At approximately 9 pm in a favela, an urban slum south of Sao Paulo, I was walking with few of my hosts to buy meat from the butcher. I was filled with that sense of adventure one gets in a new environment.
“Hey – this looks safe. Isn’t it funny, everyone scared me of coming to the favelas?,” I asked confidently yet looking at my hosts for confirmation. “You are safe because you are Kaab’s guest. People know that. Just stay close to us,” they said without breaking their smile.
Back in the summer of 2011, my wanderlust brought me to Kyrgyzstan. While there, I witnessed a Muslim family asking God to bless their vodka shots. This paradox struck a very personal chord- how to define my own identity in light of conflicting expectations between my faith and the many cultures that define me.
So, in the summer of 2015, I decided to travel around the world visiting lesser-known Muslim communities to answer my questions about faith, culture, and personal identity. Brazil was the first stop of 6 countries: Brazil, Senegal, Bosnia, China, Malaysia, and Japan. I had many plans for Brazil, but at the top of my list was visiting Kaab Abdul.
Kaab’s story had recently taken the Brazilian media by storm. Major news outlets visited his musalla a prayer room, at least once a week. He was a former hip-hop musician and rapper turned Muslim community leader. I had to meet him, despite the many logistical challenges. He lives in a favela, generally not known to be safe for visitors. It is at least an hour bus ride from Sao Paulo. And most challenging, I don’t speak Portuguese. Kaab does not speak English.
Luckily, I connected with a Portuguese-speaking Muslim-American PhD student on a field study trip in Brazil. I asked him to accompany me for the trip. Getting to Embu das Artes, the favela that Kaab calls home, was a challenge. We arrived at the bus station where we were supposed to meet him after a lengthy bus ride. After waiting for approximately an hour at the bus station during which we visited a nearby grocery store to buy some delicious Brazilian persimmon fruit, Kaab finally met us with big hugs and genuine warmth that immediately eased any worries we had. We just wanted to talk to Kaab, and we were ready to head back to Sao Paulo a couple of hours later. But Kaab had other plans.
He first took us to the musalla. He was wearing a black shirt with a Malcom X picture on it and a journalist vest that had patches of Middle Eastern countries’ flags. The musalla was a single room at the ground floor of the building Kaab lives in. It was a humble place, yet it is taken care of meticulously. A red carpet covers the ground with many individual prayer rugs around the place. The front wall had a large electronic clock that keeps track of prayer times and the back wall had a large flag of Saudi Arabia. “Have you been to Mecca?” he asked pointing at the Saudi flag. “Yes, I have been!” I said. “I have been to hajj. Allhamdulillah,” he told me. We prayed the second daily prayer of the day together, and then he walked us upstairs to his home.
Kaab was humorous, animated, and energetic. He told us how his curiosity about Islam was triggered when he heard the athan, the Muslim call to prayer. In 2008, he became Muslim after learning more about Islam through talking online to someone from Egypt. He continued to rap. He even tried to infuse Islam into his music. However, he found it conflicting to mix hip-hop and his newly found faith. He now only performs poetry with no instrumentals under the name Fragmentos de um Muçulmano (Fragments of a Muslim).
We sat at the patio of his house overlooking the favela. Kaab was engaging and captivating. When he was not sharing deep thoughts about his faith and passion for the community, he was making us laugh. When it got dark, we went downstairs and we prayed maghrib, the first evening prayer, together. We went back upstairs after that and continued talking. Meanwhile, many of Kaab’s friends began trickling in. Almost every 30 minutes, my friend and I looked at each other contemplating leaving, but we were so entrenched in the conversation that we didn’t want to leave.
Positivity, hope, and faith in a better future were generally the emotions I felt from Kaab, except when he discussed the challenges he faced learning his faith. It was clear to me how difficult he found it. He points to the tattoos on his arms as an example. He didn’t know that tattoos are not permissible in Islam.
For at least a year after he became Muslim, all the resources he had about Islam were three book s that his Egyptian friend sent to him. “I don’t want others to face the same struggles,” he said with a sense of responsibility.
“Ammar, we will have churrascaria tonight. You have to stay the night.” Kaab told me. “Oh.
Brazilian bbq?” I asked. “Yes!” Kaab and his friends replied. “I love BBQ,” I said probably too enthusiastically. I was sold. We were staying the night at Kaab’s. Honestly though, I enjoyed being there and the food was a mere excuse. The community was preparing to celebrate the wedding of a couple of their own the next day. So many friends and family were gathered.
They tried to teach me Portuguese with very little luck. They practiced their American accents with extremely entertaining results. My lack of knowledge of American hip-hop music heavily disappointed them. And most of all, they made fun of my obsession with taking pictures. All while Kaab was taking charge of the BBQ pit, producing mouthwatering grilled beef.
These friends made up a tight community of about 20 Muslims- most new to Islam. Some live in the favela. Some were visiting him from over 3 hours away, because they felt more welcome in his community. At night, 5 or 6 of us were to sleep downstairs in the musalla. Kaab stayed up with us joking, laughing, and stealing our pillows or blankets for whatever reason. It was clear to me that Kaab was the anchor of this community. But, how could he do it? It was then that I understood why. It is because not once did he assume the role of a religious teacher. In fact, he made it a point to not lead the prayer every time we prayed together. He acted only as a humble community servant leader.
Earlier in the day, I was puzzled by Kaab’s emphasis on helping his community at large. I had asked him if at any point in his career he thought of leaving the favela. He responded with an emphatic no. This is his home. “But how would Kaab heal this community?” I thought to myself. I knew he cared. He genuinely wanted to help not only the Muslim community, but the larger community of the favela. But was that enough to make a strong community?
So, I asked him about his vision. He told me it was to build a school for the youth in the community. I was surprised. “Why a school?” I asked. “Most Muslim community leaders would seek a mosque first!” He laughed and smiled. But his eyes were serious. He held my arm and walked me to the edge of the porch, pointing out at the favela … “Their way out of here is education not a worship place,” Kaab Abdul pointed at the sprawling houses in the urban slum. At that moment, a light bulb turned on.
out of here is
education not a
I’ve traveled to over 40 countries, and I hope to travel to more. I will never forget Kaab nor will I forget that particular moment. It taught me that future generations will struggle with their identities unless they are empowered through learning. That moment and that thought shaped the remainder of my trip and my current curiosity.