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 

The Yard: Bunga Kantan

The variety of herbs and spices used in Malaysian cooking is incredible until you realize this is where all the spices came from in the first place. Plenty of spices like cloves, cinnamon, and pepper are traded around the world. Some, for whatever reason, are still unknown outside of the region. One of these is Bunga Kantan, known in English as Torch Ginger and in Latin as Etlingera elatior. Bunga Kantan is in the ginger family, and sends green shoots out from large rhizomes just like common ginger, but the shoots are enormous, capable of growing several meters in height when the plant is happily established. Down at the base of the plant, smaller shoots are produced that at first look like the leafy ones, but soon take on a pinkish cast at the tip. These shoots, which only grow about a foot tall, slowly open up into thick, fleshly, deep pink petals that resemble flowers. I suppose they are flowers, except they don’t appear to have a reproductive function. They are gorgeous enough to cut for table ornaments, and you might sometimes see them used as such in hotels or fancy restaurants.
[Update: they sure do have a reproductive function. My Kantan has reached enormous proportions, and left undisturbed, the flowers have developed fruit. Picture forthcoming.]
But their primary use is culinary. Bunga Kantan has a wonderful fresh spicy flavour. It holds its pink color even when cooked, adding a lovely look to a dish. It is an essential ingredient in the famous sour fish soup, Laksa Penang. The use of it together with mint is typical for Vietnamese-style rice or noodles in fast food stalls here, though how truly that represents Vietnamese food I don’t really know. It’s a fairly expensive ingredient, as much as a ringgit a stalk, making it a worthwhile plant to grow for the kitchen.

Bunga Kantan can also be seen in the ornamental landscape, as it is here, growing in a corner of PutraJaya, Malaysia’s new show-piece capitol city. There are varieties with different flower colors, like white, and pastel pink. The plant has an incurably wild look to it, but fits nicely in tropical-style landscapes.

[Update: A thousand apologies! I thought I had photographed a bunga kantan in PutraJaya last year but on visiting my photo archives at work found only an ornamental banana, which I’ve duly added to the banana post. Did I really see a bunga kantan there too on that trip or is my memory playing tricks on me? – ed.]


Take a moment and visit a wonderful site on the language, culture and history of Trengganu: Kecek-kecek. Kecek-kecek is the home of one Awang Goneng, who introduces himself thusly:

Awang Goneng was born at a very young age, has drifted beyond the shores of Trengganu, and is feeling a crick in the neck from constantly looking back. He claims to have captured the essence of Trengganu, which, he says, was given to him by a very old man living in a cave near the Lake Kenyir. His detractors say it’s just a bottle of budu.

Elegantly written, learned and drenched in nostalgia, kecek-kecek delights with every post. In this most recent post, Growing up in Trengganu #293, 116, he describes the rainy season:

The monsoons imbued us with deep pilu wrapped in bright sarongs that village men slipped into, top end hooded over their heads as their hands grabbed the hem sides below to trap some warmth around their body. Pilu and melancholia were close cousins, but it came in chilly winds sodden by the spray of the roaring sea. In atap houses the rain poured in torrents down the pointed nipah tips, cascading down in a curtain of glistening threads of rainwater. A sudden downpour clattering on corrugated roofs, and clattering as it did continuously, mesmerised already dozy heads into an afternoon of deep slumber.

It must mean I haven’t been here long enough, because it seems almost universal amongst Malaysians to associate the monsoon with melancholy, as Awang describes so beautifully. For my part, I love the rains. There’s nothing I like better than finding myself out on the porch reading a book, sipping coffee, as the rain pours down hard and heavy.

I haven’t had the chance yet to explore the East Coast. Until I do, I’ll just keep reading kecek-kecek.

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]

Nzingha’s Visit

Jihad Rain

Last month we had a special visitor all the way from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Sister Nzingha with her mother and four children on their summer holiday. Part of her visit to Malaysia was two weeks in Sarawak, during which we were able to meet with her on a few occassions. Nzingha gave a gift to my wife of one of those stylish yet modest bathing suits that you may have been hearing about.

Jihad and RidhwanThe mob at the Waterfront

Our children are of roughly similar ages so it worked out well as a play date, while allowing us a chance at adult conversation, in American english no less. Ridhwan and Jihad struck it off well. I had been telling Iwan that he would have a chance to practice all the Arabic he’s been learning at school, so Ridhwan gathered up the length and breadth of his learning and counted to ten in Arabic for Jihad. Not to be outdone, Jihad replied back by counting to ten in Bahasa that he had learned from their Indonesian maid. It was a real meeting of the minds.

Nzingha and family had a number of exciting adventures while they were here. In fact, she probabaly saw more of Sarawak in two weeks than I’ve managed to see in two and a half years! There’s plenty more to see though, so maybe we’ll get another visit next year with Brother Yahya too…

Mysteries of the Coconut: Umbut

It may resemble an ice sculpture or some kind of high tech snowman, but it is in fact the heart of the coconut palm, or umbut in Malay, the growing part at the top of the coconut tree from which all the fronds develop and emerge. It is smooth, shiny and pure white. I’ve heard people use putih macam umbut the way we might say “as white as the driven snow”.

Umbut for salePutih macam umbutPile of Umbut

Umbut can be eaten, and that’s what it was doing at the market that day, being sold like a vegetable. You don’t have to buy the whole thing; they’ll carve a peice off for you. It is served cooked, often boiled in a mild watery dish. The taste isn’t that much different from bamboo shoots or nibong shoots, with a nice firm texture. The thing that makes umbut a bit of a delicacy, of course, is that you have to kill a whole coconut tree to get it.

The first time I had it was back in Bagan Datoh at my brother-in-law’s place, when a line clearance crew came down the road felling all the trees overhanging the power lines. Since they had to drop one of my brother’s trees, he asked them to salvage the umbut. They happily complied and made sure not to drop the trunk into the canal. They even took a minute to chainsaw the umbut out of the crown of the tree for us. At the market, the hawker brought the whole crown along, as you can see here, presumably to keep it fresh. Some short work with the parang and they’ll have the snowman.

Maulid Daiba’i

I had lamented previously that I can’t seem to find any translations of Maulid Diba’i on the web. I do have a translation that was published as part of the wonderful CD performed by the Royal Malaysian Haqqani Ensemble. I used to link to the CD using this scan of the cover art.
mawlid diba'i
Unfortunately stocks of the CD must have run out and it is no longer available. The translation booklet was already long out of stock. I thought I had lost my copy, and that’s why I attempted to translate a few lines myself last I wrote. Happily, I found a backup photostat a few weeks back.

Then, thanks to a kind brother who wants to remain anonymous, I received last week a copy of a wonderful new edition of the Maulid Diba’i called “Maulid Eulogy”. I didn’t find it when googling around before because the author’s name is transliterated as Shaikh ad-Daiba’i. That’s arabic for you, a hundred ways to transliterate any one word: Deebai, Diybaee, mawlid maulud maulid mevlood etc. The book is a fairly new production by our brothers in Singapore, led by Sidi Abdulkader Ali Esa Alhadad, may Allah reward him for his effort. There’s no date of publication inside, but the forward mentions Shaykh Hamzah Yusuf’s 2002 Burda translation, so it must be quite recent. It is published by the good people at Warid Press.

Mashallah, it’s a great book! It has Arabic and translation side by side, with each line of text numbered on both sides for easy reference. The Arabic is large enough to be read easily, which is a big plus. I have at least two Quran translations with microscopic Arabic text, Muhammad Asad’s being the biggest (smallest?) culprit.

It is a complete translation. The RMHE version left out a few sections (on purpose: it was called Part 1). Maulid Eulogy also has a lot of added material. There is a section on the history of the author, Al-Hafiz Shaikh Abdul Rahman bin Ali ad-Daiba’i. He was Yemeni, which I didn’t know. That explains it’s prevalence here in Malaysia. There is also a section explaining and defending the practice of Maulid and clarifying references in the text that might by unclear to the reader. There are even lovely pictures of the Shaikh’s home town of Zabid and some architectural notes.

One thing I’ve come to know about the Maulid is that the parts attributable to Shaykh ad-Diba’i are only the spoken poetry, not the nasheeds that are interspersed with it. I’ve now encountered at least four different versions; in each, the spoken portion is the same, but the nasheeds are often very different, or are sung with very different melodies.

The book is available from Wardah Books in Singapore. I highly recommend it.

If there is anything disappointing about the book, it is that the English translation doesn’t do justice to the beauty of the Arabic. I don’t think this is the fault of the translation team. There just isn’t any way to render the English that would keep the rhythm and flow and force of the original. The text must be fairly tough to translate too due to its poetical nature, because the two translations are sometimes so different you can hardly believe they are translating the same lines. Once you add my amatuer attempts in there it really gets silly. Here are three translations of a verse from the nasheed that begins “Salatullahi malahat kawakib”:

“Falaw anna sa’ayna kulla heenin/
‘Alal Ahdaqi la fawqan najaib/
Walaw 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”

“If only we could visit him every day/
with physical eyes and not the eye of the heart/
And if every moment we celebrate in his remembrance/
It might even be said to be obligatory”

Maulid Eulogy:
“If every day we seek him/
Searching in our minds and not on a vehicle/
And if every day we do this deed/
This maulid as a reminder of him, it is like a duty”

You can see where relying on translators gets you. An incentive to go out and learn some Arabic for yourself if ever there was one! All joking aside though, Maulid Eulogy has the better credentials even if the english is sometimes awkward, since they had a whole team of translators and even sent it back to Yemen for vetting, according to the introduction. The Arabic version is also impeccable I’m sure, since the Arabic manuscript on which it was based was also vetted and a list of non-standard usages found in the manuscript is included amongst the many appendices. I’m including a graphic link to the Wardah Books listing in my sidebar. Just click on the Gubba…


Previous entries related to Mawlid Nabi:

Books Lost and Found

Books from Kinokuniya

If I have one piece of advice for my sister who is in college right now, it is “Don’t Sell Your Books!” I regret selling off my books. I regret that in a general way; I wish I still had every book I once had, if only to have a library that resembles the libraries of well-educated people I know and admire. But sometimes, I will find myself in a situation where I need a specific particular book that I once had. It is a terrible feeling. I’ve felt that with at least a dozen books now. I clearly remember staring at my big expensive general entomology textbook and saying to myself, this is one book I will never, never need again. It took 11 years, but sure enough I did need it again. The feeling is worse when it hits me here in Malaysia because so many books are out of reach or expensive enough in Ringgit to be prohibitive.

If I live long enough I think I will have cause to regret each individual book I have owned and lost. The most recent book I’m missing is my old Elementary Modern Standard Arabic Textbook. It was a great big heavy orange book from a class that I was hostile towards to begin with, so somewhere amongst my dozen changes of address and/or times of financial need I sold it. Now that I’m finally studying Arabic again, I miss it sorely. So I was thrilled to come across a pdf of an ancient (1890’s?) Arabic Grammar textbook in English available online. I strongly suspect that it is way over my head, but I’ll take what I can get. Thank you very much to Ghazali.org for making it available. I found it by way of Seeker’s Digest, by way of Alexandalus. Ghazali.org has a huge number of other texts available as does its sister site, Muslim Philosophy.