“We like it here because of the peace and the quiet,” said Mr. al Mekhyal, 49, as his wife nodded agreement, her eyes peering from a narrow slit in her face-covering niqab.

It was only this year, as his wife was stocking up at the local Tesco superstore, that a furious young man began harassing her, calling her names, telling her to go back home.

Photo

A Muslim family in downtown Piestany.

Credit
Akos Stiller for The New York Times

Others have noticed the change, too.

There had never been an ugly incident involving his Muslim customers, said Ilknur Perda, 65, as he gently sliced off juicy shards of shwarma at his Istanbul Doner-Kebab on the town’s main strip.

But then one day last year, a local 22-year-old walked up and began berating the Muslims at his outdoor cafe tables.

“He was being very hateful,” said Mr. Perda, who moved to Slovakia from Turkey when he was 34. “He got into a fight with one of the customers. Later that night, the guy came back and smashed all my windows.”

The incident was striking enough to make the national news in Slovakia. “The next morning, all my Slovak and Czech customers called me,” he said. A march was organized to support him. One local man planted a “tree of tolerance” just outside the kebab shop.

But it was a sign, local officials said, that the atmosphere was shifting.

“People are feeling more and more emboldened,” said Eva Bereczova, the city’s spokeswoman. “They are unashamed to say things in public they would have been ashamed to say before. And it is probably going to get worse.”

Slovakia regularly ranks near the bottom in European Union polling of discriminatory attitudes toward foreigners and other ethnic groups. The neo-fascist party of Marian Kotleba, currently polling a strong third, has two members of parliament from Piestany. Support for the right-wing is growing.

“They come to City Council meetings in their green shirts sometimes,” Ms. Bereczova said, referring to the party’s official garb. “Then they wanted to hold a meeting at our local cultural center, but we put a stop to that.”

She is frequently surprised by the hidden support for the right-wing.

“I went to the swimming pool with a friend and we met some other people,” Ms. Bereczova said. “Only after awhile, when politics came up, did I realize I was the only one who had not voted for Kotleba. They insulted me for being naïve.”

Photo

For decades, Piestany has been attracting Muslim visitors in the summer.

Credit
Akos Stiller for The New York Times

Mohamad Safwan Hasna, chairman of the Islamic Foundation of Slovakia, said many Slovak politicians were eagerly fanning the anti-Muslim flames.

“The only thing they want is to win the election,” he said. “So people are getting bolder. They got a signal from the politicians that it’s O.K.”

Now there is a virtual campaign against Muslims. “The photos began showing up on Facebook in August,” he said.

Right-wingers snap photos of Muslims they see on the streets. Then they post them online as “proof” that the government has been lying about how many Muslims are in the country. Some of the photos are badly doctored. The comments are frequently hateful.

Mr. Hasna pulled out his cellphone and scrolled to one such photo, of a Muslim woman in full burqa saying her prayers in a parking space at Bratislava’s biggest mall.

“At first, even I thought it was a real photo,” he said. “I thought, why is this woman praying in a parking lot? But then I realized, of course, it is a fake.”

Slovakia, a country of five million, has about 5,000 Muslim citizens, and not a single mosque. Piestany is one of the few places their presence is felt, but the vast majority are visitors.

More than half of the 619,262 overnight stays last year in Piestany were by visitors from other countries, tourist officials said.

Photo

Hotel Thermia Palace, once host to European royalty and Indian maharajahs, is now more likely to attract a Kuwaiti princess.

Credit
Akos Stiller for The New York Times

Piestany Spa, which operates the town’s health facilities, broke down by nationality the guests who stayed at its resorts last year.

Of the 42,756 overnight stays, nearly 12,500 involved residents of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon or the United Arab Emirates. There were another 1,674 visitors from “other Asian countries,” which spa officials said were nearly all other parts of the Muslim world. Another large group, accounting for 6,858 nights, came from Israel.

“There is not a problem with people from Israel and people from Arabic countries being side by side,” said Monika Koborova, the guest relations manager for the Hotel Thermia Palace. “They come to get healthy, not to make trouble.”

On cool summer evenings, Muslim visitors frequent the town’s sidewalk cafes.

“We had friends visiting and we took them to the city center in the evening and even we were surprised,” Ms. Bereczova said. “We were the only local residents there.”

Mr. Perda, who runs the Istanbul Doner-Kebab, said the rise in anti-Muslim attitudes have caused some of his former customers to spend their summers elsewhere.

But whether this new anti-Muslim wind will be strong enough to break decades of attachment between Piestany’s healing mud and the summer-baked Gulf remains to be seen.

Mr. al Mekhyal, clicking through a series of photos on his cellphone of some of the 300 camels he owns in Kuwait, along with a Ferrari, said his family will probably continue to make Piestany part of their regular European idyll. The green hills and vaporous forests still call to them.

His 22-year-old daughter, Noura, a civil engineer, was not so sure. “It’s a little too quiet for me,” she said.

Continue reading the main story



Source link