The largest mosque in South America is improbably located across the street from the gambling mecca of the Hippodrome and right next to the shopping center containing Easy and Jumbo in Palermo and the train station, 3 de Febrero. This impressive but hauntingly empty complex is the King Fahd Islamic Cultural Centre. It houses the mosque, a library, the Colegio Rey Fahd for young students, with beautiful manicured lawns and fountains. Saudi architect Zuhair Faiz designed the beautiful geometric buildings and complex. The grounds cover 3.5 hectares between Avenidas Bullrich, Libertador, Dorrego and Cerviño.
There are estimates of some 700,000 Muslims in Argentina, mostly descended from Syrian and Lebanese immigrants who came over in the late 1850s. There are only two mosques in Buenos Aires, the other being part of the Organización Islámica Argentina. There is also a strong historical link between Muslims and Spain, so it doesn’t seem too out of place that there should be such a large community here in Argentina.
Non-Muslims in Argentina don’t seem to know much about this complex other than that former President Carlos Saúl Menem (himself of Syrian descent) was responsible for it. This is somewhat true. King Fahd of Saudia Arabia financed the construction, which totaled some U$15m. Menem’s contribution was arranging the donation of the land, which has been valued at around U$10m. Congress passed a national law in 1995, giving the land to the cultural centre. The first stone was laid on 7th December 1998, not without some slight controversy: neighbours were unsure about the increased traffic and architectural disharmony, among other issues. But the centre opened on 25th September 2000 with much fanfare as King Fahd himself and 250 other dignitaries came from Saudi Arabia to celebrate the opening.
I arrived for a guided tour on a clear crisp Tuesday afternoon, just as things were getting started. After providing some identification, I joined the group together in the front courtyard by the fountain. Our guide explained in Spanish that our tour would last about an hour and where photos were and were not allowed. We were led through to the back plaza overlooking the train station. It was the school courtyard, but the students were inside and not visible.
In fact, not many people were around at all. We were then led to the anteroom of the mosque where we were shown a short video about the centre and all that it has to offer. I was surprised about all that was available. There is a library, a radio station on FM 93.9, Arabic language classes and of course the mosque itself. We were able to peek in from outside, but were not allowed inside. I was expecting a hub of activity for noon-time prayer, but there was really no one around. I also realised that I hadn’t heard the call to prayer that one would expect five times a day. Maybe the neighbours put the kibosh on that.
Finally, we were led to a beautiful display of Muslim art with its abstract geometric designs across the hall from the library where I could finally see some people who were looking through the books.
When I first inquired about the guided tours available, I was given a brochure about the wonders of Islam with a title “¿Has Descubierto su Verdadera Belleza?” (Have you Discovered his True Beauty?). This put me off a bit as I was worried about people trying to convert me to Islam, but I was relieved to find that this wasn’t the case at all.
The guide at the end of the tour did explain the Five Pillars of Islam which every Muslim must adhere to but there was no pressure to convert. The first pillar is that Muslims must accept Allah as the one true God and Muhammad as His messenger. The second is that each Muslim must pray five times per day. The third is that alms must be given to the poor based on each believer’s ability. The fourth speaks to fasting. Fasting is obligatory during Ramadan and can be done at other times as penance. The fifth is the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) that every Muslim must make at least once in their lives if they can afford it. But there is no pillar requiring people to try to convert people to their faith, unlike other religions.
The tour guide stressed the fact that this cultural centre is open and available to the general population at large and yet at the same time he sometimes seemed reluctant to go into much detail and stuck to his script when answering questions. For example, he excitedly and proudly told us that he had been to the Kaaba – Black Cube – in Mecca, yet when asked, said he couldn’t remember what it was like inside and suggested that it was made out of brick when the black sheen is really silk that is replaced yearly. Maybe he misunderstood the question… But overall, this was an interesting tour. Your Spanish should be up to snuff as there isn’t an option in English, although he doesn’t go too fast and is happy to explain – as long as he sticks to the script.
The mosque is located at Av Bullrich 55 in Palermo. There are guided tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays at noon, to which you must bring identification. You can find more information (in Spanish) at www.ccislamicoreyfahd.org.ar