“First-generation” Muslim migrants have been in Flanders for about 50 years. Their stories of migration – the traditions they brought with them and the evolution of those traditions – form part of local heritage as well. But they are stories for which time is running out; the first immigrants who settled in Flanders have reached a respectable age.
Stories of migration have received a lot of attention of late in the heritage sector, such as the MAS and Red Star Line museums in Antwerp and several projects in the Limburg mining region. “There are indeed a lot of heritage projects on migration,” says Najet Boulafdal. “But of course their focus is on migration. The way Islam has been practised is usually only indirectly addressed.”
Boulafdal works for Mana, the expertise centre for Islamic culture in Flanders. She coordinates the project Oh My God! (OMG!), which specifically focuses on the experience of traditions in Muslim communities in Flanders. “It is the first project of its kind,” she says. “Islamic heritage remains a confusing concept. One thinks immediately of the religious side of it, but what matters to us is how the various Islamic communities in Flanders live their traditions in everyday life.”
Many traditional Christian holidays, for example, such as Easter and Christmas, have a Christian basis but are celebrated as family events. The practices around these holidays often differ from the purely religious, and it’s the same within the Muslim community. “If we look at the questions we get from the public, we notice that there is a need for information on how these events are experienced,” says Boulafdal.
The aim of OMG! is to record how Muslims live their traditions in Flanders. Mana is looking for volunteers in Ghent, Antwerp and Genk. The volunteers are given a number of workshops explaining how to interview people and collect images, after which they are ready to question their own relatives.
“The material that results from the project is classified along two timelines,” explains Boulafdal. “A first timeline is the Islamic year. There are 11 annual Muslim holidays. The testimonies of how people now celebrate these events and how things used to be are inserted in that timeline. In addition, there is the lifeline with several important moments in life such as birth, marriage and the like.” The results will be included in an online database, which will be available by this autumn.
Boulafdal emphasises that the Muslim community in Flanders is very diverse. “There are people living here from almost all Muslim countries. The way Chechens celebrate their festivals is different from how the Turkish community celebrates, for instance. But there are also differences between generations. This diversity is often overlooked.”
The timing of Oh My God! is not accidental. The first generation of migrants who arrived here in the 1960s is dwindling, and time is running out to preserve their stories. “These people often have very interesting stories to tell,” says Boulafdal. “Take, for example, halal meat. Now it's no problem to find meat that was slaughtered according to the religious rules, but for the first generation that was not the case. In Antwerp, they solved this by buying meat at the Jewish butchers. In the experience of faith and traditions there has been a whole evolution during those 50 years. That evolution we will definitely survey in the project.”
Mana’s priority for OMG! is to collect stories, but it doesn’t stop with intangible heritage. The volunteers will also take photographs of objects related to the experience of migration and tradition. These will also be stored in the database.
The OMG! campaign poster features a picture of a cassette tape. “Because many people in the homeland were illiterate, they made cassettes for each other,” explains Boulafdal “These cassettes went around the family. In many older immigrant families, there is a box of these cassettes somewhere in the attic.”
Finding volunteers isn’t a problem, says Boulafdal, though it is a commitment that requires some effort. More challenging is getting people to talk about their pasts. “Many people find it strange that we are interested in their story. For them, it is about everyday experience, nothing special. But with a little effort, people realise that their stories are valuable.”