One third of the way there – Ramadan

One third of the way there. The numbers underneath the fraction line are getting smaller. Today is day 11 of the long-hot-summered Ramadan fast. There’s just 19 more to go.

I began the fast wanting to see what it felt like for Muslims to not eat or drink on an Irish July sunny day. The magnified pleasures of food and water at the end of the first day, coupled with my innate curiosity (call it nosiness), was enough of an incentive to keep going.

The first few days I made some attempts to conserve energy and avoid the midday sun but now I go for walks, play tennis, go shopping, even cook dinners and lunches for my husband and toddler. Life has normalised.

My solitary breaking of the fasts have also been broken up with very welcome company of friends which has doubled and tripled the dusking pleasure.

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The version of the Quran that I am reading – one section a day. Given to me by an Imam in Waterford when I made some radio programmes 6 years ago.

Today I am on section XI of the Quran. I’m reading a translation. The English doesn’t trip easily into my brain. I stumble over words and sentences. And the messages and meanings clog up my clock-works.

There is a lot of talk in the Quran of believers and unbelievers, of faith and fear, of fighting and peace and doing good and charity.

I questioned Dr. Ali Selim, senior member of staff at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland about my understanding that believers should not be friends with unbelievers but he said it was a matter of translation and also of understanding the context in which the verses were written.

“I have a friend” he tells me “a good friend, who is an atheist and we go for meals together and talk about religion and if I am giving talks I always invite him. We’ve been friends for over ten years.” He jokingly tells me “he has a very stubborn mentality”. My friend, who has accompanied me to the ICCI says to him laughing “and he probably thinks that you do too”.

Dr. Selim made it clear to me that it is okay for Muslims to have non-Muslim friends but as a non-Muslim, ignorant of Arabic and of Quranic interpretation, this is not the message that I took from it. There are many similarly problematic passages for me which I’m sure cannot be read at face-value.

In the meantime, there’s no sign of a break in the weather. The grass on the road verges is burnt dry. Sometimes we can smell smoke off the mountains as the gorse catches fire. There’s talk of water shortages and we are officially in drought. For Muslims working at manual labour in Ireland it must be difficult. But for me, in my summer holidays, I’m doing just fine.

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The brown sunburnt grass at the side of the roads

Levels of Ramadan and the adhan

After Tuesday’s wavering and my debate of ditching the fast I decided yesterday to stop focusing on food. And anyway, abstaining from food, drink and sex during daylight hours is the surface layer of Ramadan. This is the physical stuff. Relatively straight forward. But, dig a little deeper.

The next level – in Irish-speak but adopted from the famous Islamic theologian and mystic Al Ghazali – involves abstaining from bitchery, backstabbing, whinging, gossip, negative vibes. And the final layer relates to thought – to think good. The heart layer. The layer of love.

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Dr. Ali Selim, Senior Member of Staff, Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland

“The whole idea of fasting is to increase your God consciousness” is how Dr. Ali Selim, senior member of staff at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, puts it. “This can be increased not only by shunning evil but also by doing good.”

Muslims believe that doing good during Ramadan creates multiple rewards. Dr. Selim explains that “saying “Glory be to God” during Ramadan is equivalent to saying it seventy times before or after Ramadan”.

It’s also about charity. “When people fast they become hungry and thirsty and this helps them to feel what deprived people feel” he says “and this helps to maintain a more charitable character.”

He says that he just heard of one woman in Syria who was unable to feed her children for three days. That puts it in perspective. This fasting is optional.

For me, as a non-Muslim, I’m trying to bridge the gap between layers one and two. But for the last few nights I have been a contrary grumpy-ass during the hours just before eating so I’ve a stretch to go.

Ramadan is also about changing habits. Habits of food, drink, time, acts and thoughts. Changing some of the habits occurs effortlessly as a natural spin-off of doing the fast. Others require more of a conscious effort.

Normally our days are broken up into segments punctuated by cups of tea or coffee, breakfasts, lunches, ice-creams, dinner. And with these food-stops comes shopping, cooking, preparing, eating, drinking, cleaning up.

During Ramadan the days stretch from the mornings like blank pages. There are no pre-ordained eating events to break up the day and this is why days seem so long.

I bumped into Boualem (the Algerian man I met on my first visit last week) at the Golden Olive restaurant in the Clonskeagh mosque in Dublin again yesterday. Surprised to see him every time I go there I ask him if he ever gets days off. “I like to work every day during Ramadan” he says. “It makes the day not so long”. This is despite the fact that the restaurant stays open until around midnight.

Muslims however, do have their day broken up with prayer pit-stops. Prayer is five times daily at times determined by the position of the sun. Muslims are called to prayer – not by a bell but by the human voice. During Ramadan there is an extra prayer – the Taraweeh prayer which takes place at night. Dr. Selim says the mosque is packed for this prayer despite the fact that it is close to midnight.

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Looking down from the women’s balcony – the niche (mihrab) in the centre marks the direction of Mecca

Yesterday I was back at the mosque to film the prayer-caller (muezzin) do the call to prayer (adhan, pronounced azan). My view was from a perch up on the woman’s balcony. The muezzin was down in the men’s section. The call is broadcast live via special radios into Muslim homes all over Ireland.

I returned to the mosque later again. The second time in one day. This time for food. The Iftar meal. Take-away version. Three portions.

For the first time since I started fasting I was being joined for the breaking of the fast by a friend (who interestingly argues that burqas and bikinis are the basically the same because both are about the objectification of the female). And by my husband. A full meal.

Last night’s sunset time of 9.48 arrived announcing the end of the day’s fast. The adhan was being delivered via Clonskeagh mosque into Muslim houses all over Ireland. It was time to eat and time to pray. And for a change I had company for the food.

Having company changed the meal. I got the sense of what it might be like for Muslims who meet up for meals throughout the month. It’s much more fun to share it – debates, discussions, laughter and trying out new food – that was part of the package from the Golden Olive restaurant.

Unlike Muslims however, I did have a few glasses of wine. And in the meantime I’m on that bridge between level one and two. I hope I make it to the other side.

(If anyone is interested the iphone quality video is available on youtube – the prayer call is in Arabic and the video lasts over four minutes but you can also see a man performing his prayer a short way into the thing : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LejXRlytJ0w&feature=youtu.be )

 

Friday night at the mosque and free Iftar meal

There is a ten year old girl who has been bouncing on trampolines and fasting all day and ‘didn’t feel hungry or thirsty at all’, an Irish woman who had converted to Islam ten years ago who is here with her two teenage daughters, and an Iraqi woman with diabetes who has fasted all day and ‘suffered a lot’ and still has a bad headache. Her doctor had advised against fasting but she wanted to try it for one day.

Although fasting is not obligatory for the sick, elderly or young – Muslims in these categories often want to participate regardless. One woman at the mosque tonight says Ramadan is ‘my favourite time of year’. It’s a celebratory month and the breaking of the fast brings together families and friends and whole communities.

I am back at the mosque in Clonskeagh for the Friday night communal (and free) Iftar meal. I arrive slightly early so pop into the restaurant which is still open and I stock up on the little sweet pastries they sell here. One of the pleasures of breaking the fast is having one or two each night with a cup of tea. Ramadan is about breaking habits but this could be one that will be formed.

Benarab Boualem is working again. ‘How many days you fast now?’ he smiles when he sees me. My lips are very dry. ‘Three’ I say. He looks impressed – like a proud father. ‘Irish people come in and ask me ‘how long do you fast for?’ and I say ’20 hours’ and they cannot believe it and say ‘I could not fast for one hour’’.

He turns and starts talking to a man who is walking past, pointing at me proudly ‘she is non-Muslim and she is fasting’. ‘It’s not hard to try’ the man responds disinterestedly but then turns to me and says ‘well done’ as he keeps on walking.

Inside, on the women’s balcony, veiled women and daughters sit with their backs against the walls, chatting softly amongst themselves. It has the feel of a tired lull at the end of the day. There are two white tablecloths spread out on the carpet in the centre of the balcony. They are laden with bottles of water, plastic glasses and a few plates piled high with dates.

An Irish-looking woman smiles up at me from against the wall. ‘Assalamu alaikum’ she says quietly, welcoming. She has come with her family from Drogheda for the night prayer and meal. She tells me she married a Muslim man but didn’t convert at first. ‘I didn’t like the thoughts of giving up sausages and rashers’ she smiles (pork is prohibited in Islam). ‘We were married a few years and when we started having children I converted’.

‘The fasting is not difficult when you don’t think about the food’ she says. Her teenage daughters who both have luminous smiles are also fasting. The woman tells me that her ten year old boy fasted the full first day but decides himself when he wants to fast and for how long. ‘He had his breakfast this morning at 10’ she explains ‘but he wanted to fast the rest of the day’.

Just before ten o’clock a flock of women rise from their spots by the wall and circle around the tablecloths. The Irish woman I’m speaking to is beckoned in. I go to the balcony rail to take photographs.

Downstairs the muezzin (prayer caller) comes out and in a sonorous voice intones ‘allahu akbar’ (god is great) into the microphone. The sound of the prayer call fills the mosque. And with his voice the fast is broken. Hungry hands pick at the dates like birds at crumbs.

I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to get through the circle to the dates and water when a young woman comes over to me holding out a plate of dates. I am grateful. Women smile at me. I am the only woman not wearing a hijab (hair covering).

After prayer the women file out and go to a large hall filled with tables for a free meal. The hall has a large partition. Men on one side. Women on the other. Our table seats six and has two plates of salad, a bowl of bread, bottle of Diet Coke, bunch of bananas and a large bowl of (what I think is) spicy butternut squash soup. I’m in the company of women from Iraq, Algeria and Egypt and two girls aged 10 and 7. Already I had spoken to a woman from Ireland and Morocco. Muslims from all over the world. After the soup is cleared, aluminium cartons of chicken biryani are passed around and then people leave the hall and head back to the mosque for the night prayer.

The women who are all dressed modestly and all veiled (just a few are wearing full nikkabs with only their eyes visible). I hear one woman say ‘I can’t eat, I’m too hot’ as she pulls at the black top that goes up to her neck. Another woman’s face is covered in tiny beads of sweat.

The woman beside me, from Iraq, says that though she loves Ramadan she also feels very sad. ‘It’s a time for family, when families get together to share breaking the fast’ she explains, ‘and so I miss my family a lot’.

Most of the Muslims in Ireland are immigrants and I begin to realise the paradoxes that make up Ramadan. It’s by going without that the pleasures of having are magnified. Fasting and food. And so it is with family. Breaking the fast with those who are loved magnifies the missing of those who are absent.

I leave the hall and am momentarily disorientated. It’s almost 11 o’clock on a Dublin July night and it’s warm. People of all nationalities are sitting on the grass, or gathered in groups on the pathways chatting. ‘Are you okay sister?’ two young women ask me. ‘I can’t figure out where I parked my car. Could you tell me where the entrance is and I will figure it out’. They point it out. Lines of cars are still filing in for the final prayer of the day. I find my car and head home. Ready for the cuppa tae and a little sweet desert.

  • Assalamu Alaikum is the traditional Muslim greeting meaning ‘peace be upon you’Image
  • The tablecloth laid out with dates and water on the centre of the women’s balcony
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  • Dates being brought out to the men below
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  • Women on the balcony of the mosque lined up for prayer
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  • The hall where the public meal is held – this is the women’s section, but you can see the partition beyond which is the men’s area.
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  • Outside the mosque security men direct cars arriving for the night prayer
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  • The little sweet desserts I bought at the mosque restaurant (desert, desserts – you know what I mean)