The fast is over – Eid Mubarak

The fast is over. Ramadan is done. Today is Eid ul-Fitr, the festival of the breaking of the fast – the Muslim equivalent of Christmas. After 29 days of fasting from sunrise to sunset Muslims are back to a normal eating routine. And so too, am I.

This morning I headed to the mosque in Clonskeagh. Traffic was heavy on approach, cars were parked on roadside verges. In the grounds of the mosque hundreds and hundreds of people had gathered after the morning prayers.

There was a barbeque, a stall for charity, colourful bunting was strung up between the lamp-light poles and I heard the distant words of an impassioned preacher from the entrance to the men’s section of the mosque.


The Syrian appeal stall at Clonskeagh – charity is an important element of Ramadan

Eid is a huge and upbeat celebration. New clothes are bought, presents of toys or money are given to children, many families go to play-barns, parks or even toystores. It’s a children-centred occasion. Adults don’t exchange gifts but do gather together with friends and family for a big celebratory evening meal.


The Eid barbecue at Clonskeagh mosque

There are a few little girls wearing long-sleeved communion dresses with white head scarves. I meet women from Turkey, Algeria, Moldova, Libya, Syria, Egypt and Ireland. There’s a man wearing a long full-length cream thobe who tells me he has travelled from Belfast especially for the celebrations today. There are probably people here from all over Ireland.


Congregating outside the men’s entrance to the mosque

I feel now like I am on holidays. Ramadan is over. I fasted 19 out of the 29 days. It has been an extraordinary experience, a stint of intensive learning about Islam, Muslims in Ireland, self-restraint and self-awareness.

I finished the fast yesterday by going out for a meal with my husband to a beautiful restaurant in Rathmines called Little Jerusalem.

I spoke to a woman over the phone yesterday who told me that her family also fast from television during Ramadan in order to spend time with each other. She also encourages her children to focus on giving instead of asking. And this, the giving, the charity, the self-restraint – these are the elements that are at the heart of the Ramadan fast.

It’s a pleasure to be back to eating normally and sleeping normally again. I wonder how long my appreciation will last before I slip back in to taking my life and the pleasures of my life for granted again. My Ramadan entries are over. On Sunday I’m off to Waterford for a Zen Buddhist retreat. In the meantime – thanks for reading and a special thanks to all the Muslims who spoke to me, welcomed me, and gave me food over the past four weeks.

* an added note – the reason I missed ten days is because women are exempt from fasting when menstruating. The exemption lasts usually from ten to fifteen days. I found it incredibly difficult to go back to fasting after the exemption break. But I’m glad I did. Muslim women have to make up for the lost days but I won’t stretch that far myself.

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.


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.


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 : )


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)

Effing Fog, Food, and Fasting

It’s 22.57 and I’m just after scoffing a delicious meal of lamb curry after fasting since three this morning. Day one of Ramadan is over. I made it.

I chomped through a cheese burger and bag of chips from the Italian chipper around the corner circa 10 pm last night – the last supper. Shared chips with the husband, being careful to load his plate – not for generous reasons but so I wouldn’t eat too much salt – for thirst reasons today. Programmed my brain to wake pre-three for a final food fix and some glasses of water. I woke at 3.30. The fast had already begun. The unopened bottle of water stood watching me from my bedside locker.

Morning dawned and the sun was already blasting at 7.30. Internet postings were saying that Met Eireann had issued its first ever ‘orange’ alert. I was thirsty already. Stevie (my almost-three-year-old boy) put some crusts of bread to my lips – ‘eat this mammy, eat this’.

Although I had been geared up for no food or drink it was only yesterday after speaking to a Dublin Muslim guy that I remembered it also involved good thoughts and good words – ‘fasting during Ramadan also means no cursing’ he told me. I texted my husband to tell him. He said ‘you’ll never do it’. By ten this morning I had used the ‘f’ variant five times and the ‘c’ word once. I debated with myself ‘well if I’ve already broken the no cursing rule maybe I should just break the no water rule too’.

My biggest concern, being mid-heatwave, was thirst. I updated myself with internet advice on fasting during the summer months – ‘stay indoors’, ‘avoid direct sunlight’, ‘pull the curtains and blinds’. So we went to the beach. Got there with a welcome surprise of fog hanging around the edge of the coast. For once I was happy to have fog.

By two I had a slight headache and had included the ‘sh’ word to my list of broken curses and probably a few more too. But I felt fine. So I visited the local mosque in Clonskeagh.

The usually buzzing restaurant was almost empty save for one man wearing an apron behind a stall of tiny desert sweet offerings and one man sitting at a table. I spoke to the aproned man and explained to him that I was interested in Ramadan. His eyes opened wide when I said I was non-Muslim but fasting. He sat down at a table and invited me to join him. He disappeared for a minute and came back to give me a Ramadan calendar. He told me as he beat his hand gently against his chest ‘Ramadan is great for the heart. And for the health’.

‘In Algeria’ he said ‘it’s 42 degrees and people work during Ramadan’. That put things into perspective. ‘Even manual labour?’ I asked. ‘Yes, even manual labour’.  He told me his name was Benarab Boualem.

Then I met his brother, also a chef in the Clonskeagh restaurant. ‘On Friday I will start cooking at two in the afternoon’ Smail told me. This is to cater for up to 450 people who arrive at the mosque to break the fast together. He told me Irish people are welcome too. And that the meal is free. My turn to have eyes opened wide.

The restaurant at the Clonskeagh mosque stays open until midnight during Ramadan and serves people the Iftar meal (breaking-the-fast-meal) which is on special offer for 8.99. They do take-away so I said I’d like to have one to take away. Smail said ‘I’m paying for you today because you are fasting’. And so he filled up cartons with lamb curry and rice and a big carton of beautiful fresh salads. This is the food I’ve just eaten. I bought some of the beautiful little deserts before I left.

Another man at the mosque – Ali Selim explained that Ramadan is also about giving to others. That it is normal to offer one meal to someone in need each day of the month and that at the end of Ramadan the man of the family gives money to charity or to someone in need on behalf of each person in the family.

I had covered up with just a long skirt and long-sleeved cardigan for visiting the mosque buildings but on the way out there was a young woman with a pair of fashionable shorts up to her ass and a short-sleeved top. I was still glad I covered – but I hadn’t covered my hair.

Driving home I bit my nails absent mindedly and then wondered ‘can I eat nails?’ – I think not but I didn’t swallow them so it was okay.

Five and the energy lull hit hard. Felt like a dead dodo duck and flopped to lying down with a leaflet about Ramadan in my hand and fell asleep. Woke a short time later to a busy evening and a long drive and then the time to break the fast came upon me and I was in the car on a motorway in County Kildare and thirty minutes from home and the lovely food that Smail had given me. We stopped at a shop and I bought a pear and a bottle of water and how sweet that pear was. Every mouthful I savoured.

Then home and I heated up the food and ate the salad and I was almost ecstatic. To actually appreciate the food I’m eating? Too rarely done. To even be conscious of, or grateful for, the food I eat? Probably never done. And I sit here at the table after eating, kettle on the boil for the cuppa tae and I imagine families of Muslims all over Ireland meeting and gathering to share the breaking of the fast and celebrating the food they have and I think ‘ah Ramadan, what a great idea’. ImageBenarab Boualem standing behind the counter at the restaurant at the mosque in ClonskeaghImagePoster advertising the Iftar meal – available at the Clonskeagh mosque restaurant (yummy)ImageThe Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland – featuring the Clonskeagh mosque ImageThe Ramadan sweet counter at the Clonskeagh mosque restaurant