Embracing the Spirit of Ramadhan

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The Muslim fasting month of Ramadhan is now in full swing. For recently arrived non-Muslim expatriates in Indonesia, it can be something of a culture shock. Yet many expatriates find themselves embracing the holy month in various degrees. Some expats even end up converting to Islam prior to marrying an Indonesian and observe Ramadhan quite seriously.

Ramadhan this year commenced on June 29 and will conclude on July 28. The first two weeks coincided with two big events: the FIFA World Cup, which ended on July 13, and the July 9 presidential election, the uncertain result of which is causing no small amount of tension. It may be a blessing that people will still be fasting when the official election result is announced on July 22, as the genuine loser should accept defeat with grace and humility, rather than with anger that could spark conflict.

The purpose of Ramadhan is to purify the soul, mind and body. It is about developing self-discipline, so the body can resist bad habits and sinful desires. It is about acting with respect and compassion, becoming closer to God, and helping the needy.

Each morning of the holy month starts with sahur – the pre-dawn meal. In many neighbourhoods there are wake-up calls, either from drums being wheeled about by children, people clanging metal pipes on fences or from mosque loudspeakers – and sometimes from all three.

Some people have half a dozen mosques in their neighbourhood, all with a different time for the sahur announcement, which seems to range from 2.20am to 3.40am, so if you sleep through the first you can get up for the second. This month’s noisy cheers from viewers of televised World Cup matches also rouse the sleeping.

Inner Peace

PR, a British civil engineer based in Jakarta, has been observing Ramadhan for many years and says there is a sense of accomplishment and inner peace at the end of each day of fasting. Nevertheless, he says fasting is not easy. “If I am at home or in Jakarta, and not on a long trip to a remote village, I will fast. The evening before, I prepare a meal with some protein to keep me going through the day. Setting my alarm for 3.30am, I get up and eat before the hour of fasting, and then say the early morning prayer. Then I try to get another couple hours of sleep before leaving for a normal day in the office.”

When his workload is not too heavy, he tries to leave his office by about 4pm, so he can get home to break the fast after Maghrib, the evening prayer. “Otherwise I break the fast with my office staff at around 6pm.”

PR says it’s difficult to observe the fast if he’s in London, especially during summer, when the sun does not set until 10.30pm. He says one of the simplest pleasures of Ramadhan in Indonesia is breaking the fast with his wife. “Just a simple cup of tea with an Indonesian sweet dish to give us our energy back. The fasting month is a time for reflection, getting back to basics, and it makes you realize the important things you need in life.”

The fasting month is followed by the holiday period of Idul Fitri, in which urban dwellers traditionally travel to their hometowns to be with their extended families.

PR says he usually travels to East Java on Idul Fitri to visit the village of his wife’s parents. He says the Eid morning prayer in the village is held in a field, with a volcano as a dramatic backdrop. “Here I can meet all the guys in the village, and there is a religious but festive atmosphere.”

The annual family get-together is a cherished tradition. “Everyone is in high spirits, but there is a serious time too, when each person asks forgiveness from their parents and brothers and sisters, and vice versa, for mistakes made during the last year,” says PR.

“Then on the second day of Eid, it is time for the neighbours to visit, and all kinds of traditional snacks are prepared in each house to receive people dropping in. These Indonesian traditions are truly something very different that we do not experience in the West these days.”

Commercialization

Just as some Christians in the West bewail the commercialization of Easter and Christmas, so too do some Muslims feel that big business is drowning out the meaning of Ramadhan. Rizqi, an office worker in Jakarta, is originally from the Central Java city of Pekalongan, known for its many Islamic boarding schools. He was raised to view Ramadhan as a time for increased prayer to become closer to God. “My first two years in Jakarta have shown me a different face of Ramadhan; that it’s the month of discounts and sales… During Ramadhan, instead of swarming to mosques, people will swarm to malls.”

Rizqi says Ramadhan in Jakarta is also a time of “excessive social gatherings”, mostly revolving around breaking the fast, which is known as buber (berbuka puasa), or iftar in Arabic. He says it’s not uncommon to receive an invitation to a fast-breaking event almost every night.

“You may also be invited to post-buber activities. Sadly, those that I attended were far from being religious. They included karaoke, watching movies or chatting with old friends all night long until sahur time. So we frequently forgot to pray when the time came. Or did we simply choose to forget?”

Office Hours

Some offices in Indonesia may allow workers to leave early during Ramadhan so they can get home in time to break the fast with family members. Such early marks don’t always mean that people will arrive home before 6pm.

Take the case of Lina, a bank employee in Jakarta. She happily left her bank early last Monday to catch a train to her house in Banten, west of Jakarta. Upon taking an ojek (motorcycle taxi) to Tanah Abang Station, she was confronted by an ocean of people. A technical problem on the line had caused delays. When finally a train arrived at the platform, commuters’ patience had evaporated.

“Everyone shoved, pushed, stomped, elbowed, kicked and jostled each other, either to get off or in,” Lina recounts. “Everyone wanted to get home early for iftar and the taraweh prayer. It got worse at each station. Overcrowding, snail-paced speed and broken air conditioning worsened the nightmare.”

She says one passenger eventually fainted in the heat of the carriage. After more than an hour of discomfort, the passengers heard the call to prayer, but there was no joy as they remained trapped inside the train. That said, one of the points of Ramadhan is to learn to endure hardship without complaint.

Cutting Conversions

When expatriate males here decide to convert to Islam, it is generally because they are marrying an Indonesian woman whose family will insist her husband should be Muslim. Some men feel they should be circumcised to become true Muslims. The Qur’an does not cover circumcision, but it is mentioned in some hadith (reports on the sayings and activities of Muhammad and his followers) and sunnah (Islamic customs based on Muhammad’s teachings).

The time for circumcision is usually around the age of seven, sometimes earlier. John, a New Zealander living in South Jakarta, says he converted to Islam when in his mid-30s, partly to please his future wife and her family. “It meant everything to her, so I did it.”

He decided to get circumcised prior to conversion. “You don’t really have to; nobody checks, but I thought it would be an interesting experience and something to talk about. That certainly proved to be the case,” he recalls.

“Snipping the top off a young boy’s small appendage is no problem. Men, on the other hand, have little control over the tumescence of their penis, particularly when asleep. That first night after the surgery, out popped every stitch that had been holding it together. It was like I had been shot in the groin. It healed terribly.”

Despite mixed feelings about his circumcision, John is fond of Idul Fitri. “I enjoy heading back to the kampung for Idul Fitri with the family. Apart from the problem of driving there, of course, given the traffic. Once home though, it is a nice experience.”

For expatriates who decide to become long-term residents, embracing the faith or at least the spirit of Ramadhan is not just about fasting but about becoming closer to Indonesia.

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Kenneth Yeung is a Jakarta-based editor.