Behold, the Biawak

Two more chicks have met their doom since last I wrote. Both were mauled by biawak attacks that I fended off too late. By the time I would race to the scene, shovel flailing, I could only succeed in denying the perp a meal, but could not save the lives of the victims. The first time, a chick was dismasted cleanly at the knee-joint. Though the bleeding stopped quickly, a legless chicken’s prospects are bleak: despite my ministrations, it was dead within three days. The second time, the attack was more severe and the chick was clearly without a future. I chose duty over sentiment and put it out of its misery myself.

Behold, the BiawakWith one chick left, not the best specimen of the bunch either, I’m left to wonder. Maybe I’m keeping the wrong pets. Nobody likes a loser, and these chickens are clearly losers. Now, the biawak is a fine animal. Just look at him. Sleek, muscular, long purple tongue, interesting scales. It’s true you can’t exactly pet a biawak, but hey, he already lives in the cracks of the foundation beneath my house. I’m already furnishing him with meals. Why don’t I just adopt him and give him a name? Instead of throwing leftover rice to the chicks, I can throw leftover fried chicken to the biawak! How about, “Brutus the Biawak”? Or maybe, “Lazarus the Lizard”? Or perhaps, “Chester the Chicken-Slayer”?

I kid. But these biawaks are some wild customers. A type of monitor lizard related to the fearsome Komodo Dragon of Indonesia, they can grow to large size. You can read about some of my previous encounters with giant biawaks on my property before. Yeah, you got it: Big Lizard in My Backyard. They can survive in urban envrionments by living under people’s houses and using the monsoon drains and open canals for highways. They’ll often sun themselves on the concrete edge of the drain, ready to dive into the sewer water if anyone approaches. They’re a top level predator – as a far as I know, nothing hunts biawaks.

Nothing that is, except people. Non-muslims in Malaysia will dine on biawak, and I’ve even seen them being sold live in a vegetable market in Perak. I’ve heard described by eyewitnesses how they are skinned.

Delicate readers should stop reading now.

The animal is restrained by the head and feet. Then, the skin is carefully cut down the middle of the back and the legs and peeled open from the top. At that point, the butcher will startle the lizard by clapping his hands in front of its face, and the lizard will literally jump out of its own skin. You heard it here first. When I first heard that described, I felt sorry for the lizard. Now that biawaks have been decimating my chickens, let’s just say I’m far less sympathetic.

To my regular readers: So sorry for the downtime! My domain registration expired without notice and it took a bit of doing to get it restored. BGP is not going anywhere and I will now return to my once-every-once-in-a-great-while posting schedule!

Merdeka by Petronas

The most riveting programming on Malaysian TV is the advertisements. Not the advertisements exactly, but the public service announcements put out around holiday times by the major national companies like Perodua, Telekom, and Petronas. Petronas has really outdone itself this year with a wonderfully nuanced and introspective look on nationhood here at the eve of Malaysia’s 50th anniversary of its independence. The acting, the direction, the storyline are all so so good. Non-malaysians, it is subtitled so have a look.

Malaysia: Muslim or Islamic?

Malaysia Ali Eteraz mused recently that the key to making Islam compatible with Mosque/State separation in Muslim countries is to declare Islam as the official religion, while retaining a lawmaking process that is not subject to theological review.

Great idea! That’s precisely the arrangement that exists in Malaysia. The government is predicated on a secular platform – there is no formal institutional method for vetting a law to ensure it’s compliance with Islam – but establishes Islam as the religion of the country, and backs this with funding of Mosques and so on. This has generally worked, although not without controversy since, among other things, Malaysia doesn’t have an overwhelming muslim majority (about 60% and growing). It’s a hot issue at the moment as the Malay-muslim dominated ruling coalition (UMNO-BN) continues to feel pressure from the opposition Islamic Party (PAS) to “Islamize” the country further. Our respected Deputy Prime Minister set off some debate a little while ago by declaring that Malaysia is and always has been an Islamic State. The contentious issue as I see it is not so much with calling Malaysia an “Islamic State” but with deciding what that means exactly and how that differs from what is meant by calling Malaysia a “Muslim Country”.

The point turns on what exactly is meant by “Islamic”. Prof. Sherman Jackson points out in his phenomenal book Islam and the Blackamerican that the term “Islamic”, a modern English-language designation that has no meaningful equivalent in the muslim world historically, does not mean “earning the pleasure of Allah” or even “fulfilling all the rules of sharia” but merely “a product of a traditionally muslim land”. Under that definition, our respected Deputy Prime Minister was perfectly correct. Malaysia is an Islamic state without the need to do anything at all. As a country full of muslims, who are choosing their national direction with Allah and His Messenger foremost in their hearts and minds, whatever the outcome may be can honestly be called an Islamic State, using that definition [1].

Perhaps that’s a bit jesuitical, but as Chandra Muzaffar points out in A Secular State or an Islamic State?, exemplifying the pragmatism that I would credit as Malaysia’s single most sustaining virtue, it is meaningless to argue over abstract titles the practical implications of which are not well understood by anyone, while ignoring the founding principles of the country that are clearly put forward in the constitution, are still in effect, and are still acceptable to just about every citizen around, namely:

1. A parliamentary form of government based upon the concept of one person, one vote.
2. A federal system of governance.
3. A constitutional monarchy.
4. The supremacy of the rule of law.
5. An independent judiciary.
6. Protection of fundamental liberties.
7. Malay as the national and official language.
8. The right to use and study other languages.
9. Islam as the religion of the Federation.
10. Recognition of the right of non-Muslims to practise their religions.
11. The special position of the Malays and other indigenous peoples.
12. The legitimate interests of the other communities.
(my emphasis)

Under this framework, the details that remain to be worked out, and of course these are innumerable, will need to be worked out by the totality of the citizenry regardless of what title like “Islamic” or “secular” is placed on it. Impressed by how far the nation has come in it’s first 50 years, I hope I’m around to see the next 50.

Photo Credit: Malaysia’s Flag, by Eric Teoh.

Amman, Jordan

Have a look at a terrific set of black & white portraits from the streets of Amman, Jordan, taken by a Malaysian photographer.

In other news, this past Friday was the 10th anniversary of my marriage, walhamdulillah. I wouldn’t change a thing, but 5 (and a half) kids, 4.5 circumnavigations of the planet and 8 changes of address in ten years – whew! I hope the next ten are slightly less hectic.

Islamic Banking

Is It Really Kosher?

is an interesting article by Aaron MacLean on the rise of Islamic Financing around the world. Some of the article’s better points:

…“money always looks for the best deal.” if Islamic finance couldn’t provide results close to those of secular institutions, it wouldn’t exist. … The rational profit motive never lost its place as the key factor in investor behavior.

Malaysia has the largest Islamic Financing sector outside of Dubai, if I’m not mistaken. My bank accounts are all structured Islamically, as are my house and car loan (murahaba, explained in the article). There are conventional alternatives, but I chose these instruments instead. I can claim piety was the motivator, but the fact is the terms and conditions are indistinguishable from conventional ones, at least at the layman’s level, so I was not forced to pay a monetary penalty for going halal. If I were, maybe I would have chosen differently. I have eight mouths to feed, after all.

Islamist writers such as Sayyid Qutb and Sayyid Abul-A’la Maududi envisioned Islamic finance as the economic arm of a new, sharia-guided political order. … But the post-capitalist utopia that reliance on these instruments was meant to inaugurate was dead on arrival.

This point is spot-on. People sometimes seem to be under the impression that an Islamic society is one that will be free of inequality and that Islamic financing will somehow cause every individual to behave altruistically with his money. But neither wealth nor poverty are social ills unless they prevent us from meeting our religious obligations to the Lord. Islam forbids injustice, not inequality. Among the Prophet’s companions were extremely wealthy people and poor. While it is true that many of the wealthy companions gave away every cent in the way of God, it was not because of how they ran their business. Charity and care for the poor is covered under sadaqah and zakat. Business is still business.
The author makes much fun of the similarity of conventional car and house loans to
the Islamic model. In the conventional car loan, the bank gives you money to buy a car, and charges you an agreed rate of interest on the money. In the murahaba loan, the bank buys the car that you want, and then sells it to you at a higher agreed-upon price, which you then pay back to the bank on a monthly basis. In the end, the interest rate on the money is identical to the mark-up on the price of the car. The author calls this a loophole, but whatever – it means to me that interest and riba are not equivalent terms. The Quran does not prohibit interest, it prohibits a thing called riba, the meaning of which is something both wider and more complex.

What the article does not cover well are the areas in which Islamic finance does depart significantly from conventional finance. The article does mention unsecured loans, like to start a business. The bank has to become a partner in the business enterprise, and share in the profit or loss. This puts more risk on the lender and thus the lender will be much more cautious and economic growth will be more measured. I don’t see where that’s a bad thing. Other differences that I see between conventional finance and Islamic finance – Ethical investment: no investment in haram industries like tobacco, alchohol, gambling, etc. Another, and I’m not an economist so correct me, is in the gambling on fluctuations in prices of stocks and such. What’s that called, margins trading?

Another is currency speculation. The Islamic system is based on a gold standard, where all currency is based on a quanitifiable amount of cold, hard gold, and to my mind this is the crucial element of the system that has not been implemented yet, although Malaysia has been actively pushing for it. Malaysia went so far as to mint gold dinars and silver dirhams, but thus far they are just for savings, not legal tender. A lot of the injustice in international trade stems from the fact that trade must be carried out through the medium of the US dollar, which is such a meaningless peice of paper that it is itself forced to acknowledge “In God We Trust” because there is nothing else supporting it. We muslims prefer the saying of the Prophet, peace be upon him, “Trust in God, but tie your camel first.”

Some resources for further reading:

Islamic Mint


Shayh Abdalqadir As-Sufi’s student Umar Vadillo:

Paper Money

Judgement on Riba


What apples are to America, what mangoes are to India, Durian must be to Malaysia. Durian, or Durio zibethenus, is the most bizarre fruit in a land that has no shortage of bizarre fruit. It is often called the king of the fruits because when it is in season, other fruits don’t sell. The durian tree itself is an enormous tree that grows naturally in the rainforest. There are domesticated varieties and cultivars in the market, especially in West Malaysia, but here in Sarawak a lot of the durians are semi-wild. That is one of the many fascinating things about the durian. The size, shape, color, texture, smell and flavor is so highly variable, you never know for sure what you’re going to get when you buy one, and you never eat the same durian twice. In Sarawak there are also a few other varities of wild edible durians, including these that I came across in Mukah a few years back.

The first things that stick out at you about the durian are the thorns. That is as it should be, since the word Durian comes from the Malay word duri meaning thorn, so literally the thorny fruit. The thorns can be quite sharp and stiff and are fully capable of drawing blood, keeping the seeds safe inside until the time is right. When the fruit is fully ripe, the durian’s thick rind will split along its seams, opening up to reveal the seeds, which are embedded in a thick layer of sweet, creamy flesh. The second thing that you will notice about the durian is the smell. Now that the plant is ready for its seeds to be dispersed, it begins to exude an odor so pungent, so rich, so complex that it can be smelled from long off and no one knows what to make of it or how to describe it. To the durian lover, it is intoxicating; to others, it is repellent. Even to those fond of the fruit, like your author, it must be acknowledged that the smell is strange. Walking through the Satok market, I have remarked to my wife, “Is that the bau longkang or is durian back in season?”

Malaysians love their durian, and it is an iconic object for the country, such that any movie set in Malaysia will incorporate durian somehow. See Jackie Chan’s SuperCop (police story 2 or 3, I don’t remember) where, flying through KL, Jackie swings from a helicopter ladder and lands on his butt in an open boxcar of a train carrying durians. At the same time, Malaysians are sensitive to the reactions of outsiders to the fruit, thus you will find most hotels and even taxi cabs with “No Durian Allowed” signs prominently displayed. I think that’s a shame because you have to have an open mind to appreciate durian, and all those signs predispose people to think it’s something disgusting.

To give the durian the chance it deserves, you have to approach it on its own. Don’t think that it will be similar to some other fruit you may have had; don’t even think of it as a fruit. I hesitate to describe it, out of reverence, but maybe it’s a bit like an avocado, since it is creamy and fatty, but also sweet, sharp, spicy… Somebody once said it’s like eating vanilla custard out of a toilet. He was on to something. The best durians also have a quality often described as gassy, or “heating”; it’s a certain something that fills up your whole mouth and gets your heart beating too. I’m convinced durian, at least the good gassy kind, speeds up your heart rate. It is undoubtedly this quality that gives durian its widespread reputation as an aphrodisiac. I hesitate, out of modesty, to confirm or deny these reports.

Let’s say you’re intrigued and want to buy some for yourself. During durian season, they’re not hard to find. You can follow your nose if you’re in a “wet market”, the local term for a fruit, vegetable and fish market. Otherwise, just drive around. Durian hawkers will often set up shop along the major thoroughfares, doing business out of the back of their van. The hawkers will sort their common durians into groups based on size, often with a reserve table in back with top-shelf fruit that must be individually haggled over. You can simply pull over, hop off your motorscooter and buy some.

The buying is to me the trickiest and most frustrating part of the experience. First of all, durians are not cheap. At the beginning and tail end of the season, they can cost an arm and a leg, and even when they are in season, I must be prepared to spend 10-20 ringgit per purchase to satisfy everyone’s appetite back at home. So the stakes are high. Like many things in Malaysia, the price can and should be haggled over. Haggling is something I dislike to begin with, and have a natural disadvantage at, being a foreigner, and here, haggling is bloodsport. There is no quarter given and they will contest every ringgit shaved off the price. Meanwhile, these hawkers are slippery customers themselves. They only have a few months to cash in, and their inventory is rotting right in front of their eyes, so they have to move them with speed. It was unsurprising on a certain level when I learned most durian hawkers are fishmongers in the offseason. Both trades involve passing off rapidly deteriorating goods of debatable quality on unsuspecting buyers.

Because that’s the next problem: how do you tell a good durian? Everyone has their own trick, secret or technique for assessing the quality of a durian. So people will smell them, check them for worm entry holes, shake them, squeeze two thorns together to test the thickness of the rind, asses the shape, examine the bottom end for concavity or convexity, tap the rind for a good hollow sound, heft them to judge the relative ratio of seed to flesh, check the stem to see how recently the durian fell from the tree, but the truth is nobody knows for sure until you open them up. Even then it’s not a sure thing. But once you’re satisfied with your picks, you fix a price, and the hawker will open them up for you. Once the hawker cracks opens it for you to peak inside, if there is no visible defect, it’s considered sold. If it is unripe or rotten or infested with bugs, you can pick a new one.

This stage presents risk to the hawker, because a durian that has been cracked open is much harder to sell. Normally I am on the side of the purchaser and have little sympathy for the seller to whom I lose a few hundred every season, but there are two sides to any transaction. I saw an old man approach a hawker. There were 3 for a 10, 4 for 10 and 5 for 10 piles. He wanted the 4 for 10 durians at a 5 for 10 price. The hawker wouldn’t agree. So he picked out 4 for 10. The hawker opened all four and they were all good. Then the man asked again for 5! When the hawker again refused, he only would buy 2 for 5 and left the hawker with 2 opened, unsold durians. Booo. Bad form, bad form. Even the hawker has to make a buck. Thus, if you’re visiting and a ringgit or two won’t break your budget, don’t haggle too much and just tell them you want the good stuff. They’ll gladly pick you out a good one for a generous buyer. You’ll be happy, they’ll be happy.

Now what? You’ve brought the fruit home, but it looks like a dangerous weapon. The safest technique is to get a old dish towel and use that to hold the fruit against the ground, then pry it open with a knife. The durian has natural seams where it will split with out too much forcing. Just watch out for the spikes. When you split it open, you’ll see the prize, which conceals a large brown inedible nut. Don’t try to keep clean; durians can’t be enjoyed without slurping, finger-licking and generally getting all messy. Just ask my kids.

The flesh is very satisfying, filling even, and nutritious. It doesn’t keep though, and the durian will continue to spoil as it sits out (some might say it’s spoiled to begin with!). Thus, in the height of the season, the market becomes glutted, prices drop and fruit begins to go to waste. Well, if the durian is too far gone to eat, or if it was partially infested with grubs, there’s still hope. The flesh can be stripped off the seed, left to stand overnight in a strainer to remove the excess water, and then packed into a pot or jar with a bit of salt on top. In a short time, the durian will ferment, becoming sour and tangy on top of all the other flavors I mentioned. Now you have tempoyak, which is serious Malay soul food. This is the stuff they don’t serve the guests. You take that tempoyak, if you’re a Perakian anyway, and mix that with red chilis and belacan pulverized in a mortar, and serve that as a condiment to the meal. Sambal tempoyak is an acquired taste to be sure, but, at least in our family, is more indispensable than durian itself. With our supplies running low, my mother-in-law successfully smuggled into the United States about 2 litres of tempoyak in a plastic drum hermetically sealed with about 10 plastic bags and a mile of packing tape. Luckily this was pre-9/11 or I’m sure they would have got her for culinary terrorism.

[Update:  The New York Times has a front page article on Durian, just a month after my own.  Coincidence?  You decide.  The article reports that a mad scientist in Thailand has developed a nearly odorless durian.  Malaysians the nation over roll their eyes, I’m sure.  What’s next, nasi lemak without santan?  Thai durians already fail to impress – “they all taste the same” is a common complaint.  Part of the thrill of durians it the surprise: you never know what you’re going to get.]

Masjid Maktab Perguruan

masjid maktab perguruan

Kota Samarahan, Sarawak

Large government institutions will often have suraus or masjids built on their grounds, particularly if the institution has a resident population. The mosque where I most often make my Friday prayers is one such mosque, built on the grounds of a nearby maktab perguruan. It’s a lovely building, a modern rendition of the classic Malay mosque, which is square and tiered, with no dome. Unline the classic version, this one is built of rebar and concrete instead of wood, although the ceiling is treated with a hardwood veneer. The tall concrete minarets follow the mosque roof line, giving it a profile that can be seen all the way from my workplace, about a mile away, while the tiered roof blends in well with the acres of clay tile roofs in the surrounding subdivisions. The prayer hall of the mosque is surrounded on three sides by open-air hallways, taking advantage of the year-round warm weather, and there are large porches where worshippers can lounge before and after prayers. Ok, some of the young guys lounge there straight through the khutba too. The women’s section is a spacious mezzanine looking down onto the prayer hall, although as is the custom here, woman don’t come for Friday prayers. Since the mosque is in a workplace rather than a neighborhood or village, it clears out very quickly after prayers as people zip off to work or lunch. A few linger on to read Quran, meditate, or even take a short nap in the back.

There’s just one thing that nagged at me every time I prayed here: the calligraphy displayed in the mihrab. For some reason, the calligraphy reading “Muhammad” is set halfway below the calligraphy reading “Allah”, unlike every other masjid in the world I’ve ever entered, where the calligraphy is set side by side (or is absent entirely, as is often the case in our US masajid). Now, I understand the argument of those who do not like to display calligraphy at all – I don’t agree, but I understand their position. But what must you be thinking to feel that the word Muhammad must be placed lower than the word Allah? After ignoring it for years, I finally approached an imam after his khutba and asked him about it. He immediately smiled and said that he too thought it was a bit strange. In that case, I said, why not fix it? Because, he said, there are others on the e-board who would object. Object on what grounds, I wondered? They’re concerned that people might become confused as to who is the object of worship, he replied. Subhanallah! It makes my head throb just imagining that train of thought. It is precisely because it is inherently not the thing to which it refers that the written word became the supreme art of the Islamic world. If you feel you are clarifying the relationship between God and His Prophet by adjusting the relative heights of the Arabic letters… Phew. I don’t suppose there’s any benefit in continuing that thought. I left it at that with the Imam, too. Has anyone encountered this attitude before, or perhaps I should ask, has anyone ever seen the calligraphy displayed like this?

See my complete archive of Malaysian Mosques.

Mysteries of the Coconut: Air kelapa

drinking coconuts Working under the hot tropical sun can take a lot out of you. Within minutes, sweat flows freely and before long you become drenched. Taking clothes off doesn’t help at all; in fact, it just exposes you more to the sun’s rays. Laborers will work dressed from ankle to wrist, often with a balaclava over their faces. An extra towel or cloth around the neck is another common accessory for construction workers, just to mop up the sweat. With all that sweating, it is very easy to become dehydrated. Luckily, God in His Mercy has placed the perfect remedy close at hand: Coconut Water. The water contained in coconuts is extremely refreshing. It is rich in electrolytes, not only quenching the thirst but replacing the bodily salts lost through sweat. It’s nature’s Gatorade. They are individually packaged, one coconut being a suitable amount for one person to drink. It comes sanitarily wrapped, totally sterile within the shell. And even on the hottest day, the water inside is kept a pleasantly cool temperature by the thick layer of coconut fibre.

cutting open a coconutThe only trick is getting the water out. The layer of fiber is fairly thick, and a good heavy knife is needed. Before I became a Man of Coconuts, I would often buy a coconut at a roadside stall and watch the lady slice it open quickly and neatly. Now that my own coconut trees, a variety grown for drinking, have begun to bear fruit, I determined to enjoy the fruit of my own field. Yet when I tried to slice them myself, I found it took me five times as long and I had to sweat at it. Only recently, after a great many attempts, have I learned the secret that I will now pass on to you, my dear reader. Turn the coconut over. The inner shell of the coconut does not rest exactly in the middle of the coconut husk. Rather, it is much closer to the bottom end of the fruit. You Malaysians giggling at me because you already knew that, where were you a year ago when I needed you?

tender coconut meat Perhaps you’ve tried to drink the liquid in a supermarket coconut before using the coconut meat. That stuff is schwag – no one will drink it here. The liquid is at it’s most drinkable when the coconut is still young and the white flesh has just started to form inside the nut. At that stage, the quantity of water is more and the taste is sweeter and more neutral, not nutty. At home, after draining the coconuts into a jug, I split the nut and scrape out the soft jelly-like flesh on the inside and add that to the jug. But if you’re drinking your coconut in the field, without jug or spoon, you don’t have to waste the flesh. After drinking the water, split the coconut. Then, using your knife, slice off a wedge of the coconut husk and use that like a spoon, as the two agronomy co-eds up top are doing after a day’s fieldwork.
Coconut cleaver