Ramadaan is typically when you want to be home with your loved ones. A time to connect, to find comfort and meaning. But what would it be like to experience Ramadaan within other cultures? Maryam B Rumaney takes us on her journey of experiencing Ramadaan away from her home in Cape Town to a melting pot of culture in Europe.
“We are all born with spiritual wings, Islam simply reminds us how to fly.”
– A. Helwa, Secrets of Divine Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Heart of Islam
Ramadan is a lunar month on the Islamic calendar. During this month, Muslims all over the globe observe abstinence from food and drink from dawn until dusk. Ramadan is the month in which the holy Islamic book was revealed, known as the Quran. It is also a month of charity, increased prayer and it is wholly about creating a deeper connection with God, with the aim of sustaining this level of God-consciousness throughout the year. On a more human-centric level, Ramadan is about feeling the plight of the poor. In feeling hunger, Muslims are humbled and brought to a greater realisation of the blessings in their lives. The act of fasting can be viewed as worship through gratitude.
On a more philosophical level, Ramadan, like travel, is a journey. However, Ramadan is a spiritual journey. To be able to experience Ramadan abroad was an absolute blessing. It is often assumed that the West is devoid of an Islamic experience, but I found the opposite to be true for Europe. I once had to attend meetings in Europe that overlapped with Ramadan. I was not hesitant at all. By my very nature I was eager to experience a foreign Ramadan and thereby acquire a new learning experience. Since my childhood, I have been fascinated by how others, in different parts of the world practice Islam. When this opportunity presented, I simply could not decline!
Europe in summer is magical, with long sunny days (for the most part). I found the whole trip to be quite romantic, and had the added benefit of my husband joining me. In November of the previous year, I visited Barcelona, Spain, and fell in love of the ‘romance’ of the city. I vowed to bring back my better half to this city. In the true spirit of positivity, a mere seven months later, I was back there with the love of my life.
Our Europe journey took us from Cape Town to Germany, Spain, France and Belgium. In Germany we landed in Frankfurt, and hopped on a train all the way to Wiesbaden. Wiesbaden is a lush city that reminded me of a small town on a Sunday afternoon – relatively laidback. What was interesting was the big Turkish community. My husband has a German-born Turkish friend that resides in Frankfurt, who made the commute to show us around. We ended up at a local fair and then had dinner at a Turkish eatery called Harput Restaurant. A name I distinctly remember because of the good food. What was particularly tasty, since bread is life, was the thin flat breads served as a starter with a variety of dips. For the main course we had Turkish grills and salads. The street in which this restaurant was situated was lined with many halaal eating places. I was quite pleasantly surprised.
Next on the itinerary was Spain. We took a flight from Frankfurt to Barcelona. In Barcelona we stayed a few roads away from the Ramblas, in the heart of the touristy magic. While I attended meetings, my husband spent the day sight-seeing. He also managed to find a few halaal restaurants, owned by several nationalities. During our time in Spain we were a few days away from Ramadan, and remember getting our hands on two calendars that outlined the long hours that Muslims in Europe fast during their Summer. In Spain I found a huge Pakistani community. In terms of eating, there were several restaurants along the Marina with halaal certificates, but they served alcohol. This made halaal dining particularly difficult in this city. We managed to find one halaal Turkish restaurant on the Ramblas.
From Barcelona we headed to Brussels, by flight. Once we reached Brussels it was almost time to start Ramadan. The hotel we stayed at had many Moroccan-born staff members who were happy to organise an early breakfast for those who were going to fast the next day. Surprisingly, there were quite a few Muslim guests staying at the hotel, and they would all meet for suhur (an Arabic term that denotes the Ramadan meal consumed early in the morning by Muslims before fasting, before dawn and before the first prayer of the day). Suhur was pretty early, around 02:30 – 03:00 am, something that I had not experienced before. In Cape Town the longest fast begins at 04:00am and ends at 20:15pm. In Europe fasting meant 19 hours. It was unbelievable. This took spiritual dedication to a new level. I developed a profound admiration for European Muslims who uphold Ramadan despite these long hours. Thirst and fatigue are harder to combat than the hunger. In the evenings, when visiting a halaal restaurant, iftar (an Arabic term for the meal that denotes the breaking of the fast) was served to all guests. Dates, fruit and local delicacies (depending on the nationality or heritage of the owner) were served at no extra cost to all the guests. I was amazed at the level of hospitality.
From Brussels we took a long-distance train to Paris. Here we explored the city using the extensive subway train system. Each tourist attraction is outlined on the map, making it easy to navigate the network. We did all the tourist sites, from the Eiffel tower to the Louvre, etc. One little stop off the beaten track was a visit to the Grand Mosque of Paris. I was amazed at the architecture and the beauty of Quranic recitation that could be heard from several classrooms attached to the mosque. Women were having Quran reading circles, and there was such a Ramadan vibe. We met local French Muslims, as well as those from Algeria and Tunisia. It was heart-warming to see strength amongst a community that is so oppressed by their democracy.
Ramadan in Europe was a soulful experience. It was a reminder of something that I would not have been able to experience had I opted for the comfort of my home. By embarking on this adventure, I was able to meet so many different Muslim communities and get an idea of their way of life. It is a blessing beyond measure to explore the world.
For now, stay safe and stay home.
Leave a comment if you’re enjoying our travel posts. Look out for our next armchair travel post where Maryam tells us about her Eid in India.
By Maryam Bibi
Maryam is a molecular scientist by profession with a passion for writing. She currently works as a freelance consultant offering laboratory advisory, scientific editing, and English language services. She loves to