Two scarfed men with curved machetes in right hand and worn wooden chopping blocks at hip-height, are rapidly slashing through a mountain of green coconuts.
It’s not just about the impressive speed and number that they are carving through, but the sheer amount required to satisfy demand. There is biriani rice here by the cubic meter and whole beasts on the spit; rows of grilling seafood and river fish; piles of Thai papaya salad sit beside the local green-mango speciality—kerabu manga. All of this food will be dutifully collected, packaged, and taken home to be eaten no sooner than 7.35pm that evening when the 97% of the Muslim population here will say, selamat buka puasa, and break the fast.
I’m in Kota Bharu—the capital city of Malaysia’s North-Eastern state, Kelantan. With sharia-law and a 97% muslim population, I’m here with the express purpose of immersing myself in the holy month of Ramadan. Born into the Western world with a liberal education, an openness towards other cultures, and an awareness of how Islam is demonised in our political and media landscapes, I know I still harbour predetermined beliefs about this religious culture. Immersing myself in Ramadan is the only way I’d reveal—and shatter, my own prejudices.
Alongside the food, the most impressive restraint can be observed here: these home-chefs not only prepare food all day, but from 3 till 7pm, Kota Bharu’s central Ramadan market is ablaze with people grilling chicken and fish over hot coals on huge home-made BBQs; turning, seasoning, glazing and slicing from whole-animal carcasses; portioning and dicing with shiny meat-cleavers. Then there are those working over the hot plates, frying roti, murtabak, and other bready items, while free-standing gas hobs keep oversized woks of aromatic, coconut-laden curries gurgling and mud-bubbling. Everyone present withstands the intense heat that lingers in the marquee-covered rows, the smoke that drifts down the lanes and chuffs out the sides, and remains indifferent to the salacious smells triggering the carnivorous corner of the brain.
I walk around these markets, seeking out regional and Ramadan specialities. I get gifted samples, comped full meals, passed extra mangos, and treated to kindliness and good conversation. My investigation into this most-important month on the Islamic calendar is easy, unhindered. People welcome my inquisitions, are open to challenging questions, and seem to appreciate an outsider’s interest in their religious life.
I learn that in this hot, bustling and smokey market, it’s the huge array of cool drinks on offer that really tests their mettle. Beverage vendors stand behind 40L containers of coconut water, iced tea, fresh lychi-infused black tea, crushed watermelon juice, hand-made soy milk, and a whole palette of strange-coloured liquids with floating glutinous sweets, which, like most of the other drinks, are ice cold and sugar-laden.
The immense presence of food and drinks and the festive atmosphere come as a powerful contrast to the image of Ramadan that I’d brought with me. I had imagined Ramadan as a time of austerity and penance. It is very much about self control and restraint, but it’s also a time for appreciation: to look upon the meal you’ve waited all day for with real thankfulness, the daily experience a stark reminder of life’s basic necessities and how for many, sustenance is an everyday struggle.
Wisps of silver tickle the black carpet of hair on the floor. The leather-trimmed barber chairs—stainless steel with white decals—wear Japanese markings. It seems entirely possible they have been bolted to this floor since Japanese occupation in WW2. The sinks opposite sit in varying stages of disrepair; off-kilter, crack-tiled and grotty. The ceiling is stained from leaks from the abode above and tawny from the nicotine below. The long and extra-baggy white barber shirts are dirty-fronted yet smart. Quiet Islamic prayer-song—Arabic A-Capella—drifts from the radio and mingles with the scratch and tickle of the razor, which is grabbing slightly on the gnarled hair of my chin. More of a slippery scratching on the second pass. The conversation between barbers is easy and non-demanding; the Kelantanese language rolling off their tongues with a deep timbre and pleasurable vibrations on the vowels. They are passing the time carefully, economic in all their movements, as it is still a couple of hours before sunset. My barber is a very big man—not fat but immense, his huge hands are deft and delicate. Leaned back, under his sure movements, my eyes dip and I drift into reminiscences.
My own attempt at fasting had been a revealing experience. Two weeks into the fast, I remember beginning to falter. My mental state was suffering. I’d be loafing around tired and alone, in the middle parts of the day, and over the fence I’d hear whole families hanging out together, laughing, chatting away the daylight hours and the time between prayers. I’d walk past large gatherings at nearby mosques where people congregate for extra prayers and teachings, unable to participate or understand.
The struggle may be an internal one—cramping the stomach, drying the mouth—but it is not supposed to be undertaken alone. I was listless and adrift, completely disconnected from the networks of support that buttress the individual in this world.
I had approached fasting as a personal challenge that I, as an individual, had to overcome—like climbing that mountain, finishing that degree or running that marathon. So there I was, alone, trying to observe the fast without any meaningful connection to Islam, the family unit, or the local religious community. I was just like every second person at home on some fad diet—a dry-July, a juice-detox, some caveman diet. I’d treated Ramadan as an arbitrary personal challenge—a test of my own limits of self-control and diligence.
In spite of my failures, some elements of Ramadan were not lost on me.
Fasting is supposed to be difficult. And to get through it you focus on the ideas that underpin Ramadan: a wholesale humbling of the individual by understanding and feeling what it’s like to be without the necessities of life. For Muslims, fasting is not about punishment or regiment; it’s about seriously considering what is valued and appreciated—things that all people take for granted. During those difficult hours of the day, under the force of the sun’s heaviest rays, you meditate on those things. And at night, when you sip tea after a full meal, the frame through which you observe a pious beggar asking for change might be a completely different one.
As the month of fasting ends, Hari Raya Aidilfitri begins. Three days of family and community bonding, as relatives, neighbours, strangers (all are welcome) pass from home to home under the open-house tradition. Gifts are exchanged, money is discretely distributed to children and those less-fortunate. But mostly, during this time, food is celebrated and shared and traditional treats like ketupat—coconut leaf-wrapped morsels of sticky rice, and rendang—slow-cooked coconut beef curry, are prepared according to revered family recipes.
As celebrations taper off, the city returns to its normal routine. Day-time commerce returns. Staple lunch and breakfast items are back on the menu. There’s Nasi Ulam, Nasi Kerabu—wonderful, complete rice meals in neat, brown-paper packages, and Nasi Dagang—‘commerce rice’—lunch wrapped in disposable banana leaves for the working man.
Following Ramadan, my days invariably begin at Kopitiam Din Tokyo, a traditional Malay-style coffee house where the stout yet smooth, Pak Din moves like a man who has truly learned to harness caffeine to its full potential. He reaches over the tiled counter and shakes my hand. I vault over the long wooden bench and rest my elbows on the counter. Pak Din is jovial and relaxed as he artfully manifests a litany of tea and coffee variations. He starts ‘pulling’ my black coffee—lifting one jug high and cascading the black liquid into a second vessel. The frothy result is poured over a full glass of ice, while his spare hand cracks two soft-boiled eggs into a shallow bowl. After passing me soy sauce, vinegar, black pepper and fried bread, my breakfast is complete.
As the morning-long rush of businessmen, taxi-drivers and retirees begins to wane, Pak Din disappears and his father and daughter take the reigns.
Out of his busy routine, Pak Din slips away to the central mosque, where he will let cool water slip between his fingers and drip off the sparse hairs on his chin as he begins his prayer ritual. He’ll enter the cool and quiet prayer room and meditate under a solemn and soft-spoken Arabic prayer, uttered low under his own breath. Combined with the prostrations—the bending of the back, the bowing and stretching as new blood flows into to the head—he’ll quietly return to his post looking refreshed and anew.
After hundreds of years of following this prayer routine, it’s become an inseparable part of the everyday rhythm of life here. People simply avail themselves from whatever they’re doing, for five minutes, or 15 to go to a nearby mosque, to take a break from the heat and hustle of everyday life.
Here in Kota Bharu, the religious culture is so thoroughly embedded in society it is inseparable from it. And it’s here that I realise how redundant it is to speak of the Muslim world without experiencing it in context. The usual modifiers we attach to Islam—strict, moderate, extreme—have no currency here. What I see, instead, is simply just life.
For the outsider, Ramadan comes with some inconveniences and to many, it’s reason enough to avoid this part of the world. But for the inquisitive, it’s an amazing time to learn about Islam because every element of the Muslim way of life is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, central to their behaviour and actions. Fasting may have broken me down, but at the same time my image of Islam was completely reconfigured.
Thinking of the Muslim culture as a strict, regimented life leaves little space for genuine understanding; it stops us from seeing any value or virtue. In Kota Bharu, I learned that Ramadan is a truly humbling reminder of the struggles of the poor, malnourished, unfortunate and the forgotten.
Our eyes are trained to see punishment, when really we should be seeing love.