Lebaran (aka Idul Fitri), the end of the Muslim Month of fasting called Ramadan, is finally here. Last night, Jakarta was full of sounds, with Koran readings blaring from the megaphones of mosques, small firecrackers popping in the street and larger fireworks lighting up the sky. Today millions of Muslims across Indonesia went to early morning prayer and returned home to their first day of not fasting in a month. Now those millions of Muslims are visiting with family and close friends asking to be forgiven for their spiritual and physical transgressions and forgiving others with the greating “Mohon maaf lahir batin.” (Forgive me).
Given my very limited knowledge of Idul Fitri (or any Muslim holiday) I have been fascinated by this tradition. So this morning I joined in visiting the local mosque at 6 a.m. Fortunately, just after sunrise, Jakarta’s weather is cool, so I didn’t mind walking around fully covered and in a headscarf — though I have come to appreciate how hot that must be for women who wear the head covering at all times.
When we arrived at the mosque, I learned that due to high attendance on Idul Fitri, the actual prayer room was full. So I was ushered into the large courtyard of the school adjacent to that mosque which had been designated as the women’s prayer area, while the men filled up the courtyard around the mosque building and eventually filled the surrounding streets.
When I arrived, about 30 women had lined up their prayer rugs at the front of the courtyard. After a very warm greeting from some of the women, I went to the back to be unobtrusive. I couldn’t believe the place would fill up. Women slowly trickled in, greeting their friends before carefully spreading some newspaper on the ground and then laying their prayer rugs over the paper. They entered in small groups, filling in row after row until the basketball court was full, and women were filling in the open-air walkways of the school. I estimated I was surrounded by at least 1,000 women and children.
The air was spiritual but not overly solemn; many of the women had brought children who played while they chatted in groups until the official prayers began. The service rattled out over loudspeakers from the front of the courtyard. It included a reading from the Koran — with the ritual prayer actions of standing, bowing, kneeling, and standing again — followed by a sermon.
As I left, I noticed a long line of people who looked like beggars outside the mosque. Most of them were disabled. They were waiting for alms, which the mosque leaders hand out after the service.
Symbolically, after the Idul Fitri service and the end of the month of fasting, Muslims are purified from their sins, giving cause for celebration. So, we did what most Jakartans do after the service: We went to the home of some friends for a traditional breakfast of spicy beef renang, chicken livers, tofu and vegetables in coconut sauce, served with a special kind of rice steamed inside a banana leaf. It all seemed like too much heavy food at 8:30 a.m. for us Americans. But we were grateful to join in the festivities. After breakfast our friends headed out to the homes of their family members for more eating and sharing and to ask forgiveness for their wrongdoings.
In the Middle East, Eid Al Fitr (Middle Eastern spelling) is a single-day holiday, but in Indonesia, it lasts two days. Our friends assume this is because Indonesians have so many family members to visit and ask forgiveness from. We know other Indonesians who will spend these days going from one village to another to visit all of their family.
This means lots of holiday travel. Americans may think Thanksgiving is a difficult time to travel, but the days surrounding Idul Fitri represent one of the largest short-term migrations worldwide: Some 30 million Indonesians will be traveling within their country this week. For the first time since arriving in Indonesia, I saw a major street that was completely empty of people and traffic. We are rather pleased to be enjoying the quiet that all those travelers left behind in Jakarta.