Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ramadan reflection #3: The shortest terawih.

Last week the Dutchman and I were really happy to be invited to break our fast with our friends in Leiden (It gets so lonely in the W-straat you know?) Their parents are Moroccan and along with their other sisters, were still in Morocco for vacation (and Ramadan), because face it, the Ramadan atmosphere here can't begin to compare with Morocco (or even Singapore, sob).

Although the hegemony of a supermarket Albert Heijn is surprisingly tactful of the existence of this holy month. Or maybe it's just because 90% of their evening shifts are covered by youth of Moroccan descent. :)

It was my first iftar Moroccan-style, with dates (of course!) harira soup, popiah/loempia, and hard-boiled eggs. I didn't know it was typical until the Dutchman showed me the Ramadan-journaal on Dutch TV -- they were eating the same things. Haha!

At about 11.30pm we set off to the nearby Al-Hijra mosque, squirreled away in a small road and just like the first European mosque I ever saw in France, it looked just like an apartment from the outside. I still fondly remember that mosque in Bordeaux (and the nice director who let me sit in his chair!), being only 16 and (already) searching for mosques in Bordeaux and in Paris. Which turned out to be educational for my host family as well.

Sitting in the women's section on the ground floor (rumour has it that the men's section is beside and above, but since I never saw it I can't definitively tell you so, haha) at the back, we had what I thought was a couple of minutes before terawih would start. I looked around at the women: one was reading the Quran, some of the older ones were sitting on chairs, and some were giving out murtabak-like pancakes and plastic cups of water.

At that moment, I missed going to the mosque for terawih prayers. Back in Singapore, a few years ago I would faithfully cycle to Al-Istighfar mosque on most nights of Ramadan to endure an hour and a half of sweaty and crowded prayer, makciks telling me to sit closer, cover my feet, pin my headscarf, etc.

But I loved being in a space that I was familiar with, sometimes meeting people I knew (or vaguely knew -- friends of parents or some distant relatives) or sometimes seeing kids dashing across the carpeted floor and falling helter-skelter, unhurt. Even though you had to get there early to get a good spot in the carpeted area within a good distance of a fan (a must in non-airconditioned mosques) or else you'd have to kneel and prostrate on plastic woven tikar (mats) on the hard tiled corridor. Ouch!

I didn't understand most of what was being said in Arabic and Moroccan dialect by a man over the PA system. I turned over to my friend and asked her.

"He's asking for money to build the new mosque. Last night he talked for one and a half hours, I really hope it's not going to be the same tonight," she answered warily.

It was already midnight and it was surreal to be in a mosque! I once stayed overnight for qiyam ul-lail (night prayer) with fellow volunteers in a mosque in Singapore and that felt more like a sleepover than a spiritual experience. It was the same this time around: the novelty of being in a mosque so late at night completely overcame the absurdity of this man talking for one and a half hours, asking for funds.

Finally at 1.00am, after a round of coffee and some gentle coaxing from the imam, this man got off the microphone and the imam started the prayer. He led only 4 raka'at (units of prayer) because it was already late and we left the mosque at 1.30am, passing people on the streets on their way back from Saturday night partying.

For the longest time I ever spent in a mosque, that was the shortest terawih ever!
P/S: If you'd like to donate to the construction of a new Al-Hijra Mosque in Leiden, the Netherlands, visit their website!
Dutch donors, you can transfer directly to ABN-AMRO t.n.v.: Stichting Moslimgroep te Leiden.
Overseas donors, IBAN: NL70ABNA0421650249BIC: ABNANL2A or contact me by leaving a comment below if you wish to transfer to a Singaporean bank account.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Ramadan reflection #2: Physical considerations.

Another of my Ramadan resolutions was to eat better and exercise a bit more beyond riding my bicycle around -- a resolution that is really aimed at post-Ramadan. I agree with the notion that our bodies are entrusted to us, and we have to keep it working as well as possible, and for as long as possible.

Too often this is overlooked, as we traditionally gorge ourselves after sunset. It's not uncommon for people to gain weight during Ramadan, from the combination of a slower metabolism and the making up for missed calories at the end of the day.

In Singapore, the knowledge of maintaining a healthy body is considered 'secular' knowledge, and nothing to do with our relationship with God. Along with environmental-awareness, this is not considered an important topic to teach our children and youth in religious classes. Religious teachers are also not great role models (at least not visually, if you know what I mean).

So keeping in mind a previous analysis about the ethics of halal, my first step towards this resolution was eating less meat.

Besides, we only have about only 5 hours in a day to eat, so what would help with our digestion and getting up for sahur (pre-dawn meal) with enough appetite?

I wish it were this...my mum's
amazing cooking.
But no.
This is what we ate for dinner this week (sahur was muesli with yoghurt and flaxseed everyday. Except one day when we both forgot to set our alarms -- the tragedy!):

Redred (near the fork)
Sweet potato
Day 1Brown rice, curried lentils, boiled beets, white fish with onions and chili

Day 2Brown rice, stir-fry broccoli, redred (black-eyed peas with anchovies and tomatoes. Thanks Ellen!), peach and plum

Day 3Wholegrain pasta with tomatoes, basil and chili; leftover redred; red spinach (Amaranthus blitum) soup with sweet potato; rhubarb cake

Day 4Brown rice, leftovers: redredspinach soup, lentils, broccoli; pineapple hangop (the one reason to love this country)

Nasi lemak
Sambal with aubergine
Fried rice

Day 5Nasi lemak: coconut rice, egg, cucumbers, sambal ikan bilis with aubergine; kangkong (Ipomoea aquatica -- yeah I'm a sucker for Latin names!)

Day 6Fried rice, chye sim (a spinach/mustard green) soup; orange

Day 7Andijvie stamppot: potatoes, tomatoes, escarole, hard-boiled eggs mashed together and mixed with soy-protein "sausage"; yellow and orange capsicum stew; cherries, grapes

As it turns out, we inadvertently became vegetarian! (The lacto-ovo-pisco kind at least.) Not eating meat speeds up digestion and makes for lighter sleeping -- really important because it seems we are always sleeping soon after eating (think 10.30pm and 3.30am) so that we won't be too tired or feel nauseated (my main challenge) during the next working day.

We've also tried to keep our physical activity as normal as possible. The Dutchman played squash and went for a run (business as usual, this man!), and we took extra walks in these long summer evenings to feed the birds.

We also tried to eat food grown in Holland or as close to it as possible (I know, I know, those Asian vegetables failed the test). Having made these vegetarian efforts for the first week, we took a break this weekend and ate some good meat as guests at the iftars of the generous Indonesian restaurant Salero Minang, and our lovely friends in Leiden today.

Ayam pop and rendang. Yum!
The good news is the weather is warm with cool winds, which shouldn't make running too difficult. On to the next resolution: running right before iftar in this second week, since now I'm adjusting quite well to the length of the fast. I know that if I can do some light exercise in Ramadan, it'll be harder to convince myself to not to so after Ramadan!

P/S: It might seem like an excuse to post pictures of food, but I promise I had good intentions with this post! :)

Friday, July 20, 2012

A blessed (and safe) Ramadan to all.

Ramadan starts today! Or rather, this morning when I woke up reluctantly at 3am to eat a bowl of chocolate-orange muesli (sorry, the obsession with food gets worse when I fast) with the Dutchman. That being done in 15 minutes, after fajr prayer we promptly went back to sleep.

Source: Taste.com
I get chills just looking at this.

Not before I looked out the window, and saw some three cyclists passing by.

This year will be my first time fasting in a non-tropical environment and since it's summer, daylight lasts 18.5 hours and will reduce slightly by the end of the month. Needless, I'm slightly apprehensive.

The long fast is the least of my worries though. I should be more worried about the supposed increase in the levels of crime in the coming four weeks.

Say what?

From a news report ('Dutch Police Reinforced for Ramadan Crime Wave') published on 13 July and promptly pulled from Dutch news sites for, I don't know, constructing Muslims as nocturnal beasts (now only available in French):
The police in Utrecht and the Hague in the Netherlands are going to reinforce their presence in the streets Ramadan. The objective is to avoid criminality progressing at the heart of the Muslim community during the Muslim fast.

...In the Hague, the police will have a greater presence in the evening and night, because that is when the Muslims can eat and are thus "more active". The deputy mayor of the Dutch city explaints that "for Ramadan provisions have to be taken to guarantee calm and security," as during other great events.

Fun fact: The phrase "Ramadan-crime" was actually coined by the king of discourse, Geert Wilders!

Seems like I'll have to keep a close watch (and my fingers on 112) on those nocturnal cyclists when I wake up for sahur tomorrow.

PS: Okay okay, so my Ramadan Resolution #1 was to be less sarcastic. This is not helping. Onward!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Ramadan in Singapore.

This article was originally published in Dutch in "Ramadan" Al-Nisa, Islamitisch maandblad voor vrouwen (Islamic monthly for women), 31st year, No. 7/8, Jul/Aug 2012.

(And recently cross-posted over at the amazing women over at Muslimah Media Watch!)


I am a Malay Singaporean who has been living in the Netherlands for almost two years now. There are about 1 million Muslims in Singapore and they make up about 15% of the total population. Muslims in Singapore are mostly from the Malay ethnic group (who have similar culture and language to the Malays of Malaysia and Indonesia); however there are also Indian and Chinese Muslims that make up a tiny percentage of Singaporean Muslims.

The Malays have a rich and varied heritage that moulds the Islam found in Southeast Asia. As long as these cultural traditions do not run counter to God in the Qur’an, they are seen as expressions of different 'peoples and tribes' (Qur’an, 49:13). I like the idea that I can find so much in common with Muslims from other countries, and at the same time, inform others about differences in our practices.

As Ramadan moves towards the middle of the Gregorian calendar year, the length of a day’s fast gets longer – at least in temperate countries, while in Singapore, daylight remains consistent around 13 hours a day. A typical Ramadhan day in starts around 4.30am, when my mother and our domestic helper prepared a meal for sahur (usually pre-cooked the night before). We usually ate a simple three-part meal: rice, fish or chicken, and stir-fried vegetables. In the first week, my whole family would get up on time to eat together, but there would always be a day or two towards the end when we all forgot to get up before the adhan for fajr resounded on the radio.

My father likes to prepare dates filled with almonds and rolled in sesame seeds during Ramadhan, and he liked even more to insist that we ate these everyday. He would also remind us to loudly and clearly state our niat to fast, with a phrase in Arabic that we were taught to recite as children: nawaitu sauma ghadin ‘an ada-i fardh as-shahri ramadhana hadhihi sanati lillahi ta’ala (I intend to do the obligatory fast tomorrow in the month of Ramadhan this year, for the sake of God). But I did not know what these Arabic words meant until I was much older!

As we got busier with our own schedules, iftar is one occasion that my family will eat together at least twice a week (and twice a day too). We usually break the fast with dates, imported from Iran or Tunisia, and an assortment of sweet drinks, with a local favourite being air katira: coloured syrup and basil seeds stirred into milk.
Source: airbalang.blogspot

When Ramadan starts, night markets or pasar malam (smaller and more chaotic than the Dutch versions) sprout in the ‘heartlands’ or residential areas, with the biggest one in Geylang -- a historical Malay area of Singapore. Known as Ramadan Bazaars, these stalls sell anything from toys to household decorations for the coming Eid, but they mostly sell food. A lot of it.

Alternatively, one could break one’s fast at a mosque. Here the culinary options are more nutritious and the environment more calm. There are about 70 mosques in Singapore; that’s one in almost every residential quarter, or a mosque for every 12,600 Muslims! A simple, free iftar is provided in every mosque well before maghrib is due. Volunteers start cooking a traditional rice porridge in the early afternoon, which is packed and given out in small plastic bags by the time asar arrives. There is no dearth of volunteers to do all this as everyone is eager to reap the multiple blessings of doing good works during Ramadhan.

Small bowls filled with dates and porridge are placed on a dulang (large communal eating tray), and arranged in the mosque. There are usually two sets of trays: one in the men’s section and one in the women’s section (sometimes there is also a ‘family’ section). Having iftar at a mosque makes it convenient to stay for tarawih prayers after ‘isya. As this is only about an hour after sunset, being there early ensures that you will be able to pray on the carpet (and not on the cold tiles), since the mosque fills up quickly in Ramadhan.

Some Muslims have a preferred mosque, but some also like to ‘jump’ mosques and experience the different atmospheres and tarawih prayers in different mosques. The only thing that stays the same is that mosques experience their fullest capacity during the last ten days of Ramadhan.

Morning Eid prayer.
Source: Author's own.

On the morning of Eid, mostly men attend the Eid prayer and sermon, because women stay behind to cook breakfast, even though the Prophet encouraged both women and men to attend the Eid prayer. And for breakfast, Malays use the main ingredients of coconut and rice to make all kinds of yummy dishes. The ketupat and pulut classics: coconut leaves are woven into a small pillow- or onion-shaped bags, filled with rice, and boiled to create thick rice cakes. And with that comes an entire plethora of meat and seafood dishes cooked with coconut milk, desiccated coconut, chilli, vegetables, spices, etc.

Sayur lodeh (vegetables in coconut milk) and chicken
Source: Author's own.

Forgiveness is the main theme of this day, with the traditional greeting being Selamat Hari Raya, Maaf Zahir dan Batin (lit. Happy Day of Celebration, Sincere Apologies), and this is customarily done by family members in the mornings, and when visiting the houses of our relatives, beginning with the eldest. Once there, the hosts urge us to eat whatever that they have cooked themselves.

This visiting goes on during the following three weekends (until Syawal is over) because 1) Malays have large families, and 2) if Ramadan is a month of fasting, ergo Syawal is a month of celebrating. Small amounts of money (anywhere from €2 to €20) is also given in small colourful envelopes to children and the unemployed, single or the elderly.

Because Arabic words have multiple meanings -- the phrase Eid ul-Fitr can be translated in several ways. One is 'Return to the Original State', which refers to the pure(r) spiritual state one is in after fasting during Ramadhan. It is perhaps this idea of change or renewal that prompts Malays to buy brand new furniture and clothes for Eid. One tradition is to dress up the entire family in the same colour. (Which is certainly a practical tool of identification during big family gatherings!)

Find the ones who belong together.
Source: Author's own.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Why can't I do backflips too?

In Jogjakarta our wonderful host (Nadya!) had gotten us tickets to the Ramayana ballet, which only plays once a month during the full moon in the Hindu palace complex of Prambanan. (You can read a synopsis of the ballet here.)

There are many animal, superhuman, and human characters in this ballet. I really enjoyed the overall atmosphere of the ballet and the technical skill of the dancers, but I couldn't help noticing that male dancers could play so many characters in comparison to female dancers: kings good (Prabu Janaka) and bad (Rahwana), princes (Rama and Laksamana), an acrobatic monkey (Hanuman), a birddemigod (Jatayu) , and smaller monkeys and giants (Kumbakarna).

The Giant Kumbakarna

Demigod in the form of a bird, Jatayu

Hanuman helping Rama and Laksamana
A close-up of Hanuman because he's so awesome
Rahwana disguised as a beggar to trick Shinta
Monkey soldiers danced by young boys

The leading female character Shinta is a beautiful woman considered to be the reincarnation of a goddess, while other characters played by women or girls are: an entire bevy of court ladies, a flirtatious, delicate, and graceful deer (actually a man named Marica in disguise), and another goddess that helps Shinta.

Court ladies, some danced by girls
Shinta led away by Rama

Rama distracted by the deer

Many types of classical dance prescribe specific steps for women and for men. For example, male characters often stand astride, taking up more space, and lift up their legs to indicate presence and strength:

while female characters such as Shinta and the court ladies had a piece of cloth trailing in between their legs; flicking it to the left or right before placing one foot behind the other.

Having a sarong, or skirt wrapped rather tightly around the legs, further illustrates how female characters had no need to make strides bigger than half a metre. The only exception to this was the kijang kencana or the deer who leapt about actively, who was a man in disguise anyway! Other than the leaping, the deer still articulated seductive head, eye and hand movements.

And as a final point on how limited and limiting the characters available to female dancers were: after Hanuman rescued Shinta from the evil king Rahwana, Rama did not trust that she had not been disgraced in some way (read: lost her virginity). Shinta was asked to burn herself to prove her purity -- which she of course survived and become even more beautiful afterwards.

I however recommend you dump anyone who asks this of you

As a dancer who has trained in both classical and contemporary styles, I imagine that I would be so frustrated if only two female characters and only certain movements were available to me. It is not that the male characters had movements that were impossible for women (gymnasts can do Hanuman's backflips too!), but it is the social construction of gender that created these dance roles for women and men.

I still remember fondly my secondary school Malay dance instructor Abang Ram, who choreographed more contemporary than classical dances for us. I went to an all girls' school, so there were some dances where we could play a man's role and therefore be allowed to somersault or stand with our feet wide apart, carry spears or lift another dancer.

I also never realised how gender-neutral he made some of his pieces: there was one dance where we danced in heterosexual pairs with gender-specific movements in the first half (small and graceful for the girls, large and protective for the boys), before breaking out into expansive, active and strong movements for everyone! Both girls and boys also dressed similarly in a top and trousers with a belt and short kain samping (possibly different colours by gender, or size).

So I'm lucky and glad that I had such opportunities to explore all kinds of movements big and small through dance because it is socially acceptable to embrace what is masculine, although I realise that not all male dancers could have the chance to explore small and graceful movements typically regarded as feminine, without experiencing some kind of disdain or having his masculinity questioned for having embraced the feminine.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Is my fast valid?

So in a Malay-language information booklet issued by my neighbourhood mosque for the coming month of Ramadan, I found a series of FAQs on fasting and what nullifies it:

Believers are assured that the fasts of those who use eye-drops and receive injections are not nullified! As for those who suffer from asthma, using their inhalers will also not nullify their fast, according to a fatwa in Singapore, but not necessarily everywhere else.

But this last question just floored me.

Q: What about the fast of someone who sleeps the entire day from dawn to sunset (the length of the fast)?"
A: The fast is valid because sleep is not considered to be a loss of sanity.

Unless you work the night shift, I have serious doubts about the sanity of fasting by sleeping!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Sorry for the long break in blogging -- I went for a few weeks to Indonesia with the Dutchman (quite a suitable companion considering the location, haha).

I do have loads of topics to blog about though, so you can look forward to some interesting posts, inshallah!


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