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Salma Al-Farouki: Rediscovering Islam

Salma Al-Farouki simply oozes class when she walks into the Arab News offices for our interview. Wearing a simple turban and purple dress combination, finished off with pearl earrings and eye kohl, she emanates warmth, intelligence and wisdom.

Al-Farouki is also the wife of Roger Garaudy, the French philosopher well loved in the Islamic world and very much the pariah in the West thanks to certain controversies with his 1996 book, “The Founding Myths of Israel,” which was accused of containing elements of Holocaust denial.

Al-Farouki was in Jeddah to discuss the important role of Arab Islamic heritage in Al-Andalus, specifically the Spanish city of Cordoba, where she now lives. “La Casa Andalusi” and “Salon de Te,” 12th century houses dating back to the Al-Andalus era in Iberian history, are testimony to her work to preserve the strong influences of this unique age.

However, the journey that takes Al-Farouki from her birth city of Jerusalem to Cordoba is a rich story in itself.

In 1948, eight years after she was born, her family fled to Egypt when the Arab-Israeli War broke out. There, she was educated in a French school. Al-Farouki’s schooling meant that Arabic became her third language behind French and English.

“It was forbidden even to speak Arabic in this school. I had some friends who learned in this school and they write Arabic from left to right. Can you imagine?” she says.

She moved to Jeddah with her first husband in the 1960s. They had two children together, but Al-Farouki says during that time even though she would call herself as a Muslim, the description simply did not resonate with her.

“When they ask you, ‘how are you,’ you say ‘Alhamdulillah,’ but it was just words, without any soul or any feeling.”

She says the majority of Muslims nowadays are simply not as committed toward Islam as previous generations were.

“When we hear the call for prayer it’s like, ‘oh, we just prayed the Dhuhr prayer.’ It’s God! You have somebody who loves you and invites you [to pray],” she says.

“We are lazy, we just don’t have this reaction of happiness. Our hearts do not respond to this call with love and thankfulness.”

Al-Farouki says she woke up one day and decided to wholly dedicate her life to God, ultimately leading to a total lifestyle change and a move to Geneva in the early 1970s, after separating from her husband.

She worked various jobs, including a lengthy stint at an Islamic center for children. She adds that Switzerland was popular with parents from the Gulf region who wanted to send their children abroad over the vacation period.

Al-Farouki says that because it was often difficult for the children to adapt, she decided to bring them together to a vacation camp facilitated by herself. The aim was to help them understand Islam, mirroring the own wholesale changes she had made earlier in her own life.

The children reacted well to the camp, according to Al-Farouki, adding that they would go on visits to watch factories, often while they were fasting as part of the holy month of Ramadan.

She said the reaction to the Muslim group from the local community was also very positive, with residents maintaining an “open-minded” attitude.

“I used to tell all the children that [they] are ambassadors of the culture, which is the Arab-Islamic culture, so [they] have to be really respectful,” she added.

The next major change in Al-Farouki’s life came in 1982, when she was asked by a Swiss-Muslim friend of hers to read a book called “Promises of Islam,” written by a French philosopher. The author was Roger Garaudy.

She managed to contact him and invited him to deliver a conference on the book in Geneva. Al-Farouki added that the event was well attended. She was expecting 250 people to attend. Over 400 came instead, in addition to Swiss media.

She describes her first meeting with Garaudy as an event that would change her life.

“He was very much impressed with how an Arab woman was living in Europe and taking this initiative, and for him, it was very strange,” she recalls.

Garaudy quickly accepted Islam and married Al-Farouki, all in the same year.

“He said the Bible, Karl Marx and the Qur’an… it’s as if they were all complementary,” she adds.

She remains bullish about the controversies surrounding her husband over “The Founding Myths of Israel.” She describes the accusations against Garaudy as false and hints that he was fighting a losing battle in light of the 20-year-old Gayssot Law, which prohibits Holocaust denial in France. She adds that the book drew largely from writings from Jewish historians and a lot of his critics probably had not even read the book.

Al-Farouki moved to Cordoba in 1986 following an invitation from the local mayor and with Garaudy, helped found the El Museo de las Calahorra, mainly focusing on Islamic influences in Al-Andalus, as well as the impact of elements of the Jewish and Christian faiths.

Al-Farouki says in 1998 she and Garaudy identified significant interest in the Arab heritage in Cordoba, but this was slowly disappearing to make way for new developments.

“Many of the old houses were in a bad state, and they used to convert them into modern apartments. Really, for me, it was a crime,” she says.

She said this spurred her to open up her own house, La Casa Andalusi, to the public in 1999. She describes it as a house of the 12th century, where many families would live together at the same time. It has been restored in all its glory and still features the original architecture, including an old well in the basement, which acted as a cistern, in addition to a Roman mosaic.

Two years later, she restored another house, Salon de Te, and opened it to the public.

Al-Farouki says she wishes other citizens of the Arab world would demonstrate the same commitment to their heritage, in particular the Arabic language. She claims that the Jewish community spent lots of money to ensure its members were studying Hebrew and the Torah.

“Instead, we are sending our children to Western schools. They don’t know Arabic and so they won’t be able to read the Qu’ran,” she says.

With that, Al-Farouki apologizes, as she needs to catch a flight to Jordan. While we are walking out, she quickly dispels any truth to a report in an established travel magazine that her husband has passed away.

“No, no,” she says. “He’s very much alive, 97 years old, can you believe it?

She also reaffirms that her work to preserve Arab Islamic heritage in Cordoba is a substantial part of her commitment to Islam and God.

“To crystallize in our daily life the essence and core of Islam in being tawhid (at one with God),” she says with a smile.

Source : Amjad Parkar | Arab News
Published: Oct 20, 2010