Seeking the spirit of Ramadaan in Paris
It is almost time for the sunset meal iftar, when Muslims end their daily fast during Ramadaan, and mechanical engineering student Koceila Ait Abdelmalek reflects on the challenges he faces in France because of his religious beliefs.
Abdelmalek is Algerian and moved to the French capital city Paris five years ago. He joins immigrants from various countries – mostly France’s former colonies – for iftar at the Great Mosque of Paris, located in the city’s fifth arrondissement.
“Generally it’s good to live in Paris. But when it’s Ramadaan I would really prefer to be in Algeria. Some students ask us why we don’t eat in the day. They say that it’s not normal and non-productive,” says Abdelmalek.
He explains that he often hears debates at university between “students who are French but whose parents come from Arab countries” and locals.
“When they talk about Islam, some students tell them that they are not good. I try not to listen to this. And I prefer not to say that I’m Muslim.”
The athaan – or call to prayer – goes off and Abdelmalek breaks his fast and prays with the congregation at the mosque. It is reminiscent of Cape Town’s inner-city mosques where refugees and immigrants line up side by side in prayer.
After maghrib, the sunset prayer, Abdelmalek goes home to join his sister for iftar. We have just completed another 16-hour day of fasting in Paris.
It is not my first Ramadaan away from home in Cape Town. Neither is it the first month of fasting that I spend as part of a minority; that’s the norm in South Africa.
But this is the first Ramadaan where, as part of a minority, questions of Muslim identity are palpable. It is not so much questions of faith but instead about navigating the city to seek a sense of Ramadaan. Fasting is an individual’s responsibility but Ramadaan is a communal affair.
In the 17th arrondissement, where I live, signs of Arabia abound. Some shop fronts have Arabic lettering. Baklava and other North African sweets are sold at various shops up the road.
The local mosque is a 15-minute walk away. It has no minaret because in France, as in some other European countries, locals oppose the construction of the tall spires which serve as visual indications of mosque locations.
It is disappointing that mosques have become symbols of tension and misunderstanding between Europeans and mostly immigrant Muslim communities. It was not always so.
The Great Mosque, established in 1926, had the confidence of the French government after North African Arabs fought alongside their coloniser against Germany in World War 1. History informs that up to 100,000 Arabs died in that battle.
President Gaston Doumergue, the French leader at that time, attended the inaugural prayer at the Great Mosque.
Years later, when Nazis wanted to send Jews and others to concentration camps, this mosque was a refuge for Jews. The French movie ‘Free Men’ depicting this event was filmed at the mosque a few years ago.
Some French mosques presently have police monitors hovering outside. Granted, there are various reasons why police surveillance has sprouted. It has led to conflict.
Just this week police in Marseilles, southern France, got into a scuffle with a local Muslim woman after they wanted to check her identity.
The woman was veiled and leaving a mosque when police stopped her. According to media reports, the 18-year-old refused an identity check and a fight broke out between police and locals.
While there is some integration, the divide between Muslims and others remains evident in Paris. This is also a matter of historical circumstance as Muslim communities, mostly North African immigrants, have largely developed as separate ghettos on the city’s periphery.
Nabila Mokrani, a French citizen born to Algerian parents, explains that it is easier for France to accept Arabian culture than Islam. Evidence of this is the Arab World Institute built in the 1980s when 18 Arab countries agreed with France to construct an impressive building that would “spread knowledge and research”.
It reportedly reflects the “opinion, that the Arab world – its civilisation and values, its past and its future – needs to be better known and understood in the west”.
This week, while seeking information about Ramadaan in Paris, I was told at the institute that they focus only on “culture” and questions of faith should be directed elsewhere. Their programme includes music events and their book shop stocks titles about art, politics and religious beliefs in the Arab world’s 22 countries.
Its current exhibition focuses on nudes inspired by or from the Arab world. A range of painters and photographer’s studies of naked human flesh and body parts are on display. Some of it is interesting while others – like the naked female mannequin wearing only a black headscarf – perpetuate exotica.
It is not indicative of widespread Arabian conservatism, but rather an indication of how Arabia is being perceived and interrogated in the art world.
Mokrani, who works as a curator with various art galleries, laughs about the institute’s exhibition.
“You should go to the suburbs, outside the city, to find Ramadaan,” she jokes.
A walk around the area near the 17th arrondissement mosque later that evening reveals how North Africans have replicated a sense of community in Paris. The Moroccan imam had completed the optional taraweeh night prayers at about 12:45am. Sunset is shortly before 10pm in Paris so the days are long and taraweeh at the mosque ends much later than it ever does in Cape Town.
Men and their children walk around the area in traditional Islamic clothing worn when praying. A mixture of Arabic and French tongues fills the air. The late night descends into a quiet calm. Soon it will be another day of fasting in Paris.
This article was published in the Weekend Argus regional newspaper in Cape Town, South Africa, in July 2012.