Making Do During Ramadan

Business Week

April 07, 1991

Letter From Indonesia


“Mother . . . wake up. Mother, start cooking.” It was 3 a.m. The command came from a loudspeaker atop the mosque across the street. I groaned. The cook trudged into the courtyard kitchen outside my screen window and began banging pots around. I tried to tune it out. Then the prayers began: chants of different intensities from five or six mosques around the neighborhood, each taking turn.

So goes Ramadan, the Moslem fasting month that commemorates the revealing of the Koran to Mohammed. Chances are anyone in Jakarta on business during these weeks will stay in a hotel sufficiently shielded from a mosque to sleep through the clang and clatter of the predawn feeding. But you’d have to be in a bank vault not to notice the breaking of the 14-hour fast around 6 p.m. A countdown plays on radio and TV. Families sit at the dinner table, staring at the dishes, waiting. Finally, mosques issue the signal. In offices, food appears from desk drawers. In cinemas, words flash on the screen, superimposed over the movie. This unleashes a crackling of cellophane and the whoosh of opening soda cans.

A sense of relief settles over Jakarta. I share in it, even though I ate lunch and breakfast. At least until morning, I can forget about this unfamiliar mine field of faux pas.

The holy month imposes a rigorous regimen on the portion of the populace who observe it. No food, liquids, smoking, or sex from sunup to sundown. No gossiping or losing one’s temper. In this equatorial climate, they say the lack of water is the worst hardship. Because of the lunar calendar, the month comes several days earlier each year. This time, it arrived on Mar. 17. It is expected to end on Apr. 14-15, with a full night of drum-banging and fireworks.

It’s a time for examining one’s life, making resolutions, and asking forgiveness. Many say fasting puts them in the proper frame of mind. Business keeps rolling–in a fashion. Even normally in Jakarta, if bad phones and traffic don’t throw off your schedule, something else probably will. So it’s a daunting prospect to face a full month of an overburdened infrastructure amid millions of people running on empty stomachs.

The Indonesian archipelago is home to the world’s largest Moslem population. Yet Indonesia is not a Moslem state. Some 23.4 million non-Moslems–largely Christians, Buddhists, or Hindus–are free to practice their faith. People on the street exhibit an uncommon tolerance of other faiths and ethnic backgrounds, the result of a carefully perpetuated state ideology designed to give the population of 180 million a national identity.

AT EASE. In this setting, Indonesians tend to practice Islam in moderation, often also calling on their own ethnic groups’ mystical or animist traditions. One of the rules seems to be “thou shalt put others at ease.” An oil executive once interrupted an interview to ask what I would like to drink. I considered: He might be Moslem, and it was 2 p.m., the toughest time of the day. “Ah, no, no, nothing. I don’t want anything.” He smiled. “Just because I’m fasting doesn’t mean I can’t serve my guests.”

Graciousness aside, eating during daylight presents something of a dilemma for nonfollowers. Those of us who normally eat at our desks to save time feel compelled to eat out, away from fasting co-workers. A Jakarta currency trader said he lost weight last year because he was usually too busy to duck out of the dealing room for lunch: “You can’t really ship in a plate of fried rice and chow it down when the guy next to you hasn’t eaten lunch for two weeks.”

While restaurants become a refuge for those who must eat, the Istiqlal National Mosque becomes a refuge for workers who must sleep. After all, waking at 3:30 a.m. and going without food or drink once the tropical sun rises is a sure invitation to noontime listlessness. One weekday, at 1 p.m., the mosque’s floor was covered with men sleeping in one enormous sprawl. An overflow crowd found napping spots outside, along canopied walkways. In posh Pondok Indah, afternoon motorists rounding a traffic circle could spot a dozen gardeners asleep under nearby shade trees, oblivious to the noise and exhaust from passing cars.

Officially, government offices close only an hour early. In practice, however, some departments are less disciplined. Government leaders have been waging a public campaign against this absenteeism, which has worsened in recent years.

But many who do business in Jakarta […], tape-cassette shop on the main street.Demir isn’t faring so well himself: “My brothers ran a foreign-exchange shop on the Nusaybin highway, and I made enough money here. Now we are all working in this small shop. It is not enough.” Keeping his three children fed is a struggle, Demir says.

“My mouth is tied shut, I can’t use my language,” he laments. “Is there somewhere else in the world like this where you can not speak your native tongue?”

ARMED ESCORT. Inside the Kadooglu Hotel, the only building higher than two stories in Cizre, plainclothes police watch reporters. So I talk to Botan Ozalp, a wealthy businessman, in his house. He takes a gun from his wife before he escorts me home after dinner. The streets are deserted except for the odd army vehicle. As he drives, Ozalp talks about the power that PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) separatists wield in his town. “This is their fortress,” he says. “If they came to me asking for help, they would kill me if I didn’t give them money. They are living in the mountains, suffering for us, for Kurdistan.”

And the people are suffering for them. There is widespread harassment and torture of Kurds by the authorities. Bounties are offered for dead PKK, real or suspected. Meanwhile, the PKK picks off collaborators, real or suspected.

As Mar. 21, an important Kurdish religious holiday, approaches, the police are everywhere, questioning everybody. A year ago, four people were killed and many wounded in clashes in Cizre. Recently in Sirnak, two villagers and 200 donkeys were killed by gendarmes cracking down on coal being spirited away from a government mine. In Mus, six gendarmes were killed the same day.

Even if the border opens and the trucks come again, “unemployment will still be high,” says Ozalp. “The young will be without jobs, without food, and so they will be tempted to join the PKK.”

Later, driving me to his country house near the Iraqi border, Ozalp is stopped at a roadblock and brought in for questioning. Before the gendarmes, his head is bowed. It is embarrassing for me to watch him play the part of a humble, deferential chauffeur.

Kurds from all walks of life are circumspect. Shopkeeper Demir will say nothing to me as we walk together in the street. Only in his tape store does the anger come out:

“We think of Kurdistan like Kuwait. Our people will not stop wanting a free Kurdistan.” But Kuwait, of course, had big friends.

Juliette Rossant

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