Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Non-Muslim ex-pats feel alienated during Ramadan

For Muslims, Ramadhan is arguably the most important month of the year, a month of fasting and deep prayer -- very public reminders of their strong faith.
For many expatriates in Jakarta, however -- especially non-Muslims -- Ramadhan is the month when they feel most alien.
As one expat Internet forum recently warned: "If living in Jakarta is like being lost at sea, Ramadhan is the time when the storm hits."
Perhaps the most potent symbols of this cultural malaise are those most Western of institutions in Jakarta -- pubs and hotels serving alcohol.
There is an annual conflict for bar managers: They must juggle cultural sensitivity with economic reality, being forced to make a profit from their mainly expat clientele without offending the religious majority of the city.
At least, that's the official story. Underneath the surface, Ramadhan is a time when bar managers must navigate their way through a complex labyrinth of negotiations, bribes and violent threats.
Bartele Santema, who operates a handful of bars throughout Jakarta, said he has previously had to grease the palms of government officials just to remain open.
"In the past, they always came before Ramadhan; always some low-level government people came for some money, the police came for some -- they all came," he said.
While he said the situation is improving, the most serious episode for him occurred last year when one of his establishments violated a 2004 regulation issued by the Tourism Board, and was consequently forced to close until the end of Ramadhan.
Under the regulation, all entertainment sites classified as "nonhotel" facilities, including discos, karaoke bars, sauna spas and massage parlors, must quit their activities during Ramadhan.
Venues that are allowed to stay open are still tightly restricted: they must not open from dawn to dusk, must not openly display alcoholic products or advertisements and are prohibited from hosting live music.
Elizabeth HP, who has run the Star Deli in Kemang since 2000, described Ramadhan as "the most stressful month of the year" -- not only is her business affected by the restrictions in trade, but her staff are also entitled to double pay and sometimes call in sick after long days of fasting.
Yet her main concerns are not the restrictions but violent extremists who have previously singled out her establishment.
On Oct. 22, 2004, members of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) attacked the Star Deli, smashing its front windows and spraying its walls with graffiti.
The episode was darkened by the fact that the Jakarta police were aware beforehand that an attack was likely, but were unable to prevent it and were later criticized for their sluggish response in apprehending the culprits.
Fearing another attack, the Star Deli has this year issued its regular customers with "identification" cards and increased security.
"We didn't break any rules," Elizabeth said. "We made sure that we did everything properly, so why did they attack us?"
There are some signs that the awkward peace between government authorities and licensed premises will be eased. This year, the City Tourism Agency issued a directive to bar managers clearly spelling out their responsibilities.
They were instructed not to pay anything to officials who came to their establishments, and were given a phone number to report any suspicious activities.
On the regulation side, some 70 officers are patrolling licensed establishments, and residents have been given a phone number, to which they can report any breaches of the regulation.
Santema said that although the new system was working, it has also put more pressure on his business.
"This year the situation has been much better -- we have been open the whole time so far and we have not had to pay anyone."
"But the worst thing about this new phone line is that if you have people that dislike you -- competitors or Muslim fanatics -- they can also call this line anonymously and put you out of business," he said.
If there is a certain cynicism in this statement, it has been learned from hard experience.
"I think most bar managers understand that you have to be sensitive during this time of the year," he said.

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