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

Iftar in a Pakistani restaurant – Ramadan day #15, half-way there

The rain clouds are gathering. In the west there have been monsoon-like downpours but here in Ballinteer, Dublin, the ground is still parched. Like me.

Ramadan falling in an Irish summer means that the hours for eating and drinking are limited to about 5 a night. So after eating I horse through the water and leisurely graze at food. I usually get to bed late – well after midnight. The copious water re-fuelling results in peeing a lot so up and out of bed a lot and it all adds up to a lack of sleep. Last night it caught up on me.

I went to bed early for a change. Valuable water-drinking hours were replaced with sleep-drinking. It was important, therefore, to refill when my alarm went off at 3 a.m. but I woke, turned off the alarm in my half-sleep and fell straight back to full-sleep. No water. Today I’m thirsty.

Yesterday I decided to go in search of a Muslim-run restaurant to see what it’s like for people who are fasting to be working all day with food.

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Madina restaurant, Mary Street, Dublin

There were plenty of results from my online search but I settled on a place called Madina in Dublin’s city centre. I’m told by a man over the phone that, though he is Sikh and not fasting, most of the staff are Muslim and I’d be welcome to come to talk to them. He also tells me that they give free dates and drink to people who are fasting at the time of breaking the fast.

I arrive at the Mary Street restaurant around 9.30. It is quiet. There are a few couples eating at the metal-legged tables. The man behind the counter is the man I spoke to earlier. His name is Lucky. “It’s my nickname” he tells me. And yes, he tells me he is lucky. An example? “I have the perfect wife” he says with a wide smile.

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Abdul, head chef at Medina restaurant

I’m introduced to the head chef Abdul who came to Ireland from Pakistan around six years ago. He has been working since 10.30 this morning and won’t finish until 11.30 at night. He is fasting.

“I feel hungry sometimes when it’s busy” he tells me. “The day is most difficult between 8 and 9.30 at night and between 2 and 3 in the afternoon because so much food is ordered and there is a lot of heat and fire. Also I have to go up and down the stairs a lot so I do get thirsty.”

He and the other Muslims working in the restaurant stop work for about fifteen minutes when it’s time to break the fast. “First we take dates” he says “then fruit salad, milk, 7-up and vegetable pakora.”

“Do you not eat a curry?” I ask him. “When you take a drink you can’t eat anything” he explains. “But at three in the morning I eat curry, rice and bread and have a lassi – yoghurt with milk and sugar”.

He is happy to be fasting despite the challenges. “It is good for the stomach and for everything. It is a sacrifice” he tells me.

The question I ask everyone I meet who is fasting: “Have you lost weight?” “Yes yes” he says “I lose between five and eight kilos in the thirty days”. I sigh, disappointed at my own weight-loss record which still stands at zero.

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Dates to break the fast

After the chat it’s almost 9.40 and time to break the fast. I sit at a table beside the wall. Lucky takes away the menu from the table saying “you won’t need that. For breaking the fast we bring out the food to you when it’s time” and a few minutes later a little silver tray of four dates is brought out and a bowl of fruit salad. “You can eat now” Lucky tells me as he puts two drinks that I don’t recognise on the table.

I begin with some of the clear-coloured drink – I have no idea what it is but it’s refreshing. And a date. “Dates are one of the only things that grow in the desert” Lucky tells me “and they are the strongest thing you can eat for energy. One date is equal to a full meal, or even ten meals”.

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Nicest fruit salad ever eaten

The fruit salad explodes with taste in my mouth. It’s a simple salad – just grapes, apples and bananas but also added is cream, yoghurt and a small pinch of a spice called chaat masala. It is divine. I savour every mouthful.

Another plate is brought out – spicy vegetable pakoras and an onion bhaji on a plate with a yoghurt-mint sauce.

The clear-coloured drink is called Sikanjwi. Abdul tells me it’s a traditional Pakistani drink and it’s made with water, salt, sugar and lime. The other drink is milky coloured and is called dudh soda. “It’s 7-up and milk” Abdul tells me. Another traditional Pakistani drink. It sounds odd but actually tastes quite nice. Sweet, creamy.

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The full Iftar meal for breaking the fast

I had expected a surge of customers once the time for breaking the fast arrives but it stays quiet. “Does Ramadan affect business?” I ask Lucky. “Ramadan does make a difference in terms of business. Most of our customers are Arabic, most are Muslims, Indians and South Indians. It’s very much quieter during Ramadan”.

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Panipuri – an unexpected extra

I’m given another dish of something called Pani Puri but I’m already so full I can barely manage a taste. It’s a spicy sweet mix of chickpeas, chutney and spices in little thin crusted pastry balls. The food is all delicious but the city centre tap water isn’t great so I drink a small bottle of still water instead.

Abdul says that for the first fifteen days of Ramadan most people prefer to eat at home with friends and family. “The last ten days are better for Iftar parties when people try restaurants with friends”.

I come up with a plan to spend at least part of the remaining month using my Ramadan fast as an excuse to have Iftar parties exploring the tastes and food of different Muslim restaurants and nationalities all over Dublin. (If any of my Dublin readers would like to join me that would be great!) And in the meantime, from now on I will drink water instead of sleep.

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Lucky who is Sikh, Mubshir who is fasting, Abdul the head chef and waitress Pooja who is Hindu. Catering for the different religious groups – no beef, pork or alcohol are served at the restaurant. Also please note: when I visited Pakistan six years ago I was told not to smile during photos in order to look more dignified – it is not that they are unhappy!

Iftar at the Shi’a Islamic Centre, Dublin – Ramadan

Fasting for Ramadan has unlocked in me a new level of understanding. It’s been like opening a box and uncovering the core of Islam.

Too often, in the west, our perceptions of Islam are made up of a cacophony of shock-factor news stories and the image that’s built up over the years becomes a collage that instils fear.

I’ve done enough stints in news to know that ‘great news stories’ are tales of the extraordinary, not the ordinary. The unusual, not the usual. And so, ‘doing’ Ramadan has opened up a gate for me – the gate to Islam as lived by the majority, the gate to Islam as ordinary. The ordinary – arguably, the place where real beauty lies.

Sunday starts off with another oddity for someone fasting for Ramadan – a christening in a Catholic church followed by a celebratory meal in a posh restaurant with the nicest blooming garden I’ve ever seen. I am the only one out of a group of fifteen not eating. People say to me ‘you’re very strong’. I think to myself “I’m only learning”.

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Hussainia, the Shi’a Islamic Centre of Ireland at Miltown, Dublin

Later I drive to the Shi’a Islamic Centre in Dublin. I’m told to wear a scarf. The centre, called Hussainia, is an unassuming red-brick building in Miltown with a glass dome on its roof. It doesn’t look like a mosque.

I’m here to meet Dr. Yasmin Ali, an Iraqi born woman who came to Ireland thirteen years ago. She is very welcoming and friendly. We take off our shoes in the porch and leave them on the wooden shelves before going to the women’s section.

The women’s section is a large carpeted room with soft couch-like seats all around the walls. There is a partition of wooden doors separating it from the men’s section.

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The partition between the women and men’s section

“For me, Ramadan is the most important month in the year” Yasmin says. “Believe it or not we wait for it every year and when it is finished we are sad. It’s a break from the rules – from having three meals a day – but more than just that, it is a break from everything.”

The Iftar meal is served every night in the Shi’a centre. Yasmin tells me that it’s cooked by a volunteer from the community and it’s free. The cost is covered by donations.

Most years Yasmin and her family come to the centre every night for Ramadan but this year the breaking of the fast is so late that they haven’t come. Tonight is her first night.

It’s approaching half past nine and I can’t smell any food. My stomach is grumbling. I’m getting concerned. Yasmin has told me that the food is cooked in the building and that “usually you can smell the food”. I’m starving. She sees the look of panic on my hungry face and tells me not to worry, there will be food.

The conversation returns to Ramadan. “We all look after our bodies a lot – we eat good food, exercise and go to the doctor if we are sick. But at the same time the body is not eternal. The soul is the eternal thing. So why not look after the soul as well?”

“I believe that Ramadan is a good way to discipline the soul” she continues. “You feel stronger because you can control your hunger, thirst, sexual desire. And I think it’s very important that you can control your instincts and by doing this for thirty days every year it gives more ability to control yourself and your desire”.

As prayer time approaches a few more women file in including Yasmin’s sister Jinan and Jinan’s daughter Diana. We are all chatting together. I’m the only one who is hungry. I’m starving. I’m also the only one who hasn’t lost any weight. All three of them have lost weight. Yasmin says they always make sure to eat healthy foods.

But then I hear the word “sweets” spoken by Diana who is nineteen “I crave sweets” she tells me unapologetically. “It’s probably the first thing I have when I break the fast. One day a week I would eat only sweets. It makes me happy. I’d have Raffaelo chocolate, candies, lollipops”.

“If I’m walking around and see sweets during the day I buy them and think “this is my iftar today””. Her mother does a mixture of a laugh and a sigh as though she has given up but enjoys Diana’s spirited personality at the same time.

My Ramadan calendar says sunset Sunday night is 9.42 but it’s already 9.47 and there’s no sign of food or prayers. Yasmin explains that the Shi’as calculate their sunset slightly differently to the Sunnis and as a result their breaking of the fast is around fifteen minutes later. There are other minor differences too.

The official sunset time arrives around 10.00 and Yasmin brings me a bowl of delicious lentil soup. I have a second portion, and a date and a glass of water and then the women rise for prayer.

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Prayer mats laid out in the women’s section. They drape the pieces of sheet-like material over themselves when they pray.

There are just ten women, a baby and a little toddler in the women’s section. The prayer lasts a few minutes and then the food is brought out on large trays. A plastic glass of actimel-style yoghurt is served with the food which we eat on the floor.

I tell Yasmin that I find it very hot with the hijab (scarf) on my head. She says “it’s okay now to take it off” and when I do I immediately feel cooler.

A toddler crawls towards the wooden doors that separate the women from the men and starts pulling at the door. One women lets out a cry when she sees the door is about to open. A few women rush over to lift the toddler away and put a chair against the door, securing the division.

The women tell me that it’s the men who do the washing-up. Partly, they suggest, to keep the women from wandering around the building. They also say that a lot more men than women come to the centre for food because most of the Shi’a women in Ireland are married and there are a lot of single men who come for food.

After the food and conversation I head home and take a look at my blog. The number of readers has jumped after journalist Assed Baig retweeted my link. I see there are people reading it now from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, South Africa and more.

My intentions with this blog were many but one of them was to let Irish people know about Islam and about Ramadan. It seems Muslims also want to know more about non-Muslim perceptions of Ramadan and Islam. The curiosity (and fear too I suppose) works both ways. So hello to you reading this – Muslim, non-Muslim, Irish, not Irish – wherever you are!

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Food, glorious food

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 )

 

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.

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

Ramadan in Ireland 2013

It’s the nicest, bluest skied, cloudlessiest, sunniest Ireland in 40,000 years and the sun is set to shine all week. Heatwave haven and crash-bang landing into the heart of this anomalous Irish summer lands Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. This year I’m thinking of taking part in the fast. One more day before blast-off.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and during the month Muslims are expected to abstain from food, drink (not the Irish version – this version includes abstaining from even water) and sex during daylight hours.

Daylight hours in July in Ireland this year last from 3 in the morning until 10 the following night – nineteen hours fasting every day for thirty days. Slightly more challenging than the Irish Catholic fasting that I grew up with of no meat on Fridays, giving up chocolate for Lent or even the 24 hour Concern fast when even hot soups are snuck in to the equation. Lough Derg penitentiary is probably the toughest version of fasting on Ireland and as far as I remember water was allowed and it lasted maybe 24 or 48 hours. I was on Lough Derg with my best friend who celebrated her 16th birthday walking barefooted around the rocks eating dried toast and black tea.

The length of the daily fast of Ramadan isn’t usually so long but, because the Islamic calendar is lunar, Ramadan slips backwards through the seasons by about eleven days a year. Next year it will begin at the end of June. In countries closer to the equator the daylight hours don’t vary so much through the seasons but in Ireland the difference is dramatic.

The start date of the month of Ramadan is decided by the sight of the new moon. I had read earlier this week that it would begin in Ireland on the 9th but was told by the Imam in Waterford today that it wouldn’t be decided until night had fallen as it was only then that the moon’s newness could be identified. The decision on the start date was to be made by the European Council for Fatwa and Research.

It was decided in the last few hours that it would begin on Wednesday the 10th and not tomorrow as I’d earlier expected – notices have been posted on the websites of the Islamic Foundation of Ireland and the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland in Clonskeagh. I don’t know how universal or national the agreement of the start-date is – last year I visited a mosque in Blanchardstown on the first day of Ramadan and discovered that different mosques in Ireland had chosen different start dates so it can be a contentious matter.

So based on the IFI and ICCI dates I’ve one more full day of eating normally – whenever and whatever I want – if I am to take part in the fast. My biggest concern is that I would be going it alone – most Muslims meet in groups or as a family for a nightly feast when the sun sets. I’m not much of a cook myself so I’ll likely make do with a few fried pre-cooked spuds with onions and cheese.

Women who have their period are exempt from the fast. And there are lots of other exemptions too – the sick, pregnant women, young children. I might have to exempt myself for special occasions or other religious gatherings but in the meantime, if I manage even one day, I’d be delighted. The Imam also told me that it gets easier after the first three days. We will see.

The attraction of the fast?

Muslims in Ireland number around 50,000 and, with increasing incidents of Islamophobia fuelled by the dominant meta-narrative of Islam as enemy, they are often misunderstood by the Irish majority. What do we understand of Islamic fasting in Ireland? Or of Islam? Or of Muslims? Mostly close to zero.

Muslim colleagues work their way through the long hot days of a July real-Irish-summer of Ramadan whilst their non-Muslim colleagues munch and lick their way through snacks of cool drinks and ice-creams or salad sandwiches and tea or lattes or cappucinos. It might be nice to understand a smidgin of what it’s like.

Ramadan is said to teach the part-taker about self-restraint and equality. It gives the wealthy, instant-gratification-lives of western consumers an inkling of going without and of what it feels like to go hungry. Optionally. Optional hunger. A luxury of learning.

And so, one full more day and counting. I’ll probably change my mind but just for a day, just for one day, it might be nice (or at the least interesting) to try.