Sunday, September 26, 2010

What the Chinese and Bilalians Have in Common

It took traveling to the other side of the world to figure this out, and I still didn't make the connection at first.

Anyone who's lived with me knows that I love beans. I bought a pack of red ones my first time in a grocery store in Malaysia. The packaging said used in salads and desserts.

Red beans in sweets? I thought that odd, but gave it no further thought.

During Eid weekend, I discovered a new dessert, sweet and sticky rice rolls wrapped in banana leaves. I was intrigued by the black-eyed peas mixed in this delicious treat.

I would have never thought of sweetened back-eyed peas and rice. Amazing how we eat many of the same foods around the world but season or prepare them differently.

The other night I took the boys to a celebration commemorating the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival in the shopping complex next to our condo. At one of the activity booths, children made mooncakes out of green and red beans. Different, I thought. (Can you guess where I am going with this.)

Traditionally eaten at the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, mooncakes were served to all the guests. Yahya and I gobbled up one slice after another as though we hadn't eaten cake in ages. Actually, it had been some time because we both try to avoid wheat flour because of allergies.

The mooncake was delicious, and I went home still thinking about it. I checked the internet for the ingredients, and of course they are made with wheat flour.

Later while doing the dishes, a mental snapshot of the online ingredients resurfaced: beans, oil, flour...

Like BEAN PIE!!!!

This Nation of Islam original (or not so original) wasn't that odd after all. Sweet bean paste has been used in Asian cuisine for centuries.

Nonetheless, from what I understand and imagine, the originators of the bean pie came up with their sweet creation independent of the mooncake. The commonality simply shows that great human minds think alike.

I will continue to proudly describe the bean pie to my students as Bilalians' contribution to Islamic culture and history.

Oh, I should rephrase that: African Americans' contribution.

But I use the term Bilalian to draw attention to an important period in the leadership of Imam W.D. Mohammed when he turned his followers from the teachings of his father Elijah Muhammad in the Nation of Islam to the Islam taught by the Prophet Muhammad, prayers and peace upon him.

Bilal was an African companion of the Prophet Muhammad. Formerly a slave, he was chosen to call the people to prayer with his beautiful voice. I imagine that Imam Mohammed chose the name Bilalian for his community so as to connect us to the Prophet Muhammad (now his followers instead of Elijah Muhammad's) and to charge us to aspire toward the high status and noble contribution of Bilal, with whom we shared African heritage.

Our community used the label for only a short period. One day I will have to tell my Bilalian stories and how as a little girl I thought that all black people called themselves Bilalian.

Edward Curtis highlights the term Bilalian in his chapter on Imam W.D. Mohammed in his book Islam in Black America, but otherwise, the term has very little online coverage. I invite any historians of Imam Mohammed's legacy to comment on the term, why it was chosen and abandoned.

But back to bean pie, my initial attitude toward the idea of beans used in sweets here in Asia shows how American I am. In the same way that Americans turn their nose up at the idea of bean pie, I almost did the same here even though I grew up eating the black Muslim version of sweet bean pastry with Breyers vanilla ice cream every Friday night (a post-jum'ah ritual).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Ramadan and Eid Malaysian Style, Part 1

Although this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, to spend Ramadan in Malaysia, I hardly expected the context to make it more exceptional.

For one, we didn’t have a car to explore the streets and mosques for an intense cultural immersion. Second, my small children kept me close to home. In my pre-parenthood days, I would have jumped at the chance to pray the special Ramadan night prayers in Malaysia's mosques. But now with a baby and toddler, it was more practical for me to pray in the comfort of my home.

Gratefully, I wasn’t the bit dismayed by my circumstances, partly due to the understanding that the true fruits and blessings of Ramadan come through increased worship and good acts, which one can work for anywhere.

And as for missing the opportunity to pray in the beautiful, grand mosques that distinguish Islam in traditional Muslim lands from Islam in America, I had already been blessed with this favor countless times before, including my first visit to Malaysia thirteen years ago but also in Mecca, Medina, Cairo, Istanbul, and Fez.

But of course, the mercy and favor of God exceeded my expectations. I was blessed with several opportunities to experience the culture of  Ramadan and Eid in Malaysia, enough to both become enamored with this sweet Muslim culture and to draw comparisons as any good Muslim anthropologist would do.

Here I am on my first Ramadan excursion. My Chinese real estate agent, concerned that I experience a uniquely Malaysian Ramadan, called to tell me about the street vendors who set up food booths especially for this month. A friend drove us there on a Friday about an hour before iftar. This was a different scene for me as I was accustomed to buying meals from restaurants at malls or shopping complexes. As I debated whether I would buy any of the street food (cautious because of my sensitive stomach), it started to rain, cutting our first cultural excursion short.

The weather gave us no choice but to eat out at our usual spot, a restaurant in the mall. We arrived shortly before sunset. 

Instead of candies in a basket, individually wrapped dates for breaking the fast lay in a tray next to the menu at the host station. 

On our way to our seats, I could easily identify the non-Muslim tables. Not only did their non-Malay features (e.g., Japanese, European, etc.) distinguish them, but they also stood out because they were in the middle of their meals. 

The majority of the tables were filled with fasters, waiting with dates and water. This was new and different, to see a restaurant full and almost everyone waiting to have their dishes served at the same time. The orders had already been put in. 

Sure enough, as soon as maghrib came in, waiters delivered food to all the tables at once, and the service was good. We were served immediately, and this was important for making prayer on time since we wouldn't pray maghrib until after we finished our meals.

This was one of the small differences about Ramadan in Malaysia: instead of breaking the fast with something small, then praying, and then having your meal as was my experience in the U.S., here you completely finished your meal and then prayed.

This is how they do it in Indonesia as well, according to my Indonesian friend who was with us. This contrast in practice led the scholar of religion/Islam part of me to reflect on the production and transmission of Islamic knowledge. 

How does an entire culture (or region) develop a unique set of Islamic practices different from another culture? Did a particular sufi teacher integral to the Islamization process in Southeast Asia teach the new Muslims to break their fast this way? And was this the teacher's way of practicing Ramadan before he came to the region or was he sensitive to the customs or predispositions of the new Muslims and encouraged this practice to make Islam more practical for them?

My pondering aside, we took the nasiha, When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do. The prayer rooms at the malls helped tremendously in this case. As soon as we finished our meals, we headed in their direction. 

When breaking our fast at home, we continued our normal practice of praying before our meal. But whenever we visited our Malay friends for iftar, we followed their  practice.

Speaking of which, my family's Ramadan and Eid experience in Malaysia was deeply enriched by the generosity and kindness of our Malay friends Erwan and Feezah whom I wrote about in my last post.

Every weekend they picked us up to take us to a family iftar. We anticipated and treasured our time with this family, a break from our duties at home, including Yahya's potty training, and an escape from our expat residential area to experience the real Malaysia.  

At the end of the second week of Ramadan, Erwan took us to his parents home in a town just outside of KL.  His father wears traditional Malay garments that men don for prayer.

The third weekend we spent at Feezah's parents' home in Kuala Lumpur. Hud shows Feezah's father Native Deen videos as we wait for maghrib.
These trips were a treat for me because the two families truly made us feel at home. This particular time, Feezah and I stayed at her parents' with the kids while the husbands and parents went for prayer at the mosque. They returned with late-night snacks including the infamous durian fruit, known for its strong odor, that I had heard about since arriving. They insisted that we eat, constantly showering their hospitality on us until Erwan dropped us off back home well after midnight.

During my bonding time with Feezah, she graciously answered my host of questions about everything from having a live-in-maid to birth practices in Malaysia to the ingredients in the savory traditional dishes.

It was during my first iftar at Feezah's house that I began to realize one of the most striking differences about Ramadan in Malaysia, and perhaps in any majority-Muslim country: the anticipation and preparations for Eid.

Our husbands were out at the mosque. Sitting with Feezah, I heard fireworks.

"What's that for?"

"Oh, it's because of Hari Raya," Feezah answered.

"This early?"

She smiled and explained that celebrations for Hari Raya (short for Hari Raya Aidil Fitri), how Malaysians refer to the holiday after Ramadan, begin early here.

As I reflected on the cultural performances (anthropologist jargon, by the way), naturally my frame of reference was how Americans prepare for Christmas. It was exciting to see for the first time Eid treated as the biggest celebration of the year on a mass public scale.

On our way to an iftar at friends living in a nearby building, I saw Ramdan/Eid lights for the first time. And this was in an expat area where mostly non-Muslims live. I later realized that this was the norm everywhere. They eventually put up lights and decorations at my building.

Decorations at the complex near our condo.
I immediately thought of Christmas when I saw this ad in the paper in the second week of Ramadan.
Look forward to my next post when I describe the "sweetness" I discovered at a KL mosque in Ramadan and how my family spent Hari Raya. You can guess that Erwan and Feezah made it special. May Allah reward them and their family always.