Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Fasting Vs.Clubbing: The Struggle Continues

The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan starts on October 4th this year. Food, drink and the making of beasts with two backs are all strictly forbidden during the hours of daylight. Ramadan is historically a time of peaceful contemplation and spiritual communion and Indonesia's teeming; migraine inducing capital could certainly do with a healthy dose of both of these I'm sure you'd agree. Muslims should also refrain from becoming angry during the period and perhaps SBY's imminent Ramadan fuel price hike can be seen in this context as either deviously Machiavellian or politically shrewd, depending on your point of view. The realities of Ramadan don't always live up to the peaceful, theological idealism of the holy month however.

For a start, despite Ramadan being primarily manifested through the act of fasting, more food is consumed during the month, pound for pound, than at any other time of year. When Indonesians break that fast between 6 and 7 PM, they really enjoy a good blowout, and why not. Also, the shops during a Ramadan weekend can be absolute murder as huge crowds of shoppers splash out on fancy clothes, goods and food in preparation for the Idul Fitri holiday. It's a consumer phenomenon not dissimilar to the run-up to Christmas in the West. In recent years however, one unpleasant Ramadan leitmotif has at least been nipped in the bud. This is namely the hordes of unemployed young guys who don't have to work in the morning and so can sleep through the fasting hours all day and let off veritable ammunition dumps of fireworks all-night, thus keeping everyone awake. Thank God that's over.

The most serious threat to the peace of Jakarta's Ramadan in recent years, however, has been the war waged over the city's nightlife. The city council's decrees regarding Ramadan opening hours have been hazy, ambiguous and contradictory and the enforcement of them by the police very sporadic; perhaps in an attempt to leave enough maneuvering room to please everyone. All this has led to, though, are fundamentalist groups steaming around town, vigilante style, smashing up bars that dare to open. On the first day of Ramadan last year, a day on which everything has to close, some friends and I found ourselves in the only bar brave enough to open on the city's backpacker strip, Jl. Jaksa. We were toasting our good fortune at having avoided the closures when who should burst in? No, not a bunch of FPI goons, but a television camera crew, checking to see which mischievous places were evading the law. I guess I'd rather be filmed than beaten up, however, when they demanded to know why we were illegally drinking in a bar on the first day of Ramadan, we had to tell them that the bar had been open and so we had come in, and also kindly suggested that they take the matter up with either the bar's owner or the police.

After the first day of Ramadan, bars and clubs are usually allowed to open at 7or 8 PM, an hour or so after evening prayers, and must also close earlier than usual. Bars that also serve food can continue to trade under their restaurant licenses, sometimes with the added proviso that they don't serve alcohol. In previous years, this has led to hilarious, American Prohibition type scenes of barflies sitting at dining tables drinking suspiciously beer colored coffee from cups and saucers. All that was missing was a honky-tonk pianist in the corner.

This year, Jakarta's police chief has decreed that all bars, discos, saunas, massage parlors and amusement centers must close completely for the month, but that discos located in star rated hotels are allowed to function normally, a decision that seems to defy all logic until one realizes that some very powerful businessmen own a large number of these hotel discos. In recent years, the two discos in the huge Hotel Borobudur, just east of Monas, have cleaned up by packing in revelers unable to gain access to their usual haunts. Non-hotel bars may open sporadically this month but will be risking the wrath of both the police and the fundamentalists, who have been particularly active recently persecuting West Java's Christian population. Nevertheless it is apparently a fact that some 50,000 employees of the city’s nightlife industry struggle to make ends meet during the month of Ramadan, a month in which workers in other professions are getting double salaries.

Perhaps though, we non-Muslims should just go with the flow during Ramadan and stay at home relaxing and recharging the batteries. After all, we are afforded a pretty unrestricted ride through the city's crazy nightlife during the other 11 months of the year. Everybody needs a break sometimes.

Simon Pitchforth