Moons and butterfly wings – Jasmina’s story

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The waning moon

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.

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An abaya image from the internet – butterfly cut

“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.

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A little bit of lunacy

The last ten days, and Hannah’s story – to work when fasting

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.”

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

‘Who said mass?’, ex-Muslims and Ramadan

I’m from the generation that bridged two very different Catholic Irelands. It went from a society where Catholicism was compulsory (if you were born into it, which most people were) to one where the fastest growing ‘religions’ are atheism, agnosticism and lapsed Catholic. In the Ireland of the 21st century we have religious choices. We have freedom.

I grew up in an Ireland of polishing shoes for Sunday mass, fasting before communion, hymns at school, rosary at home, and a holy water font inside the front door. As an adult – 90% (or thereabouts) of my friends are atheist.

On Twitter I follow a group called the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. In Islam, apostasy (leaving the religion) can sometimes be punishable by death, particularly in Middle Eastern and African countries. The CEMB provide advice, help, support and solidarity for ex-Muslims. Including steps on how to make sure your internet activities cannot be traced – that’s how careful they believe they have to be.

Up to now I’ve extolled the virtues of Ramadan and heard only positives from Muslims about their fasting experiences. Following on from some exchanges with the CEMB yesterday I realise that Ramadan is not a positive experience for ALL Muslims. Particularly those who have no faith but yet feel compelled within their communities to join in the fasting and prayers for reasons of fear.

I headed off yesterday to Al Mustafa Islamic Centre to talk to Shaykh Muhammad Umar Al-Qadri about the issue. The centre is in the unlikely location of an industrial estate. It doesn’t look like a mosque or a place that has anything to do with religion. On the outside door there is a kid’s colourful drawing with the words ‘Eid Mubarak’.

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Al Mustafa Education and Islamic Centre, Coolmine Industrial Estate, Blanchardstown

I asked Shaykh Umar about the issue of apostasy. “My view on ex-Muslims is the same as that of the Quran, the same as in the hadith [stories about the Prophet Muhammad] – anyone who follows Islam, he is free to follow or not follow the religion.”

“There is a verse in the Quran which says “there is no compulsion in religion”. If someone does not believe anymore, then for me he is still the same. I respect him and love him the same as anybody else”.

I suggest that this is the moderate view, that others would not share his opinion. “This” he insists “is the scholarly view of any school of thought, they will all give the same answer. But you will have extremists who have no tolerance. There are people in Islam who call themselves Muslim who are terrorists. There are also Muslims who will say that those who left Islam are enemies. This is not backed academically, scholarly”.

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Shaykh Muhammad Umar Al-Qadri at his office desk in Al Mustafa Centre

Shaykh Umar is from a Pakistani background but was raised in the Netherlands. The first time I met him around six years ago I was afraid of him. Simply because he seemed important with a retinue of followers, and he wore a big black beard. At that time I knew only a little about Islam. Today I would say that he is probably the most approachable Muslim leader I’ve met in Ireland.

Shaykh Umar tells me that the mosque at Al Mustafa is the most diverse in Ireland. People from Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, the Ivory Coast and many other countries come here to pray. He also tells me that “in this mosque at least two people accept Islam (convert) every month. A lot of them are Irish”.

During Ramadan the mosque is busy, particularly for the Taraweeh prayers at night which don’t finish until after midnight. “In Ireland, people who wouldn’t normally come to the mosque during the year come every day during Ramadan.”

And are there Muslims in Ireland who don’t fast? “More Muslims in Pakistan don’t fast than people in Ireland” he tells me. He is just back from Pakistan where he says he saw people smoking (also banned in Ramadan during daylight hours) and not fasting but nobody was objecting. If a person doesn’t fast, that’s between him and Allah.”

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Inside the warehouse – this is the space used as a mosque

“Approximately 50% of the Muslim population don’t pray five times a day” he tells me. “Is there anyone who judges them? Nobody. Is there anybody who forces them? Nobody”.

Again I suggest that his view is the moderate view but he responds: “I would say this is the correct Islamic view. Any other view is an extreme view and is a wrong interpretation of Islam”.

It’s not the first time that the topic of extremism has come up over the past few weeks. Shaykh Umar is so outspoken and so seemingly moderate (to my ears anyway) that I ask him if he himself fears extremists.

“Yes. Well, not in the sense that they could do me any wrong but I have the fear that they could destroy the reputation of Islam in Ireland.”

He tells me that in Pakistan he is very well known because of his TV appearances. The TV station provided bodyguards for him round the clock because he “could be a target for the extremists”. Why? “Because I speak out against them and because the message we give of Islam is a message that does not benefit them”.

“Are there extremists in Ireland?” I ask him. “There could be extremists in Ireland. They are not organised but there are individuals. They have no scholarly background”.

I imagine that I’m not going to meet any Muslims in Ireland who will openly talk to me about any negative experiences of Islam or of Ramadan. There are mild parallels to the Ireland that I grew up in where anybody who didn’t have faith ‘belonged’ to the Catholic church anyway.

Ramadan has been a wonderful experience for me to date. The hunger and thirst are inconsequential in comparison to the new found appreciation of taste and food and the excuse to go out and visit mosques and meet people and eat with them and learn about their cultures, religion, experiences and life.

This whole discussion reminds me of the years when I was in my twenties and mam used to call me for mass every Sunday morning. I unwillingly rolled out of bed. I was an adult and either had my own car or the use of one. I ‘went’ to mass by driving around country roads or heading to the beach and the first question later, when I got home, was always ‘who said mass?’


This is a radio programme I made for WLRfm in 2005ish about Catholic Ireland in the mid-twentieth century. Funded by the BCI. Featuring catechism quotes from my dad. And my fake-newsy voice (apologies for the voice 🙂 )

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‘Who said Mass?’ – T-Shirts with this image are available from Irish company http://www.hairybaby.com

* My visit to Al Mustafa Islamic Centre was done as part of my research into the use of warehouses as places of worship for migrant groups. This research is funded by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund. The radio pieces being made from this research will be broadcast on Global Village on Newtalk in September/October 2013.

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

Raspberries during Ramadan

Today I got cocky. Did a two hour hike up a beautiful oak forested low mountain just outside of Dublin. And then I nearly caved. Again.

Halfway to the top of the mini-mountain I ate a raspberry by accident. I was so excited to see my first ever wild-raspberries that I completely forgot about the fast. If I had found any more I probably would have eaten them too. But it was by mistake so I think it’s okay.

And then my sister-in-law invited me to a bar-b-q. ‘If you want to break the fast’ she said in her text. I did want to break it but held on. I was even tempted to eat in McDonalds when my husband picked up a take away for himself and my toddler. That’s how hungry I was. The hunger monster in my belly was banging for attention. Loudly.

By 6 o’clock I was really craving food and wondering ‘why am I doing this anyway?’ Hitting at the edges of persuading myself out of going any further. I visited my sister-in-law’s house just for the company and there were glasses of prosecco on the go and people slagging me munching on the final bits from the bar-b-q. Kids were running around waving chocolate cookies in their hands. Taunting me.

Today was the toughest yet. I was really beginning to feel foolish and questioning the whole experiment of fasting for Ramadan even though I’m not Muslim. As consolation for the challenge I think to myself ‘ah surely I’ve lost a few pounds in the process’. But I’m not getting onto the scales to face the fact that probably – no!

One third of the way there – Ramadan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The brown sunburnt grass at the side of the roads

Levels of Ramadan and the adhan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.