My five children weren’t the only ones sick over the vacation. The wife was busy vomiting all over the place too. The problem: Penyakit buatan orang. That literally means a man-made illness but refers to a hex or voodoo curse placed on someone. Black magic is alive and well in Malaysia, at least in people’s minds. It is not uncommon to hear people complain of illness, change of a spouse’s affections or other problems as being caused by witchcraft and to seek remedy from bomohs, often in the form of Quranic verses and the like. In this case, though, the hex was placed by me: she’s pregnant. Thank you, thank you. Bin Gregory Production #6 is due sometime in early July. Blame it on Malaysian birth control.
I never imagined I would become the father of such a large family, but now that it is happening it feels very right, masha’Allah. When I reflect back, maybe I should have known it would be so. The family I had been closest to over the years prior to getting married was an American convert couple who have six kids. My wife’s wali and the mediator between me and my wife’s family back in Malaysia during our marriage process also had six kids. In fact I had completely forgotten, until my wife recently reminded me, that he had made dua for us on our wedding day that we should have more kids than him. Uh Oh.
Anyway, with all five kids down with the measels, and the wife incapacitated by a single-celled organism of a different nature, our vacation post-Pangkor consisted of me slipping out of the house on excursions for medicine, diapers, hot chocolate, and so on. Thus, my final offering to you from our school vacation is a windshield survey of the musallahs and masjids of Rungkup Road, Bagan Datoh. Not quite the Bridges of Madison County but I do what I can. You can also see all my photos of Islamic places of worship in Malaysia as a slideshow on Flickr.
Vacationing in a rural area like Bagan Datoh means you are far from the entertainment and amenities of city life. One definite advantage lies in being closer to where your food comes from: fresh, wholesome food is just outside your door. When we ran out of chicken, I had simply to ease on down the road to get the freshest possible halal chicken available.
It’s amazing sometimes how obsessed Malays are with eating halal. I knew of Malaysian students in the US who would drive hours to stock up on halal meat every few weeks, others in a rural area that would gather funds from the student community to slaughter their own cow at a nearby farm and divvy up the meat. Compared to many of us American muslims who simply eat local beef and chicken as christian meat or buy Kosher, it is a tremendous amount of effort, may God reward them for it.
But now here we are in a muslim country with national halal certification, a huge thriving halal food industry, yet people will still go to great lengths to ensure their meat is halal, and rumors constantly swirl about non-halal products or butchers that have a halal sign but are really not. Caution in religious matters can be a form of piety, so I’m not condemning that, but sometimes I feel like people should just see the halal sign and say bismillah, put tawakkul in Allah and get on with it.
All such fears are allayed if you simply get your chicken right from the source, in this case, Wak Nab’s open air butcher shop. As I pulled over the rickety wooden bridge across the canal, Abang Nor, my wife’s half-brother’s wife’s older brother, took a break from his yard work, washed off and strolled over to take our order. He asked if I wanted to pick my birds, but I demurred: any two would do. From the cage to the killing floor to the boiler to the plucker to the cutting board, the whole process
took just a few minutes a bird. You can’t get chicken fresher than that, and you can’t get chicken any more halal than that unless you could see the islam inscribed on the man’s heart. It hit the lunch table an hour later as ayam masak kuning. Yum yum.
I was amazed to see all the development upon my return to Bagan Datoh. Roads were being widened and resurfaced, the water infrastructure was being upgraded, civic buildings looked spiffy with fresh paint. Am I reading to much into it to see a political lesson here? Having your district go to PAS is bad for government investment, but having your district almost go to PAS (as Bagan Datoh nearly did last election) is fantastic for government investment.
The most interesting new development was that the whole district had been organized into a Homestay program, whereby a few homes in each village became glorified Bread & Breakfasts. Unlike with your basic B&B, here the host is part of the attraction. (The idea is not all that different from the longhouse staysthat adventurous visitors to Sarawak often take. Bagan Datoh is far more tame, I can assure you.) It turned out even our neighbor two doors down had enrolled. For about RM50 a night, you can stay in an authentic village house, eat authentic village homecooked food, and meet authentic village people. And to think, I’ve been getting all this for free!
Seriously, it is a nice idea. I’ve always been fond of the place during the many trips here over the last ten years, but in a way, finding out that it was now a tourist attraction made me take a second look. Perhaps Bagan Datoh has overly informed my impression of the Malay countryside. I imagined that all of rural Malaysia was more or less this way. But if Malaysians would choose to come and stay here as tourists to experience real kampung life, than maybe what we have here is something more special and rare than I realized. Socially, the kampungs here are very tight knit, traditional, and deeply religious. The area has an idyllic quality, with it’s miles of swaying coconut trees, slow-moving canals, and beautiful wooden homes. It is lovely. I suppose it could be a tourist destination if you enjoy your vacations slow and restful.
A few resources if you want to plan a vacation to Bagan Datoh: Tourism Malaysia: Homestay AdventureQuest: Bagan Datoh Homestay
In the heart of our kampung in Bagan Datoh lies the Masjid Jamek Jawiyyah, a beautiful mosque built entirely from wood over one hundred years ago. There have been a few expansions since then, but the original timbers of the structure are still intact and unchanged. Since it was built before running water, the ablution pools are fed by gutters that channel rainwater from the roof. The main roof is square and built in two tiers. The red metal dome may not be original and in any case is not structural but just a decoration placed on top. The minaret is also square and tiered.
The whole structure reflects a tremendous amount of care, skill and art on the part of the builders. The cross beam in the cupola is ornately carved, as is the gingerbread along the roof edges. The beams and posts are all fitted together without nails or metal joiners. The pillars are huge square timbers maybe 8×8. The wood is of such high quality, some of the beams are even spliced together over the long spans yet still look sturdy today. Hardwood of that size and quality is hard to find in West Malaysia these days at any price.
Every Friday there is a cerama before the khutbah, held on the large airy front porch. The ustaz sits crosslegged on the floor with a small wooden table on which is the Holy Quran in Arabic. He recites a verse, translates it on the fly and then proceeds to give classical tafsir and commentary from memory. The ustaz is an elderly man of the village, who, as is so common, has moved away to KL. He comes back every Friday just for this.
The mosque was built by the settlers of this area who were migrants from Java, hence the name. Although the kampung population has dwindled considerably due to urban migration, the main prayer hall is still full for juma’ah. The residents have a lot of affection for the building. Even in its heyday this region was never wealthy, yet the mosque was entirely built by hand by the community without government patronage. Many residents can still name which ancestor of theirs helped to build the mosque. May it be an unceasing source of blessings for those many souls who set their hands to establish this house of God.
I’ve just returned from a three week vacation in West Malaysia, or three weeks of something anyway. Calling it a vacation is a bit of a stretch. It went from the “are we there yet?” phase to the “when can we go home?” phase in no time flat. From the relay-race style vomiting of the first week to the tag-team measles of the third, it was the kind of vacation that will make you stay home next year. The plan was simple: rent a van, pile aboard, and spend three weeks going from relative’s house to beach to more relatives’ houses all around the peninsula. We had scarcely left the airport before we knew that plan was no longer tenable. Instead, we wound up with nearly three weeks grounded at Kampung Sungai Balai Darat, Bagan Datoh, dealing with fevers, 2nd degree burns, and rivers of loose motions, vomit and tears.
It wasn’t all bad though. Really. We did manage one brief excursion to Pulau Pangkor, Perak’s own island getaway. I’d visited on day trips several times before since it’s not that far from Bagan Datoh and is also close to my mother-in-law’s kampung of origin near Lumut. We did a few things differently this time though: We brought along my nephew San(one of my 22 nieces and nephews on my wife’s side), we stayed a few nights, and I sprung for a boat trip off from the main beach.
That last one was well worth it. As gorgeous as the Teluk Nipah beach is, the island in the bay is way nicer. Pulau Giam or Coral Island was spectacular: live coral visible swaying under the clear water, a white sand beach of shells and dry coral bits, more breeze… After an hour or so, the other groups left and we had almost the whole place to ourselves. KakNgah went looking for coral and sea shells and found a star fish; well, not quite: it’s a star-shaped peice of plastic debris. It was her favorite find nonetheless.
The sun continued to climb till it was directly overhead. The tide went out, placing the shore far away from any shade. It was too much for Andak, who took a nap in a sarong suspended from a peice of driftwood. Really useful, those sarongs. We snacked on stale muruku from raya that my mother-in-law brought along till the boat came to pick us up at one. Malaysia truly has some amazing places. I can’t wait till the kids are old enough to do some real adventuring.
There’s never an excuse to neglect your salat when vacationing in Malaysia. Across the street from the beach, between restaurants and hotels, there is a tiny musallah. It is even less exciting on the inside, but it has all the necessities, including spare sarongs for those who show up in their swim trunks. A little advice to anyone thinking to visit Pangkor: don’t go during Malaysian school vacation times and don’t go on the weekend. Prices are nearly double during the peak times for most things, and the crowds dissappear Sunday afternoon. We saw the difference since we came on a Saturday and on Tuesday returned to Bagan Datoh.
Little did I know that in the two years since we last visited, our sleepy little backwater had itself become a tourist destination! I’ll fill you in on the details in the next installment.
It’s school vacation time. I’m packing up the troops for a three week road trip in West Malaysia. I’ll be back in Kuching on the 23rd. In the likely event that I don’t update before Christmas, might I suggest the full online translation of the Hikam by Ibn Ata’Allah, courtesy of Dr Aisha Bewley’s homepage, which is no less tremendous for looking like it hasn’t been redesigned since the internet was born…
Shortly after Hari Raya Eid al-Fitr, I was given a lovely gift in the form of a rooster, hen, and four small chicks. The chickens are a small variety known locally as ayam katik. Although smaller and more tame, these chickens are not related to our modern poultry or egg laying machines, but are bred from semi-wild chickens similar to bantams. They are fairly self-reliant, semi-arboreal (they can nest in trees) and better flyers than the more heavily bred factory farm chickens.
The main reason I had wanted to get chickens was to control insects and produce better compost for my garden. I thought my children may enjoy them too, but I didn’t know the half of it. The kids, especially my eldest daughter KakNgah, are fascinated with them, and spend lots of time watching them just going about their chicken business. For a while, my youngest, KakAndak, who is just learning to speak, called them meow!, which is her word for cats, of course. But now she’s got it straight, and calls them ‘yam! They are surprisingly endearing, and have a grace to their movements which you wouldn’t necessarily expect. Our favorite is the way the mother hen scratches the ground with her talons with a quick “left, right” while her head looks skyward, and then quickly steps back to allow her chicks to grab the insects she’s unearthed. It’s so clearly maternal.
Another great benefit of the chickens is the rooster’s crowing. It didn’t occur to me before I got them that the rooster would crow at dawn. Well he crows! He cockles his heart out for about 15 minutes straight. It’s better than any alarm clock and there is no snooze button. The only trouble is, he’s a bit of late crower. By the time he lets loose, there’s only about twenty minutes of subuh left. That means he’s no use in getting me to the musallah for group prayer, but he has helped me from missing the prayer altogether on the occassions when I oversleep. My buddy.
Raising chickens, and connecting yourself to the land in general, revitalizes your language. There are so many sayings and proverbs related to farm life that, while still common in the language, have lost their power or beauty for city people like myself. This first occurred to me with the expression “Make hay while the sun shines”. Of course, we all know, this means to sieze an opportunity without delay. But it was just a cliche to me until I spent some time working on a farm. In order to prepare hay, which is the food source for barn animals all winter long, the grasses in the field must be cut. After they are cut, they must lay out on under the sun to dry. After they are dry, they must be baled, and after they are baled they must be collected and brought to the barn. For the length of this whole operation, sun is needed, and the more the better. If it happens to rain at any point in the process, the hay is drastically reduced in quality and can even be ruined. I still remember waking up early in the morning after the hay had been drying in the field, going out behind Abdul Haqq on his tractor, and throwing bale after bale of hay onto the trailer until the sun went down. From “cain’t see in the mornin’ to cain’t see at night”, as it were. At the end of the day, I was dead on my feet, my body was covered in tiny cuts from the hay particles, and I was blowing bloody snot from my nose from the hay dust. I now am fully aware of what it means to make hay while the sun shines.
In the same vein, there are plenty of expressions related to chickens that are becoming more vivid to me, and I hope to my children as well. I noticed that the chickens would peck and scratch without a care, and then for no reason at all, one of the chickens would squawk, jump and flap its wings for a moment, and then resume like nothing had happened. The problem? He’s chicken, of course. In English, if you’re chicken, it means you’re easily scared. In Valpo, Indiana, instead of saying “cheese!” to smile for the camera, they say “Hippy Chickens”, the hippy being how they say happy over there. There’s a lot of colorful language related to the rooster’s behavior too, but I won’t go into that!
In Malay, chickens have contributed to the language too: there’s kaki ayam, literally “chicken foot”, but meaning barefoot, cakar ayam, chicken scratch, the meaning same as English, ibu ayam, literally mother hen, but referring to a madam of the ill repute variety. I’m sure there are plenty more, and I invite my BM-speaking readers to leave them in the comments.
But my favorite expression is hangat-hangat tahi ayam, which I can really only literally translate as “hot like chicken sh*t”, but which in Malay is not crude or profane at all as it would be in English – it’s a perfectly acceptable phrase. It’s used to mean somebody who is very excited about a thing, but will grow tired of it and quit in a short while, as in, “That kid is hangat-hangat tahi ayam with his new bike – he’s ridden it all day long today, but next week it will be gathering dust.”
Unfortunately, I saved the bad news for last. It’s not all Hippy Chickens here at Bin Gregory Productions. When I first got the family of six, I bought a nice new wire frame cage for them to live. That very evening, a stray cat, of which there is a small army where I live, burgaled the cage and made of with two of the little McNuggets. Well, I cat-proofed the cage with boards, bricks, and anything else I could find, and that worked for a few days. (I’m sure my neighbors are none to pleased with my ramshackle coop. Wait till I have my camper-trailer up on cinderblocks in the backyard, then they’ll know what kind of Orang Putih they’ve got living next door.)
But while I had cat-proofed the cage, I had not chick-proofed it, and one of the chicks wandered out of the cage after lock-up time and met his doom. That left us with only one chick, who I took to calling “Lucky”. He’s the little yellow one. He was doing great, and his wings had started to grow in, which I thought would embue him with cat-evasion ability. Sadly, in the middle of the afternoon last weekend, a cat struck again and made off with him. When I arrived on the scene, seconds after the attack, the mother hen was running in circles, clucking and distraught, looking for her lost chick, while I could see tufts of the hen’s downy feathers here and there, evidence of her struggle to save her child. The rooster had run off to a comfortable distance from the scene and was making loud noises from the safety of his perch. And that is why Malays will say, “Don’t become a bapak ayam“, an irresponsible father.
As always, you can click the thumbnail to see the full picture
Couldn’t find room for this in the story, but wanted to mention a few famous personalities strongly influenced by chickens:
If you read Malay, this is the blog you really should be reading.Â Biographies of Malay religious scholars, scans of rare texts and images, impeccably researched opinions on hot islamic topics, all presented in a friendly and approachable writing style. Highly Recommended!