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A Cultural Experience – The Unplanned Visit of the Assalam Mosque

Several newcomers to Nantes using the free Wi-Fi at the train station, Nantes, August 2018

We never really plan our long afternoon walks. We pick a direction, walk and head home when we’re tired. The usual stops include bakeries, cafés, free art galleries, a handful of shops we’re curious about and the Jardin des plantes where Mark plays.

Mosques and other places of worship, even Nantes’ many churches, aren’t usually part of the itinerary. After all, we’re a bunch of atheists.

Last Sunday, we ended up in Malakoff, one of Nantes’ closest suburbs. This is where you’ll find functional high-rise buildings rather than architectural masterpieces. This is also where you find working-class families, newcomers to France and second- or third-generation immigrants. This is where there are occasional riots after deadly police shootings—the last one occurred early in July. The area is perfectly safe during the day and probably at night too, as long as you don’t get involved in shady business and don’t wear a police uniform.

At one point, I checked the map on Google and noticed that the Mosquée Assalam was just behind the park. I visited one in Malaysia but my mom never had the chance, so we decided to walk by just to see the building.

Funny enough, even though Islam is the second most widely professed religion in France behind Catholic Christianity by number of worshipers and even though everyone seems to have an opinion on Muslims these days, few non-Muslims are very familiar with Mosques—including us.

“Can I help you?” a man asked as we were approaching the wide-open main door.

“We were just… curious,” I admitted.

“Oh, right… You may not be dressed for the mosque, though,” the man noted. “Wait a second, I’ll grab something for you and I’m going to see if the rector is around.”

Before I even had the chance to explain I wasn’t hoping to get in wearing shorts and a cropped top, the rector, Bachir Boukhzer, was back with a long dress.

“Perfect! Let’s go in.”

We followed him inside and he led us to the entrance of the main prayer room. “This is where we take off our shoes.”

I mentally thanked him for giving us the clues we needed to navigate a culture and a religious practice we don’t master.

The prayer room was beautiful. Very airy and uncluttered compared to churches, with lovely decorations. “Handmade! Moroccan artists worked on them for months,” he stressed, patting the pillar and the carved wood panels.

Bachir Boukhzer showed us where the Imam stands and answered every basic question we had regarding the rituals of Islam. He also told us about the Mosque, built in 2012, and the community.

We went upstairs where he explained how they were getting ready for the upcoming Eid al-Adha. We finished the tour exploring the cultural centre with classrooms, a refectory, a library and more.

The rector and us were both walking on eggshells—he probably wasn’t sure how we felt about Islam and Muslims in general and we didn’t want to offend him. For instance, he stressed that interfaith dialogue was important to the community and that anyone was welcome to visit the Mosque. As for us, we explained that even though we had no ties with the Muslim community, we found it great that there was a Mosque in the city and that it was open to visitors.

According to Bachir Boukhzer, about 1,500 Muslims come regularly for the Friday prayer, the most important of all. About 6,000 come to the Mosque during major festivals.

And this is why I think the rest of us, non-Muslims, should be a bit curious about Islam. Frankly, to me, all religions are the same—holy books tell a nice story I don’t believe in. However, the social aspect of religion matters. This is what struck me the most about this visit—the Mosque is more than a place where people pray, it’s a cultural centre, both literally and figuratively.

It’s probably worth trying to understand the religion, customs and traditions a large part of the world follows, isn’t it?

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