Ramadan From South Africa To Seoul: A Muslim Expatriate’s Experience


Hashim Abdulla •  May 15, 2019

The journey of a lifetime started with the single most important interview of my life and I had no idea how profound this would be. Turning 26, leaving home for the 1st time and travelling halfway across the world excited and scared me in equal measure. Fast forward a few months and I was living the dream, hardly missed home, and never seemed to be homesick at all. Enter my first holy month of Ramadaan away from home, family, community, mosque and suddenly all that changed.

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Korea gave me so much but also took one of the dearest parts of me away. It was at that moment, I realized that Ramadaan is fasting and prayer, yes, but it is also way more. It’s a gift, a time when everything and everyone comes together. It's about family and friends bonding, rejoicing in the glory of our creator and the gift of Ramadaan. This story is really just about me and my vastly different experiences of Muslim life and Ramadaan in two very different countries.

Being a minority can be vastly different.

Muslims are a minority in South Africa but having been raised in a Muslim community there and having spent all my Ramadaan’s surrounded by family, friends and the community, gave me a sense of belonging and made it so easy to be a Muslim, and to fast and to attend mosque. It's things I took for granted and what’s that old saying “you don’t know what you got till it’s gone”? Well, this really falls into that category perfectly.

Credit: @NandosSA on Twitter

In South Africa, the Muslim community is really tight-knit and even has an influence on our economy so finding food and a mosque is as easy as breathing. McDonald’s, KFC and Nando's (my absolute favourite) are mostly or all halal. For us as South Africans, all our faiths are protected by our constitution and the beauty of it is that all faiths seem to live alongside each other in relative peace.

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Ramadan also brings with it a deeper stillness and peace that can be felt throughout the community and the actions of everyone. Food is cooked and given to the less fortunate and Ramadan hampers are made and distributed.

Credit: @waseem_cmc on Instagram

Shifting from South Africa to South Korea.

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The road I lived in, in Cape Town, has a church, a temple, and a mosque. The call to prayer can be heard for every prayer time and the walk down to mosque with my dad is one I cherished. We got to relive that experience when he visited me in Korea last December.

Credit: @thehalalguyskorea on Instagram

As in South Africa, Muslims are also a minority in Korea but here it can be felt in many aspects of life and it's glaringly obvious in Ramadaan. I live 3 hours south of Seoul and finding halal food isn't easy unless I go to areas like Itaewon (the Seoul neighbourhood with the largest population of foreigners in Korea) which will have loads of food options and a mosque, but at best I can only do that on a weekend and it isn't cheap. No major fast-food chain is halal and if I do decide to eat there fries or shrimp burgers are my only options.

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Korea has been trying to become more Muslim-friendly however and that has been great!

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I lived here for three and a half years before getting married and even though I was the only Muslim in my town of Hamyang it has still been a wonderful experience. Ramadaan, however, was truly a lonely existence outside the major cities. I had to wake up for suhoor, eat and make fajar all alone. In fact, I have to make Jumah in my classroom because there isn't another option for me. coming home from work and breaking my fast was pretty much a quick meal and evening prayers. There is no mosque, no community and there's definitely no Ramadan spirit.

The Korean understanding of Islam and Ramadan

Please don't get me wrong, Koreans nor any other nationality have ever mistreated me based on being Muslim both in Korea and South Africa. Their lack of knowledge is merely a lack of exposure in most cases. This is however about understanding who I am. So in that respect, most don't understand what Islam is, and that Muslims come from cultural backgrounds and all walks of life. Their understanding is almost non-existent unless they have travelled or made the effort to go to the Seoul mosque to learn (or take selfies ) - this is where the real curiosity takes hold and has lead to many Koreans becoming Muslim. Another way of learning here is if Koreans have a really good Muslim friend which has lead to curiosity and a need to really understand you and grow that friendship.

Credit: @ahmad.cho on Instagram

In rural Korea no one knows much about Islam and explaining or teaching them leads to a somewhat confused reaction. Such as:

"You can eat meat but not our meat?"

"Why can you eat fish but meat or chicken?"

"You've never tried pork? It’s delicious!"

"Can you have a drink with us?"

"If you are of Indian decent how are you Muslim?"

"How are you from Africa but have an Arab name?"

Those that relate to me best are our Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters. Others unfortunately only understand what a Muslim is from the TV which isn’t great for us. Lucky for me those that I have met and interacted within Korea are curious, have travelled, and are mostly respectful and understanding. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to share my deen with those around me and it has lead to my co-worker explaining to our newcomers that I am Muslim and what I can and can't be involved in. It has taken time and the cultural difference has now become a norm for my immediate community. I am accepted for me with little to no real exclusion.

Eid in South Africa VS Eid in Seoul

Credit: @wanderlust_by_hashim on Instagram

Credit: @wanderlust_by_hashim on Instagram

Eids our biggest celebrations, filled with so much love, joy, and food!!! In South Africa, it's spent with family, friends and loved ones. I especially miss it since I haven't had the opportunity to spend it with my niece and nephew.

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We are a close family of over 50 cousins so I miss them. Here are a fraction of them. For years I have had the same Eid routine and it remained mostly unchanged. It starts with waking up, getting ready, putting on my Salah top and walking to the mosque. The atmosphere in the mosque is of sheer happiness and joy.

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After we are done performing Salah I come out and greet my father, family, and friends. I walk home with cousins to greet our grandmother. This is done before I even get home for morning Eid milk (also known as sheer khurma). My mum makes this every Eid and it is the one smell that lets me know it's Eid morning!!! I miss it terribly.

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After this, we head out to greet at homes where someone has passed on (we call these 1st Eids) and to greet our older relatives. Which of course takes up most of the morning, and leads to my favourite meal of the year, Eid lunch! We normally have the Eid lunch at a different family members house each year but we all bring our part to the meal!

Credit: @raanah01 on Instagram

Roast chicken, vegetables, desserts, and the must-have curry and rice. It's really an afternoon spent with family bonding and catching up. The male cousins have a post-Eid lunch tradition of playing cricket and as old as we are now, we still try to do it. The evenings are for friends, coffee dates and good old catch ups. I really miss Eid at home!! It's been going on 8 years now and it gets me every year.

If you live in Seoul or other major cities, eid can be enjoyed by going to the mosque and then enjoying it with loved ones. For us, Eid is spent working as there isn't really a feeling of Eid and that sense of community. We prefer to keep that leave day for our time spent with family. We go home most Januarys and that one day makes a huge difference to us and our families.

Daily Ramadaan Routine in South Africa

In South Africa, my daily Ramadaan routine was really much based around, work, family and prayer. Started by waking up and having our morning meal together as a family (though I have to admit it's hard to get me up) after I would meet up with friends as we walked to fajar. The rest of the day is spent between work and using my lunch break (now split over zuhr and asr) to perform my salaah.

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Once we get home its time for Quraan and helping the family prep for iftaar. we even have a salaah room at home so it makes for place of peace and tranquilty. I always find the time between iftaar and isha short as we have to head to Taraweeh (which to be honest I don't always do) but one of my favorite mosques to attend in Ramadaan is the Muir street mosque in Cape Town. They always have some of the best reciters in cape town. I miss the feeling of having my hair stand on end as they recite and the privilege of standing behind young student hufaz as they guide us through our salaah.

Credit: @capetownhalaal on Instagram

On some evenings we are invited to family or friends homes for iftaar and those are the best!!! The food, the company and atmospheres are unlike other times and they leave me wanting more!! There are also mass iftaars all over the city and country and they are great too. Pictured is the mass iftaar that happens in the historical quarter of the city - Bo-kaap.

Credit: @msa_uj on Instagram

Daily Ramadaan Routine in South Korea

It's not to say that in Korea there are no mass iftaars or family gatherings, there are and they sure do spend them with family and you can go to the mosque, where you join in the festivities.

Credit: @ahmed.cho on Instagram

I'm sure the gatherings are as memorable (I have been there once or twice) as home is for me, the main problem is, its not as easily accessible to us as for the city folk. A Jumah at Seoul mosque is truly inspiring if you think you are alone. We have many brothers and sisters in Korea but again I can't stress this enough - you will feel Islam, Ramadaan and a sense of community in some areas in cities like Seoul and Busan.

Credit: @wanderlust_by_hashim on Instagram

I stopped having solitary Ramadaans when I got married in 2014 to my beautiful wife Fatima. Even though we both miss home during this time of the year we have each other and she makes a world of difference to our household. She brought with her the communal spirit and love of Ramadaan. We prep our Ramadaan savories leading up to the month and take turns making meals each evening during Ramadaan. Making salah in our two-person Jamat has truly been special and brings us closer together. This union has changed so much in my life but I can honestly say it has given me that comfort and community I missed in Ramadaan.

The way we interact and speak to each other is significantly altered and guided by fasting. That is why I feel Ramadan is best experienced in a community as it’s just a time of spiritual upliftment and finding our way to our soul’s purpose (the community aspect really tests us). No matter how much I feel have strayed from salaah, being patient or even trying to always do the right thing, Ramadaan always gives me the chance to course correct and feel all I do and don't do deeply. I love that Ramadaan allows me to refill my spiritual cup so to say and help guide me for the coming year. Korea has definitely given me a blessed life but I do miss home. I hope this gives you some insight into my world, both as an expat and a Muslim. If you have any thoughts and are an expat drop us a comment and let us know what Ramadaan is like for you wherever you are in the world.