The reason? The Holy Month of Ramadan. Muslims take a month out of the year as a sacred time to fast and pray with extra vehemency. The rules are, basically, nothing passes your lips from sunup to sundown. Not food, drink, medicine, cigarettes, a kiss, or anything else. It is a serious fast.
I can tell the Taufiqil has mastered this routine through extensive practice. After he lays a colorful rug on the ground facing Mecca, he whispers verses of the Koran in three different positions. First, standing, then kneeling, then on his hands and knees with his forehead touching the ground. After he is done, we then stumble down from the fourth floor of a concrete dormitory to the cafeteria where great pots of food wait to be served on metal trays. As is Malay custom, we eat with our hands, deftly pushing small wads of rice and chicken in our mouths. Even though my eyes are awake, I don't think my tongue is, and I merely feel my morning meal. After eating as much as we can, we head back to the dorm to catch a few more hours of sleep before class.
When he again wakes me, its even harder to shake it off. I feel like a lazy schoolboy shrugging off his mother's wake up calls, except the person waking me up is a schoolboy. After taking a cold shower from a pipe in the bathroom wall, we get dressed and after another prayer we head to school. The walk is not far the prayer room for Qur'an recitation. Boys and girls enter from separate sides of the building, and everyone takes off their shoes and washes their hands, faces, and feet before entering. Once inside, groups of boys and girls on opposite sides of the room gather in small circles and take turns reading the Qur'an. As the ancient Arabic gently whispers from each boy's lips, their lowered eyes follow the beautiful script, right to left. I wonder how much they really understand, and whether or not they get much out of this sacred exercise, but the looks on their faces certainly make me feel like they do. After about an hour of this, we go back outside and head across the school campus to the computer lab.
Only about half of the computers actually work despite being brand new, so clusters of two or three gather around each computer taking turns surfing the net or listening to music. Access to certain material is strictly limited, and the proxy server that acts as a security blanket blocks out all sorts of material. Anything about pornography, related to games, deemed "tasteless," or (to my surprise) about "non-traditional religions and occult and folklore" is unaccessible. If you look carefully at the URL I was trying to access, you will see that I was trying to read something about Pisces. This is an example of the great care that is taken to isolate and protect young children from material that may be harmful, an admirable goal, but perhaps this particular situation is a bit on the cautious side. Like I've said before, the lines are just drawn in different places here. Oh, by the way the translation of the banner on that page reads "Quality Education for the Foundation of a Developed Generation."
Since Taufiqil's class is finished with his national exams and school holidays are rapidly approaching, we spend the rest of the day in the computer lab taking turns playing video games. Someone snuck in a copy of the original CounterStrike and we pass the time killing virtual terrorists and enjoying the computer lab's air conditioning. By the time school is over in the early afternoon, I am ready for a nap and head back to my apartment. When I wake up, I expect to be violently hungry, but instead am only lethargic and when six o'clock rolls around, I know that I have to hit the market before sundown or there will be no food for me. Lazily, I go down to my motorbike and head into town to a long row of tents set up in a road near the town square. All sorts of food and drink are being sold, and all of it made fresh right on the spot. It is a bit like the state fair without the rides or livestock shows, and people from all over town gather to grab their evening meal before heading home. I love this Ramadan Bazaar (Pasar Ramadan in Malay) since I am too tired and lazy to cook my own food, and the selection is impressive. Rice dishes of all kinds, omelettes, cakes, kebabs, freshly squeezed juices, and fireworks are for sale. I grabbed enough for three or four and head to an internet cafe where I met some friends. After nearly fourteen hours of fasting, it is safe to say that anything I ate would taste delicious, but breaking fast with good food makes things even better. When the time comes, my friends and I dig in, eating slowly so we won't overwhelm our stomachs. Not a bit of food is left when we are finished. Full and happy, we lean back and talked for a little while before parting ways.
Now, it might sound crazy to fast for such a long time, even borderline foolish to many Americans back home. After all, if you don't eat well, you can't work as hard and you'll have a tough time staying on top of things. And not drinking water in the tropical heat, well that might sound just damn stupid. But then again, getting drunk at a party sounds just as foolish to Malay Muslims in my area, and for good reason. Drinking a little bit too much is, well, not good for you. A hangover is a sign of toxicity, and numbing your senses like that is known to kill brain cells. Plus, bad decisions are a lot easier to make when you're drunk. Just look at my friend Nuts. Yet both fasting and drinking are accepted social customs in different cultures. Why fast for so long, why put yourself through that hardship? As the end of the month neared, I began to understand. Think of all the people in the world who do not have the benefit of a regular source of food. Do they sometimes go without food for a day, sometimes days? What is it like to feel like they do? If we don't put ourselves through the same hardship, we will never know and we will never be able to connect with them on that fundamental level. Needless to say, going without is not exactly an essential part of the American lifestyle. But during Ramadan, everyone who is a Muslim fasts, rich and poor, men and women, adults and elders. And at the end of the day, the act of breaking fast together and sharing the wonderful feelings of eating such a well-deserved meal can bring people together quite closely. It is also a reminder that our bodies have limits and have a finite lifespan. We will not be around forever, and should definitely make the most of what time we do have.
When I pledged a fraternity, I was taught how enduring common hardship with a group of people binds you together. Indeed, some of the friends that I am closest with and have kept in touch with the most while in Malaysia are my fraternity brothers. I feel the need to stress that these hardships were in no way illegal, involuntary, or dangerous and I am proud of my membership. But take that same principle and apply it to an entire community. Not only do you become more appreciative of simple things like food and drink, but you also become closer with your friends and family. I know I feel closer to the boys that I stayed with in the school's dormitory for a night after fasting and spending a day with them. And the self-control and discipline that you learn by resisting the most primal of impulses, hunger, is character building to say the least.
And so at the end of Ramadan, or Hari Raya (Party Days), there is truly something to celebrate. Not only is it celebration of the end of hardship, but also a time to be proud that you made it through a difficult month. The closer you observed the right way of doing things, the more you earn the celebration and the more satisfying the end really is. That said, I am sorry to say that I did not follow those guidelines for the entire month. I made a compromise. Instead of eating before the sun rose, I instead ate when I woke up and didn't eat or drink again until sundown. I know that this is far from the correct way of observing this holiday, and that Ramadan is more than just skipping lunch, but I was very hungry by the end of the day and did enjoy the food and company much more than if I had done nothing close to fasting. Perhaps if I understood more about the spiritual component of the holiday I would have felt a greater sense of purpose and woken up everyday with the same urgency and energy as Taufiqil.
Anyway, after the fasting stops, the doors of everyone's house open wide and food and drink are plentiful. I think I visited nearly fifteen different houses over the course of the holiday from one end of the state to the other, and I was more than happy to share a meal with anyone who was willing. At some of these houses, I had no idea who the host was, but this in no way affected the level of hospitality. When I arrived to a house full of friends and family, everyone was usually spread out, talking and eating. But when word got around that a white man had come, the talk stopped and usually a small circle of people gathered around me, waiting and watching. When I started speaking the language, I could see their faces light up and relax a little bit. They seemed genuinely honored that a foreigner had taken the time to learn the local language, and even a few words of the local dialect. Some of these houses were beautiful and huge, while others were made from corrugated steel, plywood and tarps, but all of them were welcoming and insisted that I have something to eat and drink. I again was treated like part family, part celebrity. I even had the privilege of meeting the Chief Minister of Terengganu (like the state governor) at his mansion in the capital and shake his hand before eating his delicious food. As nice as his mansion was, however, I think the house I enjoyed the most was the that of my foster family, Roslina and Kamal. These were the people that took me into their home for three days when I first arrived in Malaysia, and after nearly a year here and several visits (as well as a roadtrip), I feel closer to them than some of my own aunts and uncles. They again took me in, fed me, and took me to visit all of their neighbors and family members as an honored guest. The whole affair is rather like Christmas in many respects, with the exception of having to buy a present for everyone. They just cut right to the point and give out little envelopes of money to all of the children. There is no set amount, and the envelopes have no one's name on them, so there isn't a lot of favoritism. All a child has to do is "salaam" the money holding adult by touching his or her forehead to the adult's backhand, and the money is given with a smile.
In the end, I was most impressed with the warmth with which I received. In my area, I think the stereotype of Americans is less than favorable, and to be accepted and welcomed anyway is a sign of an ability to distinguish individuals from stereotype, as well as genuine kindness and openness. I think I received more than ten invitations to come back to houses where I'd never been for another meal, and a couple of them even offered their extra beds to me whenever I was in the area for the night. Even after ten months, I still cannot believe that this type of attitude could actually exist; my time here has done a good deal to uplift my general faith in humanity.