Arabic Class

Arabic Class

After a 12-year hiatus, I’m finally taking formal Arabic lessons again. It meets once a week at night in the “basement” of the ustaz’s house who gave the talk at our surau last week. Not a basement really but a room built on the ground floor, underneath his house on stilts.

The last classes I took were two semesters of Modern Standard Arabic at the U. I stopped after two sems for a couple of reasons, but one was the atmosphere of the course. The Arabic class was using the textbook that had been adopted by the US State Department. Students of the course were majoring in International Policy with minors in Subverting Popularly Elected Governments. All the vocabulary and drills were totally secular in nature. We would learn “office” as in “Take me to the office of your director”. We would learn “to travel” as in the sentence “I am traveling to the oil fields now”. Now I am taking a course where the students arrive after isha’ prayers, still wearing their sarongs and kufis and sit cross-legged on the floor. Now we learn “to leave” as in “The muslims left the masjid” and “to do” as in “What did you do after the salat?” The ustaz will explain grammatical constructions by reciting a verse of Quran or hadith where it occurs. It is highly motivating.

The only catch is the class is in Malay. My Malay skills are only a notch or two over my Arabic skills, and that’s not saying much. The most difficult part is when I have to speak the meaning of an arabic sentence in Malay. I would spit and sputter getting it out in English, what to speak of Malay. Still, even if I lag behind the class in Arabic, it should at least help me improve my Malay. I had looked around for adult Bahasa Malaysia classes in Kuching, but couldn’t find any. The ethnic minorities here get BM in school as kids, and there must not be enough immigrants like me to make a class viable.

Malay Contributions to English, pt.6: The Gong Show

Drummers perform near Jalan Masjid India
Drummers perform near Jalan Masjid India

While wandering around the Jalan Masjid India area last December during my sisters’ brief visit, we stumbled on a live performance in a small plaza. The show was of traditional Malay song and dance. There was a large squad of men sitting crosslegged, some with drums, some clapping, some singing lead, some chorus. The dancers were men too, with a few playing female roles in full female attire. Whether they were real-life pondans or skilled actors I don’t know, but they were very convincing. My sisters and I went back and forth a bit before deciding they really must all be guys.

Gongs, drums and props
Gongs, drums and props

Laying nearby were the props and instruments waiting to be used. Among them was an enormous brass gong. The gong is a popular component of traditional music around here, perhaps the best known of which is Gamelan, the percussion orchestra. “Gong” itself is an English word taken directly from the Malaysian language. It comes from the Malay word gaung which means “echo”. I wonder if the object itself originates in Malaysia. It may very well have come from China, since the Chinese also use gongs and are a relatively older culture.

Eid Mubarak, Selamat Hari Raya

Two, three cat running
Not the same dog running
Two, three day more raya coming
Everything is ready huh??

Pandan Island far-far in the middle
Daik Mountain has three branches
During Ramadhan everybody struggles
So during Syawal don’t spoil the chances

Jump frog jump
Jump high-high
What knowledge u try
Ketupat rendang very delicious

High-high were the sun
Buffalo kid dead in tied
10 finger hamba susunkan
Fault & mistaken harap dimaafkan

A friend forwarded this to me just before raya. It is in the Malay poetical style of pantun; the first couplet establishes the rhythm and strikes an image, often totally unrelated to the second couplet, which delivers the meaning. It reads almost like a direct translation except for the malay in the last couplet, which would be “Your servant holds ten fingers together/ begging forgiveness of faults and mistakes.”


Naming conventions pt. 3


One last thing about names here is the “bin”. Bin is Arabic for “son of”. Binti is “daughter of”. Although it does not appear on the birth cert itself, it is inserted between the first and last names of muslims, or more accurately, between the child’s name and the father’s name. (So in case you hadn’t put it together yet, my name is not Bin. I am the son of Gregory.) That part is straightforward. What is curious though, is that non-muslims don’t get a “bin”. Instead, they get “anak” inserted between their and their father’s name, as in Jefferson Anak Tutong. Anak means “child” or “child of” in that context. Then, it seems only with Hindus, it is changed to a/l or a/p, short for “anak lelaki” or “anak perempuan”, meaning son of or daughter of, respectively. What could be the reason for this? Why not just “bin” and “binti” for everybody? There’s nothing particularly islamic about it, aside from the Arabic origin of the word. There is a ton of Arabic in Bahasa Malaysia (and Bahasa Iban for that matter. See Bup Kudus) that doesn’t have any overt islamic significance, so that’s not a good reason. I don’t know, but I think it is a bit of chauvanism on the part of the Malays, to distinguish between the muslims and non-muslims that way. It’s not as though anybody would be confused between Muhammad Abdul Latif and Sivabakti Mahalingam. It’s not uniform anyway. Some tribes here in Sarawak use bin even though they are not muslim, specifically the Melanau, who are very close to the Malays in culture but are mixed christian and muslim. Maybe it’s a non-issue… Still, from time to time, some wiseacre in my class will put “bin” on his attendance sheet.

Hau tu spik Malaysian

A billboard in Klang for the new Port.
A billboard in Klang for the new Port.
Malaysia is constantly grappling with the role of English in the country and in the Malaysian language, Bahasa Malaysia. On the one hand, fluency in English is highly prized. The government’s latest initiative to improve English skills is that Math and Science courses will now be taught in English medium. On the other hand, English vocabulary is flooding into BM, which bothers many, especially when it displaces perfectly good BM equivalents. The newest Blog on my roll is MacVaysia, an English teacher in Rawang. He writes a lot about the language situation here, BM and English and …Manglish. Here’s an excerpt of some of his thoughts on the subject:

So what’s the fuss about? Well, the people raising the alarm are concerned not about English in Malaysia, but about English in Malay. They are alarmed by the large number of English words that are in common use in the Malay language. RTM has even banned some Malay songs that contain English lyrics, and the newspapers frequently contain letters from people upset by the use of English words in Malay TV and radio broadcasts. It is true that the average conversation between Malays will likely contain several English words, or at least words that are derived from English. Here’s a very short list of some common words:… Read the whole thing here.

There’s no such thing as a pure language, as he points out. English vocabulary is half Latin. BM had equal parts Arabic and Sanskrit before the flood of English. When I first visited Malaysia, I didn’t know any BM. But between my rudimentary Arabic vocabulary and my father’s Hindi, we could decipher a good deal of what we saw. So I don’t find anything inherently wrong with English entering now. It’s just a little too rapid, and perhaps a little too eagerly adopted. I submit for your consideration this photo I took a while back while driving through Klang. It’s a billboard for the new shipping port set up to challenge Singapore. Any non-Malaysians want to hazard a guess about what it says? Yu tu ken spik Malaysian… [Click the picture for a larger image.]

Malay Contributions to English, pt. 5

Unusual purple fruit with nerf bristles
Unusual purple fruit with nerf bristles

Though I’ve been here in Kuching over a year now, I’ve barely been outside of the city. Partly because of that, I had the impression that all the “real” nature was to be found far into the uplands. So I was very pleasantly surprised when I visited Semenggoh just a half an hour’s drive from our house. Semenggoh is a state park with an Orangutan rehabilitation center attached to it. “Apes in rehab?!”, you’re thinking, “what are they, on crack?”

Orangutans brachiating through the jungle
Orangutans brachiating through the jungle

Ahem. No, these are orangutans who have been orphaned in the wild or were illegal pets or so forth, and are now being retaught how to live in the jungle. They are fed twice a day by rangers who leave big piles of fruit on an elevated platform, and the orangutans come brachiating in out of the jungle for the free food. It was an amazing thing to see animals this way, freely moving around in their own habitat. We were on the other side of a small ravine from the feeding platform, but some of the orangutans had brachiated on over, and were literally overhead, some 20 or 30 feet up in the trees above us. They didn’t swing from vine to vine like tarzan either, they would swing to small trees which would bend over under their weight till they could grab another one. The largest male in the group, who had a black leathery face and chest and must have weighed half a ton, misjudged a tree and it bent all the way to the ground, dumping him rather ungracefully. My son and daughter had a blast, with my daughter asking me the very next day when we could go back to visit the “orang rambutan”.

Gathering food from the feeding platform
Gathering food from the feeding platform

Which brings me to our fifth Malay contribution to English: Orangutan comes from two malay words, Orang meaning man or people and hutan meaning jungle. So, people of the jungle. I have heard though that the name was only given to the creatures by the British. Maybe someone out there can confirm or deny that? There is a local Sarawakian name for them too, but I can’t remember what it is.
[Update: Orangutans are called Mawas in Malay and Kuyat locally, according to comments received below. -Ed.]

A gibbon swings around the visitor center
A gibbon swings around the visitor center

Well, we had so much fun that we went back last week, this time with my father (that would be Gregory) and uncle, who were visiting for a few days. We didn’t have as much luck though: no orangutans. But we did see a very lively gibbon, a few crocs, and an unusual tree dropping that I must conclude is a fruit but is pretty enough to be a flower. It kind of resembles the terap, except petite and decorative, so maybe it is an Artocarpus of some kind.
[Update: The fruit is Anthocephalus sp., a member of the Rubiaceae, eaten by gibbons. TQ, Iqbal.]

Taski Cemerlang

My son has been in his preschool for six months now. I recently got his class picture, which I’ll post below. The picture was ready weeks ago, but when his cikgu, teacher, would tell him to tell us it was ready, he would reply with a firm “anh” of assent. And then promptly forget. Or chances are just as good he had no idea what she just said. You’d never know he’s only catching about a tenth of the Bahasa Malaysia he hears, because anytime anyone asks him anything, “anh” he says. “Paham, Ridhwan?” “Anh!”

In spite of that, we got his first report card after the semester exam: First out of 21. I’m bragging, I know, can’t help it. Of course, my US readership is probably thinking, “Report card? Exam? In Preschool?!” It took me some getting used to, too. Especially with the homework. Some evenings, there is just no getting him to sit and concentrate for half an hour. I can’t bring myself to come down heavy on a 5-year-old for that. Besides, he doesn’t grasp the evaluation process anyway. When I told him he got first in the class, all I got was a blank look and a shrug.

You have to click below for the picture; he’s second from the right, first row.
Continue reading “Taski Cemerlang”

Hidupnya Insan

Wak Som in the doorway

My favorite definition of poetry is “Compact Emotion”. So when I found that my translations are mulitiplying the word count at least three or five times, I knew right there I’m losing something. This is the last of the lyrical pieces on the “Pelita Hidup” album, and for me it was the hardest. I think I’ll go back to nursery rhymes after this; it’s more at my level. Anyone know where to get lyrics for “Bangau O Bangau”?

Hijjaz – Hidupnya Insan

Hidupnya insan
Tiada yang abadi
Menunggu saat panggilan azali
Hilanglah nafas tak bergerak lagi
Tanah perkuburan kita bersemadi

This worldly life
Is not forever
Waiting for the moment of the call to eternity
Lose your breath, no more movement
In the cemetery soil we rest

Continue reading “Hidupnya Insan”