Pray for the nonbeliever

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Clem Snide – Pray

Major holidays invariably become about the vice directly opposing the moral that the holiday is supposed to champion. Christmas, once a celebration of humanity and the squalor of feces-scented births, represents consumerism and corporate interests. New Year’s Day, ostensibly about fresh beginnings, starts in the same tired hangover haze as any given Monday.

So of course all of Ramadan’s self-discipline virtues have quickly made way for my favorite vice of all: gluttony. Except for the pious, fasting month is all about the food.

In the small restaurant across the road from my parents’ school in Indonesia, tarps hang low out front, swaying softly in the wind. Duck under them and you’ll meet a swarm of atheists and Christians and Hindus, picking over what’s left of the chicken and eggplant and rendang. Business easily triples during Ramadan.

In the alley down the way from my condo stalls have set up permanent shop along both sides of the road, encroaching out onto the street. Traffic is bottlenecked, the curses of taxi drivers audible. Zigzag between the humming, waiting cars and you’ll see martabak and brightly colored juices in plump plastic bags and sweaty men fanning the smoke off of the sate they are grilling and fresh mangoes and several shades of orange or red chicken. Families point out what they want, hand over blue bills, and then scuttle home to devour the delicacies once the mosque signals buka puasa (literally, the opening of the fast).

I have three memories of Ramadan from my childhood.

1. We’re at our favorite sate place, a tiny stall that rolls into place on the attached wheels every evening. The six members of my family take up 80% of the available seating. The cook’s two daughters help out, serving drinks and washing dishes; they are probably younger than me, maybe in middle school. As the mosque blares to indicate buka puasa, they each double-fist huge glasses of tea, downing one cup in a gulp and barely bothering to breathe before inhaling the second. I laugh and then I think about how dusty and raspy the back of my throat gets when I’m thirsty and I self-consciously sip my own glass of tea.

2. We’re driving through the night, on the move, bouncing over the potholes and crumbling bridges and veering around cows and goats. Our jeep breaks down in the middle of no where and Pops can’t fix it. We tie it to a passing Kijang (think a boxy cross between a van and an SUV) using rope and a length of bamboo, and he kindly drives us to the next village. As we wait for the mechanic to fix our ride, his family invites us into their home. It’s 4am, maybe 5. They have a lavish feast spread out on the floor in the living room; we sit on the floor and pile opaque glass plates high, using our hands to shovel the food into our mouths. Out the open front door, I can see the gray mist of dawn approaching, and I feel a peace. “So this is how they do it,” I realize, imagining millions of homes rising wordlessly before the sun to feast in the still, silent air.

3. It’s Idul Fitri. Because of a delightful split within Islam, it’s the first of two days. Most of our town, Muara Teweh, celebrates it on the second day, but the best cooks all seem to be among the camp that celebrates early. The custom is that all the Christians eat at Muslims’ houses on Idul Fitri, and all the Muslims get to visit the homes of Christians on Christmas. Mom’s aerobics teacher has the best snacks. Pop’s badminton buddy gives us non-alcoholic beer, which we drink with curiosity. We visit anyone we’ve ever talked to on the street, eating half a dozen tiny meals throughout the day. I remember the tiny green logs with cinnamon on the inside and how the steam puffs out of them when you puncture one with your teeth. I don’t think they have a name for those in English. [Hungry Bird.]

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