It was sometime in April, 1969. Maybe earlier. Again, my gallivanting in my village brought me to a house nearby, where I saw a crowd in front of a wooden house. To reach that place I had to take several small streets or lorongs. In the neighborhood, the street names signify the sense of being in a place most peaceful – of Malaysia in the late sixties. The Malay words used have a carnival of a magical feel. A sense of place. And personal history.
There is Lorong AMAN, Peace; there is ADIL, Justice; there is there is JAYA, Victory; there is BAHAGIA, Happiness; there is SENTOSA, contentment; there is BUDIMAN, to-the-sole-good-heartedness; there is MERDEKA, Freedom and RAHMAT, Blessings. These are some of the names of the lorongs in the Malay kampong I passed by often, to get me from one adventure to another. These are where the people of the “Malay race” lived since the village was opened as a new settlement, even before the British gave the country independence. These names I lived in gave me a sense of what the words tell me to feel – peaceful, content, fair, free, and above all a person who is “budiman,” or of one possessing to-the-soul-good-heartedness.
Growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s, different words to describe reality, practices, and possibilities were dancing happily around me. Perhaps those street names tuned me to calmness. All these shaped the child’s mind, such as that of mine growing up with a fascination of names, as if living is about being taught names and being able to “read the self and the word” in order to be liberated. There were also words related to spirituality; words such as ‘sembah-Hyang’, marhaban, berzanji, kenduri, berkhatan, and bersugi gigi. There were also cool words related to Malay magic such as jampi serapah, tangkal, kemenyan, dukun, pawang, and of course the “mambang laut-mambang darat-mambang udara” trinity/trio”.
That was the smooth-sailing times.
Back in the day people were happy wearing what ought to be simple fashion and accessories… kebaya, baju kurong (not a straitjacket mind you), baju Melayu Telok Blangah, terompah, selipar chapal, selipar Jepun, manik koran, and all kinds of Malay, Chinese, and Indian ‘bling bling’ to adorn oneself with cultural niceties. Growing up in the kampong, I was not attuned to hearing totally foreign words, imported from elsewhere to denote and connote the self, spirituality, and salvation, and “saving the soul of others”; words such as solat, dakwah, ushrah, tarbiyyah jihad, muzakarah, jubah, serban, hijab, purdah, burqah, niqab, Arqam, tabligh, Ayatollah, muktamaar, buah tamar, or even Daulah Islamiyah.
Not that I knew or had even heard of until the beginning of the eighties when these words like Karl Marx would say, became technologies of the “body, mind, and spirit” that changed the social relations of production, and the ideological landscape of the country and the consciousness of a segment of Malay people.
I passed through these lorongs, in a village of Malay-speaking people and in a place reserved for settlers of this ethnic group. These settlers nonetheless came from a variety of ethnic groups that later constitute the “Malays”. There were Javanese, Bugis, Bawean or Boyanese, Madurese, hybrid Chinese, Arabs, Indian-Muslims, and a Sikh young woman Zaida whose parents were from the land of the Bengalis who later married one of my mothers’ cousins, Ali. There were Malays from different states that moved into this kampong Melayu: from Perak, Negeri Sembilan, Melaka, Selangor, and even as far as Kelantan and Kedah. But it was called a Malay kampong with only Malays allowed to be given land to live in. The Malay Reserve Land as the government designated it as.
I arrived at the place where a crowd was waiting. I loved stopping by and watching what is happening whenever people congregate, whether it was in my village or in the petrol-diesel-stinky-river-rotten egg-smelling town of Johor Bahru about three miles from home. There would always be people selling something; ointments, batik cloths, t-shirts from neighboring Singapore city, or even aphrodisiacs prepared traditionally and packaged as the best sexual-magical-mystical pill that could help one not only sustain happiness in marriage, but marry two, three, and up to four wives. Power pills ten times better than Viagra, I would imagine.
My favorite stopover would always be at the Indian man in dhoti, smoking a cerutti or cheap-looking cigarillos from India, with a parrot that told people’s future by picking up cards that would tell you when you would die! That was my favorite place in front of a Chinese sinseh‘s store where I would sometimes squat for an hour watching the parrot become Nostradamus. Yes, the parrot could also tell the exact date when one would die. I would be listening to such revelations and wonder if the man was actually reincarnation of the angel of death himself, and the parrot his sidekick doing the horrifying job of telling the truth.
Satisfied but scared off with such a learning session, I would then head home with a plastic bag of friend bananas, thirty pieces of pisang goreng a pop costing me a Malaysian dollar, or one Ringgit; those plantains-looking crispy crunchy banana fritters my mother loves. Always bring something home, as a gift or buah tangan, or the fruits of thine hands, as Mother would always remind us. That would signify that even if you are out having fun listening to a parrot pronounce the date for a death, we should be happy that we are still alive and be bearing gifts to the loved ones at home.
So, I stopped by the house on Lorong Aman, Peace Avenue. Something was happening. It looked like it was a Malay martial arts demonstration. Men in black traditional Malay hero outfit, each with red headscarf with the Arabic words written from right to left that looked like it reads Laailaha ‘ilAllah Muhammadar RasulAllah “There is no god but The God and Muhammad is the messenger of God” written on it. In white over red; purity over blood.
Yes, words that I have seen on the flag of Daesh/ISIS, or The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; that globalizing terrorizing military entity and an informal creation of the American Empire.
There were a group of around thirty or so people, all men and some boys gathering and I pushed myself into the group to get a closer look. I was small enough to bonsai myself into the crowd of adults and to have the closest view of what I thought intriguing. It was standing room only. I was there in full and clear view of what was happening. I could hear some screams and religious chants.
I saw a man in black on the ground with his eyes closed, kneeling. He had a red head-covering on. Another man, with heavy moustache and a similar head-covering as well, was standing behind him. He was holding a parang, the traditional machete used to cut bamboos. It looked sharp. Very sharp. Shining sharp. It looked almost like a mini sword used by those Shaolin warriors I saw on those Bruce Lee movies, and especially in the movie “The Boxer Rebellion.” A bit more elaborate, shining, and intricate in design it would look like a sword used by the Saudi Arabian executioner every Friday in Makkah to behead those who commit murder.
“Look at this thick plank of wood,” his voice thundered to the crowd.
“Look closely.: The man on the ground was quiet.
The man with the long machete held the block of wood with his right hand and threw it up in the air. As it reached almost in front of his face, with one strike of the machete, he split the thick wood into two. It fell on the ground with a plonk and a clank and a plop again. Plop. Clank, Plop. The end.
“Very sharp this thing is, yaaah?!” his voice thundered. He looked at the crowd, now gasping. Had his moustache been trimmed sharply thin, he would have looked like Salvador Dali holding a little chicken. His dark curly hair, had it been longer and more stylish, would make him look like the great Mexican-American guitarist Devadip Carlos Santana famed for his song “Black Magic Woman”. I could not believe my eyes. I was silent, like others. What next? I wondered. I looked at the other man kneeling.
I heard the man chanting some Arabic words I could not understand. As if praying for his life, he was.