It is Ramadan here, a Muslim holiday that is comparable to the Christian Lent. It is a month of fasting that culminates in the biggest Muslim holiday of the year, Idul Fitri (known in most other cultures as Eid). On the first day of the fast, the local mosques were full as we walked through our neighborhood, with piles of shoes outside and worshipers prostrating themselves inside. The devout don't eat or drink during the day, with strict adherents even avoiding swallowing their own saliva. That is pretty brutal in the tropical heat, so in the early morning hours before the sun comes up, drummers make their way through our neighborhood at 3am, waking the devout so that they can eat before the fast begins at sunrise. During the day a lot of restaurants and food carts are closed, and those that are open cover their windows with curtains so that non-Muslims can eat without disturbing those that are fasting. We carry our water hidden away in bags so as not to offend our friends here. As we visit shops in the afternoon we notice lots of lethargic folks sleeping on mats, struggling with their lack of energy.
At night, around 6pm, a sound akin to a tornado siren goes off and Muslims disappear to their homes to break the fast at sundown. We hear that Muslims probably actually eat more during Ramadan because they pack so much away when they can eat. We are used to the call to prayer echoing through our neighborhood five times a day, but during Ramadan the broadcasts last all evening with chanting and singing coming from mosques all around us. Sometimes we can hear four or five at once, and that clutter of chanting can get very eerie.
For a taste of what we hear every night, click play.
There are other effects as well. There are lots of Ramadan sales at stores, but the cost of meat nearly doubles this time of year because of the demand. It is like the Christmas season with lots of shopping and business happening, and we will give gifts to all of our Muslim neighbors. During Idul Fitri we will visit their homes (and they will return the favor at Christmas) to show our respect. There's also a Ramadan bonus of an extra month's wage that is nearly mandatory, sort of like a bonus is expected at Christmas unless a business is in trouble. When I've asked my neighbors for fashion advice they note that extra modest dress is expected for everyone (even non-Muslims) during the month of fasting.
We get a week of vacation at the end of the month of fasting around Idul Fitri. We don't know yet if we will get out of town, though, because we hear that the human migration of everyone returning to their hometowns is so huge that traffic jams last for days, and all public transportation is packed full.
All of this is fascinating as a cultural event, but very poignant as we ponder the meaning of Ramadan for Muslims. They pray and worship every day this season to atone for the guilt in their hearts and to take advantage of the added favor they believe God has during this season of fasting.