My first Idul Fitri
Indonesian TV stations these days have been peppering their news broadcasts with “suka-duka Idul Fitri”, a round-up of the positives (suka) and negatives (duka) over the long weekend. It has been a privilege to spend Idul Fitri, or Eid, with Bama’s family, and experience the celebrations firsthand. For me, the similarities between our home cultures have been brought into sharp focus – I now realise that this festival is a lot like Chinese New Year.
Idul Fitri marks the end of the Ramadan fast, and it boasts special dishes rarely served at other times of year. You sample ketupat, a dense rice cake cooked in palm leaf, and home-cooked opor ayam, a rich, aromatic chicken stew spiced with turmeric, cumin, galangal, coconut milk and a wealth of other ingredients. After tasting your host mother’s opor, you wonder if you can ever have it anywhere else.
This is a time when the front door is left open – even in cities like Jakarta – as an invitation for neighbours, friends and loved ones to enter the home. There are visits with extended family, meeting cousins, aunts and uncles you might otherwise never see. In each household, all kinds of snacks are stacked on coffee tables, from cheese-flavoured breadsticks to bitesize nastar stuffed with pineapple jam, to dainty ‘snow princesses’ coated in a layer of powdered sugar. The hosts bring out cold drinks or cups of hot tea, and relatives greet each other with the phrase “mohon maaf lahir dan batin”, asking for forgiveness from physical and mental (or spiritual) misdeeds.
Children receive gift money, while twenty- and thirty-somethings who are legally single will have to face the same tired question that seems to be present at every large-scale Asian family gathering:
“When are you getting married? WHEN?”
There is also room for plenty of embarrassing moments, especially if you, like me, find yourself playing the role of the goofy foreigner. On the first day of Eid, your host mother may joke with the neighbours about your incorrect use of Indonesian vocabulary, while informing them of your upset stomach after eating four bird’s eye chillies in one spoonful (which you did to clear the plate out of politeness). But you let it slide because the neighbours are warm and you know it is a good sign that your host mother is willing to embarrass you.
On the second day of Eid, you may accidentally tread on a plate of watermelons at an enormous family gathering because you were too busy asking for forgiveness (and you had no idea you would be going lesehan – eating cross-legged on the floor). You might even address your host father’s cousin with the wrong title, reserved for someone of a similar age and/or the same generation.
That night you may unknowingly commit yet another faux pas for not helping your host mother close the front gate before heading out to dinner, and your friend might remind you to be more pro-active. “If it were [Indonesian friend A] or [Indonesian friend B], they would help and wait until she enters the car.” At hearing this, you wish to throw your hands up in the air and cry, “but I am not Indonesian! I do not know these things!”
Such is Idul Fitri for the uninitiated. It warms both the heart and stomach, and just like Chinese New Year, it can be funny, awkward and overwhelming – all at the same time. ◊