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Favorite Blog Throwback #10 – Originally posted on August 7, 2013
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This post was written by Della Bradt towards the second half of her time spent volunteering in Indonesia. Della is now back in the United States.
We are now 9 days into Ramadan here in Indonesia and it is truly all around me. Most of my friends from the University of Gadja Mada (UGM) are Muslim and many of my co-workers are as well. This is not surprising because Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims of any country in the world. 88% of Indonesians identify as Muslim. Even through the smallest of daily interactions with people here, I am learning so much about this holy month.
Before this summer the only thing I really knew about Ramadan was that it was a month where Muslims fast. I didn’t have a clear understanding of its purpose and I certainly couldn’t fathom how people went without eating all day for an entire month. So as Ramadan was approaching, I had a lot questions for my new friends. I kept trying to gauge people’s feelings towards the impending month of fasting. For me personally, I know I would be dreading such a difficult task.
However, for my Muslim friends and co-workers, Ramadan has always been their reality of life. Fasting all day is just part of the program. Many of them began partially fasting at the very young age of 6. They begin by training themselves to fast for half the day, usually until noon. Then anywhere from age 8-10 or 12 they begin fasting for the entire day and the entire month.
The “rules of the game” of Ramadan are that you cannot eat, drink, or smoke from sun-up to sun-down. In order to make it through the day, Muslims take a pre-fasting meal called Sahur, which usually begins around 3:30am. In addition to the usual call to prayer from the mosques 5 times each day, during Ramadan there is also a call to Sahur. This call is meant to wake the people out of bed for their pre-fasting meal. Then when the usual call to prayer is issued at sunrise, the people must stop eating and many people usually go back to sleep. Because we live so close to a mosque both these calls usually wake me up, but I am quickly able to fall back asleep.
During the first few days of Ramadan, I was also interested in whether or not people were hungry. The overwhelming feeling I got was that people were more thirsty than they were hungry. It is far more difficult to go without water in the hot and humid Indonesian climate than it is to go without food. When most of my friends break their fast, they first reach for water or tea and then move onto food.
The willpower of those around me has been amazing. At work, some of the people fasting sit with us at lunch as usual. They watch as I fill my plate with delicious and fragrant food and down glass after glass of water. Their urges are completely under control and they are able to carry on conversation as normal. It honestly makes me feel guilty about feeling hungry.
Yesterday, my office hosted a breaking of the fast for employees, neighbors, and friends of the organization. As always, all the AUA volunteers and our UGM friends were invited to join. Interfidei is incredibly welcoming to everyone. Before the breaking of the fast we had a man come in to give a lecture. He was an employee of one of the Islamic boarding schools nearby. There was no real translation given, but my UGM friend sat next to me and whispered translations in my ear as much as he could.
From my understanding, the presentation was about Ramadan and the media. The man said that the media has commercialized Ramadan, which makes people’s understanding of Islam shallow. By having a Ramadan TV episode or a Ramadan special, it limits people’s grasp on the traditions and practices of Ramadan to what they see on TV and in the media. This shallow perception of Islam, he argued, is just as bad as ignorance to the religion altogether. It can even be dangerous because it generates misunderstandings that might lead to violence.
I couldn’t help but notice that this commercialization of holidays is a problem that is completely cross-cultural. For many in the United States, Christmas has become more about gifts, trees, and Santa than it is about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Media infiltration of holidays is not unique to the United States or Christianity, but is an important discussion in the Muslim world as well.
One last thing I will note is that it’s not only Muslims fasting here. My friend Didi from UGM who is a Hindu is fasting, as is the director of Interfidei, Elga, who is a Christian. Elga explained to me that she fasts because she was always so in awe that Muslims could fast in the name of their God. She wondered if she could do the same in the name of her God. For many years she tried and mostly failed until she finally built up the ability to fast. Now she fasts for the entire month. This shows the universal holiness of this month for Indonesian people.
I’m so happy to be experiencing this month firsthand. I’ve gotten more of an understanding out of these first 9 days than I ever have learning in the classroom. Having already been to a breaking of the fast, I’m looking forward to partaking in other special Ramadan traditions. I’m especially looking forward to attending a Sahur with my UGM friends during one of my last days here.
A beginning of Ramadan parade we came across.
They didn’t even close the street for the parade so they were marching alongside the traffic.