Braving Beauvais

(the hobo life only looks this fun in music videos)

Here’s a story about how my friends & I braved being homeless for the night in Beauvais.

We were all set for Spain during the weekend, but we only found out after booking our flight tickets that our plane would depart from Beauvais Airport, which is not accessible via the metro in Paris. Left with no choice, we had to buy train tickets to Beauvais, a small city just an hour away from Paris.  Upon arriving, we realized we have almost 10 hours to kill before setting off to the airport the next morning at 7. Being students on a tight budget, all of us agreed on a whim to hang around without any accommodation. So we thought we’d get a little taste of the hobo life by braving the night homeless.

In other words, we were up for an adventure.

We arrived at Beauvais train station at 9, when the sun was just an hour away from setting. All the shops were closed except for a fancy restaurant opposite the train station where we decided to go in for a rest. Hours later, we got restless and decided to head somewhere else. We followed the signs to the city centre, hoping to find shops that would still be open. The night slowly blanketed the sky, the winds grew even more chilly, and we walked a little quicker. Even though the sun has yet to set, the entire town was hushed and the trees were hauntingly still. Where are all the people? I was only aware of the rhythmic dragging of my friend’s luggage and our footsteps, with hunger & fatigue slowly creeping in as we trudged along the sleepy, silent town.

Once we’ve reached the city centre, we noticed that the only place that was open was the pub. So there we were – four foreigners in the middle of Beauvais, the town hall in front of us, and a black statue of a noble figure looming behind, clueless on where to head to next.
We finally settled on one of the benches nearby, telling stories and playing random games in a bid to make time pass faster. But the cold only grew increasingly harsh and biting, and the minutes on the clock didn’t seem to be moving. One of my friends spotted an empty laundry store with its door slightly ajar right across where we sat. And so we went in, closed the door, and plopped into the chairs. I remember how good it felt to feel the warmth, away from the uninviting night.

Just as we were settling down and warming ourselves up, there was a knock on the door. Three men were laughing outside, their faces visibly flushed. Without warning, one of the drunks barged inside the room and locked the door, leaving his two friends outside. He staggered towards our direction, and threw a suspicious smile.

“Where are you from?”

“Where are you going?”
“Ha! Spain? Don’t bother. All flights cancel. You know why? They lost the match. Out of world cup. So Spain, no go,” he bored his eyes at each one of our blank faces, before bursting out laughing at his own joke.
He continued asking us questions, and we replied him as honestly as we could. As he staggered closer, I closed my eyes and muttered a prayer, pleading to God to keep us safe. It was hard not to think of negative scenarios in my head at that point, for we can never be too sure about the actions of these strangers. This really was the perfect setting for him to fish out a gun from his pockets, and hold us hostage as he aimed the weapon at one of us (thanks to all the crime/thriller TV series I’ve watched, this was exactly what I imagined could have happened).
My prayers were answered almost immediately when his friends managed to yank the door open, pulled him out of the room, and apologized to us on his behalf. As soon as they left, we exchanged that look that says, we have to get out of here fast.

While walking, a couple of drunks from the pub saw us. Another drunk man, along with his friend, came up to us and persistently asked questions in French. We ignored and walked faster, away from the area, until we lost sight of them. By this time, the cold and exhaustion was getting to us again, so we decided to drop everything and settle down, in the middle of nowhere.

Plonking ourselves right outside a heater of a random house in Beauvais. From a scale of 1 to hobo, how homeless do we look?

In muted light, an old cathedral in Beauvais, (which I discovered only recently that it boasts the tallest gothic vault in the world) towered intimidatingly, a few meters from where we were resting. Before shutting my eyes for a short nap, I remember how eerily silent the town was, and no one, not a ghost, in sight.

15 minutes into my sleep, I woke up just in time to see someone walking past us. There were two of them; a young man, and an elder (probably his father) with a beard, wearing a white jubbah. Muslims. I looked on as they hurried, with what I made out to be a prayer mat in the old man’s hands. I checked my watch. 3:30am. It was already time for Subuh prayers. Perhaps they are heading to the masjid? At the same time, my friend found out that the directory nearby showed a mosque a few kilometers from where we were. It was the only mosque in this small town. My hopes were suddenly lifted, and I was determined to get there, where at least we would be properly sheltered from the relentless cold wind. My friends and I gathered all the strength we had, and we walked the few kilometers to where the mosque was.

We were expecting it to look like how mosques typically are back home in Singapore – minarets, a crescent and a star, a dome, and visible from the roadsides, at the very least. We were sure we were already at the place where the mosque should be, but all we could see were cathedrals, houses, and endless rows of shops.
Back and forth we searched, but there was no sign of a mosque anywhere. I silently uttered a prayer, asking Him to lead us to it, desperately wanting us to be safe in His home.

The modest, unassuming facade of Masjid Bilal de Beauvais

But just as we were about to give up searching, I spotted a particular ‘shop’ with a sign scrawled in small Arabic letters just above the wooden door. There she was, a small, unassuming, nondescript mosque, quietly hidden amongst the row of shops and cathedrals. I gestured to my friends excitedly, and we knocked on the door, hoping someone would be there to welcome us in.

A strong-built man, wearing a jubbah and a white taqiyah, with a well-kept beard, greeted us at the door. He introduced himself as Brother Kareem, a Moroccan who has been living in France for more than 10 years. Brother Kareem was a godsend, and the most selfless person I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. He led us to the prayer rooms to perform Subuh, and upon seeing that we were worn out and shivering, he served us cups of hot, refreshing Moroccon mint tea.

A cup of Moroccan mint tea. A hug in a cup.

While we were standing in a circle and sipping our tea, Brother Kareem talked to us about his life as a Muslim in France. Life here is not always a bed of roses, he shrugged. He told us how his beard has always been criticized.. often, it has been associated with terrorism, hindering him from getting jobs easily. It’s a situation we’ve heard of many times. Muslim men sporting long beards and wearing Islamic attire are always negatively stereotyped. It made me think how much harder it must be, to be living in a country where religious freedom is restricted. His story made me thankful, that things are not as hard back home. People like Brother Kareem, who stand their ground and refuse to allow society dictate their way of life, have my utmost respect. It takes a lot of faith and resilience to stick to our values and to not compromise them for anything or anyone else.

As we sipped our last drop of tea, we looked at the clock, and realized that it was time for us to go.

“How are you getting to the airport?” Brother Kareem asked.

The bus, we replied.

He frowned, thought for a moment, and went to the room at the back. Few seconds later, he emerged with his car keys and said,

“Wait. Come with me. I will drive you to the airport.”

Syukran jazeelan, Brotheer Kareem, but we don’t wish to bother you at all. You’ve already helped us a lot, and that is enough.”

What he said next was something all of us needed to hear. A beautiful reminder.

“We are Muslims. If we Muslims don’t help each other, who else will? We love travelers. When you’re traveling, everything you ask from Allah will be accepted. We always let travelers in the masjid whenever they need shelter. We ask the travelers to make du’a for us too, because insyaAllah, their du’a will be granted. So remember to make lots of du’a while you’re traveling. And I only have one request for you. Please make du’a for me so I could find my other half, to complete half of my deen, soon. That is all I ask of you.”

We smiled. “Of course we will, insyaAllah. We will pray for your happiness on earth, and in the hereafter.”

Once we’ve reached the airport, it was time to bid our goodbyes. I asked Brother Kareem if we could have a picture together as a souvenir, to remember this fateful day, and in case we never get the chance to cross paths again in the future. He politely refused and said with a smile,

“No, it’s alright, you will remember how I look like, and I will remember how all of you look like, and who knows, if I ever come to Singapore, we could meet! Don’t worry, we will see each other again, if not on earth… then insyaAllah, in Jannah“.

We pray that God will bless and reward him for all that he has done for us, during the few, precious hours we spent  in this mosque, in a small town, north of France, where we were met with the most trying experience, and the most humbling, of all.

Alhamdulillah, a thousand times over.

View of the sunrise in Beauvais from Brother Kareem’s car – a brand new day.

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