Ever since my first visit last year, the Jamia Mosque, located near the top of the Central-Mid Levels escalator, has had a special pull on me. Hidden behind its stone walls is a verdant respite from the noise and stress of Central. A stately wrought iron gate acts as a portal between a frenzied city and a quiet place of contemplation and spiritual release.
The mosque is a welcome diversion whenever I find myself riding up the escalator. I enjoy the well-worn appearance of its grounds, the songs of the birds in its trees and the particular coziness created by the wall of skyscrapers that surround it. It’s also a place I like to show visitors to Hong Kong, and on a pleasant evening last winter, I found myself sitting on a stone ledge next to the mosque with a couple of my friends from Montreal. As the sounds of the evening prayer drifted through the air, an old man with a beard and more than a few missing teeth came up to us and started talking about everything he could think of: politics, the weather, Islam, his childhood. He mentioned that he had grown up at the mosque and had witnessed the complete transformation of the neighbourhood around it from an airy collection of walk-up tenements to a dense, dizzying cluster of highrises. He said that there were many families that lived around the mosque, in haphazardly-built houses and an elegant, now-decrepit building once used to house travelling Muslims and Islamic scholars.
Unfortuantely, the old man dashed away before I could ask him for his name. The next time I saw him, he brushed me off, muttering under his breath. “Don’t bother him, he’s crazy,” said someone standing nearby. But my interest was piqued. I decided to make a documentary, with three of my classmates at the University of Hong Kong, about the mosque and the diverse community of people that worship and live there. People started moving in during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II. They never left, and now 20 families call the mosque home.
Through the Gate is my first documentary. It offers a glimpse of life at the Jamia Mosque through the experiences of three people. Andy Putranto is an Indonesian grad student who sees the mosque as a home away from home. Leila Karchoud is a Tunisian woman who was drawn back to Islam when she moved to Hong Kong. Mustafa Mohammed was born and raised at the mosque. I’ve tried to use their stories to convey the atmosphere of the mosque and its significance as a place both sacred and secular.
Hong Kong is not normally considered to be much of a Muslim city, and by most measures, it isn’t. Its 100,000 Muslims — a hugely diverse group that includes people of Middle Eastern, African, South Asian, Malay, Indonesian and Chinese descent — make up less than two percent of the city’s total population. By comparison, Muslims account for about 4 percent of the population in Montreal and just over 5 percent in Toronto; the proportion in many European cities is far higher.
Unlike those places, though, Islamic presence in Hong Kong goes back as long as its history as a territory. As a result, mosques occupy some unexpectedly prominent positions in Hong Kong. One of these is the Kowloon Mosque, one of the most recognizable landmarks of Tsim Sha Tsui. Another is the Jamia Mosque, which was first built in the 1840s and rebuilt in 1905, making it the oldest mosque in Hong Kong. Although the mosque itself is small, it occupies a fairly sizable chunk of land in the otherwise tightly-packed confines of the Central Mid-Levels. Filled with greenery, the mosque grounds are an oasis of sort, but they are often devoid of people, which makes them feel like a bit of a secret. If the harried pace of Central ever gets to you, I can’t think of a better place to unwind.
But relaxation is only one reason to visit the Jamia Mosque. Within its walls is a strange collection of buildings, terraces and gardens, including what appears to be an old apartment building, a small row of houses and, most oddly, a bungalow with a giant satellite dish. The last time I was there, laundry, strung over a vegetable garden, billowed outside in the wind, a scene that could have been from some country farm if not for the towering apartment buildings all around.
New mural at a mosque in downtown Montreal
In last week’s issue of the Economist, a couple of interesting articles looked at the challenge of building mosques in Western cities. All too often, it seems, cities and neighbourhoods in Europe and North America become divided when faced with the possibility that a minaret might rise on the horizon. What is it, though, that scares people about mosques? Is it the fear of terrorism fed by media reports of radical imams preaching their jihadist rhetoric at suburban mosques? Or is it something more elemental, a simple fear of a changing society?
In Cologne, whose population population numbers about 120,000, the question of whether or not to build a lavish central mosque has split the city along deep, though unexpected, lines. Apparently, many Roman Catholic clergy support the mosque, but one prominent Jewish intellectual — Ralph Giordano, a Holocaust survivor — has come out strongly against it, claiming that it would encourage the creation of a parallel Muslim society in Germany. The whole matter has given a boost to Germany’s far right, which has used the mosque issue to win support for its extremist agenda.
If anything, though, the establishment of proper mosques — that is to say, grand and highly-visible public structures — is one sure way to integrate Muslims into mainstream society. But that is exactly what mosque opponents are fighting against: they don’t want Muslims to be accepted by the mainstream. They see Muslims as fundamentally foreign, so their opposition to mosques is rooted in xenophobia and little else. (Even Ralph Giordano admits that his opposition to the Cologne stems from his belief that Germany is a fundamentally “Judeo-Christian” country.) The idea of minarets becoming an everyday part of the urban fabric, like church steeples, is abhorrent to them. Perhaps that is why a number of Swiss politicians are currently advocating a nation-wide ban on minarets; not mosques, just minarets.
North America, the Economist notes, offers better legal protection to mosque builders, despite having its own “Islam-bashers ready to play on people’s fears.” There have been many controversies over the construction of new mosques but, in the end, Canadian and American courts are likely to rule on the side of religious freedom.