Anna looked up at the greasy clock on the kitchen wall. It was already three o'clock in the afternoon. It was a bit hard to see the numbers behind the grayish layers of smoke and fat covering the clock's glass surface. She promised herself to get up there and clean it up, when fasting month was over. Right now, with what little energy remained she was going to prepare the dinner, which is also known as the break fast or 'buka puasa'. When you are dehydrated, carrying nothing in your stomach for the past nine hours, kitchen work can be tough, easily compared to the construction workers who throughout this month barrow bricks without their familiar cigarettes in their mouths.
Anna and her family are Indonesian Moslems. They had been fasting for almost a month - no drinking, no eating, superbly controlled emotions and no sex from dawn till dusk are amongst the sacrifices endured during this special month. The Ramadhan month was almost over. The following day, the family was going to witness the sighting of the crescent Shawaal moon, which symbolizes the end of the Holy month. Then the new start begins. After thirty days of non-stop self-purification, Moslems are reborn - back to their humble, clean and sinless state. Iedul Fitri, the last day of Ramadhan means back to pureness.
Anna opened the fridge. There was a whole chicken, a bunch of palm leaf wrapped rice cakes and palm sugar soaked bananas for dessert. The perfect sugar-fix diet for breaking the fast! Chicken curry, rice cakes plus extra sweet condiments are the typical local Ramadhan menu set. They aim to instantly replace the lost sugar and energy in their system; so people say (I guess they forgot to mention the replacement, or addition to be precise - of body cholesterol and carbohydrate?).
"Siti, Marni! Could you please help me prepare the food?" Anna shouted - calling her dutiful set of temporary housemaids (she had to pay twice the normal wages to them as her usual domestic staff had disappeared a week prior to the 'Lebaran' holiday). One of the privileges of being both opulent and fasting is that she can have other people do her kitchen chores, especially when her energy is running low.
An hour later, she came back to the kitchen only to see that her so called 'experienced' maids had turned the place into a messy shipwreck. Coconut milk splattered on the walls, a troop of ants marching across the window sills - ready to attack chips of brown sugar on the floor; typical domestic chaos! Anna took a deep breath. "I'm fasting, I can't contemplate anger," she whispered to herself. She cleaned up the mess in silence, under heavy scrutiny of the housemaids with the classic look of 'what did we do wrong?' on their faces. Anna felt incredibly relieved that the next day was going to be the last day of Ramadhan. She'd go to the great mosque with her family early in the morning to hold the prayer, followed by visiting her relatives whom she only meets once a year to ask forgiveness while entertained with mountains of snacks and sweet, bright-red, watered-down syrup. She had been missing that for awhile.
Imagine the same night at a different house, approximately a hundred-meters away from Anna's, there was a completely different story. Julie, an Australian lady already residing in Jakarta for six months, sat down at one end of her dining table. Her husband sat at the other end. Between the two, their four children were sitting restlessly, trying so hard to finish the rest of their plum pudding searching for the little silver coin hidden in each. Their eyes were continuously staring to the corner of their living room - where a pile of Christmas presents are sitting sweetly under the canopy of a lush, heavily decorated, plastic green pine tree.
Julie smiled at them. She thought back, relieved that everything went smoothly, not as bad as she had thought it would be. She had completed her Christmas obligations successfully. All Christmas cards had been mailed early - considering it takes two weeks longer to send them from Jakarta; ensuring the cards weren't too thick to avoid a 'suspicious' appearance in the eyes of local post officers. The holiday shopping in Jakarta was great. After visiting all of the Christmas bazaars in the city, Julie had enough presents stocked for the next ten years - which included fifteen glittery Santa hats! Although it wasn't quite a white Christmas - it had never been in Sydney anyway - it wasn't really much different, not counting the beach. The Christmas mass in the morning was quite sweet, although she only understood about 10% of what the Preacher had said in the church.
Anna and Julie are two different people with two different beliefs from different backgrounds and cultures who happen to live in the same neighborhood, both celebrating the holidays in their own way. And what do you know; Iedul Fitri and Christmas are going to be celebrated two days apart this extraordinary December 2000. If we are lucky - which means both celebrations are smooth and safe, without being marred by any politically driven riots or demonstrations - then it's definitely going to be an unforgettable memory straight from heaven. You might even see a lot of Christmas trees decorated with bright green ribbon plaited 'ketupat' in the shopping malls!
Well, as we all know this country is no longer under the New Order
leadership. More than 80% of the population are Moslems; in the past this
opportunity has been used to manipulate and successfully play up to the
Moslem followers. Holy celebrations for other religions were downplayed,
with a stack of limiting rules, which were attributed to the most popular
belief in this country. Only a couple of years ago, all-night entertainment
spots and most restaurants were forbidden to operate during fasting hours
in Ramadhan (and this subject is still being debated by the government!).
Café managers discreetly put all of their alcohol in closed cabinets.
No songs and dances were even allowed to welcome the New Year. There were
no colorful decorations in the malls. Was it necessary really? I don't
think forcing a set of rules is the basis of any faith. The more important
question: 'is the situation going to change? For the better?'
Well, let's alter the subject before we go too far. I promised to myself ages ago to separate political issues from my writing career. But don't you think this world will be a better place if there is no politics, wars, racism and fanaticism to talk about?
That's the core of this holy month - peace and tolerance. Let's just be another Anna or Julie. Make it simple, celebrate it side by side, respect each other and make the best out of what we've got. Let's just focus on our similarities instead of the differences. Minal Aidzin Wal Faidzin and Merry Christmas! Doesn't it sound nice?
First published in the ICAC Magazine.