Not a very convenient conversation over lunch

One Friday afternoon in the city of Porto, Portugal, I still, honestly, clueless with the expectation of my program in staff exchange which according to my personal opinion will increase my knowledge of how an Office of International Affairs should structured and functioned.
However, this passage will not talk about the staff exchange program. Instead, here I will share my lunch with you when I decided to accompany my liaison, Ana Castro Paiva or Miu, to her lunch with one reason only: I am starving!
She then told me on our way out of SRI Office on the second floor of Reitoria Building of Universiade do Porto that we will meet with other Erasmus sponsored participants under TOSCA networking which bringing the academicians from Central Asia to Europe, in this case Portugal.
Apparently, the new acquaintances she was talking about come from Kazakhstan, the country of… (wait, it’s too bad since the only thing I know about Kazakhstan is through Borat, a movie that single handedly put stereotype towards the people of the country).
There I made new friends or precisely acquaintance to Professor Batir and Muzaffar from whom I learned quite a lot on the first meeting.
Our conversation starts when we have to decide where we should eat. This trivia thing has been around for me for quite some time with my colleagues in Office of International Affairs UGM. We usually went on extensive discussion just to figure out that we would eat at the place we had always do. The discussion, perhaps, was just a solid proof that we value deliberate argumentation before decision making process. Hungry? Yes, I am!
Thanks to our lack of proficiency in Portuguese and information on nearby restaurant, we follow the recommendation of the ‘house’ to a café one block north of the Reitoria named Progresso; can’t imagine an Indonesian restaurant name likewise: Progresif
Our order were two codfish served with potato and cheese for Ana and Muzaffar, Porco (pork meat) with rice for Prof. Batir and tuna served with mashed potato for myself.
As soon as the waiter put our order in the tab, Prof. Batir started an unusual opening speech. Why unusual? It’s because although he has been in Porto for two months and speak English, he refused to use them in the conversation and use the service of translation to Muzaffar, a rather junior scholar—but already in a post-doctorate research—in Geography and remote sensing compare to Prof. Batir. My first impression of the man, he is proud of who he is, but at the same time not efficient.
The role Muzaffar played that afternoon was not entirely a translator. Everytime he sensed that the Professor’s message would hardly make the case of a good argument, he asked questions to further examine what the old man actually means.
Soon I discovered that the four of us quite different in cultural and religious sense. Ana is an agnostic and strong supporter of materialism live in the European culture of reasoning. The Professor and Muzaffar are considered not a pious as muslim but Islamic culture applied in the country’s grand narrative. As for myself, I would like to say that I might not be as religious as I thought I was and continuously evolve in between East and West culture. Seem like I can bridge the conversation, but in fact I found that my role would possibly best by observing them.
The leader, if there was any, of the conversation was Professor Batir who despite his reservation not to speak English has been the director of the topic shifts in the discussion.
It took me a week to get back where I made the break in recollecting the information during the luncheon. But here’s what I remember one week after that event took place.
The conversation went on from the opening such as updates on family members, continued to Ana’s relationship preferences, expanded to muslims praying obligations, atheism, and women’s role in Kazakhstan as well as Indonesia and Portugal.
From the small but rather heavy talk, I can understand that the concept of “reason” and materialism is the key in Ana’s decision not to follow one religion and perhaps the same also happened for atheists and agnostic out there. While Prof. Batir and Muzaffar’s belief in Islam seem to properly seeded in the broad culture of the people in Kazakhstan. On the other way of saying, it looks like the religion has been submitted into the culture as the umbrella concept.
The difference of belief also taken place in one of the most debated issue in Islam: polygamy. As well educated female who also a feminist, Ana reject the practice of polygamy as it devalue the dignity of the women while the Kazakhstans (or Kazakhstanian?) perceive that polygamy is better than free sex which is widely practice in Western culture. And for me, that was a brilliant response though not directly addressing the point. In this context, I am aligning myself with the Quran that says a man can (remember, not must or should!) have two, three or four wives as long as he can treat them justly. There’s two can there. Meaning there are requirements to practice polygamy. And since it’s hard to equally satisfy different demands by people, the concept of giving justice to several women is practically almost impossible. That’s my own note.
But, quite surprisingly, the practice of popular boyfriend-girlfriend relations was less in Kazakhstan while we compare it to another muslim majority country like Indonesia. Or perhaps, it was just personal reservation of the Kazakhstans to not allowing their daughters to have non-appropriate relationship before they married.
Several big questions remain, though, how can you prefer one part of religious command and neglecting the other? Does that mean that you just torn apart the religion itself? Wait, they are form Turkmenistan, instead?




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