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Conversations During Ramadan

18 Jun 2015
By Palmos
A sleeping policeman in Jakarta during Ramadan. Photo Credit: Flickr (Carol Mitchell) Creative Commons.

As Ramadan begins for another year, Dr. Francis Palmos reflects on his one and only Ramadan experience in 1962 in Indonesia.

Two curious invitations arrived for me on my 22nd birthday of 20 January 1962, at my Jakarta asrama, asking me to join two families in Ramadan, from 6 February through to Idul Fitri on 10 March. I was in my second year of total immersion into Indonesian language and customs, essential to my intended work as a foreign correspondent in Indonesia.

The first invitation, from Surabaya, would have entailed selling two new Arrow shirts, the inflation hedges I had brought with me to finance travel. I chose the second family, in Bandung, a travel cost of just one Arrow.

I sent a telegram telling the Bandung family I was coming. Next week I took a “Soober Ban” (Suburban) bus, actually a Chevrolet truck from the Korean War turned into a 9-seat passenger vehicle to Bandung, over a pot-holed, narrow road, stopping for a nervous hour past Puncak Pass, lined up at the narrow bridge where the Islamic fanatics of the Kartosuwiryo rebel brigade in the Prianger hills often took pot shots to keep the bridge guards on their toes.

I slept just the one night in Bandung, in my usual spot between two brothers on a wide wooden platform. After breakfast, my telegram arrived to say I was coming. It had taken a week. The family had shown no surprise, thanking me for the telegram, as though it was common for visitors to arrive before the telegram that said they were coming.

The family consisted of Ibu, the mother, Ayah Rudi the father, a garage mechanic who fixed automobiles but could not afford to own one, two sons, my closest friend Donni, also aged 22, his 17 year old younger brother Joni, and their sister Emi, aged 10. Minah, a handsome, female house helper aged about 30, lived rent free with the family in return for maid help. She lived a pointless life, other than actively seeking a husband, and on a previous visit offered to marry me, but was not unduly miffed when I said I was too young.

We travelled on the now familiar wooden seats, detouring to the famous Garut orange orchards where we loaded up with a hundred oranges and a dozen pond fish, before continuing to the pretty town of Tasik Malaya, two hours away by a dreadful, unkempt road.

Our Ramadan hosts were related directly to Ibu; their boys knew our boys, the two fathers were old friends and they were overjoyed to have me, their first foreign guest. No one in the neighbourhood Rukun Tetangga group had ever spoken to a foreigner.

The two fathers were very formal about fasting procedures. They took no notice of a chap driving a black pick-up truck circling the town the night before, with the driver announcing on a crackling loudspeaker, that Ramadan fasting would begin at so and so time, demanding people set their clocks or watches.

We were called out before sunrise, Rudi and the head of the Tasik family took us all out onto a first floor east-facing balcony where one held up a black cotton thread and the other man a white cotton thread for everyone to see. “When we can tell which is white and which is black, fasting begins!” they said.

The days were hot, the town traffic slowed to just an occasional vehicle. Inside the house, the mothers and daughters gathered in the kitchen, murmuring quietly, preparing the fast-breaking meals for around 8 pm. The men lazed about and read. There were a few religious ceremonies at the local mosques, which they occasionally attended. But as the days wore on, the heat and humidity set in. There was a Koran in the main room, but the Malay was too old fashioned for us.

The black-white cotton formalities continued each evening in the west-facing backyard. We looked forward to this ceremony, because the moment both cottons appeared black was the moment we could begin the evening meal. But before long the quality food had run out and we were scraping along on kurma dates. I had to eat a date or two, but in the 53 years from that March 1962, I have never eaten another date.

When hungry, one quickly feels faint, and the senses are heightened. The heat and humidity drained our energies and I was happy to move around in a comfortable sarong. There were three handsome young Indonesian boys and four attractive Indonesian daughters, so they flirted, and secretly cuddled, but even they in the heat of the day, just slept or lazed around. Fasting was intended as a form of self-discipline, and a time to think of the misfortune of others, but not much of that took place.

Late in the fast the sewing baskets and scissors came out, a welcome change of activity. School uniform cloth was so expensive in these years that boys’ uniforms all looked too tight, and the girls’ skirts were higher than any mini-skirts soon to appear in the west. None of the girls wore headscarves; they were for older women.

The Bandung brothers enticed me into chess games, but they soon tired of winning. There was no reading material, and in the shops I found only Hamka books, which I had read. During the several thunderstorms and heavy rains even the flirting teenagers were quiet. We were listless and exhausted, despite the evening meals, and we spent day after day of life without obvious meaning, the household of fourteen falling into a somnambulant mood, meandering, murmuring politely.

Midway through the fast, two cars collided with a thunderous crash, at our intersection. The street seemed to empty out to see the damage. One of the drivers, badly hurt, was lying on the pavement, smoking! Rudi, who was craving to smoke, looked on enviously. The accident was an entertainment break. A couple of policemen arrived, spoke to the drivers then ordered the crowd to push both cars to the side to clear the road, and walked away! This minor accident became the welcome focal point for hours of discussion. I learned the word for collision, tabrakan, and joined the gossip: Was the driver’s injury sufficient excuse for him to smoke during Ramadan? Had he just come from a secret Chinese restaurant?

I emerged from the experience with a lot more insider knowledge of family life, but unconvinced that this archaic tradition has any meaning in a modern world. The young ones felt the same and admitted it to me, but they obeyed their parents, and went along with the charade that they were using the time for self-improvement, thoughts of charity and enriching their spiritual life.

The merriment of the March 10 Idul Fitri celebrations included scores of visits to neighbours and feasting. The ladies led the way with the boys carrying gifts, house to house. My basket took about ten house-visits to empty. My Idul Fitri pleasure was genuine, and my manners proper, but by late afternoon, I started to falter, and with Donni and Joni, the rhyming brothers, I returned home and slept until morning. No black or white cotton threads tests at dawn. Ramadan was over.

In later years I looked over the diary of those fasting days and was embarrassed to find it read as one dull day after another. One line read: yet another korma date, the last ever in my life. Back in the asrama I shamelessly milked the fasting experience in stories to the other four foreign students. They were openly envious and said they now regretted not trying it. Donni, a natural embellisher, visited often, so these “fasting highlights” continued with the few good moments becoming rosier as the weeks passed. (Donni never fasted again.)

The Fellowship directors gave me a surprise Idul Fitri present, a bicycle, purporting to be a British Raleigh, stamped Raleigh: Made in English. I tried a Ramadan story or two on them, but they showed only polite interest: “We wish we could have had time to fast, but we were too busy.”

Historian Dr Francis (Frank) Palmos opened the first newspaper bureau in the new Republic of Indonesia in December 1964 for the Australian newspaper group of ten dailies headed by the Herald-Sun in Melbourne. He stayed on through the “years of living dangerously” and was on many occasions the honorary interpreter to Indonesia’s first president, Soekarno, and other leading political party figures, including the PKI. © Francis Palmos, Scarborough June 2015