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My Dutch Ramadan

My Dutch Ramadan

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The most common question among my Arab and Muslim friends is: “Are you fasting this year?”

I usually ask this to figure out who’s in it with me. Who will I plan Iftars with, and who will be powering through fasting for a month while life around us goes on as normal, as is the case in all European countries.

You get a mixed bag of answers: The confident “Yes, of course!”, the hesitant “I can’t with my work schedule. It’s very difficult!” Some fast for the first day or a couple of days to honor Ramadan, while others have to travel for work and their month gets interrupted. Others follow Mecca time, especially when the days are very long and the sun sets very late. Some honor Ramadan by quitting alcohol, and toning down their flamboyant lifestyle out of respect. The point is… I came to realize, there’s not one way to do Ramadan in Europe.

Preparations to get into Ramadan

Trying to create a home away from home is already difficult enough on a daily basis. But every Ramadan, a sense of nostalgia creeps in urging me to recreate an environment that reminds me of Ramadan with my family in Bahrain.

Every Ramadan, a sense of nostalgia creeps in urging me to recreate an environment that reminds me of Ramadan with my family in Bahrain. 

 This year, I crammed all my coffee and dinner dates in the week right before the start of Ramadan, knowing that soon I will be fasting, just like I have done for the past five years. Then, I stock up on Ramadan essentials like (Non-Israeli) dates, Arabic coffee, incense and coal, and crucial spices like cardamom and saffron. For 30 days, I make a point to cook nothing but Arabic dishes.

My Egyptian friend Manar Ellethy, a PhD Candidate and Lecturer at Leiden University & Radboud University Nijmegen, told me that she too usually stocks up on dates, and that she also gets ready spiritually by setting goals for herself that brings her closer to God through praying and reading Quran. She also runs a small family charity initiative, and part of her Ramadan preparations is to start collecting funds to help people in need.

A good number of people in my circle are booking flights to go back home for the second half of Ramadan. That is, in a way, preparation.

Work / Ramadan balance

Living in a country that does not celebrate the holidays we are used to celebrating back home, makes the commitment to practice more difficult. In previous years where I had a full-time office job, I had to talk to my managers to let them know that I would be fasting and therefore might have less energy and focus than usual, especially during the first week. Managing expectations to avoid being compared to non-fasting colleagues becomes essential, as most Dutch people are not aware of Ramadan, when it starts, or when it ends.

Manar says she often gets asked: “you’re not allowed to even drink water?” 

In a country where I am a minority, it is harder to experience religious holidays and traditional celebrations the same way. We have to find ways to create these moments. I often ask my mom and grandmother for the recipes of my favorite dishes. The loud speakers play Ramadan instrumental music, and at night some Quran recitals. And not to forget the Bakhoor.

For her, work/Ramadan balance is the most challenging part. “I usually arrange working mostly from home but it doesn’t always work out and not all employers are equally understanding.”

Now that I am a freelancer, I am responsible for my own schedule and have no one to report to, so it’s slightly easier to manage. I wake up a little bit later, and avoid in person meetings if I can, to preserve energy.

Being a filmmaker means I look to attend film festivals to connect with other filmmakers, watch good films, and improve my knowledge. This year, I realized that I will be attending two film festivals during Ramadan, one of which is not in the Netherlands. This means that I will attend film screenings while fasting, and will have to break my fast on the go to be able to attend evening networking events. It’s constant logistical gymnastics to be able to be where you need to be while still making sure that you have the energy, and can break your fast in time.

Home away from home

Ramadan in the Netherlands can’t be compared to Ramadan in the MENA region, it is a bit more isolated. If I compare life in the Netherlands to life in Bahrain on any given day it would be an unfair comparison, let alone during Ramadan or Eid. In a country where I am a minority, it is harder to experience religious holidays and traditional celebrations the same way. We have to find ways to create these moments with other expats, often from different countries.

I create a very Bahraini environment at home by cooking dishes that I’m used to eating with the family. I often ask my mom and grandmother for the recipes of my favorite dishes. The loud speakers play Ramadan instrumental music, and at night some Quran recitals. Not to forget the Bakhoor, a typical incense from the Gulf. Inviting friends every now and then helps create a communal and collective feeling when breaking fast together.

But your Ramadan experience really depends on the area and neighborhood you live in. Manar says she is thankful to be living in a very diverse neighborhood in Amsterdam with many North-African and Muslim owned businesses. “That helps create that community feeling. We usually plan Iftar gatherings with neighbors and friends and share food,” she says.

Most of the people I know spend Ramadan here, and make an effort to go back home to be with their families during Eid. This is why it’s even more important to plan Eid with other people who are unable to go home for financial reasons, or lack of holiday days, or other reasons. 

I have started to take a deeper look at why Ramadan is so important for me, and therefore appreciating that people approach it differently. For me, fasting during Ramadan comes down to three things, unrelated to religion: Identity, health and discipline, and giving back. It’s a way to keep home, family, and my values alive. 

Dutch Inclusiveness is a work in progress!

Although The Netherlands is considered to be open and diverse, especially in its cities, there is still much work to be done to create inclusive spaces for its Muslims residents. International employers might be well versed in multicultural environments and are equipped to accommodate different backgrounds, religions and cultures, but that is the exception, not the rule.

Many practicing Muslims are forced to use holiday days to take Eid off, because it’s not recognized as an official holiday. Luckily that’s not the case for my Lebanese friend Ahmad I., who works as a lawyer at the International Criminal Court (ICC). He explained that because the ICC is an international entity, everyone gets a day off on their respective religious holidays. He gets one day off for Eid, and takes a couple more holiday days around it.

There were times when I worked in an office and asked myself whether being on my A-game was more important than upholding my values.

Manar believes that there is still a lot of work to be done. “First, create an understanding space that tolerates Ramadan instead of just viewing it as an ‘exotic holiday’. Understanding that it’s, above all, an extremely spiritual month and normalizing it in that way,” she says. “Second, understanding that employees observing Ramadan might need to work from home and be respectful of the fact that they cannot participate in social gatherings that involve food and drinks before iftar.”

She expresses that inclusivity does not mean fetishization. “Lots of businesses and organizations are doing iftars and Ramadan gatherings, which is nice, but sometimes it also contributes to de-Islamizing Ramadan and almost fetishizing it. While these events are nice, they should not aim to remove the essence of Ramadan as an Islamic religious month, above anything else. I feel like a lot of Islamophobia also plays into this. Ramadan can only be tolerated if it’s deprived of its Islamic nature,” says Manar.

Schools in the Netherlands are yet to reconsider exam schedules during the month of Ramadan, which puts Muslim students who fast at a disadvantage to their non-Muslim peers. 

Finally, making workplaces prayer-friendly year-round is a small step towards making Muslim colleagues feel welcome and included in the workspace. This would also aid in educating other colleagues on Islamic practices that they might otherwise not be exposed to.

This is not exclusive to employers; Schools in the Netherlands are yet to reconsider exam schedules during the month of Ramadan, which puts Muslim students who fast at a disadvantage to their non-Muslim peers.

Joshua S., an English Teacher from the Netherlands, realized that the test week at the school where he teaches coincides with the first day of Ramadan. He asked his peers whether Ramadan this year had been taken into consideration, but unfortunately, he shared that it had not been taken into consideration yet.

“I think it makes it difficult for students who are fasting. When you are fasting all day and have to take a test at the end of the day, your concentration will no doubt be affected. I understand we are not an Islamic school, however some consideration would be more inclusive, and I would like to advocate for that within the school system for the future,” says Joshua.

The meaning of Ramadan

For me personally, having lived abroad for the past 13 years, the meaning of Ramadan has slowly changed for me. I have started to take a deeper look at why Ramadan is so important for me, and therefore appreciating that people approach it differently. For me, fasting during Ramdan comes down to three things, unrelated to religion. Identity: It reminds me of a time when I lived back home and was surrounded by family and friends. It reminds me of where I come from and the part of my identity that I want to hold onto while living in a Western country that gradually, and unintentionally, chips away at the cultural and traditional practices that I grew up with.

Health and discipline: The determination and discipline it takes to fast a whole month in a country where everyone else is eating and conducting business as usual is a solitary practice. It encourages us to give less importance to food and detach from the pleasures we usually enjoy. Additionally, there are several health benefits to fasting, it resets the body and gives it an opportunity to detox (if practiced correctly). Giving back: The idea of putting one’s self in other people’s shoes, who might not have access to food, drinking water, or shelter, is the most meaningful lesson of Ramadan. Learning to let go of temptation and focus on a higher purpose is a non-religious value that I think is humbling, and Ramadan is an opportunity to revisit these values collectively.

This is what Ramadan means to me. It’s a way to keep home, family, and my values alive. Ramadan Kareem.


* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Raseef22

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