Eid is a tricky enough occasion for the non-Muslim because it’s all based on the phases of the moon, so if you don’t read or speak in Bangla, it’s hard to know when the holiday will actually begin! When we asked locals, the usual response was, “Maybe tomorrow.” We finally found a Bangladeshi newspaper in English at a small cafe which bore the headline: “Eid Likely to Begin Tomorrow”. Can you imagine? We laughed till our sides ached because this is the quintessential response to the question! Basically as far as I understand, Eid-ul-Fiter began Tuesday… but that might just completely untrue! The only thing I have to go on is the fact that every single shop in Dhaka was closed tighter than a drum and the streets were completely deserted.
Why is the beginning of Eid so important, you ask? Well, Janis and I were invited by our maid, Piarie, to visit her family over the Eid holidays. Our communication with Piarie is fair, at best, so we weren’t exactly sure what we had agreed to when she asked us last week if we’d come for a visit. We didn’t know which day that actually meant. To be honest, we weren’t even sure if a visit is what we had actually agreed to! As we understood, Eid is a time when family and friends can drop in unannounced, and the expectation is that they will be fed. Bangladeshi people LOVE their food, but they also cannot be bothered to stick to any kind of schedule or time frame, so… you can see where this becomes a challenge to the average westerner!
We called Piarie on Monday to try to clarify the plans and she told us that she would be at our house at 1:00 on Tuesday afternoon to pick us up. Seems simple enough- except we didn’t know if that meant we should arrange for our own rickshaw since Piarie has no car! We decided to go with the flow and do…nothing! Around noon, there was a knock at the door and it was Piarie. Since we were not expecting her for another hour, we still had to change clothes for the celebration. Muslims believe that on Eid you should wake up, take a shower, put on new clothes and begin the day with a prayer. Shower? Check. New clothes? Nope. Prayer? I don’t even think we can enter the mosque! At any rate, we rushed downstairs to find Piarie standing beside an old beat-up taxi with a huge smile on her face. We apologized many times and told her we understood she would come at 1:00. She said, “Yes, this is what I told you, but I thought madame might be hungry! This is a better time.” (Madame is me, by the way— and I HATE it! At least it’s not as bad as Janis who is “Boss”!)
We took an eventful cab ride to Piarie’s neighborhood. The taxi turned into oncoming traffic down a one-way street to get to her block, and that was just about as much excitement as I needed for one day! We got out when we came to a road block of some Bangladeshi guys playing a game that looked something like Novuss. They had put a large wooden table up in the middle of the street and had no intention of moving! We climbed out of the taxi and and walked the rest of the way. When we reached Piarie’s house, we were greeted warmly with “Eid Mubarak” by her sisters, husband, father, parents-in-law, nephews, niece and even the landlord! I had read that Eid-ul-Fiter is a happy celebration, and it seemed to be true.
We went inside and everyone quickly scrambled to put snacks and drinks on a cart which was rolled into a room for us. They kept asking us to sit down and eat, though no one would sit and eat with us. This was naturally a bit of an uncomfortable feeling since where we come from, everyone sits and enjoys the food together! We picked at the snacks and kept offering to help since everyone was so busy outside the room. We were told that since we were the guests, we were to sit and eat. Piarie’s sister told us that they had all been eating sweets in the morning as per Eid tradition. “We wake up for bathing and go to prayers at 10:00. After we are eating many sweets at friends’ houses!” I supposed that was fair, but we still felt completely out of place. We were left with our snacks and a classic Bangladeshi film playing on the television. From time to time a niece or nephew would stick their head in the room just to peek and then run away.
After what felt like an eternity of “snacking,” we were invited into the dining table for lunch. Piarie and her sisters had prepared roasted chicken, rice, beef curry, fruit salad, and veggie salad – JUST FOR US! We finally protested and made Piarie sit with us to eat. She laughed and agreed at last. The lunch was amazing, as all Bangladeshi food is, and I was almost moved to tears when Piarie pulled out a bottle of juice. “I bought this one for you, madame, because I know this is the one you like!” The juice, itself, is not so special, but it costs more than the others at the shop and Piarie is not a wealthy woman. I was overcome with gratitude and compassion. It was truly humbling to share with a family who has so little.
We were invited to sit and talk with Piarie and her husband, Sadiq. We looked at photographs of friends, family and their son who had just gotten married a year and a half ago. Piarie beamed with pride. The air grew still and hot and we were all disappointed at our lack of means to communicate effectively. Just when I started feeling drowsy, Piarie’s sister rolled in the dessert cart! They had made Seviyan, which is a dish made of Vermicelli and sweetened milk. Oh my, I was in heaven! They had also prepared Seviyan with rice instead of Vermicelli and had bought a chocolate cake from the Danish Bakery. Piarie was so delighted to see how fond I was of the Seviyan, that she left and came back offering me yet another Seviyan with coconut and cinnamon from the kitchen. When we could literally hold no more in our bellies, we sat back and enjoyed some more of Piarie’s stories about her life in Dhaka. We got to hear about the time she had a rickshaw accident that chipped her tooth, the time she had her earring ripped out of her ear by a thief, and she even shared the fact that her husband does NOTHING around the house and doesn’t earn enough money. Talk about an awkward situation! We have quickly learned that Bangladeshi people are fairly open with their private lives and don’t mind sharing the most intimate details with those who are willing to listen!
It had been over three hours of dining and strained conversations, so we told Piarie that we probably ought to head home. She called the taxi and you won’t be surprised to hear that he would be there in “maybe 30 minutes or so…” Piarie offered to cook us more food and we begged her to relax instead. Just then the landlord knocked on the door and insisted we come up to celebrate Eid with his family. What? My belly was about to burst and I knew we’d be offered more sweets upstairs, but this was the tradition, so up the stairs we went! We sat with the landlord who was also the builder of the house. His wife offered drinks and fruit while we sat and chatted with her husband. He and Janis talked politics while I fought the urge to curl up and take a nap! There were many long lulls of silence until Janis, bless his heart, could come up with something more to talk about. Those of you who know me, know that I’ve certainly got the gift of gab. However, Bangladesh is definitely a man’s world- so I am learning to sit back and let Janis muddle through the conversation topics with large language barriers, as I heave sighs of relief that it’s not me in those shoes! 😉
We ended up getting a taxi about an hour later (30 minutes Bangladeshi time!) and upon reflection, we agreed it was one of the best days spent in Dhaka so far. The biggest gift of traveling around the world is getting to see the true colors of a place and its people. So, as the Bangladeshi people say…Eid Mubarak!