BY KEN BASIN
Thanks to my Monday-through-Wednesday class schedule, I get to do a lot of weekend traveling. Depending on when you’re reading this, I may currently be in Cambodia. And a few weeks ago, I spent a weekend in Malaysia.
One of the particularly interesting elements of visiting Malaysia was the fact of being there during Ramadan. Although there is a very large Indian/Hindu population, it is nevertheless an Islamic country, and the majority of locals were fasting every day. In watching this, it was immediately clear how much cohesion people can find when they’re all hungry together.Jews are generally familiar with this phenomenon. We call it Yom Kippur, otherwise known as the Day of Atonement, otherwise known as the 24-Hour Diet. The Reform approach to Yom Kippur, which I subscribe to, generally involves distractedly engaging in responsive prayer for forgiveness for sins, while exchanging furtive glances with the other people in the temple that say, Dear god I am hungry. You’re hungry too? We are now friends. Break times typically involve commiseration over mutual hunger, discussions about what food you’ll be using to break the fast, and trying to figure out who the hell is the brat 3 rows up who’s sneaking M&Ms out of his coat pocket during prayer. For the record, when I was 11 years old, I was that brat.
Similarly, in Malaysia, there was a real sense that everyone was in it together. Our first night in Kuala Lumpur, we hired a cab driver by the hour to take us touring. Sunset that night was at 7:11 pm, so that’s when the fast would end. Around 6:55 pm, as he was driving us back into town and toward our hotel, a car with two young Arab men pulled up beside us. At a red light, the men motioned for the driver to lower his window and asked when the fast would officially end, and our driver gleefully informed them. He dropped us off at our hotel at precisely 7:11 pm, and he and the doorman exchange a smile as they pulled out bottles of water to take their first drinks of the day.
The next day, we caught a 6:30 pm bus from Melaka, a port town in southern Malaysia where we had spent the day, back to Kuala Lumpur, which was about two hours away. Around 7:05 pm, our driver unexpectedly pulled off the highway and into a convenience store parking lot in the middle of nowhere, where a small crowd of locals was already pooling. Like everyone else, he secured a water bottle and a snack, and from our seats we could look out the window and see the whole crowd of men raise their water bottles in unison when the appointed time struck.
We stayed in the lot for about 12 minutes in all, with the bus driver and his companion pulling out bowls of rice and calmly breaking the fast together. In America, this would never happen. The driver would have a Nutrigrain bar and a water bottle ready to go, and when the clock struck sunset, he’d drive with one hand and stuff his face with the other. In Malaysia, if only for five minutes, everything stopped so that the fasters could enjoy their first tastes of food and water, together. We didn’t begrudge the driver the stop, and we made it back to Kuala Lumpur in record time.
I’ve always questioned the religious utility of fasting. The official line varies from religion to religion. The way I understand Yom Kippur is that, by ignoring our bodily cravings and eliminating other luxuries from our lives (bathing, leather, sex), we become more spiritual beings that are closer to the angels and closer to God. Lent has been explained to me as removing a distraction from one’s life, to both simulate Jesus’s suffering in the desert and to allow one to focus more on one’s faith. I think Ramadan is based on much the same principle (minus the Jesus bit). Perhaps it is because I am definitely a bad person, but in denying myself mortal pleasures, I do not increase my spiritual awareness. I decrease my spiritual awareness, because I am too overcome with thoughts like, oh man am I really thirsty right now, to worry about spirituality or salvation. It’s like telling someone, “Don’t think about pink elephants!”
But as a community building exercise, the fast works. And as Malaysia shows, it works on a grand scale.
Ken Basin is a 3L who is currently studying abroad at the University of Hong Kong, and is being every bit as diligent in Hong Kong as he would be in Cambridge. He is strongly pro-steamed pork bun, vehemently anti-panda, and can’t believe someone is paying him to publish something he was already writing for free. His complete adventures are chronicled at kbasin.blogspot.com