“A lot of people wonder what goes on in a mosque”

Prairie Mosque documentary explores history of Winnipeg’s Muslim community

Saira Rahman in front of Pioneer Mosque at 247 Hazelwood Ave.

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As kids, sisters and documentary filmmakers Saira and Nilufer Rahman attended Pioneer Mosque, Winnipeg’s first official gathering place for the Islamic community. When the mosque had its 40th anniversary in 2016, the sisters decided this would be a perfect opportunity to explore the mosque’s – and their own – history.

“Up until (the anniversary), we never really asked, ‘Who built this mosque for us? When did they build it? Are the people who built it still around?’” Saira Rahman says.

“We thought, ‘this is a great opportunity to do a film about this mosque and about the genesis of our community, of the Muslim community, in Winnipeg.’”

The film, Prairie Mosque, will premiere at Centre Culturel Franco-Manitobain on Oct. 26. Making the film held some surprises for the sisters.

“People who we grew up with, that we hung out with, that we lovingly called auntie and uncle, we didn’t know that some of these guys were pioneers,” Rahman says.

“They were here in the early ’70s, some in the ’60s, and they were working hard to create not only an organization for the Muslim community ... a place where they could gather and pray, yes, but also socialize, learn, also invite the greater community to come and to host them and to talk to them about who they are.”

Rahman says building the mosque was not without challenges.

“The Muslim community is very diverse. We share the same faith, but even (with) that, there’s different perspectives on practice,” she says.

“When they were first building the mosque, there were Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims all working together to build this place of worship ... We kind of functioned like a typical family. You love each other because you share the same values, but you will have disagreements.”

Former Manitoba Islamic Association president Idris Elbakri says he enjoys worshipping at Pioneer Mosque because of the sense of collective memory he feels there.

“Its ambience speaks to (our) history,” he says. “I remember a while back there was some suggestion in the community that we should sell it because we had a bigger centre, but those suggestions were quickly quashed because you don’t sell your history.”

For Saira Rahman, the film is about celebrating local Islamic history, but it’s a chance to dispel some of the destructive myths about Islam and say something about the nature of community itself.

“It’s a window into the Muslim community,” she says. “A lot of people wonder what goes on in a mosque. There’s a lot of hesitation, I would say even fear, about what goes on in a mosque. Are we all being brainwashed? Are we all being groomed to be terrorists?

“This film is really helpful, because it tells you … that we are human beings just like everybody else. We gather, as other communities do, we break bread together like other communities, we fight, we make up, we want the best for our children, we love each other ... There’s universal themes here. It’s a film for everyone.”

Prairie Mosque will premiere on Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. General admission is $10, and tickets are available through brownpapertickets.com.

Published in Volume 73, Number 7 of The Uniter (October 25, 2018)

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