Thursday, September 09, 2010

Eid-ul-Fitr: When the hometown beckons

The balik kampung rush began about a week ago. Picture courtesy of New Straits Times.

Indonesian house helper Ien was reunited with her teenage daughter and parents in Brengkok Village, Central Jawa, Indonesia last week.

The reunion was an occasion she had longed for because the last time she returned to the family abode was more than two years ago.

Ien and her husband -- a Kuala Lumpur-based construction worker who is also from Indonesia -- made the journey home because they wanted to savour Eid-ul-Fitr or Hari Raya Aidil Fitri with family and friends this year.

It's the first day of Shawwal -- the month that marks the end of Ramadan -- tomorrow and by this time many Muslims who are residing outside their hometowns are with their loved ones or are on their way to be together with them.

Malaysians have a term for the social reunion: balik kampung which literally means "going back to the village".

Malays are not the only ones who observe balik kampung as a form of social reunion. The Chinese, Indian, Kadazan, Murut, Iban, Bidayuh and other ethnic groups in Malaysia do it too.

It is also a regional phenomenon as exemplified by Ien and other foreign workers in Malaysia.

The reason the other ethnic groups in Malaysia have adopted the Malay term balik kampung to describe their journey to a social reunion "is because it has existed in the realm of popular idiom much longer than any other expression that is available locally," Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin told me 13 years ago, when  I interviewed him for an article on the topic.

The Professor of Social Anthropology at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia defined balik kampung as essentially a reunion of loved ones, that is, between those who have been forced to live separately from their rural-based families, owing to economic and social circumstances, and those who stayed back in the villages.

It is a time to maintain, enhance or repair the social bond that has declined, fragmented, stretched to the limit or partially broken down by forces within modernisation, the two most critical components being urbanisation and industrialisation.

Shopping for Hari Raya Aidil Fitri includes buying gifts for the folks back home. Material and non-material sharing enhances the social bonding during the festive season. Picture courtesy of New Straits Times.
The Malays' first taste of modernisation began in the colonial period when villages became urbanised and modern education was introduced.

For the Malays, who were then predominantly peasants, this was the beginning of the fragmentation of their families and social life.

Some orang kampung (rural people) became orang bandar (urban dwellers) and this gave rise to the rural-urban divide which expressed itself in complex ways.

As Shamsul put it then: "It affected differently and unevenly the life spheres of those who live in the kampung (village) as well as those in the bandar (town or city). It also influenced their relationships."

Industrialisation further complicated the plight, in some ways rupturing altogether the already tensed relationship between the orang kampung and the orang bandar.

"The pressure of the felt difference especially by those who live in the bandar forced them to seek ways of coping with it, one of which is balik kampung."

And from then on balik kampung as a social reunion became central to Malay life, providing the parties involved, who recognise that they have become dissimilar in their world views as well as the way they conduct their daily lives, with a chance to pursue a new kinship.

In cases where the difference is so wide or where it has reached a desperate level, the reunion becomes obligatory to avoid a total collapse of the social bonding.

For that reason, it is often an emotionally-charged event and an attempt to minimise the contrast is made through material and non-material sharing.

Baking cookies for Hari Raya Aidil Fitri is a major activity during Ramadan. It is time-consuming but fun and even the youngest member of this family wants to be a part of it. Picture courtesy of New Straits Times.
Even so, the reunion which is a celebration of change as well as solidarity-making, is a temporary relief from the pain which the difference has brought into the lives of the Malays.

Besides Hari Raya Aidil Fitri and Hari Raya Aidil Adha, there are other social events in the life of a Malay such as weddings and funerals that can reunite him or her with far-flung relatives.

Are Malays still enthusiastic about balik kampung?

Shamsul predicted 13 years ago that "balik kampung is here to stay". And it has.

Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that the level of intensity has dropped a notch recently.

How do you explain the growing tendency among Malay professionals, whether single or married, to "go away" during the festive season?

The idea is not to balik kampung but to travel to other places for their Raya holidays.

Alternatively, they would stay back in the urban centres they now call home and rejoice at the peace and quiet that descended on city life after the balik kampung exodus.

This is especially true of Malaysians whose parents have passed on.

This photo shows shoppers making a last-minute dash to buy Hari Raya stuff. Many stalls at this bazaar on Lorong Tuanku Abdul Rahman, Kuala lumpur stay open until very late on the eve of Aidil Fitri. Picture courtesy of New Straits Times. 
There is no compelling reason to balik kampung particularly if they are not close to their siblings or other relatives who are still living in the old hometown.

Interestingly, the balik kampung reunion is no longer viewed as compulsory. There are various options open to them and balik kampung is just one of the many.

But purists are not happy about this and my friend Yani is one of them.

She cannot conceive that Malay Muslims would wish to spend Hari Raya Aidil Fitri in unfamiliar surroundings.

For her Hari Raya Aidil Fitri should be enjoyed with your parents, siblings, relatives and close friends at the place where you were born or lived as a child.

After months of hard work in noisy, crowded and unfriendly Kuala Lumpur a retreat to the birthplace is just the thing for tired bodies, frayed nerves and dejected spirits.

Yani, like Ien, derives great pleasure from engaging in festivities kampung-style (village-style) and the trip home is trouble worth enduring.

Eid-ul-Fitr greetings to all Muslims!

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