~By: Neelam Vohra, ETA in Pangkalpinang, Bangka Belitung Islands~
Her hands reminded me of my mothers hands, and I found myself watching hers just as I so often watched my mothers. I watched her feel potatoes and onions at the traditional market, her hands carefully pressing the vegetables, dropping and picking up each one with intention, finally choosing the select number that would be used in her cooking this evening before Eid al-Adha.
I had been invited to stay at a fellow teachers house, who has quickly become one of my closest friends, and attend Eid prayer with her family the next morning. I was also lucky enough that she asked me to be her cooking assistant that evening.
I looked at her in awe, just as I looked at my mom, when she reached a spoon into the hot, silky red coconut milk mixture and dabbed it on her hand. She quickly brought her hand to her mouth and tasted what she had created. I asked her, just as I had asked my mom so many times, “tidak panas?” not hot?Like a seasoned cook, she replied, “no, my hands are used to it”. In that moment, I felt tears well in my eyes. I saw my own mom flash through my mind, her subtle grin as she used to reply the same way, and how she would offer me a spoon to taste as well.
That evening, I felt such a range of emotions. After eating dinner with her family, we all jumped in their Toyota van and drove to her mother’s house. It was during this drive that I felt more pangs of homesickness. The night before Eid al-Adha would (usually) be spent first at my grandmothers house, my cousin dedicating hours to applying the henna my grandmother had made to my hands. I would then make my way home, show my mom my hands and have her help me decide what I would wear the next morning. As we drove, I thought about not standing next to the women in my family as we raised our hands during the Eid prayer. I thought about not reaching for them, hugging them tightly saying “Eid Mubarak” and rushing to Dunkin Donuts afterwards to pick up a few dozen donuts for breakfast. And though it was not the first Eid I was spending away, I missed home and spending this holiday — that felt especially ours, more than I ever had before. In America we were surrounded mostly by others who did not and could not understand this holiday and our traditions. The Vohra’s celebrated the way Vohra’s celebrated and that felt special. For the first time, I felt outside of our traditions, almost as if I was too far away.
But, it was bouts of this deep, surprising homesickness that were interrupted by an entirely contradictory feeling. As we drove through the streets of Pangkalpinang, I heard everywhere we went the commotion of people amongst the background of familiar takbirs from the loudspeakers of the Masjids that line the streets.
“Allaahu akbar, Allaahu akbar, Allahu akbar laa ilaaha ill-Allaah, wa Allaahu akbar, Allaah akbar, wa Lillaah il-hamd”
Never in my life had I seen so much preparation and celebration for this holiday. Though I was feeling sad to no longer be celebrating this holiday in a place where it was only ours, I was for the first time, able to celebrate with others who truly got it. I saw the tail end of a parade and felt the car shake with the takbirs from the masjid. Anisha, a friend and fellow ETA, had made the point one night during orientation, that in America, some religions were used to never really seeing our holidays celebrated in a widespread way. I had not really thought about this, until experiencing what it was like when most of those around you were celebrating too. In America, many people do not have off from work for Eid. I have often taken off from school, but have seen family members and my own parents, if able to at all, sometimes only attend prayer, and soon after rush off to work. To be, for once, surrounded by a community who would be able to take part in this holiday invoked in me an entirely new sense of gratitude. I realized that around the world, especially here in Indonesia, this was not a holiday for a singular family, but instead was a communal day. The animal sacrifice essential to this holiday often takes place in the neighborhood masjid and in the schools the next day. Neighbors, aunts, grandparents, coworkers, friends all open their homes to the community, and invite you to have a seat and enjoy a steaming plate of traditional foods. I felt lucky to be a part of it all.
When we returned to the teacher’s home, she brought me to the room I would be sleeping in. I opened my backpack and pulled out three outfits. I asked her to help me to choose what I should wear the next morning, just as I would ask my mom. She smiled while she helped me decide on the outfit I had brought from the US, one of my favorite salwar kameez given to me by my aunt. She looked at it and then me and said “cantik” beautiful. She closed the door behind her and left me to fall asleep, hearing the takbirs continue in the distance.