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Jakarta Post

Lebaran in the time of corona

Jakarta   /   Wed, May 27, 2020   /   09:34 am
Lebaran in the time of corona Out of the ordinary: A person walks through an unusually quite Istiqlal Mosque in Central Jakarta during this year’s Idul Fitri celebration on Sunday. Thousands of Muslims ordinarily gather at the mosque for Idul Fitri prayers, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual event was cancelled. JP/Donny Fernando (JP/Donny Fernando)

I have a confession to make. I really hate Lebaran or Idul Fitri, the celebration at the end of Ramadan, which this year fell on Sunday and Monday. How come?

Like other religious celebrations, such as Christmas and Imlek (Chinese New Year), Lebaran has become distorted from its spiritual meaning into empty ritualism, hypocrisy and often, an orgy of consumerism. Asking for forgiveness during Lebaran is related to the spiritual purification that we should be undergoing during Ramadan. It is not just about physical fasting but also about abstaining from sex (during daylight hours) and refraining from negative emotions, bad deeds, words and even thoughts.

So, that is why we say maaf lahir batin (forgive me, body and soul) following selamat Idul Fitri (happy Eid). However, it has merely become a social greeting that we exchange with family, friends, colleagues and neighbors, devoid of meaning or sincerity. Why would you ask forgiveness from someone you hardly know? And does saying it once a year do anything to resolve the tensions, abuse, discrimination, petty jealousies and rivalries that are rife in families all year round?

Fasting during Ramadan is a means to exercise self-restraint, to remember those less fortunate than ourselves and to be closer to God. In practice, it is often just a religious reason to get hungry during daylight hours and to stuff yourself during the breaking-of-the-fast at sundown.

Typically, families spend more during Ramadan. There are five reasons for this. The price of foodstuffs go up; people can’t restrain from indulging in special goodies to break the fast; often having iftar (breaking-of-the-fast meal) in restaurants or cafes; the proliferation of discounts, not just for clothes, where shops slash prices drastically, enticing us to buy things we may not even need; and the anticipation of getting the Idul Fitri THR (bonus), which is basically a 13th-month salary.

That’s great for people who work for companies. It’s stipulated in the labor law, so even a freelance writer like myself is obliged to pay my household staff Idul Fitri THR even though I don’t get any. This means I have to save up to pay THR so that they can splurge when consumerism is actually against the spirit of Ramadan. Ironic, right?

The essence of Ramadan and Lebaran is to be more taqwa (cognizant of God and spiritual truths), become more patient, avoid shirk (idolatry) and become better, more elevated souls. The best part about Lebaran is the practice of zakat (alms) and the other charities called infaq and sadaqah. Otherwise, only too often we depart from this essence.

Then suddenly the COVID-19 pandemic came to liberate us from our human, materialistic, consumeristic, overly “social” ways that tend to desecrate the holy month of Ramadan! Except for supermarkets, shops are told to close down, also restaurants, cafes, offices, gyms, cinemas and entertainment places in general. We are told to socially distance, thus curbing the natural human instinct to congregate and to socialize.

Muslims are even told to do the opposite of what we traditionally do: not to go to the mosque in the evening to engage in tarawih (evening Ramadan prayer). That is also the case with the Friday noon prayers at mosques. Both are sunnah (not obligatory) anyway and can be done at home.

Even for those of us who live in the same city, we are told not to visit each other. After two months of not visiting my 87-year-old mother, I confess I gave in and visited her on Saturday, obviously observing the COVID-19 health protocol. Somehow, it meant so much more to me than the habitual family gatherings we have every year. It was bitter sweet: imagine, I could not physically hug or kiss my mother who I had really missed, but you can bet I embraced her with all my heart.

Fear of getting sick, infecting others and dying was the only way to break us of customs that otherwise seemed to be set in stone. Suddenly, we experienced a Ramadan and Lebaran like no other, which forced us to go back to the essence of the fasting month: introspection and self-reflection, often done best in solitude.

The government finally banned mudik (exodus) from cities like Jakarta to people’s home towns. The ban came late, but it still had the effect of muting the yearly mudik hysteria around Lebaran.

Another good thing that has happened this year is that science finally triumphed over tradition and religious rituals. Medically, we need to socially distance, frequently wash our hands and wear masks, and most of us are doing it. It has become the new normal. Let’s hope that the supremacy of logic can continue in general to be one of the positive aspects that emerge from the current pandemic.

The title of this column is inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1985 novel Love in the Time of Cholera.

Besides cholera being a pandemic at the time, which parallels the current coronavirus pandemic, the theme of the novel is a celebration of life over death, love over despair and health over sickness. Now that, my friends, is what we all pray for. Amen!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.