Raya Away From Home

03 July 2017

We usually associate Hari Raya with going home, but what about those who can’t? We speak to three expats who have spent their last few Rayas here in Malaysia.

There is a reason the late and great Sudirman's Balik Kampung classic tune has endured. Nothing else quite captures the childlike joy of individuals scattered afield getting to return to the welcoming bosom of home. But what do you do when your kampung is a thousand miles away (besides a couple helpings of Bobby Bare)? We speak to three expats about their experience of not returning to their home countries for Hari Raya Aidilfitri – by choice or design – and who have instead made the most of the hand they’ve been dealt. 

‘Salman’ Aidilfitri 
“We’re going to KL to watch Tubelight. It’s a Salman Khan movie. So must watch,” Mahabub Alam insists. It’s not what we’d normally associate with Hari Raya, but it’s the closest approximation of what Alam used to do back home in Bangladesh – the family huddled around a TV with a bootleg VCD of an Eid season Bollywood release. For the past decade, he’s swapped that out for a row of seats in a cinema
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Alam now works the night shift in a 24-hour gym in Kelana Jaya. Which he loves, not least because his employer gives him time off for Raya. Before this job, however, he worked in a restaurant and would normally spend Raya day working. This year, he’s not sure if his friends who are doing restaurant work will be able to tag along for Tubelight

Alam’s ten Rayas in Malaysia have settled into something of a pattern. “If we have leave, Hari Raya morning we pray, cook some special food, and call our friends over,” he says, referring to his three roommates. “We cook beef, pilau rice, salad and dudh shemai [a milk vermicelli dessert with raisins commonly served during Eid in Bangladesh].”  “Then we go out, and we take taxis to KLCC, Sunway Pyramid or other shopping malls, and watch a movie. Because every Hari Raya time there is a Hindustan movie. The next day we go back to work.” 

What about dressing up? “We don’t always wear panjabis,” which is what Bangladeshis call kurtas. “Sometimes just normal shirts and normal pants. As long as it’s new.” With a little sprinkling of manna via Bollywood hits, Alam has wrung some joy out of a largely joyless situation.
But the memories of what it was like back home are becoming more vivid now that he’s decided not to renew his visa.
 
“Oh, it was very good! We miss that celebration back home. Last time, we used to ask for money from our fathers to buy new things. On Raya morning we would go to the river to bathe before praying. Then family members would come over, and everyone will give us some money. After eating, we will go and play cricket before coming home to watch a new movie.” As is common in his part of the world, Hari Raya Aidiladha (Eid al-Adhha) is in some ways a larger deal than Aidilfitri (Eid al-Fitr). Accordingly, he’s set the date of his big return for when all of his family will be at home, including his brother who works construction in Singapore. “InsyaAllah, next Qurban I will be going back.”

A Raya Getaway 
Rasheed Jabeen sees Alam’s Bollywood movie, and raises him an island getaway. This year, he’s going to Langkawi. Jabeen is working in a somewhat hipster café in Seri Kembangan while he’s finishing his diploma, but he isn’t bucking Hari Raya conventions for the sake of irony. This is the only extended period of leave he gets.
  
Langkawi sounds even less odd when you consider Jabeen has done the same for the past three years. He and his friends and cousins from Pakistan have spent their Rayas hanging out in malls, and in perhaps the last place in Malaysia you’d associate with the festival, Genting Highlands.

But he still finds time to do the necessary. “We do cook for Hari Raya. We make biryani rice, mutton curry and some desserts. This year, we are cooking the food and taking it with us to Langkawi, and eat as much of it as possible before it spoils,” Jabeen says, matter-of-factly.

“But we make sure we call our families in the morning or the night before on Imo or WhatsApp.”
 
Jabeen and his friends will be going to Langkawi this Raya. 

Jabeen doesn’t notice any major differences between how Raya is celebrated here and in Pakistan. There’s a whole lot of cooking, visiting, and even more eating. Only that back home, the town is ghost-like during the week of Eid, with most shops being closed for three to four days of public holidays. There’s also the fact that Hari Raya Aidiladha is perhaps more festive, if only because the sacrifice serves as a highlight that pulls in a greater number of family members. “Here they bring the animals to the mosque. In Pakistan we do the sacrifice in our homes, then we get to distribute the meat to our family members and the poor. It’s a big celebration.”

Prime Mover
Nezakati never really celebrated Eid in a big way back home in Iran, usually participating in the namaz Eid prayers in the morning, before visiting family and friends. But he feels that there’s definitely something different about Raya here.

“Everybody is much happier. They wear new clothes, and you can see the harmony as families dress in the same colour or style. You can almost smell Eid in the air,” he says. Formerly attached to Universiti Putra Malaysia in Serdang, Nezakati still goes to the nearby Iron Mosque for prayers on Raya eve, and to Putrajaya’s Putra Mosque on the day itself. He’s done this for the past seven years, and still manages to take selfies with the families there after prayers. Nezakati also participates in terawih prayers throughout the whole month of Ramadan. He loves the whole experience so much that halfway through the fasting month, he begins to get a little sad. “After the 15th day of Ramadan we almost cry, ‘Why it is finishing so fast?’ and we cannot wait for it the following year.”

One thing in particular that has touched Nezakati is the concept of what he calls the “open carpet and open breakfast” in mosques here on Raya day, where no one is turned away. “Such nice hospitality and inviting open hearts, no matter whether people are rich or poor.”

“Then it’s open house after open house after open house. For almost a month!” He’s getting in on the habit as well, because when in Rome, etc. “For the past three years, my wife and I have invited our friends to come over to our home and join us for Eid.”

Clearly, Nezakati loves the way we do things over here, but does he miss celebrating Eid back home in Iran? “Actually, no,” he smiles. 

By Jason Ganesan

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