With Europe beset with rising Islamophobia, a tiny community of Tatars offer a inspiring example of harmony.
In a quiet village surrounded by trees that are currently fading through an autumnal ombre of russets and golds, there is a little wooden mosque that looks like a church.
Painted a shade of emerald green, giving it a sense of harmony with the lush countryside all around, the mosque doesn’t have minarets, and is given away only by the shining crescent moons that sit atop its turrets.
“Tatars were soldiers, they weren’t builders. So after they settled here they paid locals to build a mosque and they did as best as they could, but they only knew churches,” says Jamil Gembicki, a guide at the Kruszyniany mosque, which was built in 1795. “The chronicles [historical records the community keeps] say that this mosque was built to fit the Polish landscape and sky.”
It is the epitome of how the Lipka Tatars have lived for the past 640 years – as part of the topography of their environment, fitting in with the local community, but at the same time remaining different.
Next year, they will celebrate 340 years since the king gifted them land in this small village of Kruszyniany, which is home to around 120 people in rural north-eastern Poland, close to the border with Belarus. “There are Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Tatars. And they all live peacefully here. The one problem is they have too many holidays, so no time to work,” says Gembicki, who is tall and retains the wide cheekbones of his ancestors. “We are all Polish, but we remember our roots.”
Poland is one of the least ethnically and religiously diverse countries in Europe – more than 90 per cent of the population is Roman Catholic. In recent years, it has succumbed to the rise of populism, refusing among other things to take in refugees from the Middle East – despite a mandatory European Union quota – as a result of inflated fears that they pose a risk to national security.
Some critics of the government have described the authorities as actively Islamophobic, yet the Muslim Tatars who have lived in Poland for centuries say that they are completely accepted. Perhaps it is at least in part because they defy conventions of how some Europeans may imagine a Muslim – the Tatars have white skin, the women do not wear hijabs and they have, over the years, lost the Turkic language that was retained by those who settled in other European regions, such as Crimea in Ukraine and Tatarstan in Russia.
Their most famous descendant is tough-guy American actor Charles Bronson – real name Charles Buchinsky – whose father was a Lipka Tatar from Lithuania. “Tatars are treated in Poland not as a separate group, but as part of the landscape,” says Artur Konopacki, a researcher on Tatar culture who is writing a book on their history.
The Tatars were nomads from Central Asia. This branch settled in Poland and Lithuania in the 14th century, becoming known as the Lipkas, and they claim to be the descendants of Genghis Khan’s Mongol army. Many of them fought alongside local armies against the Teutonic Knights and Ottomans, and later became craftsmen and tanners. Some were captured and forced to Christianise, while others chose to settle with their families and were given land and special status within the community. “The Tatars who settled here voluntarily had a lot of privileges,” says Konopacki. “They could follow their religion, they could build mosques and they were respected in the community like a special sort of gentry.
“They were quite different because they had their own religion, but they weren’t really persecuted … they were viewed as the community’s protectors.”
Even an attempt to Christianise them in the 17th century, accompanied by a finger-pointing leaflet campaign of the likes that could sadly be easily recognised in the Europe of today, fell flat with the local community. Now, the Tatars seek to use their status to promote an understanding of Islam within their country and beyond its borders.
Dzenneta Bogdanowicz has been cooking Tatar food for tourists and visitors for 17 years. She is a small woman who wears her name in gold Arabic script on a necklace. Her lineage is clear in the shape of her eyes, which swell up with tears when she talks of her restaurant, the Tatar Yurt.
“Twenty years ago this village was on the brink of extinction. It was depopulated, it was dying. So we opened a restaurant for Muslims and Tatars and a culture centre,” she says proudly. “We wanted to show people in Poland how diverse and rich Poland is, thanks to these regional minorities, like Tatars.”
In May the community was struck by disaster when, during a bank holiday weekend and while packed with guests sleeping in upstairs bedrooms, the wooden restaurant was set ablaze due to an electrical fire that was caused by a faulty hand dryer. Bogdanowicz lost everything. “After the fire, I sat on the steps in tears. ‘What should I do?’, I asked.”
“‘You should cook mother’, replied my daughters.”
And that is what she has continued to do – cook and teach people how to cook, and through this she shows people her culture. She takes part in competitions throughout Poland and even travels abroad to showcase Tatar food at embassies across the world. “If I have a group and I feel they are quite hostile to Muslims or Islam in general, I start explaining the religion to them and it captures their hearts,” she says.
“Through food we get to know each other and the more we get to know each other the more respect we have for each other.
“Even though times are quite difficult now with the perceptions of Muslims and Islam, people come here and get a very good impression and they spread this idea among their friends and families.”
Michal Sanczenko, who teaches the Tatar tradition of horseback archery nearby, says that even if there are negative comments about Muslims, usually related to “a terrorist attack”, people say that Poland also has a Muslim minority and “they are completely safe”.
Much like the people who make it, Lipka Tatar food has over the years melded with Polish food. It incorporates the country’s traditional pierogi, or stuffed dumplings, as well as nomadic-style one-pot stews. In recent years, Arabic spices have become popular and have started appearing more and more. They don’t use pork or serve alcohol, but a lot of beef, lamb and groats – a grain that was brought to Poland by the Tatars.
Bogdanowicz now serves up her food – apologising for the paper plates that are a food safety rule imposed due to the much smaller kitchen – at the Muslim centre, where there is also a room dedicated to artefacts such as Tatar army uniforms. The centre offers weddings and burial services free of charge to Muslims across Poland, including to refugees from Chechnya.