Friday, August 5, 2011


What Ramadan Is

Islam operates on a lunar calendar.  The ninth month of that calendar is called Ramadan, which is designated as a month of fasting and purification.  It is a religious obligation for all Muslims to refrain from eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse between sunrise and sunset for the whole month.  Naturally there are exceptions, namely children, sick people, the mentally ill, people who are traveling great distances, pregnant or nursing mothers, menstruating women, and the elderly.  You have to be able-bodied for the rules to apply.

Because the calendar is lunar, it is about 11 days shorter than the standard 365-day solar calendar.  Therefore, each year Ramadan begins about 11 days earlier than the year before.  I remember first really hearing about Ramadan back when the US invaded Iraq in 2003.  Suicide bombings and coalition deaths would spike each year around Ramadan.  Back then the fasting month fell in mid-autumn, which is why it may surprise some Westerners unaware of the yearly 11-day shift that Muslims are already fasting. 

Well, so it is.  I’ve been fasting for five days.  Coming into the month, I’d heard a variety of opinions ranging from “fasting is a fate worse than death” to “Ramadan is the best time of the year”.  Last year, most, if not all, Volunteers chose to join in the fast, and I’m sure it’s the same this year.  Some are lured by the challenge, some by the prospect of cleansing, some by curiosity, and all by social pressure and the desire to fit in.  Indonesians love to ask if you are fasting and how you’re handling it.  I don’t know how many PCVs have cheated—sneaking gulps of water and snacks in their rooms—but I think it must be a significant percentage.


The Routine

Generally, families wake up at 3:00 or 3:30 in the morning to eat.  They want to finish their food before the first call to prayer around 4:10.  After that, your mouth is dry as the Arabian Desert until about 5:30pm, when the sun sets (side note: can you imagine Ramadan in northern Europe right now, where days are like 16 hours long?).  Anyway, after breakfast, it’s completely fine to go back to sleep for a couple hours if you’ve got nothing else to do.  For me it’s impossible to get back to sleep before 4:30, because by the time I’ve eaten, it’s time for the morning call to prayer, which is terribly loud and lasts 30 minutes in my village.  So I lose about an hour of sleep.

During Ramadan, school schedules are modified.  In my school, which is a madrasah (religious school), students must still take all their classes, but periods are shortened from 45 to 25 minutes, and the first half-hour of the day is dedicated to tadarus, or recitation of the Qur’an.  In previous years, kids only had to take religion classes during Ramadan, but apparently this year they’ve changed it up.  School starts later and ends earlier than normal, and everyone is taking it easy.  People are tired and hungry—the last thing they want is waste energy trying extra hard to make all 25 minutes count.  Students fall asleep.  Sometimes teachers fall asleep.  No big deal.  After school ends around noon, people go home and rest some more.  Extracurricular activities are canceled for the month. 

A lot of people sleep in the afternoon.  Finally, when 5:30pm rolls around, everyone is ready to eat.  In my village, someone beats a huge drum at the mosque the moment it becomes permissible to break the fast.  Interestingly, this is more or less the quietest part of the day in this very noisy country, because everyone is inside eating.  Families all eat together, and it’s common to invite friends and neighbors to share in the meal.  In other Muslim countries, this breaking of the fast is known as Iftar, but I have yet to hear that word used in Indonesia.  Everyone here says berbuka puasa (open the fast). Apparently in the Middle East it is normal to break the fast by eating dates, after which everyone does solat Maghrib (Maghrib prayers, fourth of the five daily prayers, to be said around 6:00pm).  When the prayers finish, the real meal begins.  But, by Jove, this is Southeast Asia, not the Middle East.  Here we eat the whole meal directly.  Well, at least in my family. 

After eating, many Muslims go to the mosque for solat Maghrib, and the prayer schedule is somewhat longer during Ramadan.  Some people participate in additional prayer activities in the evening, while others just rest or go to sleep. It’s also common to eat again in the late evening if you want—I’ve definitely helped myself to seconds around 10:00pm, or made myself a magnificent bowl of oatmeal.  If you haven’t rested adequately during the day, you might fall asleep directly after eating dinner (around 6:00pm).  Doing this, as I have on a couple of occasions, is horribly stupid, because then I wake up around 8:00pm and can’t fall asleep until past midnight, only to have to wake up AGAIN at 3:00am and restart the whole blasted cycle.  No matter how you dice it, though, you have to break up sleep to two or more sessions per 24 hours.


What fasting does to people

This is a tropical climate.  It’s hot and humid and there’s no air conditioning.  If you go outside or move around indoors, you’re going to sweat—a lot—which can be dangerous for people who aren’t drinking any water.  Normal sleeping and eating schedules are trashed, so people are low-energy during the daytime.  Vices, including tobacco usage, should also be curbed, which can make the men irritable, since they’re all smokers.  Because everyone is tired and prone to dehydration, everything slows down.  Businesses close early; street vendors and small restaurants are closed during the day; people lounge about; nobody is interested in playing sports. 

There is a lot more excitement in the air with regard to eating.  Everyone is suffering together, and the fact that everyone is less busy with responsibilities means you have more time to be with your family and neighbors.  Indonesians are accustomed to eating three meals per day, shoveling rice down their gullets like it’s the coal that keeps their fire burning.  They grow very concerned if they think you’ve skipped a meal and chide you for neglecting to eat.  (Fun fact: Whereas in the US it’s polite to ask about the weather or inquire if someone had a good evening yesterday, in Indo it’s common to ask if someone has already eaten and what he/she had for breakfast). 

Deprived of food, some people have more trouble than others.  Some people become miserable and irritable and think only about food, wrestling with constant temptation to break the fast early (for a fantastic write-up on this perspective, see Elle’s article).  For me, at least, I just feel very hungry, but there’s no urge to cheat.  For whatever reason, my brain processes the discomfort as if it were due to something outside my own will.  Kind of like a day that’s way too hot—you can whine about it (and I do), but you can’t make the sun cool off.  Plus, I’m used to not eating.  Often at college I would go way too long without eating, because I was either trying to be thrifty or I was too lazy to cook/go to a restaurant/pick up the phone and order food.  Missing meals never got to me that much.  But it’s still tough, especially combined with not drinking anything (yes, that includes water!) and getting screwed out of proper sleep.  I usually have a headache in the afternoon before breaking the fast.

Also, the lack of water means I don’t dare ride my bicycle any significant distance during the day, because fainting from dehydration seems worse to me than being stuck in my village.


Why fasting is worth it, even if you’re not Muslim or religious

A lot of people here like to say that fasting is a healthy, cleansing experience for your body.  I nod my head when Indonesians tell me this, but really I’m quite skeptical (like a lot of other PCVs).  It’s not like people are changing what they eat.  Some people aren’t even changing how much they eat.  They just alter the time, and something tells me it’s not the best idea to wait until you’re starving to absolutely gorge yourself on food and drink, nor is it advisable to go to sleep so soon after eating.  And foregoing daytime exercise for a month can’t be great either.  But I’m no nutritionist, what do I know?

For Muslims, the first and foremost reason to fast is because God commands it.  Secondly, fasting is a way to erase the stain that sin leaves on your soul.  Thirdly, you score big points with The Man Upstairs for doing good things during Ramadan (most people choose to pay zakat, or the almsgiving required by the faith, during this month).  Yet there are several spiritual/moral reasons to fast during Ramadan that may also apply to non-Muslims.

Fasting is self-denial, and it requires discipline.  It requires your mind to master your body.  It requires you to make yourself suffer for the sake of a greater spiritual or devotional goal.  In essence, it asks you to put yourself second.  You might say that the capacity and willingness to delay gratification is the hallmark of civilization.  It’s also one important feature that distinguishes humans from other animals (mostly, anyway).  For some people, there is a certain spiritual focus that comes with self-denial.  Certainly, if you aren’t able to focus on your work due to hunger and weakness, you are going to be less caught up with the daily run of things.  For Muslims, this is to be accompanied by a greater inner focus on prayer and mindfulness of God.

In my host family, empathy for the poor is the most oft-cited rationale for fasting. Spending a month being hungry and fatigued is an excellent way to cultivate empathy for poor people in the world, who may depend on charity for survival.  This is an important reason for all Muslims, and I daresay it’s one that can resonate with people of any belief.  In my opinion, this alone is justification enough to participate in the fast without cheating, even if you don’t buy into the spiritual/cleansing argument.  But I’m not dogmatic about such things—to each his own.

There's also the collective aspect of the fast.  You are hungry with your community.  You “suffer” with everyone.  Shoot, if empathy for the poor isn’t reason enough, how about just empathizing with others who fast?  As a foreigner, fasting helps me to feel like a part of this village, and I know it commands respect from the people here, who are aware that I have no religious obligation to join them in this.  It just brings people together. 

Defending the rationale of the fast from a religious perspective is easy: So what if productivity is squashed and the pace of life slows to a crawl?  Those things are unimportant when compared to your devotion to God, closeness to community, and striving for spiritual growth/self-mastery.  The fact that focusing on those things (devotion, community, spiritual growth, etc.) disrupts productivity and daily routines only reinforces the necessity that you acknowledge their primacy.  It’s a compact system. 

But, damn, do I get hungry and sleepy sometimes.


If you’re still super curious about Ramadan after reading this, I joyfully direct to you to the blog links on the right-hand side of my page, all of which contain photographs and far better, more detailed descriptions of what it’s actually like to be here during Ramadan.  I tend to focus more on the conceptual than the concrete (hence Thought Porridge), though there are certainly some physical descriptions in my writings.  Anyway, the other PCVs are all brilliant writers with totally different styles, and it’s 100% worth it to read about this from their perspectives.


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