Eid Mubarak! One Man's Frisian Ramadan

More than two billion people worldwide celebrate Eid al-Fitr today, the Sugar Feast marking the conclusion of Ramadan. Six percent of the Dutch population is believed to be Muslim, totaling about 950,000 people, with most living in the Randstad.

Youssef Nashmi and his daughter (photo: Marion Poll)

Youssef Nashmi is a refugee from Syria living in the Netherlands since 2004. The 30-year-old Muslim man lives with his wife and two children in Oosterwolde, a small village in the east of Friesland far from the urban centers of North and South Holland. Youssef knows no other Muslims in the small village of 10,000 inhabitants.

Since he left his beloved Syria, Youssef lodged in all kinds of places from Limburg up to Groningen. He noticed that there are some misconceptions about both the Ramadan and the Muslim community in the Netherlands. “People think that Ramadan is just a month without eating and drinking during the day, but that’s just a small piece of a bigger picture,” he says.

According to Youssef the most important thing during Ramadan is introspection. It begins with reflection on the actions and decisions made in the previous year, and often leads to overthinking every little aspect of life. Ramadan is the month of forgiveness in the Muslim faith. It is about reconciling that which went wrong with family, best friends, colleagues and others in ones life. The month-long period is about thinking of the impoverished, and charitable giving. Ramadan is about self-confidence, constantly testing oneself in all kinds of situations.

About the latter, Youssef refers to the heat wave over the last few weeks. Though he did not have any trouble with the high temperature, the scantily clad women gave him a hard time at some moments. “It is not that it is not allowed to look at women, because you can’t stop what you see. The trick is to not fantasize about that woman after you have seen her,” says Youssef. The underlying thought is that you have to respect her and her partner. She is not your property, and thus fantasizing is not allowed.

Ramadan in the Netherlands, according to Youssef, is not harder to do than in his home country. He misses the love and warm feeling that he has with family and friends. He is not bothered with the fact that there are hardly any mosques in the provinces of Friesland and Drenthe, choosing instead to pray at home. The only practical thing that does annoys him is that most employers do not adapt to their Muslim employees by giving them more flexible hours to work. “Because of this inflexibility most Muslims are obligated to take the whole month off, while it could be unnecessary.”

Youssef certainly sees the difference in being a Muslim in the bigger Dutch cities and being one in Friesland. In Utrecht he felt more at home, because of the diversity in people and the bigger knowledge and open interest of the people in the city. He says in Friesland people sometimes react rather cold when he talks about his background. “Sometimes I felt almost ashamed telling people that I am Muslim,” he remarked.

Inside the Mescidi Aksamoskee in Den Haag, 2007 (Roel Wijnants/Flickr)

The elderly in Friesland, “make jokes about halal food, but they don’t even know what it means. Often it is the younger people who have to explain the older people how it works; that’s funny to see.” Youssef believes younger people to be more open-minded, while the elderly are afraid of the unknown. He thinks this could be caused by the crimes and attacks portrayed in the news, leading some to equate danger with Islam.

However Youssef says that he can’t blame the people for thinking that way. “It is the media that shapes them.” In a moment of contemplation, he points out that watching the television back in Syria led him to believe that Jews where bad people. “I always thought that all Jews where ugly and had a big nose.” It was not until he came to the Netherlands and met a Jewish person that he realized he was wrong.

“He was so nice and friendly, so not what I expected.”

Youssef wants to show the Frisian society that not all Muslims are the same. “I can be an example for them, and I will always try to have that conversation.” On living happily with his family in Oosterwolde, he says, “Great house, lovely neighbors. But above all I am grateful to be in The Netherlands, and live, and to speak with a free voice.”