By Toni Kasim
Walking into a Ramadan evening bazaar with a rumbling tummy is almost masochistic. Here you are at in Section 14, Petaling Jaya, surrounded by stalls selling curries and roasts and breads and desserts, their multi-coloured umbrellas less vibrant than their wares: you are surrounded by so much of the forbidden, after almost 13 hours of not getting any, and just about everything on offer is so seductive you don’t know where to start.
Like a kid that’s just walked into a sweet shop, your eyes become bigger than your stomach and you dart around, searching out possibilities for the perfect victuals. Kuih for starters, followed by nasi tomato, roti john, roti bom, ayam goreng berlada — you run out of fingers off which you could hang plastic bags, but swear you’ll be able to devour the lot.
You spot the chicken stall, whose ayam percik several of your Muslim and non-Muslim pasar connoisseurs swear by, and now you buy popiah goreng, murtabak Johor — and, to cap it all of, a nice light dessert of tau foo fah.
To wash everything down, you eye a gallon of fluorescent yellow liquid that advertises itself as ‘Corn Drink’.
Ah … the thrills and spills of the yearly spread. But, unless you go for the excitement and buzz of jostling with other equally hungry people, the concept of Ramadan bazaars may border on the bizarrely unhealthy, and seem antithetical to the higher purpose of Ramadan.
Aidilfitri a Bahasa Malaysia appropriation of the Arabic Eid ul-Fitr — literally, the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast – comes at the end of the ninth month of the Hijri: Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic year. While fasting on Hari Raya itself is forbidden, the Sawm of Ramadan — fourth of the five pillars of Islam — prohibits eating, drinking and sexual intercourse throughout the month, between sunrise and sunset.
The point of puasa, of course, is piety through the self-denial of baser urges — and in that denial, a greater awareness of the needs of others. Ramadan is intended to provide time for meditation, free for earthly temptations; and to strengthen one’s faith in God, oneself, and everyone else.
That, at least, is the ideal. For a month that sanctions abstinence and minimalism as core values, we nurse an unseemly obsession with food that comes to a head this time of year. To the untrained eye, the Malaysian Ramadan experience might resemble an eating disorder: deny, obsess, binge, deny, obsess, binge.
The non-Muslim friend I was with cheekily pointed out that she was allowed skip ‘denial’ and plunge straight into ‘obsess’ and ‘binge’.
Those who read this pattern closely will note a world of difference between the puasa Ramadan and the pasar Ramadan, between fasters and fasting, between Muslims and Islam. One does not necessarily represent the other.
The copious amounts of leftover food and litter in the aftermath of these bazaars were never meant to be part of the fasting month. Neither were the conga lines at Ramadan buffets. The spirit of giving that puasa is meant to engender does not entail using tax payers’ money for the prime time reporting of Minister So-and-so’s Raya hamper giveaways.
In this same perversion of the Ramadan spirit by the faithful comes a directive, written by religious chief Mohamed Fauzi Mustaffa to his Muslim staff in the Islamic finance firm Takaful Malaysia, advising them against wishing their Hindu friends “Happy Deepavali.” For me, this occurrence was embarrassingly insulting.
Although the Malaysian timetable shouldn’t be reworked around the Muslim fast — honestly, the very idea of Ramadan is not to cause hardship to others — a multi-racial, multi-religious country like ours tries to negotiate these things, so that we can exist in the same space and not get each other’s noses out of joint. I was in rehearsals and / or meetings for most of my Ramadan evenings this year, and I really appreciated the space and time adjustments made for the Muslims in the group. There were times when I felt a slight tinge of guilt that my needs were put ahead of so many other considerations.
In 2006, the Hindu Festival of Lights falls on a weekend four days before Hari Raya — it was no coincidence that many Deepavali makans were planned for after 7pm, primarily so that Muslims could comfortably join the rest of Malaysians in the festivities.
I had a great time. When all your invitations fall on the one evening, each visit, unfortunately, becomes a hit-and-run affair — I joked with a friend’s mum as I left her table, promising her that we’d organize it so that the two big events would not clash again for many years. I was deeply grateful of the fact that you could find wajik at a Deepavali buffet, and murukku at a Hari Raya house. I liked the fact that the Muslim calendar is ten days shorter than the Gregorian -- it mean that Hari Raya moves around the year, dropping in on all the other festivals.
Which was why I found the lack of reciprocal respect in the Takaful directive too disgusting for words. Most of the Muslims I knew felt that it had gone way too far — some even called for Mohamed Fauzi’s resignation.
A minority with an exclusionist mentality, however, wanted to remind everyone that the fatwa against wishing ‘the others’ with any form of religious greeting had been around for 20 years. “Why challenge it now?” they asked. Those who cared about the issue enough to pursue it were threatened not to continue, lest they “Hurt the sensitivities of the Muslims.”
So, it’s okay for a Muslim to be careless with the sensitivities of a Hindu, but it’s not okay that the rest of us should have an opinion about it? My Hindu friend and I stop at a pasar Ramadan to shop for buka puasa, and she doesn’t eat until I do — but I can’t wish her Happy Deepavali?
Disgusting. There are Muslims and then there is Islam, and one does not necessarily represent the other. Thank goodness for that. I just wish we all did a better job at convincing our fellow Malaysians of this truth.
As Ramadan and Syawal cycle away from the three other major celebrations in our country, I nurse some mixed feelings. For a few years, double celebrations were a source of national pride and some quite interesting high-budget adverts — and, deep down, I was intrigued in observing how we would and did negotiate the conflation of our practices and cultures.
Lately, though, I have been less optimistic. I feel that certain quarters have tried to turn the ‘other’ celebrations into fiestas non grata: KongsiRaya got declared a no-no, and I can’t believe that we actually had to discuss whether or not greeting a fellow Malaysian during Deepavali is acceptable.
But I’m choosing not to despair. I saw a kolam at a public hospital recently. It was in the shape of that quintessential Hari Raya delicacy: the ketupat. Carefully arranging the finishing touches of coloured rice were two women, one Hindu and one Muslim. If ever there was a Kodak moment for DeepaRaya, that would have been it! In the face of all the pronouncements about how we could and couldn’t celebrate our festivals, here were two women, completely secure in themselves and in each other, admiring their shared masterpiece.
I want to believe that by the time the double-celebrations roll around again, in a few decades, more of us will be like those two women, and that we will be able to value Malaysian celebrations with a little less insecurity and a bit more maturity and pride.
Toni Kasim has run for parliament, trains ulamas, and sings a capella. She lives in Brickfields, the gastronomical heart of Kuala Lumpur.
First Published: 25.10.2006 on Kakiseni