The deluge of consumerism that surrounds us year-round is increasingly repackaged for the Holy Month and diminishes its magic. By Elest Ali.
It just so happens that the first time I became painfully aware of commercialism (as well as the power of advertising) was back in the Ramadan of 2004. There was a Turkish television advert which showed a traditional family, gathered around the iftar table, decked from one end to the other with all the scrumptious favourites of Turkish cuisine.
Then the adhan sounds, and it’s swiftly followed by the familiar “pssst” sound of a cola bottle being unlidded. Granddad, white beard galore, has brought out the Coke with a benevolent smile. He passes it onto his grandson and the “glug, glug” commences with glasses being filled. Because, no iftar table is complete without Coca Cola.
My first reaction to this ad was a warm, fuzzy sensation which made me feel grateful, and represented. My second reaction was to recoil from my first reaction in horror. This was back when I was still relatively naïve about the world, and hadn’t yet developed a huge aversion to multinational corporations capitalising on aspects of local culture. However, I don’t like soft drinks. Haven’t touched the stuff since I was six. And they’d even got to me!
So why was it that the Coke ad in particular was such an eye-opener? Probably because what was normally being used to sell a product was the usual suspects of semi-clad ladies and people with lots of sex appeal. In this instance it was religion, disguised as a socio-cultural phenomenon. It’s nothing new, of course – Christmas is the ultimate example of how commercialism can sap all meaning out of a religious holiday. But it was the first I’d seen this happening in a Muslim context.
Admittedly, the festivity which comes with Ramadan involves some degree of commercialism. Standard across all cultures is the sale of special foods, drinks and desserts which are specific to or more popularly consumed in the Holy Month.
Then we get those culturally exclusive traditions, like shadow puppet shows, night markets, Ramadan tents or the fanous (“lantern”) which across the Middle East, involves parents buying their kids a festive lantern at the beginning of the month.
But the heavily commercial take on Ramadan today is no longer the kind of harmless festive cheer which festoons mosque minarets in Turkey with lighted signs reading “Welcome, Sultan of the 11 months”. We’d all like a bit more of that – I know I would. And not just for the benefit of children.
There’s no denying that the Holy Month of asceticism and spiritual rejuvenation has been hijacked by the insatiable monster that is capitalism. Companies, marketers and the entertainment industry have caught on to the potential profit to be made out of billions of hungry folk who become galvanised after sunset. They’ve caught on, and they’re leaving no holds barred.
From Singapore to the UAE, luxury hotels and restaurants clamour over each other offering the best and biggest iftar buffets, guaranteed to give you remorse with your heartburn. Take the Ramadan tent, once a symbol of Middle Eastern hospitality and a custom that may initially have sprung from charitable ventures to provide iftar for the poor. Today, it’s come to symbolise lavish dinners and late night entertainment until suhur.
Ramadan is when you always look forward to dinner, no matter how meagre the meal
For indigestion, we’ve got retail on offer. Head down to the mall where the Ramadan promos and sales have hit the roof, with shops staying open until the wee hours. And lastly, hats off to the person that came up with Ramadan special television programmes. Because you’ll be wanting to adopt a vegetative stance after gorging yourself senseless.
In Turkey, TV channels compete to outdo one another with more singing, more dancing and comedy growing more witless by the minute. Some of them completely go off the rails and bring out the belly dancers (true story). I used to think the Turks were alone in their debauchery when I realised that “Ramadan entertainment” is not only common across the Middle East, but also just so happens to mark the start of soap season.
Much of the region turns nocturnal during the Holy Month, so it’s the best opportunity to hook fast-weary viewers with the newest series and TV dramas. How it pans out is that families will sit in front of the TV together after iftar… and that’s pretty much it. They’ll be watching episode after episode of different soaps and programmes, then maybe even the re-runs until suhur.
The rhetorical query which begs to be asked is, at what point is tarawih, charity, spiritual reflection and actual family time meant to enter into this equation? It’s a mystery.
Ramadan is a month of joy, not austerity. It’s a month which unites us over mutual hunger pangs and long, sluggish days with little bowel movement. It turns the personal struggle into a communal one, and then brings folk together again, to break bread and be genuinely thankful for it. Because you know food has never tasted better, that you’ve never been more painfully aware of your body’s needs, nor felt more thankful for a full tummy.
Ramadan is when you always look forward to dinner, no matter how meagre the meal. When evenings are lively and cheerful, and waking up for suhur is a laugh because everyone’s slightly high at that hour. It’s a time of joy for all the right reasons. The kind of reasons that actually matter.
Instead, what’s ultimately on offer is basically what we get year-round, but packaged in Ramadan wrapping paper and hurled at us in a mad rush to undo the magic of the Holy Month. That fleeting moment of pensive reflection brought on by a day of hunger, is quickly snuffed out with a whole night of heartburn. The realisation of how little we require to feel whole, is quickly forgotten on a bargain hunt for those non-vital items we apparently can’t do without.
All this consumerism has an urgency about it: “don’t miss”, it goes. “Don