In the year 2000, I spent my first Ramadan and Eid-ul-Fitr in a Muslim majority country and community, notably in Islamabad, Pakistan. Below, I shall share a few stories from my meeting with Islam, living in multi-cultural lands, and how much I have appreciated it. In the end, I also reflect on some multicultural situations in Sweden. All this now at the end of the holy month of Ramadan and this year’s Eid-ul-Fitr.
Last week when I wrote about ‘common religiosity’, I was more poetic in style, also encouraging the readers to reflect; today, I shall be more factual, yet, still hoping that the readers will reflect and add to what I have to say – and without your additions, my stories will be less meaningful.
I am a Norwegian, and I grew up in a Christian majority country. Later, I have spent many years abroad and have experienced other religions, notably in East Africa, where I have stayed for some years; and I then, I spent a few years in West Africa, before eventually coming to Pakistan.
There are two major religions on the African continent, Christianity and Islam, in addition to a number of traditional, animist religions. We should note that Africans are generally religious people, and both Islam and Christianity are growing on the continent with over 1.2 billion people.
I first stayed in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, in the late 1970s and also a decade later. Islam is obvious in everyday life in the city, which is the country’s economic capital. The town is undoubtedly African, but it has Arab influence, too, and so does the neighbouring Zanzibar islands, just a short voyage away. Nonetheless, the Christian community is also strong in Dar-es-Salaam and elsewhere in Tanzania, and many Western countries have sent missionaries to Tanzania over some 200 years. During the German and British rule of Tanzania, the Lutheran and Anglican Churches, and also the Catholic Church, were certainly influential. Most well-educated Tanzanians were Christian when I was there, and there was also a large community of Asian professionals and business people.
In Nairobi, Kenya, where I spent several years from 1984, I discovered a multicultural city, where people celebrated, or at least noticed, the various religions and their holiday seasons. There were Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, all being proud of showing off their events and welcoming others to ‘listen and see’. The media was keen to broadcast the sounds, sentiments and traditions of the various religions. That time, the charismatic movement in Christianity and the Pentecostal Church gained ground. It wasn’t only Muslims who went to prayer over lunch; also Christians gathered in prayer halls and parks.
In Abidjan, Ivory Coast, I spent shorter time but was there during two Ramadan months. The atmosphere was similar to that of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania – and so was the climate. Internal migrants from outside Abidjan, the country’s economic capital, came from the Muslim north. Since I was working for the African Development Bank, with most staff from the continent, many were Muslims, and I still remember that every Friday has a festive feeling to it, with my colleagues dressed up in elegant West African outfits going off to attend Friday Prayer in the mosque. The office building became quiet and peaceful, and the fruit vendors on the streets outside also closed their carts and joined my colleagues in the mosque.
At the French-owned hotel where I stayed for some time, there was a similar Friday-atmosphere on Sunday afternoons; I remember an American colleague noticing this when he visited, saying that the hotel restaurant was indeed encouraging one for a tranquil time and spiritual talk over a cup of tea, and then we could stroll in the garden and look at the flowers afterward.
The first president of Cote d’Ivoire was a very religious man, a Christian, who built an almost-replica, but taller, of the monumental St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, in the country’s new capital of Yamoussoukro. The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro was opened in 1990 by Pope John Paul. It is one of the most significant church buildings in the world. Due to the high cost of the building, the project became controversial, but it has since also become a tourist attraction and does earn some money in the otherwise poor African country.
In Islamabad, in November and December 2000, Ramadan coincided with the Thanksgiving period before Christmas. Eid-ul-Fitr was from 27 December (and Christmas Day on 25 December). I remember how beautiful I thought every Iftar was, with the breaking of the fast after 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and I had come back from the UN office where I worked and rushed down to Jinnah Supermarket to be part of the hustle and bustle of the last Iftar food shopping and breaking of the fast. It was like a little Christmas Eve in my mind, every day for a whole month!
Now in the year 2018, we are a bit over half-circle to Ramadan to be held at the same time of the year, notably in the year 2033, since the holy month comes at the same time of year every 33 years. Interesting then would be that those who were children in 2000 and the years around that time will be parent-age when Ramadan comes in 2033 and around those years. And then in 2066, they will be grandparent-age. They may all recall the particular time of year of Ramadan and say: “this is how I remember Ramadan when I was a child or when my children were small”. I hope to celebrate Ramadan and Eid in 2033, and I will remember how I experienced it in Islamabad in 2000. Yes, we all make our own history in a way, with our memories – in the midst of the regularity and receptiveness of Ramadan, even bringing thoughts about eternity.
Let me add another story or two about religion and culture. They don’t have much to do with Ramadan, though, rather about summer, preparation for general elections, and multiculturalism.
A few days ago, I had the opportunity to listen to the chairman of the Swedish Conservative Party, ‘Moderaterna’, Ulf Kristersson, who is challenging the sitting PM Stefan Löfven, at the general elections on 9 September 2018. Kristersson was speaking at a large political rally in Stockholm. He is not a religious man but has returned to be a member of the Church of Sweden (which until a few years ago was the country’s state church). His wife, Birgitta Ed, a successful private consultant, has recently decided that she wants to study theology and she has all her life been an active church-goer. Kristersson and Ed are parents to three adopted daughters from China. The adults in the family – and I am sure the teenagers too – say about each other that they are always interested in the world around them, events nearby and far away. They enjoy seeing and finding out about new things. Besides, they are full of humour and see the lighter and positive sides of life; yet, they are a mixture of being serious, social, competitive, religious, secular, and so on, all at the same time, it seems.
No, I don’t say, “Vote for the Conservative Party”; I tell a little bit about some interesting people in Sweden. The current PM Stefan Löfven also has his unusual life story, having grown up with foster parents and only meeting his single mother for the first time when he was in his late teens.
Now then, Birgitta Ed plans to begin her theology studies at the age of 49, maybe with a PM-husband, and she may be a pastor at 55. Perhaps she will be able to recruit her husband to the ‘flock’, or maybe not; in any case, they have been together since she was a teenager and him just some years older, and they have no other plans than staying together, they said smiling in a recent newspaper interview.
These interesting Swedes can all be role models for young people, anywhere in the world, don’t you think? Even the former chairwoman of ‘Moderaterna’, Anna Kinberg Batra, who had to leave the leadership post a year ago, is an interesting woman, although looking quite stale and stern on TV; she is married to one of Sweden’s most prominent and intelligent comedians, David Batra, born in southern Sweden to immigrant parents from the Sub-Continent/, and she managed to take off from work to have one child. That family, too, can form a role model, showing some more aspects of modern, multicultural and multi-religious Sweden and the West – with lessons for people everywhere, also in Pakistan.
Dear readers – members of all religions, seekers and curious and interested fellow travellers on life’s journey, indeed all Muslims, now as the holy month of Ramadan ends for this time – may I wish you all, Eid Mubarak.
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.
In Nairobi ... I discovered a multicultural city, where people celebrated ... the various religions and their holiday seasons. There were Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, all being proud of showing off their events and welcoming others to ‘listen and see’.