Ramadan takes on a quiet meaning this year, as COVID-19 restrictions disrupt rituals and gatherings in Indonesia
JAKARTA: The parking lot of a small shopping complex near my home was filled with dozens of cars parked in an unruly manner.
It was 5pm and a small band of people in face masks decided to venture out of their homes to hunt for snacks for the upcoming iftar - the breaking of the fast.
Some headed to the minimarts to look for cold drinks and biscuits, while others made a beeline for the handful of hawkers selling sweet desserts, savoury fritters and colourful traditional cakes.
But there were hardly any queues at this humble Ramadan bazaar in Jakarta, despite the fact that iftar was just an hour away.
The regular customers, workers of nearby clothing shops, hair salons and offices, were mostly absent thanks to the so-called large-scale social restrictions imposed by the city government to curb the spread of COVID-19, leaving many shops and buildings shuttered.
Not too far away from the vendors were a handful of motorcycle taxi riders, their eyes fixated on their phones hoping that someone would order food from a nearby restaurant or iced coffee from an adjacent cafe.
Further down the driveway, a pair of security guards were ready to erect a metal barrier to close the shopping complex’s entrance. Under the social restrictions order, shops and minimarts must close at 6pm while restaurants are only permitted to serve takeouts.
By the time the call to prayer was made, signifying the end of fasting for the day, everything ground to a halt at the shopping complex and indeed, in much of the city.
READ: 'It doesn’t feel like Hari Raya’: Malaysia’s Ramadan vendors fret over slow sales amid COVID-19
Almost everyone had retreated back to their homes to enjoy their meals with their families, leaving the streets empty and desolate.
Unlike Ramadan in previous years, this silence would last through the night.
The social restrictions order bans all forms of religious gatherings while houses of worship have been told to close.
This Ramadan, in my neck of the woods at least, there are no worshipers flocking to the neighbourhood mosque to perform the evening Ramadan prayer tarawih.
There are no late-night Quranic recitals blaring from the mosque’s loudspeaker.
There are also no teenage boys and youths going around the neighbourhood in the early hours, hitting the electricity poles and lamp posts to wake people up so they can enjoy their sahur pre-fasting meal.
MISSING THE LITTLE THINGS
The pandemic has changed how people observe the holy month in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. But COVID-19 hasn’t changed the meaning of Ramadan.
It might be less festive but I was taught that Ramadan is about sacrifice, giving up our earthly desires, sidelining our urges and controlling our emotions in exchange for blessings from God.
I was also taught that Ramadan is about empathising with the plight of others less fortunate than ourselves. And I feel quite fortunate.
Around the world there are more than three million people who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Out of this, around 200,000 have died.
Meanwhile, there are millions of health workers on the frontline in the battle against COVID-19, who don’t have the luxury of being at home with their families out of fear of infecting their loved ones.
These unsung heroes have to spend hours on end without food, drink and rest while working in their protective suits.
There are also those who have to work in other essential services, and those who have lost their livelihoods.
Giving up on my desires to go outside and setting my boredom aside is a small price to pay for the health and safety of my family as well as others.
But it doesn’t mean I don’t miss the little things in the fasting month.
I miss being able to go to my parents’ house and having an iftar meal together.
I miss going to different Ramadan bazaars in different locations across the city to shop for food and snacks, or simply watch people.
I miss “ngabuburit”, the art of killing time before iftar which many Indonesians have perfected.
My ngabuburit ritual involves heading out with my camera to do some street photography or, when weather permits, capturing the glorious sunset peeping through the city’s skyline.
IFTAR FEASTS OUT OF THE QUESTION
Around this time last year, there would have been invitations to have iftar together with friends and families.
Some Indonesians would even have iftar gatherings planned out for the whole month.
Restaurants would be full of people looking to stage communal iftar, particularly all-you-can-eat restaurants whose seats have to be booked days in advance.
Ramadan used to be a great time to catch up, rekindle old ties and forge new ones.
In a time when people are told to stay indoors and restaurants can only serve takeout, a gathering with more than five people could mean hefty fines or even a jail sentence.
Some friends suggested on a WhatsApp group that we should have an online video conference during iftar in lieu of an actual meet up.
I can only imagine how chaotic that plan would be. Even well-organised, formal meetings can be affected by technical glitches and setbacks. Imagine what it would be like when there are two dozen friends all trying to talk at the same time, in a country with patchy Internet coverage.
Not wanting to spoil the fun, I said nothing while the others agreed, some enthusiastically. But at the end of the day, we could not settle on a mutually convenient date.
IDUL FITRI TRADITIONS POSTPONED
One week into Ramadan, I cannot help but wonder how the pandemic would change how Muslims in Indonesia observe the Idul Fitri holiday, which marks the end of the fasting month.
The government has already banned the annual homecoming exodus from the cities to towns and villages.
Major roads have been closed to buses and private vehicles while inter-city trains and passenger ships are cancelled until early June.
But the government has so far appeared to be reluctant to ban domestic flights altogether, opting to make commercial flights available only to passengers on business trips.
And it is not only the Idul Firtri exodus, or what Indonesians call “mudik”, which will be affected.
READ: As Indonesia's Idul Fitri travel curbs kick in, some relieved to reach hometown while others are stranded
On the eve of Idul Fitri, Indonesians like to celebrate the end of Ramadan by singing “takbiran” prayers and pounding on the drums. They sometimes do this in a parade on foot or in a convoy of cars, trucks and motorcycles.
In the morning, massive Idul Fitri prayers would be performed at mosques, parks or town squares.
We would visit the neighbours and relatives to symbolically ask for forgiveness and rid ourselves of past grudges and mistakes. We would also give money to their children and eat ketupat rice cake and chicken curry together.
And we would often do this in our new shirts and dresses. Because let’s face it. Who wants to be caught wearing the same dress as the one you wore last year?
This pandemic is not going away any time soon and these traditions and rituals will most likely have to be cancelled or postponed.
Nasaruddin Umar, the Imam of Southeast Asia’s largest mosque Istiqlal, told a press conference on Apr 20 that we must all make sacrifices this Ramadan because of the pandemic.
These sacrifices, Mr Umar continued, include stopping ourselves from going to mosques and participating in social or religious gatherings.
“Nevermind a pandemic of this magnitude, in a time of flood or heavy rain, the Prophet (Muhammad) once asked his followers to pray at home,” the cleric said.
“Stopping harm is nobler than performing good deeds.”
And indeed, Ramadan feels very different this year, particularly for those, including myself who have been working from home these past few months because of the pandemic.
This fasting month, I still wake up before dawn to eat my sahur meal and go out at 5pm to buy snacks.
But the real difference for me is that this year, my wife, who is also working from home, will be together with me as we better appreciate the meanings of the fasting month.