Saturday, March 12, 2011

How Rabiah met Al-Qawmiyya al-‘arabiyya*

Siddi in his 70s

Mak always had this wistful, faraway look whenever she talked about her engagement to a sweet-natured Javanese boy.  That was before 15 February 1942, when Singapore fell to the marauding Japanese military forces led by Lieutenant General Yamashita.  The fierce general had taken the Brits by surprise when he took the land route via Kota Baru, Kelantan, instead of the sea route to Singapore.  From the north eastern coastal town, his soldiers stealthily cycled 500 kilometres south, where with a sleight of hand they defeated the joint British, Australian, Indian and Malayan army in the Battle of Singapore.  The three and a half years of Japanese occupation, which ended on 15 September 1945, changed the course of her young life.
            She was barely 18 and living with her father, Ahmad Semawi (Tok Mat Semawi), who was absorbed with his day job as a proof reader at the Utusan Melayu Press on Cecil Street and his night shift as a Bangsawan (Malay opera) director at Wayang Satu on Dunearn Road.  But he was home long enough for Mak and her younger brother, Said (Pom), to make off with the spare coins that spilled out from his pockets while he took his shower in the early mornings or late evenings.  After her mother, Karsinah (Cemplok), died when she was eight and Pom about six, they were shunted off to live with their eldest brother, Hassan (Wak Asan), his wife Kalsom (Wak Som) and their three children (Rashid, Latiff and Jamaliah) at Jalan Taugeh, right at the border of Kebun Ubi and Kampung Eunos (or Kampung Melayu).  But when Tok Mat Semawi married Nek Sapura when they were in their early teens, he took them back into his house at Orange Grove Road.  To get away from Nek Sapura’s constant nagging, as soon as she had helped her with the household chores, she would dive into her bedroom and devour the content of the daily Utusan and weekly magazines Qalam and Mastika which her father had brought home the evening before.  Although she only had a couple of years of schooling when her mother was alive, her three older brothers who had received English education had instilled the love of reading in her.  And when Pak Cik Pom came home from school, the two siblings would be spending a small part of their father’s collection from the Bangsawan show the night before on jajan (snacks) at the stalls and shop houses nearby.            
Thus it was at the recommendation of Ustaz Jalal, whose wife Wak Jenab was related to her mother, her father had hastily broken off her engagement to the young man and accepted Bapak’s proposal of marriage.  Both the elderly men were impressed with Bapak’s family background, religious knowledge and rhetorical skills.  Bapak was born in Makkah in 1917, a decade or so after the Arab countries had celebrated the end of the (Turkish) Ottoman Empire’s stranglehold over them.  His father, Yusof Sahabudin (Siddi), who originated from Kampong Telok Menegun, Klang, had furthered his Quranic and Arabic studies there since 1911, where he married my Sitti and had their eldest daughter, Azizah, and first born son, Badarudin.  They returned to Tanah Jawi (Malay Peninsula) in 1918, where he started a madrasah in Selekoh, Perak, on a piece of land that he acquired.  Selekoh was my Sitti’s hometown.  In 1937, he left for Makkah again with his family (who had now expanded to eight, with Mohamed, Hanifah, Ishak and Hasnah) to settle in Ajaid, a neighbourhood on one of the hills behind Masjid-il-Haram (the Grand Mosque).  There, he also set up a waqf (a pious foundation) to accommodate pilgrims and students who had no lodgings.  By then my father was a young man of 20.  Fired by both the spirit of Pan Arabism and wanderlust, he ran away to Jeddah to be a sailor, spent five years at several ports of call in the south of the Hijaz (Arab Peninsula) and the sub-continent of India, before he finally disembarked at the bustling port of Singapore.  Singapore of the late 1930s and early 1940s was the political, financial, cultural and literary hub of Tanah Melayu (Malay Peninsula).  In Singapore, he sought refuge at Ustaz Jalal’s house in Kebun Ubi, Geylang Serai.  Ustaz Jalal had studied under Siddi’s tutelage, either in Selekoh or Ajaid.  So that was how Bapak caught sight of Mak, on her fateful visit to Wak Jenab's, donning her long and loose-fitting cheongsam and styling her crimped hair ala Greta Garbo.   
·  Al-Qawmiyya al-‘arabiyya is a nationalist ideology that celebrates the glories of Arab language, culture and literature, pushing for political renewal and union of the Arab World from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea.  One of the main goals of Arab nationalism is the end of Western influence and the removal of Arab governments dependent on Western power.  This nationalistic sentiment had influenced Malay scholars in the Arab World, who returned to initiate Islamic Reforms under the nascent movement known as the Kaum Muda (Young Men), who challenged the leadership style of the Kaum Tua (Elderly Men).

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