Carrying Eid from Middle East to Oxford of the East

Eid Food

[This article first appeared in Beyond The Underpass on September 25 2015]

Festivals are sewn in the fabric of our culture and religion. We celebrate them with the same community and at times even use it to bridge understanding between different ones. When moving places, we observe them either with a strong familiarity of the past, or sometimes with a hope to salvage whatever little remains of it.

To me, celebrating Eid in Dubai had a touch of placid monotony. I didn’t necessarily enjoy it as much as be content with it. The mandatory day off, exquisite sprawling mosques, people joining congregation prayers in large numbers, the quaint scent of freshly pressed traditional garments, and Biryani and sevaiya carefully crafted by the tireless hands of mother made Eid familiar and added to a reservoir of memory. It was something I would certainly long for after moving to Pune in India for my Undergraduate studies.

Some things were clearly amiss with my initial experience of Eid in India. There was little of the inexplicable peace of Ramadan that preceded Eid al Fitr (feast of breaking of the fast), and discussions of the Hajj pilgrimage that counted down to Eid Al Adha (the feast of sacrifice) were few. Our University followed a holiday printed on pre-decided calendars, completely missing the quintessential thrill of moon-sighting and last minute cliff hangers on whether or not Eid would be the next day. I remember writing an exam just an hour after the Eid prayer once. It was one of the toughest exams I had taken; after all it isn’t easy to be writing an Economics paper knowing that the opportunity cost of this moment would be a delicious feast with succulent meat and sugary treats. I tried to be content with what I had, an attitude not very different from that in Dubai.

By the end of third year, what lacked in Eid was filled with what I had never experienced from the comforts of Dubai. Never in my life did I find an audience more eager to know about my festivals than friends at college. Perhaps my cross-geography and cultural experience helped me with answers to thoughts that would otherwise be suspended in an air of misunderstandings and controversies. Attending classes during Eid meant that greetings were exchanged in person and not from couches over text messages. Moreover, festive meals were special with friends who may not have shared my faith, but were all united by the love for Biryani.

Pune gave me a glimpse of imagery that Eid’s essence stands for – a sense of communal affinity, little children dotting the streets with new wears and toys, and vendors selling perfume and kohl in little glass bottles. People of all ages and occupations thronged to the mosques and made-do with the little space available for synchronised prayers The inviting aroma of seekh kebabs on an open furnace immersed with the fragrance of perfume, giving you the best of both worlds. Quite a contrast to the casual urbanness and glitz of Dubai, Pune’s humble demonstration of a religious festival reminded me that Eid is not necessarily where the heart is, but where people co-exist and celebrate the little joys of life, where smiles and giggles are not entrapped in concrete walls, and where there’s a little lesson taught in harmony and joy.

This time when I removed my traditional garment for morning prayers in Dubai, I remembered it was the same as I had worn for my last Eid in Pune. Verily, lifestyles and our space of existence may change, but festivals are sewn in the fabric of culture, religion, and fond memories.

In Sacrifice is Abundance

Pilgrims in prayer around the Ka'aba

Pilgrims in prayer around the Ka’aba during Hajj

Sacrifice is a motif for many people in this world. It is recurrent, an almost indispensable part of their lives in which progress is preceded and many a times succeeded by sacrificing things that one holds closely to the heart. A father quelling dreams in favour of his child is common, so is the selfless sacrifice of a mother who goes through the 9 month ordeal to deliver a new life.

When pursuing education in one’s land is difficult, more difficult is the choice of leaving the comforts of a house. The knowledge of benefits is not hidden, but the fruits are still not ripe for a mind to comprehend. The benefits of a sacrifice are the fruits, but only the best of men have the courage to sow the seeds.

Verily, one of the best of those men was Prophet Abraham. He did not agree to sacrifice seeking the material benefit of a fruit, rather he was the obedient creation who did what was asked of him by his creator. His agreeing to give up Ismail (AS; Ishmael) at the command of the Almighty is one of the greatest testaments to the literal test of faith – submission to the Almighty.

It was not a test that merely entailed trivial jubilation from the father, but the eventual slaughter of a sheep in place of his son is where the blessing for the whole Ummah lies – the celebration of Eid ul Adha.

In sacrifice there has been abundance, not just for the valiant father and son in Islam, but for every Muslim who testifies the Shahadah and takes cognizance of its meaning in full. Very few of us on even fewer occasions understand the context and story behind the feast that fills our dining tables on the blessed day of Eid.
It is not something to be ashamed of anymore if we stop for a moment and try to understand the stories of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and ones who came before and after him. It’s certainly not embarrassing if we devour on delicious Eid meals till our hands have extended out to the poor with the meat of sacrificed livestock.

The first 10 days of the month of Dhul Hijjah have been blessed. The events that fill these days are witnessed by the entire world, the most significant of them being the pilgrimage of Hajj. The pilgrimage is not a sacrifice any less. Many Muslims wait for their turn in for years and often save every penny from scratch to finance this journey to Makkah. The sacrifice of hair is just one of them in the wider scheme of sacrifices – leaving the comforts of their abode, the luxuries of personal life to interact with the communal congregation and sacrificing the certainties of travel for a greater journey of the spirit and heart.

Yet, this too is not a sacrifice in vain. It is a sacrifice that adds another pillar to one’s faith, that propels the believer to the soil of Madinah and the hills of Arafat so that his prayers are responded to, that transports him to the largest congregation in this world where the rich and poor brush against each other to defeat the devil of racial differences. In this sacrifice, as we see again, is abundance.

While we can strive make the lesser sacrifice of sleep to prostrate to our creator, we can hope to seek a fraction of the blessing that Prophet Abrahim received that night. That night, when he woke up from sleep to sacrifice something far more beloved than sleep, that night when God willed something else to be sacrificed so that in it we find our abundance.