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Volume 41, Number 2March/April 1990

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Ramadan in Holland

Written by Hilary Keatinge
Photographed by Brynn Bruijn

The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with an estimated 14.6 million inhabitants in an area slightly larger than Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. The vast majority - 97 percent - are ethnic Dutch and Christian, with generally more Protestants in the north of the country and more Roman Catholics in the south.

The Netherlands' Muslim community is estimated to number about 400,000 people, most of them originally "guest workers" from Turkey and Morocco. Smaller numbers came from Indonesia and Suriname, countries with former colonial connections to Holland, and from Pakistan. There are also those who have newly embraced Islam - mostly Dutch women who have married Muslims - as well as the so-called "second generation": Dutch-born children of Muslim immigrants.

It is spring and Holland's fields are a riot of color as yellow daffodils give way to the blue of hyacinths and the rainbow fields of tulips. Buses roll in from all over Europe, and the tourists they carry point and admire, take photographs and enjoy the famous bulb season; bulb growers sell garlands and take orders for the fall.

In a converted house on a busy shopping street in the Dutch capital, The Hague, an activity of a different kind is under way. The leaders of the city's Muslim community are preparing for the holy month of Ramadan. Their flock is scattered and their environment-Christian in its assumptions, secular in its orientation - is no easy one for a month of fasting and prayer. The community office prepares information packets, the teachers work on explanations of dogma and ritual.

Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five central obligations, or "pillars," of Islam. For 29 or 30 consecutive days, no food or drink may pass the lips of the faithful from dawn to sunset. Many hours each night are devoted to prayer. And throughout the month, believers feel a spirit of tolerance, of gentleness and of unity that transcends regional or sectarian differences.

"From dawn to sunset..." - the words take on heightened meaning - and added complication - as the table of daylight hours in northern Europe is studied. The clocks will be set forward an hour in March as daylight saving time begins, and each day brings another four or five minutes of additional daylight. This year, the lunar month of Ramadan will begin in the last days of March, and by the end of the holy month the days will average 14 hours in length - a long time to go without food or drink or, for smokers, even a cigarette. Community leaders distribute tables of all the sunrise, sunset and prayer times to the faithful. Notices are posted in factories and workplaces asking non-Muslim employers and workers for their cooperation and their respect for those keeping the fast.

The Dutch have a well-earned reputation for tolerance of the beliefs of others, but, as elsewhere, tolerance comes easier when times are good. Most of the country's Muslim population came to Holland, from all across the Muslim world - Morocco to Java - in the boom times of the 1960s and 1970s, and as the majority of immigrants represented the economically depressed and illiterate classes of their native lands they took the unskilled or semi-skilled jobs, or the dirty or dangerous jobs, that the Dutch disdained. Now, with the economy slow and undergoing change, the edges of tolerance have rubbed a bit thin. Competition for jobs is fierce in the traditional fields of industry, and modern technology is pushing out the old labor-intensive practices in the shipyards and heavy industrial plants. Meanwhile, the 12 countries of the European Common Market are gearing up for sweeping changes in 1992, when Europe becomes effectively one country, in economic terms. Dutch industries - even such tradition-bound ones as the cheese industry - are consolidating and modernizing. Those processes have made "labor-intensive" an unwelcome, outmoded concept, almost a dirty word. These days, skilled operators in high-tech surroundings operate electronic panels, and large groups of unskilled - and unemployable - workers draw social security payments or undergo retraining programs.

The days of hiring non-Dutch-speaking, often illiterate guest workers from overseas farms or villages - workers without many opportunities even in their industrializing homelands - are over.

Today's Muslim communities in the Netherlands consist largely of these workers, who now have 20 or 30 years of residence and familiarity in Holland. They consist also of the younger generation, often born and bred in the Netherlands and with little knowledge of their parents' home country, and no ties abroad. These groups are leavened by Dutch converts - men and women who have embraced the religion of Islam. Each in their separate ways, all these people are facing great challenges, and a greater need than ever before to be united and organized.

Allahu Akbar…. God is most great….

A family gathers for prayer. It is just after five a.m. on a morning in the first week of Ramadan.

Naima is the eldest daughter, a young woman now. She has lived in Holland since she was four, but she still remembers some of the difficulties of her early days in her new country: her feeling of being "different," the strangeness of the language, the frustration of not being able to make her four-year-old presence understood at school. But that time didn't last long. In a year, she was chattering in Dutch with her classmates, and now feels herself quite at home. With her family, she visits her old home in North Africa every few years, but Naima knows she couldn't be happy there. The old women in the village look at her and ask, "Why aren't you married yet, girl?"

How can she explain to them, who have rarely left the confines of their village, that in industrialized, urban Europe marriage is not early or automatic, that women have a chance for self-fulfilment along quite different lines from that of their village sisters? For it is only the customs and traditions of Naima's village past that she has moved beyond, not the fundamental tenets of her religious faith.

On Saturdays Naima attends Arabic classes at the Islamic Center, learning to read and understand the Qur'an. She may not cover her head during the working day, but she believes it is a matter of convenience, not a rejection of the principle of modesty. Naima has been through the Dutch educational system and puts in long days as a professional social worker. Most of her colleagues and friends are Dutch, and in the first days of each new Ramadan they often forget and offer her the customary coffees and slices of birthday cakes in the office. Naima finds this the hardest time, but she soon falls into the changed routine of the month of daytime fasting and busies herself until the workday is over, putting thoughts of eating aside. The bus ride home seems longer than usual: She was up before dawn for her last meal, and she has trouble keeping her eyes open.

The house is quiet when she enters, an oasis from the bustle of her life outside, and she rests a while before helping prepare the family meal, to be served after sundown. It would be good to join with other families to break the day's fast, but their Muslim friends don't live nearby. Naima's family is close, and this month of joint fasting and prayer builds a bond of togetherness and peace which she feels is often lost in the Western world, where families sometimes become too busy to eat together or even live together.

For the future, Naima hopes to find a good Muslim husband, and envisions no unsurmountable problems in being a modern woman and a religious wife and mother.

Subhanak Allahumma… Glory to be thee, my God…

In the classroom, Suad and her co-teacher lead the children in their midday prayer. The rows of bowed heads represent a spectrum of origins and nationalities - Turkish, Moroccan, Surinamese, Pakistani, Dutch - now together in this, the first Islamic school in the Netherlands.

The school is in a neighborhood of old Rotterdam where many houses are being rebuilt and renovated as homes for some of the foreign workers who live and work near the great port, in the shipyards and on the wharves. It took some time for local government officials - and for the Muslim community itself-to realize that many of these foreigners were by no means as temporary as the term "guest workers" implied: Men here today, when needed, and gone conveniently tomorrow. Many of them, rather, have been in the Netherlands much of their working lives; their families are with them, as the immigration laws of the time permitted, and they are here to stay. The sooner attitudes change, and the long-term needs of this new class of citizen are recognized and respected, the fewer problems there will be in the future. Holland is as flexible and innovative as any European country, but even here it required a great deal of perseverance, pressure, discussion and argument to get a project like this Islamic school under way.

The school still lives somewhat uneasily among its Dutch neighbors: Muslim teachers are difficult to find and the authorities monitor the academic program with special diligence, watching for transgressions of the state guidelines or deviations from the approved curriculum.

That said, the life of the school fairly hums as you walk through the door. The classrooms are strung with colorful art; an exhibition in the corridor illustrates the principles of Islam. The seven-year-olds are working on their Dutch pronunciation. The challenge for the teaching team is to educate Holland's first generation of Dutch Muslims. It has started with these youngsters.

The more educated among the immigrant parents made the initial moves to establish the Islamic school. There are still others, from the most conservative rural backgrounds, who look on this innovation with suspicion. Some of the most traditional fathers can't understand the need for their daughters to learn, and they're watchful of school requests that their wives help the over-stretched classroom staff. Some mothers, too, unschooled themselves, are skeptical; one group of mothers watches as tfieir young children play with plastic bricks. "Can this be learning?" they wonder. The school is teaching two generations.

Young children are not required to take full part in the Ramadan fast, though many of the older pupils fast with their parents on weekends. At the school, several classes have "Ramadan boxes" into which the little ones drop sweets and other goodies daily - if somewhat reluctantly -as a small sacrifice and a symbol of this special time. When the holy month ends with a holiday and gifts, the children will break open the box and share the treasures.

…wa bihamdika …and praise be unto thee.

At the mosque, a small group of students joins the men for 'asr, the late afternoon prayers. The mosque, like the one built in Medina by the Prophet Muhammad has no minaret from which to call believers: It's a converted Dutch row-house just off a main shopping street. This evening there is barely enough room for all those gathering to pray.

Haili is studying Dutch at a local language school on a partial scholarship from the government. He arrived in the Netherlands early this year, and without a knowledge of the language he has no hope of finding a job, even though he has a university degree from his own country.

His wife and her family have lived here for years; it is on the strength of her residence permit that he is allowed to work in Holland. Under the new regulations only immediate family members of residents can obtain working visas.

While Haili is going to school, he and his wife live in a tiny, damp upstairs apartment-all they can afford for the moment. Haili is ambitious, and once he has conquered the language he hopes to get a job in a bank or insurance office during the day and to take up further studies in the evening.

This is his first Ramadan in Europe. While he is accustomed to fasting, and given that in Holland, there is no southern heat to build up a thirst, he does find the many distractions on the streets new and testing, in a way he was never tested at home.

His wife is happy living here, and as a married couple living apart from her family they enjoy the freedom to follow their religious beliefs in their own way. They will not become totally Dutch, but they look to their future in Western Europe with confidence.

Abdil, another of the students at 'asr prayers, is studying business management and economics. He has lived in the Netherlands long enough to have come to a kind of identity crisis. He knows he is not completely accepted by his Dutch friends. The thin wall of difference grows just a bit thicker and higher during Ramadan, when he declines the usual party invitations and is more reserved in his social behavior. Abdil feels there is a kind of embarrassment among his cheerfully secular Dutch friends. He is doing something which they grudgingly respect, yet can't fully comprehend. He, on the other hand, thinks it sad that many young people his age in Holland seem to have abandoned their religious beliefs for the idols of the street and the disco. They act tolerant, he admits, but for all their worldliness, he feels there is still a narrowness of understanding in them, a fear of the unknown, even a vestige of bigotry.

And what of Abdil's own people? His parents have adjusted well, over the years, to their different way of life in the Netherlands, and they welcome both his male and female friends to the house. But it is better not to walk in the neighborhood of his home in a mixed group. Many of his countrymen object to casual friendships between unattached men and women.

It becomes even more difficult for Abdil when his family visit their homeland every few years. There, for him, the gap has become almost unbridgeable. Abdil feels he is a stranger. People can't understand his way of life, or even share his sense of humor. To his credit, he is frank and open about these issues. Abdil has a strength of character and spirit, and a single-minded self-respect, that may make him an example to follow and admire among his transitional generation of European Muslims.

…wa tabaraka ismuka Hallowed is Thy name,

Two children are woken gently from their nap. Rubbing their eyes, they wash and prepare to break the fast with their parents. The man and boy stand together; behind them, their hair covered, the woman and the girl. There is a hush, a very serene calm in the room. The clock moves towards maghrib, the prayer after sunset. The only sound is a distant church bell ringing.

…wa ta’ala jadduka …exhalted is thy majesty,

Three cultures compete for space in this room. The inevitable Dutch potted plants brighten the net-curtained front window; the ornamental North African lamp evokes a different clime, and, spread across the carpet, prayer mats point to far-distant Makkah.

The family gather around the low table to break their fast with dates, then rise to pray again. The mother moves to the kitchen to put the finishing touches to the main course, a Dutch housewife's adaptation of a North African recipe. Her cooking is not exactly like her mother-in-law's.

All the ingredients are available at a nearby market-one so colorful, so international, it could be anywhere in the world. Stalls selling Turkish and Moroccan spices and sweetmeats bracket a Dutch one offering raw herring and smoked eel.

Suad is native-born Dutch, and she came to Islam after meeting her future husband. That wasa hard time at first, she remembers. Putting on the head-scarf, she apparently put off her family and her colleagues. She became a stranger to them. Only now, some eight years later, is she accepted again - though with reserve. The Dutch parents at the school where she worked mistrusted her, as if by wearing a head covering she had become a different person. Suad realizes that part of her problem lies in the working-class part of town where she lives, where her Dutch neighbors, minimally educated, now see foreign workers as a threat to their own livelihoods. To many of her countrymen, Suad has become a foreigner.

One morning in the bank, two elderly women in the line behind her discussed her as if she were deaf, look," said one, 'here she can put money in the bank; in her own country she wouldn't have enough to live in, let alone save." Such jibes contribute to the isolation Holland's Muslims feel.

But Suad's life is not all gloomy. On several occasions Muslim women have come up to her on the street for advice; others have praised her staunch adherence to her beliefs. Suad takes it all with her sensible Dutch charm.

Her husband has learned both the language and a trade since arriving in Holland. He works as a skilled craftsman for a local company, where the boss is accommodating about prayer time and has made a small corner available for prayers if there is no time to go to the local mosque. He says his Dutch wife has strengthened his faith, and although he hasn't lost his Mediterranean ways, he has adapted well to the unfamiliar stresses of northern Europe.

Ramadan brings this family closer, confirming their belief that it is possible to practice Islam in the non-Muslim world.

…wa la ilaha ghairuka … and there is no God but Thee

It is after 10 and an imposing white-bearded man stands in prayer among his sons. It is 'isfia, the night prayer.

This man is a patriarch in the true sense of the word, not just a father to his sons, but a respected leader in his cosmopolitan community.

Ibrahim came to Holland nearly 20 years ago, and has seen many changes since then. In the early days there were few foreign workers; their Dutch colleagues were welcoming. He had sold his small shop in his homeland to come to Europe and Europe's opportunities. When he had saved enough working here, he opened a neighborhood grocery store of his own again. At the time, he had not learned more than the basics of the Dutch language, and there were some who took advantage of him, but with his strict sense of honesty and his innate feel for commerce, Ibrahim was gradually able to build a thriving business.

He is philosophical about his fellow countrymen in Europe; some, he believes, came with no thought but the money, unwilling to contribute to the industrial society that pays their wages. Some give their whole group a bad name. But when they occasionally run into trouble, he is still the father figure they come to for advice and help. It isn't just oil and olives that customers seek in Ibrahim's shop.

But his future troubles him. Although he would like to retire in the town where he was born, he knows that, under present regulations, once he leaves Holland it would be impossible for him to return to visit his grown children and their families, except on a three-month tourist visa. The Netherlands government, like several in Europe, is strongly encouraging "guest workers" over 55 years old to return to their native lands.

"It's a one-way ticket to the grave," says Ibrahim emotionally. "If I leave, I have no more rights in this country where I have given the best years of my life. And I know I will not be fully at home in the place of my birth, either." He sees difficult times ahead if he stays in Holland, but, he wonders, "will it be more difficult here than with the political and economic uncertainties of my homelands.'

For Ibrahim, at least, there is the comfort of his sons who will carry on the business he has built, and since there is still much to be done for his less fortunate countrymen here in the neighborhood, plans for the future are put off until tomorrow.

For the leaders of the Muslim community in the Netherlands, these are cruci«l times. Changing economic and political conditions in Europe, and recent events in the Middle East, have increased the isolation of the community from its hosts, who sometimes see all Muslims as suspect. This is a setback in the painstakingly slow progress made in the last few years towards understanding and acceptance.

Among the old problems still waiting for solutions is the plight of the now-aging first wave of immigrants who came north in the 1960s, when Europe was booming. And there are those - now young men and women in their 20s - who came as children with the families who arrived in the late 1970s, and were surprised to discover that their fathers, the heroes who had come home bearing gifts of radios and tales of the good life, were something less than heroes here, but simple shift workers in a tough, cold environment. These young people have tried to adapt and move beyond their rural family origins; in today's competitive labor market, though, even when they are qualified, they often find themselves at the end of the line. There are also some traditional parents who can't come to terms with the degree to which their sons have "become Dutch," or with the depth of their daughters' desire for education and a good job, or even a career.

On the positive side, there is a growing number of educated young Muslim men and women who are engaging in dialogue with other social and religious groups in the Netherlands, trying to build more bridges from Islam to the predominantly Christian Dutch society. They are working to break down outdated stereotypes, so both communities can focus on their shared ethical and family values, and their common goals.

A little part of the Muslim world has settled in the Netherlands. It may take generations rather than decades, but as time passes, that community and its neighbors will come to know each other not as strangers, but as friends. And to the benefit of both.

Hilary Keatinge is an Irish writer who lives in the Netherlands.

This article appeared on pages 13-29 of the March/April 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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