By Alexandra Markovich
Just after the sun sets, Anna Stamou covers her dining room table with platefuls of food to break the Ramadan fast. She pulls a stew of Egyptian sausages from the oven and sets it on the table, followed by a bowl of Egyptian salad.
Then, spanakopita, a Greek spinach pie, unexpectedly becomes the centerpiece. When Stamou finally sits down, the table is crammed with an odd collection of traditional Greek and North African food.
Stamou is one of some 600,000 Muslims living in Greece, making up about five percent of a largely Greek Orthodox Christian nation. Stamou, a native Greek, converted to Islam 17 years ago. She is married to Naim Elghandour, who moved from Egypt to Greece 19 years ago.
When I ask her about the food she is serving, Stamou says it is “all Greek.” Egyptian salad—chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions—is just the chopped-up version of Greek salad, she says, save the olives.
Seated around the table, Stamou’s dinner guests are as eclectic as the menu. She and her husband are joined by an imam from Indonesia and his aids. Nektarios Markou, a friend of the family seated at the head of the table, belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church, as do two tall teenage girls who somehow met Stamou through their grandmother. Several young children, two of whom belong to Stamou and Elghandour, periodically interrupt the conversation.
The home is a social hub for guests of all ethnicities, religions and ages, and the Ramadan holiday is no exception. The dinner-table conversation is conducted in a mixture of Greek and English, and Stamou, as a master of both, is at the center of it all. When she leaves the table for even a moment, the guests grow quiet.
Elghandour is the Chairman of the Muslim Association of Greece, which serves as the chief link between Greece’s Muslim minority and the government. For years, Stamou has fought alongside her husband to establish an official mosque, a cemetery, and an imam in Athens.
Though the Greek parliament approved the creation of a mosque in 2000, 2006, and again in 2011, appeals and delays have kept one from opening. While they wait, the Muslims in Athens pray in informal, basement mosques and send their dead abroad or to the northern, predominantly Turkic Muslim region of Thrace, home to the closest Islamic cemetery.
After dinner, family and friends pile into the living room, observing my interview with Elghandour. Though Stamou is meant to be translating for her husband, she interjects with her own thoughts, too.
“I have to add to what Naim says because, actually, we don’t give a damn,” Stamou says about the Greek government’s reluctance to recognize the Muslim minority in Athens. “We learn the religion very well, in the basements, in the Arab communities. We will not say we are illiterate because the state does not make us a mosque. We know the religion.”
Even though the Muslim community has thrived, Stamou maintains that the government has done them wrong. “The government should be ashamed that they don’t make us a mosque and a cemetery,” she says.
Stamou and her husband are Greek in a country that has long conflated national identity with religion. Wearing a lightweight white garment called a jelebeeya that goes down to his ankles, Elghandour says the Greek identity has slowly become more flexible, opening up to people of other religions.
Though the Muslim community in Greece is small, it is still splintered among national lines. Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India generally do not pray in the same informal mosques as Egyptians and Palestinians, and the recent migrants from Afghanistan and Syria living in refugee camps outside Athens do not attend either. Muslims like Elghandour and Stamou have adopted a hybrid Greek identity, but not all Muslims in Greece have.
Stamou said that the Muslim Association has been fairly disengaged from the migrant crisis, which has brought thousands of new Muslims to Athens, explaining that the organization is self-funded and has limited financial resources. But refugees are welcome in the mosque, and we try to give them food when they come, she said.
Later, when I ask Abdullah Hammedi, a Syrian refugee who has been living in an informal camp outside Athens for four months, if the Greek Muslims have done anything to help at the camp, he responded with an emphatic “Nothing.” Hammedi adds that a group of Muslims from the United Kingdom came to the camp, providing traditionally Muslim clothing for the women, but he never saw a group of Greek Muslims.
If Hammedi was home, he says he would be celebrating Ramadan with friends and family. Instead, he will stay put for the rest of Ramadan, praying anywhere he can find.
But the place of prayer does not bother him so much as wearing Western garb, inappropriate for the holy month of Ramadan, Hammedi said, tugging at his wrinkled, purple polo. “If I were at home, I would be a totally different person in my clothes, my shoes, my hat,” Hammedi says. “We are doing what we are supposed to do—the basics. We don’t reach that religious feeling that we want to feel.”
Stamou says that she plans to take her children to Xanthi, the capital of Thrace, so they can celebrate the last few days of Ramadan properly. The region has three hundred official mosques and 270 imams, according to a report by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “We need our children to feel festive,” Stamou says, in search of the the “religious feeling” that Hammedi says he is missing.