Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Balik kampung: Yes or No?



The upcoming Eid-ul-Fitr celebration is a major event which takes many Muslims back to the family home. It is arguably the most important social reunion because it  allows returnees to reconnect either with family members or long-time friends in the old hometown.

Such events are called balik kampung in Malaysia and mudik lebaran in Indonesia. The other opportunities for such gatherings are funerals, religious festivals and ceremonies.

It is usually an emotional reunion between the returnees and their loved ones. After being apart for some time  -- years in the case of some -- they are coming together to honour the first day of Syawal. As they greet each other, their eyes fill with tears. You feel the affection and tenderness.

But life is never neat and tidy. Many of us have had to deal with meddling relatives and/or unresolved family conflicts. Unsurprisingly, the prospect of a family reunion fills some with dread. The interaction may unleash pent-up frustration and the scary scenario is partly to blame for the fear. The solution to the dilemma is to skip gatherings or occasions that bring the family together. Better safe than sorry seems to be the prevailing philosophy.

Research confirms the above. Four out of five people have attended a "miserable" family reunion, according to a study conducted by VitalSmarts and the authors of the New York Times bestseller, Crucial Conversations.

And the findings show that "it's almost inevitable that bad behaviour will surface at your next family gathering".

The three most common complaints are "bad attitudes and grumpy relatives", "cold wars between relatives who dislike and avoid one another" and "conflict between relatives who don't get along".

If you are feeling a little afraid at the thought of joining your relatives in the old hometown for the Eid-ul-Fitr celebration, click here for tips.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Big spenders from the Middle East

A waiting cab takes these Middle Eastern visitors back to their hotel.
 Gulf Arab women in flowing black robes dashing through fancy malls in the Bukit Bintang shopping belt clutching bags of cosmetics, accessories, shoes and toys with children in tow seem to have become a permanent fixture in the tourism landscape in Malaysia.

They usually go for branded stuff and locals can barely keep up with the high-spending customers from the Middle East. They are Malaysia's favourite shoppers because they have both money and taste.

Malaysia projects an air of warmth and hospitality. It has taken steps to make visitors from West Asia feel very welcome here. Besides English and Malay, arrival and departure announcements at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport or KLIA are also made in Arabic. Many hotels in Kuala Lumpur employ Arabic-speaking staff and there is also an "Arab street" in Kuala Lumpur's "Golden Triangle" which offers all things Arab.

Only 16 shopping days left until Eid-ul-Fitr.

Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen recently announced that Ramadan will be promoted as a religious  tourism product to attract Middle Eastern consumers. She said this at the launch of the national Ramadan Bazaar 2011 at Masjid Jamek early this month.

 Ng is banking on "our unique culture, rich variety of food and the festive Ramadan atmosphere" to attract big spenders from Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Iran, among others.

The tourism industry hopes to cash in on a serendipitous occurrence; from this year until 2015, Ramadan falls during summer, which is a holiday season in the Middle East.

Malaysia recorded 320,373 tourist arrivals from West Asia last year, a rise of 12.5 per cent from 284,890 in 2009.

I have no problems with Arabs flocking to Malaysia but I do not like it when bazaar operators charge exorbitant prices for items that do not normally cost so much during the non-Ramadan months. This affects both locals and foreigners. They will now hike the prices even higher -- thanks to Ng's promotional plan.


These eateries serve Middle Eastern cuisine.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Eat your meal before the fast


A simple sahur meal of cereal, dates and water. Picture by Jehan Mohd.

Non-Muslims often bombard me with this question: how can you eat so early in the morning? They are referring to sahur, the pre-dawn meal practising Muslims take before the fast during Ramadan. 

That is an easy one. Actually, I have no problem consuming food at that time. The tough part is getting up at 5am or earlier for the sahur meal. That's why in previous years I have always eaten this meal at around 1am and turn in half an hour later. 


I have changed the routine this year and sahur is now at 5am. I struggled on the first day; getting up at 6am is bad enough. It takes a lot of willpower and discipline to drag myself out of bed at 5am, head straight to the kitchen and fix the very early breakfast.


But as Zafar Nomani aptly puts it: "To follow the spirit of Ramadan and other fasting traditions, discipline, control and behavioural change are critical." The reason for making the switch is simple: I wanted to see if I could do it. So far, so good.


Some of my Muslim friends, who skip sahur altogether, say they can't eat a thing at that time of day. For that reason they prefer to eat after midnight and then go to bed an hour or so later. Even though my stomach welcomes food during the hours before dawn, I have to be selective about the type of meal I prepare; rich, fried and spicy stuff is out. It has to be light and warm.  

A plate of rice with some protein and vegetables doesn't work for me. I feel sluggish and heavy afterwards. Sandwiches (tuna or egg) are fine but this year, I thought I should stick to warm oatmeal with raisins and a banana, my Monday-Friday breakfast fare on non-fasting days.


According to Ramadan Health Guide, "a wholesome, moderate meal that is filling and provides enough energy for many hours" is the best option. "It is particularly important to include slowly-digesting foods" in the pre-dawn meal. I am on the right track then. Since dehydration is a common complaint it is necessary to "adequately rehydrate before a fast". I have to make a conscious effort to drink enough water during the non-fasting hours.


That sahur is vital during Ramadan is noted by Muslim religious reachers and nutritionists. Indeed, it is sunnah (the Prophetic traditions) and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) reportedly favoured a light sahur. Experience tells me that a fast with sahur allows me to function well during the hours before iftar, which is the meal that breaks the day's fast.

I will feel drowsy in the afternoon but will perk up after a 5 to 10 minute walk away from my desk (if I am at the office). The air conditioning in the office makes me shiver a little but I try to forget about it. Other colleagues (who are fasting) wrap themselves up in colourful pashminas to keep warm.


The times when I missed sahur proved to be difficult. I felt weak and irritable. I recall the advice of a religious teacher: "Try not to miss sahur. Drink at least a glass of water, if you can't bear the thought of food at that hour."