Ramadan in Belfast

The Sudanese Community Association Northern Ireland

The Sudanese Community Association Northern Ireland

It’s a muggy Saturday evening in south Belfast and the summer sun, covered by dense cloud, is just setting. Out in front of Shaftesbury Leisure Centre, just off the lower Ormeau Road, children are running in circles around their parents squealing joyfully. Approaching the centre, women wearing pink, red and yellow hijabs push prams past a mural of Gaelic footballers and hurlers; men are gathered around the entrance shaking hands, embracing and chatting. A group walks past the men carrying platters of steaming halal goat and chicken. Tonight, the Sudanese Community Association Northern Ireland (SCANI) is hosting an open iftar dinner, the nightly breaking of the fast that happens during Ramadan. The majority of the hundred or so people gathered here have not eaten since the sun rose more than fifteen hours ago.

Inside the centre on the basketball court are a dozen tables set up with surrounding chairs. The hum of a bouncy-castle generator mixes with the screams of children enjoying themselves. My wife and I are welcomed by a friendly group of men, a few dressed in ankle-length thwabs, who sign us in and guide us to a table. Projected onto the wall is a large message: “Wishing everyone a Happy Ramadan. May the spirit of Ramadan illuminate the world and show us the way to peace and harmony.” The room is split into two sides, one with women, and one with men. Sitting at a table of women in hijabs is Alliance MLA, Anna Lo. With the men is Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey. My wife, myself, and our female friend are all brought to one table. The traditional rules don’t apply to non-muslim guests.

We are joined at our table by an Algerian man who greets us and informs us he cannot shake hands, as he has just washed them in preparation for prayer. Earlier in the day, he had attended the Palestinian solidarity rally in Belfast city centre. He said he was disappointed that some had engaged in a small skirmish with counter demonstrators. As he talks, I notice a small Palestinian flag near the entrance. Before the conversation goes any further, however, we are informed it is time to queue for food.

While we dish up our plates with Sudanese delicacies, thirty or so men gather in the corner of the hall to pray. In liturgical unison, they bow and prostrate themselves. Our Algerian friend, who only seconds before had been a bundle of wild energy and enthusiastic conversation, is now focused on his prayers. His face is suddenly serene as he syncs into rhythm with the other men. When he returns, he is carrying a massive plate of goat, chicken, and salad and holding a stack of sliced white bread. He encourages my wife to share with him. “Once you’ve eaten off the same plate as someone, you cannot betray them.”

Dr. Mudawi Hassan, a sitting member of SCANI, tells me there are about 400 Sudanese living in Northern Ireland. It’s been three months since he’s seen his friend Hamza Edris, who is standing with us. Edris works in aeronautics for Bombardier and drove down tonight from Ballymeena, where he’s lived for twenty years. Edris jokes that half of Belfast’s children have been delivered by Hassan. This is how I discover that Hassan is a leading local gynaecologist.

“This event tonight” Hassan tells me, “is a gathering of the Sudanese community in regard to the Ramadan occasion. Ramadan is one of the pillars of Islam. Every year we meet like this during Ramadan, all the Sudanese in Northern Ireland.”

“It’s very easy to live here and very easy to integrate with the local people.” Cutting Hassan off mid sentence, Edris jumps in to say that Northern Ireland is the easiest place for muslims in the UK to integrate. Hassan finishes Edris’s sentence for him and says that the people in Northern Ireland are very kind. I asked about the intention of opening the iftar dinner to non-muslims. “It’s a part of the belief that you share with your neighbours. Share with the society that you are with,” says Hassan. “Again, everybody is busy, everybody is working, so its a chance for all of us to meet each other.”

In attendance with us is a friend of mine, Pádraic Fitzpatrick, who lived in Israel and Palestine for more than three years. Fitzpatrick, a Christian, is originally from Andersonstown in west Belfast, and speaks semi-fluent Hebrew and Arabic. He recently completed his Master’s in Islamic studies and will be delivering introduction to Islam courses within Northern Ireland’s charity sector beginning in the autumn. I asked him to summarise Ramadan for me. “Ramadan is a time when Muslims fast in accordance with their religious beliefs and practices. It is a time of community and joy, celebrating togetherness with one another.”

I hope that Edris and Hassan’s claims that integration has been easy for them is shared by others in Nothern Ireland’s Sudanese community. From some of my other conversations, I’m not sure this experience is universal. But it does signal that Northern Ireland is learning to make space for new cultures. Certainly nights like tonight provide an opportunity for friendships and sharing to occur, important in the development of any multi-cultural society.

 

  • Jude42

    Nice blog, Mick. Thanks for it.

  • npbinni

    Northern Ireland has always ‘made space for new cultures’. Going back fifty years, many Indians came to Northern Ireland. In fact, my best friend growing up in a ‘protestant’ housing estate was a Hindu. The Hindus assimilated into Northern Irish society, while at the same time maintaining most of their traditional customs. Those who come here not intending to impose their religion or customs on us are very welcome indeed.

  • MalikHills

    “The room is split into two sides, one with women, and one with men. Sitting at a table of women in hijabs is Alliance MLA, Anna Lo….The traditional rules don’t apply to non-muslim guests.”

    If the rule was black (or Chinese) people sat in one section and whites in another would Anna have been so happy to abide by the rule?

    This is quite clearly a case of gender discrimination by this community centre. There is absolutely no rule that the ifthar meal must be segregated on the grounds of gender, it is a meal not a religious event.

    But as usual the starry-eyed will forgive Muslims what would be described as an “outrage” or a “war on women” if committed by conservative Christians.

    Furthermore why is the only national flag visible in a Sudanese centre that of a foreign nation? Is this primarily a “Sudanese Community” centre or an Islamic centre? They are not one and the same thing.

  • mjh

    For one awful minute I thought I had read a positive, humane and human story about people travelling thousands of miles to build a new life in another country, getting together, enjoying themselves, and speaking with warmth and gratitude about the welcome they had received from their new neighbours.

    What a relief that we now have a flag angle AND a stick with which to beat Anna Lo. That’s much more like it.

  • Brian O’Neill

    Just to give him his dues this post was by Barton not Mick.

  • MalikHills

    I am pointing out double standards nothing more.

    I contrast the fuzzy warm feeling we’re supposed to feel about a group of religious conservatives operating gender apartheid in Belfast and the outrage when another religious conservative in Belfast declined to bake a cake with two puppets on it.

    Take from that what you will.

  • Jude42

    Thanks Brian – my stupid mistake. Pass my compliment to Barton. I tried to get in and give it myself but somehow can’t.
    Jude

  • mjh

    ….AND the cake…
    Don’t stop now. You’re on a roll.

  • teehee

    Religion gives me the creeps. Men and women segregated for their tea? My own meals are usually male-only affairs but alas it isn’t through choice.
    Only blokes in the photo?

  • MalikHills

    Oh I see, you appear to believe that there are two types of thread here.

    One type in which people discuss political, social, economic, historical and other matters relating to Northern Ireland, the rest of Ireland, the UK and the world, wherein issues are thrashed out and ideas are contrasted to determine how they relate to each other and to provoke debate and analysis.

    And a second type of thread, apparently, in which an issue is posted to which everyone is simply supposed to say “Ah, bless!” and pass on with a nice feeling of being ever so warm-hearted.

    I have been posting here on Slugger (I’ve been forced to adopt a new name since they changed the commenting system) for the best part of ten years and I hadn’t noticed this two-threaded approach.

    Are there any other threads in which I am not supposed to raise pertinent issues of current debate?

    Anyway, I’m off to break my fast now, I will do so among friends and colleagues, male and female, young and old, open-minded, forward thinking Muslims, none of whom subscribe to the backward, gender-apartheid medieval ideas that you seem to think are so sweet among the Sudanese community in Belfast.

    But then Belfast was never noted for its tolerance and open-mindedness, no surprise I suppose that these recent arrivals feel so comfortable there.

  • via_media

    Thanks so much Jude! Means a lot. -Barton

  • npbinni

    The welcome and respect which Muslims, Hindus, and even Rastafarians! experience in NI reflects the basic good-natured temperament of Northern Irish society – on both sides of the religious divide. (that’s not to say that there are not some yahoos out there who spoil our good name).

    This, of course, stands in sharp contrast to how Christians and other religions, are treated in some Muslim countries.

    Asians and sub-saharan Africans, for the most part, are very tolerant of other religions, but in numerous other Muslim-majority countries (including, interestingly enough, Sudan), Christianity and Hinduism and Buddhism are harshly persecuted. An example of that is last week’s order by the Islamic militants in Iraq for Christians living there to either convert to Islam or pay a heavy tax, otherwise they would be put to the sword.

    There’s no excuse for the measure of intolerance that some here in NI show towards others who are different to themselves, but thankfully we have not descended to the barbarity and absolute intolerance evident in some other societies around the world.

  • Jude42

    Fadhb ar bith, Barton – you’re welcome. Good writing deserves recognition.

  • carl marks

    I lived in Indonesia four just over four years my house was less than a hundred yards from the Kampongs mosque.

    Ramadan was a favourite time for me; I could take a snack or drink of water or coffee
    indoors without offending anyone (or more likely making the religious
    observations of my neighbours more difficult) but what I loved was when the mosque declared the daily fast over the food came out (and what food!)And the craic started, Ramadan was a party a night for me.

    As an Orang Baret (European) and by the terms of the local people a Christian, I can say I was never treated with anything else but courtesy and respect, Java is an island
    with complex traditions and customs (Adat) and more than once this loud crude
    (or Kaser as the Javanese would say) Ardoyne man was given the benefit of the
    doubt or as they also say Kampong lain Adat lain (different villages, Different
    customs).

    So in my Humble opinion Ramadan Rocks!

  • gendjinn

    “Those who come here not intending to impose their religion or customs on us are very welcome indeed.”

    And the winner for lack of self-awareness is…..

  • MalikHills

    The best part of Ramadhan in Indonesia is the great heaps of steaming hot beef randang, and none of your oul’ three-week hung beef either, why waste good meat? Freshly killed beef, stewed for a day or so in coconut milk and chilies, you’ll still be picking bits of fat out of your teeth to chew on a good six hours later.

    Bules do get away with murder though don’t they Carl? I still cringe when I think of the times in the past when I must have stuck my big feet in things without realizing it and got nothing in response but a broad grin.

    No one does tolerance and friendliness like the beautiful but much-maligned people of Indonesia.

  • npbinni

    the key word is: impose

  • npbinni

    I have met a number of really nice Indonesians and I have several friends who live in Indonesia, and they love it. Nasi goreng is to die for! There is religious freedom there although it is restricted to six religions. Animists are encouraged to join one of these religions. Sadly, as with Islam around the world, Muslims who convert to another religion are taking a huge risk with their lives.

  • carl marks

    I only spent two years in Java, the rest was spent in NTT with a few months in the parrots
    beak region of New Guinea and Borneo, I have managed to get back a few times on visits and I agree despite the dreadful government, poverty and seemingly annual natural disasters the people of Indonesia still by and large carry themselves with dignity and display great courtesy to visitors.

    And Nasi Goreng, Bakso and anything Padang are all things I miss. I have promised my daughters that I will bring them to Flores when the paddy is being harvested and they can see their oul Da doing the rice dance,

  • gendjinn

    You aiming for a two in row victory?

  • Guest

    Barbarian attitude could happen everywhere.It depends on many different motives such as religion, culture, ignorance and others.
    To put Sudan at the same rank as Iraq is unfair and I find it judgmental.To label a certain country or a society of being intolerant is a serious issue without having enough evidence on the ground.

  • hossam

    Very nice enjoy it thanks very much

  • Guest

    Barbarian attitude could happen everywhere.It depends on many different motives such as religion, culture, ignorance and others.
    To put Sudan at the same rank as Iraq is unfair and I find it judgmental.To label a certain country or a society of being intolerant is a serious issue without having enough evidence on the ground.

  • MalikHills

    Although there is a rising trend of headbangers, as with anywhere in the Muslim world, on the whole Muslims in Indonesia are a very sensible lot.

    Conversion is in fact very frequent, it is actually the law if two people of different religions choose to marry. One partner must convert to the other’s religion and given the social set-up of Indonesia this is very common.

    I have been to a wedding where half of the guests were Muslim, as evidenced by the ladies in jilbabs and half were Catholic, as evidenced by the men sneaking back the beers. Turns out the lady getting married was a Catholic but half her brothers and sisters were Muslim. They came from Sulawesi and her mother was Muslim but her father was Catholic, they couldn’t agree on one religion for the kids so they just divided the kids up, they had 10 kids so it worked out well for all concerned.

    Indonesians are very accepting of different religions, my good friend in Jakarta is a Manchester Jew and he simply adores Indonesia. What freaks them out is the idea that someone wouldn’t have any religion at all.

    What used to drive me crazy was when I had young English colleagues who when asked by Indonesians what religion they were (a common and by absolutely no means threatening question) would reply, “Well you know I’m kind of a spiritual person but don’t actually have any religion, I believe organised religion to be unacceptable to me, I would regard myself as an atheist”, the look of deep offence on the faces of their interlocutor never seemed to deter them from repeating this banal statement.

    I used to tell new recruits, look just say you’re Church of England, or Seventh Day Adventist or Plymouth Brethren or even Jewish if you like, no one cares, just please don’t tell them you’re a bloody atheist!

  • npbinni

    You must have a short memory, particularly about Sudan…
    http://edition.cnn.com/2014/05/15/world/africa/sudan-christian-woman-apostasy/
    Here’s other background information on Sudan. https://www.persecution.net/sudan.htm
    The evidence for intolerance in some countries is overwhelming for those who wish to check it out: (btw, they are not all Muslim countries!) https://www.persecution.net/restricted-nations.htm

  • npbinni

    That’s very good. Indeed, the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.

  • KMac

    What foreign nation would that be? It seems quite reasonable to me that a SUDANESE flag should be on display in a Sudanese community centre.

  • carl marks

    And a greater fool got all pious and didn’t seem to notice that in Indonesia believing in god is enforced by law and only a fool thinks belief can be dictated by law and strangely the law was brought in by one of the most corrupt and viscous regimes South East Asia has ever seen,
    talk to the people of Irian Jaya, Borneo, East Timor or Sulawesi and you might get a better idea of Just how godly is the government who dictates that people must believe in god.

  • Ayman Hassan

    I take this opportunity to thank Mr/ Barton for this interesting article and for his participation on the Iftar event. At the same time i would like to make a clarification that the flag on the wall is the Republic of Sudan flag not the Palestinian flag.

    In relation to the issue of women sitting on one side and men on the other side this practice has nothing to do with segregation or degrading women. It purely for them to feel comfortable and have a chance to chat with each other freely.

  • npbinni

    Hey, give a buddy a break. I’m just trying to get a little into the ecumenical spirit of things…

  • MalikHills

    Ayman Hassan has kindly clarified the situation regarding the flag, the poster said it was a Palestinian flag and that is certainly what it looks like, who knew they were so similar?

  • MalikHills

    Thanks for the clarification regarding the flag, and as I suspected the segregation was simply by choice and not by decree as the poster originally (and to my mind far too tolerantly) said.

    I have celebrated upwards of 300 ifthar meals and have never experienced any form of gender separation.

  • MalikHills

    Jeez Carl lighten up mate, despite your fondness for Indonesia you do seem to have that knee-jerk hatred of the Indonesian government that seems to rank just below hatred of Israel for some types of people.

    Indonesia isn’t perfect but just for the record they overthrew Suharto 16 years ago, and they’ve just elected a tolerant liberal new president.

    To keep on bashing Indonesia as if it was always 1965 is as absurd as bashing South Africa today for the evils of the Apartheid regime.

    I don’t know what the problem in Borneo is, last time I was there everything seemed fine, Sulawesi is also peaceful (and anyway the government had nothing to do with the problems there) East Timor has been independent for well over a decade and has an excellent relationship with Jakarta and even Papua is improving, slowly but improving, and I dare say Jokowi will assist in making it better.

    There are worse problems in every country in SE Asia. Give Indonesia a break, there are a hell of a lot worse run countries in the world that seem to get a better press than poor old, as I said before, much-maligned Indonesia.

  • npbinni

    Thought you might be interested in this:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-28460383

  • Ayman Hassan

    Dear Malik,

    We as Sudanese appreciate your contribution on this controversial issue and your right to freely express your opinion but at the same time we request from you not to jump to a biased conclusions.

    The separate area’s for women and men there are so many factors behind them for example the nature of the celebration. When Muslims gather to Iftar event in Holly Ramadan month it make sense for them to sit in different area’s as it is a religious ceremony but when we have a social celebration we sit as families in one place. Other factor some women may not feel comfortable eating at the same table with strangers.

    Most importantly we have to respect the choice of those women to sit where ever they like without trying to impose our own judgment.

    We are going to have a social event after Ramadan and i personally invite you to attend it in order to have a better understanding of the Sudanese culture

  • Ayman Hassan

    The similarity between the Sudanese and Palestinian flag is well known for everybody from the Middle East.

    You can simply learn about this similarity if you search the internet for the Sudanese and Palestinian flags.

  • Guest

    Meriam is Christian that why she wasn’t being prosecuted. Can you give an example of Christians who have been prosecuted because of their faith? Of course and as you would know scattered incidences are not enough to label a country, media is not always trustworthy.
    To face intolerance we have to find out the reasons behind it based on evidence and research.
    Below are examples of churches in Sudan.

  • npbinni

    Nice pictures, but here’s a picture of the current reality in Sudan. Just three weeks ago this Christian church was demolised:

    http://www.persecution.net/su-2014-07-17.htm

    …Approximately 70 security personnel armed with guns and tear gas were present at the scene of the demolition. Onlooking church members were threatened with arrest if they tried to intervene. “Even if they destroy this church building, our God is still good all the time,” a church member shared. “We, the believers, are the real church. We are asking you to continue to pray for us because of the great challenge we are facing.”

    Christians in Sudan have come under increasing pressure since the secession of South Sudan in January of 2011. In April of 2013, the government announced that new church licenses would no longer be issued. Since then, the destruction of church buildings has continued unabated.’

  • Ayman Hassan

    Dear Sir,

    The incident of the church has nothing to do with this celebration. Everybody is responsible for his/ her own actions.

    Religious tolerance is one of the main unresolved issues in Northern Ireland

  • npbinni

    Dear Ayman Hassan, I am sorry if in some of my comments I have implied that your celebration has anything to do with what is currently happening in Sudan. Of course it does not.

    I am glad that you have chosen Northern Ireland to be your home and would wish that you continue to enjoy freedom of worship and association. رحمك الله

  • Ayman Hassan

    Thank you Sir. Apology accepted. Let us work together and benefit from our diversity to build tolerance, respect and cohesion.

  • http://www.robbimcmillen.com/ Robbi

    I spent a lot of time with friends observing Ramadan two years ago and really enjoyed it. Two friends from Brunei and Malaysia, students at Queens, were very excited. They’d talk of how after fasting, everyone would bring food out – the neighbours and families, and everyone would share and talk – it’s a real community occasion for them. I think we’d give a great welcome by getting involved more, and it gives a real confidence boost to spend time getting to know friends better. (it was also a relief to have proper food instead of the pizza we’d usually get – the only Halal takeaway we knew about in Belfast! – it was delicious but after a while it’s nice to go home-cooked!). I remember as a small child, my parents bringing me to a Sudanese event and trying their food – I’m hooked on dhal (although I’m too wimpy to go very spicy!)! Thanks for writing this post!

  • carl marks

    Robbi,

    One of the things I miss about Belfast (I live in the sticks
    now) is nobody around here does Bakso Or Padang so if you hear about any good Malay/Indonesian events involving food let me know, (will bring my homemade soda bread for local colour)

  • carl marks

    In both Borneo and Irian Jaya the native rainforest and in
    many cases the people who live in them are being cleared at a alarming rate for
    palm oil plantations, little thought is given to either the destruction of habitat
    or lifestyle of the local people, most if not all of the company’s involved in
    this destruction have members of the god fearing government (or close
    relatives) on the board of directors who in their search for profits have no
    problem grabbing land which is traditionally used by locals to live off.

    Sulawesi is what Indonesians call a mining operation (if a
    member of government sees something he likes he says that mine) and let us not
    forget Pancasila Youth, a wonderful god fearing group (with government support)
    who boast openly about being gangsters and are openly proud of the thousands
    murdered by their members (by the way you have got to declare a belief in god
    before you join!

  • carl marks

    You got to understand that as an atheist I take exception to
    being called a fool, especially by someone who really doesn’t know what he is talking about.

    Indonesian people have been force fed religious belief by a corrupt system and it has done a great deal of harm in that country,similar to the damage that religious brain washing has done in this country.

    Both Java and NI would be better places with less religion
    and more human decency from the leaders .So if you want a break quit the self-righteous cliches .

  • npbinni

    Hey, carl, I am not calling you a fool. (check out, Psalm 53.1).

    So, tell me, what are your examples of countries well run by atheists leaders, China; North Korea; the former USSR?

    Another question, what are you doing trolling around on a religious thread? Obviously looking for something. Is you life so empty and hollow?

  • carl marks

    Reread your quote, you called anybody who doesn’t believe a
    fool!

    And I will play your game if you play mine, shall we start
    with all the mass murderers who killed innocents in the name of god (I raise
    your Stalin by a Hitler) or we could look at the society’s that are not atheist but exclude religion from their schools and permit people to make up their own minds.

    We could play atrocity poker all night long, I’m sure you would have a lot of trumps to play with and I would have a few as well, slavery,
    child abuse and Empire building spring to mind if you have a month or two we can list them, as a matter of fact I would
    have a much bigger deck than you to play with since atheist society collapsed within 50 years( they were not socialist but state capitalist) but the religious societies have been abusing
    power since society first started.

    Good grief we have people in this country who because of
    different views of the one god are quite willing to kill each other, so please no attempts at those Commies were bad people arguments without looking at the
    other couple of thousands years of history.

    I think it was Napoleon who said “God must love atheists as
    they don’t thank him after every massacre” he could have added every time they steal a country,