Friday, July 13, 2012

A Solo Muslim Female Traveler On The Streets Of Ukraine

Prior to my departure to Ukraine, my colleague Fith expressed her hope that I would get my period during the trip. Hmm, that's a weird hope, don't you think? "At least, you don't have to worry about finding a mosque," she said. (For those who don't know: when a Muslim woman is having her period, she does not have to pray. Oh, by the way, Muslims pray five times a day.)

And Fith's wish came true, for I got my period on the flight to Istanbul. -_- The good side was, well, as Fith said I didn't have to worry about praying. On the other hand, traveling when you're having period was not a comfortable experience. Enough said.

Anyway, I was in Ukraine for more than 10 days, so there were days when the period was over and I was back to the five-time-a-day praying schedule. In Kiev, I was lucky to be able to stay with Amr's family, who are Muslims too. Staying in Kiev is like staying in Indonesia, I could even get a dinner with petai (stink bean) and sambal terasi (shrimp paste) :).

Almost everyone I know says that Ukrainian foods contain pork. Since I don't speak Russian and too lazy to explain with body gestures that I don't eat pork or drink alcohol, I simply searched for Japanese restaurants and ordered raw fish. Hahaha. 

Although Ukraine is mostly Christian Orthodox, there are Muslim communities. In Kiev, I managed to go to The Grand Mosque (thanks to Yura who drove me there and Mas Haris who ordered me a taxi to get me back to home).

The Grand Mosque of Kiev. That's Amine.

Yours truly

You have to either master Russian or Arabic. Sigh.

When I arrived at the mosque, a woman approached and asked me questions in Russian. We couldn't understand each other, so she beckoned me to follow her into the mosque, where there was a sermon. The ustadz was happy to see me. He was from Chechnya and could speak a bit of English.

"Welcome, sister. Can you speak Russian?" he asked.
"No." (feeling guilty)
"No." (feeling even worse)

So he switched to English. The sermon was about Allah's oneness character. It's pretty basic, but Mas Haris later explained that the mosque often held classes for the reverts. In the middle of his sermon, the ustadz asked if he was explaining it correctly.

"This is my first time giving sermon in English."
"Er, please continue in Arabic if  you like. Actually I come here just to see the mosque, not joining the class."

He looked so relieve and asked a girl to give me a tour around the mosque. Her name is Amineh, an Ukrainian revert. She told me that she decided to be a Muslim when she was 14 year old, and somehow I forgot to ask how old she was now (would that be a too sensitive question?). She said that while there was no law banning hijab wearing in Ukraine, the stigma was still there and she still could not get a job. Oh dear, my heart is with you, dear sister.

When I went to Lviv, I asked a favor to Katerina, a nice lady at Tourist Information Center to lend me a space for five minutes. It was difficult to explain the Islamic concept of praying to people of different faith, but she finally pointed to a corner and asked if it was allright. Yes, I said, it was great, thank you. So I prayed there.

In Odesa, it was a different story. There was a Tourist Information Center, but the ladies there just didn't get why I needed a space. One of them finally pointed to a chair nearby and said,"You can use the space if you want." When I asked permission to use the toilet first, they also didn't give permission, saying that "You can use the toilet in McDonald's." Argh.

So I opened the city map and tried to find places that I could use for praying. Park? Port? Restaurant? Then I read "Arabian Cultural Center" right on the intersection of Velyka Arnautska and Risheliyevska streets. I quickly went there and found that the so-called cultural center was actually... a mosque! There was a place to do ablution, a mihrab and a praying area, it has got to be a mosque.

The mosque in Odesa

An officer saw me entering, pointing to the black robes hanging and spoke to me in Russian. I nodded, although I didn't know any words I could guess that he told me to wear the robe before going inside. The magic thing about not understanding local language is you pay attention to the body language and make the most of your good intention. I planned to stay in the mosque until 8 p.m. (my train was at 9 p.m.), unfortunately the mosque was closed at 5 p.m. :(

It was much easier once I boarded the train. I would just pray there. During summer, Magrib and Isya are at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. respectively, so I'd just wait until everybody fell asleep.

Although I am wearing a hijab, a woman and obviously traveling solo, I've been feeling very safe in Ukraine. Several people (who could speak English) asked me why I wore the headscarf. A few kids playing with water hose on a street in Odesa asked me,"Muslim?" I smiled and nodded. As I passed them, some taxi drivers asked me,"Kazakhs?" (as in Kazakhstan. I would love to go there one day). But other than the curiosity, they did nothing harm.

There were news about racism in Ukraine just a few days before Euro Cup started. To tell you the truth, I was a bit afraid. But working in media has taught me that it was only part and parcel of what really happened. Either you are a man or a woman, traveling solo or in group, a Muslim going to a non-Muslim country or the other way around, the caveats of traveling are basically the same: beware of pickpockets and scams, stay away from dangerous/dark places and respect local customs.

Going to Ukraine for the holiday (and see how it's like during the Euro Cup) was definitely something I would never regret. Now I'm pondering to go to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. After all I do have a friend in Sao Paulo (Hi, Wharrysson!). Hahaha. Wishful thinking, my dear readers, just wishful thinking.

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