Science - October 27, 2005

Ramadan with the help of internet

Free software from internet that tells the exact time to pray, a weblog used as a cooking schedule and a media player transmitting an Arab broadcasting station with prayers from Mecca: internet is helping a small group of international Muslim students through their month of fasting far away from home. Every day after sunset they come together to pray and eat in one of their small rooms at the Bornsesteeg.

In the Netherlands there is no mosque with a loudspeaker announcing prayer time from the minaret. Here it is internet that tells the students in the Bornsesteeg room when the sun has set in Wageningen. At 18.27 exactly, Arabic lines from a laptop announce the end of fasting today. Students Shady and Abdelhalim step behind a prayer rug, spread out on the floor. They stand facing towards Mecca, Shady in socks, and Abdelhalim with bare feet. They bow and kneel down to pray. Abdelhalim’s mobile rings, but is ignored till after prayer.

Just as the prayer rug has been put away, three other students walk in: Nour, Haidi and Sahar. The five of them eat together every day during the Ramadan. They have started a weblog to keep track of who is making what for dinner. Today, dinner starts off with soup and is followed by a rice dish. Despite the day of fasting, nobody jumps at it as though they are starving. ‘The first days of fasting are hard, but after a while your body adapts,’ explains Nour.

In the background, an Arabic soap series is playing on the laptop, but this is soon followed by praying broadcast from Mecca. It makes them feel a little bit more at home. ‘In my home country Egypt, everybody is fasting and you are with your family,’ says Haidi with some sadness. ‘It is the special atmosphere that is missing here.’ Yet, the lack of family is partly replaced by the daily gatherings with friends. ‘They become your family,’ says Nour.

Clean slate

Sometimes, there are temptations during fasting. ‘The Dutch chips! I don’t even like them normally, but now during Ramadan, the smell makes me hungry,’ says Shady. Yet, they are easy to resist, because the core of Ramadan is that it is an act of worship. ‘It’s not just no food and no drinking. It is about values,’ says Abdelhalim. Shady adds that during this time you come closer to Allah. ‘You look back and evaluate the whole year. It is a kind of judgement. After Ramadan you can start with a clean slate.’

More difficult than fasting is finding a place to pray during the day. Courses and work on theses continue, but there is no special room where they can pray in the University buildings. The students have asked caretakers if they can use a spare room.

That the Netherlands is not an Islamic state becomes even clearer at the end of Ramadan, 2 November, when it is time for the feast of breaking the fasting (Eid-al-fitr). Back home Muslims get three days off; here nobody does. They can only celebrate from 7.30 till 8.30 in the morning, and after that life goes on as normal, just like tonight. ‘I have an exam to revise for,’ says Abdelhalim getting up to go. Everybody else leaves shortly after him. Tomorrow, they will get up early for breakfast, before the laptop announces that the sun has risen again and a new day of fasting begins. / LH

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