My Ramadan experience

I didn’t know much about the Muslim community residing in Christchurch, much less about Islam. I approached the Al Noor mosque a month after the unfortunate terrorist attack that Muslims suffered on March 15, where 51 people lost their lives. The reason for which I wanted to get in touch with them is the idea of a book that I have in mind, which I hope to be able to complete with the help of the Muslim community, and especially with the help of families affected by this cruel attack.

Visiting the mosque

I was received very cordially at the door of the Al Noor mosque by Professor Mazharuddin, who invited me to come in and he showed me around, by way of a small introduction to the place. It had been a long time since I entered a house of worship. I couldn’t help thinking about all those people who lost their lives in that place. My soul was overwhelmed with grief and at the same time, my heart was filled with joy and peace due to the hospitality of the people who were in the mosque. “You are welcome!” They told me and welcomed me with a warm hug.

Al Noor mosque entrance protected by police during Ramadan celebrations.

At that time I didn’t have a permanent job. I only worked as a freelancer for a couple of international news agencies and local events in the city, so I took the time to visit them daily, meet and connect with people, and learn from their customs and beliefs. That’s how little by little I was making small friendships in there. I remember very well that on my first day visiting, I was introduced to a person who was very happy to see me inside the mosque He welcomed me with a warm hug. Then we went to the prayer area and the professor tells me: the son of the man who just welcomed you, died right in this spot where we stand. I was perplexed, not knowing what to say and unable to understand the joy overflowing from that person who greeted me with a hug. Unfortunately the video of the terrorist attack was shared all over Facebook initially and I looked at it curiously. I shouldn’t have seen it, but there’s nothing I can do about it now. It was difficult to enter the mosque and not think about all those people who died there, especially the children. My heart was overwhelmed, without ability to understand the hate that caused such a cowardly attack.

I was also invited to visit the Linwood mosque, where I met several people and we shared good times. During my visits to the mosque I met many people and they all had stories to share and time to answer your questions, especially those related to Islam. That’s how I met a man named Mushabab at Al Noor, who asked me what I did and after answering he said: I will need your services in the future. This is how I ended up hired to film the installation of the new carpet for both mosques, a donation made by an organization he represented. I happily accepted the work. It was a good experience and that extra money was very helpful at that time.

I completely ignored that in a few weeks the Ramadan celebration would begin. Gradually I learned about Islam and met people who suffered the attack. I was totally surprised with the capacity of forgiveness and acceptance of the people who suffered this unfortunate fact.

The visitors kept coming to the mosque. People came from all over the world to talk and share their experiences. One afternoon, I had to meet a person who had travelled from Scotland, for just one night in Christchurch to visit the mosque, say hello to their Muslim brothers and sisters and give them condolences and support. Visitors came and went, travelling from everywhere just to be there, to volunteer, help with the repair of the place, and support the victims of the attack.

Donations, signs of affection and empathy did not stop. Many times, there weren’t enough people of the mosque to receive such a large number of visitors and it was necessary to improvise. Guest books did little to contain so many expressions of affection. Gifts and cards accumulated little by little on the entry table. Flowers and cards decorated the entire front of the mosque, creating a colourful garden all down the footpath. Tourists and curious onlookers stopped to observe, read cards and ask what had happened.

Ramadan, fasting, food and prayers

We were approaching May and it would be the beginning of the most important celebration in the Islamic world: Ramadan. I didn’t know much about the celebration, so I had to investigate a little and ask the people of the mosque a couple of things. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, celebrated worldwide by the Muslim community as a month of fasting, prayers, reflection and community. The beginning of Ramadan is marked by the sighting of the crescent moon in early May. The date changes every year, due to the moon sighting Ramadan is a commemoration of the first revelation of the Quran made by the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad.

During my visits to the mosque, I receive an email from one of the agencies for which I was working, asking me to take some pictures during Ramadan’s celebration inside one of the the mosques. I knew this assignment would be somewhat complicated. This Ramadan celebration would be very different and painful for many people who suffered the loss of a loved one during the attack on mosques.

I had to ask permission, talk to people, ask them if I could enter with a camera. The opinions were mixed. Many people did not feel comfortable with the media and the news in that regard. I asked permission from the public and media relations officer of the mosque. I didn’t get an answer for a while and by the time I had been granted permission, it was too late. A couple of journalists had already entered the mosque to interview the Imam (the person who leads the prayers in a mosque) and had taken some pictures. The next day I saw the photos published for sale on Getty Images. I felt bad for a while. I felt that those photos were taken without forming any connection with the people, and that they had taken advantage of the situation to earn some money. It was almost a robbery by someone who didn’t even bother to visit the mosque consistently to connect with the people, to ask them how they are and if they need anything. Despite that, I think that sometimes things happen for a reason.

In the end I had permission to enter the mosque with my camera and one day, while chatting with my friend, the Professor Mazharuddin, he tells me: Peter, why don’t you document Ramadan and film a little? I replied that it suited me more to take pictures and so I did. Since then, I went to the mosque with my camera every day until the end of the Ramadan celebration.

My invitation to fast

They invited me to fast with them. Muslims fast for 30 days in the month of Ramadan. Those who cannot fast for health reasons perform acts of charity, such as donating food or feeding those less fortunate. Ramadan is a time of sacrifice, reflection, inner peace and rewards on the part of Allah (Islamic word for God). Fasting means abstaining from eating or drinking for most of the day. For those who are married, fasting also consists of sexual abstinence. Fasting times change day to day, but it was always approximately between 6 AM and 5:30 PM. I had never fasted in my life, so I didn’t commit much to the idea. I said I would try, and I didn’t promise more than 3 days because in the end, the intention is what counts. The first days were difficult, especially not drinking water. They told me to take it easy and reduce the amount of water day by day. I did it like that. I woke up every day at 5am, had a filling breakfast and drank copious amounts of water. Without realizing it, I had already spent my first week fasting and my body quickly adapted to the dietary change. I was pleasantly surprised by the increasing ability to control my temptation to eat or drink.

Time flew by quickly and before I knew it, I had completed the 30 days of fasting. The experience was unique. My body and mind entered a state of peace and tranquillity that I had never experienced. Every day I went to the mosque to break the fast with the Muslim community. Breaking the fast together is known as Iftar. Iftar is the evening meal with which Muslims end their daily fast at sunset. Muslims break their fast at the time of the call to prayer for the evening.

Every day felt like a special occasion. The mosque was full of people and everyone was welcome, regardless of whether or not they were Muslim. Everyone received food and a good conversation. It was like a celebration; a party. The food was very good, donated by friendly people and shared between everyone. We would sit on the floor for Iftar, waiting for the minute of the evening call to prayer. Many prayed to give thanks for the food. The first meal to break the fast was generally water, juice, various fruits and dates. After eating and drinking, the prayer began in the afternoon (Maghrib). Then we sat down again to eat the main course. Soup, lamb, rice, beef, salad, chicken and a rich curry sauce were always the protagonists of our meals. Everyone ate and always took a plate of food to the police guards outside the mosque. The volunteers played a fundamental role during the Ramadan celebration. They took care of having everything ready and serving food to hundreds of people, as well as cleaning and leaving everything ready to pray. A job that’s not easy and requires dedication. On several occasions I helped serve the food, but then I couldn’t take pictures, so I juggled a bit of everything.

The conversation was always part of the Iftar. Little by little I was getting to know people, their stories, and details of what happened on March 15 inside the mosque. At first it was shocking to find out from the primary source about what happened in there; meeting people who survived and escaped the attack and to also hear about those who failed to escape and died in the mosque. I am surprised by both their ability to cope with the pain and their demonstration of forgiveness. Without a doubt, it’s something worthy of admiration.

After having food we always shared tea or coffee. Arabic coffee with dates or chai tea brewed with cinnamon and cardamom were the usual stars each night. After sharing a few cups of coffee or tea, the Tarawih prayer began. This prayer is performed only during the Ramadan celebration and basically consists of sequentially praying the Quran from beginning to end during the 30 days of celebration. Every day the Imam delivered a part of the Quran. It was about 3 hours of daily prayers with small pauses in between. The Quran is recited in Arabic, which is the original language of the Quran when it was revealed to the prophet Muhammad by God (Allah), through the angel Gabriel. Consequently, it is the original language of the Islam religion. As Arabic is still one of the main world’s living languages. Quran is the only holy book that is still written, and readable, in its original revelation language.

The Quran in Arabic is the only version that is considered to be the ‘word of God.’ Because of the difficulty to translate the Quran precisely from Arabic to any other language, the translated Quran versions in other languages, are considered interpretations of God’s real words, as the meanings cannot be translated to include a full sense of their nuances and contexts.

Praying during Ramadan

I was invited to pray the first Tarawih of Ramadan. I felt very honoured by the invitation and at the same time, a little nervous about not knowing Arabic, but I thought, Allah (God) must surely understand all the languages, so my prayer was in Spanish. I hadn’t prayed in a long time. I had stopped believing in God, perhaps because of my own personal life experiences, but when I prayed again, I felt a moment of peace and reflection, and it made me feel good. At that time, I was going through some difficult moments. I didn’t have a stable job and I had to find a house to move in with my partner and my cat. For the record, it’s very difficult to find rental homes where they accept pets, but hope was the last thing I would consider giving up. During the times I prayed, I always asked for my family and for me to find work and a safe place to call home. In the mosque they told me: Ramadan is a very special occasion. Allah (God) knows about your needs and if you ask him sincerely, they will be heard. Call it what you want but before I finished Ramadan had found a beautiful house and a week later, I found a great job. My friends at the mosque told me: this is your Ramadan gift. Now I work 50 hours a week, I cover local news for international agencies, and I take pictures at events from time to time. It has taken me a long time to write these words and finish editing all the photos I took during Ramadan, but here I am, fulfilling my own promise.

After fasting for 30 days, between sunrise and sunset, Eid Al Fitr arrives. This is one important religious holiday celebrated by Muslims around the world that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. The religious Eid is a single day during which Muslims cannot fast. The celebration was held at the Pioneer Recreation & Sport Centre from the city of Christchurch and about 1500 people gathered. I felt very honoured by the invitation to celebrate the end of Ramadan, along with the Muslim community. At the end of the following week, an Eid celebration had been organized for the children in the air force museum in Wigram which I was also kindly invited to, along with other people and local authorities who in one way or another were involved with the Muslim community. The celebration was a success, especially for the children, who made good use of the playgrounds and recreation equipment. It was very nice to see several acquaintances and friends I had made through the mosque. The food was wonderful and in abundance for everyone. I was very contented to have the privilege of taking photos during this celebration.

Final Words

Several people told me that Allah invited me to the mosque. Others said everything that happened was a plan of Allah. The only thing I can say on my part is that after what happened on March 15, I felt the need to approach the mosque and get in touch with people, share with them and tell them about the project that I have in mind. For me, as a photographer, it is important to address this subject in the most respectful way possible.

That is the reason why I wanted to be in touch with the local community: to learn from them and for us get to know each other, to be welcomed and to welcome others into each other’s spaces, and for people to allow me to develop this project and tell their stories through photography. What I want to achieve with this project is to give to the non-Muslim community that hate must not divide us. We shall embrace Muslims (and each other as a community) with love. Any kind of racism or phobia is not good for our society and we need to learn and educate ourselves about our cultural and religious diversity in Christchurch. Islam is not violence but love.

I feel very privileged to have been invited to share the Ramadan celebration, connect with the Muslim community of Christchurch, and to be a small contribution to making things just a little better.