Ramazan aiy kut bolsun, everyone, or Happy Ramadan! Ramadan, called Ramazan or Orozo in Kyrgyz, is a Muslim holiday that marks when the Quran (Islam’s holy book) was first revealed. It’s a time for fasting, self-sacrifice, and reflection. The timing of Ramadan changes every year, since it’s a lunar month. This year Ramadan began on June 6, and it will last between 29-30 days (the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Kyrgyzstan hasn’t announced the final day of fasting yet).
Fasting during Ramadan (sawm) is one of the 5 pillars of Islam, so in theory all Muslims should fast (with an exception for children and elderly people, pregnant and menstruating women, sick people, fighting soldiers, and travelers). A 2012 Pew Center survey found that only 53% of Muslims in Kyrgyzstan say they fast during Ramadan, though. Many Kyrgyz people don’t actively practice Islam or follow the Ramadan rules very strictly, but they still celebrate the occasion and participate in many Ramadan traditions. Someone who fasts one year might not fast the next – for example, my host dad Nurbek told me proudly that he fasted for the past 4 years, but this year he won’t fast because of the heat and the fact that the family is opening a new hotel. There’s no tension between those who fast and those who don’t, though; from what I’ve seen, people are respectful of both choices.
Given the timing of this year’s Ramadan, observers are fasting from about 3:30am until almost 9:00pm. (Fasting isn’t just about not eating, but it also means refraining from all food, drinks, smoking, and sexual relations from dawn to sun-down.) In some parts of Kyrgyzstan, temperatures regularly hover around 100 degrees, making Ramadan during the summer months a challenge; I’m constantly guzzling water in the summer heat, so I’m amazed at my host cousins and neighbors who are playing soccer and doing intense chores while fasting.
In some Muslim countries, it’s actually illegal to eat or drink in public during daylight hours. That’s definitely not the case in Kyrgyzstan, though in some areas (mostly in the south) it can be considered rude or strange to eat or drink in public. One of the advantages of my site change from Jalal-Abad to Cholpon Ata is that I get to experience the differences in north/south cultural dynamics, and it’s been interesting to experience the different ways Ramadan is observed in both parts of the country. Every one of my host family members in Jalal-Abad fasted (even the younger teenage girl), and my host parents often visited neighbors’ houses for iftar (the meal served after sunset). Most cafes in Jalal-Abad closed down during Ramadan last year, and I remember being shocked in the days immediately following Ramadan at how many people had come out of the woodwork to occupy public spaces. In Cholpon Ata, for comparison, because of the beginning of tourist season, most hotels and restaurants were just opening as Ramadan started. Only a cousin visiting from Naryn is fasting, but dinner starts when my host mom has finished cooking it, which is not necessarily after sundown; no one makes a fuss about waiting for him, and he joins the table (where a big bowl of water is waiting for him) when his phone alarm tells him it’s time to break fast.
My favorite Ramadan tradition in Kyrgyzstan is called жарамазан, jaramazan, which describes the caroling that young children (mostly boys) do during Ramadan. Jaramazan carols are a tradition unique to Central Asia, and some conjecture that the custom pre-dates Islam; when Islam came to Central Asia, the ritual of going door to door singing and asking for treats transformed into an Islamic ritual. Today, some kids go door to door, but I’ve only come into contact with jaramazan singers while sitting at restaurants. Here’s a video of some Kyrgyz boys singing the jaramazan song (they’re so dang quick and cute that I couldn’t snap a video of my own):
Contrary to the conception that Muslims are intolerant and demand strict observation of religious rules, I’ve been so touched by the patience and willingness of my host families to explain Ramadan and the unique way it is observed in Kyrgyzstan. At a time when Islamophobia is all over the news in America, I feel so fortunate to live in a Muslim country and have this chance to share what I see and learn in hopes of reducing hate and fear in this world. Ramadan Kareem!