We've all heard stories of Muslims in Europe fasting for long hours in summer during Ramadan. While it is a test of faith and a usual occurrence for local Muslims every Ramadan (at least in summer), it might be harder for Muslims who've just moved to that part of the world. As part of our Ramadan Around The World
Series, we had a little interview with Shirin Chua, a Singaporean Muslim, who's been living in Paris for almost 3 years. She tells us how she had to adjust to the long hours of fasting (around 17-18 hours!), her struggles during Ramadan and how she's found ways to connect more with her faith. She also tells us about the community she's found comfort in while in Paris!
1. Tell us a bit about yourself.
Hi! I was born and brought up in Singapore, moved to New York in 2014 to study, and then moved to Paris nearly 3 years ago, where I'm currently based and working in a law firm.
I'm also one of the founders of #SGMuslims4MigrantWorkers
, with my dear friend Ameera Begum. It is a movement that grew out of my conviction that more could be done to match two things to each other: on the one hand, the desire of Singapore's Muslims to channel their zakat to meaningful causes; on the other hand, the needs of one of the most vulnerable yet underserved Muslim populations in our midst. Zakat is such a force for social good and one of the most beautiful aspects of our religion (and not one which many non-Muslims know about!) You can join our ever-growing community here
2. How is Ramadan like in Paris and how is it different from back home in Singapore? What was it like to experience your first Ramadan in Paris?
I've only ever experienced Ramadan in Paris in the summer, so the hours are long. At the moment they last from approximately 4am to 9.30pm. Last year they lasted around 3.30am to 10pm.
Before my first Ramadan here, I was worried about whether I could physically withstand fasting such long hours. By God's grace, it has turned out fine. I don't really notice hunger or thirst and I miraculously detox from coffee (when I otherwise have 6 espressos a day ?). But the huge challenge is perpetual sleep deprivation/exhaustion - on which, more below!
With a dear friend who's become one of my family away from home inside the Grand Mosque of Paris after Eid prayers on Eid-ul-Adha
I want to make a HUGELY important point though that this is not to say that people who cannot physically fast the long hours are weak or lesser Muslims or anything of the sort. I have friends in my community here who cannot, whether for physical or mental health reasons. Sometimes other Muslims can be fairly judgmental or smug about this. Our bodies and our struggles are all different, and we should be lifting our brothers and sisters up rather than making them feel small - especially in Ramadan!
3. What’s your biggest challenge/struggle during Ramadan and how do you overcome it?
The long hours! Well, not the hours themselves, but the fact that it affects everything else. You break your fast at 9.30pm/10pm, Isha is at 11pm or later, then it's midnight/1am by the time you fall asleep, you wake up at 3/3.30am again for sahur, and you may or may not have enough time to sleep a little again before work. So you're perpetually exhausted.
At the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur with my sister when she visited.
And what's more, unless you live with a Muslim family, this means you rarely eat a meal with another human being. So it can get socially very isolating. It's very different from the community spirit and camaraderie that is a central part of Ramadan in Singapore.
Furthermore, living in a place where people aren't very aware of Ramadan or Muslim practices, I feel the need to continue with life and work at 100%, so that people won't have any reason to cast aspersions on Muslims or "crazy" Muslim practices. In Singapore, I would admit in a heartbeat if I was thirsty or tired during Ramadan. Here, I find myself refusing to be anything but 100% cheerful and infallible so that I don't get into the "Why don't you just stop fasting?" or "What do you mean your religion needs you to do that?" conversations. I guess this is a pretty universal phenomenon when you're part of a minority community in any context - you feel the need to go above and beyond and represent your community in a way that a member of a majority community usually does not.
I wouldn't say I've overcome it - it's a constant struggle! But I've found it helpful to just try and give in to it - to accept the rhythm and exhaustion and solitude and ride with them and submit them all to God. Having a community (for which I am infinitely thankful of) also makes all the difference.
With a Malaysian and an Indonesian friend at the annual Ramadan bazaar organised by the Malaysian embassy
My Muslim friends and I sometimes break our individual isolation by having iftar together on the weekends, when we can sleep in the next day.
Credit: Malaysian Embassy in Paris on Facebook
My non-Muslim friends are very sweet. Whenever I meet them for dinner (also usually on the weekends), they wait way past their usual dinner time to eat with me. My current flatmate, who is not Muslim, is also really lovely in waiting to eat with me when she can and always asking me if there's anything I need which she can help me with.
With friends in my favourite park (Parc des Buttes Chaumont) - we were going mad, like all of Paris, because the sun came out!
Perspective also helps. There was one week last Ramadan which just seemed harder than usual, for some reason, and I was in a real state of grumpiness. I went to volunteer with an organisation in a neighbourhood of Paris where many refugees and migrants sleep on the streets. The organisation helps refugees and migrants find temporary shelter for the night, along with other needs they may have such as food and blankets. I was accompanying a group of Malian refugees/migrants to their shelter and so we started chatting when I realised that through all their hardship and deprivations, they were fasting! They told me that when they had no food, they'd wake up in their tents and drink a bit of water for sahur. Maghrib came around while we were still en route, so we broke our fast together with some dates I bought from a corner store. I handed the dates to them first while I stood at the cashier paying, and they urged me with all the care in the world to break my fast. I remember holding back my tears and thinking I really had no challenges in life to be grumpy about when other people face greater challenges with so much resilience and grace.
4. What does Ramadan mean to you and how do you reconnect with your faith/God during this month? How do you take care of yourself during this month, especially with the long hours?
This is another ongoing struggle! I've had to let go of my attachments to the usual modes of reconnecting with faith and God in Ramadan - going for terawih prayers, for example. I love terawih prayers and would go to them in Singapore, at least for the last ten nights of Ramadan. But here I don't know how to incorporate this into my routine and still sleep at all. Plenty of Muslims here do, though, and they have all my respect. (Seriously, when do they sleep?)
Instead, I've tried to more consciously practise the principle that, with the right intention and mindfulness, any act can be an act of worship. So getting up, going to work, doing my other worldly duties, remaining as active and cheerful through the exhaustion, even sleeping enough to preserve my health - I try to consciously do these as my acts of worship as well. Then, of course, I also try and do some good through #SGMuslims4MigrantWorkers - even if it means frequently working on it on Singapore time and thus sleeping even less! I remember once I Skyped into a media interview for it at 3.30am right after my sahur - fun times.
Ultimately, I think experiencing Ramadan away from home is a great experience despite its challenges. It makes you confront and realise what part of your religion is really YOU, taken out of your natural habitat and religious community ?
5. Do non-Muslims understand fasting and how do they react to it? What perceptions do they have about Muslims?
I think they really don't understand how we can abstain from food and drink for these many hours! The reactions I've had range from admiration to horror to attempted persuasion to stop fasting. But actually, I don't really have that many conversations about this. Maybe because this is France and religion is seen as a strictly private matter, so people generally avoid such conversations.
My friends, though, are very sweet (again)! They ask questions to find out more, and, like I mentioned above, they sometimes wait for me so as to eat dinner together.
6. What tips would you give to someone who’s visiting Paris during Ramadan?
Hit me up and I'll show you around if I can! ☺️ Dinner time in France tends to be later than we're used to in Singapore, so it's actually not too difficult to find restaurants where you can have iftar at 9.30pm (10pm might get a bit harder).
It's hard to list all the restaurants I love, but I've especially loved having iftar at Le Petit Bleu (23 Rue Muller, in the Montmartre area). It's a tiny place, with consistently some of the yummiest food I've had in Paris - great value for money, and with such a warm ambience.
Credit: @rwannie on Instagram
It's Muslim-owned and run, so the first time I went there (which was during Ramadan), the family/staff explained quite adorably to all the customers that they were about to break their fast and would resume service afterwards, then broke their fast together very quickly at one of the tables. I let several desperate minutes pass before I worked up the courage to squeak a request for some dates, and once they realised I was fasting they went into a holy frenzy bringing me dates, soup and yoghurt drinks from their own table. Every time I've gone back since in various Ramadans, they specially feed me small things to tide me over while we and everyone else are waiting for their food. You can walk around Montmartre before/after, which everyone visiting Paris apparently wants to do ?
You can stock up on dates at the morning market at Marche d'Aligre or at several places in Belleville too.
Credit: Malik Munna on Facebook
This isn't confined to Ramadan, but I also highly recommend visiting the Grand Mosque of Paris. It's beautiful, and having mint tea on its terrace is very popular. I also love the story of how it sheltered Jews during the Holocaust
7. Have you celebrated Eid in Paris before? If yes, could you tell us more about that?
Yes! On my first Eid here, I held a party at my place for my friends.
I also went to a picnic organised by a group of English-speaking Muslim women in Paris (of which there are many Singaporeans, actually), who had found one another through a Facebook group, and their families.
With a dear friend who's become one of my family away from home and her children, outside the Grand Mosque of Paris after prayers on Eid-ul-Adha
Unfortunately, I didn't celebrate my second Eid here because I left the office at 4am and worked through that weekend! Work is better this year so I'm hoping to have another party at my place - for Muslim and non-Muslim friends alike ?
Read more of our Ramadan Around The World Series here