When Progressive Rabbi Nathan Alfred wanted to learn Arabic, he went to enroll in a class at West London’s Muslim College, a postgraduate Islamic seminary. The administrator rejected him. “When he walked out and one of the administrators said, ‘I’m glad we told him that the class was full,’” Imam Mamadou Boucom recalls. In revolt, Mamadou approached Nathan and offered to tutor him.
The two soon became best buddies. Mamadou, born in Senegal, is tall and slender. He arrived in London and earned two masters and a PhD. He lectures in Islamic studies and works to deradicalize convicted terrorists serving prison terms. Nathan, sturdy and stocky, grew up in South London and graduated from Cambridge with honors in classics. He has served as a progressive rabbi in Brussels, Luxembourg and Singapore. The two religious leaders share many passions, from football to a ferocious belief in a progressive path to spirituality and interfaith tolerance. “Nathan was the first Jew that I met,” he admits.
Their surprising friendship seems appropriate to note today, the UN’s International Day of Tolerance. We are featuring it today in our NOA (Networks Overcoming Antisemitism) profile series on Jewish contributions to a more inclusive Europe.
While Jews and Muslims often live side by side, in London, Paris, Brussels, and elsewhere, and tensions between them are growing. Jews fear rising Muslim anti-Semitism. Muslims accuse Jews of helping the establishment suppress them. Nathan and Mamadou partner to overcome the divide. They have visited and spoken at Jewish and Muslim communities. They share kosher and halal meals.
In a few areas, their friendship has not produced the desired results. Mamadou roots for Manchester United, while Nathan backs Chelsea football club. Then there’s Arabic. Despite Mamadou’s tutoring, Nathan still has trouble distinguishing between kaf and kaf, and ayin and ayin. His poor accent frustrates Mamadou. He’s a “stern, strict teacher, very patient, but meticulous, particularly about pronunciation,” admits Nathan.
Their next common project: a documentary project called The Rabbi and the Imam. it will follow the two religious leaders as they travel throughout Europe, how Jews and Arabs share a long history and culture, and a common fear of being a minority in Christian Europe.