Learning from Chickens

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:

Also: Previous entry dealing with chickens in Malaysia

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:

Madrasah al-Kamaliyya

My in-laws are from a small isolated village mostly preoccupied with growing coconuts. It has only between 50-60 homes, two small stores selling basic necessities like sugar, rice and fermented shrimp paste, a primary school …and three mosques. One of them is Madrasah al-Kamaliyya, a surau lying about 150 meters from my mother-in-law’s house.

Madrasah al-Kamaliyya was built in the 1920’s. It is built essentially the same as a traditional Malay house, entirely of timber on stilts, with the prayer area one full floor above the ground. It was not uncommon for homes in those days to be built entirely without nails, as was the home my late father-in-law built. Instead, the posts and beams are assembled using a mortise-and-tenon system, with the beams leveled and tightened in place by wooden wedges. The forests of Malaysia and Indonesia have some of the best timber in the world for building, and the Malays certainly make good use of it.

The design of the surau does have some differences with a house. It has two stairways leading to the prayer hall. During a mixed gathering, men and women would use separate entrances. The two flights of stairs are on either side of the ablution pool. The stairs are withdrawn under the building, such that they enter the prayer hall in the middle. This allows women and men to both enter without disturbing each other’s sections. In a home, there would be a single stairway that would enter the living room in the front of the house. If there was a second stairway, it would be to the kitchen, around the side or back.

Unlike Surau Darul Rahman and most other modern suraus, this one was built directly by the villagers of the area without government funds. I don’t really know how this affects the nature of the waqaf; I imagine it is still held by or at least under the oversight of the religious department – maybe someone can inform me. But it is a source of pride for the village that it was built entirely by their fathers’ and grandfathers’ hands.

The village is not as heavily populated now as it was twenty years ago, with many of the young people migrating to the big cities. The bulk of the population now are older couples without children at home (not unlike the American farming heartland). Maybe because of this, the surau is not as actively used as a madrasah as it may once have been, resulting in the library deteriorating sadly.

Another element of the surau that has not aged well are the drums. There is a double-headed goat-hide drum, and an all-wooden drum that is a hollowed out log with a long narrow opening along one side. In the days before amplified speakers, these drums, or beduk, would be struck prior to calling the azan, since their sound would carry farther through the jungle and plantations than the human voice could. The drums at the Masjid Jamek Jawiyyah are still struck even now. The drums of the surau, unfortunately, have become unserviceable. The wooden log has cracked. The uncle I spoke with the day I took these photos said that there’s only one man he knows of who is skilled in making and repairing these drums, and he lives a great distance away. So the drums have been moved to below the stairs until someone is able to have them repaired. They used to hang in the prayer hall.

Madrasah al-Kamaliyya was the first surau I prayed at in Malaysia, and it remains the one most dear to me. I was struck with wonder the first time I prayed there, when, after the salat, the imam and the whole congregation recited an awrad that was virtually identical with the one I had learned from the Tariqat Naqshbandi Haqqani. I was later to learn that many of the elders who founded the community a hundred years ago were followers of Naqshbandi Tariqat, albeit from a different branch. Others held bayats with other orders. The righteous practices that they taught their children have persisted within the surau although they themselves have passed on.

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.

      This one does not enlarge

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]

Ramadan Mubarak

Sunday night was the first night of Tarawih prayers here in Malaysia. By the grace of God, I was able to move into our new house Sunday afternoon, in time to walk to the surau, small mosque, in our new neighborhood for prayers. Now I’ve successfully survived a day of fasting in the tropics. The fasting period is considerably longer here than I’ve been accustomed to in Michigan, not to speak of the hot weather. By the end of a day of unpacking and settling house, I was parched and dizzy.

In Michigan right now, the nights are still longer than the days. Since I converted ten years ago, Ramadan has fallen in the winter months. My first fast was in March. Since the lunar calendar loses about ten days a year against the solar calendar, Ramadan has marched backwards through the months over the years. In December, the fasting interval was only around ten hours long. I think that is a hidden wisdom of the lunar calendar; if Ramadan was fixed to the solar calendar, those living further from the equator would be permanently struggling or having it easy. As it is, over the course of a lifetime, it balances out. So those of my friends laughing in Michigan right now, just wait another eight years till the fast is in July!