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     Volume 4 Issue 21 | November 12, 2004 |

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A Roman Column


Neeman Sobhan

THE SPIRIT OF EID PRESENT: I feel a bit like Scrooge this year. My sons are not with me; my husband is travelling and may not be in Rome either; and the Bangladeshi community relevant to my social life (those in international agencies and diplomatic services and not the FOB immigrant workers thronging the streets of Roma) has shrunk to an all time low, because of retirement and because many are travelling.

Thus, how I view Eid today is quite different from how I did so years ago. Today if I were asked what Eid means to me I'd honestly say: nothing much. It's just another day. After all, I live in a non-Muslim, overwhelmingly Italian physical environment where Ramzan passes almost secretly, and Eid, unless it falls on a weekend is just another working day. Over the years, I have single-handedly kept alive the cultural aspects of my family's Bangali-Muslim identity in a determined battle against an indifferent environment where integrating with the existing world is easier than creating one's own. Once, I made an effort for the sake of my children, and was the shaping cultural force in the community. Now, the reasons are gone. I can afford to let many things including Eid pass us by. Except for the token phone calls of 'Eid Mubarak' and a get-together dinner, which is no different from other dinner parties, there is nothing special about Eid.

THE SPIRIT OF EID PAST: I, who was the creator in my family of the Great Illusion of Eid, have now started to rethink this day. I am used to remembering the Eids of my childhood in Dhaka and in Pakistan as memorable ones, but some days I wonder if it was really all that fun or were we always straining to make a rather pointless day into something enjoyable? I can easily cast a nostalgic spell on myself and convince my memories to evoke a magic that may or may not have been actually present. I personally always found the actual day of Eid boring, a tremendous anti-climax. Am I the only one?

Without debunking it, let me be clear eyed about Eid. What did I like about it specially? I cannot pinpoint it today. I enjoyed mostly the anticipation of Eid starting with the thrill of locating the crescent in the sky, then staying up with friends on 'Chand Raat' with freshly applied 'mehendi' drying on our palms. But I also recall that I actually hated the smell of henna paste, as much as I disliked 'attar,' preferring bottled French perfume to it but willing to suffer it all just to enjoy the 'traditions' of Eid. I simply followed the footsteps of society and never thought of creating my own tracks.

I loved dressing up (I still do!) but hated being all dressed up with nowhere to go on Eid morning, when wearing our new glass bangles and first high heels, I and my sisters had to bear the onslaught of official visitors and the families of the under-privileged staff descending on my father. For them we had to set up a separate table of refreshments, while we the pouting Cinderellas helped sullenly in the short-staffed kitchen with endless supply of tea and replenishments, and not one good-looking bachelor among my father's colleagues for the efforts!

Afternoon was when we got away to visit our friends in our fineries. But really, wasn't it dull hanging with the same old friends after each had showed off her glad-rags, unless a good-looking elder brother or cousin were around to make it worthwhile? Seldom were we allowed to go to a film together or to go and spend our eidee money. We were lectured to share it with the beggars, but who listened? Then came the worst bit: interminable family visits, specially into the bowels of Old Dhaka or wherever relatives hid all year long till we uncovered them on these visits of marathon eating of the same old zarda and shemai and (if lucky) dahi-baras or kababs which saved us from the unimaginative and pre-dominantly sweet based Eid refreshments. This was followed by the rich dinner at an elderly relative's home or back in our own home with guests. But really, was that all Eid amounted to?

And yet, even as I recount all this, I know that it must have amounted to something because in spite of the debunking, there was an undeniable, indefinable magic to the most boring proceedings. Today, I realise that the magic was in the participation of large numbers of like-minded people in a community festival. It was in the bonding. And this is what we lack in Rome. The Eid prayer is there, of course, and in the giving of charity, but Eid should not be just about piety but fun too.

In that sense, no amount of recreating the traditions of the old world will bring the magic of Eid (if it really existed) back for us here. In fact, the old ways of celebrating Eid just doesn't work here. What is the point of getting new clothes in an age when we buy clothes and dress up for parties all the time? So new clothes, movie treats, gifts and eidee-pocket money, the consumption of rich traditional foods, and getting together for dinner parties is plain boring. We have to reinvent Eid celebrations to suit the changing times and circumstances. Today, with only myself to think of, I don't know whether I want to make an effort.

THE SPIRIT OF EIDS TO COME: So when my friend, busy with her own life and without a maid, calls and asks in a desultory way "Are we doing anything for Eid?" implying if, as usual, I have any bright ideas. I state that I am tuned out of the whole Eid thing. She sighs, "Yes, with the kids gone, it seems so pointless. Pity, though, since Eid falls on a weekend this time." Too bad, I think to myself with a shrug that would do Scrooge proud.

Then husband calls from the wilds of Ethiopia to say he is arriving a week earlier. I allow a smile and flirt with the idea of making his favourite Shahi Tukras for Eid, then shrug half-heartedly.

Later, younger son calls from U.S, apparently to grumble about Bush's re-election but then he asks, "What are you guys doing for Eid?" I am about to say "Nothing" when he continues, "I bet you are throwing one of your 'be kind to everyone on Eid' dinners? Thank God I don't have to help you wrap those endless gifts for any youngsters who may be coming," He laughs, continuing, "But admit, that time when I did the choosing for the little boys presents it was the best wasn't it?" Frankly, I have forgotten that time. But he remembered! "And what are you cooking? Not piles of that saffrony stuff…." "Shemaiyer Jorda? No, everyone is on a diet so no point making what you called…." "Sweet spaghetti," He chuckles, adding, "Actually, it wasn't that bad." "I may make some of your favourite halwa in your honour," I find myself saying. "Well, freeze some for me. And make your famous leg of lamb." For whom? I don't ask.

Much later, my elder son calls from Amsterdam. I ask him if he can come for Eid. He is not sure but asks, "Is Papa going to the Mosque for prayers or will he use our absence as excuse to give it a miss?" He cackles knowing his father all too well. He seems to know his mother pretty well too, for he continues, "Though I can just imagine you bundling him off first thing in the morning with the other Uncles, claw marks on the floor. Hey! I don't blame Papa. I remember, what a mess that crowded place was. Why can't we Muslims do anything calmly? If I came for Eid, I would…." I hold my breath wondering if he ends it saying: I would never go there. "…I would wear armour and stick out my elbows stiflly as I walked through that crowd." He then relates his favourite memory of the Eid Namaz at the Rome Mosque (the largest in Europe) about his father getting his toe stubbed and shouting 'Jesus Christ!' to the stony eyed Muslim assembly! We laugh. "Is it bad in Amsterdam, too?" I ask. "Less people here, and in the cold the feet of the faithful don't stink as much. By the way, what is the address of that charity to which you guys send money for Eid?" I ask why he needs it. "I'm mailing them something too, this year for Eid." Before Scrooge can wipe away a tear, junior pipes up, "By the way, tell your husband not to be so miserly about the eidi he sends me. Charity begins you know where."

I sigh! A great load has lifted from my shoulders. Somewhere along the way, I have succeeded in passing on the burden of Eid with all its imperfections and boring traditions to another generation. Eid is as safe with my children as it was in my childhood. It will be analysed and changed, but it will not be forgotten. I take out a leg of lamb to thaw and dial my friend's number. I don't know what we are doing for Eid yet. But whatever happens we are definitely celebrating it, in our own boring way.



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