Faith in a Cultural Evolution

Children sit down for lunch in the Syriac Orthodox church hall in Acton, London after their communion. AMY ASSAD Children sit down for lunch in the Syriac Orthodox church hall in Acton, London after their communion. AMY ASSAD

Children sit down for lunch in the Syriac Orthodox church hall in Acton, London after their communion. AMY ASSAD

It is July on the hottest weekend of the year, and the Syrian Orthodox church is packed with people. Those in attendance—mostly Syriacs from Syria and Iraq—who did not get a seat are jostling for a view in the doorway, while others are wedged into window ledges or propped up against the side walls. Many of the women are keeping cool with lace fans, normally reserved for long summer wedding ceremonies in their home countries. It certainly feels like the Middle East. We are, in fact, in Acton, London.

“Don’t forget your roots are there. I know you are British now, but you came from Iraq, from Syria, Iran, Lebanon and Turkey,” pleads Father Thomas, bishop of the Syrian Orthodox church in London, to the young generation of the Syriac diaspora who have gathered for their communion. Some let out a giggle, though it is unclear whether his statement was designed to be tongue in cheek.

It is, for the most part, a typically Syrian Orthodox service. The use of English during the ceremony, as well as traditional English prayers-—interspersed between the usual Syriac and Arabic—are, however, a new introduction. “Many of them don’t speak Arabic or Syriac,” says my cousin, Rula, gesturing to the newly communed in the church hall after the ceremony. That includes her three children. The group look uncomfortable in their traditional white robes, while others have gone off piste and come dressed in full angel garb. At the head of the children’s lunch table sits Father Thomas, next to the bemused-looking Syrian Orthodox bishop of Baghdad. They are surrounded by bottles of Fruit Shoots, cupcakes and ham or jam sandwiches.

[inset_left]Don’t forget your roots are there. I know you are British now, but you came from Iraq, from Syria, Iran, Lebanon and Turkey.[/inset_left]

London is unique for being home to a wide array of cultures that have played an integral role in shaping its character. Naturally, the city has also affected and altered the traditions and habits of those communities. However, there is a growing concern among the older generations of the Middle Eastern Christian diaspora, that as their homelands become increasingly dangerous places to live or visit, and therefore a more distant influence on their children, the new generation will stop identifying with their cultural roots and their ancient religious traditions altogether.

This concern is also pertinent for members of London’s Muslim Middle Eastern community this month, as Muslims all over the globe, including those in London, observe Ramadan. “The religion is not lived organically here,” says Tam, a journalist from London, which, he says, can make some aspects of observing Ramadan feel more forced. “If you don’t conform, it can be seen as detrimental. If you do practice, people are quicker to judge. People sometimes suffer from superiority.” Whereas, he says, “In the Middle East [all denominations] understand the place of religion and traditions.”

In the Middle East, the cafes and restaurants (at least, those that are not in the Christian areas) comply with restrictions of Ramadan, which makes it easier for those who are fasting to avoid temptation. Everything, apart from the weather, is working in their favor. “Here, you are surrounded by people who can eat and drink,” says Hakima, a Moroccan national, who works as a secretary in London. “You forget, you think, ‘Why is that person drinking?’" But, she adds, “The first few days are hard, but then you get used to it.”

“The second generation walk on a tightrope between two cultures,” Albert, a Syrian antiques dealer who has lived in London for forty years, says of both the Muslim and Christian Middle Eastern diaspora. “They behave differently at home and among their own community and then in a different way with English society.” In London, he admits, it is easier to let go of traditions if you want to.

The UK’s Channel 4 are apparently attempting to bridge this divide in showing the Ramadan Adhan, or call-to-prayer, at 3 a.m. each day. Their spokesman says the aim was to “hopefully [bring] a bit of attention to the experience of Ramadan and what [Muslims] are going through.” However, the move has been criticized as being more of an attempt to attract viewing figures than to promote cultural understanding, as it is unlikely that many non-Muslims would be staying up to watch it.

Despite the current heatwave, many Muslim Londoners say they prefer to observe Ramadan in the UK because of its generally cool temperatures. However, Iftar (breaking the fast) does not commence until much later in UK time, and there are other reasons why observing Ramadan in London may be seen as more of a challenge. “You don’t make the same preparations for Iftar, because you are working,” says Hakima. “It is totally different in Morocco, if you work [during Ramadan], you get time off.”

“Ramadan is more of a private family affair here, whereas in Egypt it is a public event,” says Mostapha, a journalist based in London. “I would like to spend the last ten days [of Ramadan] in Egypt,” he adds, as these are considered the most important and intense days of the holy month. However, he would prefer to spend the first part of Ramadan in London as “in Egypt it's very busy, a stressful time.”

People can celebrate their traditions as a community wherever they are. But your identity is about your individual relationship with your faith or culture. Does this aspect of ones identity eventually become diluted living in London?

After residing in the city for a number of years, even the first generation notice changes in their behavior. “We don't realize it until we go back home,” says Albert, “I didn't like it when people charged in to have coffee in the morning; I didn't like it when people made noise when I slept. I valued my privacy and my individuality more.” However, he says this is not necessarily a bad thing: “We have come here of our own choice," says Albert. “We have to integrate somehow,” he adds. “If we don’t, we'll suffer. We will never be happy.”

Whether first generation Middle Easterners living in London are here by choice or necessity, the change will come naturally to them over time, as they integrate more and more with other cultures. Although they may never be one hundred percent integrated, many of them have told me that it is better to accept the inevitable, rather than fight it. This may be considered more natural for the second generation, but they too experience conflict: with their parents and other first-generation community members for identifying themselves more with British-ness, rather than their family background.

Being exposed to and challenged by other cultures on a daily basis is good for offering perspective on your own culture. One also learns how to accept different people with different values. And this is exactly what gives London its unique quality, as a place of constant curiosity and evolution. Maintaining cultural or religious habits in London may at times be more difficult than at home. But, as Tam says, “London has all sorts of people, and they understand you,” which makes it easier to observe your faith and traditions while also adapting to the new environment. Ultimately, blending the cultures need not be seen as losing an identity, but can instead be seen as gaining a new, enriched individuality.

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