By Ben Garcia
KUWAIT: Various ambassadors in Kuwait were interviewed by Kuwait Times to learn more about their local traditions and culture during Ramadan. We also asked about the current coronavirus situation in their respective countries and how they are handling and reacting to this pandemic. Excerpts from Kuwait Times’ interview with Sri Lankan Ambassador to Kuwait Othman Lebi Mohammad Johar:
Kuwait Times: How is Sri Lanka managing the pandemic?
Othman Lebi Mohammad Johar: Sri Lanka is doing great in controlling the pandemic. To date, we only have 95,000 cases with a death toll of 598. Our country is an island nation and can only be accessed by air or sea if you are from overseas, so the chances of getting infected with COVID-19 are minimized. During the first wave of the pandemic, we managed to stop transmission by shutting down our borders, and we were able to stop the entry of the virus in the country at that time. Even our own people were temporarily not allowed to enter the country.
We imposed a lockdown at that time, limited travel and completely stopped the entry of foreigners. We stopped international tourism and did not allow home quarantine. Sri Lankans overseas are now allowed to enter the country provided they bear the hotel quarantine expenses for 14 days. Also, schools are gradually reopening, especially universities and colleges.
We are trying to bring back normalcy as quickly as possible. High schools and hopefully elementary schools will reopen soon. We are now allowing tourists to come from other countries provided they quarantine for 14 days. We have flights from Ukraine, Kazakhstan and China, and slowly we want to bring back tourists from other countries as well. The reason for the delay in some tourists to come is because other countries are also not allowing their nationals out of their own territories.
Kuwait Times: What about Sri Lankans in Kuwait? Are they safe? How were you able to manage the problems of Sri Lankans here during the time of lockdowns and curfews? What help did the embassy provide during the pandemic?
Johar: As per our government’s stats, we have a total of 110,000 Sri Lankans here in Kuwait, with 70 percent of them working in the domestic labor sector. So I have minimal problem of nonpayment of salaries. Domestic helpers are at least safer since they are not allowed to leave the homes of their employers. The problem is when their sponsors have the virus, they cannot escape and get infected as well. We have had cases of domestic helpers who contracted the virus from their sponsors.
Some people really needed help at that time, especially those who were not receiving salaries. We distributed food packs to them. People from my country who died because of the coronavirus number around 40-50 – it’s not an exact figure because the Kuwaiti government provides it to us and we only rely on their records. Many of the deaths were because of comorbidities.
Kuwait Times: About Ramadan’s essence and traditions, can you share some unique celebrations in your country?
Johar: During my childhood, I used to fast with my parents. The good thing about being a Muslim in my country at that time during my school days was that we were allowed to leave school early in consideration of the fasting month. Also on Fridays, we were permitted to leave early for Friday prayers. Those are cherished moments, and practiced until now in my country.
We are a secular country, although we are majority Buddhist and Hindu. But we have minority Muslim and Christian schools and can practice our religion without any interference. The Muslim schools are for everyone. Anyone can attend, just like Catholic schools. The curriculum is the same and to the standard of the Sri Lankan education system, taught in the language of our choice. School holidays are scheduled to coincide with religious celebrations.
Kuwait Times: What are the activities during the fasting month?
Johar: In Sri Lanka, just like many other countries, we break the fast at home with family members. Then we go to the nearby mosque to pray and receive kanji (congee or rice porridge). In mosques, companies sponsor iftar for those who are fasting. Normally, a bowl of kanji and three dates are enough for a hungry stomach. Sometimes meat is also served, depending on the sponsors.
That’s the first food we consume after a whole day of fasting. Then we go home and eat the main course prepared by our mothers. In Sri Lanka, if you have no food, the mosque provides you with kanji, samosas or spring rolls, and sweets, while tea is also served. When I was little, we went from one mosque to another just to collect the food – we were happy doing this.
We believe the holy month of Ramadan is a time to share, supplicate, engage ourselves in prayers and not overeat. If you eat a lot, you will sleep and not pray. In fact, what is taught in Islam is to keep our stomach half empty, so that we can feel the pain and hunger of less-fortunate people. It is very un-Islamic for us to overeat. That’s not in our culture.
Then we have the recitation of the Holy Quran in the mosque during nightly prayers. We also observe the last 10 days in search of laylatul qadr. Some mosques remain open and people stay there during the last 10 days, or the last three days. In the last 10 days, we give charity and distribute food to needy people.
Kuwait Times: How is women’s participation in Islamic religious activities in your country, especially in Ramadan?
Johar: There is an increase in participation from women for prayers. Normally, they come along with their male counterparts to the mosque, but perform prayers separately. Women generally don’t go to the mosque in other months, because they can pray at home. But during Ramadan we encourage them to participate in congregation prayers, as it is our belief that rewards are hundredfold. They can also visit the mosque for taraweeh prayers, which is very rewarding.
Kuwait Times: How is Eid Al-Fitr celebrated in your country?
Johar: Eid is a very festive occasion for us Sri Lankan Muslims. We normally celebrate with new clothes and gifts for kids. Our government issues a circular to companies to pay our salaries 15 days ahead of Eid so that we can prepare and buy gifts and new clothes. We are also allowed to take leave to be with our families. On Eid, we have community prayers, and after that we visit our relatives. For kids, that is the best part of the holiday, because when we visit our relatives, most likely we will get cash or gifts from them. Shops and markets also get business.