x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The go-between

Saloon Touring the Jumeirah Mosque with Nasif Kayed

Jumeirah Mosque is the only of the 1,200 mosques in Dubai that invites non-Muslims.
Jumeirah Mosque is the only of the 1,200 mosques in Dubai that invites non-Muslims.

Touring the Jumeirah Mosque with Nasif Kayed. About 10 minutes into a recent public tour of Dubai's Jumeirah Mosque, a half dozen or so visitors started to make for the exit. As is generally the case in these situations, the departing attendees moved awkwardly, laboriously discreet, before letterboxing themselves through the door and into the late morning sunshine. These people had likely expected something different - something a little more, well, touristy. But from the outset it was clear that this was not going to be a whirlwind of photo-ops and on-the-go factoids. The 70 or so visitors who remained sat mostly on the floor, on a pristine blue-patterned carpet, or on plastic chairs lined up between rows of pillars.

"Whatever you have heard on CNN or the BBC, set it aside," said the only man standing. "We are interested in facts." The man, a 46-year-old Kuwaiti named Nasif Kayed, had a bulky frame and a kindly, fleshy face. He wore a clipped beard and an immaculate kandora. His voice was a rich basso, and he had that pedagogic tic of framing statements in the form of questions: "The benefit of a dome is that it allows for better…?"

"Acoustics?" squeaked someone from the back of the room. "Who are you here to meet today?" Kayed asked a little later. "God?" There are around 1,200 mosques in Dubai, and Jumeirah is the only one that invites non-Muslims inside. Until recently, it was the only one in the entire UAE that welcomed non-Muslims (Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Mosque now hosts tours of its own). Accordingly, there are many non-Muslims - even among those who have lived here for decades - for whom mosques are mysterious places.

Kayed's life mission, he said after the tour, is to act as a bridge between faiths. He was sitting in a small room in the Bastikiya headquarters of the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, the organisation that oversees the visits. A "semi-retired businessman", he leads four tours a week, without payment, because he believes it is important work. "People feel discomfort with other races or other human beings; this is in our nature," he continued. "'My God! I heard Muslims either convert everyone or kill them!' All we ask is understanding and tolerance. Accept each other's differences, allow each other to be different and coexist. This is what Dubai is all about."

In his lectures - there is really no other word to describe these sessions - Kayed favours the Socratic method. He asks lots of questions, and he expects lots in return. This means his discussions tend to meander, even ramble, from one subject to another. On the day I visited, Kayed touched on Hitler and Jessica Simpson, Elizabeth I and John Travolta. The mosque's exquisite architectural features went largely unexplored.

Kayed is, in large part, a showman. He waves his arms incessantly; he tells funny stories; he even, from time to time, adopts a kind of pantomime persona — "I can't heeear yooou!" And then, in the midst of the laughter, you are reminded of the gravity and difficulty of what he is trying to do. During the recent tour, a man at the front of the room asked why Islam lends itself to intolerance and extremism. While the other visitors found a renewed interest in the details of the ceiling, Kayed didn't skip a beat. Radicalism is born of societal unrest and personal deprivation, he said, which combine to create a sense of loathing which is directed first inward, then outward. "This has nothing to do with religion."

Kayed is used to fielding hard questions. Between 1981 and 2007, he lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he married an American woman and raised six children. In 2000, he founded a cultural outreach programme aimed at fostering open relations between the city's 15,000 Muslims and its other faiths. It wasn't always easy work, but Kayed loved it. A year or so into the project, however, things took a dramatic turn.

"After 9/11, interest in the centre mushroomed," Kayed said, adding that he fielded a flurry of requests from around the US - the media, churches, colleges, even the FBI. For a while, he thought he was in the right place at the right time, that he could help heal the wounds the terrorist attacks had opened. "But as it went on, the war and the death, the bombing and the bombing, people got tired," he said. "Everyone became a suspect."

When his wife and children became subjected to abuse and ridicule, when the suspicion around him grew to be overwhelming, Kayed decided it was time to move on. A little under two years ago, he and his family moved to Dubai. A few months later, even though he kept in touch with the outreach centre in Raleigh, Kayed began to miss the hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves aspect of the work he had started. "When I came to Dubai, I knew what was in my heart," he said, sitting in the little room in Bastikiya. "I asked God, Allah, to lead me to that which had been my passion. Then I came to Jumeirah Mosque and I knew, I knew this was it. This is the love affair of my life."

Kayed has been leading his tours for a year and half now, and he has no plans to retire anytime soon. "People ask me: 'How can you do this four days a week?'" he said. "But there is always excitement, always different questions. And maybe you touch someone's heart." At the end of his tour, Kayed lingered in the mosque for a half-hour or so, chatting, offering advice, fielding questions, posing for photographs. "How many people took something away with them today?" he asked later. "You be the judge - you came and you left today. Maybe you left with something."

With this, he handed me his business card. Maybe we can get together for a coffee some time, he said, or to watch a football match.

* Chris Wright