Ireland’s biggest mosque – plans for Clongriffin

Women are exempt from fasting when menstruating so my fast is off for the moment. Muslim women are expected to make up the days at a later date. But I’m not that dedicated to my experiment. I had my first morning breakfast today since the 9th July.

Also, on the topic of women’s issues – I might have to ditch plans of taking photographs of Muslim women. I’m not sure if it’s shyness, issues of modesty, vanity or fear but for some reason the only photographs of women I’ve managed to take are photographs of their backs. And last night I tried really hard.

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A sign on one of the retail units at the Clongriffin shopping centre

I was off to north Dublin to check out the site of what is planned to be ‘Ireland’s biggest mosque’. The group planning the mosque – Dublin Welfare Society – were hosting a special Ramadan event for converts or people thinking of converting. There was also to be an Iftar meal. Food? I couldn’t say no. But I did make it clear I had no plans to convert.

I also got the chance to interview lots of amazing and very interesting women. But photographs? Not a hope!

There are, to date, only three purpose-built Islamic centres or mosques in Ireland. Most Muslims here use make-shift mosques – temporary spaces that are usually rented out – like residential homes, industrial warehouses or community halls.

Dublin City Council have granted planning permission for the huge new development at Clongriffin but an appeal has been lodged with An Bord Pleanala. A decision on the outcome is expected this Wednesday.

Now that I’ve met the people behind the development and the people who will be attending the mosque I feel patches of nervousness and hope on their behalf. Wednesday will be a big day. I’ll keep you posted on the outcome.

The planned development is ginormous. It will be on a six acre site on lands owned by developer Gerry Gannon. It will cater for up to 3,000 people during festivals, will be three stories high with minarets, a crèche, a library, primary and secondary schools and even a swimming pool.

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Clongriffin

Clongriffin is a new suburb of Dublin. Born during the boom years. Planned and pristine. I drive down ‘main street’ and there are lots of new buildings, apartment blocks and shiny metal fittings. It is modern and clean. The derelict site on the left hand side of the road is the planned space for the new mosque.

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The planned site for Ireland’s largest mosque in Clongriffin

I meet Abdul Haseeb, Project Manager of Clongriffin Mosque, at what seems to be the town square. He brings me inside the freshly built shopping centre. It’s clean and spacious with lovely sparkling light fittings. But the escalators are frozen in time and all the shop spaces are empty.

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The building with the elevators frozen in time, Clongriffin

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One of the empty units, ‘A Gannon Development’, at Clongriffin

There’s plenty of activity in the building tonight as people arrive for the Ramadan event. “The guest speaker” Abdul tells me “is the son of a Jewish woman and a Pakistani man. He embraced Islam 19 years ago”.

Abdul leads me upstairs and we are met by his wife – “Lorraine O’Connor” she introduces herself. “From Coolock” she adds. A woman whose energy reminds me of the cartoon character Taz. Within minutes she has lined up a string of women for me to interview. At the same time she is conducting preparations for food, organising child-minding, and juggling queries from women and children who come to her looking for instruction or direction.

Lorraine says “no problem” when I ask if I can take a photograph of some of the women. But when she asks them they seem cagey and unsure. She tries to reassure them, telling them as she points to me “she’s fasting”. We decide to leave the photographs til later.

The talk is being held in a large room with a partition down the middle. The women wearing their hijabs are on one side and the men are on the other. The set up isn’t a far cry from Irish Catholicism of the 1950s – women on one side of the church wearing their scarves and men on the other side.

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The room from the back – Clongriffin

Lorraine gives me the go ahead to take a photograph from the back. The hijabs are a sea of colours and textures. A few women are pushing buggies or prams around trying to get babies asleep. It’s a relaxed atmosphere with people drifting in and out and around as the mood takes them.

The talk is followed by question time. A few men stand up and ask questions through a microphone. Women write their questions on pieces of paper and pass them up. I ask Lorraine why it is different for the men and women. She says “the women just prefer it this way”. Many of the questions are about how to deal with Christian family members who are against the person’s conversion to Islam.

During the talk there is a frenzy of activity in the rooms at the back of the hall as women take food out of bags and boxes. They spread plates and dishes out along the white table-clothed trestle tables. There are dishes from all over the world – recipes as diverse as the people attending the event – and brought by the women attending the event.

A friendly Moroccan woman tells me that the women prepare two dishes of whatever they are cooking. One dish goes to the men’s side and one dish goes to the women. They eat separately. There are trays of coca cola and water, bunches of bananas, bowls of dates, there are onion bhajis, pakoras, lasagne, pasta dishes, bread rolls, spicy soup, biryani dishes, biscuits, tarts, cream slices, sandwiches, pastries, rice.

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Ready for the breaking of the fast

It’s time to break the fast. It all goes remarkably smoothly. There must be a few hundred people at the event. Lorraine, as if she hasn’t enough to do, gets me soup (amazing delicious soup called harira from Morocco) and fills me a plate of food. After I’ve eaten and chatted to some more people the clean-up is underway. I realise I still have no photograph of the women. Lorraine is finally sitting down and looks exhausted. I say to her “another time” and head for home.

Over the next few days, instead of talking about my own fasting (coz I won’t be) I’ll be telling the stories of the women I met last night – converts, ex-atheists, niqqab wearing, abaya draped, women from all over the world. And I’ll also be giving details about my newest-favourite Dublin restaurant which I discovered on an Iftar hunt on Friday night.

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Delicious Moroccan ‘harira’ soup

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Iftar – the plate of food Lorraine prepares for me

No water but plenty of Waters – Ramadan day 7

One full week through my experimental Ramadan fast and I’m shattered after grazing through food half of last night. Today I was very close to caving. Almost snapped the fast closed for the cause of a cappuccino and later, a sunny-afternooned ice-cream cone. But I’m still in here. Still trying.

I realise today that, although I’m ‘doing’ Ramadan I will never really understand the reality of what it’s like for Muslims. I am an outsider. No matter how interested I am in either Islam or Ramadan I am not a Muslim.

Although I fast and feel thirst and hunger and even read the Quran daily I do not have either the background or knowledge, or the faith, that a Muslim has. And also, I’m  doing it alone.

Whilst most Muslims share the breaking of the fast with friends or family, I have a solitary breaking of the fast (save an occasional night when husband has a bit of a hunger on him and the night I went to the mosque).

I was feeling lonely and hungry and thirsty and tired and sorry for myself and very tempted to crash out when I decided this evening to head to Dundrum shopping centre in the hopes I might bump into some Muslim women.

The first person I see in the centre is a young woman wearing a black hijab who is sitting on a bench with a little girl beside her. We start chatting. I notice her lips are chapped. She is from Libya. She is 20 and she is a student at Trinity College. Her name is Esra. She is with her little sister who is seven.

“It’s a very long day in Ireland” she says. “I want it to pass very fast. There’s no college and no studying so shopping is the best thing to do. It’s a very long day. I usually wake around nine” she tells me “and I read a little bit of the Quran. Around one o’clock I come shopping and around six I go home.”

That’s a long time to be shopping – “are you doing it to kill time or are you actually shopping?” I ask. “Well it’s a good time to go and shop and the sales are on. We are shopping for Eid clothes [Eid is the festival at the end of Ramadan]. We buy new clothes and new toys for Eid. It’s like Christmas”.

“Here in Ireland Eid is for one day but in our own countries it lasts three days” she explains. In Libya the father’s side of the family all gather together to celebrate for one day and the mother’s side of the family the next day.

Esra tells me that there are different customs for Ramadan in every country and there are many different routines. “When we invite friends over for a meal during Ramadan, the women are in a different room to the men but it’s not the same for every country. Tunisians for example are very open people – they can eat together – women with men.”

I ask her if there’s anything she’d like Irish people to know about Ramadan. “Irish people should try a day” she suggests, smiling.

When I suggest the possibility of taking a photograph she shyly says she’d rather not. But she gives me her phone number and tells me to call anytime if I’ve any other questions. We say goodbye.

I wander around Dundrum looking for other Muslim women and wondering what I’ll use for a photograph in today’s blog when I spot John Waters, the Irish Times journalist, sitting at a table with another man in Butler’s Chocolate café.

I go up to him. “John Waters?” I ask. “Yes” he says rather nervously. “I just wanted to say hello” I say. He visibly relaxes, we shake hands, he asks me if I like chocolate and hands me a tiny bag with two Butler’s chocolates.

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He’s smiling so I get plucky “do you mind if I take your photograph?” He seems delighted. “Would you like one of both of us?” he asks me. “Okay” I say but I feel slightly embarrassed as I don’t know who is friend is and am guessing he is another famous journalist.

I turn to his friend “I’m sorry I don’t know you, what’s your name?” “Paddy” he says and then he asks me “do you want me to take the photograph?” I blush. “Both of us” means John Waters and me.

The photograph is taken. I walk away from Dundrum having met a lovely Muslim woman and her little sister. I also have yummy free chocolates  and a picture for my blog. The fast is on.

Weight loss during fasting; tennis; teenage Muslim boys

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I began fasting for Ramadan thinking that besides learning loads myself, a blog would inform non-Muslims about Muslims in Ireland and about the aspects of Islam that aren’t so often portrayed in the media – fasting, charity etc. All very altruistic aims. But I’ll be honest – I was also thinking that I’d surely lose a bit of weight in the process.

I weighed in at the beginning of the month at 9 stone four pounds. I had visions of being a lithe 8 stone 8 at the end of the month. Fasting for around 20 hours a day? Surely the weight would fall off. Right? Wrong.

Almost one week into the fast and the question I’m asked most often by women is ‘are you losing any weight?’ They sound hopeful for me. Or maybe hopeful that I’ve stumbled on a tactic for losing a few pounds. The truth is that in the first few days I was up two pounds and now I’m just back to the pre-fast weight. This is despite the fact that everyday I’m starving. What am I doing wrong?

Turns out lots of people actually gain weight during Ramadan. I found this out AFTER I began the fast. No turning back. Emergency stations. Google.

Technically the fast only lasts during daylight hours so Muslims can eat all night if they fancy. The norm would be to eat a meal when the sun sets and another before the sun rises but to date I’ve been too lazy to get out of bed for the pre-sunset rise circa 3 a.m.

Seemingly because I’m only eating once a day my body detects famine and tries to hold on to my fat stores and so my metabolism has changed to ensure I’ll survive. I’ve obviously a very healthy metabolic calculator. So I have to soothe my fat stores into thinking there’s no famine and everything is alright by eating the 3 a.m. meal too.

During the day with my stomach grumbling my thoughts are often on what I’ll eat once the sun has set. Around nine o’clock I start lining up food across the kitchen counter in preparation for the breaking of the fast. Dates, strawberries, olives, tomatoes, salads, sweet desserts. Ice cream in the freezer.

Then it’s time to break the fast and I eat one date and drink a few glasses of water and feel full. And I feel cheated. But I’m determined to eat the food that I have been looking forward to all day and so I do. Or try to. Probably not a great idea in terms of weight loss. So today I went for a long walk and we went to play tennis.

At the tennis courts I get chatting to two teenage boys – Marwan and Hossam – who are fasting. They are tall, athletic and good looking and have soft Dublin accents. Their mother is Turkish, their father is Palestinian and they were born in Saudi Arabia but now live in Tallaght.

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They are at the courts with a friend, Reece, who, when the subject of Ramadan comes up is quick to say that he is Christian but does know all about Ramadan. Marwan and Hossam jokingly tell me that Reece is their adopted brother.

The boys say they find the days long and do get thirsty but they do the things they would normally do if not fasting. They tell me there are two mosques in Tallaght – one in an industrial estate and another in a house and this is the one they go to for prayers. They don’t really have much family in Ireland so for the Iftar meal their parents sometimes invite friends including one Irish woman who is a convert and ‘knows more than we do about Islam’.

It’s Reece who tells me that Marwan used to have difficulty in airports before he got his Irish passport. ‘Really?’ I ask. Marwan laughs it off ‘yeah, the security guys would look at my passport and call over the others to check me out and it used to take ages’. ‘And now that you’ve got your Irish passport?’ ‘Ah it’s no trouble now’. He says he didn’t used to mind it. I myself feel annoyed on his behalf.

This kind of treatment at airports is the kind of thing that many Muslims in Ireland are faced with regularly. And it’s a behaviour born from media portrayals of Islam and Muslims. The meta-narrative of Muslims as enemies. Tying in with the Clash of Civilisations theory put forward by Samuel Huntington in the early 90s that the biggest clash in the world today is that between civilisations and of these the biggest is one between Islam and the West. And we buy into it. And we look no further. But there is a beyond. The beyond includes fasting, Ramadan, prayer, charity, brotherhood, sisterhood, food. And tennis. And more.

And so with all this tennis and walking I’m confident that the next person who asks me hopefully about weight loss will receive an affirmative response. I remind myself that losing a few pounds was just a side-order, an added bonus of the exploration but tonight I will be getting up pre-three for a second almost-midnight feast.

Ramadan Day 5 – one sixth way there

Okay so usually I write my blog when I’m on a high and just after eating. Tonight it’s just after 9 o’clock and I haven’t eaten since 10 last night and haven’t drank anything since around half past two in the morning. I’m feeling slightly nauseous and have a headache and my lips are dry.

Today I played rounders (Irish version of cricket – I think) in the full heat of the midday sun and ran a lot. Later, in the afternoon, when everyone else was eating icecreams and sipping fizzy orange drinks or water, I sat with them on the sunny decking and played brave. ‘How’s the fasting going?’ ‘It’s grand. Really it’s fine. I can’t believe it’s so easy’. I didn’t even move to the shade.  For a long time. Too long.

I’m thinking strawberries. And a date. The fruit variety. And water. Did I say water? 

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)