“Palestine is very much as I expected. Religion, food, culture, customs, and the family structure – pretty much everything here is the opposite of life in Denmark. Though Christianity has been a part of Danish culture since 1066, in Denmark today, the majority are not religious. We still celebrate many Christian holidays such as Easter and Christmas, and people still get married and buried in church. These rituals are a matter of Danish tradition however, and not of religious practice.
Many Danish people today consider themselves spiritual, rather than religious people. Only 28% of the Danish population (18% Christians, and 10% Muslims) believe that there is a God. The vast majority of the population, therefore, follow civic laws, and their own, individual ethical code, but they don’t ascribe to any religious law.
In the Palestinian city of Hebron, where I have been living for three months on the other hand, the vast majority are conservative Muslims. For me, it has been interesting to be surrounded by people who are genuinely devout.
I’m very interested in all sorts of religions, but from a more socio-historical and anthropological perspective than a spiritual one. Though many people are shocked if I’ve admitted that I’m not religious, I have never once during my three months in Hebron, felt that people are trying to impose their religious or cultural views. I remain as unreligious as ever, but I have learned a lot about life from the religious people that I have met.
I’m now very aware of the dissonance between the portrayal of Palestinians in the Danish media, and the peaceful attitudes of the majority who live here. For the people I’ve met here, Islam is all about charity: good deeds, and taking care of the people around you. As non-religious person, I admit that I agree on this level, with Islamic morals and way of life.
In Palestine, the entirety of customs and social norms find their source in the Qur’an, but Muslims in Denmark have to contend with many day to day practices which are forbidden in Islam. There isn’t only a cultural and ethical battle to fight for Muslim minorities in Denmark, but also practical issues to face. The timetable followed during Ramadan in many Muslim countries, getting up for Suhur early, and sleeping until late, is difficult to negotiate for those with a nine to five job in a non-Muslim country. Even regular daily prayers – taken for granted in Muslim countries – might prove difficult in a hectic work environment.
Another aspect of Danish culture that might prove challenging for Muslim citizens, is the cuisine. Traditional Danish food usually involves boiled potatoes with some form of pork, with a sauce made from pig fat. I eat pork at least a couple of times a week – which is probably a little less than average.
On the other hand, as well as traditional Danish meals, we also eat food of a variety of countries, from Mexican enchiladas and Indian dosas to Italian cannelloni. What’s more, as in many Middle Eastern countries, agriculture has represented a significant sector of the economy for thousands of years, so most of our meals involve bread. Today however, the bread, like many other foods sold in Danish supermarkets is mostly processed, and contains a lot of additives. Many Danes still eat sweet bread for breakfast however, and Danes often eat rye bread in sandwiches for lunch.
In Palestine, food is typically freshly cooked, and heavily spiced. In Denmark, by contrast, processed food companies tend to add high levels of salt and sugar to products to somewhat replace the spices and herbs that would be added to freshly cooked food, as well as to counteract the diminished flavour of preserved ingredients.
Palestinian Breakfast usually involves pita bread with a variety of dips, dairy products such as yoghurt and soft cheese, and salad. A Hebronite Lunch is typically a falafel sandwich or a home cooked meal of Maklouba or Mansaf, both of which consist of rice and baked meat (mutton or chicken). Dinner tends to be pretty varied, from pasta or pizza, kebab, or, my personal favourite, eggplant and swede stuffed with rice with rolled up grape leaves. After dinner, there’s usually a lot of snacking; either cucumbers and fruits, such as pomegranate or oranges, or Knaafa (cake with a mozzerella like cheese) or Atayef (sweet pancake with walnuts).
Perhaps more significant than culinary taste, however, is Palestinian family structure. First of all, parents are not always a mother and a father in Denmark; there are many single parents as well as gay couples that adopt children, or have children through IVF.
Secondly, not just adult males but everybody works after the age of around thirteen. What’s more, for couples living together, like bread-winning, household chores tend to be shared relatively equally between the two members of the couple.
Unlike in Palestinian culture, Danish couples do not always marry, and most relationships are about five years in when wedding plans begin. Even after moving in together, most couples wait a few years before getting married. Even after five years of preparation, about half of all marriages end in divorce. in Denmark Many people are married several times in their life, and unlike in Palestinian culture, there is little to no cultural stigma attached to divorcees.
In Denmark, relationships with relatives are generally much less important to Danish people than friendships. It’s common to be close with siblings and parents, and perhaps grandparents, but to only see cousins uncles and cousins once or twice per year. This is partly because children are taken care of by state institutions from the age of nine months, up until they finish high school. It is partly for this reason that it is very common to move out of your parents’ house after finishing high school and to live alone or with friends throughout university or until you find a partner.
In Palestine, the family structure is the very opposite. It’s very uncommon to have a girlfriend or boyfriend before marriage, and very few people, if any, are gay. Marriage is a goal for everyone, and people live with their parents until their wedding day, when they are expected to begin a new family. Since it is a husband’s job to be in charge of finances and earning money, usually, women stop working after marriage when they begin taking care of the home, and children, instead.
Families are very close here; they spend all their free time together, either in the house or visiting other family members and sometimes neighbours. In Hebron, it’s your family name that defines you.
In Palestine, your family is responsible for your wellbeing and they will always be happy to help you. This is one reason why there is no homelessness in the area. In Denmark, on the other hand, everyone is responsible for themselves, and it’s very uncommon to ask relatives for financial support.
Gender binaries are not enforced in couples, or other aspects of life in Denmark as they are in Palestine. Only public toilets, and changing rooms, are divided into male and female areas. In Palestine on the other hand, segregation in institutions and events is common, including in high school. In Denmark, I usually workout or play sports with male friends, but the gym here is either segregated, or open exclusively to one gender or the other at a particular time.
It’s very uncommon to have friends of the opposite gender. Generally speaking, contact with the opposite gender beyond a wave and smile is considered unacceptable. Even simple gestures such as eye contact made on the street, and touching the hand of the shopkeeper when paying – is consciously avoided. In Denmark, people behave in the same way with members of their own gender as they do with the opposite gender, so all this took me a long time to get used to. In Denmark for instance, I greet people by shaking hands, and perhaps hug a couple of times without considering their gender. It took me some time to get used to, but I’ve learnt how to behave according to the customs here.
The people in Hebron and in Palestine in general, are all very welcoming and kind. They have done everything they could to make the tall, blonde girl from Denmark feel at home in their country. Walking on the street, people constantly greet me, offer me coffee, directions, or even an invite to Friday lunch. The welcoming, friendly people here is the best part of my experience in Palestine”. Ellen from Denmark who volunteered at the Excellence Center for three months in 2016