It’s Ramadan, the annual fasting month followed strictly, laxly or somewhere in-between by the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims. Living among the famished practising their traditions in Indonesia where 88 per cent of the 273 million citizens say they follow Islam can be physically challenging, intellectually confusing and socially engrossing.
It’s 3 am and the street’s security guard is on his regular patrol. He carries a metal bar, not to frighten potential housebreakers, but to bash the steel power poles three times. Then he shouts sahur – the meal to start the day. For after 4.27 am, the faithful will abstain from food, drink and sex, though rarely cigarettes, till 5.32 pm. That’s when sirens, like those used in air raids, tell it’s time to get stuffed.
The times, which change marginally every day, are published on newspaper front pages.
The fact that three families closest to the ringing steel are not Muslim and would prefer to snooze is not an issue. Complaints to the local community leader would probably be heard politely, but he’d do nothing. If there are noise abatement laws in Indonesia they’re forgotten.
Also ignored are bans on the sale of fireworks. While the oldies pray, gangs of pre-teen boys roam the streets throwing bangers and yahooing, though rarely violent or vandalising. To a foreigner they look and sound frightening though not enough to warrant calling the cops. In any case there are none in sight. The lads don’t have access to grog. This is not Australia.
Swedish researcher Dr Andre Moller reports parents saying it’s safer to let the kids go feral at this time because of this ancient belief: “When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of hell are closed, and the devils are chained.”
So what could go wrong with mobs of mini-hoons tossing crackers which they think a hoot? Only the nerves of outsiders who think gunfire. This is not the US.
In the first week Malang looked more like Melbourne during lockdown, but after seven days of no income, economic need displaced religious fervour and restaurants started opening. The front doors are closed, though not those at the side.
International chains like McDonalds continue to do business (ostensibly for non-Muslims) but pull down blinds so passers-by can’t see miscreants.
In the past packs of the sanctimonious conducted ‘sweepings’ by trashing businesses which didn’t close – or pay. The government no longer tolerates extremists since they started targeting the police.
Later as sunset looms and the smell of boiling fat and smoking sate is as ubiquitous as the chanting of Koranic verses in Arabic. It may well be a beautiful language as its 422 million users worldwide attest, though not when chanted inharmoniously through scratchy sound systems atop mosques.
Mid afternoon the ravenous start gathering at Takjil, a cluster of temporary stalls set up by the local government for street food. Most in the thick crowds wear masks, but social distancing is impossible.
Also unthinkable is having any intelligent conversation. After noon the hungry think only of food and talk of nothing else. In the final week grumpiness becomes the norm. Menstruating women are allowed to eat and it’s astonishing how many have prolonged periods, even the elderly.
Although Indonesia is challenging its southern neighbour for first prize in the vaccine stuff-up stakes with less than three per cent of the 273 million citizens jabbed to date, religion isn’t at fault. The Indonesian Ulema (scholars) Council has pronounced shots are halal. Their reasoning: The needle is thrust into muscle and not the bloodstream so the vaccine is not nutritious. A sore arm is not a sin.
In a bid to check crowd-spread of Covid-19 President Joko Widodo has ordered police to stop Mudik. This is the movement of millions of big city dwellers from returning to their hometowns to take a break with relatives and hand out presents.
For the young this is usually money. Lucre is indeed filthy in a cash economy, so kerbside entrepreneurs sell plastic packs of new notes. Snacks were traditionally gifted in hand-woven wicker baskets. Now they’re plastic and sold in shops.
There’ll be road blocks till mid May, though many will be avoided as travellers use Jalan tikus – literally rat roads, but meaning shortcuts through villages. Even Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin has publicly conceded the reality – the smart will get through whatever edicts are pronounced in Jakarta.
Maids, drivers, gardeners, nannies and others who keep the megarich comfortable take off along with an extra month’s salary, for this is also a time of spending on new clothes. Their employers who fear getting their hands dirty usually camp out in Singapore hotels.
Ramadan will climax on 13 May with the Idul Fitri celebrations, a week of feasting to end the fast. In Western countries, where Muslims are a minority (2.6 per cent in Australia), mags run soft features by well-nourished hacks on the health and spiritual benefits of doing without, along with picture spreads of exotic foods.
A less charitable version published in The Jakarta Post had the editorial board sermonising that the original ‘moral lesson’ of abstinence is that ‘we are expected to stand in the shoes of those who are destitute or poor.’ However the iftar fast-breaking meal has become a ‘splurge’, a show-off indulgence in top restaurants.
The Prophet Muhammad’s meals at sundown are supposed to have been dates and water.
For kafir, the unbelievers who find Ramadan a time of tension and nothing like the version in the glossies, the solution is to move further east to an island where Christians rule – or cope.
With Covid crimping travel, adjusting is the only alternative in a society where minorities have rights but exercising them is pointless. So crank up the AC to lessen the din and accept this is life in Java.
On the streets of Australia whingers about Christmas slow-down risk being told: If you don’t like it, go back where you came from. In Indonesia the fasters look with pity at the forlorn foreigners not participating in the togetherness, so offer to share and give the Ramadan response: Mohon ma’af, lahir dan batin – Please forgive me, body and soul.