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.

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.

Tourists Reach Bagan Datoh

Canal at Rungkup

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 stays that 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

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 

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]


Approach to Mukah

twin_otterI spent a weekend in Mukah, a small town along the coast of the South China Sea not far from Sibu. Mukah is the homeland of the Melanau people, one of the many native tribes of Sarawak. It is a quiet town; there is no industry to speak of beyond fishing and oil palm and sago cultivation. To fly there you have to take a tiny little plane, a Twin Otter, that holds about a dozen people. It flies below the clouds in a non pressurized cabin. There is no A/C, but there are a couple small fans like what cabbies will sometimes mount on their dashboards. You can see the pilots going through their startup procedure in the cockpit, flipping switches and pulling levers. It was a smooth ride both ways this time. I’ve flown once before in a plane like this where I was nauseous by the end from turbulence.

The nice part of flying in a small plane like that was the view: I could see the Sarawak wilderness spreading out below me. Mostly, we were flowing over the vast stretches of peat swamp that cover much of the lowlands.

As we approached Mukah, I could see oil palm plantations, laid out in orderly blocks the open air factories they are. A gridded network of drainage canals and roads ran between the blocks. Interspersed with these were what appeared to be palm-dominated jungle, but with narrow, shallow water ways that seemed too regular to be natural streams, but were far less orderly than the oil palm estates.

I later learned those were traditional Sago plantations. The waterways were man-made canals not so much for drainage but for navigation through the plantation on these dugout canoes. Sago is extracted from the trunk of the tree, so to harvest, the tree is felled, chopped into manageable lengths and floated out of the plantation behind the canoe. Back at the ranch, the trunk is ground down into sawdust. The sawdust is moistened and pressed, the squeezings are dried, and that yields the sago starch.

I visited a Melanau tallhouse newly built as a bed-and-breakfast. It was beautiful and full of all sorts of sago handicrafts as well as some gongs, weapons and knick-knacks of Melanau origin. The proprietor built it in her ancestral village, which is a lovely village built on a tidal flooplain astride a small river. All the houses, walkways and kitchen vegetables were on stilts. Due to the shortage of dry land, even the graves were traditionally on stilts. Behind the tallhouse was a hanging grave: a tree is felled, split and hollowed. The corpse is laid in the hollow and the other half of the timber is fitted back on top and lashed together. The log is then suspended above the high-water line for a long time. The proprietor may have said something about subsequently moving the bones to be interred somewhere else, like on the top of a tall standing deadwood, but I really didn’t catch it so don’t quote me. Regardless of how or why, the grave I photographed is now empty.

Mukah is a small town and like many parts of Sarawak, travel to it by road involves ferries across across major rivers. Here is the first ferry point on the road to Sibu, the closest major town. There are two ferry boats that switch banks every time one of the two boats is full. If you come at an off time, you may have to wait a while for the boat to fill. A bridge is under construction though, and before long the ferry will be obsolete. It was easy to see why the bridge is slow and expensive in coming. All the building materials, including sand and stone, have to be shipped in by barge from other parts of the state. Mukah, being completely surrounded by peat swamp, has no local sources of building material beyond timber.

Downtown Mukah has a lovely riverfront with a large Chinese temple. I was there the day after the hungry ghost festival, a celebration somewhat akin to Halloween, I gather. There were piles of ashes here and there where celebrants had been lighting ancestor sticks and so on. Nearby appeared to be a bus stop or gazebo of some kind, so I went to have a seat. There was some red and white hazard taping around it which was odd. Only as I came closer I saw that it was in fact a tomb of some muslim notable: saint or hero or patron I never found out. The hazard tape was to keep the temple faithful from burning offerings on the poor man’s grave.

The local vegetable market had some nice local fruit for sale: lisak or lisuk, I don’t remember, which, a kind of wild durian. They’re orange inside and not “heaty”, just sweet. The outer spines (duri) are not that sharp. There’s a second common wild durian that has a nutty flavor and is very oily. These were not like that. There were also wild pulasan. Pulasan are rambutan-like fruits that are easier to open; you just “pulas” , or twist, them. Delicious and grapey.

All the photos from my trip to Mukah are available on Flickr. You’re welcome to have a look.