Memory Office: N. Mažitova
Please introduce yourself and tell us briefly about your family.
My name is Nelli Mažitova. I was born, raised and am currently working in Kaunas. I started my family here, and I have been married for more than 10 years. I am raising two daughters. I always introduce myself as a Lithuanian of Tatar descent. Tatar family values and moral principles are no different from general social norms. The Tatars are a respected nation all around the world as they are known to be loyal people who always keep their word. Most Tatar people are Muslim. I had my first religious experience in Islam when I was 12 years old. When I went to the mosque for the first time, everything seemed very close to my heart. It was explained to me what kind of community it was, what its members believed in, and what the main beliefs of Islam were. I got introduced to Christianity only at school.
According to Islamic traditions, a Muslim woman can marry only a Muslim man. I met my now-husband in the Kaunas Muslim Community. He is a Muslim Frenchman of Algerian descent from his father’s side. We got married not in a mosque, but at one of our parents’ house. According to Islamic traditions, the groom must ask the bride’s father for permission to marry the woman, while the celebrant (imam) registers the marriage in the community’s Marriage Book after making sure during the marriage ceremony that all conditions have been fulfilled. A few days later, we held a wedding celebration at the mosque, invited all members of the community, prepared the food... At home we speak in French, English, Russian and Lithuanian.
In our family my husband and I follow local and religious customs. First and foremost, we are both Muslim, and our cultural and national (or ethnic) differences help to spice up the everyday life. We live a simple life: family, work, visiting relatives, leisure activities, etc. Our family lives by the everyday life principle that we should act responsibly and if possible, do everything perfectly. Besides the everyday tasks we also perform religious rites and volunteer at the Kaunas Muslim Community.
How do you talk to your children about the Tatar and Muslim part of your identity?
My children love Kaunas a lot, because this is where their family, grandparents and relatives live. My daughters go to a local school, and at the weekend they attend religious services at the Kaunas Mosque where they also take part in the activities organized there. Since they love their grandparents on both sides very much, they are more than willing to learn how to speak the Arabic and Tatar languages. There is a religious school in the mosque where my children learn how to read the Quran, which is taught by the celebrant (imam), join in the daily prayer, and fast together with others during the month of Ramadan. In summer they spend time with their relatives, learn the basics of the Tatar language, and participate in the Tatar Summer School where they are introduced not only to Tatar folk songs and dances, but also to national Tatar cuisine.
What is your relationship with the mosque?
The mosque was handed back to Muslims in 1990. That year it underwent simple repairs and maintenance. There were not that many people back then, and only a few families would go to the mosque. I went there for the first time in 1995. At that time the chairman of the community was Mr Jonas Ridzvanavičius. I still remember Professor Romualdas Makaveckas, Mrs Marytė Karnickaitė and a couple of students from Muslim countries who had actively participated in reviving the community. The community became active again when the first children’s holiday camp took place in Raižiai (Alytus County), where I met many children practicing Islam, both Tatar and children of other nationalities. In the summer camp we learned how to properly perform a prayer and read the Quran in Arabic. That was our beginning. Since then, we have been maintaining a strong relationship with the whole Muslim community in Lithuania. I have been working as the secretory of the Kaunas Muslim Community since 2017.
The mosque offers many religious rites such as daily communal prayers, holiday prayers, marital practices, etc. These rites are led by the community’s imam. For a long time, the imam of the Kaunas Muslim Community was Romas Jakubauskas who was assisted by an imam from Turkey. However, since Romas Jakubauskas has gone to Vilnius, the religious rites are now led by the imam from Turkey. Our community and Turkey’s government have been cooperating this way for many years now.
The Kaunas Muslim Community itself is quite small, as it has only 500 members from both Kaunas and Kaunas County. The most active people who contribute to the community are the ones working here as volunteers. All of our members hold different nationalities. According to Islamic traditions, our community does not tolerate racism and hostility towards other nationalities. This is the house of God, and everyone comes here for one purpose which is to worship the Lord of the Worlds. Nonetheless, foreign students who come here to study at Kaunas universities constitute a majority of the community’s members. They are followed by either business people or tourists, who come from Muslim countries or Europe. This is why a lot of people gather here for worship during the Friday prayer in the afternoon and on holidays. There are more men here than women. During the month of Ramadan, more people visit the mosque to attend evening feasts organized by the community. Because we can hardly fit in our small mosque, we sometimes put up an additional tent next to it outside.
The community must ensure that the house of God provides comfort and is always a safe place for everyone. The renovation of the mosque was carried out in 2019 with the help of Lithuania and Turkey. Our community is planning to implement the Kaunas Mosque territorial adjustment project that focuses on enclosing the property with a lattice fence and commemorating the Tatar graves that have been found here with honor. We must care about the history of this place that cannot be forgotten. In the future we are also planning to put up a community building in which we want to start a local museum (an archive) and build administrative premises together with a few classrooms. In order to properly take care of our historical mosque and make its property look presentable, constructing the community building is necessary.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is a special month whose start and end dates are calculated using the moon calendar. When it arrives, Muslims must start fasting. They must abstain from eating, drinking and doing other forbidden things from dawn to dusk. The month of fasting lasts 29–30 days. For the whole month, Muslims fast, read the Quran and make an effort to pray more in order to become stronger spiritually. The reward for properly fasting is forgiven sins.
For a few years in a row, Ramadan in Lithuania started in summer. There were days when fasting would last up to 17 hours when it was 30–35 degrees Celsius outside. It is a lot easier to fast in winter, because winter days are short. The most wonderful moment for a fasting person is breaking the fast by drinking a glass of water and eating an odd number of dates as part of the tradition. For a number of years dates have been brought to the Kaunas Mosque directly from a date palm plantation in Saudi Arabia. The dates grown in the plantation are soaked in special syrup and canned in vacuum sealers, which makes them very juicy. After breaking the fast and having simple dinner, we hurry to the mosque to attend the daily late-night prayer. When dawn breaks, we must arm ourselves with patience until dusk falls. During the day time we may feel tempted to eat, but we know how big of a reward we will be getting if we do not yield to the various temptations. Sick people and those who start feeling ill during Ramadan must break the fast. They will have to make up the missed fasts later.
Those Muslims who are sick or take medications are allowed not to fast. They have to make up they days they missed by feeding the poor of any religion or nationality. The Kaunas Muslim Community sometimes prepares these kind of special evening meals aimed to feed poor people, which are also organized in other Lithuanian cities or villages. Pregnant women may also be exempted from fasting. All rules and exceptions can be found in Islam. Those who are religiously knowledgeable or those who seek knowledge can easily understand the answers to these questions.
Tell us about the mosque.
During the reign of the Tsar, the current Ramybės Park territory was divided into four parts that each belonged to a different religion. It was allocated to Catholics, Orthodox believers, Lutherans and Muslims (the latter used to be known as Mahommedans). In the property that belonged to Muslims there was a wooden mosque, an imam’s house with a garden, and a small school. Next to the mosque there was also a burial space. It was an active community. The whole property was enclosed with a fence. The year when Lithuania marked the 500th year anniversary of the death of Vytautas the Great, the Kaunas Muslim Community together with the Government of the Republic of Lithuania decided to build a masonry mosque. The decision was probably made to keep alive the memory of the Tatars and commemorate them as an ethnic minority that had contributed to founding Lithuania. I guess at that time it was easier to deal with ethnic issues with tolerance. Despite the differences in beliefs and values, everyone wanted to contribute to creating independent Lithuania. The mosque was built in 1933, and for some time religious rites were performed there; however, the mosque was closed and nationalized when World War II began. The interior of the mosque has changed many times. The mosque had been transformed into a circus, a library and an archive, and there were a terrace and a small fountain built next to it. Only the exterior has remained authentic. After Lithuania had regained its independence, the mosque was returned to the Kaunas Muslim Community. Since then our mosque has been a place where religious Islamic rites and community life take place in. After the mosque was renovated in 2007 and 2019, it adopted its own stylistic features and has since been serving as a place of worship. The small fountain surrounded by benches has become a resting place for the visitors, and instead of the terrace a platform for events has been mounted.
Why does the mosque have no paintings with people in them?
This has to do with Islamic principles. Visual images of people’s faces are forbidden in places where religious services take place. We worship an invisible God who is recognized by his names The Merciful, The Pardoner, The Majestic, The Generous, The All-Forgiving, The All-Knowing, The All-Hearing, The All-Seeing, The Provider, The Healer, The Compassionate, The Propitious, The King of Kings, The Preserver, etc. All these names are mentioned in the Quran, the holy book of Muslims. All the Words by Allah in the Quran were conveyed through Angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad. The revelation was transmitted in Arabic. The paintings that are hanging in our hall of prayer are simply a reminder to Muslim believers about what we believe in. In Islam the greatest sin is worship of other gods and divinities. Since Muslims love beauty and cleanliness, mosques have to be beautiful and clean as well. They are often decorated with Arabic calligraphy, flower ornaments or tiles of various geometrical shapes.
How do you feel standing here in this area? Do you call it a park, a cemetery or a district?
To me it is either a park or a district, because calling it a cemetery makes me feel uncomfortable. There is a school here, and it would be weird to say that children are studying in a cemetery. Even though there are small tombstones around the whole area that remind of the old cemetery, no one pays attention to them. People proudly walk their dogs here while enjoying the tranquility of the park. I would like the city to finally define this place not as a park or a cemetery, but as an inter-religious cooperation, a symbol of tolerance or friendship among the four major religions in Kaunas. This way we would show that Kaunas is a European city where everyone is welcome. Both from a cultural and religious point of view.
What does your Tatar lineage mean to you?
I cannot answer this question in only one sentence. Tatar people always try to finish what they start. They keep their word and are very responsible people. The Tartars are in fact a humble and loyal nation.
People of Tatar descent are proud of their lineage, and it makes me happy to see that ethnic and religious minorities are supported here in Lithuania.
Date of the interview: June 2019.