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 the 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 approached 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 for 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 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 we 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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  1. kiky August 21, 2018 at 1:00 am

    without googling first, do you have any idea what As Salam means? 🙂

    1. Zhu August 21, 2018 at 4:53 pm

      Please, enlighten me, I have no idea! I only know that “Masjid” is “Mosque”.

      1. kiky August 22, 2018 at 10:11 pm

        Salam = greeting.
        the saying when muslim greet each other is “Assalamualaikum” literally means peace upon you


        1. Zhu August 23, 2018 at 12:21 pm

          Ah, that makes sense! Funny, I actually know the greeting but I didn’t make the link with the name of the mosque!

  2. Lexie August 21, 2018 at 10:25 am

    J’adore l’idée! Je ne suis jamais entrée dans une mosquée, dans mon souvenir. Et si ça avait été le cas ça aurait été comme touriste. Je serais curieuse de découvrir cependant.

    1. Zhu August 21, 2018 at 4:54 pm

      Il doit y en avoir de belles à Montréal, non? Si tu en a l’occasion, je conseille. Ça change des églises qu’on visite plus souvent dans les pays occidentaux!

  3. Cecile August 21, 2018 at 11:14 am

    J’ai visité peu de mosquées dans ma vie (une au Maroc il y a bientôt 28 ans, une en Tunisie il y a 16 ans, une en Bosnie il y a 3 ans) mais ce sont des lieux toujours intéressants. La spiritualité est un puissant vecteur artistique et architectural, et parmi mes édifices préférés au fil des voyages, je retiens la Mezquita de Cordoue en Espagne, la Sagrada Familia de Barcelone, et l’église Saint Mathias de Budapest. Et je précise que je suis comme toi farouchement athée 🙂

    1. Zhu August 21, 2018 at 5:05 pm

      Quelle culture! C’est super d’avoir pu visiter des lieux sacrés si connus. J’aimerais bien voir la Sagrada Familia. Je ne connais pas les deux autres, je vais regarder les photos sur Wikipédia. As-tu déjà visité des temples bouddhistes? J’aime bien l’ambiance aussi en général, et c’est évidemment super différent.

  4. Isa August 23, 2018 at 5:46 am

    C’est génial d’avoir eu une visite guidée privative ! Merci à lui !
    Je n’ai vu qu’une petite partie de la grande mosquée de Paris, mais je ne suis jamais allée à celle de Lyon. C’est marrant car en visitant des villes touristiques, je ne songe pas souvent à entrer dans les lieux de culte (même les églises), et ça m’ennuie souvent. Mais mon chum aime bien, alors je suis…
    Bref tout ça pour dire que ça me fait penser qu’en Utah, t’as pas le droit d’entrer dans les temples mormons si t’es impie. J’ai jamais pu voir à quoi ça ressemblait !

    1. Zhu August 23, 2018 at 2:51 pm

      J’aimerais beaucoup voir la grande mosquée de Paris! Tu l’as visitée à quelle occasion?

      J’aime assez voir les lieux de culte locaux, maintenant que tu le dis. Je me rends compte que j’y rentre facilement pour avoir un autre point de vue sur la culture.

      1. Isa August 24, 2018 at 10:20 am

        Tu vas rire : en allant boire un thé ! Il y a un salon de thé qui la jouxte. 🙂 Il y a des horaires de visite. J’avais peu de temps, j’aimerais y retourner !

        1. Zhu August 25, 2018 at 3:34 pm

          Ah, mais c’est une super occas’! C’est sympa d’ailleurs comme idée, un lieu ouvert à tous (genre salon de thé) qui donne envie de sauter le pas et de rentrer dans un lieu plus sacré qui peut paraître intimidant.

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