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They pray to Allah, dance the Zumba, and teach their children about the right to vote. They started out as traders but now work in banking and real estate and are steadily permeating the law, engineering and medical professions.
And the Ismailis, the Muslim diplomatic and business elite, are establishing a new global headquarters in Lisbon. The Portuguese capital’s discrete Ismaili community believes that the new world headquarters of the Ismaili imamate will bring changes.
In the corner of a garden in Lisbon’s Laranjeiras neighbourhood, a dozen children with beige shirts and coloured neckscarves are playing with wooden staves. They make up Troup 36 of the National Scout Association, and are all Ismailis, members of a Shiite Muslim minority led by millionaire Prince Aga Khan.
On Saturdays afternoons, these 20 boys and girls gather for activities in the gigantic limestone and glass building which forms the community’s main gathering place in the country.
The younger Scouts are in one of the corridors preparing for their next camp, outside a room where they gather to decide which voluntary activities they will participate in. “Recently, we’ve collected food for the a charity food bank, helped paint the Piaget Institute facilities, and participated in a fund-raising campaign for Ajuda de Berço,” scoutmaster Safik Cassamo, 31, explains. He leads the Scout group created almost four decades ago, when much of the present Ismaili community came to Portugal from Mozambique.
When their activities are finished, the children, between six and 14 years of age, will stay in the centre to welcome other Ismailis to the Navroz Spring celebrations – one of the three most important festivals for Ismailis.
There will be a dinner, music and dancing in two of the building’s rooms, already prepared with tables and flowers. “The older Scouts will serve the drinks,” explains Safik, who divides his time between scouting and managing his family’s hotel and stationery business in the Arroios neighbourhood. Everybody lends a hand. “I cannot think of anyone who has never worked voluntarily for the community,” he says.
The Ismaili Centre in Lisbon, together with the Aga Khan Foundation in Portugal, currently provides a diverse range of services to the faithful. The Ismailis don’t see volunteering as charity work. “It is a tradition that dates from the origin of the community and helped to create an exemplary organization,” argues Master of Islamic Studies Faranaz Keshavjee.
Participation in voluntary activities and internal structures has one goal: to implement the guidelines of Aga Khan IV, the religious leader of the community.
The Ismaili organization is spread over 25 countries and has a network of financial, business and development institutions that between them spend more than EUR550 million on social and cultural activities alone.
The ultimate aim, says anthropologist and expert on ethnic minorities José Gabriel Pereira Bastos, is to ensure that “the Ismailis continue to be a well-integrated elite, recognized with respect and dignity in the various countries where they live”.
“They want to maintain their status, but not to dominate. They want to be at the top, but on an equal footing. In the world threatened by radicalism, they defend their vision of a pacifist Islam and support development,” he explains.
The eight thousand faithful who live in Portugal like to be discreet, almost invisible. “They hate media attention and rarely appear in the newspapers,” he concludes.
On Sunday mornings, the Ismailis often meet for gymnastics or to dance zumba in Lisbon’s First of May stadium. It is not by chance: Prince Aga Khan has issued direct ordinances for his followers to exercise and have regular medical check-ups.
Karim Al Hussaini, the 79-year-old Swiss-born aristocrat with a British passport who graduated from Harvard in the United States, inherited the Persian title of Aga Khan when he succeeded his grandfather. He is the 49th spiritual leader of the Ismailis, and regulates almost all aspects of the community’s life. All Ismailis swear an oath of allegiance and loyalty to him.
“We are the only Muslim Shia who are led by a living Imam who is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad,” says Riaz Issa, a member of the institution that manages the religious and cultural aspects of the community.
As Imam, the Aga Khan must interpret the Koran for present times, and is responsible for improving the lives and ensuring the well-being of his community and the countries through which it spreads. “In Islam, there is no separation between the spiritual and material life. There is a pursuit of excellence in intellectual and material life, which must also be used for the benefit of others,” says Issa.
So the Imam’s guidelines go far beyond questions of faith, defining how his followers should integrate in the societies where they live, how they should be educated, study, conduct business and remain healthy.
The basis of Ismaili organization is the constitution it adopted in 1986, which defines religious aspects of obedience to the prince and the various institutions that embody community life. These include national and regional councils and even a system of arbitration for the resolution of disputes, which can be used as an alternative to the courts in a jurisdiction.
First and foremost, however, Ismailis have to obey the laws of the countries they live in.
The Portuguese faithful are directed by a national council, chosen every three years to implement the directions of the leader. At the head of this structure is Firozali Rahim, who was appointed last year and is also director general of the Combined Insurance Company of Portugal. The council vice president is businessman Azim Manji, who has led the economic department of the Portuguese Ismailis.
The 19 members of this council meet in the Ismaili Centre in Lisbon. Around a large oval table, they organize programs that ensure the functioning of the national community, as well as those in Spain, Mozambique and Angola.
This pseudo-government has ministers responsible for specific portfolios, such as education, youth, health and economy, who coordinate activities in the various sectors.
Implementation of projects on the ground is made possible by financing from the Aga Khan, who personally decides levels of support. “Whenever a new board is chosen, the president and vice president discuss the programs directly with His Highness,” said a former member of the structure. The meetings have traditionally been held in Aiglemont, a 40-hectare property on the outskirts of Paris where the prince lives and which houses most of his offices. These meetings will from now on be held in Portugal.
The new headquarters of the Ismaili Imamate is Henrique Mendonça House, a mansion on Lisbon’s Marques da Fronteira street surrounded by gardens filled with palm and lime trees. From there, the prince will coordinate the Aga Khan Development Network, which employs 80,000 people in 30 countries.
The network includes agencies with annual revenues of EUR 3 billion, and owns nearly a hundred companies, including power plants, airlines, banks, pharmaceutical, insurance and media companies and hotel chains. According to the Ismaili community, its funds are then reinvested or used in social development agencies, such as the Aga Khan Foundation, universities, hospitals and programs for education and culture, ensuring support for millions in places as far afield as Afghanistan, Syria and Burkina Faso.
The sale of Henrique Mendonça House got the green light from the government on March 17, 2016. The Portuguese newspaper Publico reported that the matter was brought before the Council of Ministers meeting a day after the Aga Khan’s family contributed EUR200,000 to a Museum of Ancient Art campaign to buy the painting The Adoration of the Magi by 19th-century Portuguese master Domingos Sequeira.
Although the Ismailis do not constitute a state, the Ismaili world headquarters will work under special rules similar to those which govern foreign diplomatic delegations. The facilities are “inviolable”, and the Imam and his staff will have legal immunity and important tax benefits, as set out in an agreement signed in June 2015 between the prince and the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rui Machete. Many of these prerogatives had already been granted to members of the Imamate delegation who settled in Portugal in 2006 and work in the Rua de São Domingos à Lapa.
Nearly 500 people will work in the new headquarters, including 400 recruited in Portugal. The initial 100 will come with the Aga Khan, who is still looking for a location for his official residence in the country. Until then, the Imam will continue to travel between Paris and Lisbon on his private jet and stay at the Ritz Hotel a few hundred metres away from the future world headquarters.
The prince leaves behind in France his racehorses, one of the family traditions inherited from his father, Aly Khan, who was married to the actress Rita Hayworth. Karim Aga Khan has hundreds of stallions worth millions of euros on properties in France and Ireland and is one of the leading breeders in Europe.
His jockeys race all over the world wearing silk jackets the emerald green and red of the Imamate flag, and fortunes are paid for the pedigree of his horses. Crossing a mare with 2009 Arc de Triomphe winner See the Stars, one of the world’s best racehorses, costs EUR125,000, and the champion foals sell for EUR 308,000 euros on average and have reached EUR 935,000 euros, according to official stud farm data.
The oldest of the Aga Khan’s four children, Zahra, 45, now takes care of this family’s business affairs, allowing the Imam to divide his time between managing the Imamate and the Aga Khan Development Network. Last year he visited 14 countries, including Kenya, where he lived with his family as a child, India, Uganda, Canada and the USA, where he graduated in Islamic history.
“His Highness coming to Portugal will have a great impact on the Ismaili community, and also on the country itself,” says 48-year-old businessman Zahir Remtula, alluding to the ability of the religious leader to attract investment within and outside the Ismaili community. “But we will have to wait to see how big a difference he will make,” he emphasizes.
Like all Ismailis, Zahir Remtula maintains the tradition of having a framed photograph of the Aga Khan in all his interior design shops. Owner of the Safira store in Almirante Reis Avenue and responsible for neighbouring store INCASA Design, he was among the first Ismailis to move to Lisbon. With his mother and two brothers, he left Angoche in Mozambique, where his ancestors had moved from India, in 1974.
The successful immigration of Ismailis to Portugal even before Mozambican independence in 1975 is seen as testament to the Aga Khan’s diplomatic skills. “He learned to anticipate events and helped the community move their businesses to Portugal,” anthropologist Pereira Bastos explains. “Already installed in the country, they ended helping the Portuguese returning from Mozambique who had left most of their assets behind.”
Remtula’s family started a barbecue restaurant in Lumiar, and a few years later opened their first furniture store in Benfica. In the late 1970s, he moved to Almirante Reis, where his Safira stores thrived, the family eventually running more than a dozen businesses in Lisbon.
Ismailis are still active in the furniture, clothing and hotels sectors. Among the best known are the four brothers who, in the late 1980s, opened a family store in Lisbon’s Pascoal de Melo Street, and now have over 80 Sacoor stores in countries as far afield as Dubai and Kuwait. Other well-known Ismaili-owned brands include VIP Hotels, with 16 hotels in Portugal, the Azores and Mozambique, and the Azinor Group, owner of the Sana chain, with hotels in Portugal, Berlin and Luanda.
These Muslims, says the researcher Jorge Malheiros from Lisbon University’s Centre for Geographical Studies, “always had a higher economic level than the other populations of Indian origin who came to Portugal, like the Hindus or the Goans”. They started as small businessmen in areas like Almirante Reis, but have been diversifying ever since, he says.
A growing number of Ismailis now work in banking, services, real estate and car hire, and are starting to enter the law, engineering and medical professions. One such is Zahir’s cousin, Sofia Remtula, 26, a doctor in the Family Health Unit in Oeiras. “There are at least two other Ismailis of my generation practicing medicine and four or five working towards their degrees,” she says.
The focus on education and self-development is one of the guiding principles of the community. “Almost all the younger generation have higher education, either in Portuguese universities or abroad,” says Nazim Ahmad, a representative of the Aga Khan Foundation.
The ultimate purpose is that “the Ismailis remain a well-integrated elite, recognized with respect and dignity in the various countries where they live,” anthropologist José Gabriel Pereira Bastos explains.
Zahir Remtula studied in public high schools and never finished a course he took in hotel management, but his daughters now attend private schools. The oldest is studying management at the Catholic University and the 16-year-old is in the 11th Grade at the Doroteias College.
Most of the Ismailis in Portugal still live in the capital, where they first settled, but there are faithful scattered all over the country, with community centres and places of worship in Seixal, Oeiras, Porto, Faro and Portimão.
Ismailis can pray in mosques, but Sunnis and non-believers cannot participate in Ismailis prayer meetings. Only those who accept the Aga Khan as the Imam of the time and undertake the bai’at, or baptism, and swear loyalty and fidelity, can attend these. The guidelines that the prince preaches in his meetings with the community cannot be revealed to outsiders.
Ismailis do not pray five times a day like Sunni Muslims, but have three mandatory daily prayer sessions. At the Ismaili Centre in Lisbon, the last two of these prayers are made by the assembled congregation, chaired by a minister of worship. Under a portrait of prince Aga Khan, believers pray barefoot, with the elderly or sick sitting on benches facing Mecca.
Riaz Issa, 53, owner of the Partyland store chain and a member of the Ismaili Centre management committee, is one of the few of his generation married to a Catholic. The Ismaili Centre has been the venue for many marriages, although Ismaili marriage is not a sacrament, as it is among Catholics. Riaz Issa says that “there is a blessing, a prayer” led by a minister after the civil union, which is the only one recognized in Portuguese law.
But the situation is changing. “Today there is more and more openness, and more mixed marriages involving Portuguese Ismailis”, he says. The Ismaili faith allows inter-faith marriages, with no need to convert to Islam. But pressure to marry within the community is still there. Anthropologist Bastos explains: “They prefer to marry within the community because it helps to ensure their specificity. They want to integrate, but do not want to be assimilated.”
In a 2006 study for the Immigration Observatory co-authored by Bastos, Ismaili youths admitted that it was easier for families to accept marriage with Catholics than with Sunni or Hindus. “On a day-to-day basis, there is some rivalry between different Muslims, due to the need to preserve their identities,” he explains.
At the top level, “relations are excellent” between the two great Muslim branches, says Sunni Abdul Vakil, chairman of the Islamic community of Lisbon. The link between his family and the Ismaili leader is old and dates back to his time in Mozambique. “I remember, as a child in Maputo, Aga Khan III came to visit my father in his office and I sat on his knees. For years, the Ismailis have reminded me of the privilege of having sat in his lap,” he says.
Like all Muslims, Ismailis do not eat pork or drink alcohol, and fast in Ramadan. Learning about Islam is deeply embedded in the family and community. On Saturday mornings, children and adolescents have classes at the Ismaili Centre to deepen their understanding of the faith. That is also where they learn about their obligation to make religious donations to the Imamate.
Portuguese Muslims make a mandatory payment called ‘zakat’ as part of the precepts of their faith. Sunnis donate 2.5 percent of their profit annually; Ismailis fulfil this precept by donating the equivalent of one-eighth of their profits.
“I was brought up to make this donation from childhood,” says Faranaz Keshavjee. Ismaili children learn to give up an eighth of the value of gifts they receive on birthdays or religious festivals. “This is a personal requirement, a test of faith and fidelity that is part of the ancient ethics of Islam,” explains Keshavjee.
Ismailis families and business owners also support the Imamate during religious festivals, and support specific Aga Khan Network projects as community members, but no-one in the community actually monitors donations and no data on the amount that the faithful around the world give to the prince personally is kept.
When his grandfather, Aga Khan III, celebrated 50 years of spiritual leadership in 1936, he allegedly received from his followers in India an amount of gold equal to his weight.
In Portugal, donations from the community and other entities in 2009 included EUR 3.7 million for the celebrations of 50 years of Prince Karim’s Imamate and the Aga Khan University. Donations to the Imam and the Imamate became totally free of Portuguese taxes and exempt from capital gains last November under the agreement reached with the Portuguese government.
“The funds received by His Highness are used only to finance projects of the Aga Khan Development Network” representative of Aga Khan Foundation in Portugal Nazim Ahmad says.
Over the past 30 years, the foundation has funded several social integration programs in partnership with the state, the Catholic church and local authorities, and has many other projects in the pipeline.
In December it started training nannies, under a new Portuguese law that regulates and liberalizes the profession. The task was deputized to the Olivais Sul Childcare Centre by the Social Security Institute, based on its seven-year track record.
The public centre, which is managed by the foundation, is attended by 165 children and has an innovative teaching program. It also supervises and monitors nannies who look after children at home.
In the single-storey building, which stands out on a street of tall buildings in the Olivais neighbourhood, it’s not only about providing care. “The centre is an educational intervention focused on children from the nursery up to six years,” says Director of Education Alexandra Marques. Teaching follows what Marques calls the “model of pedagogy by participation”, which “has democracy as a fundamental value”, with students choosing learning material and taking an active part in their own education.
In the room for the three-year-olds, children start the day sitting round the teacher, who asks them what they want to do. Each in turn decides whether to begin the day drawing, playing with building blocks or playing in the “corner of make-believe”. In the afternoon, they all sit again to review the day. This is how, says one teacher, you learn to manage time, know yourself, express yourself, and learn to be fair and respect the choices of others.
By the age of five, they are holding their own student meetings and proposing topics to learn about. The teachers then plan and conduct the activities in the classrooms, where there is always a couch for parents who wish to attend.
Now the centre has moved on to providing training for professionals from three other institutions in Lisbon. “We want to replicate the model,” says Marques.
The foundation’s projects look beyond pre-school. By the end of the year, they hope to have found a site for the first Aga Khan Academy in the Western world. The elite school for thousands of students between 5 and 18 years, half on scholarships, was destined to be built in Cascais, a cosmopolitan suburb 30 km from the capital. The EUR 100 million project stalled last year, mired in controversy, but has gained new momentum with the coming of the Aga Khan to Portugal.Source: Publico
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