Pokok Kekabu Among the more dramatic trees in the settled landscapes of Malaysia is the Kekabu or Kapok Tree (Ceiba pentandra), a gargantuan tropical version of the common large-for-Michigan Cottonwood Tree (Populus deltoides) of my youth. A truly massive tree, it grows to easily 100 feet high, with thick strong lateral branches radiating out in whorls at nearly 90 degrees from the trunk. The most striking feature is at ground level: the muscular buttress roots that rise 8, 9, 10 feet out of the ground to join the main trunk, giving the tree the appearance of a rocket ready for take off. A tree of such stature cannot be planted just anywhere – the roots could easily buckle pavement or crack a foundation – but at the edge of a parade ground or athletic field it is a perfect choice. The specimen in the photos is growing at the side of Kuching’s historic Independence Field (Padang Merdeka) where it dwarfs even the Rain Trees (Samanea saman).
Pokok Kekabu
Beyond its impressive landscape qualities, the tree was for a long time an economically important plant. Like the cottonwood tree back home, it produces pods holding great quantities of seeds inside with a cottony fibre for wind dispersal. One summer the cottonwood trees in Detroit had a flag year and the grassy floodplain across from my house was dusted white like a half-inch of snow. Fleetingly beautiful, but useless. The kekabu Kekabu Tree by comparison can produce kilos of cotton every year. That cotton is thick, soft and waxy, and for a long time was bought and sold commercially for furniture cushions and pillows, before being replaced by foam products. Nowadays it is hard to find in West Malaysia, and quite expensive: RM18/kilo or more. Here in Sarawak though, it is still readily available and affordable. My wife was feeling domestic in the days leading up to the birth and decided to make pillows. I was able to pick up several packages of 2nd grade kekabu for RM7.50/kilo, or about a dollar a pound. “Tok ada jahat sikit“, said the old man: “it’s a bit wicked” meaning that it needed a bit of cleaning before it could be used. Sure enough, the cotton had some seeds and twigs inside, but sorting through it was exactly the kind of meditative finger-work my wife was looking for to prepare for the baby to come. She stuffed 8 pillows all in all (careful not to stitch them up completely – pantang you know) before AbangChu made his appearance, just the perfect thing for 40 days of bedrest.

Sarawak Kekabu, or silk-cotton.  Jahat sikit, but usable.
Sarawak Kekabu, or silk-cotton. Jahat sikit, but usable.

Hidden Mosques

Surau Al-Hidayah is the pale blue building in the center
Surau Al-Hidayah is the pale blue building in the center
The azan can be heard all around Kuching from the suraus in most every neighborhood. Sometimes it takes a bit of work to find where it is coming from. Taking a shortcut through a secluded neighborhood on my way home late from work, I would often hear the azan called loudly nearby, see old uncles walking down the street in kain palikat and songkok, but never saw the mosque. I decided to explore one day on foot, and discovered the surau tucked away in a block of homes, with only a signboard Roadside Signboardat the alley entrance. From the air, it is easy enough to pick out: it is the only building not orientated toward the street, but toward the direction of prayer. The Surau Al-Hidayah is surrounded on all sides by homes, with two paths leading in between the neighbors’ fences. Gates in neighbors’ fences allow them to slip in from their backyards for the prayers.

Often, land for suraus is gifted by old landowners to a waqaf, or Islamic trust, as part of their will. approaching the surauPerhaps that’s what happened here. The surau is obviously well-endowed and looked after. The front entrance is tiled, and well-tended bougainvilleas bloom in decorative pots along the open space behind the mihrab. Several airconditioning units hang from the outside wall. Unfortunately, many urban suraus are locked before and after prayers to prevent theft. The anjung or front porch Since I arrived about an hour after Asr prayers, I was unable to go inside. Like most neighborhood suraus, it is a community gathering place as well as a prayer hall, as shown by the large covered front porch equipped with tables and chairs for relaxing and socializing before and after the prayers. This surau even had a pair of ping-pong tables in the back for entertainment.

Surau Al-Hidayah Suraus exist somewhere between the public and private sphere, open to the random seeker looking to catch his salat but populated by a core group of regulars. They all have their own atmosphere that makes them so enjoyable to visit and discover. The favorable siting of this one makes it feel particularly warm and cozy. Finding it is the hard part.

Full Surau Al-Hidayah Photoset on Flickr

Neighboring homesAnother occulted mosque in town is the Masjid India, utterly hidden from view. Photosets of other masjids and suraus around Malaysia. Previous entries about local suraus and masjids at Bin Gregory Productions.

Looking back down the front entrance

Front door

Social space with ping-pong

the rear entry

The alley entrance

Neighbor's fence adjoining the front entrance

Datuk Hakim Keramat

masjid bahagian from the river

By Abu Muhammad

English Translation and Photography by Bin Gregory Productions

Datuk Hakim Keramat, or the Miraculous Judge, was the title given to a religous scholar of Sarawak well known for his miracles and mystic knowledge. His real name was Abang Haji Abdul Rahman bin Abang Haji Brahim. He was born in Kuching, Sarawak and returned unto the Mercy of the Lord on the 9th of Ramadan 1309 AH (1890 CE). He was buried in the cemetery on the grounds of the Kuching District Mosque.

River ViewDatuk Hakim Keramat began his formal religious studies under a preacher from the holy city of Makkah al-Mukarramah, one Shaykh Ahmad al-Makkawi (alternatively, al-Makki). According to some, Shaykh Makkawi passed away in Kuching and was buried in a village on the banks of the Sarawak River. Other versions claim he returned to Makkah and passed away there. In either case, Datuk Hakim Keramat continued his religious education by traveling to Makkah al-Mukarramah in the 1840’s. After years in Makkah, he returned to Sarawak after receiving news from a pilgrim performing his Hajj. It was Datuk Patinggi Ghafur, a Sarawak nobleman, who related that his homeland of Sarawak had fallen under the control of the heathen White Rajah. Thus sometime in the 1850s, fearing that the White colonizers may try to change the faith and beliefs of the Malays of Sarawak, Datuk Hakim Keramat returned to his native land on the Island of Borneo. His return was to spread devotion and to safeguard the faith and his people.

Faced with the rule of the White Rajah, Datuk Hakim Keramat took a diplomatic approach because he knew armed resistance would not yield any positive result for his people. He knew that declaring a jihad before the religiously established rules and conditions for it had been met would cause it to be unacceptable to God as an act of worship, thus only bringing disaster to their cause over the long term. Therefore, he instead focused his attention on preserving the foundations of Islamic faith and belief to prevent it from damage or destruction by the White Rajah. Thus, Datuk Hakim Keramat pursued a resistance strategy based on religious knowledge, strengthening and solidifying the faith and commitment of his people to Islam. Datuk Hakim Keramat tirelessly spread knowledge, calling people to the faith ceaselessly and selflessly. He built a musallah or surau in the village of Bandarsah as a center for Islamic outreach and as an Islamic courthouse.

In an effort to win the the support of Datuk Hakim Keramat, who was well-respected as a religous leader in the community, James Brooke appointed him as a Judge for the affairs of the Muslims in Sarawak. To care for the religious needs of his people and to safeguard the religion, Datuk Hakim Keramat took the position, although his spirit of anti-colonialism and resistance to the Brooke regime did not change. He taught his people their religion through the teachings of Sunni Islam, following the Shafii School of jurisprudence. He sent many of his students to further their religious studies in Makkah al-Mukarrramah. Among those sent by him were his own children, Datuk Hakim Haji Muhammad Azhari, Datuk Hakim Haji Muhammad Ash`ari, Datuk Imam Haji Suhaili, Shaykh Shibli, Datuk Hakim Haji Muasli, as well as his adopted son nursed by his own wife, the brilliant scholar Shaykh Uthman as-Sarawaki.

Datuk Hakim Keramat was famous for his piety. It is related that when he would teach a class of women, he would sit beneath a mosquito net so that he could not see them clearly. In those days, when they wished to leave the house, Malay women of Sarawak would always cover their aurat. Moreover, they would margok themselves, meaning that they would use a sarong to cover their head and face, such that only their eyes and a small portion of their face was visible. Unfortunately, this tradition of using the margok is no longer practiced today.

Datuk Hakim Keramat can be considered a leading scholar who preserved and strengthened Islam in Sarawak, and educated a generation of religious scholars in Sarawak. He was an innovator who started a new chapter in the building of a learned and intellectual culture among the greater Sarawak Malay society. Directly or indirectly, he prepared a strong foundation for Islamic knowledge and the propagation of Islam in Sarawak.

hill vistaAlthough he was appointed to a high position in the state, his passion in opposing the colonists could not be extinguished. His appointment was used to the best possible degree as a means to raise the position of Islam and the Malay people. He and the scholars he educated struggled mightily to preserve the sanctity of Islam from the meddling of the colonists. Under the leadership of these scholars, the Muslim peoples of Sarawak succeeded in minimizing the effect of colonial interference in religious affairs. When the colonists began to proselytize in Sarawak, it was the diplomatic intervention of these scholars that convinced the colonists to desist from missionary work amongst the Malays. Their efforts and their sacrifices will always be remembered by the Malays of Sarawak as long as there are people who value their own culture and respect the efforts of their religious scholars.

Maqam of Datuk Hakim KeramatIn truth, it was Datuk Hakim Keramat, known for his miracles and his spiritual knowledge, and his students among the religious scholars of Sarawak, who preserved and safeguarded the faith of Sunni Islam under Shafii jurisprudence that has been the faith of the Sarawak Malays, and who never abandoned their homeland during its subjugation to the heathen White Rajah. The blessed outcome of their sincerity and their efforts was that the White Rajahs were forced to respect the sanctity of Islam as the religion of the Malays of Sarawak. Perhaps this was his greatest miracle of all.

May God shower them all with His Good Pleasure and Mercy, and let us lift up to them a recitation of the Fatihah.

[Datuk Hakim Keramat: Original Malay Text]

[Annotated Slideshow of Kuching District Mosque and Grounds]

Dabai, the Sarawak Olive

Olives Dabai in cross sectionare a food I miss from back home. In Detroit, you can get a dozen different kinds of imported olives from the Lebanese grocery stores. My favorite are the dehydrated Turkish olives that you reconstitute by soaking in olive oil, lemon juice and crushed garlic. Mmmm. But I’m not complaining! Sarawak has its own version of the olive: Dabai. Properly Canarium odontophyllum of the family Burseracea, it bears no relation to the olive botanically, but the resemblance is uncanny. They look a lot like olives, black and oblong, and only a bit larger than your average kalamata. Dabai tastes a lot like an olive too, bitter and oily. Like olives, you only get a bit of meat on each dabai; the rest is a large, smooth, three-sided seed.
Dabai are only found in Sarawak, and then only in one place, the Rajang River basin, the watershed of the largest river in Sarawak. Since the upper reaches of the Rajang are not easily accessible, a lot of trade moves along the river to the town of Sibu, which sits at the mouth of the Rajang. It is a seasonal fruit, with two crops per year following on the heels of Durian season.

If Dabai for sale at a roadside marketyou should find yourself in Sarawak, you’ll need to know how to cook them, as they can’t be eaten raw. Put the dabai in a bowl, boil some water in a kettle, and pour it over the dabai. Let them stand in the hot water for ten minutes or so. When ready, the flesh should separate from the seed when you pinch it. Drain off the water, toss in a dash or two of salt and shake them around. The flesh is creamy like an avocado, but bitter like an olive. You can eat them alone, but the flavor is a bit strong. I prefer them as a side dish to a rice and fish meal, where the rice can cut the bitterness.

If you’re not here in season, you could always try nasi goreng dabai or dabai fried rice. You can get it year-round since they make it with dabai that has been preserved by salting. At least, I think that’s what they do, from the taste of it; a bit too salty for my taste.

DabaiDabai with a rare variety of mata kuching is listed as a rare fruit in the wild, and to my knowledge the fruit in the market is wild-collected. If you’re interested in growing it, or want more botanical information, you could try the Borneo Collection. Extra Bonus Fruit: In the picture to the left is a rare variety of Mata Kuching also from Sibu. To me, it seemed identical to the common mata kuching, except for the green bumpy skin. Cool to look at though! That in a nutshell is why tropical biodiversity is doomed, but that’s a subject for another post.

Neighbor Day at the Surau

As I’m sure is universal among muslim communities, Ramadan represents the high water mark of religious devotion, the time when the greatest number of people turn up for daily prayers. That’s followed by a Eid crash, when numbers plummet back down to, or even below, average levels, as everyone becomes distracted with the holidays. In a bid to remind the neighborhood that the musallah was still open for business, our musallah hosted a Majlis Silaturrahim or Hari Ramah-tamah, a glorified block party the week following Hari Raya. The overt agenda was to welcome new residents to the neighborhood, of which there are many since new homes are still being built in our area, and to recognize members of the community who helped to enliven the musallah during the fasting month.

If you’ve ever been involved in neighborhood politics, then you’ll know that it is extremely hard to motivate people to break from their routine to actively support neighborhood initiatives. Even ensuring a decent turnout is no easy feat. The sure-fire way to get the neighborhood to turn out is to pander to their children, and that’s exactly what we did. Two elderly ladies from the sisters committee rounded up a group of young kids and spent a week’s worth of afternoons teaching them a selection of nasheeds. Sure enough, turnout was high that night, with mothers with kids in the show forming a solid block in the ladies’ section. That evening, after the opening speeches from the e-board dignitaries, the kids took the stage for their performance. It was karaoke’d, but at least it wasn’t lip synched; you could still hear the kids singing. My two eldest were in the show, so of course I was entertained. They sang the lovely Sepohon Kayu, as well as some other songs I didn’t recognize.
Sepohon Kayu is a lovely song, and one that I had been meaning to translate for a long time. I suppose this is my chance.

Sepohon Kayu

A solitary tree lush with leaves
Hanging low and heavy with flowers and fruit
If one lives a life of a thousand years
Without prayer what would it all mean?

Sepohon kayu, daunnya rimbun
Lebat bunganya serta buahnya
Walaupun hidup seribu tahun
Kalau tak sembahyang apa gunanya

We go off to work day by day
In order that we have homes of our own
If one lives a life of a thousand years
Without prayer what would it all mean?

Kami bekerja sehari-hari
Untuk belanja rumah sendiri
Walaupun hidup seribu tahun
Kalau tak sembahyang apa gunanya

We pray to God the daily prayers
While keeping the Prophet’s holy way
So that we may find the good pleasure of God
We work all day with happy hearts

Kami sembahyang fardu sembahyang
Sunatpun ada bukan sembarang
Supaya Allah menjadi sayang
Kami bekerja hatilah riang

We offer up the five daily prayers
Through night and day we surely pray
We are orphans in the life of the grave
Tortured, tormented, all alone

Kami sembahyang limalah waktu
Siang dan malam sudahlah tentu
Hidup dikubur yatim piatu
Tinggalah seorang dipukul dipalu

Beaten and chastised day by day
Only then does he begin to realise
A meaningless life in this world
Leads to utter loss in the life to come

Dipukul dipalu sehari-hari
Barulah dia sedarkan diri
Hidup didunia tiada berarti
Akhirat disana sangatlah rugi

I’ve taken a bit of license with the translation to come up with something that approximates the rhythm of the original. I think with a little pushing and pulling you could sing my English lyrics to the same tune.

Anyway, that was followed by a much more talented presentation by Kumpulan Muhibbah, an aspiring teenage nasheed group from Kuching. They came in matching outfits and with a complement of quality instruments, including a set of congos. I missed taking pictures of most of the performance since I had to take a little one back to the house for bedtime. Still, they were more than happy to pose for a photo after the show. The last event of the evening was the giving of small gifts to recognize those involved in the Ramadan meals and in the reciting of Quran during the holy month. Alhamdulillah, our musallah was able to khatam Quran during Ramadan, with an average of 10 men and boys and 5 women separately reciting a juz each night. My son was lucky enough to score a new pencil box despite only coming with me a couple times. It was a pleasant enough evening, and I met some people from the neighborhood who I hadn’t seen before. In that sense the evening was successful. But sad to say, since the event it has gone back to just the regulars for the daily five again.

Masjid Negeri Sarawak

You’d be forgiven for thinking these pictures were taken in Central Asia somewhere, but they are from the Sarawak State Mosque in Kuching. I was on holiday for the first Friday after Eid, so I took the chance to visit the masjid with my son and nephew. As you can see, it has a very austere and imposing exterior, a giant white box perched on a slight rise in the middle of spacious grounds. It sets off the dome nicely, a turqoise shade that can be seen from some distance.

There are many things to appreciate about this masjid. One of them is the setting. The grounds meet with open land of several other institutions including the Sarawak State Library. It lends the whole area a quiet, stately air. The grounds are landscaped with shade trees which is a nice change from the usually bare masajid in town, though a lot more could be done to flatter the mosque as it deserves.

Another is the attention to detail. The mosque really only seems bare at a distance. At closer range, you can see calligraphy everywhere. And if you really take a close look, you see that the calligraphy is not a single word or phrase repeated over and over; in the case of the cornice along the inside, it appears to be the Asma ul-Husna. The interior of the dome is spectacular, with two bands of calligraphy along the base, one in red, one in black, dancing over a spiral flower motif. The black band is Surah ar-Rahman. I couldn’t make out the red. I couldn’t take a clear enough picture in the dim light to be able to examine it from the photo. The calligraphy in the gold circles reads Allah, Muhammad Rasul.

I’ll let the other pictures speak for themselves. If you hold your mouse over the photo, you’ll see a short description, and as always, you can click the picture to see the full size photo. You can also follow this link to see all my photos of the Sarawak State Mosque.


What’s a rainforest minus the rain?  We’ve been finding out over here.  It’s been over two weeks without a drop of rain, and things are as dry as a bone.  The dry season here in Sarawak corresponds with a change in winds which bring our weather in from the south and west.  Because of the dryness, fires set to clear land in Indonesia burn hotter and get out of control more.  Because of the change in winds, all the smoke from those forest fires blows over the border right to where I sit right now.  This week has been almost frightening.  The sun is a dull red ball in sky, buildings down the block fade in and out of view.  The locals call it haze, but it’s not haze Los Angeles style (as awful as that is).  It’s smoke, pure and simple.  The first step outside in the morning carries a whiff that is unmistakeably woodsmoke.  By the second breath, you’re used to it and don’t smell it anymore.  But it’s all around.  I can’t quench my thirst.  I drink and drink and drink  (young coconuts are especially good).  But five minutes later my mouth and throat are thick and parched again.  The most shocking thing is going to my car and finding it with a dusting of ash.  Sometimes you can even see large particles drifting through the air.  It’s amazing to think of the scale of the fires that must be producing this on the ground in Kalimantan.  Lucky for most of us, the air pollution levels are not so high in most of the country.  Unfortunately for me, Kuching is getting the worst of it this year.  The API has hit the low nineties, just a few ticks from the official “unhealthy” mark.
Pray for rain.

The situation in Indonesia

On the Malaysian side