Sunday, September 21, 2008

Allaaaaaaaah's Snack Bar

Idul Fitri's coming, the geese are getting fat. Well maybe not the geese perhaps but the population in general almost certainly. It's long been a fact of life in Jakarta that during the, "fasting," month, more food is consumed than at any other time of the year.

Far from Ramadan being a time to distance oneself from corporeal appetites and focus one's thoughts on the divine, the holy month in Jakarta is a time of inflation, unexpected traffic jams at odd times and, above all, heroic feats of fast breaking gluttony.

Stroll into any shopping mall food court just after 6 p.m. and you could be mistaken for thinking that you blundered into some crazed Coney Island hotdog eating contest only with the dogs replaced by fried rice and the time-honored charms of the Baso ball.

If you can find anything left to chow down on you'll then have the challenge of finding somewhere to sit among the assembled Sambal-oholics. The gustation continues in earnest into the wee small hours as hungry followers of the world's fastest-growing faith try and shovel in an amount of carbohydrates that would have top Olympian Michael Phelps reaching from the Pepsobismol.

Why the calorie levels go off the scale to the extent that they do during the fasting month is anyone's guess. Perhaps it's like Catholic schoolboys and self abuse. The prohibition only makes them want to do it more.

After the bull seals have gorged and built up reserves of fat that should see them through a hard winter's sitting in traffic, it's off home to watch a few Sinetron soap operas in which the usual philanderers and white-collar criminals are now suddenly seen sporting religious garb, a pious overlay that only serves to add a layer of deviousness to their skullduggery.

Fasting and then gorging like this leave a bad taste in the mouth (that’ll be the Baso) in a country where malnutrition still runs rife. Many in far flung provinces don't have the option of the 6 p.m. bloat out and sleep on empty stomachs, regardless of their religion.

Of course there is the Muslim tradition of giving alms to the poor during Ramadan but you sometimes wonder who extracts the most benefit out of this, the poor receiving their paltry kilo of rice or the rich whose consciences are salved by such annual displays of extremely modest largesse.

Certainly the poor of East Java didn't fare very well this week, 21 of them dying in a stampede of thousands as they try to get their calloused mittens on a miserable Rp.40,000.

Of course from the perspective of an infidel atheist (who is kind to small animals I might add) science is an important lens through which to view the strangeness of religious rituals such as fasting. Evolutionary biology and anthropology tell us that the ascetic rigor and exclusivity of the world's three main monotheisms originated in one of the world's harshest environments (outside of the Arctic Circle). Conversely, more fertile, tropical areas of the planet tend to give rise to more inclusive, laid-back polytheistic religions.

This can be no coincidence surely. Indonesia's easy-going Epicurean fertility tends to the latter but has had the strictness of the former overlaid over the top as an inflexible moral template in recent centuries. The harsh mindset of the desert doesn't come easily here and it's perhaps this mismatch between intention and desire that has led to the country's delusional, dishonest and corrupt social and political culture.

But that's enough theorizing for now. Actually thinking again about the Arctic Circle, it's amazing that the Eskimos didn't come up with something even more totalitarian than our desert influenced monotheisms. Those icy winds should surely have put some steely zeal in their hearts. I guess the fasting would be a problem though if there were six months of daylight at a time. A crash diet like that could have serious consequences although possibly the rotund Gus Dur would still be going strong when the sun finally set after half a year.

Thankfully this year the FPI (Islamic Popular Front) have again been quiet and have refrained from smashing up bars with big sticks. The FPI’s blinkered and childishly reductive interpretations of their religion are clearly a treasonous insult to the traditions of scholarship and debate that lie at Islam's birth.

Unfortunately though the pornography bill, a draconian piece of legislation designed to stop people kissing their wives in public or wearing skimpy outfits, looks set to be passed during the next week as, and I quote,” A Ramadan gift," to the people. Indonesia's politicians certainly know all about gifts that's for sure, although usually they are the kind given in brown envelopes. On the bright side though, I'm looking forward to mass bikini clad anti porn bill protests in the New Year. The Jakarta Post this week summed up the whole controversy brilliantly with a perhaps unintentionally punning headline that read," Resistance Mounts Against Porn Bill". Happy Christmas.