I was giving a class about Islam to my second year students last November and we were discussing Islamic dress. I asked the students if any of them would be interested in participating in World Hijab Day and explained that … Continue reading
It’s a sunny September morning in Dublin and I’m back on the northside of the city – Donaghmede – where I’ve organised to meet a local guy who is opposed to the construction in his locality of what will be Ireland’s largest mosque.
I head to McDonalds outside the Donaghmede shopping centre where I’ve organised to meet him. It’s a busy Saturday morning and there’s a queue at the counter even though it’s only 11. A man with a book in his hands is watching me quizzically as I walk in. I head over to him. “George?” I ask. “Yes” he smiles, “Colette?” We shake hands and I sit down in the booth opposite him.
George Sturdy has pale skin and bright blue eyes and an almost-shaved head. He looks like he’s in his thirties. The book in his hands is red-covered. It is ‘One Day in September’ by Simon Reeve about the 1972 murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. George tells me he reads a lot.
I came to meet George after local Labour TD Sean Kenny forwarded me a strongly-worded email he had received from George objecting to the construction of the Clongriffin mosque. I’m here to hear his objections. George tells me that he subsequently sent an apology to Deputy Kenny because of the way the email was worded but that he is still opposed to the construction of the mosque.
George lists reams of incidents that have been in the media in recent years relating to Muslims: the decapitation of a British soldier in Woolwich in May, calls for Shariah law in England, various bombings, protests, complaints about Christmas lights and alcohol consumption, attacks on homosexuals and stones being thrown at scantily clad people trying to raise money for charity.
George tells me that he himself lives in the nearby suburb of Baldoyle which is about a mile and a half from Clongriffin which was just fields when he was growing up “where kids used to play”. He says that anyone he has spoken to in the area does not want the mosque to be built.
I ask how many people he has spoken to. He tells me “about ten”. But he adds that “most people in the area don’t know the mosque is being built”. He says that he heard about plans for the mosque about a year ago but “I heard nothing more about it until I went on to the Nationalist Movement Ireland forum about two weeks ago”.
“Are you a member of the movement?” I ask him. “No” he says “but I do follow their forum”. He tells me that he supports their policies “against this mosque and against Islam being allowed to grow in the west” but that he doesn’t support extreme right wing views.
George explains that the main concern is that the area will become “Islamofied”. He cites instances of areas in England where the street signs are in Bangladeshi and says that people are concerned the area would “be taken over” and not recognised as an Irish neighbourhood. He says people are also wary of Islam because of “what they’ve seen over the past ten years or more – beginning with 9-11”.
I ask him if he knows any Muslims himself. “No, I don’t” he says. He adds that when he visited Paris in 1996 the only guy who was friendly to him was a Moroccan. “I’ve no problem with any person – black, white, brown, foreign – it’s just Islam that seems to cause trouble wherever it goes”.
“Muslims take offence at the slightest insult that they perceive against their religion or against their prophet” he says.
“Would you be open to meeting and chatting to a Muslim?” I ask. “No, I don’t see any point” he says. “I’m not going to change their views and there’s only a point in talking to people if you can reach some compromise”.
I ask him what would be a compromise. “If the mosque wasn’t built” he says “or a giant cathedral was to be built in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia”.
I suggest that maybe if he met Muslims involved in the Clongriffin mosque he might understand it from their perspective. “No” he says again. “There wouldn’t be any point. It’d be like Gerry Adams sitting down with Ian Paisley”.
“Are you afraid of Islam?” I ask. “Yes” he answers. “I’m afraid of what it does when it becomes the majority religion and takes over. It’s the only religion in the world that has significant problems with other religions and as their numbers grow they become more insistent that you can’t criticise their religion. They want to erode freedom of speech and freedom of doing things that don’t comply with their religion”. He cites examples of attitudes towards homosexuality, alcohol or the wearing of mankinis to raise money for charity.
I ask him would he speak to a Muslim who drinks alcohol and has no problem with homosexuality. “No” he says again. “Talk is cheap – every city in Europe that has a significant Muslim population has had trouble. We only have around 40,000 Muslims here but if we had 500,000 it’d be different”. What about an Irish convert? “No, they would be even more entrenched in their views”.
“I have no reason for meeting anyone of the Islamic faith” he tells me. “It’d be like meeting the Pope and trying to convert him to the Church of England”.
I suggest that communication and dialogue is important for peace and understanding in the world today. “Dialogue – that’s for the leaders. Putin, Obama, Cameron”.
“Basically it’s a medieval way of life and is not compatible with modern western society. If it was a Sikh temple or a Jewish synagogue I wouldn’t care”.
“Would you say you’re Islamophobic?” I ask. “No, I’m rational” he responds. “A phobia is an irrational fear”.
So what next? “I’d like people to get out and protest because once the mosque is built it would be too late” he says.
After I leave Donaghmede I take a trip back to Clongriffin which is only minutes away by car. Although the buidings in Clongriffin are modern and shiny and the area is well manicured and clean it has a desolate air to it. Almost like a modern ghost-town. But with no ghosts.
As I drive up the ‘main street’ and around the town square I count 33 ground-floor retail units. Only a handful further down the street have businesses inside. Most of the units have ‘To Let’ signs in their windows. Then there’s a Centra, an Italian chipper, a barbers, off-license and an office. That’s it.
As I drive away from Clongriffin I think to myself that the mosque will revitalise an area left frozen in time at the height of the boom. I’m back to the main junction and as I prepare to turn left at the traffic lights I see a large dark-coloured decrepit looking development facing me with big iron railings blocking what was once a road. There are security guards hanging out beside a little cabin.
I get out of my car and go over to ask them what’s going on. “This is Priory Hall” the female guard says. I’m stunned into silence as I survey the scene. I think that this bleak space of emptied out apartments is where protests should really be taking place. The reality of the tragedy of Priory Hall hits when it becomes visible outside of the frame of the TV. Reality via the media is a different reality. People in the media are different too.
The stories of real life don’t have simplified beginnings and ends. Are media representations accurate portrayals of the reality beyond? Are the Islam and Muslims of the media the same as that of not? Are the stories real? Representative? Accurate? George Sturdy thinks yes. Muslims I’ve spoken to think no. What picture would a non-Irish person who’s never met an Irish person have of me? What preconceptions?
Later, at home, I google ‘Nationalist Movement Ireland’ Their home page says, in large writing, ‘SHOW MULTICULTURALISM THE RED CARD’. I think about Ireland and all the Irish people who have left over the years. Irish people in countries all over the world. No to multiculturalism? Does this mean Irish people stay in Ireland?
The forum on the website has one section dedicated to ‘Real Immigrant Stories: Scammers and Criminals’ and the ‘General Discussion’ area has lots of stories about people of different nationalities and there’s also a story on the death of Hitler’s bodyguard.
George had told me that he is not a member of the movement but that he did speak to one of the leaders, John Kavanagh, before meeting me. I also googled John Kavanagh.
And what of the issue of meeting ‘others’ who do not share our views, opinions, beliefs, values? Should we only meet those with whom we agree? Or those who we can convince to change? Or should we meet people in order to listen? In order to understand?
George won’t speak to Muslims but for the next blog I’m going to look into the issue further – I’ll be speaking to Irish Times journalist Mary Fitzgerald about Islamophobia in Ireland and I’ll speak to someone from the Clongriffin Mosque Project to get their response to George’s concerns.
An Bord Pleanala, Ireland’s national planning appeals board, have given the green light for what will be Ireland’s largest mosque.
The three-storey domed mosque planned for Clongriffin in North Dublin is part of a huge project that includes minarets, schools, a conference centre, gym, swimming pool, restaurant, crèche, library, offices and residential apartments.
It’s estimated that the development will cost between €45 and €65 million. It will cater for around 550 people for Friday prayers and for up to 3,000 during festivals.
It will be Ireland’s third purpose-built mosque. The other two purpose-built mosques are in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo and in Clonskeagh in Dublin. There is also a purpose built Shia Islamic Centre in Milltown in Dublin.
The Muslim population of Ireland is estimated to be over 50,000. Most Muslims in the country worship in ‘makeshift mosques’ in housing estates, community halls or industrial warehouses.
The Dublin Welfare Society, who submitted the planning application, currently manage two mosques located in industrial units in Clondalkin and Swords.
The group are made up of a number of Dublin-based Muslims from different backgrounds and nationalities.
Dublin City Council had granted planning permission to the Dublin Welfare Society last March for the development. However, local Labour TD Tommy Broughan appealed the decision on the grounds of size and potential impact on traffic in the area.
Clongriffin is a newly developed area of Dublin. It was born in the boom years with a major residential development in 2002.
I visited the site for the Clongriffin mosque in July when I attended a special Ramadan event hosted by the Dublin Welfare Society. The event was held in one of the spanking-new retail units that surround the ‘town’ square.
Inside, the shopping centre was fitted with clean shining floor tiles and sparkling light fittings but the elevator was frozen in time and the retail units lay empty.
Development in Clongriffin almost halted completed with the collapse of the property market. Roads have been left unfinished and many of the retail units have never been occupied.
Access to the dart station, which was developed to cater for the burgeoning population, has also proved problematic.
It is hoped that with the go-ahead given for the new mosque and Islamic centre, that the development will result in much of local infrastructure being completed and a new access area to the Dart station.
Full article in the Irish Times:
My first visit to Clongriffin during my Ramadan blogging:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yesterday I was ‘called’ to Islam. The call to convert came from a lovely twenty-one year old South African man named Shakeer whose brown eyes were bright with friendliness and encouragement.
We were sitting opposite each other at a metal-legged table at the Golden Olive restaurant in Clonskeagh. Shakeer was wearing a freshly-ironed full-length brown thobe and a white hat. He had a long black scribbly beard.
Shakeer had phoned me a few days previously. He had heard about my Ramadan fast from an ex-colleague of mine in Waterford. He said he was interested in my experience and in why I was fasting. We arranged to meet. He told me it would be good if my husband came too.
Shakeer was in Ireland with a group of 26 South Africans. They were brought to Ireland to lead the nightly Taraweeh prayers of Ramadan at various mosques around the country. They were chosen to come to Ireland because they could all recite the full Quran by heart.
A person who can recite the full Quran by heart is called a Hafiz. To put this achievement in context – the Quran is slightly shorter in length than the Christian New Testament – it’s made up of just over 6,000 verses. Learning it by heart is considered a major achievement.
Shakeer told me that he left mainstream school at fourteen in order to learn the Quran. It took him six years. “This is more than double the average” he told me and explained that it took him so long because he was involved in various other activities including radio work during that time.
The 26 guys from South Africa were all members of the Islamic missionary organisation called Tablighi Jamaat. When they arrived in Ireland they were split up into groups of twos or threes and sent to various towns and cities. Shakeer was sent to Waterford city with two others.
He had a child-like quality to his face despite his long beard and he was bright with laughter and smiles. “My mam filled my bag with biscuits and all kinds of food for the journey” he told me. “She even put in powdered milk. I opened my bag and wondered did she think I was going to the jungle” he said laughing.
The biscuits and powdered milk his mam packed were still sealed in the bag as he prepared for his journey home. He told me that they were treated really well by the Muslim community in Waterford and that they were invited to houses for food every night. This, he explained, was a sign of respect for the Quran.
When he walked down the streets of Waterford the non-Muslim community of the city were curious. He said that when he walked down the streets of Waterford wearing the full length thobe, cars slowed down to look and people turned and stared. He smiled when he recounted their interest and didn’t seem to mind.
Recitation of the full Quran was completed at the mosque in Waterford the previous night. “It was very emotional” he said and explained that the completion of the Quran, coupled with the fact that it had been the 27th of Ramadan, meant that it was a night when supplications were accepted by Allah.
I asked him what he meant by supplication. “It’s a request” he said. “A person can ask for anything that comes to mind”. “Even material things?” I asked. “Yes, anything”. He laughed when I asked him if it works . “We have seen many times that it helps” he told me. “We made a special supplication because of the recession and lack of jobs in Ireland”.
We talked for over an hour. He told me about the presence of evil in the world today, about the media misrepresentation of Islam, about different law schools and movements within Islam.
He told me that their visit to Ireland was “majorly fruitful” because they completed the recitation of the Quran and that some people learned a few chapters of the Quran and one woman whose family is Catholic “reverted to Islam”.
I looked up at the clock on the wall of the empty restaurant and was it one o’clock in the early afternoon and time for me to go. “Before you go” he said, “it is my duty to call you to Islam and for that reason I’m asking you to pay note to a few things”. He went on to tell me that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world today and he spoke about the logic of the “oneness of the Almighty”.
He gently encouraged me to convert, there and then, by reciting the Shahada or creed (“there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God”).
“Is this why you wanted to meet me?” I ask him. “Yes” he answered smiling, a little cheekily. “Everyone is a believer or a prospective believer” he explained and “you are more prospective than others”.
I told him that I wasn’t going to convert, that I was interested in all religions. He urged me “don’t let religion be something of research and study, rather make it something of passion and devotion, a spiritual experience”.
He said “do this tonight – put your head on the ground or put your hands up and say “oh creator, show me that which is correct and guide me to that which is correct” and I hope you will see the light”.
I realise that Shakeer was giving me what he believes is the greatest gift that he can give to any person. As a devout Muslim he believes that, as an unbeliever, I am destined for hell where I will burn for eternity. I understand that he is concerned for me. He told me he felt pity for me. I appreciate his efforts.
“Out of billions of people in the world” he tried one more time. “Why would you meet someone who calls you to Islam? I think it is the Almighty and he wants to give you guidance”.
“Well in that case” I reply, smiling “more guidance will come”.
I do not share Shakeer’s faith or his beliefs. People might wonder then why I didn’t debate with him. But over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that beliefs are really very powerful things – in God or in no-God, in gods or in no-gods. I tend to go with the words of Ninian Smart “God is real for Christians whether or not he exists”. And who am I to disagree?
I’m no expert but I had never seen Islam like this before. It was the holiest night of the Islamic calendar and I was at yet another warehouse in an industrial estate in Dublin suburbs. This time I was with a group of Nigerian Muslims. The celebration was the most informal and upbeat I have seen over the past four weeks.
Last night was the 27th night of Ramadan. The night is called Laylat al-Qadr or the “Night of Power”. It’s believed by many to be the night on which the Prophet Mohammad received his first revelation. Although the exact date of Laylat al Qadr is not known, it’s thought to be on one of the odd numbered nights of the last ten days of Ramadan (21st, 23rd, 25th or 27th). The 27th is probably the most popular marker.
The previous night I had returned to Al Mustafa Islamic Centre in Blanchardstown for a special Iftar meal attended by the mayor of Fingal County Council, Kieran Dennison. There were speeches and delicious foods and I even managed to take photographs of Muslim women. But, my plans to stay for the overnight Itikaf retreat and lectures were scuppered by the tiredness of toddler and new-puppy nights.
The Nigerian mosque that I visited last night was in the same industrial estate as Al Mustafa but it was on a different road and in a much smaller warehouse. Night was falling when I arrived. I hung around outside the warehouse wondering what to do and whether to go in or not when two colourfully dressed women came outside, chatting. I introduced myself and they were very welcoming and led me inside.
The women showed me where to leave my shoes, led me over to where they had been sitting and pointed me to a blank spot on the floor beside them. One of them passed me a booklet with the words of the chant and encouraged me to join in. I’d never heard chanting like this in a mosque before.
One of the women near the back held a microphone and led the chant. Voices rose and fell and dropped in and out. Women with striking-coloured outfits and hijabs sat around the floor and against walls. Some had babies in their arms. Others shuffled prayer beads through their fingers. There was also chats and laughs. It was ordered yet informal.
The walls were painted blues and creams and filled with huge posters with the name of the organisation ‘Nasfat’. There were small wooden partitions dividing the women from the men who were up at the front of the room.
As time to break the fast approached two women walked around passing out packets of crisps to the younger children. Another woman walked around with pears and oranges. Another with bottles of water. Wraps of coca cola and Fanta orange were cut open and passed around. A large plastic sheeting was unfolded and spread out across the floor. Time to eat had arrived.
Imam at the warehouse, Moses Ogunse, came to talk to me. “In the Nigerian tradition we like to bring families together during Ramadan” he told me. “We see each other as one family – we are not family by blood but we are family together”.
Moses told me that around fifty families were there last night and that people bring food donations. It’s not just people from around Blanchardstown attending – some travelled from far beyond Dublin. He himself came from Offaly and comes every Sunday. Although Friday is a big day for all Muslims, Nigerian Muslims also gather on Sundays.
It’s not the only Nigerian makeshift mosque either. He told me that there are around five around Dublin alone and that all except one are in industrial warehouses. He explained that Western Nigerians have separate mosques to the Northern Nigerians as they speak different languages. Their gathering is made up of Western Nigerians.
A woman asked me what food I would like – it was like being offered a menu in a restaurant as she listed out the possibilities on offer. I got a bowl of rice pudding and a spicy bean pie with flaked smoked fish. Tasty.
After prayers the room filled with the sound of children who had been playing in a room upstairs. One young girl, around eight years old, spotted me and jumped backwards as she grabbed her friend’s arm. “Woah” she exclaimed. I asked “why are you so surprised?” She said “because there is a white person here”. We both laughed.
Ramadan is changing my perspective of Islam. It’s a bit like a view of the earth from the moon – from that far away the world looks straightforward, simple, a unified whole.
The closer you get to the object of attention the more complicated and complex it becomes. Divisions become clearer. Boundaries appear. And so it is for me with Islam as Ramadan draws to a close. Sufi, Sunni, Shi’a; Wahhabi, Salafi, Deobandi; men, women, children; Pakistani, Nigerian, Turkish, Iraqi; believers, questioners, atheists, ex-atheists. The richness and diversity of Islam becomes clear. My satellite vision disappears.
I’m back to fasting today but it is made easier by the fact that I’ve been invited for dinner to the home of an Iraqi woman I met at the Clonskeagh Iftar a few weeks ago. And today I’m off to meet a group of Hafiz (people who can recite the entire Quran by heart) from South Africa who’ve been in Ireland for Ramadan. Two more days and counting.
[The first vine video shows women worshipping at the mosque – it shows the exuberance and upbeat nature of the celebration – a six second video on loop. Not all the worshipping was like this but it does give a taste of some of it]
[this should be to a Vine video link of Shaykh Muhammad Rafiq at the Al Mustafa Islamic Centre reciting the beginning of Bismillah – to give an idea of the musicality of Arabic recitations of the Quran]
* This post and visits to both Al Mustafa Islamic Centre and Nasfat warehouse are part of my research into the use of industrial warehouses as places of worship which is funded by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund – the radio pieces will be broadcast on Newstalk in September/October coming.
I met the brilliant Irish sociologist Tom Inglis for lunch in Dublin a few years back. It was yet another of my foiled attempts to finalise a topic for a PhD. During our chat he made the point that, in Ireland, not all atheists are viewed equally – in Ireland it’s better to be a Catholic atheist than a Protestant one. It made me laugh at the time.
Last week I met a Muslim atheist. An ex-atheist. It was a chance meeting at the Clongriffin-mosque gathering in north Dublin. She happened to sit beside me as I sat on the floor eating my food. She was wearing a pink and white hijab and she was from Kazakstan.
Alina came to Ireland 12 years ago. She is around thirty. She was brought up in a non-practicing Muslim family and had always described herself as an atheist.
In Ireland she married a Muslim man. He was also from Kazakstan. He was a believer and a practicing Muslim. She wasn’t. He used to fast a few days during Ramadan. When they met he stopped going to the mosque so often and they “gave up on talking about religion”.
They had a baby. “It was such a miracle to experience birth and pregnancy and all the amazing things about breast feeding” she tells me. “Did you know that in a hot country the mother’s milk is more watery so the baby doesn’t get dehydrated? There are so many miracles in breast feeding. I started to question things.”
“A lot of atheists see people as just biological beings” she tells me. She pauses, fishing for words. She talks about science and photosynthesis and the value of science. “A lot of atheists” she starts again “think we are purely living from our reflexes and act in a certain way because we were raised in a certain way”.
Last Ramadan, when her husband was fasting, she started to research Islam. She didn’t tell her husband. She listened to lectures on Youtube and read articles on the internet. “Every time I listened to a lecture I thought “yes, this is definitely for me” and in the last few days of Ramadan I decided for sure that I wanted to be a Muslim and that I wanted to wear hijab”.
She was walking down a street in Dublin with her husband and baby daughter when she told him. He was happy. She smiles, telling me that she recited the shahada (the Islamic creed ‘there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God) there on the street in Dublin in front of her husband and since then she considers herself to be Muslim.
I ask her how did her family react. “My parents at the start were extremely worried” she tells me, laughing, “but the other day my mother was reminding me I had to pray so I was like “woah”. They don’t want me to wear hijab but it’s been a year now and they see how I’ve changed and I’ve become a better person. Even though they are Muslim they still have negative perceptions of Islam because of the media. I think it’s because they never looked into it.”
“When I was young my identity was related to Islam” she says. “When I was around seven my mother became religious for a while but when I reverted I didn’t know how to wash before prayer, I didn’t know I was meant to face Mecca when praying and I didn’t know how to put on the hijab. I learned it from the internet.” She laughs and tells me her first attempt wasn’t very good.
The women I spoke to in Clongriffin that night were from all over the world – Morocco, Turkey, Somalia, Australia, Libya and even Brunei. They nearly all spoke about missing their families and countries of origin during Ramadan when there is such a focus on families. They are all wearing head-coverings of some sort.
I notice a few women wearing the same cream-coloured hijab with coloured writing on it. Ebru from Turkey tells me that they belong to a group called “Happy Muslim Family of Ireland” – “we are trying to come together as families and do picnics and Eid parties and have fun for the kids”.
Ebru, who came to Ireland nine years ago, tells me she still feels homesick but she has settled into life in Dublin where she now works in a playschool. “The kids sometimes ask if I have ears and hair” she tells me, laughing, “so I show them sometimes”.
This is the last blog post about my interviews with the woman at Clongriffin. It’s Saturday morning now. The 3rd of August. The 25th of Ramadan. My period is nearing an end so tomorrow I’ll be back to the last four days of fasting. I feel grumpy even thinking of it, which defeats the purpose really, but I’ll enjoy my food and drinks today. Tonight I’m back to Al Mustafa Islamic Centre in Blanchardstown for an almost-all nighter of food and lectures and prayer.
Most of the people I’ve interviewed over the past few weeks have told me that the first few days of Ramadan are the difficult ones. Getting used to the hunger and thirst. I realise that women have to go through the difficult days twice during Ramadan and once again when Ramadan is over and they have to make up the lost days of the fast. Tomorrow will be difficult again. But only four more days to go.
I know it sounds terrible but the truth is that I was so excited to be finally talking to a woman whose face was covered that I forgot to ask her name. Only her eyes were visible – two bright blue sparkling ones – amongst the black.
I’ll call her Mariam.
It was Saturday night and I was in the shiny new Clongriffin shopping centre. A Muslim group known as the Dublin Welfare Society was renting out a section of the largely vacant centre to host a talk about converting to Islam which was to be followed by a special Iftar meal.
Around two hundred people – men, women and children – attended the event so the centre looked busy. The talk was in a large upstairs room. A crooked partition about the height of a person ran down the centre of the room. A dividing line. Women were on the left side. Men on the right.
The talk had just finished and people were wandering around, gathering in groups near the back of the room where the food was being prepared. It was nearly time to break the fast.
I noticed only one woman – other than myself – who wasn’t wearing a head scarf. Mariam was the first woman I saw there whose entire body and face was covered in drapes of black.
I’m ingrigued by Muslim women who cover their faces. I think I must subconsciously (and erroneously) associate the invisibility of mouths with voice-lessness and the black coverings with unapproachability. A fortress of cloth. When I saw Mariam I breached the perceived boundaries and went up to her. “Could I ask you a few questions?” I asked her nervously. “Yes” she answers in an unexpected American accent.
“I wear the niqab to be closer to God” she tells me. “It’s my personal decision. It makes it easier to interact in communities and to maintain my modesty. It’s a very personal thing. I really enjoy wearing it”.
Other people however, don’t always respond positively. “There is some negativity towards it, even from other Muslims”.
Mariam was born in the U.S. to an Irish-American Catholic family. She converted to Islam when she was 32 and immediately started wearing the hijab (which just covers the hair). “It’s hard to go through your life dressing a certain way and then to change but I believe that covering up is following God’s word. I’ll be honest, when I read the verse in the Quran about covering I did believe it meant to cover the face but I wasn’t ready”.
There is often an assumption that Muslim women who convert do so because they have married a Muslim man but Mariam tells me that she wore the niqab before she got married.
“We met through Facebook” she tells me, laughing, when I ask how did she meet her husband. “The only picture on Facebook of me was one where I was wearing the niqab. I found him interesting, charming, attractive and we chatted before he knew what I looked like. Then, after discussing marriage [she told me that in Islam you don’t talk to a man for no reason or just for friendship] he said “now can I see what you look like?””
Mariam’s Irish connection goes back three generations but she tells me that her husband, who is Algerian, is “more Irish than I am. He has an Irish accent and he knows the culture more than me. He was living in Ireland so after we got married I moved here”.
It’s time to break the fast so Mariam excuses herself and goes to take a drink of water. It’s only a few minutes later that I realise I’ve forgotten to ask her name. I go up to the only woman I see who is wearing the niqab. “Excuse me” I ask, tapping her on the shoulder “but are you the woman I just spoke to?” “No” the response comes back to me “I am her daughter”.
I wonder what it is that so intrigues me about women who wear the burqa or the niqab. Alfred Hitchcock comes to mind – an interview I saw with him many years ago. I vaguely remember him saying that what we don’t see is more powerful than what we do. Our imaginations fill in the gaps. I do a quick google. “Suspense is like a woman” Hitchcock said. “The more left to the imagination, the more the excitement.” That could explain it.
Ramadan has changed my relationship with the moon. Some days I see it high in the middayed-bluey sky and I pay attention to it in a way I never did before – its waxing or its waning. Its size.
Ramadan ends with the sighting of the next new moon. Every day now the bright side of the moon is shrinking in size. The month of fasting draws to a close.
I’ve finally lost a bit of weight. I’m down three pounds now and delighted with myself. Jasmina, one of the women I met on Saturday night in Clongriffin tells me that if you haven’t lost weight during Ramadan you haven’t done it properly. She has lost three kilos since the beginning of the month.
“Not to put a value on people” she tells me “but the whole point of Ramadan is to come out renewed in some way – for example to cut down on swearing or backbiting – and to learn to control your physical desires.”
“The idea is not to fast for eighteen hours and then gorge on everything and anything” she says. “There is nothing wrong with having treats but some people use Ramadan as a month of feasting and by the end of it their clothes don’t fit.”
Jasmina is from Australia and has a Home-And-Away style accent. She has a chirpy, confident, warm personality. She is wearing a colourful scarf on her head (hijab) and a long flowing black cloak called an abaya that covers her from neck to wrists to ankles. Underneath the cloak she is wearing a dress.
It must be hot with the hijab, heatwave, abaya and dress. “Other sisters [meaning other Muslim women] are saying “it’s so hot”” she says laughing “but I am like “this is nothing compared to Australian heat””.
“And the abaya is very light” she tells me holding up a section of the material to the light. “You can see through it” .
“In the Middle East they call this material “Atlas material”. I don’t know why but instead of saying it’s chiffon or silk they say “it’s Atlas”. And the cut is a butterfly cut so it’s very airy”. She reaches out her arms and the material falls down like wings.
“On hot days I just wear leggings and a singlet underneath” she says. “And you can wear any shoes that you like”. “Even flip flops?” I ask, surprised. She laughs “no no, the feet have to be covered”. She holds up her right foot to show me. She is wearing red runners.
Jasmina’s family are from North Africa and her husband is half-Algerian, half-Irish.
“We normally break the fast with a light soup, pastry, dates and if my husband is hungry he’d make himself a sandwich too – I’m not a very traditional housewife” she adds, smiling. “After breaking the fast my husband goes to pray in the mosque but this year I haven’t gone to the mosque as my daughter [who is three] is in bed by 8.30”.
The food she makes includes traditional Algerian soups, meat-filled pastries called Bourek and for sweets she would mainly eat fruit “or whatever I can grab from the shop – like maybe profiteroles.”
“My husband has a sweet tooth” she smiles. “He needs to have his Barry’s tea and rich tea biscuits. That’s the Irish contribution. But I prefer just some fruit.”
Muslims all over the world eat different foods for their Iftar meals. Experiences of Ramadan are as diverse as the cultures from which Muslims come.
It’s like looking at the moon and seeing either the rabbit or the man or even Michael Jackson (as I sometimes see). The object that we perceive in the shadows of the surface is dependent on the vantage point and cultural background.
Perspective is everything. The moon takes on new meanings. And for the first time in my life, as I share the experience of Ramadan with Muslims all over the world, the moon has become my divider of time.
Today is the first day of the most blessed time of the year for Muslims. The last ten days of Ramadan.
This last third of the month is when Muslims try to perfect their fasting by delving deeper into the heart or soul-layers with the likes of generosity, forgiveness and prayer.
It is believed that it was sometime during these ten days that the Prophet Muhammad first received the revelation of the Quran.
Over the next few days I’ll be recounting some of the stories of the women I met at the Clongriffin gathering on Saturday night. Tonight it’s Hannah’s story.
Hannah is introduced to me as being ‘Libyan’ but she was born and bred in Ireland and has only been to Libya on holidays. She’s a young woman and she tells me that this is her first time working during Ramadan. She is finding it exhausting.
For Muslims working in Ireland during Ramadan the ease, or not, of their experience is often dependent on the level of understanding of their workmates and employers. Hannah is lucky.
“I’m just very tired” she says. Time to break the fast is around 9.30 so after eating and praying it’s already late. Then it’s up out of bed before three, more prayers and food, back to sleep by four, up for work a few hours later. At weekends she tries to attend the Taraweeh prayers which go on until after midnight.
“People at work think I’m brave” she says. “And they are always asking “how are you feeling today?” They are starting to understand it. I’ve told my boss and she has let me go home early to do some work from home.”
Although she hasn’t had any negative response she says that sometimes she gets the impression that some people think “why are you starving yourself?” or “there is no meaning behind it”. “But” she says “it is a spiritual thing”.
“My mother makes the best food” she tells me, smiling, when I ask about breaking the fast. “There might be stuffed peppers called Mashi or Dolma, potatoes stuffed with meat (mbaten), a soup called sharba. There is also dates, milk, fruit salad, toast, juice. By two spoonfuls you’d be too full”.
It’s a very different experience for Hannah this year and she is finding Ramadan tiring. She tells me that she does know people who don’t fast because they’re working. “It’s a personal thing” she explains. “It’s between them and god.”
I think it’s kind of appropriate that I, as a non-Muslim, am exempt from fasting during at least some of these more important days. But part of me feels regret too. And I’m even a tiny bit envious of those who are.
Shayk Umar from Al Mustafa Islamic Centre in Blanchardstown posted this story on his Facebook account today:
“A Shaykh was asked about another person’s character. The Shaykh replied “I have not yet completely purified my own character from its evil characteristics, then how can I spend this time focusing on other peoples characters??” Friends the last 10 days of Ramadan have begun. This is the time to seclude yourself from the world and focus on purifying your lower self and cleaning your heart. Let us all focus on ourselves and get rid of our own evil characteristics.”