Since 2000, my neighbourhood mosque has been Masjid Wilayah Persekutuan. Between then and now however, I’ve only observed five Ramadans (and Hari Rayas) in Malaysia. Given my mum’s work as a diplomat and then my tertiary studies, I’ve more often than not been overseas.
During fasting month, Muslims abstain from food and water during daylight hours but more importantly, they are encouraged to intensify their prayers. One such way is to perform the terawih prayers that are held every night in congregation after the breaking of fast. In 2000, my family started to dedicate time to the mosque. Ever since then, the meaning of Ramadan has changed for me.
Perhaps it helped that Masjid Wilayah was a brand new mosque right at our doorstep. I know it definitely helped that it was air-conditioned. It’s a rare luxury with added functionality: it gets quite hot under those telekongs, and I have a theory that it’s even hotter for those who in everyday life don’t dress like a modest Muslim (i.e. me). In any case, an air-conditioned breeze during prayer is a most welcome one.
I enjoyed the feel of cool marble when I took off my slippers; the smell of new carpet when I stepped into the hall. I bathed in the quiet expanse of the mosque. It felt like it was all mine and every night I left feeling different to when I arrived. There’s something about spending two hours in congregational prayer that resonates deeply inside of you. Somewhere in the region of your heart, I suppose, you find something that feels a little like inner peace.
Though it added hours to an already long and testing day, terawih quickly became my favourite part of Ramadan and the mosque consequently came to symbolise Ramadan for me. When I am abroad, these prayers are the one thing that I crave and miss most about Ramadan.
In South Africa, terawih was held at the High Commission. I remember how, after terawih, we would clear away the prayer mats and sit around in circles as we ate our moreh, or post-terawih supper, that consisted of a little something that each family brought to share. I looked forward to these nights and preferred them the longer we stayed.
As an undergrad in New Zealand, I joined the other Malaysian students as we squeezed into the flat with the most floor space to accommodate us. When the boys’ commitment started to dwindle after the halfway mark, we had all-girl prayer sessions. I marvelled at the girls’ homemade attempts at Malay kuih for moreh; I made brownies. I realised that it was their way of feeling closer to home just as joining them in prayer was mine.
In New York, I rode the subway twenty minutes into the city to join the Islamic Center of NYU in the West Village. It was the height of summer and that year temperatures broke records. I remember how I looked longingly at people sipping their Arnold Palmer’s freely on the subway as I tried not to bump into any men on the swerving train so as not to nullify my wudhu. I welcomed so much being able to pray in jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and a scarf (remember what I said earlier about telekongs?).
My two younger cousins, Nabil and Arief, are also the product of a diplomatic family. Having lived in Hong Kong, Vietnam and now Romania, they have also experienced the difficulties of observing Ramadan abroad.
“I miss the sense of a shared cause within the community when I’m overseas, the ‘we’re all in it together’ mentality. Here in Malaysia the fasting period can feel like a breeze when you see relatives, friends, and even strangers going through the experience with you,” said Arief.
“In Hong Kong I was the only Malaysian and Muslim in a school of 1500 students, so fasting was hard!” added Nabil. “You were the only one not eating and drinking when everyone else was. But I suppose it toughened me up for future Ramadans, because now seeing others eat while not being able to eat myself just comes naturally to me.”
It is hard observing your Ramadan on foreign shores, but you adapt and improvise. You find ways to recreate what you miss. None of my terawihs away were performed in proper mosques like Masjid Wilayah. But they all still evoked the same feeling as those performed at home; all fulfilled the same craving. Different recreation, same result.
Ramadan is the holiest month in the Muslim calendar not because we abstain from food and water. It’s because we pray harder. It’s the prayer that connects you to the month; the prayer that brings meaning and fulfillment to the month.
But it’s not without consequences. For thirteen years now I can honestly say that I don’t really look forward to Hari Raya. Baju raya, duit raya, kuih raya – I shrug my shoulders at them; they all mean nothing to me. I’m too busy mourning the end of Ramadan, too busy wishing there was another night in store at the mosque. And you know what? I blame Masjid Wilayah Persekutuan for that.
Luwita studied theatre and film in New Zealand and these days mainly expresses herself in the local stand-up scene.