Muslims celebrate renewal of spirit

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Muslims celebrate renewal of spirit

According to Muslim tradition, the lunar month of Shawwal is a time to celebrate the victory of the spirit over the flesh. The first few days of the month mark the end of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. Ramadan is believed to be the period when the Koran was sent down from heaven as a guide for the world. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown every day.

Traditionally, Muslims watch the sky on the last day of Ramadan as dusk approaches. Once the moon becomes visible, the period of fasting can be broken. Shawwal began on Dec. 16 and will end on Monday.

The celebration of Shawwal typically begins with prayers at the mosque and visits to the cemetery to pray for departed souls. Then the feasting and festivities commence. People visit each other to pay respect and reconcile their differences. After three days of grand ceremonies, Muslims welcome friends, relatives and even strangers - Muslims and non-Muslims - into their homes for celebrations.

Depending on which country they are from, Muslims prepare various foods for Shawwal. In Malaysia, the dishes include ketupat, rice cooked in a packet woven from coconut leaves; lemang, glutinous rice cooked with coconut milk in bamboo stems; and rendang, meat cooked with spices and coconut milk. The Malaysian Embassy held a lunch buffet for the arrival of Shawwal; the main dish was beef rendang, mixed vegetables and chicken.


As Ramadan closes, believers gather for fellowship, feasts and reflection

There is much to give.

In a small three-room apartment, Dvul Tina Mohd Salleh, the Malaysian wife of a Korean Muslim, oversees the finishing touches on a meal of japchae (clear noodles), Malaysian chicken soup and salad. The first friend she made in Korea, Jeon Seong-hee, is pouring extra sesame oil over the clear noodles. Ms. Salleh's young daughter is sitting on the kitchen floor, giggling.

The world outside her apartment, near the Hanggangjin subway station, just east of Itaewon in central Seoul, is filled with news about Muslim women. But for Ms. Salleh, 32, life goes on as usual, and holidays are still festive.

The most recent reason to celebrate was the end of Ramadan and the beginning of the month of Shawwal. After breaking the Ramadan period of self-abnegation, a festive atmosphere takes hold. Most Korean Muslims celebrate the onset of Shawwal, called Eid Ul Fitr, for one to three days. In other countries, and in some Muslim communities here, the celebrations go for weeks.

On a Friday several weeks ago, Ms. Salleh met several college students at the Central Masjid, the main mosque in Seoul, and invited them over for the supper she and Ms. Jeon are now preparing in her kitchen. While keeping an eye on the cooking, Ms. Salleh comments on the recent media coverage about her fellow Muslim women. "The Western view is that Muslim women are oppressed and controlled by men," she says. "Yes, some countries force women to cover their heads, but this is done not for men, but for the sake of God."

In June 1999, Ms. Salleh moved from Malaysia to Korea to be with her husband, who had converted to Islam while working in Malaysia. The journey was her first trip out of Malaysia. "Korea's a different country, but nothing has really changed for me," she says. "Koreans are used to Western influences, so some, not all, think we are backwards." She says the three questions she hears most are: "Why is your head covered?" "Why isn't your head covered?" and "Isn't it hot under all that covering?"

The biggest inconvenience for her as a Muslim living in Korea is not the questions or curious stares; it's meat. Because meat sold in the markets in her neighborhood is not prepared according to Muslim law, she shops at the Muslim-owned butcher shop in Itaewon.

Ms. Jeon, who converted to Islam five years ago with her Korean husband, says praying faithfully five times a day is another difficulty in a non-Muslim country. Ms. Jeon says she has a special alarm clock with a horn that sounds five times a day to remind her of prayer times. In addition, every Friday, Ms. Jeon and Ms. Salleh pray at the Central Masjid. Most of Seoul's Muslims live in or near Itaewon to be near the mosque for prayer. Otherwise they pray at home.

Taking a final look at the savory meal, Ms. Jeon, who is not feeling well, dons her coat, says "Masslan," goodbye in Arabic, and leaves for home to take care of her own child.

The doorbell rings around 6 p.m. Fathilah Ali and Nadiah Ab Aziz, students at Seoul National University, enter. Ms. Ali touches her forehead, her heart, and then gently holds the tips of Ms. Salleh's fingers as a greeting. The two Malaysian students will spend four years in Korea, beginning at Seoul National to study Korean, then at a technical college where they will study engineering.

The phone and doorbell keep ringing as more guests arrive. A tall Turkish student enters; hands held wide, he says, "Where is the baby?"

Ms. Salleh looks at the clock: 6:45 p.m. She urgently ushers her nine guests to prayer in either the bedroom or the study. One fixes a mat in the corner of the bedroom and kneels in supplication. Another, wearing a traditional Malaysian hat, puts his feet in the kitchen sink to perform ablution. Two women pull white prayer dresses from a backpack and cover themselves. They all choose to pack into the snug bedroom and pray together facing west toward Mecca.

The Turkish student leads. He cups his hands near his ears and begins the prayer: Allahu akbar. (God is great). The group follows his motions, bowing and kneeling as they recite the "Al Fatiha," the first verse, or Surah, of the Holy Quran. The toddler wanders in and also tries to bow.

After prayer, Ms. Salleh unfolds a black cloth on the floor. She brings out platters, dishes and cutlery. Most of the guests have never met; one came all the way from Gyeongju for the weekend. After exchanging names and greetings, they start eating and chatting about hajib fashion - or how Malaysian women use more fashionable scarfs than Turkish women - the high price of meat, and fish burgers at Itaewon's Burger King outlet. The chain had stopped selling fish burgers, to the distress of Muslims, whose religious beliefs do not allow them to eat its beef hamburgers. The community successfully petitioned the fast-food chain to resume selling fish burgers.

For dessert, Ms. Salleh brings out Malaysian cookies. She smiles cheerfully and says, "For me, the celebrations haven't ended."


A wandering soul finds her answers in a faraway desert land and culture

I first noticed the white lace socks as I sat down in the train next to a woman whose shoeless feet were propped up on the foot rest. My gaze traveled up past yards of black cloth, past embroidered shirt cuffs and past glamourous sunglasses until coming to rest at a plain white swath of fabric wrapped around her hair.

The train pulled out of Daejeon, heading to Seoul. "It's an abaya, but not handmade," Aisha Suh, 64, said about her clothing, a head-to-toe garment traditionally worn by Muslim women. "Don't forget, a long time ago, Korean women used to cover themselves," she said.

Ms. Suh, whose Korean name is Suh Myong-suk, moved to Saudi Arabia in 1982 to work as a nurse. For the next eight years, she led a team of some 100 Korean nurses, all Christians, including herself. In that strange desert land, surrounded by odd sights and customs, Ms. Suh's spirit set itself to wandering. Her desire to learn more about the culture led her to a local college, where she asked a professor of Koranic studies about the status of women in Islamic culture, including polygamy.

While acknowledging that polygamy is taboo in most developed nations, the professor defended its beginnings as a welfare system. His answers to her many questions satisfied her again and again.

The most vivid image she recalls from her stint in Saudi Arabia was in a maternity ward. A young mother was breastfeeding a baby while an older woman sat crying nearby. Ms. Suh asked about the curious sight and was told the story behind it. After the older woman's husband died in a car accident, she struggled to make ends meet. Meanwhile, her neighbor, a woman in her 20s, had a busy household full of children. Eventually, the young woman suggested that her husband take their neighbor in as his second wife. The older wife got pregnant and gave birth; but she could not produce any milk, so the younger wife acted as a wet nurse.

"I cried so much when I heard that story," said Ms. Suh, who is unmarried. "What is beauty? It is living and sharing."

Ms. Suh was the only one of the nurses to convert. "I'm a poet, and I fell in love with the words of the Koran," she said.

Upon her return to Korea she was ostracized by her relatives for converting to Islam; since then she has lived alone. In contrast to the Middle East, she gets little societal support to follow her religion. "No one here tells me to believe, but I want to hold on to what I experienced in Saudi Arabia," she said. She went to the Central Masjid, in Seoul, which opened in Hannam-dong in 1974. There are now about 35,000 Korean converts in Korea, and mosques in Busan; Gwangju; Jeju; Anyang, Gyeonggi province; and Jeonju, North Jeolla province. But after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 in the United States her relatives started to accept her religion. "As programs about Muslims started airing on television, people started to understand my beliefs," she said.

She is now trying to start a welfare association for Muslims in Korea and meeting with Muslims in Seoul, Daejeon and Malaysia. She is also planning to publish her poetry, under the title "Open the Way to Peace." "If someone asks me now, 'Where do you live?' I want to say, 'In a wonderful world.'"

Arriving in Seoul, Ms. Suh exits the train and walks slowly. People pass her, and she smiles and gestures for me to go ahead. When I look back, she has faded into her wonderful world.

by Joe Yong-hee

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