Of the few major leaps during my 26 years of existence, the most challenging one would have to be booking a one-way flight to a country I had never seen before to start a family. Having lived my entire life in the Middle East, and visiting Europe just once before for a holiday with relatives in London, it was undoubtedly nerve-wracking. And although there are similarities between both regions in terms of technological advancements, life for Muslims evidently differs in many areas. From the basic foundations of mosques to daily activities, there is a constant push and pull between feelings of standing out to embracing it all.
Clad from top to toe in Islamic attire, it became clear to me from the start that I was always going to be viewed as the foreigner, freshly plucked from the land of the Bedouins. However, much to my pleasant surprise, Germans are undoubtedly a friendly and welcoming people. This raises the question as to whether sometimes it’s our own personal judgments that are what cause us to feel alienated.
While I do believe that part of it is actually so, it took me just a couple of news headlines and a consequent series of accusative glares from strangers on the bus to understand why as a Muslim living in the West, I am constantly in a state of defence. Not only do we have to be the absolute ideal versions of ourselves at all times, but we also have to choose our words carefully when answering questions like, “Isn’t it too warm for you to be overdressed like that?”
Fortunately with time, as the resilient adaptive human beings that we are, we acclimatize to the environment and learn to go about our daily activities with ease. Well, maybe not entirely so. As a Muslim woman who has always freely practised a wide range of sports activities, I have found it particularly difficult to locate an exclusively all-female gym or health club. Moreover, outings and entertainment with the family need to be carefully thought out, starting from where one can find a decent place to pray on the way and enjoy halal dining outside, to unearthing a rare censored copy of a popular film for movie nights.
Although all these once normal tidbits are now luxuries for me, they are facets that I am ready to overlook due to the noteworthy pleasant nature of the people who have warmly welcomed me into their country. One topic, however, is a worry that I am certain haunts many fellow Muslim parents in the West, and that is the task of raising their children the halal way. In stark comparison to Islamic nations, where Islamic Studies is a subject just as important as Math and English, Muslims in the West have to actively seek out Islamic schools or classes in their local mosques to aid children in getting the religious education that they need. It is this particular crucial matter that made me realize the phenomenal role that mosques play in the lives of the Western Muslim community.
Whilst glorious minarets can be seen peppered all across the city of Dubai alone, most of the countable few mosques that I have so far visited in Germany are very often inconspicuously nestled between residential buildings in known regions of the city. Aside from the biased comparison of the number of mosques present in the East versus the West, the functions that Masjids assume vary considerably. Back home, mosques are viewed solely as a place of worship whereas here, they are a meeting ground for Muslims to gather and build a family on a united front. Activities ranging from Eid and Ramadan festivities to Quran lessons and volunteer work have opened up the doors for Muslims to appreciate this caring home away from home. It instils in both the old and the youth, a sense of camaraderie and has made me, as well as many others, comfortable in knowing that we are not alone.
During the last few years that I have lived in Germany, my comfort zones and boundaries, that had been grounded for so long in stable bliss, have been tested and stretched to their maximum capacity. Much to my joy and astonishment, several self-discoveries were made and affirmed, primarily that of my Islamic identity. Throughout my earlier life, I always knew who I was and didn’t have to question the characteristics of my faith as much since most of the answers were almost always evident all around me. In a foreign territory, however, my perception of that has become both warped and clearer than it used to be.
The fact that I am ever bracing myself for the possibility of getting hit by an inquisitive yet challenging question about my faith, has found me researching and learning a lot more than I used to about the beliefs that I stand for. Moreover, having to go out of my way to look for alternatives that allow me to stay on the right path, whilst simultaneously meshing into the Western mould, has given me a new profound respect for those that have had to it for their entire lives.
Despite the ceaseless longing I feel, caused by the idyllic nostalgia for the Athaan as it wafts through the palm trees, set along a backdrop of skyscrapers, I have learnt to value where and who I am at present. At the end of the day, the makeup of every individual stands regardless of our location in the world. We are the Muslims we choose to be and what defines us is based on our individual experiences and struggles, and not a set of coordinates on a map.
Header photo: Juan Camilo Guarin P
Author: Alwiya Bafagih