brazil is much easier right now than it is in Senegal, because it's not as hot and gets dark quite early," he explains. "In Senegal, iftar isn't until about 8 p.m. But of course it's not easy here either in the Brazilian summer."

One of the centre's older members is the Algerian Monhand Benachour, who has lived and worked in Brazil for 23 years. He's a chemical engineering professor at Pernambuco state university. "My colleagues have since learned what Ramadan means and no longer ask me if I want to eat or drink," he says. "It's not a problem at all at the university. The Brazilians are very respectful and tolerant."

The centre, which was founded in 1989, is fuller than usual during Ramadan. "The African workers aren't exactly high earners," explains the imam, after taking his first bite of food along with several pills. "Often, zekat [alms-giving] allows them to eat and drink here for free. The costs are taken on by those who have more."

The centre moved to Rua da Glória in 1997. It's open every day except Sundays, offering courses in Arabic and Islam alongside its prayer services. In partnership with the Muslim community in Sao Paulo - by far the largest in the country - efforts are underway to build a mosque that's more spacious and comfortable. In Recife's chaotic and heavily-built-up city center, that's no easy task.

Ekrem Güzeldere

Translated from the German by Greg Wiser

© 2014

Editor: Charlotte Collins/