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Religion, brotherhood unites Slovak Arabs

Hanging (literally hanging - from the seats, the tables, his parents' arms) around his father's Bratislava restaurant, cheerful and discontented by turns as children are, four-year old Amir switches back and forth effortlessly from Arabic to Slovak. Growing up in the midst of an international community, Amir also understands English.
His father, Ibrahim Alkhatib, follows him proudly with his fierce Arab eyes. "Four years old and he can already speak three languages, and Arabic perfectly. Every summer he spends two months in Jordan, and I don't speak any language with him but Arabic," he says, in near-perfect English before interjecting a remark in Arabic to his boy, who giggles. "For Arabs abroad it is essential that their children inherit the language. No language, no history."

Hanging (literally hanging - from the seats, the tables, his parents' arms) around his father's Bratislava restaurant, cheerful and discontented by turns as children are, four-year old Amir switches back and forth effortlessly from Arabic to Slovak. Growing up in the midst of an international community, Amir also understands English.

His father, Ibrahim Alkhatib, follows him proudly with his fierce Arab eyes. "Four years old and he can already speak three languages, and Arabic perfectly. Every summer he spends two months in Jordan, and I don't speak any language with him but Arabic," he says, in near-perfect English before interjecting a remark in Arabic to his boy, who giggles. "For Arabs abroad it is essential that their children inherit the language. No language, no history."

Alkhatib, a Palestinian born in Jordan and schooled in New York, was lured to Slovakia in 1994 by the country's virginal free-market economy. In the last five years, he has opened a consulting firm, travel agency, and, more recently, the Arabic restaurant Al Amir. Although not quite as populous as he was accustomed to in New York, Arabs in Slovakia, the entrepreneur says, maintain a strong sense of community.

"Arabs are all over Slovakia in every major city. I have even met third generation Arabs living in this country," he says. "Every Arab is a friend and a brother. When a new student or even a tourist comes here, we do everything we can so that he doesn't feel like a stranger."

Members of the Arab community put their numbers at between 700 and 1,000, 70 to 80% of which are currently students (mostly medical and engineering). Despite his prominent position, Alkhatib is an anomaly in this sense: nearly every Arab (professional diplomats excepted) living in Slovakia is either a student or a former student.

Arabs started coming to Slovakia in the 1960's when scholarships were given freely as a part of Czechoslovakia's cooperative work with Arab countries, especially those of Northern Africa.

"We used to cooperate on a wide scale with Slovakia in health care, economics as well as education. Many students simply decided to stay," said Dr. Ibrahim B. Dredi, the friendly and candid Chargé d'Affaires of the Libyan People's Bureau in Bratislava. "The relationship between our countries has changed, but it is still strong."

In the past, Libyans and other Arab students received scholarships directly from the Czechoslovak government; but that practice declined sharply with the fall of communism. Last year, only 59 Arab students (mostly Palestinians) received grants from the Slovak government. Although unable to provide statistics, representatives from the government say that the current number is only a fraction of what it was under communism.

Officials also say that although the number of Arab students on scholarship has dwindled, those paying their own way is actually on the rise, causing a shift as comparatively wealthier Arabian Gulf countries now send more students than poorer countries such as Iraq, Syria and Algeria.

"Last year we had 68 Arab students, many of them (well over half) from the United Arab Emirates," said Gabriella Halamová, director of ÚJOP Modra, a school that prepares foreign students for their first year at Slovak universities. "They are very disciplined students, very nice and slightly more religious than the Arab students we had in the past."

Halamová went on to say that Arab students from Gulf countries tended to make friends among themselves, which may mean that in the future less Arab students will become permanent residents in Slovakia. Aside from stronger cultural differences between Slovakia and the Gulf countries, the economic factors that allowed students to come in the first place may play a role in their lack of desire to stay. "In the Gulf countries there is a lot of money and strong economies. Those Arabs have more incentive to go home [than those from poorer Arab countries used to have]," said Alkhatib.

Arab students of all countries cite harsh winters and the difficult local language as being the toughest factors in adjusting to life in Slovakia. In addition, the Slovak diet is heavily based on pork products - forbidden under Islamic rule.

For Arabs from stricter Islamic backgrounds, the ubiquity of alcohol and bare female flesh, among other things, can also take some getting used to. Alkhatib, however, downplayed these types of differences. "It is not really appropriate any more to compare things like short skirts and alcohol," he said. "You can find these things in cities all over the Arab world."

While most Arabs in Slovakia do not stress religion, it is exactly that which brings the community together as a whole. Since there are no mosques in Slovakia, Friday (the Muslim holy day) services are held weekly at the PKO community centre in Bratislava. And twice a year, for Eid El Fiter (the fast-breaking feast of Ramadan) and Fid Al Adha (the feast of sacrifice), large banquets are organised at hotels or convention centres in Bratislava. These events are attended by upwards of 500 hundred people (Arabs as well as other Muslims living in Slovakia).

A curious side-note on the topic of Arabs in Slovakia involves tourists, of which Arabs may be the country's most faithful. The Slovak spa town Piešťany, famous in the Arab world for many years, annually draws between 20,000 and 30,000 Arabs to its healing waters. "In the summers you see traditional Arab dress everywhere, hear Arabic in the streets and find Arabic menus in the restaurants," said Alkhatib. "It's great, like a small little Arabia all of its own."

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