Berbuka Puasa – Breaking the Fast

Guest Article by Alex Clavering
College of the Holy Cross

ETA Alex Clavering, his family, and a teacher’s family celebrating Hari Raya

My alarm clock rang incessantly. It was just after 5:00 in the morning. Soon I would hear the echo of the mosque as it beckoned for the call to prayer outside of my window. I got out of bed to prepare my meal. Sahur is the morning meal before the day of fasting in Ramadan. For breakfast I drank over a liter of water, a few pieces of fruit, some eggs, and of course some delicious nasi putih (white rice). I was suspiciously absent from morning prayers; this is because I am not a Muslim. My family’s heritage is Irish, Russian, and German. I grew up in a Catholic home, with a Jewish father. I went to a Catholic all boy’s high school and a Catholic college – one with a religious object, Holy Cross, conspicuously in the name. So what was I doing fasting during the Islamic holiday?

It started out of curiosity. Virtually every one of my students and staff members are Muslim and were fasting for the month of Ramadan. From sunrise to sunset, they would not eat or drink. I wondered if I could be as tough as my community and my young students, some of whom had been fasting since age 6. It was a tough venture at the outset. The first morning I did not drink nearly enough water and towards the end of the day I felt like I was going to pass out. After two days I didn’t think I could keep it up. But on the third day I got the motivation to keep trying. In my lesson plan I had my students teach me all about Ramadan, from berbuka puasa, the breaking of the fast at sunset, to traditional foods and the history of the holiday. The students were happy to present their knowledge of this holiday which is very special to them.
With Students
Our conversation about Ramadan led my students to ask me questions about my own religion. They wanted to know what kind of fasting it required, when the holidays were, and other information.  Afterwards they asked me if I was going to fast during Ramadan. I explained to them that I was trying it out but that it was difficult for me. When I told them I was taking part in fasting, their eyes lit up. I’ve seen my students excited from time to time, generally when we are playing games or I am giving out prizes or much desired candy. But I’ve rarely seen them as excited as they were when I told them I was giving fasting during Ramadan a try. All of my students began clapping, the girls giggled, and the boys gave me appreciative nods and thumbs up. In 6 months of being in Malaysia, I had never so easily achieved the approval of my students.
Taking part in the holiday brought me closer to my students and fellow teachers, many of whom live in my tiny neighborhood. Each day they would smile and ask Puasa? Malay for fasting, and they were always entertained by my answer. Whenever they complained about being tired or thirsty, they would appreciatively nod in my direction because they thought it was somehow more difficult for me to fast since I am not a Muslim. At Bazaar Ramadan, the food market that is held daily during the holiday, I would frequently see my students and teachers shopping and get similar questions and queries. I was often invited to break the fast at night with many of my teachers and when I could I made a point to go.
Directly following Ramadan is the celebration of Hari Raya, an all you can eat event where people travel back to their home towns and villages and spend time catching up with friends and family. For Malaysians it consists of a lot of travel to the homes of parents, grandparents, extended family, and friends. At every place you visit, you are greeted with a warm welcome and an abundance of traditional foods and delicious treats. My family came to visit during the holiday, and it was really wonderful to bring them along to experience Hari Raya in the homes of my teachers and students who were so glad to have us as guests. Malaysians are a warm and hospitable people and I felt embarrassed at how extensively we were waited on in each home we visited. Combined with my experiences during Ramadan, Hari Raya moved my developing relationship with my community and many of my students and their families from an identity of “foreign visitor” into a true friend. It was wonderful to share with them a holiday so dear to their hearts while getting a glimpse into their personal lives and meeting their extended families. I can’t imagine such opportunities come along often and I feel so lucky to have had it.
ETA Alex Clavering, his brother, and a teacher’s family celebrating Hari Raya

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