Observing Ramadan in Germany

11th October 2006, Comments 0 comments

Jean-Baptiste Piggin visits a mosque in northern Germany to find out how its members are observing Ramadan.

At a mosque in Norderstedt near Hamburg, the men's eyes sparkle for a moment as they watch pictures on Turkish television of thousands of people ending the day's Ramadan fast in Istanbul.

Muslims waiting for sunset during Ramadan in Cairo, Egypt (photo: Wikipedia)

Here in Germany it is a far cry from the bustle and excitement of that great iftar, the Muslim's sundown meal in the month of day-long fasting. Two dozen men have gathered here to eat a more modest iftar.

The group, mostly Turkish-born, but with a Pakistani and Bosnian among them, serve themselves from saucepans of meat and fragrant rice flavoured with sliced almonds.

They wait for the moment of sunset on the day's Ramadan calendar, then each eats the customary date to start the meal.

It does not take long for the ground-floor room to empty as they finish eating and drop the plastic plates in a refuse sack.

Some steal away quietly to pray and others go out to chat in the social room of this far outpost of Islam. Outside, most of the population are not even aware that the annual fasting month is happening.

Missing home

This is a part of Germany, says one man, where the locals keep to themselves and consider themselves sociable if they say "Good morning" and "Good night" to a neighbour and nothing else all day.

The television coverage from Turkey has set off a yearning in some of the men to feel "at home", to be among up to 15,000 guests breaking their fast in great tents in Istanbul that are set up there every year by rich benefactors and open to all comers on every evening of Ramadan.

The talk in Norderstadt turns to ways of getting there. Budget flights from Germany to Turkey are cheaper in autumn, so why not undertake a flying visit to Istanbul from Friday to Sunday? One of the men is assigned to check out the next day if affordable flights are available.

That might seem extravagant, but many of the faithful at the Eyup Sultan Camii centre are comfortably off. At Ramadan night prayers, the car park is full as 80 men and boys gather in a capacious loft that has been converted into the mosque's main prayer room.

The leaders of the community, affiliated to the semi-official Turkish religious body Ditib, are proud of the centre which opened in 1991 with the mosque, a shop, travel agency and social centre on a 4,000-square-metre site with a big garden next to a wooded stream.

Open to all

Mehmet Demirbilek, a courier driver who was born near the Black Sea coast of Turkey and came to Germany in 1972, says the official membership list of only 140 at the centre belies its true influence in this area of Germany.

The mosque is located in Norderstedt, a town of Schleswig-Holstein state that is mainly a dormitory for the big nearby city of Hamburg.

If the outlying areas of Hamburg are included, an estimated 1,400 Turks live in the area. With Arab and other Muslims included, perhaps the number is 2,000, and this mosque is open to all of them, he says.

No one knows how many of these are observing the Ramadan fast and ending the day with an iftar in the privacy of their own homes.

Not judging others

There is an embarrassed silence when they are asked about westernized Muslims who ignore the custom.

"In Islam, we are not supposed to judge others," says Nuri Ahrens, 55, an auto repairer who has lived in Germany for the past 20 years. While most of the men at the iftar are single, or away from their wives, Ahrens has left his wife at home for a women's iftar.

"She invites other women around to the place in the evening," he explains.

For those seeking the most sumptuous iftar meals, the big city of Hamburg has restaurants that serve halal food approved by Islam, but it is hard to get a seat at an iftar table: during Ramadan, the restaurants are booked out months in advance.

Grown cold

Amid the companionship of the men's nightly meal, some of the talk becomes a cry from the heart against the German society where they live. One young man who has been a university student in the state capital Kiel says he has resolved to move home to Turkey.

"If you were to take out my heart, you would find nothing but love there. I have no hate," he says. "But my heart has grown cold in this place." Older men contend that the West has rained "insult after insult" on Islam, none of it provoked.

Some cite the novel "The Satanic Verses" by Salman Rushdie and others declare outrage at the alleged views of Pope Benedict XVI. All of them are still angry about cartoons poking fun at the Prophet Mohammed published in the Danish press late last year.

The huge flat-panel television in the social room showing non-stop Turkish football appears to offer the expatriate men a kind of safety valve: a link back to a world where Ramadan has a settled place.

Outside, the rumble of airliners taking off at a nearby airport can be heard above the phrase "Allahu Akbar" chanted by the men and boys as they stand and kneel at night prayers.

11 October 2006

Copyright Expatica 2006

Subject: Life in Germany, Muslims in Germany, Ramadan

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