My London Muslim Experience
|London Central Mosque|
A word I would pick to describe being a muslim in London would be: normal. In my opinion,it is the most muslim-friendly city where Islam is a minority religion. Most neighborhoods have a mosque (mine had three within walking distance). Campuses, airports, City Hall and malls have praying rooms. Halal eateries can be found in almost every corner, with its signature red-white-blue signage with the same font and white tiles. KFC, Subway and Nando’s have plenty of halal certified branches. It is really common to see working women wearing hijabs in all sorts of places, like supermarkets, offices, banks, and Apple stores. Londoners are generally open-minded people and accept others regardless of their faith, living by the city’s motto: London is open. In this blog post, I would like to reminisce about moments from UCL’s Islamic Society (ISoc), volunteering at the Central Mosque, and the most memorable Ramadan.
The first orientation day at UCL had a session from the student union (SU). Being the early days of my academic year, it was a pleasant surprise to see the presenting representative wearing a hijab. She spoke confidently about the union’s role and opportunities. UCL’s campus really does accommodate muslim needs. There are 2 prayer rooms (now 3), halal menus in the cafeteria, and the clubs & societies room has three microwaves for halal, vegetarian and neither. I remember seeing a student checking the ingredients before using the first two, which shows respect.
I later learned that muslims students dominate the SU. The main factor is the strong brother-sisterhood they build, plus some smart strategies. Everytime I enter the praying room, there is always someone greeting me with “Assalamu’alaikum, brother!” They often initiate casual conversations, asking my origins and field of study to then reply with Masha Allah (literally means God has willed it, used to express admiration). I had to get used to, “your name is Freddy? Is that just your English name or do you have an Indonesian name?”
My regular visits to the prayer room got me invited to the ISoc whatsapp group. I was never really active but found most conversations quite amusing. ISoc also organizes Friday prayers in the common rooms and a senior member gives the sermon. Sometimes when the room gets crowded in the back, the senior would pause to say “Will you brothers please move forward, there’s plenty of room!” and continue with the sermon.
ISoc regularly holds social events, involving free food which is one good reason for coming. One time it was biryani night, and there were more plates than people. After undergoing too much trouble getting more plates, the committee finally asked if used plates were ok. Being really hungry, I just went with it. Most attendees were undergrads and I can pass as a 20 year old thanks to my Southeast Asian DNA. I remember chatting about football with an Arsenal fan and mentioning that my flatmate supported the team since the Bergkamp era. His response, “Woah, I wasn’t even born back then!” I just chuckled and did not say that my flatmate was actually my age.
Regarding the smart strategies, ISoc members gather with iPads and laptops at the campus entrances, library entrances and the praying rooms during SU elections. They would pull every muslim student aside and ask them to vote for fellow brothers and sisters. Sometimes the leader would drop personal whatsapp members telling us who to vote. There was even a motion to ban usage of iPads during campaigns from the opposition, which they drastically lost after ISoc gathered so many members in a room to sign a counter petition. Most people didn’t know what was going on that night, except that there would be free pizza.
A special experience for me was charity night. Students volunteer to serve hot food and beverages for the homeless. I joined one at a park near LSE, where I helped handout hot tea and biscuits while the females or sisters served biryani. The recipients were really grateful for our contribution. I made many friends that night, including my good and funny friend Mohamed from Mauritius. I liked to hangout at his place near Wembley stadium where we ate large pizzas and portions of chips while watching Marvel movies.
Volunteering at London Central Mosque
Wanting to make the most of my year, I was keen on joining volunteering activities. UCL had a fair at the main quad in the beginning of the academic year to find opportunities. I came across a stand that said “Al-Hikmah” with a young lady of Middleeastern ethnicity behind the table. It is a program to teach math, science and english to children with learning difficulties. Hatwan, the young lady and also a recent alumnus, seemed really open and positive so I signed up considering algebra was one of my strong suits in high school. Hatwan then gestured to take some mini Mars chocolate bars from the bowl. After taking one, she said feel free to take more. I was like, “Okay!” and took one of each kind (there were six or seven).
|Inside London Central Mosque|
Al-Hikmah was indeed a treasurable learning experience. Tutoring helped increase my patience, empathy and leadership skills. My favorite student was the 50 something year-old Sister Saidah. She noticed me helping a secondary school student with quadratic equations and decided to join in as she plans to apply for university. I really admired her willingness to learn, she didn’t even mind being in the same program as her son. She would bring math books and say, “Freddy! Thank you, Freddy! I learned so much from you!” after each lesson.
Another student I cannot forget is the troublemaker, Tall Mohamed (there are so many that share the name). Every tutor knew that he was there to hangout and didn’t need much learning. He would like to interrupt sessions by saying random things to run out the clock. My favorite one was, “Are you American? I would like to go to America. I want to go to Muscle Beach and become a bodybuilder. Do you know where Muscle Beach is?” (I knew I wasn’t supposed to laugh but just could not help it). Another time he said, “Yo homie! What’s up my homie? I’m trying out my American slang.”
Al-Hikmah is open to volunteers of all religions. There were many other international tutors from China and Thailand that joined because of the love for teaching. The program leader is Sheikh Suleiman, a charismatic guy from Uganda that is full of ideas to engage students in learning. He organized after-tutoring activities which ranged from team-building games to poetry reading. We usually hung out for a while with other tutors to discuss other ideas and topics like culture and history. Whenever someone goes on a trip, he asks for the same thing: a seashell. I rarely went to the seaside but did eventually bring him a turquoise stone from Turkey which seems equivalent.
I made other good friends at Al-Hikmah, there were Elias and Aadil who are both local Londoners, Daniel from Warwick and my neighbor Ayman from Malaysia. Elias actually went to volunteer in Indonesia that year to teach English at an Islamic Boarding School in Cianjur. I gave him some cultural tips and food recommendations. While he was there, he sent me a picture of him on a banner asking what it was about. Apparently the school made him an event speaker before any coordination. I replied amusingly that these things do not rarely happen.
Even though dawn was at 2.45 am and dusk at 9.15 pm, the 18,5 fasting days were the best in my life. Fortunately for me, it was dissertation time so no more classes. I would not sleep until 4.00 am to wake up at 12.00 pm, making fasting hours similar to Indonesia. Other hacks would be taking midday and evening naps. British summer days had less humidity so I was never that thirsty. So surviving was not that hard, but it was the open iftars (break fasting feasts) that made it special.
|The Ramadan Tent|
On the first day of the holy month, I had my first open iftar at the Ramadan Tent in a park near SOAS. It’s a seasonal event open to everyone. There were many non-muslim attendants that were interested in the occasion. I was with my friends Faiz Rahman from UCL and Faiz Nahdi from Reading whom I went to undergrad with. So it was Faiz, Faiz and Faiz's brother sitting together in the tent. The evening started with a universal sermon covering topics like gratitude, humility and patience. We were then asked to get acquainted with the people next to us. I met siblings from Gaza, who shared their hardship stories. Upon dusk, we would break our fast over dates and water. Muslims would do the evening prayer at the other section and meals would be served afterwards. Each night had a different theme, after the committee got feedback to not continuously serve biryani. They even had Indonesian nights; serving rendang and telor balado. Olga was one of the contributors, it was amazing how she could cook so much rendang!
A friend of mine also enjoyed going to the tent, particularly because the venue does not separate males and females. A local Londoner with Pakistani heritage, he showed me his muslim way of approaching the ladies. He would start by asking a random question like directions to the tube station. Afterwards, he would ask the girl for her dad’s phone number since he finds her attractive and keen on proceeding to engagement. The ending was always awkward with the girl saying things like she can only marry Algerians or is already engaged. Nevertheless, I always respected his bravery and resilience.
Almost every mosque in London provides iftar for its jemaah (prayer attendees). My first one was at Eastman and Olga’s neighborhood mosque, where we feasted on fried chicken boxes donated from the restaurant owner. I then made it a hobby to try meals in different mosques, the most unique was Pakistani porridge at Brick Lane Mosque. Al-Hikmah also held an iftar for tutors and students at London Central Mosque, serving a buffet of biryani and curries. But my regular was always my neighborhood mosque, Al-Manaar. The organizers manage to serve a complete meal, starting with assorted bread, milk, cakes and dates. Many people do not finish everything so it is easy to get extras. The main courses ranged from chicken tikka masala to lamb koftas with a side of hummus and salad. In the second half of Ramadan, the mosque would host a potluck sahur (meal before dawn). Many attendees brought food to share and form circles, making it like food stations. People would notice me and offer chicken curry, couscous and cakes. This created a family atmosphere that filled the dining area.
|Food at Al-Manaar: minced lamb, kabouli rice and hummus|
One day, while walking towards Al-Manaar with Burhan and Arnis, we noticed a police car parked in front and many middle-age British men in suits. We assumed there would be a special guest, maybe a Member of Parliament. After prayer, Burhan and I sat at the dining area while the Imam announced the guest of honor. It was Prime Minister Theresa May. She walked in wearing a hijab, without being heavily followed by security. After a small speech, she sat with us on the floor and ate out of the same meal boxes. I was at awe seeing such humility. She allowed people to take selfies with her before leaving the room. I didn’t do the same being preoccupied with my meal, kind of regret it now.
|Iftar with the Prime Minister|
Al-Manaar is indeed a special mosque, its Chelsea location is probably a major advantage. Sometimes Channel 4’s broadcasting crew would shoot the tarawih prayers for a documentary. On the final nights, the mosque organized iftar outdoors. The police helped close the street. It was a really nice moment to break fast under the crimson summer sky.
|Iftar under the sky|
Another memorable night was when Yasmine, my Egyptian-Algerian classmate , hosted iftar at her place. It was a potluck dinner and guests were asked to bring food and wear attire from their home countries. I made some tempe mendoan (deep-fried battered tempeh) and bala-bala (cabbage-carrot fritters) and came to Yasmine’s wearing a batik. The table was full of international delicacies: Pakistani pakoras, American-style pasta salad, and an Egyptian dessert that I loved since childhood but never remembered the name. One of Yasmine’s guests got everyone’s attention to ask who made the pakoras. It was made by my classmate Abdullah from Lahore, and really was delicious. Yasmine’s guest then pointed out the bala-bala, saying it's really tasty. Not expecting the compliment, I awkwardly responded, “wow, thanks! It’s just cabbage and carrots fried in batter.”
My department year-end party was also on Ramadan. There was so much food that I couldn’t eat yet, so I used a couple of paper plates to pack it following Bima’s advice, my fellow Indonesian classmate. My Japanese classmates later joined me, Bima and Mostafa from Egypt to celebrate iftar.
The Indonesian Embassy hosts iftars on Saturdays, a great time for Indonesian students to treat their palate. The women working at the embassy will serve our favorite takjils like gorengan (fried goods) and kolak (bananas and yam balls in coconut milk). The embassy invited an Imam straight from Cirebon to give the sermons. It was nice to know how local imams could get these international opportunities.
|Food at the Indonesian Embassy|
I saved a lot from all the open iftars. Throughout the holy month, I only had iftar at home twice: my home-cooked birthday dinner and the last fasting day. This is a recommended life hack for any student to survive the high living costs of London.
I celebrated Eid at Eastman and Olga’s place. We attend the Eid prayer at a beautiful open field in Purley. Olga made an amazing feast of Padang food, morrocan sausage and mixed-berries with vanilla ice cream and brownies for dessert. After a hearty lunch, I joined Eastman, Zack and their other guests to watch the second World Cup match.
|Eid Prayer at Purley|
On the second day of Eid, my flatmates and I made a traditional Indonesian lunch. I made rendang while Arnis cooked opor ayam and lontong. Monika had friends over from the US and France, so it was great to share our local recipes. My flatmates and I went to an Eid Fair at Westfield mall in the later days of celebration. There was a live performance stage and dozens of food stands to serve and entertain to huge Muslim crowd. I enjoyed a enormous bratwurst from the most crowded stand and tried camel milk for the first time (it has a rich and refreshing consistency). One stand sold halal wine, which sounds like a fancy grape juice. The fair ended with a female singer performing Ben E. King's "Stand by me", as a message that all Muslims are family.
I would say that year's Ramadan and Eid was one of the best I’ve ever experienced! So many displays of tolerance and cultural integration. A month full of precious memories that I am more than grateful to have experienced.
|Eid Fair at Westfield, White City|