Reflections on Ramadan

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Mesjid Istiqlal, the largest mosque in Jakarta, and in Southeast Asia.  

Ramadan is the Muslim fasting month, culminating in Eid al-Fitr, and is the most important holiday for Muslims around the world.  Commemorating the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad, the observance of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, alongside a belief in Allah, the five daily prayers, Hajj, and charity.

I have spent the last three years in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority nation in the world, first as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA), and later as the ETA Coordinator.  However, due to the timing of Pre-Departure Orientation in D.C. each year, I have never been in Indonesia for any part of Ramadan.  This year, I pushed my return date back a bit, so that I could take in some of the Ramadan traditions practiced in the country that has become my second home.

Now, I did not remain in Indonesia for the entirety of Ramadan.  Because my research visa had come to an end, I needed to first leave Indonesia and re-enter with a tourist visa.  Rather than buy an international roundtrip ticket solely for the sake of getting a tourist visa, I decided to travel for two weeks in Cambodia and Thailand first, and so I actually spent the first half of Ramadan in countries where Muslims are a minority, much like in the U.S.  Interestingly, I happened to choose a hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand very close to one of the few mosques in the city, and so I still heard the call to prayer and regularly met folks on the street who were headed to evening prayers at the mosque, or meeting at the several restaurants along “Halal Street” (as the sign proclaimed at the entrance) to break their fast together.

In Indonesia, I split my Ramadan experience between three cities.  I spent the first few days of Ramadan in Jakarta before leaving for Southeast Asia, and spent a few more days there after my trip.  I then headed off to Sulawesi, where I spent a few days in Manado with friends who have moved there, and then spent the last days of Ramadan, as well as Idul Fitri (the Indonesian spelling of Eid al-Fitr), in Gorontalo, my second ETA site.

While in Indonesia, I did join my friends in puasa (fasting, in Indonesian).  The first meal of the day is taken before the first prayer, or Fajr.  This pre-dawn meal is called Sahur, and in many communities children march through the neighborhood banging on drums and calling out “Sahur!  Sahur!” to remind people to wake up and begin their fast.  While there are neighborhoods in Jakarta that do so, because I live in a tall building I was not able to hear them.  The first time I heard this call was in Manado, and I was pleasantly surprised at the energy the children had, and the happiness with which they took to their task, even so early in the morning (as someone who is definitely not a morning person, I would probably have been too groggy to have done well, had this been my task).  Once azan (the call to prayer), is heard, everyone clears away the breakfast dishes and prepares to pray.  When fasting, Muslims of course do not eat or drink, but they also refrain from sex, swearing, and even negative thoughts.  It is not uncommon for friends of Muslims to join a day or two of fasting, and it truly is an excellent exercise in self-control (try sitting in the hot Indonesian weather with no water, brain frazzled by a dialect of Indonesian you haven’t spoken in a few months, and thinking only positive thoughts), at the very least.  For someone who is Muslim, while self-control is an aspect of fasting, it is only one small part of this month of added prayer and reflection.

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Buying jajanan on the street.

Later in the evening, after the sunset prayer, or Magrib, it is time for buka puasa (the “opening” or breaking of the fast).  This might be done alone, but is often done together as a family, or perhaps at the local mosque.  In Indonesia, most people buka puasa with jajanan (snacks), usually of the gorengan (fried food) variety.  Sellers line the streets in the hours leading up to buka puasa, so that people can buy the foods on the way home.  Buka puasa bersama (breaking the fast together) is also a very popular practice in Indonesia, and I regularly did so with friends and other community members.  It is not uncommon for non-Muslim friends and co-workers to join for buka bersama, and while in Manado, which is actually a Christian-majority city, I participated in a buka bersama with my friend and some of her university friends, at which everyone attended was of a different religion, naturally leading to a questions and discussions which I do believe were highly illuminating for everyone present.

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Breaking the fast after Tarawih.

Throughout Ramadan, many Muslims seek to improve their practice and their understanding of the Qur’an.  Many of my friends spent additional hours studying the Qur’an, for example.  Another common practice that I experienced while spending Ramadan in Indonesia was Tarawih.  Tarawih is essentially extra prayers performed during Ramadan.  These are usually done in sets of eleven or twenty-three rak’ah[1], and while some people perform Tarawih alone, but many do so at the local masjid (mosque).  I was fortunate enough to be invited by friends to observe Tarawih twice, once at Mesjid Istiqlal in Jakarta, and once in the musholla (prayer room) behind my friend’s house in Manado (which her grandfather had actually built).  The sense of community Is especially strong, I feel, during Tarawih, which was a privilege to witness.

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Tumbilotohe.

I spent the last week of Ramadan in Sulawesi.  After spending a few days in Manado to visit friends from Gorontalo who have since moved there, I headed to Gorontalo for the last two nights of Ramadan.  I especially wanted to spend the last few nights of Ramadan in Gorontalo because I wanted the chance to observe Tumbilotohe, a very special form of adat (tradition) in the city where I once served as an ETA[2].  Tumbilotohe is usually translated to “Nights without Darkness,” and it takes place during the final three nights of Ramadan, throughout the province of Gorontalo.  Throughout Tumbilotohe people line the streets outside their houses with oil lamps.  The belief is that these lights will attract the attention of angels to Gorontalo, and the timing of this festival is due to the larger Muslim belief that acts of ibadah (acts of devotion) have more value during the last days of Ramadan.  In more recent years some communities have replaced the traditional oil lamps with fairy lights, and instead of traditional noise makers children now also run down their streets with sparklers, but the essential spirit of the celebration remains the same.  After hearing so much about this celebration from my friends in Gorontalo, it was a blessing to be able to finally be a part of it.

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Listening to the khutbah.

I remained in Gorontalo for Idul Fitri.  One of my co-teacher’s husbands was giving the khutbah (sermon) at one of the local mosques, and so I joined her and her family for sholat Idul Fitri (Eid al-Fitr salah, or prayers).  From what I could understand (I still find it difficult to understand Indonesian when spoken through a microphone), her husband spoke of the importance of remembering the lessons of Ramadan throughout the year, and of continually bettering their practice, not merely during the month of Ramadan.

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Doa Lolipu. (Photo credit to my co-teacher.)

Following sholat Idul Fitri, my co-teacher’s husband, and as such herself and her family and myself, were invited to the home of one of the men who had helped lead the prayer.   We were joined by other important men associated with the mosque, the leader of the community in which the mosque was located, as well as their families.  What followed was another tradition unique to Gorontalo, doa lolipuDoa means prayer in Bahasa Indonesia (generally, in comparison to sholat, which is the Indonesian spelling of salah, which is Muslim prayer), and lolipu is Bahasa Gorontalo (the language of Gorontalo), translating to something along the lines of “our city.”  Two men led this special prayer, and afterwards men of especial importance were given nasi kuning (yellow rice) and tili aya (a sweet dessert), two dishes commonly found at almost every acara in Gorontalo.  Once this ceremony was complete, everyone was invited to share the nasi kuning and tili aya, as well as several other dishes that had been set out.  My co-teacher explained to me that this same ceremony would occur near every mosque in Gorontalo, with those who had led that day’s prayer.  Doa lolipu is quite common in Gorontalo, and also occurs when someone dies or when there is an important event in the city.  Idul Fitri is, of course, another important event.  This sort of ceremony may not necessarily occur in other parts of Indonesia, though other areas might have their own adat regarding Ramadan as well.

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Me with the family of one of my co-teachers.  

The rest of that day, as well as the following day, was spent visiting.  Alongside my co-teachers, we went from house to house in the neighborhood, wishing everyone a blessed Idul Fitri, and exchanging the phrase “Mohon maaf lahir dan batin,” which essentially means, “Please forgive the sins of my body and soul.”  There is food in every home, and we were encouraged to eat everywhere we went (and we, in turn, encouraged people to eat when they came to us).  When visiting family, my co-teacher and her husband also gave jakati (gifts of money for family members, in larger amounts for adults and smaller amounts for children).  Everywhere we went, when a new adult family member entered the room, children would immediately gather, shouting, “Jakati! Jakati!”  We also visited the tombs of her father and her husband’s father, to pause and pray.

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Another “family photo.”  

While the first day of Idul Fitri was largely dedicated to family and neighbors, the second day was devoted to visiting friends and co-workers.  This day was especially special for me, as it entailed many visits to the homes of other teachers from the school where I used to teach.  These are the people who became my family while I lived there, and so as wonderful as the visits to my co-teacher’s family were, it is these visits that brought me the most personal joy.

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Some of the teachers who took me into their homes during Ramadan.  

Ramadan is an extremely special time for Muslim’s around the world, and it was a privilege to witness some of the different practices across this vast archipelago.  I am incredibly grateful to everyone who opened their doors and their hearts to me, making Ramadan 2017 an unforgettable time for me as well.  Terima kasih (thank you), and mohon maaf lahir dan batin.

[1] A rak’ah is essentially one set of salah, including the movements and prayer.

[2] I actually wrote an entire blog about Tumbilotohe, which you can find here.

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One thought on “Reflections on Ramadan

  1. Pingback: Giving Up on Clarity: Revisiting My Religion Post | All for the Love of Wandering

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