One year after that encounter, he plays domino, enjoys playing baseball as much as cricket, dances Cuban salsa, and likes Cuban food. Likewise, she devours chapati, talks a Cuban variety of Urdu, reads the Corán every day, and says prayers in Arabic language to Alá, a god that she already feels as her own.
There are several residents of Sancti Spiritus who get along with Pakistani youth who are studying medicine in this central Cuban city. This relationship has been turned into mutual respect and bilateral learning, in which the other’s culture is not that strange any more.
BACKGROUND OF AN ENCOUNTER
When the Himalaya was shaken by an earthquake in October, 2005 the Cuban doctors worked in improvised hospitals to look after the patients. Cuba granted 1000 scholarships to Asian youth so that they could learn here how to relieve the pain of their people. In 2008, they flew to the island. They studied in Jaguey Grande (Matanzas province) first, and then, some 300 were transferred to Sancti Spiritus.
They were admitted in the local Manuel Piti Fajardo Medical School. The director of the institution, Master Aracelys Plasencia Cruz, said that “it has been a unique experience; we had never received so many students from one same country. They arrived on July19th, 2010”.
CLASH BETWEEN TWO CIVILIZATIONS
It is still difficult to determine who were the most surprised, if foreigners or natives, when turbans and robes began to be seen in the streets.
Locals gave curious glances to the precious fabrics and peculiar garments, only seen before in the TV news. On the other hand, the Pakistanis were disconcerted to see people being ridden by horses and “bicitaxis”, men without shirts, women wearing very short pants, and to know that pork meat was a preferred dish.
“Everything was new for us, and for them we were also strangers. Sancti Spiritus residents were confused about our culture. They thought that we were quarrel people. Then, they began to know about us, and they began to trust us”, said Mohsin Muhammad.
According to Arnaldo Alexis Cruz, director of International Relations in the medical university, they are quite disciplined students. For educational instructor Haydée González Álvarez, they behave like the children of any family.
Wise religious leader Habib-ul -Haq considers that adapting their beliefs to the Cuban reality was no easy task. But “thanks to God and to the Cuban government we can pray anywhere, either in front of the park or in the bus station, without problem. We were given a praying room, which is our mosque. The halal meat is brought for us from other countries with the correspondent sacrifice certification by the Islamic laws, and our food supply is reinforced during the Ramadán.
Many locals have skipped cultural differences on the basis of acceptance and concord between human beings. “Abdul is like a son, he calls my parents as Mom and Dad –Dayana explains. Pakistanis follow the manners of prophet Muhammad 24 hours a day. They say a prayer when going out or coming into the house, when travelling, when taking a shower, when going to sleep. It’s always the same in every action they take”.
“They have taught us how to cook their traditional dishes. Pork meat is forbidden for them, and the animal they’re going to eat has to be killed by them or by other Muslim. Their food is spicy and has a lot of seasoning”, says a neighbour who lives in the area next to the medical university. This area is known as “little Pakistan” due to the close relations between the students and the community.
“Sancti Spiritus people are very nice and very welcoming. We are away from our country, and if someone cares about us, we cannot forget that. Some people say things about us which they don’t know, but most of them already knows who we are, they take care of us, and they also help us”, said Huma.
Many communication strategies have been implemented, especially for the names, which are generally very difficult to pronounce. Thus, Manuel, Miguel Eduardo and even Osmany García are some of the alternative names given to the foreign students. Khizar, best known as Ale, is one of the so-called “cubanitos”.
LOCALS WITH MUSLIM SOUL
Yadira, 23, from Trinidad, preferred to be called as Ayesha, and only believes in Ala. She is the wife of a Pakistani student. Learning the prayers in Arabic language was the most difficult thing, and the Ramadán month was not easy, we are not used to skip eating for so long”, she said.
Jany, now known as Lareb, had to change everything. “I got rid of the short skirt and the bikini. I don’t go to discos, or eat pork anymore. My male friends know that they cannot greet me with a kiss. Now I am someone else”. Lareb, 25, knows 12 other people here who worship Alá. “Some of them are even introducing their children”, she added.
Sociologist José Neira Milián explains that we are being faced with a process of interculturalism, as there is coexistence and understanding between two different cultures. It is not the case of a voluntary indefinite migration, since it will have an end. We cannot predict what will be taken or added to each of the two cultures. But we can see the high educational level of our population.
Sancti Spiritus people have put into practice our communication and solidarity capacities, which belong to a unique place on earth, where there is no discrimination, and where all cultures are respected.