Aamir Hussain is a Government major and Theology minor with a pre-medical concentration in the Georgetown University Class of 2014. He is originally from Farmington, CT. Aamir is a Muslim of Indian background, and speaks Spanish, Portuguese, and Hindi-Urdu. For the spring 2013 semester, he is studying at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica (PUC) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At Georgetown, Aamir is the co-president of the Georgetown Interfaith Student Council, is actively involved in both the Muslim and Hindu Students Associations, and works on the Georgetown Emergency Response Medical Service (GERMS) as an EMT-B. His nickname is "The Pun-isher" due to his penchant for making bad puns.
March 6, 2013
It’s a combination of Halloween, an Olympic opening ceremony, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebration, and a massive music concert. For nearly five full days, streets are crowded with people dancing samba, selling snacks, dressing in costumes, and looking for potential romantic partners. This is Carnival, Brazil’s world-famous pre-Lent celebration. Although Carnival (often touted as “the biggest party on Earth”) is an absolutely stunning experience for all of the senses, the celebration provides insight into various aspects of Brazilian culture.
While experiencing the lively Carnival on the streets, I was immediately struck by the number of sexually controversial costumes. It is very common for men to dress in drag (Disney characters and Japanese anime are popular choices), and to even wear body suits with exaggerated female anatomy. Women, on the other hand, are expected to dress in traditional female clothing, and commonly in revealing outfits or swimsuits.
When women wear costumes, they nearly always dress as stereotypically “feminine” figures such as fairies, princesses, or butterflies. In other words, it is socially acceptable for men to violate traditional gender roles, but the same privilege is not granted to women. Indeed, after spending several weeks in Rio, I also realized that the strict division of gender identity is even visible in seemingly mundane aspects of life. For example, it is considered “feminine” to sit on towels at the beach, and men are expected to show their manliness by sitting on bare sand.
However, in stark contrast to this conservative attitude towards gender roles, Brazil seems to be very liberal with regards to sexuality. Despite being home to the world’s largest number of Catholics (and an increasing number of evangelical Protestants), Brazil has made sexual education a major priority. Indeed, contraceptives are readily available, and public service announcements routinely detail the health risks of polygamous relationships and contracting STDs. Also, street parties (known as blocos in Portuguese) during Carnival are notorious for their widespread public kissing (usually between complete strangers), and the official Rio Carnival Wikipedia page even lists certain blocos as being “good for kissing.” Unfortunately, sexual harassment of women is an alarmingly common occurrence at these events, as well.
As a devout Muslim man from a relatively conservative small town in Connecticut, I was very uncomfortable with the sexual aspects of Carnival culture. When speaking with some of my Brazilian friends, I also realized that I was not alone in feeling out-of-place; in fact, a large number of cariocas (residents of Rio) actually leave the city for 2 weeks during Carnival in order to wholly escape from the insanity.
However, I also realized that attending Carnival was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I didn’t want my entire Carnival experience to be tainted by a few uncomfortable blocos. As a result, I decided to attend blocos listed as “family-friendly.” I enjoyed these immensely, as I could see small children, their parents, and even the elderly dancing samba and singing marchinhas (traditional songs) far away from transvestites and sexually aggressive men. My personal favorite was the Sargento Pimenta (Sgt. Pepper) bloco, where DJ’s remixed Beatles songs with samba beats to produce amazing dance rhythms.
I also had a great time at the Samba Parade, an aspect of Carnival unique to Rio de Janeiro and well-known throughout the world. The event occurs in the Sambodrome, a massive stadium built for the express purpose of hosting a series of parades designed by various samba schools. The Sambodrome is unused for almost the entire year, but is packed with over 90,000 spectators when the schools perform during the Sunday and Monday preceding Ash Wednesday.
The samba schools (representing various districts of Rio) must base their entire parade on a single theme, and are judged on their theme song, dancers, massive floats, and costumes, among other criteria. As a result, samba schools work on their parade for an entire year, spending mind-boggling sums of money in order to hire choreographers, musicians, art designers, and even parade consultants! This year, the winning team Vila Isabel provided an in-depth representation of life in the countryside, complete with depictions of farming, plagues, weddings, and even bedbugs. I was surprised to discover that there was a relatively paltry monetary prize for victory; instead, samba schools mainly competed for glory and prestige.
By participating in Carnival, I realized that Brazil, like many other countries, is a mixture of contradictions. For example, the double-standard of gender expression highlights Brazil’s tension between the country’s conservative, chauvinistic past and its status as a growing economy with an increasingly liberal youth. Also, the grandiosity, massive expenditure, and sheer spectacle of the Samba Parade is strikingly different from the common-man’s singing and dancing in street blocos. I hope that my next several months in Brazil will provide me with even more interesting insights into the culture of this amazing country, and the aptly-named Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City) of Rio de Janeiro.
April 8, 2013
Throughout my entire life, I have always been surrounded by others who share my Muslim faith: my very large Indian family, my friends from Connecticut, the thriving Muslim population at Georgetown and around Washington, D.C. For this reason, the biggest challenge for me while studying abroad in Rio de Janeiro since January has been, without a doubt, the lack of a Muslim community. Given that about 0.02% of Brazil’s population identifies as Muslim and that the majority of this small group lives in the center of the country, I never would have expected to find other Muslims in Rio. However, after several months of searching I finally found some at a masjid-cum-community center in Tijuca, a northern district of the city far away from my homestay.
I discovered the center, called the Sociedade Beneficente Muçulmana
(Society for the Benefit of Muslims) partially by chance. After searching “Mosques in Brazil” and other variations online, I found a phone number and email contact. Unfortunately, both of these were several years out-of-date, and none of my Brazilian friends (none of whom are Muslim) had any ideas, either. The website did have an address, so I decided to make the 1-hour bus journey there and hopefully, uncover more information. I arrived to find a dilapidated building undergoing heavy construction, and a notice from the Society’s leader dated from 2009 that the masjid would be closed indefinitely. Frustrated, I wrote about my disappointment with the masjid’s outdated contact information
on my study abroad blog and gave up any hope of finding a Muslim community in Rio de Janeiro.
However, I was extremely fortunate when my professor’s Brazilian students, interested in learning about the perspectives of foreigners in Brazil, happened upon my blog. One of them immediately contacted me and said that the masjid was not permanently closed; in fact, it opened once a week on Fridays for congregational prayers (called Jummah
, which literally means “gathering together” in Arabic). I was thoroughly excited; not only could I actually attend Jummah
services again (which are considered a requirement for practicing Muslims), but I would have the unique opportunity to observe how Islam is practiced in a completely different environment.
On April 5, 2013, I journeyed to the Society’s address once again, and was amazed to find a small but close-knit community of Muslims. I was immediately struck by the room’s diversity; there were other Muslims from North America, immigrants from Africa, exchange students from Middle Eastern countries, and recent Brazilian converts to Islam. I even spoke in Urdu, one of my native languages, with some professionals of Indian ancestry who were born in Mozambique!
As other students have noted about Rio in the past
, one of cariocas’
(residents of Rio) defining characteristics is their friendliness and positive attitude. I greatly enjoyed chatting with other Muslims and learning more about the community center, the diversity of people, and their activities. In this way, the Muslim community of Rio exemplifies one of Islam’s core features, which is a celebration of and appreciation for diversity. The Quran states, “And among [Allah’s] signs is…diversity in [mankind’s] languages and colors,” and that “[Allah] has created mankind into nations and tribes so that we would come to know one another.”
Since Islam is so diverse, different regions of the world often have different methods of practicing the religion. Indeed, there are five common juristic schools of Islam, four within the Sunni branch and one within the Shia branch. For this reason, before the prayer service commenced I planned on observing other people and following their actions in order to avoid feeling out-of-place. However, I was very surprised by how similar the Jummah
service was to the prayers in the United States. It followed the same methodical pattern: the adhan
(call to prayer), a few minutes of solitary prayers, the imam’s sermon, a period of du’a
(supplication), a full congregational prayer, and lastly, announcements from members of the community. Participating in this service therefore was extremely comforting, as it reminded me of the Jummah
prayers that I consistently attended while in the USA.
Going forward, I am enthusiastic to become more involved with the Society. Since it took me nearly three months to find other Muslims in Brazil, I have exchanged contact information with too many people to count, and plan to attend many community events at the masjid. I am even going on a retreat in the next few days (something which will make me even more nostalgic for Georgetown!) I never fully believed the stereotypes of Rio as having nothing but alcohol and sexual promiscuity, but discovering the Sociedade Beneficente Muçulmana
and getting to know other Muslims has really showed me the incalculable diversity of the city, and of Brazil.
This article was republished by the Huffington Post
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