Dinner During Ramadan

We are in the midst of the holy month of Ramadan, a Muslim observance that takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar each year. During this time, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Not only do they refrain from eating or drinking, but also purge themselves of negative thoughts. This year Ramadan began on June 28th, and goes until July 28th. Ramadan ends with Hari Raya, a two day celebration in which everyone opens their homes to friends and family and chows down on everything in sight. Or at least, that’s what it sounds like to me.

Some of Alex’s students invited us to dinner this past Thursday, so I got a little peak into how Ramadan is observed. (If you’re wondering why we were having dinner on a Thursday, it’s because that is the start of the weekend here in Puteri Wangsa. The sultan of Johor, who is a real person, decided a Friday/Saturday weekend really fit in better with his personal prayer schedule and so changed the weekend in our state.)

We arrived at the restaurant around 6:30, and waited about 20 minutes before anyone showed up. This is not all that surprising, since Malaysians tend to be quite elastic when it comes to punctuality. Slowly, his students began to trickle in. About 12 ended up coming, all of them boys around the age of 15 or 16. They all shook Alex’s hand, but most did not shake mine. Muslim men, as a rule, don’t touch unmarried women- though I think this was more a case of shyness than anything else.

Some were less shy than others, though, and this was the first question they asked: “Why aren’t you married?” I wasn’t too surprised, though, as Alex’s kids frequently demand the same of him. In Malaysia, particularly with Muslims, it is assumed that if you’re in your early 20s and are seeing someone seriously, you are married. This has been made abundantly clear because even when I tell people that Alex and I are not married, they still refer to him as my husband. In any event, I explained that people wait longer to get married in the US and that 24 is a relatively young age for marriage. They laughed in my face and all but told me that my biological clock was ticking.

Then they asked me what I do for a living, and what it is that I write. They found my explanations for this to be much more satisfactory.

When 7:17 rolled around, the boys said a quick prayer. I must note that while I was impressed that they prayed even without any adults around to enforce it, they were giggling a fair bit throughout. It reminded me of my brother trying to make me laugh while saying Grace at the dinner table when we were younger- I suppose some behaviors of teenage boys are universal.

Once the prayer was said and the sun had officially set, the boys began passing around a water bottle. I still cannot believe that these kids go all day without drinking anything, with temperatures here exceeding 90 degrees by 10:00 am. Since our food hadn’t arrived, a few of them ran across the street to buy snacks at 7-11. They munched on prawn chips and mini Oreos while they waited.

Finally, our food arrived and we all dug in. The plates ranged from fried rice with chicken to “fried rice USA” (rice with an egg on top) to octopus over rice. Naturally, all vegetables remained everyone’s plates when the meal was finished, because 15-year-old boys do not eat vegetables (though I guess octopus is not out of the question).

We chatted, and the boys invited Alex to play soccer with them that night at 11:00 pm. “If you have a date, though, it’s okay and you do not need to come,” they said. We begged off, given that we’re usually asleep by 11. During Ramadan, nighttime is just about the only time anyone can play sports or do anything physical. Playing soccer in 90 degree weather when you can’t eat or drink is a recipe for disaster (which is why all of Alex’s co-curricular activities are suspended during Ramadan).

I had a fun time hanging out with them, and observing some Ramadan traditions first hand. Alex reported back to me today that news has spread that I’m a writer and some of the girls would like to be interviewed for my blog. The material writes itself!

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2 thoughts on “Dinner During Ramadan

  1. Best Malaysian blog yet! I enjoyed getting a bit of a feel of the people (to the extent teenage boys rise to that level!), and a bit of your synthetic observations on them and the culture.

    Does Alex only teach boys? (In which case it would be something like Catholic H.S. in the suburbs of Phila. when I was growing up!). Do the girls go to school (not universal in a Muslim culture)? What is the economic background of the boys’ parents? Something about them look to be upper middle class. It’s interesting that they would go out as a group without parental supervision – not sure we would have done that at that age.

    Catching up on a couple of your stories –

    As I recall, on your overland trek in Myanmar, you stayed at a farm lacking electricity, running water and hence toilets. I don’t know if you are aware that your grandfather lived that way for two years when his (and my mother’s) family moved to “the farm”. They moved there in 1934 and electricity did not come until ’36. With electricity you can run an electric pump which means you can have running water which means you can have a toilet. Up through the 1930s a great deal of rural America lacked electricity and the benefits that cascade therefrom. I always think of “the farm” as being “not that far out there”, more a satellite of the great city of Utica than a rural enclave, but even so it was unserved by modern conveniences. Also, the road to the farm was paved only with oiled gravel and dirt. So the scene three quarters of a century ago in upstate NY was not conceptually different from what you saw. Now “the farm” was not a subsistence farm serving primarily its own needs, but rather dependent on being able to sell milk and eggs and chickens (these latter two your grandfather’s specialty as a teenager) to “the city”. Were the farms you saw subsistence or did they serve a market need?

    You talked of some aspects of free society and censorship in the countries you visited. Clearly, this is not a strong point in SE Asia. S Korea, Taiwan and maybe Hong Kong (we’ll see) seem to be the mainland (and near mainland) outposts of what we would consider fitting those categories. Singapore somewhat less and maybe Malaysia too, but I look to your blogs to give some insight there – this is not my specialty.

    Keep up the good blogs. Looking to here more about “the girls”!

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