By Jamilah Samian
In Oman, Malaysian Muslims welcome Ramadan in a nation where more than half a million expats seek a living and cars are given away every day of the holy month in raffle draws, says Jamilah Samian.
On a rugged and hilly terrain in Muscat, Oman, several Acacia tortilis (fodder trees in desert sands) stand along the paved street leading to a double-storey, semi-detached residence that has been home to Sharinaz Shafie and her family for almost four years.
Petunia blossoms grace several houses in the quiet neighbourhood and a gentle breeze blows – signs that the hot and humid autumn is finally giving way to a cool and pleasant winter that normally lasts until April.
“This is the best thing about Ramadan here,” says Sharinaz. “Fasting in winter means shorter hours as the sun sets at about 6pm.” The fact that she is a homemaker means she has time to prepare home-cooked delicacies.
“In Kuala Lumpur, breaking fast was often a rushed affair. Buka puasa right in the middle of a traffic jam was normal for me,” says the former stocks analyst.
The beauty about being in Oman during Ramadan is that the best dates in the world are readily available. There are more than 40 kinds grown here. Also, the Arabic sweet baklava is unique to this part of the world. “It is no substitute for our traditional kuih but nice and different in its own way,” says Norazizah Ahmad, a compliance analyst.
“It’s our third Ramadan here,” says Norazizah’s husband Ismail Said, a human resource strategy planning & projects manager. “I look forward to local invites as it is an opportunity to learn more about local customs and cultures. I find it enriching thus far.”
In the multinational organization where both Norazizah and Ismail are employed, work this month stops officially at 1pm and non-Muslims have to delay lunch hour until 2pm.
At the onset of Ramadan, the company requests everyone to refrain from eating in public places. There are also designated areas in the office for them to have their morning coffee and afternoon tea.
New arrivals like Sharifah Naziha Syed Jamalil Idrus, an English teacher for the Royal Oman Paramedics who moved to Muscat several months ago, however, are still making adjustments. “As much as I look forward to this new experience, nothing beats the feeling of breaking fast and going to the mosque for tarawih prayers with the family back home,” she says. “And my, do I miss Malaysian food expecially the hot steaming nasi lemak and rendang, wrapped in banana leaves!”
The good news is that, with the recent opening of Holiday Villa, a Malaysian owned hotel cum restaurant in Muscat, Malaysians now have a choice of dining out on Malaysian cuisine. The establishment even has an authentic ais kacang machine to boot.
Traditionally, Malaysian and Bruneian Muslims team up and take turns to play host in a different house each week with every family contributing a dish. This helps generate a sense of fellowship.
There are others like Ahmad Fakhri Hamzah, a human resource executive, who had the priviledge of experiencing Ramadan in the interior where the oil fields are. “Just before maghrib, dates and laban (buttermilk) will be laid on the mat in an open area beside the mosque for us to break fast,” he said. “After prayers, there will be a grand spread with briyani, fresh mutton and even camel meat and sweetmeats. An all-time favourite dessert is Umm Ali, a milky and creamy bread-like pudding sprinkled with nuts and raisins.
“The dining hall in the oil field complex is open till the wee hours of the morning, offering four different menus each evening.”
His family also did something different last year. “We had many non-Muslim friends in the expatriate community who shared their fears and concerns following the September 11 tragedy. They were concerned about the hostilities developing between Muslims and non-Muslims in the region.”
Then he found about the Dubai government’s efforts to reach out to non-Muslims in the holy month. “That prompted us to invite some non-Muslims for dinner, beginning with our children’s teachers, most of whom were British. It was a great learning experience for everyone in the family.”
“It’s a bit unconventional as we normally keep Ramadan to ourselves but we thought, if we could make a tiny difference for the sake of world peace, why not? We also invited some Muslims from other parts of the world including Syrians, Indonesians, Nigerians and, of course, Omanis for iftar (breaking of fast) to appreciate the oneness of Islam, although they all come from different schools of thought, which is part of the beauty of Islam.”
Published in Life & Times, New Straits Times, November 12, 2002