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Ramadan just ended, and Muslims all over the world celebrated one of the major Islamic holidays. For those of us who live abroad, this means being far away from family and friends, and even if you’re not particularly religious, this can be a lonely time. I wanted to write about my experience as a Muslim expat in Greece and thought it would be a good idea to compare it with my life in Canada.
Let me preface this by saying that I’m not a religious person in the traditional sense. My approach to Islam is very progressive, and I have to say that conservative interpretations of the religion make me feel uncomfortable.
Canada is a country with a high percentage of immigrants many of whom are Muslim. This means that Islam is getting much more established there as a religion and there is a very organized community. When I went to university there was a Muslim Students’ Association which regularly arranged events, study circles, and lectures. This made it very easy to meet other Muslims. While the leadership of these organizations is overwhelmingly conservative, I found it fairly easy to meet like-minded Muslims who were feminists and very tolerant of other lifestyles. These are the kind of people that I miss having around over here.
Muslims in Canada are either immigrants or their children with some recent converts thrown in for good measure. The children of immigrants obviously speak perfect English and French so it’s very easy to get in contact with them and having meaningful conversations with them.
Greece is a country that defines itself as Christian Orthodox. As Greece is not an attractive country for immigrants, Greeks are not used to different communities. Athens doesn’t have a mosque, and the only prayer spaces that are available can be found only if somebody tells you where they are. For Muslim women all over the world, it’s never clear if there is a space available for us in such places and, if so, if it’s clean so we often stay away from them altogether.
The situation with regards to interesting events is similar. In the three years that I’ve been here, I’ve only recently had the chance to attend a discussion in which prominent Egyptian feminist Mona Eltahawy was invited to speak about being a Muslim and a feminist. Even there, I couldn’t make out another Muslim woman which had been one of my hopes before attending the event.
Since most Muslims here in Greece are recent immigrants who are usually looking to settle elsewhere they cling to their own traditions and stay among themselves which was less so the case in Canada where people go to build a life.
Islam in Greece, is actually much older than in Canada, as Greece used to be part of the Ottoman Empire. However, due to the population exchange with Turkey, the majority of the indigenous Muslim population have had to leave the country. This difficult history is also shown in some of the vocabulary such as using the term “Greek” coffee for Turkish coffee. This is a regular reminder that anything Turkish and Muslim is not welcome in Greece any longer. (Think of how some US citizens started to call French fries “freedom fries.”)
Despite all of this, Greeks are still somewhat used to the idea that Muslims exist. Mentioning that one is Muslim is not something particularly bizarre, and as Greeks are far more religious than, for example, Germans, some religious practices raise fewer eyebrows here than in Germany.
As mentioned above, I’m not very religious, so I am actually happy that I don’t have to deal with conservative Muslims in my day to day interactions. However, I do care very deeply for social justice movements within Muslim communities, and I miss being in contact with people who have a similar approach to religion.
Have you ever thought about moving abroad? How would you feel about being isolated from like-minded people?
Half Bulgarian Turk, half German living life as an expat in Greece.