I have a junior college classmate who has invited her whole class down to her house to celebrate the end of the Muslim fasting month three years in a row. And every year I am amazed at the number of visitors that her family has thrown the doors wide open to – extended family from all walks of life, and ex-classmates and future schoolmates among others.
There is never a shortage of food as long as there’s a gathering afoot – my friend’s mother expressed surprise when I told her I didn’t want to come late for fear the food would all be finished by the guests. Just outside the kitchen would be steaming metal dishes of fluffy yellow-and-white briyani and deep brown mutton rendang, a spicy meat stew, and in the living room would sit an array of crystal jars stuffed with cookies and candy. The past two years, we’d also been treated to heaping platters of nasi ambeng – a mountain of white rice surrounded by an array of pickles, curries, yellow noodles, slices of fish and beef and chicken wings. The best way – perhaps, the only way – to eat it was cross-legged on a floor mat with not just your bare hands, but a small armada of friends and family to tuck in with you.
Children in colourful baju kurung and baju melayu chase each other squealing down the corridors, occassionally ducking behind pillars to open their green envelopes of gift money and finger the dollar bills with unbridled fascination. As soon as one wave of guests leave, another surges through the doors – including old men and women on wheelchairs who nevertheless greet their children and grandchildren with undiminished gusto. Never a moment in the day was any room silent from lack of laughter and banter. I know I would never be able to manage holding a gathering of that magnitude, and am always floored by the hospitality I am unfailingly shown year after year.
It is at times like these, where different groups in society come together to celebrate with the Muslim community, that exhortations for racial and religious harmony become most apparent. But once the feasts have been finished and the festive bazaars have folded for the year, how much will it take for us to continue distrusting the people around us? As news of bombings and terrorist attacks continue to make headlines, fear and hostility inevitably set in as some begin to draw unfounded connections between innocent moderates and the real-life villains they see in the media. Individuals who are also very much affected by the violence that creeps into our world end up being painted in the same broad brushstrokes as the actual perpetrators.
“Our religion tells you to make friends and do good things,” a taxi driver, Bouzi, told me on my way to my friend’s house. A jewelled silver model of a minaret sat glinting on his dashboard. “It’s the same as all religions – all teach you to respect people, to make friends. We don’t want to force people to convert – it has to come from inside your heart.”
Even if festivals may be fleeting, they provide rare moments for us to glimpse the common values that underpin the diverse cultures we live among. Bad news can shock and anger, but it can be from simple acts – sharing a meal, being invited into a friend’s house, learning about the meaning of a celebration – that we begin to see more enduring human principles of love, friendship and generosity. As forgiveness is celebrated by our Muslim brethren over the duration of their celebration, hopefully it can inspire the rest of us to think about how much more we might have in common with their pursuit of peace.