Friday, July 18, 2014

"Buka Puasa!": Ramadan in Southeast Asia

As a young Muslim in the United States, the fasting month of Ramadan was always somewhat of an understated affair for me. The experience itself was just as challenging and rewarding as it would have been anywhere, of course, but the anticipation and excitement I felt for the month ahead was something I could only find reciprocated within the walls of my own home or the local masjid.

Growing up, I'd jealously listen to my parents' Ramadan stories from Bangladesh: of the many delicious foods for sale at the bazaars that would open at sunset in time for iftaar, hearing the muezzin call worshippers to the special Ramadan taraweeh prayers, the wide array of fashionable clothes that young women would hurry out to buy before Ramadan ended on Eid al-Fitr, and the wonderful, glorious tradition of salaami—not the cured meat, but the copious pocket money children receive from their elders for wishing them salaam ("peace be upon you") on Eid.

As I bitterly calculated how much salaami I had missed out on by spending 18 years away from my relatives, I wished dearly that I could spend just one Ramadan in my life in a Muslim-majority country.

As it turned out, I didn't get to spend Ramadan in just one Muslim country, but two. And by no means was I alone in the experience.

On the first day of Ramadan, the class was due to take a whirlwind tour of Kuala Lumpur's most enchanting sights, from Putrajaya and the Royal Selangor factory to Thean Hou and Batu Caves. Despite the demanding schedule, the three Muslims on our program were joined by three other students who wanted to try fasting with us as well.

Not surprisingly, when it was time to break our fast in a fantastic Chinese restaurant on Jalan Alor, there were six very hungry people who practically assaulted the plates of food on the table in front of them.

As Ramadan continued concurrently with our class, I had the privilege of enjoying all of the quirky and wonderful traditions that come with Ramadan in Malaysia. Big-name franchises were quick to advertise Ramadan specials, like Pizza Hut's tandoori chicken pizza (which was delicious!). Bangsar Village, a mall close to HELP Residensi, hosted an expansive Ramadan street bazaar chock-full of vendors selling everything from brightly colored fruit juices to char kuey teow and nasi goreng to hungry fasters. Islamic art-themed banners and posters hung from shop windows, with "Salaam Aidilfitri!" and "Salaam Hari Raya!" written alongside freshly applied discounts. In restaurants, waiters who noticed you hadn't yet touched your food discreetly dropped a plate of dates on the table as they went past.

The fun did not stop once the class moved to Jakarta, either. With a larger majority of Muslims compared to Malaysia, Ramadan in Indonesia felt as though it were a much more integral part of the country's cultural fabric. On our first night there, when we left the hotel to have dinner at a nasi goreng kambing (goat fried rice!) stall, we sat at a bench with Indonesian Muslims whose heads were bowed... until they heard the call to prayer from the masjid next door and the hurried "azan!" from the staff, who wanted us to begin eating.

Ramadan can mean many different things to different Muslims. To me, growing up as I did in a cookie-cutter suburban New England town with only a handful of other Muslims around, the month came to symbolize self-discipline and the individual strengthening of faith through adversity.

This time, however, my Ramadan in Malaysia and Indonesia was all about generosity. From the intellectual discussions that accompanied our 3 AM meals and the gluttonous debauchery of our 7 PM iftaars, to the quiet "how are you doing?" my classmates would murmur to each other throughout the day, Ramadan was made so much more meaningful by the wonderful American students, Malaysians, and Indonesians I was privileged to share the experience with this year.

Oddly enough, I was only struck by this thought on one of our last nights in Jakarta, when three of us were engaged in perhaps the most Jakarta-y of pastimes: stuck in deadlocked traffic.

As the clock slowly ticked up toward the sunset time of 5:55 PM and the light filtering into the taxi through the haze began to dim, Omar handed me an orange he had in his bag ("which might have already gone bad, honestly, sorry") to eat. The taxi driver had turned the radio on a few minutes earlier, so we waited in silence, the car at a standstill, for the call to prayer to be broadcast.

Allaa-a-h-u-akbar, Allah - hu - akbar!

Glancing behind to see my progress, Omar laughed at my woeful peeling job and handed me his peeled orange.

Allaa-a-hu-akbar, Allah - hu - akbar!

"Maas?" Omar asked, offering half of the orange he had to the taxi driver. Misunderstanding at first, the taxi driver shook his head, but Omar smiled and held the orange out again. Then, smiling himself, the driver took a small portion.

"Ruth?" I turned to my left.

"No, no, no, no, no-- you guys are the ones fasting!"

"Nope, it doesn't work like that. Ramadan is about sharing."

"Yeah, Ruth," Omar chimed in from the front, "you always break fast together."

As the four of us bit into our slightly dry, possibly-gone-bad oranges, I couldn't help but think that it was this—the simple act of breaking bread with others, of sharing the little that one has, and of fostering greater understanding through mutual kindness—that encapsulated what Ramadan truly is.

And for that, I'd be willing to forego all the salaami and fancy clothes in the world.


  1. Ramadan cannot just mean different things to different Muslims but wonderful things to different non-Muslims. For me, Ramadan was an exciting experience, observing the three/four of you getting more and more tired throughout the day while being perfectly energetic on other days. I really endeavored all of your endurance and patience.
    For the days of being present for dinner (as I was too impatient on other days..), even with having eaten beforehand, it always felt special to me breaking the evening food with every one around the table. I can say that it was an eye-opening experience for me, further increasing the desire for understanding and exchanging with my Turkish-Muslim community in Berlin. Ramadan Mubarak!