The Muslims You Don’t See

The Muslims You Don’t See
Catching a glimpse of Ethiopian life in Harar, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

If Muslims are outsiders in Europe, why do so many expats love their countries?

Roland Mascarenhas
February 17 , 2021
09 Min Read

When I heard the news that Tunisian man committed a terrorist attack in Nice in October, I was startled by the timing. Just two weeks prior, I was travelling throughout the north African country, absorbing the Islamic architecture against the crêperies from France, once an occupier. 

France’s Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron declared that it is “France which is under attack,” while the Interior Minister stated “we’re at war, against an enemy who is both inside and outside,” hinting at the country’s six million Muslims and their values. 


And yet, from March to October, I have lived in largely Muslim areas in Africa—the Kenyan Swahili Coast, Senegal, Tunisia and Ethiopia—prior to which I witnessed the Shaheen Bagh protests in New Delhi. During my time there, I observed a warmth and tranquillity that has attracted many Europeans to live there, which made me ponder: why is there such a different perception in the media versus reality? 

Along the coast of Ngor Island in Dakar, Senegal

For nearly three months, I was locked down in Lamu, Kenya, a coastal town of 25,000. Despite its turbulent history between Portugal and Oman, Lamu is ‘Africa’s Most Captivating Artists Retreat,’ as the WSJ. magazine called it, akin to an ‘opium dream,’ citing the influx of visitors since the 1970s, including Princess Caroline of Monaco, Sting, and Mick Jagger. 

“I am very happy here,” said Sandy Bornman, a South African-born designer, who arrived over two decades ago. “When I arrived as a single mother with two little girls, we were made to feel welcome and safe. The whole village took care of us from the start. The people here are kind, generous and warm. We stick together but respect our differences. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.” 

During my time, I conversed with an American investigative journalist, an Armenian documentarian, a British historian and an Egyptian businessman, all of whom have become residents, and valued the sense of community, ubiquitous donkeys, and fresh seafood. 

The cobbled streets of La Marsa near Tunis

“I’ve felt drawn to Dakar and the country of Senegal for a long time,” writes Sebastian Modak in The New York Times (NYT), citing the music, street art and history, calling it “an oasis of political stability and democracy in a region infamous for coups and supervillain dictators.” This West African cool includes the tall, rangy soccer-jersey adorning adolescents who run along the sea-facing promenade for ‘vanity reasons’, as one of the locals told me. 

On Ngor Island, I visited a Danish-run surf camp along with a friend, Zarina, who previously spent six months there. She witnessed the explosive growth of the sport, originated by the 1966 documentary, The Endless Summer about two Californian surfers. “We don’t practice localism here,” the national surf coach told Vice, reflecting the teranga or hospitality. “As I immersed myself in this Senegalese way of being, my western walls melted away,” writes Colette Coleman in the BBC. “Openness, generosity, warmth and familiarity,” she notes of the shared dishes and material possessions. “I constantly felt like the 16-million-person family of Senegal was welcoming me home.” 

Exploring the best of Dire Dawa, nestled in eastern Europe

And yet, France’s film industry has created a cottage industry of negative depictions of Senegal, with Cannes- winner Atlantics (2019) focusing on an employment crisis; provocative Sundance- winner Cuties (2020) revealing a Muslim girl clashing with her mother over her orthodox and traditional upbringing; and Oscar-nominated Les Misérables (2019) impressing Macron so much that “he asked the government to take measures as soon as possible to improve life in lower- income neighbourhoods,” writes Jack Dion in France’s Marianne magazine. “We have to believe that he has never heard of the Borloo plan (social development proposal) on the suburbs that he himself buried.” 

“The problem with Tunisia is that we don’t have an identity,” said the owner of Johnny’s Bikes to me in the upscale La Marsa in Tunis, the capital city, filled with gelato shops and whitewashed mansions. Nine years ago, I lectured at York University on the Arab Spring, and here I was just kilometres away from its origins. “When you are in a dictator system, your mind is sleeping. You don’t allow yourself to see all your abilities...‘Now, people, you are completely free’—the creativity of everyone completely exploded.” 

The Roman Empire brought ideas of government and urban planning, revelled in the complex sewer systems and in the six-storey buildings made for nearly 300,000 residents, one of the largest cities in the world at that time. Further, on its founding the Prime Minister’s “enlightened platform included the passing of a then- radical women’s-rights legislation, and a booming tourism industry, making Tunis an exotic bohemian centre,” writes Nikhil Saval, a newly-elected Pennsylvania State Senator in NYT. Tunisia “is a country that has one foot in political fervor, and the other in a dolce far niente lifestyle,” with nearly 10 million tourists arriving in 2019, two-thirds of its population size, making it one of Africa’s wealthiest countries. 

In 1880, French poet-turned-gun-runner Arthur Rimbaud arrived in Harar, Ethiopia, and its hive of over 200 mosques and shrines, and limestone walls and maze-like paths, transformed him: “a drunken, filthy, amoral homosexual teenager who becomes a reserved, hard working, responsible and respectable (if misanthropic and disgust- ridden) adult merchant and explorer,” writes NYT’s Richard Hell. He was a restless soul, but felt unexpectedly at home as his “unexpected enthusiasms set him apart as much as his colour—his facility in Arabic, his knowledge of the Holy Quran, his innate skill as a photographer,” notes Paul Theroux. 

Sacred cats of ancient Egypt, considered a symbol of grace

And yet, a recent petition to Macron to include Rimbaud among the literary greats has fuelled arguments about diversity, inclusion, national pride. The NYT notes that Rimbaud spent “most of his adult life abroad and denigrated the French... he called them ‘an inferior race,’ one that ‘has never risen, except to plunder.’” 

I wasn’t always open to re-visiting my understanding of Islamic countries, but travels to Malaysia, the UAE, Jordan, Turkey and southern Spain, made me reflect on the incomplete stories shared. “I don’t visit museums,” Zarina, a black South African with a Persian name meaning golden, told me as we walked along a Tunis medina. “Because I know who are the people creating these narratives, and they’re largely remembering only conflict and war.” 

“I thought about how little the Islam of Saudi Arabia resembled the version of the faith I’d witnessed as a child while living in Indonesia”, former US President Barack Obama writes in his just-released memoir, A Promised Land

“In Jakarta in the 1960s and ’70s, Islam had occupied roughly the same place in that nation’s culture as Christianity did in the average American city or town, relevant but not dominant. The muezzin’s call to prayer punctuated the days, weddings and funerals followed the faith’s prescribed rituals, activities slowed down during fasting months, and pork might be hard
to find on a restaurant’s menu. Otherwise, people lived their lives, with women riding Vespas in short skirts and high heels on their way to office jobs, boys and girls chasing kites, and long-haired youths dancing to the Beatles and the Jackson 5 at the local disco. Muslims were largely indistinguishable from the Christians, Hindus, or college-educated non-believers, like my stepfather, as they crammed onto Jakarta’s overcrowded buses, filled theater seats at the latest kung-fu movie, smoked outside roadside taverns, or strolled down the cacophonous streets. The overtly pious were scarce in those days, if not the object of derision then at least set apart, like Jehovah’s Witnesses handing out pamphlets in a Chicago neighborhood.” 

Tunisian door inspired by Mediterranean architecture

In 2012, Martha Nussbaum, the University of Chicago’s esteemed philosopher, was interviewed by the Boston Review about her new book, The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age. She noted how fear paralysed the brain, meant for survival, preventing “reflection and balancing,” while allowing for “narrowness” in thought. As I traded emails with her, I now understand it was my way of seeking to change my perspective. 

A week before I began my travels in early 2020, I visited the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, an architectural wonder built by the local affluent and business- savvy Ismaili Muslim community, many of whom were former classmates and colleagues. I learnt about Mansa Musa’s 14th-century West African kingdom, once considered the richest man in the world. “However, his riches are only one part of his legacy,” National Geographic states, “He is also remembered for his Islamic faith, promotion of scholarship, and patronage of culture in Mali,” noting his religious tolerance, love of learning and generosity. 

Musa isn’t the only political leader hoping to challenge our beliefs. In 2016, disenchanted with the status quo, one man launched a ‘political movement’, with a focus on developing ‘new ideas’. A lover of Rimbaud, he grew up dreaming of becoming a writer, but later championed social justice, “Perhaps his most fundamental belief is in the primacy of individual rights,” The New Yorker wrote. 

His name? Emmanuel Macron.  

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