Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Interview: Ramadan

This is the first in an occasional series of interviews with Indonesians about different aspects of life here.

The fasting month of Ramadan is coming. For a lot of Jakartans, that means no eating, drinking or smoking from sunrise to sundown. Some of the reasons for fasting include: focusing your thoughts on your relationship with god, increasing your self-control, and heightening your empathy for the poor.

(More on the philosophical underpinnings of fasting here.)

Ramadan ends with a big celebration called Idul Fitri or Lebaran, when lots of people in the city go home to their villages to visit their families, leading to traffic jams of epic proportions.

I talked with my Indonesian teacher, Ninit, who's studying French literature in college. I don't have a sense of how religious she is; it's clear from the interview that she feels deeply about her faith, but otherwise we've never discussed religion and she's not inclined to bring it up in conversation.

How do you feel about Ramadan?

When Ramadan comes I'm always happy, because I feel a more intense connection with god, and a closer connection with my family, because you have to do a lot of rituals together. It's like one full month that I study my faith, I learn about myself, I look for what I really want to do in life.

People are calmer, too, they're not in such a rush. For one month, the atmosphere is different, and people are different.

Ramadan scares me too! Because, what have I done this year? Have I been a good girl? It's a reflection on your whole year.

Is it hard to fast?

It's hard, very hard! (laughs) The hardest thing is the first week, because we haven't fasted for eleven months. That first day is challenging because you're tired and hot and hungry. After that, you get used to it.

Also, in my opinion, the important thing about fasting is the intention. I have this intention of fasting that first day because of my faith, and then it's okay, then it doesn't seem hard, and you don't feel hungry.

Another difficult part is the three or four days before Lebaran - days 27, 28 and 29. It's hard because people have started to leave for the villages. Everybody is shopping, everybody's making food for Idul Fitri, people are buying stylish clothes, and we all pile into cars and trains and buses to get out of Jakarta. So you're more tired, and on those last days you're not as strong as you were the first day, so it really tests your sense of purpose.

After Ramadan is also difficult, because when Ramadan comes we have this connection but after that we will have ordinary life without fasting and without these special occasions. It's like Christmas for a whole month, or Thanksgiving. That's the hardest part. You become very connected and then it just stops.

During Ramadan, do you usually have the evening meal with your family?

Yes, we break the fast as a family, at home, or elsewhere if there's something going on outside the house, like a Koran reading at a sibling's house or somewhere with my friends. And there are some obligatory foods and drinks. Usually we have coconut juice, pumpkin juice, melon juice, and iced tea, and dates.

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