Sunday, May 29, 2011

Lemuria - the origin of the Malay race?

This video showed the traces of an ancient civilisation which spread between Madagascar and California. The existence of the lost continent of Lemuria/Mu has been substantiated by the discovery of giant monuments by a Japanese professional diver off the coast of Yonaguni, the southern most island in the Japanese archipelago.
This notion of the Atlantis or 'Eden of the East' has been propounded by Oppenheimer via his 'Out of Sundaland' theory which debunked Bellwood's 'Our of Taiwan' assumption. Hopefully, with this revelation, more readers will subscribe to blogger Srikandi's claims of Hapshesut's journey to her ancestors in the East and that the word 'Pharoah' came from 'prahu'.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Joan Baez - Where have All The Flowers Gone

This song may be the anthem for the anti-war movement in the sixties, and not an appropriate tribute to teachers, but for me, ultimately education is about promoting peace among fellow brethren on Earth.
"Amal ma'aruf, nahi mungkar" (Do good, not evil)
What is the purpose of teaching if it's for our children to learn the tools of exploitation, oppression, manipulation, hatred and genocide?
Is it justified to use our knowledge of mathematics, logic, science, astronomy and the arts to equip them with the drive to invade and impoverish other nations?
On a lighter, and less idealistic note, let me share with you the teachers who had, wittingly and unwittingly, shaped my life.
Like most kampong kids in the sixties, my parents didn't have the wherewithal to enroll me into a 'sekolah makan', a kindergarten, so I was like a 'rusa masuk kampung', a little lost doe in the unfamiliar terrain of the school compound.
Mak accompanied me on my first day to school (and way into the rest of the school year).  She had my hair cropped so close to my round face that I looked like a 'tomboy' in a girl's shirt and starched, orange pleated skirt. For the first time, I had white socks and Pelican-polished canvas shoes on.  She had bought me a brown plaid square hardboard bag with plain plastic guards at the corners from Pasar Geylang.  She handed me a few brown cover exercise books and a pencil case to put into the bag and showed me how snap the metal latch together.
By 11:30am, the 'apek becha' (trishaw man) was already ringing his bell to get us to board the side car attached to his bicycle. He cut through Chai Chee to join the rest of the traffic on Jalan Eunos, then stopped at the t-junction before cycling straight into Still Road, deftly turned left and right, and there we were in front of the side gate which led to the 'tuck shop', where many moms and kids congregated.
I clung to my mother's hand as we made our way to the cafetaria. I only released it to sit on the edge of a long bench, careful not to crease my new uniform or soil my new white shoes. I held on to my new school bag on my lap while Mak bought 'goreng-gorengan' (prawn fritters) and syrup water for lunch. The plump fritters were soaked in a pool of thin chilli sauce; I chewed a quarter of the fried fritter and gulped down the crimson syrup. My tummy was in a knot.  I waited anxiously for the bell to ring before I blended among the row of new found classmates who were assembled in double files under a placard written '1K'.  After the principal, Mrs Whissell, had given her welcome speech, we obediently followed our teacher, Miss Suppial, to our class on the left wing of the second floor.
I don't remember much about my class mates, except for Zainal, who was the class clown, and Nasir, the precocious boy that I was seated next to.  Zainal was a natural entertainer who seized every opportunity to 'perform' in front of the class whenever the class or subject teacher was away while Nasir looked like a street urchin who was 'straight jacketed' into crumpled shirt that was carelessly tucked into his short pants.  I was not comfortable seated next to the big-sized, hairy and crude 'Benggali' boy but never thought of requesting to be seated to a class mate with more refined manners.  For the rest of the school year, I just focused on my lessons, occasionally amused by Zainal's antics and persistently ignored Nasir's foul body odour and lewd body language.  And when my second brother knew about my predicament in class, he tried to humour me by singing a silly ditty about my supposed admirers - 'Aceh, Jenal, Yon' (Nasir, Zainal and Haron, who was the boy next door).      
I might have been a 'terror' at home, running around the yard and climbing the ubi and jambu trees, but I was on home ground with the neighbourhood kids whom I'd known for years. In that fenced and neatly demarcated compound, I felt awkward and hemmed in.  I don't remember having any close friends 'til my last day in 1965. For several months in my first year, Mak would wait for me at the canteen during recess and took me home in a 'beca' or 'teksi pak wan chah', a shared unregistered cab, after school. In between classes, I would excuse myself and peep through the louvres along the corridor to assure myself that Mak had not abandoned me.                
Fortunately, I was relegated into the 'back burner', the last or second last class of the Telok Kurau West Integrated Primary School 'freshies' of 1963. My class teacher was a sweetheart - good-natured and gentle, with soft soothing voice, floating from full lips which stretched into smiles or laughter, and with, oh, just a hint of lip gloss. She always had a black tear drop or red disc on her forehead - a 'nandek', a girl whispered to me.  Thick, dark brows framed her almond-shaped eyes which were expertly lined with kohl.  Her shiny, black hair was neatly coiled in a bun and rested snugly on her nape. Her dark slender arms, embellished with colourful glass bangles which shimmered as she turned into the corner which led into my class room, would be clutching some folders or text books pressed against her slim chest, sheathed in a short-sleeved 'choli', or blouse, and draped with yards and yards of satin with thin, gold borders which flowed dreamily over her back and cascaded into wave-like folds around her ankles.
Mastering the 3Rs - reading, writing, arithmetic - was a breeze for me.  I made it to the third of my class and, in a hall crammed with kids on the floor, I received my first glossy, hard-cover, full colour 'ABC' book with a blonde, blue-eyed, benevolent-looking Queen holding a wand with a gold star on its cover.
The following year - in January 1964 - I was promoted to 2I and had a tall, full-figured Chinese lady, Miss Ong, as my class teacher.  In her low-heeled, black stiletto shoes, dark full skirts and light-coloured blouses, complete with dark-framed eye glasses, she fit the image of the school marm more than the nymph-like Miss Suppial.  What I treasured most being in her class was the many walks that she took us on under Nature Study.  I made good grades and was placed second in class in the second term but my grades were pulled down by poor performance in mental arithmetic (2/5), which earned me a ninth placing.
In January 1965, I was promoted to 3I, had Miss Ong again, managed to pull my socks up and was placed sixth and fifth in class.  And the reward came in the form of a slim, glossy, hard-cover, fully-illustrated book on King Arthur of England, A Sword in the Stone, which I read over and over again while waiting for my placement at Sekolah Jalan Gurney in Kuala Lumpur.
I never really bid farewell to that orange brick school which shared a common compound with Telok Kurau Malay Girls' School and Telok Kurau East School (which was attended by LKY and Tun Hussein Onn) but I never returned either.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Taking the meringue out of Merong

Chronicles Of Merong Mahawangsa
Stephen Rahman-Hughes
 as Merong the warrior and sea captain
Interval – the term habitually used in physical training, or intermission, which is more aptly used in the context of movies and cinema, or ‘time out’ from this solitary pursuit of trying to understand what made my late father tick, delusionally disguised as a memoir*
At any rate, ZM, an FB friend, alerted me of this talk on ‘Meringue’ at the august house of knowledge, otherwise known as Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) yesterday.  It must have been his hungry artiste’s subconscious speaking because it turned out that the discussion was on Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (HMM), or the Chronicles of Merong Mahawangsa (CMM), the movie produced by those trio upstarts who called themselves KRU. 
Humming “Isolation ... it’s not good for me”, I drove over to the event at Jalan Dewan Bahasa.  I was staidly early, signing my name at the registration counter 15 minutes well before the start of the ‘Forum Sastera’ which was scheduled for 2:30PM.  There were only the MC, Norafidah, rehearsing at the mike, the video guy who was setting up his paraphernalia and a concerned representative of the film industry.  I was informed by ZM, who arrived fashionably late, that he's ‘Mat London’, or Ahmad Ibrahim, who's the President of Federation of Directors Association of Malaysia, or FDAM.  He was peering into my face when I signed up earlier.  I should have been more sociable and introduced myself to him.  
In any case, by the time the rest of the guests and participants, the forum panellists and the VVIPs had ambled in to the seminar room, the cast and crew of CMM were noticeably absent.  Wahab Hamzah, the panel moderator, apologised that the organisers had invited Norman Abdul Halim, the Executive Chairman of KRU Studios, but he had flown the day before to attend the Cannes Film Festival.  Okay ... but what about the film’s director, Yusry Abdul Halim, or screenplay writer, Amir Hafizi?  Have they too flown to rub shoulders with the A-Listers at that Mediterranean beach resort?  What about the narrator and key actor, Rahim Razali who played the role of Kesum in the movie  ... or the darling of Malaysian movie industry, Ummie Aida who assumed the part of Embok, Merong’s love interest?  No, nein, nahi, mafi?  Well, what about Khir Rahman, at the very least?
Without the presence of any representative or voice from HMMW (the movie), it dawned on ZM and I that we might have turned up at a ‘bash’ for people who didn’t get to go to the real party at that town in the South of France.  My heart sank as my neighbour told me what she could have done with if she was given RM8 million (to produce the movie).  But I chose to sit through til the end. 
Dato’ Dr. Siti Hawa Salleh, a respected philologist, was the first speaker to take on the rostrum.  She admitted that she only managed to watch half-way through the movie at her own home (it was slotted for the late night show at the cinema so a senior citizen like her was not able to stay up late, she added).  She talked about her experience studying the text for her Masters thesis in 1966 at the recommendation of Professor Taib Osman and under the supervision of a strict Dutch academic at Leiden University.  She went on about the three versions that she had to pore through – the Wilkinson, Sturrock and Maxwell versions – but there weren’t glaring differences about the character of Merong in them, unlike the Hang Tuah in Sejarah Melayu and Hikayat Hang Tuah.  She repeatedly stressed the importance of ‘takdir’ (fate) which was invoked by Nabi Sulaiman, when he advised the Garuda who stubbornly tried to stop the impending marriage between the Roman Prince and the Chinese Princess.  “If it were meant to happen, it’ll happen”, she repeatedly said.  And, oh yes, she did mention about poetic license.
Dr. Mahadi J. Murad, a noted film maker and film instructor at UiTM Shah Alam, chose not to leave his seat to deliver his short take on the movie.  He acknowledged the heightened public interest in the text prior to and throughout the screening of the movie.  However, he lamented the use of ‘Hikayat’, which raised high expectations of epic proportions among the viewing public.  It should have just been about Merong the Man, not an ambitious attempt to chronicle the history of (ancient) Kedah within 111 minutes, he reiterated.  He too made the obligatory remark about poetic or artistic licence.
Kamil Ahmad Mohd Othman, the Vice-President of Creative Multimedia, Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC), was the third speaker.  From the vantage position of the rostrum, he defended the use of English in the movie.  “It’s for the export market”, he said (in case the audience was blissfully ignorant).  He objectively appraised the use of computer-generated images (CGI), which was viewed by many critics as the movie’s major flaw, to portray the imperial Roman and Chinese fleet and the ferocious storming of the sky by Garuda.  “It’s a milestone, a curtain raiser, or pembuka tirai to penetrate the global market”, he added, before launching into technical lingo about the ‘rendering process’ and justification of the MYR 1.5million grant given to the producer of HMMW (the movie).  He finally conceded that the movie’s weakness was in story telling, the missing “grr, grr” factor, to quote his son’s reaction to the film.
If the presentations had failed to address some salient issues which were on the participants' minds, the questions fielded by Sofea Jane and Ismail Kassan during the Q&A succeeded in bringing home the viewers’ grievances about (the lack of) character development and (the cavalier attitude towards) historical accuracy.  It was indeed within SJ’s ambit as a paying audience and an acclaimed actor to expect the best in character portrayal and kudos to IK’s learned observations about the weapons (a Persian sword used by a Malay warrior?) used in the movie.  Other ‘questions’ posed by a veteran and a young film maker sounded more like self-righteous proclamations to impress the rest of the assumed ignorant audience and to extend the closing of the event by some 30 minutes.     
All in all, it was good to catch up with old friends from DBP, academia, the media and the film industry.  There were no caviar or fois gras in the post-forum tea, but we weren’t in Cannes either.                      

* My apologies to my friends at DBP if I had offended them with my candid response to the event.  My intention was to highlight the lack of enthusiasm of one of the discussants and the obvious envy among some of the participants at the generous grant given to the young film makers.  There were other participants who shared my distaste at a veteran film maker's crude attempt at self-promotion and downright rejection of the use of CGI in movies.  But of course, they were too polite to write a 'tongue-in-cheek' commentary of the incident.      

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


As a child visiting my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins in Klang, the sounds and melodies of the Middle East were foreign (but not English since we learned the colonialist language in school!) to my ears. But at the same time, the words and the rythms of the Jazirah (and beyond) - its desolate deserts, its magnificent jabals, its dry wadis and its cosmopolitan coastal cities were haunting and sad. As sad and tragic as its soul which has been raped by serial, avaricious conquerors over the centuries.
The songs by Fairouz, Umm Kalthoum and Abdul Wahab sounded soulful and passionate, but I never knew the meanings of the lyrics 'til now. I never understood how one of my amis, uncle on my father's side, could listen to this favourite song of his and others from 'An Evening in Beirut' album for hours on my Siddi's verandah. But now I wish I had shared their appreciation of all things Arabic then ...
'Nehna Wel-Amar Jeeran' (We And The Moon Are Neighbors)
we and the moon are neighbors
its house is behind our hills
it comes out from in front of us
and listens to the melodies
we and the moon are neighbors
it knows our times
and leaves on our roof bricks
the most beautiful colors
many times we've stayed all night with it
in the nights of joy
with the moans
many times on its rising
we've explained the love
with songs and tales
we and the moon are neighbors
when it stepped by and visited us
on the bridges of our house
the corals were spread
songs and reminders
love and stay
in us all night
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------نحنا و القمر جيراننحنا و القمر جيرانبيته خلف تلالنابيطلع من قبالنابيسمع الالحاننحنا و القمر جيرانعارف مواعيدناو تارك بقرميدنااجمل الالوانياما سهرنا معهبليل الهنامع النهداتياما على مطلعهشرحنا الهوىو غوى حكاياتنحنا و القمر جيرانلما طلّ و زارناع قناطر دارنارشرش المرجانغناني و ذكرحبّ و سهر

Friday, May 6, 2011

Masirah and Muscat, 1937

Muscat Harbour guarded by Fort al-Jalali,

Fort al-Jalali, a recent photo
 of the 16th century semtinel
at the entrance of the harbour 
 I assumed that Baba must have sighted the sandy side of Masirah from the deck of his ship. 
But I never knew if he set his foot on the pebbled shore of Sur, the coastal town famous for being the birthplace of the traditional dhow and Sinbad the Sailor.
But I supposed Baba must have been captivated by the sight of the twin forts on the ramparts which protected the entrance to the harbour in Muscat.
The vessel he boarded must have skitted across the horse-shoe bay before it anchored near the trading port.  He must have taken the dhow to the corniche which wound its way from the souk-as-samak, the fish market, and led him to the ancient Mattrah souk. 
  His thoughts must have flown to Ummi, her fingers, wrists and neck decked with gold ornaments, when he and his mates entered the gold souk by the Shi'ite mosque.  The display cases at the goldsmiths would have spilled with silver, copper and gold anklets, bracelets, chains, ear studs and hair accessories for the ladies.  The narrow mazes of the gold souk then opened up into the main thoroughfare, which would have been jammed with shops selling dishdashas, belts, gilded canes, long saifs and short khanjars for the men.  Wooden chests, woollen rugs, straw mats, reed baskets, clay vessels and bukhoors would have lined the pavements, while tiny tables crammed with Arabian perfumes, frankinsence and myhrr.  The air must have been thick with incense and sweat as they dug into their paper thin Omani bread, yellow mandy rice and charcoal-grilled lamb.
  The Omani food may have tasted bland to his palates, but he must have been told by the local traders that its people were fierce and fearless.  Baba must have noticed too that they were about the same built as the Yemenis, and like them, those in the interior were used to fighting harsh sand storms and fueding tribal rivals in the arid desert.  The coastal people had always had to fend off military incursions by the Romans, Persians, Portugese and Turks. 
  Baba must have learned from the locals that Afonso de Albuquerque had attacked and occupied Muscat four years before the Fall of Melaka in 1511.  And 130 years later, between 1648 and 1650, the Imam of Oman had avenged the deaths of the men, women and children in the Massacre of Muscat and, 330 years later in 1840, Said ibni Sultan had finally driven off the Feringgis from Omani soil and all the way off the coast of Zanzibar!
  Talks about the constant friction between the Imams of the interior and the Sultans of Muscat and Zanzibar must have reminded him of the tensions between Abah and himself.  He surmised that Abah, had he been bitten by the travel bug, would have visited the castles and forts of Jibreen and Nizwa and commisserated with the muttawaks about this hukum and that fatwa instead of just smoking and playing cards with the locals at Mattrah.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Masya'Allah, Salalah!

After a brief stop at Aden, the steamer sailed for the next largest port by the vast Arabian Sea.  Aji Din couldn't wait to set foot on Salalah, the sub-tropical city famed for its frankincense which grew like wild mangroves by its river banks.  Ibn Batutta in his rihlah had described his encounter with the ancient frankincense trees in the region of Dhofar, Aji Din recalled.  Why, Frankincense had been one of the perfume presented to the infant Isa by the Three Wise Men, he mused.
Darn it, if I had ran away a couple of months earlier, I would have arrived during the Khareef!  Now the trees on the jabals had began to shed their leaves, the wadis had dried up and the waterfalls were just a traveller's memory.  But no matter, Salalah with its swaying coconut palms, miles and miles of banana and papaya trees would be the closest to his Ummi's home town of Selekoh, Bagan Datoh, where they owned stretches of coconut plantations as far as the eyes could see.
There'll still be the Maqams of the Prophets to visit - the masoleum of an-Nabi Ayub high up among the clouds on the Jabal's peak, the grave of an-Nabi Imran with its arrogant peacocks in its yard and the resting place of an-Nabi Shuaib with its camels' hoof prints intact in the hardened mud caves.
And since Salalah became the capital of Muscat and Oman five years, the Sultan's opulent palace was a sight to behold.  Praying at the masjid in Salalah shouldn't be a problem since the Dhofaris were mostly Sunnis, unlike the Ibadis of the Muscat area, he thought.  Now, he only had to pick up Shehri or Jeballi, the language of the mountain people of Salalah, when he ventured to the souqs and restaurants in the city.  And if luck was on his side, he might even spot a leopard or a hyena when he trekked up the mountainous countryside with his mates!

The Beauty of Salalah
Mist-covered meadows during the Khareef,
or monsoon season

Frankinscense for the bukhoor

Al-Mughsayl coastline

Coirs from the husks of the tall coconut trees
 were used to built sewn boats in the old days

The Gate to Aden, October 1937

Aden at the western tip of the Jazeerah

The lighthouse at Steamer Point
By the time Siddi got the news from Aji Muhammad that Baba had hitched a ride on a produce truck to Jeddah, Baba and his mates were looking over their shoulders at the islands on the Red Sea as the steamer made its way through the Straits of Bab-al-Mandab, the Gate of Tears.  
Once the cruiser glided over the choppy waters, they would be able to catch a glimpse of the lighthouse at Steamer Point, which beckoned dhows and ships to the port of Aden.  Baba must have been exhilarated by the thought of the first time stepping on foreign soil, away from the watchful eyes of his father and the gentle pleas of his mother to be careful, to always be careful.  His eyes peered at the horizon for famous landmarks on that ancient city - Jebel Shamsan, Crater Pass, the Al-Idrus Mosque, the Ma'alla and Sheikh Usman districts. 
It was just a few months ago when the vessel which his family boarded at Port Swettenham stopped to refuel at this last station on the Arabian Sea.  Accompanied by his brothers, Muhammad and Ishaq, he had confined himself to the vicinity of the harbour.  This time around, he promised himself that he would explore savour every flavour, colour and rythmn of this tenacious settlement which clung to the feet of extinct volcanoes.    

The city of Aden circa 1935-1936,
courtesy of

Modern day Aden

The wide boulevard that led to the colonial buildings
Nadifa Mohamed, Black Mamba Boy

Monday, May 2, 2011

Ma'salamah Jeddah, October 1937

I wished  Baba (his preferred Farsi term of endearment) would gather us around him and regale us with his adventures as a sailor with the British merchant navy.  Instead, all we had was a silent, faded photograph of him and his mates on the deck of a steamer with a dark funnel in the background.  Two of his mates were on their haunches while Baba and two other young men were smiling, looking crisp and fresh in their uniform of collared top, bell bottoms and ribbon-trimmed caps.  There was a glint in his dark brown eyes and a dimple on his right cheek.    
Baba must have felt as free as the sea breeze that swept the top deck of the freight ship which he boarded in Jeddah, perhaps a few days or maybe a week earlier.  Abah, his father, committed to his daily regiment of prayers and Qur'anic teachings at the madrasah in Ajyad, would never understand his son's dreams of travelling to far away lands, disembarking at different ports of call, picking up foreign languages, tasting exotic foods and drowning in the beat of distant shores.
How different they were, like the sky and the earth! The son with his mind floating in dreams of liberation and the father with his feet firmly grounded on the tenets of the religion.  And how those feet must have frozen when Haji Yusoff was told by his dear wife, Hajjah Aishah, that their first born son had packed up his clothes and travelling documents into a slim luggage and slipped away through the side gate of their walled compound. 
Why, hadn't they just unpacked their belongings a few months ago when they arrived in Makkah? Couldn't he have at least asked for their blessings before he took his leave?  Where was he heading for?  There were so many questions rushing through his head.  Had he been too strict with Aji Din?  Should he have spared the rod when Aji Din was a child? 
"Beat him with the rotan when he's stubborn, stop only when he faints!" 
That was his father's instruction when he delivered the young Siddi to his mua'lim.  And how Siddi had memorised the content of the Holy Book by rote learning, his feet numb from hours of sitting on his soles and joining his bony knees to the fleshy joints of his ustaz.  He thanked Allah for blessing him with a sharp mind that there was hardly any need for his teacher to pick up the thin rattan strip that was always by his side.
Siddi was perplexed, but he willed himself to walk to the sink to take his ablution.  The splash of cool water on his hands doused his anger and calmed his anxiety.  Why can't Aji Din be more like his younger brothers, Aji Muhammad and Aji Ishaq?  Where did he learn to challenge conventions?  Will he go through life debating even the most common assumptions? 
Two British sailors in the '30s

He muttered to himself while he shrugged off the irritation which crept up his back like a Syaitan's minion.  He sat down to take a sip of the kahwat which his wife had poured from the coffee pot into the tiny porcelain cup placed in front of him.  Sitti pinched the corner of the helwa, chewed it slowly and kept her thoughts to herself.  She waited for her husband to speak but he was still listening to the voices in his head.    
"There IS god, and that's Allah; not there's NO god but Allah."
Siddi could still hear his eldest son's voice ringing in his ears, while the crowd around him looked like they could have kicked themselves for not having thought of that before.  "That son of yours is too smart for his own good," his close friend had whispered to him.  "You should rein him in before he upsets the elders."
Now, it seemd that his efforts at reigning in the colt had backfired.  Rice had turned to gruel.  He turned to his wife and said,
"Don't worry, I'll get Muhammad to ask the bus and lorry drivers at the souq for his whereabouts."