August 24, 2013

Ramadan in KL


Ramadan is the Islamic month of fasting, where followers refrain from eating during daylight hours. As a very important part of their faith and culture, I have seen many otherwise non-observant Muslims perform the fast. When living in Australia I only knew of Ramadan from TV or books. In Britain I had workmates and friends fasting, but most of the country remained unaffected. Now I’m in Malaysia, a multicultural majority Muslim country with large non-Muslim minorities. How does Ramadan work here?

Kuala Lumpur (and Malaysia in general) is food obsessed – and rightly so. There is an abundance of cheap, tasty food with Chinese, Indian, Thai and Malay influences. There are resturants and food stalls everywhere. Anywhere there is a walk of more than a few minutes to get food is glaring gap in the market soon addressed by a new roadside food stall. Quality is uniformly high, I have yet to hear of anyone getting sick at even the dodgiest popup stall. Eating out is very common. There seems to always be a few people in each resturant from opening to late closing.

Ramadan started this year in mid-July and ran to early August. Thus 61% of the Malaysian population that is Muslim could not eat between 6am and 7:30pm. Walking through a outer suburban shopping area at lunchtime the affect was clear. Of the 11 food places I walked past on the way to my gym, 8 were closed. The remainder were fairly empty. One of them hadn’t put out half its seating. In the city more places are open, probably only a quarter are closed at lunchtime. Although everywhere is quieter with less business. A couple of fast food places (while open) used the time for renovations.

The law in Malaysia says it is actually illegal for a Muslim to eat during daylight hours in Ramadan. It is also illegal to serve a Muslim. This means anyone who looks Muslim to local eyes (which means Malay or Arab) will find it nearly impossible to be served regardless of their religious status. Similar laws exist outside Ramadan for halal food and alcohol.

As dusk approaches pop-up take-away food stalls and special markets open. There are hugely more stalls than normal (double at least) and they appear even in areas none were previously (for example a curry puff stall started outside the KLCC twin towers – I doubt that would normally be allowed). They all sell food to be taken home by people leaving work and do brisk business.

One night we went out for dinner aiming arriving at 7pm to beat the perceived fast breaking rush (reservations are almost never required). We were too late. The first half dozen places we went had no free tables. They were full of people patiently waiting for the alloted time (this was in KLCC). We eventually found a Taiwanese resturant that appeared to have an order-or-leave policy.

Ramadan ends with Hari Raya (known as Eid in most of the world). This is a multi-day public holiday that has been described to me as having equivalent cultural and religious significance as Christmas has to Christian cultures. Here in Malaysia it is celebrated with feasts (of course) and open houses. This is where various people put on free lunches to anyone who wishes to eat. There are a lot of them. Politicians and local services (the nearby police station held one) are almost required to provide one, but many normal people hold them too. It is all open, public and friendly. It is quite different to the private family only Christmas meals to which I’m familiar. Many locals have stories of visiting other countries and turning up to shocked friends’ Christmas lunches unannounced as they thought it was similarly open.

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