While spending Hari Raya away from home can make one nostalgic, it can also be an eye-opening experience.
The trouble with us is that everything is Kuala Lumpur-centric. Everything happens here: work, love, occasions. And so it is, with religious holidays like Hari Raya Aidil Fitri or Eidul Fitri. Less and less are observing the ritual of balik kampung as everyone prefers to congregate in the city. It’s more convenient, and there is a lot more to do.
More and more are celebrating the end of Ramadan, and the beginning of Syawal in the city. If they are moneyed, club function rooms and hotels are hired for their open house. Some prefer holding their open houses at their respective homes, so white tents, rich Malay food and cars parked askew on roadsides abound, as family and friends visit and celebrate the festival.
Then, there are those who are celebrating Raya outside the country, finding joy in the occasion even though the celebrations are different from what their best festive memories are.
Zahariz Khuzaimah is an adventurer, whose Facebook page and blog have a growing number of fans. We first met when he e-mailed, rather shyly, to ask if the news organisation I worked for, would publish his travels in China. Armed with a borrowed bicycle, Zahariz wrote an enchanting travel column, and today, his travels are documented on YouTube and on his website.
He has fond memories of his childhood Raya spent in Segamat, Johor. It was a time for all the family to congregate, when cousins met and played throughout the day and night, and being with his late grandmother. The duit Raya was a bonus to a rather idyllic childhood.
Today, Eid is “just another day”. Most of his family members prefer to spend it in the city, and they meet for an hour after prayers before they go back to their homes. Raya in a concrete city is not the same; it is a cold way of greeting a beautiful month.
Zahariz is now in Kashgar, in China close to the Kyrgyztan border. In 2010, he decided to do the unthinkable; throwing in his job and travelling on a bicycle a friend lent him. He hasn’t looked back since.
“I have a new life now. I am a nomad. The first time I celebrated Eid overseas was in 2006 when I was studying in New Zealand. Back then. I felt lonely and sad… celebrating it alone, eating only instant noodles and plain water in the morning, and having to rush to class.”
Being on the road, fasting and celebrating Eid in a rather stark and minimalist way has become the norm since he started travelling on his bicycle. His first Eid in China was in Xinjiang, where the main population are Uighur Muslims, and it was interesting to see them celebrating Raya. “(It’s) similar to us, they spend the day visiting family and friends.”
However, Eidul Adha is celebrated in a bigger manner. “I was in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan during that time, and it was massive. The main road in the city was filled with people, praying together on the main road in the morning.”
Zahariz is married to a Kyrgyz, and Eid is very much the same like in Malaysia. The only difference is the food, which is mainly meats (lamb and horse), can be oily and not good for the girth. “When I’m travelling… I don’t fast… since I’m living my life as a musafir (a word in Arabic, Persian, Hindi and Urdu meaning traveller). I will only fast when I stop for a long time at some places. You need the strength and energy if you travel the way I do.”
Tasneem Muhammad is based in the US with her husband, Kevin Poyer, and is a first time mother. She has spent a few Rayas away from home when she studied overseas, but memories of Raya are never far from her mind. As a child, it was probably one of the happiest times in her life.
Tasneem grew up in a big family with a strong sense of community. Everyone helped in the preparations for Hari Raya, be it cleaning the house, preparing the yummy food or making Raya biscuits with their mother.
“Each of us would pitch in and make sure we got Raya prep down. Raya morning was always spent at my paternal grandparents’ house. My great grandfather opened the village, then divided the land among his children, so the entire village is somehow related to us. Everyone would congregate at my grandparents’ house and perform solat Raya together and then join our family in enjoying the delicious food prepared for the first Raya morning.”
Tasneem was a teacher based in Johor a few years ago, and found the experience humbling.
“It was humbling learning that not everyone was as fortunate as me. Growing up, I never had to worry about getting baju Raya or kasut Raya (new clothes and shoes for Raya). We might not have a big selection – some friends had 10 sets of baju Raya – maybe a few pieces of new clothes, but I never had to go without new clothes for Raya. Some of my students would just wear hand-me-downs or donated baju from others, and had to worry about whether they would get to eat dinner that day.”
When she started teaching, she gave out money packets to her class.
“There was an incident which made me sad. On the second year of giving out duit Raya, I heard a little argument as the kids were lining up. One of the Malay boys was chiding an Indian girl, telling her she didn’t deserve the duit Raya because she’s not a Malay. Of course, I jumped in and told him that as the one giving the duit Raya, I have all the rights to give to whomever I please. I also told him he was not being very nice, and not embodying the spirit of Eid, of sharing and being kind to each other.
“That incident left a bitter taste in my mouth. I fear for their future. If that is how they think at eight years old, where did they learn it from? Will it become worse as they grow up?
My school would have a Raya celebration afterwards, where all the kids would come in their finest baju Raya. The non-Malays kids would come in their traditional attire, which I absolutely love. We would put up shows, sing songs, then enjoy the Raya delicacies we brought. Each class would have a Raya/class party, and my class, whose parents are always very supportive, would end up with so much food we ended up feeding the whole school!”
Now that Tasneem is based in the US, Raya will be a low-key celebration. She has since learned to cook rendang and other Malay dishes. Last year, she brought a pair of baju Melayu for her husband Kevin and son Elias, and plan to have them wear it for Raya this year.
“I’m making my own baju kurung – wish me luck – and will make some Raya cookies too. Depending on when Raya falls, we might delay the celebration and push it to the weekend. We did our solat Raya at home last year, so we might go to the Islamic centre this year. I plan on inviting some neighbours over to celebrate Eid with us. I might try to get fireworks too but I don’t know if the cops will be too happy about that,” she says.