Here Thar Be Monsters!

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12.8.10

Nihil Novi Sub Sole

Yup, nothing new under the sun.

Once upon a time, there was a great stand-up philosopher (sorry Mel) by the name of Tom Lehrer. He was known for putting complex ideas into simple, and hilarious, focus. Exemplii gratis:
Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Muslims,
And everybody hates the Jews.

But during National Brotherhood Week, National Brotherhood Week,
It's National Everyone-smile-at-one-another-hood Week.
Be nice to people who
Are inferior to you.
It's only for a week, so have no fear.
Be grateful that it doesn't last all year!

I used to live in a predominantly Jewish country (Merica), but now I live in a predominantly Islamic country. So I think that gives me a rather good perspective when it comes to today's topic: Ramadan.

Before I start my rant, I just want to say that I have no horse in this race. What my beliefs are, are strictly my own. From what I see, all major religions have, at their cores, the same ideology and more or less the same roadmap to getting There. They all preach love, peace and brotherhood at the point of a sword, as far as I can see (with the possible exception of Buddhists). They all idolize one or two people who achieved apotheosis using their roadmap. They all sponsor a priefcraft and have secret rituals and handshakes to distinguish themselves from the Others.

For the sake of disclosure, I was raised Roman Catholic (different from those Other Catholics), and they worship a guy who is God On Earth through the sacriment of pedophilia. You can see why I got out of that one.

Anyway, I am happy to let everyone believe as they please as long as they don't force it on me. For that reason, I take some exception with groups who aggressively try to make me see their basic goodness. I have been to churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques. I have listened to the arguments and I have a few good ones myself. As far as I can see, they all exist for two reasons: to take your money, and to convert more pockets.

With all that being said, I find Islam to be one of the noisiest religions around. During most of the year, the local masjid broadcasts the prayers and sermons from loudspeakers six times a day, beginning at the crack of dawn and going until sundown. However, during Ramadan, there is a new level of noise that is positively off the scale.

Don't get me wrong. Christians are pretty darned noisy. At their quietest, the churches ring bells during the day, but somehow that just doesn't rise to the level of off-key, half-asleep croaking voices amped to Kingdom Come and bellowing at 4 a.m. for half an hour every day. And yes, there are the Benny Hinns and Pat Robertsons who worship the god Media, and its Only Begotten Son, Wealth. They are a noisy lot, but they come with an off-switch, or at least you can change the channel, because most folks have long since forgotten there is an off-switch.

Jews are pretty danged noisy, as well. When no one pays attention to the them or thinks their whole 'Holocaust' thing is wearing thin, they start lobbing bombs around. They also innundate Merican media. You can't watch a single show without a token Jew making self-depreciating jokes. But, I have never found anything quite like Islam.

What brings all this up, besides my profound lack of sleep right now, is that Ramadan began yesterday, and in a country composed of about 80% muslims, that means we are all part of the fun. Why, just last night, there was a quiet parade of drummers through the neighborhood at 2:30 a.m., chanting and banging up and down the alleyways. Just as I was dozing again, the loudspeaker came alive, though the voice on it sounded like he could use a little sleep, as well. That was followed by the 5 a.m. round, which will be followed in turn every two hours today, and repeat again tonight for the next 30 days.

I'm all for fasting and purification. Do it myself, but I keep it to myself. The Christians have Lent, which is basically the same thing, but it's up to the individual and they don't spend a lot of effort telling everyone about it. Heck, here the restaurants cover their windows during the day with curtains and people avoid eating and drinking in public. Even bars, where no self-respecting muslim should be anyway, they serve in coffee mugs this month, in case the door should open and a thirsty muslim should happen to catch a glimpse inside. All they would see is a bunch of people sipping tea.

If you want an idea of what it's like, go into a traditional Catholic church on Good Friday and notice all the idols are covered in purple cloth. Now imagine that throughout an entire country, only with food.

Jakarta is pretty cosmo, so there's still pockets of normalcy around, but places like Aceh are off the scale. There, the police go around and check that NO ONE is eating or preparing food before sundown. If they find someone eating, they check your ID. If you are muslim, Allah help you. If you are some other word, they tell you to beat it. Outside the big city, most food places just shut down during the day. There are a precious few where you can get some vittles and the way you tell is by looking at the door. If it is just slightly ajar, you can grab a bite there.

Here's how it works. Muslims begin fasting with the helical New Moon using some ancient formula to calculate the month. By the Gregorian calendar, that month changes each year, but it's generall around the second half of the year. From the minute the sun peeks over the horizon (you know all those minarets around mosques...yeah) until it sets again, the muslim may not eat or drink for 30 days. That extends to swallowing your own saliva.

In practice, that also means that no one else may eat or drink either, since they don't want to see the rest of us enjoying our lives at this time of solemnity. The whole thing culminates with Idul Fitri, which I'll get to in about 28 days.

It makes teaching just a little challenging. I usually keep a bottle of water handy, because when you talk for 8 to 10 hours a day, you need a little lubrication. I have to invent all sorts of novel ways to drink without drinking. Also, you are facing a room full of kids who, well you know the Roadrunner cartoons where Coyote looks at him and he turns to a well-roasted and garnished dish? You get the idea.

And yes, even kids are expected to follow the program. Not to mention, we are all seriously sleep-deprived, so if I manage to say something coherent, the chances are it doesn't stick to anything in the audience.

So, to say I am a little annoyed as I write this should be, at the least, understandable. I like my sleep and I like to eat and drink and be merry (if at all possible). Islam was forced on Indonesia a few hundred years ago by Arab invaders, so it's not like it's a home-grown religion or something. Granted, I could live with the Hindus in Bali or the Christians in Sulawesi or central Sumatra, or I don't have to live here at all. For the that reason, I just keep my mouth shut and do as the Romans. To each their own.

What's interesting to me, though, is that even though everyone is supposedly fasting, the parade of food vendors continues, even now, hawking bread and soup and vegetables. It reminds me of an anecdote from years ago in another lifetime.

I had gone to a cousin's wedding, who happened to be Baptist. I was joined by my rather brash Wife #2. At the reception, she rather loudly queried, "What? No beer?" To which my aunt replied, "Honey, we're Baptists. We don't drink in front of each other."

And that pretty much sums up how I see the whole religion thing.

I do have one last point though. What is it with Jews and Muslims? They both regard Abraham as the father of their peoples (OK, different sons, but c'mon), they both have elaborate genital mutilation rituals (circumcision), they both wear beanies and shawls to pray, and they both shun pork and other critters as food. In fact, about the only substantial difference is the name of God/Allah/Yahweh. So for that reason alone, the rest of the world has to put up with all the saber-rattling and name-calling. Can't we all just get along?

As John Cleese might say at this point, "And now for something completely different."

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