It’S a festival of peace and reconciliation, but geography and climate conspire to make Scotland one of the ?most gruelling places ?to observe Ramadan
IN THE humid basement of a shabby tenement at just before half-past three in the morning, as drunks stoat the damp pavements outside, Radio Ramadhan is broadcasting the call to prayer. Recorded in Mecca, high in some minaret, the call goes out, sad somehow and sonorous, proclaiming the greatness of Allah across the drizzly city, carrying into the homes of Glasgow’s Muslims a cooling whisper – just audible in the background – of the distant desert wind.
It is time to stop eating. It is time to stop drinking. It is time to stop smoking and to stop having sex. The plates of rice and daal and mango in the radio studio will now go unfinished. “We’ll see you on the other side,” says the young DJ Muneeb Gill. The 27th day of Ramadan has begun.
Ramadan is the ninth and holiest month in the Islamic calendar. It is believed to be the time during which the word of Allah was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. During the period of daylight, the intake of all food and fluids is forbidden, though exemptions are granted to the sick and to women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or menstruating. The pre-dawn meal before each fast is called sehri; the meal after dark which breaks each fast is iftar. In Glasgow, Ramadan began on 21 July and ends at some point this weekend, the exact time depending on the deliberations of the imams.
The Islamic calendar is lunar; each month begins with the appearance of the moon. The traditional method of deciding when Ramadan begins, therefore, is for it to be sighted either by the naked eye or by telescope. However, dreich weather and the glare of street lights means that the moon is not always visible in Scotland’s cities. In these circumstances, the imams from the various city mosques will confer, negotiate and sometimes openly argue, taking into consideration whether the moon has been sighted from various Muslim countries, deciding eventually by majority vote.
It is felt to be important that the imams reach an agreement on when Ramadan starts and ends, otherwise it can lead to tension within families, with, say, one brother observing the fast while another continues to eat, and the holiday of Eid al-Fitr – sometimes described as a Muslim Christmas – being celebrated on different days by different family members.
The Glasgow mosques are, this year, unified on the matter; in Edinburgh, however, there is division – a couple of mosques began Ramadan a day later than the rest. Even in Glasgow, though, home to around three-quarters of Scotland’s estimated 60,000 Muslims, the situation is not clear cut; the Al-Furquan mosque in the west end has timetabled the fast to begin up to around 45 minutes later than the main mosques in the city centre and southside. In the wee small hours, Radio Ramadhan broadcasts the timetables of each, so its listeners know when to stop eating regardless of which mosque they attend.
Because of its long summer daylight, Scotland is, at the moment, one of the most difficult countries in the world to observe Ramadan, which begins around ten to 11 days earlier each year. “When Ramadan was in winter, everything was cushty.” explains the Glaswegian imam and leading Islamic scholar Amer Jamil. “It was only a ten-hour fast; just like having a late lunch. But now that it’s summer and the days are longer, the fast is a lot harder. You are starting at around three in the morning and finishing around ten at night.”
Muslims living in those areas of Scandinavia where there is no real darkness at all during summer are sometimes given a special dispensation to follow the Ramadan timetables of either Saudi Arabia or the nearest Muslim country – Morocco. Scotland, however, is not quite far north enough to be granted such special treatment. Therefore Scottish Muslims must starve themselves for that bit longer. It is typical to lose half a stone during Ramadan. The fast will remain tough here for the next eight years or more as Ramadan gradually moves back into spring.
Many Scottish Muslims, if they are able, take holidays from work during Ramadan. But this is not possible for everyone, and working can be difficult when you feel tired, thirsty and weak. One Muslim police officer tells me that the worst he ever felt was when he had to carry protesters away from Faslane on a baking hot day while wearing full riot gear.
Naveed, 35, a shopkeeper in Bellshill, says that observing the fast while running a business is exhausting. He can’t afford to take time off. “I’m self-employed, I’ve got people who rely on me, and customers come in expecting the same service as always. But getting up in the morning is really tough.” Naveed arrives home from prayers at the mosque between midnight and one. He tries to stay awake for the next couple of hours so that he can eat something filling shortly before the fast begins. He rises at 7.15am, which means he’s getting by on four hours’ sleep every night. He keeps a sleeping bag in the shop but there never seems to be a moment to nap.
For those Muslims working in the restaurant trade, surrounded at all times by forbidden food, Ramadan can be even harder. “Oh, my God, it’s horrible, man,” says Abdul Ali, 27, whose family run the Kismot in Edinburgh, home of the infamous Kismot Killer, a curry so hot that diners have been known to leave by ambulance. “I’m in the kitchen cooking away and we’re counting down the minutes and seconds until iftar. Then we go for it, mate, we go straight for the kill. Whatever we see to eat, buddy, we’re in there.”
Lifelong Muslims will, typically, have been observing Ramadan since puberty and the annual fast is, therefore, part of the routine and texture of each year. It may not be easy, but they are used to it. For newcomers to the faith, however, it can be a challenge.
Alana Blockley, a 20-year-old student and waitress from Bridgeton, is a recent convert. Two years ago she was supposed to go to Tenerife on holiday, but the volcanic ash clouds meant her flight was cancelled so she went to Fuerteventura instead. It was an important twist of fate, for there she met her future husband, Abdel-Hadi, a Muslim from Morocco. Impressed by his character and the strength he took from his faith, she found herself drawn to Islam, an attraction that deepened into belief. Now wearing hijab, despite the attention that a white woman in a headscarf inevitably attracts – “I wouldn’t walk about in my area wearing it, I have to be in the car, I don’t feel safe… someone would definitely come up and batter me” – she finds it a relief to not have to fret about either her personal appearance or leering men.
This is Alana’s first Ramadan. She thought she wouldn’t even last one day. “I had no faith in myself. I love my food too much.” But the weeks have flown in and she is already looking forward to next year. “I do feel as if I’ve been brought closer to Allah.”
Rahillah from Glasgow, 31, mum to two young boys, explains that Ramadan is an opportunity for “self-purification” and attempting to become a better person. Muslims are supposed to not argue during the month. “I’m finding it very hard trying not to shout at the kids when they make a mess, to keep calm,” she says. “But there are times when you get cranky, especially when you are hungry; cooking meals, cleaning nappies – it’s an ongoing thing as a mother. But my dealings with the kids and my mother-in-law who I live with, that is also a part of worship, not just the five prayers I do during the day.”
In the Glasgow Central Mosque, as the shadows outside lengthen and the golden crescent on the minaret glows in the twilight, around 400 people – men, women and children – have come to pray and end their fast. Another 100 men are spending the last ten days and nights of Ramadan in the mosque, secluded from the world, lost in prayer and the dim green light. The atmosphere is at once festive and solemn.
Food, paid for by donations, is provided to whoever cares to attend. The voices tell their own story – Urdu, Weegie, Punjabi, Pashto, Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi, Igbo. Here is Glasgow’s immigrant population in all its polyglot pomp. Many of these people are asylum seekers, fleeing poverty and promised violence, here to take advantage of a free meal and to eat iftar communally as they are used to doing in their native lands.
The kitchen is the domain of Dilshad, a highly respected greybeard who runs a takeaway when he isn’t volunteering as head chef; every evening during Ramadan, Dilshad and his team take 35 kilos of rice, five lambs, 70 chickens and innumerable samosas and naans, and produce a feast that is literally divine. He also does a nice line in gulab jaman – balls of dough deep-fried and dipped in syrup – which I hear described fondly as “heart attack material” and which seems to be a sort of Islamic version of the battered Mars Bar.
Sitting in long lines on the floor, kneeling or cross-legged, the Muslims wait for the call to prayer, which comes at precisely two minutes to nine, and then bend to break their fast, first with a few dates as Muhammad did. Despite the parched throats, despite the empty stomachs, there is no sense of relief. This is a ritual.
“So that was the 27th day of Ramadan,” someone says to me, rubbing his belly through his silken tunic and washing down a gulab jaman with a gulp of Irn-Bru. “Asalamu Alaikum – Peace be with you.”