I spent Eid in the UK before and I HATED it. It was a day like any other day. No one else around me was celebrating. People on the street were just going about their everyday business. There were no cheesy Eid songs on television. It was just a normal day. Eid isn’t supposed to be that way.
I didn’t have it in me to go through another Eid like that.
I haven’t prayed the Eid prayer, as far as I can remember, since my children were babies. I haven’t even been to many communal prayers in mosques since my children were babies. I became fed up with the attitudes people had when they went into a mosque. Suddenly everyone became a grand mufti. Suddenly everybody had a right to butt into your business and tell you how to wear your clothes or where to place your feet or even where you can and cannot store your shoes. The women’s sections in mosques were/are always noisy, cramped and smelly. I can barely hear the imam praying most of the time and I can definitely not see him. If I thought of bringing my children I’d get lectures on how I should be handling them. It was an overall miserable experience that I have been avoiding for years.
Even though I don’t spend much time in the UK, I have been spending more time here than my typical four days. And because I’ve been spending longer and more frequent periods of time here, I’m beginning to feel myself struggle with things I’ve never struggled with before on my short trips out of Egypt.
Eid is an example of this. I found myself feeling indignant that my special religious holiday meant nothing to everyone around me. In a way, I was very offended by the whole of Britain and the Western world. I recalled that in all of my previous jobs, all based in Egypt, we would make a special effort to send out Christmas and New Year’s greetings to non-Muslims working with us in other parts of the world. Rarely would this be reciprocated by the tens if not hundreds of non-Muslims I worked with all over the world. It never really mattered to me. It mattered a little bit but not a lot. I celebrated Eid in Egypt and I was with my family and my friends. I was in the midst of the Arab world with all the celebrations that accompany my special religious holiday. That a few people in other parts of the world had no idea about any of this did not matter so much.
I discovered it does matter when you are living in their midst. I imagined what Muslims living abroad must go through, feeling it necessary to get Christmas gifts for their colleagues and uneasily attending rowdy Christmas parties. Yet when their religious holiday comes by, hardly anyone at all notices.
Long ago, when I was working at IslamOnline, our editorial team raised time and time again the issue of integration of Muslims in non-Muslim countries. Our editors encouraged integration. But I’ve started understanding that if I’m a Muslim resident or a Muslim citizen of the UK and the two holidays I celebrate each year pass by as if they are nothing, I will have strong feelings of resentment towards that country. I don’t even get my special day of the week; my Friday. The important things in my life are barely acknowledged. What I’m going to end up doing is I will flee to find others like me to create my little community within a community to feel safety and comfort.
And this is what I was subconsciously searching for today. I needed Eid. And to have Eid, I needed my people. I found the address of a couple of mosques in the UK city I’m currently based in and I headed out to one of them this morning.
It was heartbreaking walking down the street and seeing no evidence of celebration anywhere. I felt heartbroken until I was two minutes away from the mosque. It was then that my heart lifted. Men wearing the traditional Saudi dress were coming out of their parked car. Women in their different forms of hijab were pushing buggies and holding the hands of their little children. A husband and wife were walking quietly towards the mosque’s main entrance. I was elated.
I entered the mosque in the midst of a group of women. As the women’s section began to fill, I started to feel edgy. Oh God, I thought. Here we go. The jibber-jabber of women, meeting, talking and gossiping, was almost deafening. Small children were crying and others were running about. Female volunteers were standing above all others with red ribbons on their chests, identifying them as the ones in charge, herding the women inside and giving them instructions on how and where to sit. A woman came by and asked everyone in my row to move up a bit and to settle exactly on the brown line. We did as told.
I observed all this, agitated, and tried to understand why the women’s section in any mosque is almost always noisy whereas the men’s is usually not. My conclusion was that the men’s area, once entered, is a place of prayer. The women’s area, always (and in my opinion unnecessarily) separated from this main prayer area, then turns not into a place of prayer but into a place of gathering.
I sat looking at the women: Saudis, Egyptians, Indians, Pakistanis, Malaysians, Moroccans, Algerians, Kuwaitis… I knew none of them yet I knew them all. There were the irritating women who put themselves in charge. There were the young hip girls with smiles on their faces and their studies on their minds. There were the young mothers doing their best to handle rowdy children.
And suddenly I wasn’t irritated anymore. I was home! These were my people: the ones I hated and the ones I loved. And then I realized that I loved my people with all their noise, their self-importance, their nosiness, and their holiness. I loved them with all the things I hated about them simply because they were mine. Out on the street just 20 minutes earlier I did not belong. Here I belonged. Here I was safe. Here I was comfortable. Here I was happy.
The Eid prayer ended and me and the stranger sitting next to me hugged, huge smiles on our faces. “Eid Mubarak!” we told each other.
I left the mosque and asked a woman where I might find an Arab grocer. We had a lovely conversation. It was lovely simply because it was in Arabic and simply because we were both happy on our special occasion. All we did was talk about the grocer, how to get there, and what other alternatives there were. But it was lovely.
I found several Arab/Indian grocers. They had my food! It’s not like my diet is much of a typical Arab diet. It’s not. I eat rather bland food in general. But knowing that my food was there when I needed it was a relief. I lingered in the grocery store and in the general neighborhood of the mosque longer than necessary. But I needed to feel my people just a little bit longer before I thrust myself back into the purely British UK I was staying in.
I understand now. I understand why integration is so hard for Muslims and for people of so many other beliefs and backgrounds. Our host countries want us to be integrated but will not make the effort necessary to make us feel at home.