Friday, August 3, 2012

Ramadan Ramblings

This being my pertama kali in a majority Muslim country for the month of Ramadan, I thought I'd share my thoughts on the happenings, traditions and oddities that I've observed so far.  I got some helpful explanations of the things I observed here and here, if you're interested.  This post is pretty word heavy and photo light right now, but I'll try to capture some more photos and update the post!

Timing: Ramadan is the Muslim month of fasting that occurs during the 9th month of the Islamic calendar... the dates of Ramadan vary from year to year, based on the lunar calendar.  This reliance on visual sitings of the crescent moon occasionally leads to some confusion, disagreement and debate concerning when the holy month actually begins and when folks are supposed to commence fasting.  This year, the Indonesian government stated that Ramadan began on Saturday, July 21, but the many Muslim organizations argued that it began on Friday, July 20.  Tim said that some people in his office began their fasting on the 20th, just to be safe.

Fasting: During Ramadan, between sunrise and sunset each day, pretty much all Muslims abstain from not only eating and drinking, but also from smoking cigarettes (which is difficult for most Indonesians, many of whom are kretek fiends), sexual relations and bad language.  There are some exceptions to the fasting rule, however, for kids, pregnant or menstruating women, the sick, elderly, or those traveling.  Apparently, being an Olympic athlete is an exception to the fasting rule, too.   My understanding is that the first few days of fasting are particularly rough, but that it gets easier throughout the month as your body gets acclimated.  I might give it a try for a couple days out of curiosity and solidarity.

In practice, in Jakarta at least, this means that people get up very early in order to pray and eat before sunrise (which is around 6 am) and then leave work early (around 3 or 3:30 pm) in order to make it home in time to pray and breakfast at sunset (around 6 pm).  I've heard stories of cab drivers pulling over, passenger or not, at sunset to light up a cigarette and take a sip of water.  Also, lima kaki (push carts selling food- literally "five legs") all come out in droves in the mid-to-late afternoon in order to accommodate hordes of hungry people, and many restaurants have special buffets or prix-fixe menus for Ramadan fast breaking purposes.  Most offices shift or shorten work hours to allow Muslim workers to leave early and rush hour is thus pushed up by two hours.

Lunch, on the other hand, is a different affair.  Many restaurants are closed for lunch, and those that are open, in order to be respectful of those fasting, put up curtains to hide their dining areas from sight (see photo of the curtains that Starbucks put up).  Also, restaurants run by non-Muslims seem to be particularly crowded during this time (like the babi (pork) place we went for lunch today- standing room only!).

Generally, things seem to move on a slower timetable, as people are a little sluggish from dehydration and hunger.  I've seen lots of people napping- on highway overpasses, in parking garages, on the side of the road.  Additionally, normally scheduled events are unexpectedly cancelled (the weekly music in Taman Suropati, which Tim and I tried to check out last weekend) or sparsely attended (Car Free Day was also a lonely event last Sunday... I can't imagine leisure biking in high heat is high on the list during the Ramadan fast).

Vices: During Ramadan, there are regional regulations concerning certain vices, such as alcohol sales, "nightlife venues" and "massage parlors." While I can't speak to the effect these regulations have on "nightlife" or "massages," I can say that the rules concerning alcohol sales seem to be somewhat unclear and also inconsistently followed and/or enforced... it sounds like some combination of police and hardline Islamic organizations raid certain venues throughout the month to enforce the laws.

  • It seems that most bars and liquor stores closed during the first few days of Ramadan.  Tim and I tried to grab a drink the Thursday night before Ramadan started and at least 2 bars in our neighborhood that we tried were already closed for the weekend, scheduled to reopen the following Monday.  I have heard that most of them also close during the last few days of Ramadan, too.  Below is a photo of our neighborhood beer garden- they literally shrouded the sign for the month of Ramadan:
  • Most restaurants that normally serve alcohol removed all of their alcohol from sight, tucking under the bar rather than displaying it on the wall behind the bar... that area now houses elaborate displays of bottled water or flavored syrups.  
  • Some restaurants will serve alcohol openly and notoriously (ha, thanks law school), some will serve it only incognito (see beer served in opaque copper mug, below), and others will only serve it after certain hours (our best guess is that the inspectors have stopped working at that point?). 

Shopping: Ramadan and Lebaran (see below) both seem to be a time of shopping, gifting and charity.  There is a government-mandated bonus that every salaried worker receives during Ramadan (or before Christmas if you're Christian)- the equivalent of one month's pay.  Also, many people give each other gifts right before Lebaran and many give to charity, also.  Because of this, many stores are all decked out and host major sales and specials leading up to and throughout Ramadan.  There are all sorts special items for sale- gift baskets (see photo of random "Ramadhan Hampers" at Ace Hardware below), freshly made sweets for breaking fast, imported dates (a traditional way to break the fast) and special Muslim clothing including baju koko (embroidered shirts for men) and kebaya kurung (intricately detailed blouses and long skirts for women).

I also understand that, as a result of all of the shopping and celebratory break-fast dinners, food prices jump up in Indonesia each year during Ramadan (even more so this year because the U.S. drought has affected the price and availability of Indonesia's soybean imports, which in turn affects tofu and tempeh prices, which causes tofu and tempeh sellers to strike and the tofu and tempeh cartel to rear its ugly head.)

Idul Fitri/Lebaran: The end of Ramadan is followed by the Idul Fitri (also called Lebaran) festivities.  Apparently, at this time, there is a mass exodus from Jakarta by over 7 million people who pulang kampung (go home to the village) to visit family and celebrate.  My understanding is that Jakarta becomes a ghost town for about a week and that Indonesia's transportation infrastructure groans under the stress of all of these people simultaneously fleeing the city for greener pastures (not to mention ticket prices for flights, trains and buses all go up exponentially).  I'll let you know what it's like, as Tim and I will be sticking around town that week. We've heard its a great time for biking.

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