A Religious Odd Couple

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.

About the Author
William Echikson is the director of the Brussels office of the European Union of Progressive Judaism. Before joining the EUPJ, Mr. Echikson worked with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to bring the State of Deception exhibit on Nazi Propaganda to Europe. He also worked for six and a half years at Google running corporate communications for Europe, Middle East and Africa. He launched the company’s Europe blog and led its efforts around data center government affairs and Internet freedom Issues. Mr. Echikson began his career as a foreign correspondent in Europe for a series of US publications including the Christian Science Monitor. Wall Street Journal, Fortune and BusinessWeek. From 2001 until 2007, he served as Brussels Bureau Chief for Dow Jones. Mr. Echikson also has written, directed and produced for television documentaries for BBC and America’s Public Broadcasting Service. He is the author of four books, including works on the collapse of communism in Central Europe and the history of the Bordeaux wine region. An American and Belgian citizen, Mr. Echikson graduated from Yale College with a Magna Cum Laude degree in history.
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