On December 27th, 2014 I embarked on a 13-day Eurotrip which lead me through 5 different countries, accompanied by my sister for three of them. Although my plans of visiting Muslim places of interest were dashed due to time constraints, locations and preferences, I did get some great exposure to Jewish Europe. A recap:
Muslims have had a long presence in Hungary, since the country at one point was under Turkish rule. There are several mosques across the country. Currently there are nearly 6,000 Muslims living in Hungary according to the 2011 census; they must keep a low profile, because I didn’t see them. The one except was Urfa Kebab Gyros, a hole-in-the-wall shawarma place literally two steps down from the hostel we were staying in. The gyros were so good that my sister and I stopped in there several times during our stay and as a result struck up a conversation with a Turkish Muslim man who was the owner. He admitted to us that he found the Hungarian Jewish girls–he made a point “not the Israeli girls!”–very attractive.
Budapest is a treasure trove if you want to study Jewish history and culture. The Dohany Street Synagogue, located in the Jewish quarter (which is actually the heart of the city) is the second-largest synagogue in the world and is amazingly open to visitors. The grounds bore numerous monuments to Budapest’s Jewish population that died during the Holocaust, from gravestones with pebbles to a magnificent weeping willow tree with the names of victims inscribed on the leaves. The inside of the synagogue (finally I know what they truly look like inside!) was a mix of church and mosque: it was ornate and set up like a church, with a sort of ‘alter’ and rows of seats, but it reminded me of a mosque because there were no images of people, or animals or even plants, just like in a mosque.
Kaczinsky Street, which was right near our hostel, had lots of shops with Hebrew signs. Some advertised trips to Tel Aviv.
My sister and I also visited the powerful ‘Shoes on the Danube’ memorial which recalls the murder of 30 Jews that were lined up on the bank of the Danube and shot into the river so their bodies were carried downstream. It was probably the most heart-wrenching holocaust monument I’ll ever see (and I’ve been to Dachau, which was that terrible mix of fascinating and scary).
On a whim, we decided to hop on the train and go to Bratislava, Slovakia for a day trip. Learned a valuable lesson (never jump on an international European train without buying tickets first) and found ourselves at the Bratislava hlavná stanica station on the outskirts of this tiny capital city without any idea of how to get to the city center.
Slovakia has one of the tiniest Muslim populations in Europe; apparently, it is the last European nation without a mosque, since plans for one in the capital were shot down. The 2001 Census didn’t even record any Muslims living in Bratislava. Only slightly more visible was the Jewish community; we passed this haunting Memorial of Holocaust Victims monument at twilight right near the the Most Slovenského národného povstania bridge. It says “Never forget” in Hebrew and Slovak and the shiny wall behind it is etched with the image of the neological synagogue that used to stand in the space before it was demolished to make the bridge. Most of Bratislava’s Jewish population was killed during the Holocaust, and many of those who remained emigrated abroad. Curiously enough, we saw lots of anti-Nazi graffiti, which leads one to believe that neo-Nazis have a presence in Slovakia, which is not a good sign.
Vienna, Austria had a much bigger Muslim presence than Budapest. Sitting in a McDonald’s (no comment) across from the Miedling train station, my sister and I saw lots of hijabis walking by. A niqab-clad woman even entered the McDo to get something from the McCafe (face-veils are not prohibited in Austria). At another McDo (don’t judge, I have an eating disorder) we sat next to a family that was clearly Egyptian, given their accents. There were many Turkish kebab restaurants along Mariahilfer Strasse; Turks seem to make up the majority of Muslims in Vienna, since we kept seeing them everywhere in the neighborhood we were staying in near Westbanhof. I didn’t get a chance to visit Vienna’s huge mosque and Islamic center either since it was situated further out of town on the other side of the Danube.
Vienna was once a leading center of Jewish culture, but like everywhere else in Europe the community was hit hard by the Holocaust. This could not have been more apparent than in Vienna’s Central Cemetary (ironically named, since it is located on the outskirts of town). My sister and I were stunned to walk through the Jewish section of the cemetary: whereas the rest of the cemetery was mowed and taken care of, this section was abandoned, overgrown and forgotten. Some graves had even toppled over. It was very sad to see that they are not taken care of; even if the families have long departed, the graves should not be left in such conditions.
There’s also an Islamic section, a Syriac Orthodox section, a Muslim Egyptian section and a Coptic Orthodox section in the cemetery which I would have loved to check out, but it started to rain quite bad and we decided that, since our umbrella broke, we should head back.
Returning to France for the first time since December 2010, when I finished my study-abroad, I was eager to observe the country through a Muslim lens. I was disappointed in the fact that I was not able to conduct the ‘research’ I had wanted to do–I wanted to see if I could find a Muslim cemetery, as well as visit the Arab Institute and perhaps take the Metro to one of the infamous banlieus. I saw a few hijabis on the Champs-Elysees who seemed to be tourists, and I had dinner in a Lebanese restaurant called Naura, but other than that I got a huge lesson in Muslim-French relations when the Charlie Hebdo shooting happened the day before I left. Which reminds me, I have to post part 2 of my opinion on Charlie Hebdo.