Overeating at the time of Iftar
Two years ago, while I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I saw something which I feel has changed me in ways little else has. I was with a group of friends, and we were all having dinner under the stars at a roadside food stall. Another group at the table next to us had finished eating, and got up to leave.
Faster than you could say “sok sabai” (Khmer for how are you), two boys, one shirtless, both no older than ten, descended upon the scraps of food left behind, scrambling to pocket whatever they could. You might have seen something similar in Singapore: hungry mynah birds scurrying for discarded food at hawker centre tables, beaks pecking for something, anything, to fill their empty stomachs.
I tried talking to the boys but given the obvious language barriers it was difficult to understand who they were, if they had any parents, or a place to stay. In the end all I could do was offer them the few US dollars I had on me, and a bottle of mineral water, which they wasted no time in gulping down, an attempt perhaps to pacify their hunger pangs.
Obsession with Food
If seeing those boys stuff somebody else’s leftovers into their little mouths didn’t give me depression, reflecting on Singapore’s love affair with food certainly has. Here, we don’t worry about where our next meal will come from. We worry what to do with all our excess food. Well, some of us at least. The rest of us just throw out perfectly good food. Keep today’s food for tomorrow or the day after? Surely you jest.
Ironically, this obsession with food is compounded during Ramadan, a month that is meant to remind us of the hunger faced by those less fortunate than we are. Instead, it has become THE month where we indulge our inner food lover. We think nothing of spending huge amounts of money on all types of food at bazaars across the island, or preparing a sumptuous spread for ourselves at Maghrib.
To this end, the iftar has become an important social gathering in the average Muslim’s calendar, a chance for many to play host to hungry guests, and spoil them senseless with heaps of food. In recent years, post 9-11, it’s become an opportune moment for Muslims and non-Muslims to strengthen bonds between one another.
Apart from the ridiculousness of this new Singaporean ritual (which deserves an article of its own to talk about), I’m forced to stifle a chuckle whenever I imagine what goes through the heads of these non-Muslims when they see all the food before them. They must think, “No wonder these Muslims can fast. Look at how much they eat!”
I reluctantly admit, I’ve lost count of the number of iftars I’ve attended where there’s been far too much food, and I end up overeating because I don’t want to waste what’s been served. No third-world orphans to eat up after me here. Just somebody’s fat kid with a half-eaten double cheeseburger.
Maybe that’s why I seem to have this perpetual look of displeasure on my face, even if I’m being served with the finest briyani dum this side of the planet. I can’t put my hands through all this food without remembering those Cambodian boys, or the many others who go to sleep hungry every night, wishing they don’t wake up the next morning.
On that note, if you are inviting me to iftar this year, please excuse this look of displeasure of mine, especially if you think nothing of preparing an all-you-can-eat buffet where food is bound to be wasted. Please do not be a pseudo-Sufi, like the many that are in vogue these days, and exhort me to smile; telling me it’s a Sunna of the Prophet. Grinning from ear to ear when tragedy and travesty prevails, that’s a Sunna of the Joker.
Here’s my suggestion for those planning iftar. Serve nothing but dates and porridge, and hang a banner at the dinner table proclaiming this famous Hadith: The human being can fill no container worse than his belly. Sufficient for the son of Adam are so many morsels as will keep his spine upright. But if he must eat more, then a third for his food, a third for his drink and a third for his breath.
Either that or you could put up a photo of a hungry Cambodian.[divider]
Shahnawaz Abdul Hamid
The writer blogs about being a Muslim in Singapore at www.hayatshah.com.
Note: This article first appeared at Ramadan.sg