I'd known for weeks it was coming. There were local carnivals, music festivals, new lights strung up on lamp posts that dot the small two-lane thoroughfare snaking along the edge of the sea. But I'd been actively avoiding, even dreading finding out when it would arrive during my stay here in Malaysian town of Kudat. Still a few more days, another few yet, I hoped.
And then June 28th happened. When I took my usual Sunday stroll to town, I saw the mini-markets, the banks, the bakery, and the cafes all closed. Gone were the glass panels displaying row after row of nasi campur, mie goreng, sambal, and dahl.
At first, I felt sharp pangs of panic, and then denial. I knocked gently on a kitchen door left slightly ajar. A man rose from his knees, tapped two fingers on his wrist, shook his head, and closed the door.
These are the rules of Ramadan: You eat before the sun comes up, and you eat after the sun goes down—nothing in between, liquids included. Sex, cigarettes, and all other such delights are similarly out the window, as Muslims around the world reflect on their faith, on sacrifice, and those who are less fortunate.
As a non-Muslim tourist, I harbored no such delusions of forgoing liquids or smokes, nor tempting fate with celibacy. I figured I could manage the food bit, however—who knows, maybe even learn something from it.
But I start by fucking up my first day straight out of the gate. I sleep in and miss the morning meal, and by mid-afternoon I'm so delirious with hunger I can literally think of nothing other than food, counting down the minutes like days in a prison cell.
Around 4 PM, I walk the three kilometers into town. It may be some time until I'm allowed to eat or able to access food, but I think of the walk as a pilgrimage, a journey towards something holy.
By 5 PM, the shutters of the restaurants begin to roll up on their tracks. The air becomes fragrant, wafting with scents of curries and fried fish. Throngs of people start filling the streets, darting this way and that, weighed down by plastic satchels of fresh fare from the market.
I set myself down at an open cafe and order a plate of white rice with an egg and a serving of veggies. I'm so famished after nearly 24 hours sans food that my body is already re-wiring itself, shifting into starvation mode, trying to figure out what the fuck is going on. By the time I finish my plate of food, I feel even worse than before I ate. I weave through a parking lot and brace myself behind a broad tree, preparing for the inevitable as waves of nausea pulse through my body.
By mid-week, I'm losing my mojo. The fast seems ridiculous, yielding little more than constant lethargy and crankiness. I've gone without food before and had been expecting a similar sort of enlightenment, a peace, a calm. But the problem—or perhaps the challenge—of Ramadan, is that as soon as your body starts to adjust to its new state, to get the hang of this whole no-food thing, you then break the fast. You indulge, and sully the cycle. Every day feels like day one, a bastard and a bitch. It's not the slightest bit more manageable than the one before it.
It's becoming increasingly clear that the point is not simply to forgo food, but rather to invite hunger, over and over and over—to sit with pain, to seek discomfort—to summon a sort of strength that I likely don't have.
After a week of Ramadan, I'm feeling weary and bored, so I decide to do a bit of exploring. Malaysia, like most places, is made up of a number of different ethnicities, little subsets you only learn to see when up close, like pores on skin. In the coastal state of Sabah, where I've been staying, the groups run the gamut from indigenous Malays, like the Rungus people, to the Bajau Laut (a badass group of seafaring nomads) to a swelling population of Chinese migrants.
And it is here with this latter group I find solace in their Kedai Kopi storefronts. By the time I discover these shops I kick myself for not having considered the option before. But, in my defense, I'd been steering clear of these semi-sketchy joints altogether. There's only a couple of the Chinese variety dotted throughout town but they always seem to be snugged up next to the local pool halls—places I'd generally try to avoid on account of the steady stream of low-level sexual harassment that tends to hurl forth from their patrons in the direction of any/all females who are not a) their mothers, or b) their sisters.
I soldier on. While there seems to be little in the way of actual eats, the Kedia Kopis offer respite in the form of frothy iced coffees, thick with cream. A single glass of the stuff ends up sitting more like a meal than a beverage. While it isn't exactly food, it is enough to get me through the days.
But, then there was Sabrina. She's been living in this tiny town for nearly two decades, but grew up in the booming metropolis of Kuala Lumpur. She quite literally latches onto my wrist one afternoon at the market, sweet and eager for the rare opportunity to practice English after many years of the skill lying dormant.
We retreat to her village for the afternoon, groceries in tow, where she's promised to show me a proper Ramadan celebration, the way berbuka puasa—the Malaysian version of the iftar evening meal—is done.
I guess I had hopes of something fantastical transpiring one I'd gotten up close and personal with a more authentic go at the holiday. What I find initially though, is that most of what happens during Ramadan in Muslim households here is a lot of nothing. It's 12:30 PM, and we walk into a house in which all five members are sound asleep.
Sabrina explains that they all typically rise at 3:30 AM for their the morning meal before dawn. Her eldest son, Saffiq, and her husband then proceed to the mosque for their morning prayers, while she stays back and looks after the younger kids. After that, more sleeping. On and on, in a pattern that alternates more or less exclusively between sleep and prayer. And who could fault them? The days are long when the stomach is bare.
Together we pass the hours another way: Sabrina loves all things Food Network. She flicks through the channels on a large flatscreen television, a single grand indulgence adorning their modest government supplied home. She says this is the only English she knows well: the names of herbs, spices, meats, and vegetables. She offers thanks to the likes of Paula Deen, Bobby Flay, and Chef Wan, Malaysia's most prominent celebrity chef.
Later, we waste away some hours in her garden where she pulls mangoes off the tree and peels them with a tiny handleless blade, cross-legged on a grass mat. Saffiq shimmies up a coconut tree, hacks the top off a big green globe and hands it to me, before bowing, brushing off his sarong, and returning to the mosque.
When the rain comes, Sabrina says, "Look, Allah is blessing us. He is blessing you. He is blessing us." I like that that's what the rain means for her.
It also means that we head indoors, where the berbuka puasa preparations get underway. I watch her prepare a half dozen different dishes, ranging from sour mango salads to chicken curries.
She scores a dozen medium-sized mackerel with a long blade, and then presses a marinade paste of turmeric and garlic and chive into the grooves. She drizzles a small stream of water on top and then folds them over and over in a plastic dish until they're covered in a gauze of deep yellow hues. She narrates the whole thing like the host of her own cooking hour —poised and practiced, and desperate for an audience.
When she fills a wok with several heaps of palm oil (the stuff that's grown here like corn is in the midwest), she says that when she fries the marinated fish they will be both crispy and "smooth." I interrupt to say that I think she means the fish will be "tender" —that that's the word to use there. She recognizes it immediately. "Tender," she repeats.
At 5 PM on the dot, the entire family piles into a tiny sedan and heads to the local bazaar.
But Sabrina is distressed. Some woman keeps taunting her in public. "Why is your husband so poor?" the idiot woman berates.
We walk the stalls of smoking meat and sweet breads. She exchanges a few small bills for a couple of bloated plastic bags of ABC (ais buah campur), a liquid dessert made from condensed milk, grass jellies, and sago. She tucks them in her bag and then we return home to break our fasts.
There, the family prays and passes the food, while Sabrina lingers in the kitchen. After everyone has eaten, she takes a few quick bites and then clears the dishes.
She wants to ride with me on the way home, but is crying almost immediately. "We are so glad you came," she says. "You came to us. I'm sorry. I'm crying."
Sabrina, I should have said. That word "tender"—it means this, too.