Ramadhaan Abroad

This year, for the first time in my life, I spent the entire Ramadhaan away from home and way from all close friends and family. 
Being in Qatar, a Muslim country where the Blessed Month is recognised with reduced hours (though if you have a non-Muslim boss and clients you may, like myself, find that it’s often ‘business as usual’ for some) I expected that this Ramadhaan would be my best yet! There are mosques everywhere, so meeting taraweeh shouldn’t be hard, and with longer days, less time at work and no distraction of friends and family (so I thought), I would have time to do all the ‘ibaadah I could imagine and more.
This was my expectation. The reality, was slightly different… 

False utopia

There are many in the non-Muslim world who dream of making Hijra. Conjuring up ideas of moving from the ‘Land of the Disbelievers’ to holier pastures anew where they expect that voila! practising the Deen will somehow become so much easier since everyone around is Muslim. I won’t lie, religious motivations had very little to do with my move to Doha. I came here because I wanted a change from London and to experience daily sunshine. Nevertheless, I did think that being in Doha could make life easier in terms of pursuing my Arabic and Quranic studies. Instead, it has left me realising how fortunate we are with all the facilities and resources in the UK and ultimately our success is down to our effort and not reliance upon our surroundings.

Ramadhaan has done little to change this opinion. While it was nice to have accommodating (lazy!) working hours and not need to face constant questions about my thirst or hunger (cue “not even water?” memes), as the first half of the month progressed, I often felt like I was missing that usual Ramadhaan spirit. It probably didn’t help that I wasn’t fasting for the first week, but the start of Ramadhaan really felt too fun at times with so many late night activities on offer!

A far cry from the sometimes back-ache inducing taraweeh sessions I had grown accustomed to in London, the prayers here were much shorter – in spite of the longer nights – and served as another reminder that piety isn’t (always) within the land but rather dictated by the people who inhabit it.

Community

My father frequently loves to tell us how much he wishes we’d sit round the table and eat as a family. Most of the times, our schedules and diets (I love okele and Nigerian food – but not everyday!) simply don’t allow it. Ramadhaan however, is perhaps the one time in the year when we are all forced to eat in each other’s company at suhoor and iftaar time. A fact that I had not really appreciated until this year.

Not only was I spending Ramadhaan away from London for the first time, but also without my family and community. And for all the Ramdan Kareem signs plastered across the malls and shop windows, it really did feel like there was a togetherness and lacking here.

There were few community iftars on offer to attend: in the first week of Ramadhaan, I tried to volunteer at an iftar event for the construction workers within one of the more popular expat areas. A seemingly innocent and commendable idea that one would expect to be encouraged during Ramadhaan, it was thwarted by local security who decided to shut it down minutes before Maghrib salah…charity work over here is, interesting, to say the least.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t any community events throughout the month, of course there were, and charitable ones too. I understand it is in fact common practice for wealthy Qatari families to set up tents in their homes and set out big pots of food for locals to come and eat. Still… I found the accessibility of such events lacking, especially in comparison to London where one can easily walk into a host of mosques on any day of the week during the week and find food readily available for all. By contrast, was most likely empty at Maghrib time throughout Ramadhaan (on one occasion, I found myself to be the only woman present for the Maghrib salaah).

All of this made me reflect upon the life and realities that many of reverts to Islam face. While I may have been able to joke with my sister, sending WhatsApp videos of me eating my iftar alone in front of my desk mirror, such situations are sadly a daily occurrence for many of our brothers and sisters, often forgotten and left on the outside of the supposed community spirit engendered by Ramadhaan. This is why it’s so important that we don’t forget to include all in our celebrations and support the cause of charities and organisations (e.g. SOLACE UK) working to fill this void.

Opulence

For the month of Ramadhaan, the night life is really where it was at. While Doha was abuzz with the holiday Ramadhaan spirit, a MAC Cosmetics advert was released inviting viewers to Get Ready for Suhoor and subsequently stoking a lot of controversy on ‘Muslim twitter’ with many accusing the cosmetics brand of misunderstanding and capitalising upon Ramadan (this BuzzFeed article, with a little cameo tweet from yours truly, provides a snapshot of the reaction and discussions).

The irony however is that MAC were spot on (for the Middle East market at least). I can certainly testify that suhoor looks are indeed a thing and if anything the model in the advert was quite understated in her glam compared to others I had seen here. For me, the advert is therefore no more a capitalisation of Ramadhaan as the ‘modest fashion’ trend is an exploitation of the Islamic dress code. Ok perhaps a slightly hyperbolic comparison, but still isn’t this in many ways a result – and danger – of the representation that Muslims (and indeed many other ‘minority’ (read: non-white) groups have been asking for? The matter we perhaps haven’t adequately considered is who is the spokesperson for such groups of people, unfairly lumped together as one homogenous group?

With the MAC advert for example, it’s very interesting to note that most of the outrage seemed to come from those in the West, where people were fasting upwards of 18 hours a day and barely had enough time to eat, let alone get ready for, suhoor. the In Middle East on the other hand, this was all very much business as usual. Islam and how it is practiced differs greatly across the world and cultures, so which Islam are the global media meant to portray? This isn’t to say that I in any way agree with the commercialisation of faith but I do sympathise somewhat for MAC and the backlash they probably weren’t expecting to receive. The job of a business is to provide a supply to meet consumers’ demand and unfortunately it is we Muslims (in certain parts of the world) who are turning Ramadhaan into an event for gross consumption, rather than the spiritual detox it should be.

That isn’t all a bad thing, however.

Of course, it is clear to see how 5 hour suhoor ‘parties’ and extravagant ‘Ramadan tent’ buffets feel contradictory to everything we typically believe this blessed month to be about (sacrifice, restraint, hermit-like abundance of worship). However, I do wish to make a (small) case for the benefit and good in these causes. Hear me out before you judge me as being blinded by the Doha lifestyle (which can very easily happen)…

As a single woman living in a foreign land far from any close friends and families, honestly I was delighted, oftentimes aghast and overwhelmed, but still delighted, by the deluge of events this Ramadhaan, as they provided me with the perfect opportunity to bond with and make new friends that perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise been available if all we had to rely on to mingle was the solitary hour of taraweeh prayers each night. Also, I won’t lie, it is also extremely fun to indulge in a world of opulence that would typically be inaccessible to me in London.

Ramadhaan Tent
One example of a ‘tent’ I visited for suhoor during Ramadhaan

And while I appreciate that not very expat/ migrant worker (semantics there again) has the opportunity to experience this side of Doha, I see no point in depriving myself because of that, especially since Doha really has been the welcome break from London that I had log yearned for so I may as well enjoy all that it has to offer [*inserts “you know my name not story” line of defence*].

There are of course many times where I had to pinch myself and remember that this small bubble is not reflective of the rest of the city itself let alone the wider world. Sometimes, however it’s necessary to see both extreme ends of the spectrum to fully comprehend the vast magnitude of the inequalities in our world.

The challenge then, is finding a way of changing it.

Seek and You Shall Find

As we headed past the halfway mark and into the last third of the month, the relentless Ramadhaan events (or perhaps my invites to such events), mercifully subsided. While they were a lot of fun, they were ultimately a great distraction, tiring and a strain on my wallet and wardrobe (I had not budgeted for the additional weekday taxi rides and outfits!)

As the fun times quietened down, I was able to focus a bit more on my ibaadah. On the 21st night of Ramadhaan , I prayed my first tarawih at Qatar’s State mosque/ Grand mosque/ Imam Muhammad Ibn Abdullah mosque and finally found the Ramadhaan I had been searching for: theimam-abd-wahab-msq.jpg one with the slow, melodic tear-inducing recitation filling the masjid walls, the lengthy rakaa’at of tarawih that, although tiring at times, somehow provide a comfort and relief from the fasting day.  (A special shout out should really go to my beloved Education City mosque where I also loved praying taraweeh).

Without the worry of being late for work the next day, since everybody would be starting work late the next day – what ease, I love it!, I was also able to also join tahajjud prayers at the masjid throughout the last nights of the month.

At last, I thought, it is Ramadhaan!

But then, it always had been. The mosque had always been there and it wasn’t even very far from my house. Perhaps it is a shame that my local mosque offered a short ‘service’ of prayers, but I wouldn’t have needed to venture very far to find somewhere else where the tarawih was longer and would nourish my soul as I desired.

This Ramadhaan has made me reflect upon how blessed we are to be to have our Islam in the West, even with the growing persecution and Islamophobia we may face. Going from a minority, to being in a country where Islam is the prevailing culture and belief I have a greater appreciation for the struggles to stay firm on Deen and ultimately feel sad about no longer having a share of this. If people are able to strive to complete their recitation of the Qur’aan and attend salaahs while fasting for 3/4 of the day and working usual full-time hours, there is little excuse then for those of us lucky enough to be in environments tailored to fit our fasting pattern…

In a time where it’s so easy to give in to pressures to compromise our faith and religious practices, the virtues and rewards of remaining steadfast should reinforce and strengthen our resolve. Wallaahu Musta’aan

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