Sunday, September 01, 2013
This week, a fair proportion of 400,000-odd Australians who tick the 'Islam' box on their census forms will mark the start of Ramadan.
Ramadan is the 29 or 30 days when Muslims are supposed to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and intercoursing between sunrise and sunset. If they can be bothered getting up in time, they have a light breakfast. At the end of the day, they have a small meal followed by their sunset (maghrib) prayers and then dinner. After dinner, people head to the mosque for extra prayers that can take anything from 30 minutes to two hours (depending on which mosque you go to). We then hit the sack and get ready to do it all again the next morning.
The whole exercise is supposed to fine tune your soul, weaken the ties binding you to your physical appetites and test your religiosity. You do it for a whole month, and you do it at the same time as the entire Muslim community. Ramadan is a lunar month, and this month unites Muslims around the globe in an envelope of piety and mercy.
At least that's the theory.
Christians, unless they're Orthodox, know that Christmas is on 25 December each year. But Ramadan in fact starts at different times, depending upon when the moon is sighted. Now you'd think that after 1400 years, Muslims would have figured out how to perform the simple task of sighting the moon. Think again.
My mum's Ramadan calender states that Ramadan begins on Tuesday 9 July 2013. I picked up this calender for her from a Lebanese restaurant in south western Sydney. Had I picked it up from a South Asian spice shop, the start date would have been perhaps one or two days later. If I'd visited a mosque managed by the Turkish government-aligned Diyanet Vakfi (Religious Trust), I could purchase a calender which determines all lunar months for the next few decades, if not centuries.
Turks 'sight' the moon by relying on astronomical calculations. They think that since science has progressed so far that man can now walk on the moon, it seems a bit pointless to insist on sighting it with your naked eye. Cypriots, Bosnians and Albanians agree.
Muslims of Indo-Pakistani, Bangladeshi, South African and Indo-Fijian backgrounds insist on sighting the moon with their naked eyes. Their Ramadan usually begins one or two days after the Turks. Indonesians and Malaysians tend to follow the Arabic-speakers who generally start their Ramadan on the same day as the Turks. Some nationalities follow the fatwas of overseas religious authorities such as Saudi Arabia or Malaysia.
Aussie converts tend to be confused by the whole confusing spectacle of lunar-cy. That, or they start with whichever community is least condescending and most welcoming to them. It's amazing how universal religion can bring out the nationalism and cultural chauvinism in many Muslim migrants.
Then there is the issue of eating. Muslims aren't the most punctual people on the planet. But when it comes to a fast-opening (iftar) gathering, they're always on time, because they know that a huge feast awaits them on arrival. The real test during Ramadan is how on earth all that food is going to be finished. Pakistani iftar gatherings are especially ghee-filled affairs with up to 20 separate dishes filling the smorgasbord.
Most Muslims break their fast with a single date and a glass of water before spreading the mats out for the sunset prayer. Indo-Pakistanis prefer to stuff their faces with a fruit salad called chaat and deep-fried spicy potato cakes called pakora. The chaat salad is composed of three parts chopped fruit, two parts lemon juice, four parts curry powder and approximately 500 parts sugar. A duty free sized block of Toblerone would be lighter on the aorta.
And so for most of us, Ramadan is the month of massive weight gain.
For iftar gatherings earlier on in Ramadan, the blokes somehow roll their way to the mosque for the long tarawih prayers. The process of merely bending over to perform ablutions and walking up a few flights of stairs can be a struggle. But imagine standing in prayer in a row of blokes burping the contents of their iftar with some frequency. Still, why try beating them when you can join them?
In Melbourne, where Muslims are somewhat less disorganised, corporate iftar parties are all the rage. SBS, ABC, various banks and telcos hold iftar parties for leading members and hangers-on in the community. Imagine the view they must enjoy over the Melbourne Harbour footbridge or whatever it's called.
Canberra is the land of embassy iftar parties. Some years ago I hosted a morning drive show on a Ramadan radio station. I accidentally deliberately read an article on air which described Syria as a police state. Someone from the Syrian ambassador showed his devotion to free speech by ringing up the station organiser and making all kinds of threats. A few days later, I attended an iftar party at the Syrian embassy. The Lebanese food was scrumptious. The ambassador and all his staff were very polite. Perhaps I really do have the perfect face for radio.
As Ramadan comes to an end, people plan their day off; for the big day of Eid (or Bayram if you're Turkish, Bosnian or Albanian). Employers across the nation, take note: don't be surprised if your Muslim employees ask for different days off. The lunar-cy of determining the beginning of Ramadan is repeated at the end. I know some Sydney lunar-tic authorities who can't tell you when Eid is until the morning of Eid! One enterprising service sends you notice of the naked eye sighting of the moon by text message.
So welcome to Ramadan Aussie style in what would have to be the most disorganised congregation in the country. Anyone waiting for us to have the organisational skills to establish sharia government will have to wait until well after the next Ice Age. First published in Eureka Street on 08 July 2013.