Burcu and Hasan Dogan, with their sons Bilal, 5, and Hamza, 8, after hosting an Iftar dinner in their Logan home during Ramadan 2016.
Burcu and Hasan Dogan, with their sons Bilal, 5, and Hamza, 8, after hosting an Iftar dinner in their Logan home during Ramadan 2016. Rae Wilson

Meal time with Muslims: what are they really like?

THEY laugh, they tease, they pray. Reporter Rae Wilson discovers most Muslims are just like the rest of us Aussies when she sits down to an Iftar dinner.

STARTER: Water, dates and red lentil soup with potato and onion.

Water is the hardest to forego.

Neither liquids nor food can pass the lips between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan.

When Ramadan falls, like it did this year, during the Scandinavian summer, the religious fast can be more than 22 hours long.

It's not so bad for Australian Muslims in winter with much shorter days but it can't be easy for Hasan Dogan who works daily between two Sunshine Kebabs stores.

"At work, sometimes I'll tell customers it's Ramadan. They can't believe it. They ask 'how do you do it working with kebabs?'. But it's not really the food, I really crave water," he tells his dinner party guests as he takes his first sip to break the fast.

But the former Bundaberg lad has been fasting on and off since age 12 or 13 and says he has followed Ramadan rules strictly for the past 10 to 15 years so the urge to eat is not overwhelming during the important month-long event on the Islamic calendar.

Ramadan commemorates the 30 days the Prophet Mohammed spent in the desert where Muslims believe God revealed the Quran to him.

After that time in the desert, the Prophet Mohammed broke his fast with "purifying" dates.

As his guests nibble on dates, Hasan explains: "Once you hit puberty, it's obligatory, you have to fast. The old, if you're on medication or sick; they're the only ones with an excuse".

But the Islamic calendar is based on lunar cycles which means Ramadan shifts 10 days earlier each year.

Hasan and his wife Burcu joke they are considering spending the fasting months in the northern hemisphere once Ramadan shifts around to summer in Australia.

"I was in the UK in 2010 for two months and I did two weeks of fasting there - it was long days as it was summer time - I think it was 17 hours long," Hasan says. "That was tough".

Burcu says it is hard eating again after Ramadan.

Hasan chimes in: "Only for half a minute".

But Burcu insists: "It's a bit strange for me because during the day we don't eat and when we stop fasting, I have to remind myself I can eat".

 

Soup starter to break the Ramadan fast.
Soup starter to break the Ramadan fast. Rae Wilson

Hasan and Burcu host guests in their Logan home on Brisbane's southside during Ramadan.

Hospitality is often thought of as inviting friends and relatives into our homes but Muslims believe true hospitality is when they welcome strangers to their table too.

Fellow dinner party guest Aydin Tumer says while fasting is "kind of compulsory from a religious perspective", it's good for the mind and body too.

"You don't really have to do it, you're obliged to do it. It'll be good if you can do it as a Muslim because of the strong beliefs," he explains.

"But also when you do it, you feel more relaxed and feel like you did something good. It's all for the sake of Allah - the God, nothing else, it's just to get his good blessings on yourself and your family."

"It is a good time for everyone, to bring everyone together to see people you don't see often.

"It's difficult sometimes, praying and all that stuff, but you get used to it."

The Dogans say they have been rising about 4am during the fasting month - over June and July this year - so they can eat before the sun rises.

But Burcu says the special prayer is the hardest part of Ramadan.

"There's a prayer we do at night, it's a rather long prayer, it's different to the five we do during the day," she says.

"It takes close to an hour."

Hasan explains the local Imam reads 20 pages of the Quran each day so they finish 600 pages as they complete 30 days of fasting.

While they have read the Turkish translation and know the meaning of the Taraweeh prayer, it is in Arabic so they cannot understand its recitation.

"We have Imams that lead the prayer so we just have to stand behind them really and just follow. We do that every night," he says.

Hasan's family moved from Sydney to Bundaberg when he was a child.

They farmed tomatoes, zucchinis, butter squash and snow peas initially but his uncle then branched into kebabs in 1990.

Their first kebab shop was in Bundaberg but they now have about 30 stores in Australia and about 20 abroad.

"There was a time where it grew pretty rapidly. I think it comes naturally because we love kebabs," Hasan says, cheekily mocking his Turkish heritage.

He remembers growing up in regional Queensland fondly, saying his religious background resulted in occasional teasing but it was nothing serious that lasted long.

"My family have been in Bundaberg for years now and most people knew us from our business so it was pretty easy," he says.

"Bundaberg was quite laid back."

Hasan's family does annual camps where they all meet on the Sunshine Coast on Christmas Eve for two to three days.

"I think the last time the head count was 70-something all together - all the cousins," he says.

"Half are here in Brisbane and half in Bundaberg. So we meet on the Sunshine Coast at Montville and Maleny - a nice few days together."

Sometimes Hasan even wishes he could go back to a simpler life in Bundaberg.

"This morning it took me an hour and a half to get into the city, the traffic was crazy. At times like today, I wish I was in Bundaberg."

DINNER: Vine-leaf sarma (also known as dolmades), meat, creamy mushrooms, potato bake and icli kofte (bulgur exterior and mince inside).

 

Main course: Vine-leaf sarma (also known as dolmades), meat, creamy mushrooms, potato bake and icli kofte (bulgur exterior and mince inside).
Main course: Vine-leaf sarma (also known as dolmades), meat, creamy mushrooms, potato bake and icli kofte (bulgur exterior and mince inside). Rae Wilson

The dishes Burcu prepares for Iftar dinners are not exclusive to Ramadan but she tries to fit in "all the special things we cook" into the month.

"I don't do everything in one day but over Ramadan, it's special," she said.

"Normally I don't see this," Hasan playfully teases.

"Everything tastes good," he says as he prepares to dig into the Iftar dinner his wife has prepared.

Burcu never cooked at home, even as a teenager, but she watched her mother carefully so she would be ready when she married Hasan a decade ago, after a "scary" move to Australia from Turkey.

"In three weeks we met and decided to marry. I didn't know him but my family knows their family, that's why it was easier," she says.

Having only learned English for six months, she is still amazed she made the journey to Australia alone.

"I say to myself 'how did I do that?'. When I think back now, I don't know how I've done that. Just me, I came all the way from Turkey to here."

But she's now had two children - Hamza, 8, and Bilal, 5, - and is studying at university to become a primary school teacher.

Hamza has taken up fasting already, except on the days he plays soccer.

"He says he doesn't find it hard which is a good thing. The whole purpose is that we have to do it to please God. He understands that so he doesn't have any trouble doing it at the moment," Burcu says.

"The little one doesn't know so he sometimes eats next to his brother who complains it's not fair. And I always say 'it's your choice, you know', and he says 'I know'.

"For my son, we don't say to him 'you have to fast', he is just fasting because we're fasting and he loves going over to his friends. Because in Ramadan we always go to each other's houses.

"He loves that part and he loves the sun rise part too. He wakes up early in the morning to eat something.. When we wake up and we're doing something together, he's just very curious, I think."

Hasan says Hamza is like a zombie when he first wakes up in the early hours.

"But once he starts eating, he's fine," he laughs. "He's like me, he loves eating."

DRINK: Sour cherry served from a charming vessel with a duck's head as the pourer.

 

Sour cherry juice being poured at the Iftar dinner.
Sour cherry juice being poured at the Iftar dinner. Rae Wilson

When the conversation turns to hijabs, the scarves most Muslim women wear around their hair, Burcu reveals she did not wear one until she was age 19.

"Most people are really curious about hijabs. They always ask if they are compulsory. God says you need to do that but if we don't do it, that doesn't mean we're not Muslim or doing bad things," she says.

"I have lots of friends who are Muslim but they don't wear scarves.

"I was 19 when I put my scarf on. (Hasan) was really, really surprised. I didn't tell him I was going to put my scarf on. He didn't force me. I just decided."

Another guest, a Brisbane-based police liaison officer raised in Toowoomba, says the fact Saudi Arabia forces its women to wear a hijab and niqab, a full-length dress with veil, is "very un-islamic".

But she feels those kind of examples are culturally specific rather than Muslim.

"In Islam, women have a dress code. Men also have a dress code. But people don't realise that. A lot of men may not adhere to it as much as perhaps their wife does. It's personal choice," she says.

"It clearly states in our text that there can be no compulsion in religion, whether it's hijab or fasting or any of that stuff, it's all individual choice.

"God gave us a brain to use and make those decisions for ourselves.

"I grew up in Toowoomba, my family are Muslim but they're not very religious or observant. They came from former communist countries so there wasn't much practising.

"When I was at high school, no one really knew that I was Muslim, they thought I had bit of a funny name and that I didn't eat pork but they probably thought I was allergic to it.

"It was never really discussed but when I went to uni, I decided myself that I wanted to wear a hijab.

"My family were shocked because I was the first person in my entire family to wear hijab.

"My dad still to this day, I don't think he really likes it that much, but I've been wearing it for 15 to 16 years.

"I went through a bit of soul searching, went overseas for a little bit, and I decided that it was something I wanted to do."

But these decisions sometimes make Muslim women targets.

Police officer Clem O'Regan, once a Lismore lad who now heads Queensland's Ethical Standards Command, tells dinner guests he has been walking with an indigenous person or a person wearing a hijab and heard those people being abused.

"I'll be walking next to them in uniform and someone will drive past and say racist things to them," he says.

Hasan remarks: "So imagine if you're not there".

The police liaison officer says she dreads going to work or even heading to the shops with her young daughter if she sees "something horrible" happen overseas the night before.

"When I've been doing patrols at Southbank or shopping centres or wherever in uniform, I've had so many people say 'oh my god, we've got terrorists in the police force now'," she says, much to the horror of those seated around her.

"I think the people who pass these comments ... have no regard for the person they're throwing the comments at, especially the women who are soft targets for them, but it always seems to happen after some major event, when we've been on the news the night before."

Burcu hasn't experienced any abuse directly but her friends have.

She still feels the need to introduce herself and defend her religion because she believes there is a lack of understanding about what it means to be Muslim.

"I love my university subject education and society. It's just beautiful. We all talk about no discrimination, no racism, it's just amazing," she tells everyone.

"When we watch the news, they don't say when a Christian did something, like a Christian man has done that or a Christian lady did that but they say Muslim man or lady.

"But it's us Muslims too, we stereotype as well.

"I remember going somewhere and seeing a man with tattoos everywhere and I was a bit scared and then he said something nice to me and I thought 'see, he's not scary. I shouldn't think that'."

DESSERT: Turkish coffee and tea, pistachio baklava (filo pastry with pure pistachio), shekerpare (semolina, almond bean, flour, butter and orange zest), fruit.

 

Pistachio baklava (filo pastry with pure pistachio), shekerpare (semolina, almond bean, flour, butter and orange zest) and other treats.
Pistachio baklava (filo pastry with pure pistachio), shekerpare (semolina, almond bean, flour, butter and orange zest) and other treats. Rae Wilson

While the Dogans usually speak Turkish at home, they have begun mixing in English since their eldest son started school.

But it's not unusual for older generations to still speak their mother tongue - so both are necessary in their family structure.

"My dad's been here 30-odd years and his English is still broken - he's never made an effort to learn English," Hasan says.

"So growing up we had to learn Turkish first and then learn English in school.

"I think my father-in-law is in the same situation. What he missed the most when visiting Australia (from Turkey) was his friends, at night they all get together, and the language."

Burcu says she thinks of Australia as her home now and can really see the differences between the two countries since returning.

"Turkey is not like Turkey, my country, anymore. It's just a different feel now," she laments.

"I think of Australia as home now. I like Australian people, they're so good. They don't do discrimination, they don't do racism, they don't gossip, most of them are good.

"Of course, some of them do racism as well but it happens everywhere, it's normal."

Hasan went to Turkey for the first time in 2003 aged 19 and he was shocked at the difference.

"People in Australia are more friendly. Generally, Australia is. It's the best place to live I reckon," he says.

"I thought when I went that maybe my Turkish accent was funny. I used to get laughed out every now and then.

"You'll say 'hi' and you won't get greeted back, you'll go to a post office there and they don't acknowledge you. She noticed that when she went back."

In contrast, Burcu says Australians are always friendly.

"You walk down the street here or go to a servo, you'll get someone smiling at you or saying g'day. Over there, everyone's on edge," she says.

"Unfortunately I noticed it. I don't want to say to my country that it's bad but there's a reason. Lots of people live there, look at the population, like the whole of Australia is 22 million or something, just in Istanbul that many people live, that's the thing.

"The other thing is the economy. The economy is really different, of course it will affect people. I hope it will get better.

"Seriously you need to be more generous, more kind, more tolerant. Everywhere in the world."

 

Turkish tea.
Turkish tea. Rae Wilson

MUSLIM TERMS EXPLAINED

Muslim: Of or relating to the religion, law, or civilisation of Islam; someone who follows or adheres to principles of Islam.

Islam: The Muslim religion based on the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as set down in the Quran, the fundamental principle being absolute submission to a unique and personal God referred to as Allah. Also refers to the whole body of Muslim believers, their civilisation, and their lands.

Quran: The sacred scripture of Islam, which Muslims believe contains revelations Allah made in Arabic directly to Mohammed.

Ramadan: The ninth month of the year in the Islamic calendar where Muslims observe a daily fast from dawn until sunset during this month, in commemoration of the 30 days the Prophet Mohammed spent in the desert during which time God revealed the Quran to him.

Iftar: A meal eaten after sunset during Ramadan.

Imam: The officiating prayer-leader of a mosque; a Muslim religious leader or chief.

Hijab: The traditional headscarf Muslim women wear. It covers the hair, neck and shoulders.

Burqa: Traditional Muslim garment for women to wear over their usual daily clothing, comprising a jilbab, hijab, and niqab to give full body covering.

Jilbab: A long loose-fitting coat or garment some Muslim women wear.

Niqab: A veil covering the face. Some Muslim women attach the veil to the hijab. It is often worn as part of the burqa.

SOURCE: Macquarie Dictionary



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