Masjid India, Kuching

Masjid India Kuching

Masjid India is perhaps the oldest standing masjid in Kuching, though the nearby Masjid Bahagian is built on a hill top that held an older structure. Masjid India is so named because the small Kuching Indian community requested the land to build the mosque from the first White Rajah, James Brooke, in the late 1800’s. Over time, the Indians, who were mostly traders, built shop houses adjoining one another around the perimeter of the deeded land, until the masjid was completely contained. Only a few modest signs mark the main entrances into the enclosed compound, such that upon subsequent visits I still did not notice them. Only after having my lunch at a “mamak” restaraunt and hearing the call again did I enquire from the shopkeeper where I might make salat. He directed me to the back of his store. Past the bathrooms, through the kitchen I went, till I stepped through a doorway and found myself on the grounds of the masjid.

The masjid is very modest. Grungy may be a better word. It is dimly lit, since the open spaces between the backs of the shops and the roof of the masjid have been roofed over with corrugated metal sheets to protect against the heavy seasonal rains. The rugs in the main hall look worn; only thin vinyl sheeting covers the bare cement in the outer prayer areas. The masjid is clad in wood siding thickly covered with greenish paint. The views away from the masjid terminate abruptly at the fading whitewash coating the rear ends of the shophouses. The mihrab is decorated with a blend of small greyish tiles more often seen in bathrooms. One formal entrance squeezes between shops selling scarves, clothes and the like. Another informal entrance is barely wide enough for a toddler to pass – most people must turn their shoulders to fit through (my toddlers are presented there for scale, with their aunty). It comes out in the bulk storage area of a spice and dry goods store.

The people inhabiting the area in the off hours add to the gritty feeling. In between prayer times, a few men can be found resting here and there. The masjid’s location at the end of several bus lines means many visitors are transient, on their way to somewhere else. The small number of blind people who eke out an existence around the district (by selling packets of tissues on a donation basis, actually a nice practice to prevent the appearance of begging) can often be found taking refuge from the crowds.

Despite all that, the masjid is surprisingly pleasant. It is quieter than you would imagine during the day despite the bustle outside. Something about its mystery and age make it very appealing to me. Among the relics not often found in masajid any more is a large drum called a beduk. As I mentioned elsewhere, such drums where used to draw attention prior to the calling of the adhan, in the days before microphones and loudspeakers. My favorite detail of all is the wudu area. The only unroofed area of the masjid, the middle of the wudu area is filled with potted plants making use of the “gray” wudu water that would otherwise go down the drain wasted, while enlivening the masjid with a bit of green. I would love to see this idea incorporated in other masajid. All in all, the India Street district is perhaps the earliest example of that modern Malaysian innovation, a shopping mall with a built-in prayer area.

Sarawak Newspaper Suspended over Cartoons

One of our two local daily papers, The Sarawak Tribune, reprinted the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad last Saturday. Within the last few days the editor on duty resigned, the Internal Security Department called in the heads of the paper to “show cause”, and yesterday it was announced that the license of the newspaper is suspended with immediate effect. The Sarawak Tribune is closed down.

Riots in Kuching? No, sorry to disappoint. Everyone I’ve talked to is short on rage; the most common reaction is a shaking of the head. What on earth could the editor have been thinking? Religious satire (if we can politely describe those cartoons as such) is so far beyond the limits of acceptable public speech here that it really is puzzling. There are three or four possibilities that I can see.

It could have been a complete oversight. The paper borrows heavily from news networks like Rueters and the Associated Press for its stories. A lot of copy-and-paste goes on – maybe the cartoons were included by accident.

Was it religious hostility, a desire to offend? That would be a pretty hasty conclusion. Religion is a delicate issue in Malaysia, far more than it is in the US. The US is funny that way. People in the States are far more touchy about race than religion. I think it has to do with the religious plurality of Malaysia. The US and Malaysia may both have a similar mix of ethnic minorities, but the largest ethnic minorities in the US, Blacks and Hispanics, are Christian. In Malaysia, ethnic minorities are also religious minorities (with the exception of Indian muslims and a smattering of converts). Maybe that’s not the whole picture, but I think it is part of the reason why religion is as taboo as race between communities. Religious issues are even more touchy here in Sarawak since it is the only Christian majority state in the country. Some may use the existence of tension and the fact that the editors involved were non-muslim to argue weakly for or be suspicious of religious prejudice behind the incident, but it doesn’t wash, because the cartoons were printed extremely small, too small for anybody to read and make sense out of what they were saying (assuming they made sense – I still haven’t read them).

The European papers that reprinted the cartoons have done so out of journalistic solidarity, to demonstrate their rights or what have you. Was the Sarawak Tribune challenging the government, testing the boundaries of free speech? It doesn’t seem likely. As I’ve mentioned before, the media in Malaysia is extremely docile. More so here in Sarawak, where leading government officials get glamour shots on the front page every other day, and reporting of any significant event is reduced to paraphrase of the relevant politician’s press release. If the Sarawak Tribune did want to push the limits of editorial freedom, why not publish on corruption, cronyism, bribery, abuse of power? Those things should be matters of immediate concern to every Sarawakian and reporting on them a far more vital service by the paper to its readership. Muslims and non-muslims alike may have supported bravery in journalism of that kind. As it is, this incident simply allows the government to flex its censorial muscles and enjoy popular support while doing so. So if this was an attempt to make a statement about or to push the bounds of free speech, as some commenters over at Screenshots seem to be arguing, it was a singularly misplaced one.

But I don’t think it was. The second article I linked mentioned that the Trib had actually been reprimanded three times already last year for publishing sensational images of sex and gore. I’ve often thought that the bloody car wreck photos and the like were a bit excessive, but I didn’t notice that it was the Sarawak Tribune exclusively publishing them. If the Trib has indeed been going further with salacious images to boost readership, then maybe publication of the cartoons was just a poorly considered attempt to do the same thing. That would also make the government’s reaction even more understandable. It wasn’t a one time event, it was a fourth offense.

Either way, things are chill here. Embassies are intact, streets are calm. The only unfortunate thing is that the citizens of Sarawak will have no choice but to siang their ikan on the Borneo Post from now on.

[More on Malaysian journalism from Jeff Ooi here]
[More on the suspension of the Sarawak Tribune]

Strange Fruit pt. 8: Rambutan

It is fruit season now, which means all my discretionary income is vanishing at the roadside market. There are plenty of local fruits available year round – pineapples, papayas, bananas – but the best fruits are highly seasonal, available only for two months or so at the beginning and middle of the year.

One of my favorites is rambutan, with their bright red and yellow hairy skins. Rip or twist them open and inside is a thick sweet juicy flesh around a seed the size of an almond. I first encountered them as rum-tums in Sri Lanka, where they constituted a culinary high point during my few months there. Here in Kuching, they sell them on the twig for between RM 1.50 a bundle, more at the ends of the season, less in the middle.

The rambutan tree is easy to grow and care for, and so is often planted in people’s backyards. It is a medium sized tree if left untended. In an orchard I visited in Penang, though, the trees were all kept pruned to about fifteen feet so all the fruit could be harvested by step ladder. The shape and size of the trees were not unlike what you’d find in an apple orchard, except the trees were spaced much further apart.

I’ve got a rambutan tree that I planted about a year and a half ago. It’s a named variety: “Anak Sekolah”, or School Kid. I continue to be amazed by how fast things can grow around here: It’s about eight feet tall already. According to the nurseryman I bought it from, grafted stock will start bearing two years after planting. If so, I ought to get a little fruit in the middle of this year. I can’t wait.

Islam in Detroit

The University of Michigan Graduate School has a project on the web called Building Islam in Detroit: An Interdisciplinary Study of Muslim Institutions & Collective Spaces. The site is not fully developed yet, but it sounds like a great project, with case studies planned for a number of masajid around town including Muath bin Jabal near Hamtramck. They have a list of masajid around town, plotted on a map. I’m fond of telling people that Detroit has as many masajid as Kuching; now I have proof. The most fleshed out part of the site is the section that has photographs of various mosques, taken by a photographer visiting from Sudan. Well worth a look.

[via Islamicate]

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.

Mawlid ar-Rasul: Surau Darul Rahman

Darul Rahman

Prophet Muhammad’s birth was commemorated last wednesday night throughout the muslim world. The tiny corner of it that I inhabit was no exception. Surau Darul Rahman held an evening of learning and celebration. I feel extremely fortunate to live two blocks from our neighborhood surau.

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A surau is a prayer hall just like a masjid except that it does not hold the Friday congregational prayer. Our surau could probably hold about 200 people maximum. It is a fairly new building, about 10 years old, built around the same time that my subdivision was developed. Prior to that, the area only had a few clusters of kampung-style homes sprinkled through the woods at fairly low density. Like most suraus and masjids throughout the country, ours was built in part by government funds and its activities are nominally overseen by the religious department. Often, large planned unit developments will include a surau as part of the basic infrastructure, just like pocket parks.

You may wonder why there is no dome. Well, the traditional masajid of Malaysia were built of timber and had no dome but rather a set of square tiered roofs. The grand masjids with huge domes that have been built in recent times are often gorgeous but are not really classically malay in form. I’m not saying our humble surau was built with a hipped roof as some kind of architectural statement: it’s a fairly homely building really. It’s just that the dome is not a necessary part of mosque-building around here. But I digress.

For this special night, a guest was invited to come and speak after maghrib prayers. Our guest was an ustaz from Indonesia who has been teaching Arabic and Religion at a religious school in Kuching for the last ten years. He came to us from the pesantren of East Java, an area reknowned throughout the nusantara for the high level of scholarship they maintain and the da’is they have produced. He gave a wonderful talk, touching briefly on the the fatwa of Sayyid Muhammad Alawi Al-Maliki concerning mawlid from which he read for us excerpts in Arabic and translated on the fly into Malay. There is great good in gathering together, beautifying the masjid, remembering the Prophet and praising him to the best of our ability, though we can hardly praise him as he deserves to be praised. Our only transgression, as the ustaz reminded us, is that we don’t do it everyday.

Following the cerama, the congregation broke for a meal, to be followed by zikr and nasheed. Some of us ran off with the ustaz instead to another gathering, where we recited the Ratib al-Haddad and the Mawlid Diba’i late into the evening until our throats were raw. I can’t find translations of the Mawlid Diba’i anywhere online, but you can listen to it here.

“Falaw anna sa’ayna kulla heenin/
‘Alal ahdaqi la fawqan naja’ib/
Wa law anna ‘amilna kulla yawmin/
Li Ahmada mawlidan qad kana wajib”

“And verily though we rushed to do it at every moment/
We could see around us nothing more noble/
And verily, even if we did it every day/
For Ahmad celebrating his birth is nigh unto obligatory”

[Forgive my poor Arabic. It’s just me and Hans Wehr working alone. Corrections welcome.]

[My coverage of Mawlid Nabi, Kuching 2003 is here]

The Yard: Cekur Udang Gamit

Cekur in flower

There is a Malay nursery rhyme that goes like this:

Cekur udang gamit

Minta cekur bagi kunyit

Mothers will often sing this to small babies while holding their wrist, to which the baby will respond by opening and closing their fist. It is very cute. I don’t know how my wife managed to teach our kids at the age of just a few months. They pick it up very easily almost like it is some kind of reflex.

The rhyme means:

Cekur shrimp waving

Ask for cekur, give turmeric

Great, so that makes about as much sense as nursery rhymes can be expected to make. But what on earth is cekur, you ask? Maybe you’re not all that sure what turmeric is either, for that matter.
Cekur in flower  Turmeric/kunyit  Ginger/halia
[Click for larger images]

Well, turmeric, curcuma longa/domestica, kunyit in Malay, is a spice in the same family as ginger, zingiber officianale, halia in Malay, but with smaller rhizomes (not a root, technically). The rhizomes are orange-yellow and can be used fresh or in powdered form in a lot of asian cooking, especially curries. The leaf can also be used, chopped up as an herb or as a wrapping for baking or roasting fish. My turmeric is a sad specimen. It is forever being victimized by leaf-rolling caterpillars.

Now cekur, kaempfera galanga, probably, is a much rarer plant without a proper English name that I know of. Let’s just call it chekur. It is seldom used for cooking but is prized for medicinal purposes, including post-partum care. It is ground into a paste and applied as a poultice to the stomach to aid the uterus in shrinking and to tone the stomach. [You will be notified when my cekur herbal supplement MLM is ready to launch – ed.] I’ve written a bit more on malay post-partum treatment previously. Finding cekur for sale is not easy. There is only one man selling it in all the veggie markets in Kuching, and sometimes he’s out of stock, so I made sure to plant some of what we bought last time around. It has done splendidly, spreading all over and even flowering, which is unusual for some of these rhizomaceous types.

That guy down at the Gambier bus yard also sells benglay (sp?), which is a smaller and uglier rhizome even than cekur. It is an even more obscure gingerish plant. My wife had never heard the name before much less seen it till moving to Sarawak. Our local midwife allowed that it could be used in place of cekur if needs be, but it smells very bad when made into a poultice. If I wind up visiting that guy again after the baby comes, I’ll buy a bit just to photograph it. Which is likely since we went through kilos of cekur last time around, and I doubt if I’ve got quite that much here in the yard.

Catching up

With Esther Rose and Persephone high in the tropical canopy
With Esther Rose and Persephone
High in the tropical canopy

I’ve been neglecting my website of late. Two entries in 2 months? I won’t be winning any blogging awards that way. Well, in fact I did manage to split the win for Macvaysia‘s Best Malaysian Weblog by a Mat Salleh Award. (Mat Salleh?) That could only be because it wouldn’t be fair for the more deserving Jordan, being the organizer, to nominate himself. Thanks Jordan! Speaking of awards, Alt.Muslim ran a series for Muslim webloggers, the Brass Crescent Awards. I see from the list that I have a lot of reading to do: I haven’t ever visited half those nominated. Well, I’ve got excuses for not keeping up with my reading and writing. Dozens really, though most are of the dog ate my keyboard variety. But I’ll put forward my most credible: Did I tell you we’re expecting our fifth child? Yep, yep. Due in June.

I was on vacation, sort of, around the christmas holidays (one of the benefits of living in a multicultural society: we get everybody’s holidays) when two of my three brilliantly gifted sisters came to visit. It was a great trip: we spent three days in KL when they arrived, visiting, among other places, the Petronas Towers and India Street, where we caught a live performance of Malay traditional dance. It was off to Kuching for two weeks after that. The highlight of the trip was a few nights spent at Batang Ai National Park, or at least the hotel on the outskirts of it. We managed to do a little hiking through the jungle amidst all the general loafing about. Here is a shot of the three of us in a tree house high atop a meranti tree. If we had all managed to look straight ahead, we would be staring at the border with Indonesia, visible across the Batang Ai impoundment. It was not a bad little hike, especially for four little ones and my pregnant wife (did I mention we’re expecting number five?).

I still manage to get online, lurking mostly, reading the news. One article caught my eye, about the coming population bust. It’s by Phillip Longman from Foreign Affairs.com. According to him, the globe will never hit the gargantuan population levels that were so widely predicted and that the rate of population growth has already slowed dramatically all around the world. The rate of growth is already so low all across the developed world that the native population is not at replacement levels. The US population grows every year by a number roughly equal to the amount of new immigration. The author appears to be concerned largely because it means that in the future the bulk of the US population will be made up of them-immigrants (more recently arrived mexicans, indians, chinese, etc) instead of the us-immigrants that he would prefer(white-ish migrants from west of the Urals). Never mind the latent racism, I think the possibility of a rapid population decline is probably still not widely accepted, and maybe even crankish, but it’s hard to ignore somebody who supports your worldview so flatteringly:

Does this mean that the future belongs to those who believe they are (or who are in fact) commanded by a higher power to procreate? Based on current trends, the answer appears to be yes….

Those who reject modernity would thus seem to have an evolutionary advantage, whether they are clean-living Mormons or Muslims, or members of emerging sects and national movements that emphasize high birthrates and anti-materialism.

Found via Metafilter

So, uh, totally unrelated to the above, did I mention we’re expecting our fifth child? Yeah. Due in June. You know, I’ve never been particularly good at da’wah (proselytizing), but there’s more than one way to make a new muslim…