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 mustache 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.
“Very sharp, this parang is? Is it not?” The crowd murmured something, in agreement of what was said.
There were still the broken pieces of wood on the ground. The man with the machete took the pieces and laid them side by side.
Suddenly, there was a loud “AAAARRRGGGGHHHHH” of a sound followed by what sounded like “AL-LAAAHHHH “(the god of the Muslims) I heard, and I could see the man jumped up in the air wielding the machete and struck the two pieces of wood, breaking them in four now.
“Very sharp, right?!” his voice again.
At that moment, I was wondering what the man kneeling on the ground a few meters in front of us, was doing. He was still chanting some religious verses. I could feel my mouth wide open. What is going to happen next? Are those blocks of wood going to be cut into pieces again? What does that have to do with the man kneeling? Decades after that those images of ISIS (The Islamic State of Syria and Iraq) and beheadings were all over the Internet, here at this moment, I was wondering.
“Are you ready to witness a miracle?” he asked. There was so much authority in his thundering voice.
“Are you ready to witness how the power of Allah Taa’la works?” … “… the power of the Malay warrior spirit …???!” he roared.
The crowd was getting excited and a few voices shouted back “YESSS!!” “ALLAHU AKBAR” YESSS!! GOD IS GREAT.
I heard that too. I could smell sweat coming from the people around me. I could smell armpits above me. I could smell Indonesian clove cigarettes; that signature aromatic smell of village-folks. I could smell magic and mysticism. I could also smell the foul smell of people’s breath — of breathing as if each breath is a mantra of living and last breath of life. The smell of nagging and solidifying phlegm brewed for ages in the chest. The smell from the whiff of the dirty river of the city, of the legendary Segget River.
I think that was the smell. The smell of secrecy. Deep secrecy. Of anger and revenge. Of May 13, 1969. Of a bloody riot that took the lives of more than two thousand people, mostly Chinese.
On no, I thought. Oh no. I had to clench my imagination from going wild as I looked at the man kneeling, chanting, his eyes closed. Oh no. Please don’t. Should I leave and go home and watch TV? But this is exciting, I thought. As a child growing up in this Malay village, roaming and running around in my Japanese slippers, sometimes in my terompah or a klompen, eating rambutan, drinking fresh coconut juice right from the fruit, and walking around like Joe Don Baker in the movie Walking Tall, with a freshly cut sugar cane or tebu from grandpa’s backyard, this is great stuff, I thought. I must stay. I must watch.
I did not care if my mother would be wondering in which part of the village I have ended in, as usual. She will see me home and asking where I have been and all I would tell her would be “Rumah kawan laa mak’. My friend’s place, Ma. A confession such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s would be out of the question. The man was still kneeling. He was chanting. The Malay warrior with the parang was still giving his sermon. The crowd was still gasping. The crowd was still believing.
About an hour after watching preach about the magical powers he has, finally the moment came. He announced to the horror of the crowd what I had though he would not be doing to the man kneeling. He is going to use his parang to “slaughter” the man from behind, by the neck.
“Gentleman, be calm and watch this” his voice was filed with assurance. “Watch how this parang that I used to cut the block of wood into pieces … watch how I will now use this weapon on this man … on his neck!”
I felt like running away at that moment. Feel like speeding off, like a bullet. Of faster than a speeding bullet – like Superman. I did not know what I would see. Yes, he is going to “slaughter” the man right there. The man’s head will roll on the ground. Am I ready for this?
“Watch this, gentleman. Just watch this. Nothing is going to happen to him.” he held the parang onto the back of the man’s neck. Everyone was quiet. There was dead silence in the front yard of the house.
“HAAARRRGGGGHHHHH!!” ‘HUUUOOAAA HHHHH’ “ALLAHUAKBAR”
“HAAARGGGGGGHHHHHH!!” ‘HUUUUOOOAAAHHHHH” “ALLLLAHUAKBAR”
“HAAARGGGGGGHHHHHH!!” ‘HUUUUOOOAAAHHHHH” “ALLLLAHUAKBAR”
One more time the parang landed on the kneeling man’s neck with a powerful blow! I almost fainted! One more sound of a thud onto the man’s neck. The sound of a three-meter ruler hitting a punching bag. Three hits on the neck with the man’s eyes closed chanting and shouting “ALLAHUAKBAR … God is great … God is great … God is great …” the parang that cut the thick rectangular block wood into four pieces, hit the man’s neck three times, and miraculously bounced back every time! Yes, it did! I saw that! I did! I did! Not a single drop of blood I saw coming from the “slaughtering” and “attempted beheading” of the man whose is still kneeling and chanting.
The crowd gasped. I was not sure if they were in shock — or in relief.
“HA, HA, HA …” the warrior-beheader roared into the crowd, “The power of what we teach. The power of god. The power of this martial arts. This man is kebal! This man is invulnerable to anything. He is protected by God. Nothing will harm him, Not even bullets of the kaffirs or non-believers. Not any Chinese sword. Nor any keris. Nor any parang“
“This is how we are going to the city. This is how we are going to do the jihad. Allah is great. Allah is great. Allah is great! Takbirrrr! Takbirrrr! Allah is great.” the man roared. The crowd followed. A minimalist-micro-mini-midget roar I could hear, from above my head. A Team Jihad group roar.
I walked home. Puzzled. My knees felt weak, melting as if I was in anguish, thinking of an explanation. There was none. Why was the man not beheaded? Why didn’t the head roll on the ground? Like the chickens for my grandma’s gangsta curry? Why was not a single drop of blood spilled? Why? Why? Why? It could have been more dramatic, I thought. There could be a human head rolling on the ground, and everybody would be running scared although there were no policemen around, as always for these kinds of demonstration of martial arts skills.
But nothing happened. How could that be possible? How could that be freaking possible? How can I learn the art of such profundity – -the art of invulnerability, even with a sharp weapon that was shown to have split wood into that many pieces? How could that be? These are a child’s questions. A child’s fascination of Malay magic in me was ignited. I wanted that power. I know I could not be X-Men or Superman or Iron Man. These are foreign heroes. They do not reside in my village. Only on TV.
That was the day. A day of preparation for the men in black and red headbands to march to the city and go to battle with the Chinese. The death toll in that racial clash was around 2,500 as the official report said. The city was burning. Vehicles were on fire. Shops in the major streets were burned down. Bodies lay on the streets – in some parts of the burning city, with heads missing. Some blown to pieces.
I hate to have my memory go back to that day in 1969, when, as a very young child, what I heard daily was men in red headbands in the town of Muar, Johor with parang, kerambit, keris, daggers and all kinds of weapons, were heading for the urban village of Kampong Baru, Kuala Lumpur, meeting at the residence of the then ‘menteri besar‘ or governor named Harun Idris, a politician who is known as a champion for Malay rights, dignity, and declared sense of superiority trumpeted as a warning to the Chinese living in the country.
It was there that the plan to “slaughter” the Malaysian Chinese was cooked. It was there that the deadly concoction of extreme Malay nationalism and radical Islamism was brewed.
The country was in turmoil. It reminds me of a Hitlerian hatred; what the Nazi Germans did to the primarily Ashkenazi Jews who were said to have been controlling the German economy and therefore had to be administered “the final solution.”
The book May 13, 1969: A tragedy.” was banned. It was written by the first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. I remembered reading it secretly though, when I was about ten years old. I found it hidden in one of the closets in my house. It was owned by my father who was a soldier in the British Malaya army.
I could even feel the ‘heat’ of that May 13, 1969 in my kampong in Johor Baru, with the people talking about ‘sembelih‘ (slaughtering). As a child, those moments left me this sense of a bloody history in me.
My saddest moment on that day concerned my Mathematics teacher, whom I love and respect dearly and who adored me for my hard work and who had all praises for me since day one. On that day, after May 13, 1969, all of a sudden, after checking my class work for the period, she threw my exercise book right across the room and out of the door. I did not know why. Out of the classroom, I walked quietly, picked up my notebook, and went back to my seat. I cried inside. I was devastated for weeks.
I could not understand what was happening. I thought I was “the teacher’s pet,” as my classmates have always said. I knew I was so nice a child; one who would always try to please any teacher and be loved by many, because that is what my mother taught: respect your teachers all the time and do well in school because we are very poor people.” Mother would cry every time I did not come home top of the class; every time I did not get Number 1 in class. She would sob. I would sob as well. There was a time I got Number 2 and I spent about two hours roaming around the village trying to figure out how to break the news to my mother, and what she will say after showing her my report card.
But that day, Miss Chan was angry. I felt like it was going to be the end of my little world and I would die, and be judged of my wrongdoings, and The Grand Author of Fate and Free Will shall decree if I would go to heaven or to hell, based on the things I have done, and the sins I have committed at a very young age. I knew I have sinned a lot by merely thinking evil thoughts, and not performing my prayers more than the minimums requirements of entering Paradise.
I know that my good deed is still not enough even though I was a little imam, and an expert chanter and keen follower of a cultish sect, of a tariqat (path) of the Mufarridiyyah and have already made known of the coming of the Al Mahdi the ultimate savior, and how the world is going to come to an end, I knew all that and more. I did the zikr (mantric-tantric repetitions-till-you-go-numb-in-the-mind of remembrance) every day, and I was sure my loud daily chanting of the word “ALLAH … ALLAH … ALLAH …” that could shake the entire village, would reach the Heavens and god will say … “Yes boy … I hear you loud and clear … Go on … worship me”. I did all these.
And worse, I had not even been circumcised. My covenant with the arch-patriarch Ibrahim or Abraham would not have been complete. I would die with my spirit roaming and therefore restless, and therefore I’d be haunting people by the village roadsides past midnight. That would not be a cool way to live. My life would be meaningless in a world that is meant to tell people what life means, by following the ‘proper teachings’ that will also have one be rewarded with martial arts magical powers — like the man in the black warrior suit, and a red headband with the parang. Or hopefully like X-Man or Superman or even Iron-Man.
Bless your soul, Miss Chan! I hope you were only angry with me on that day.
But wait a minute. The people in my kampong were preparing for what? They were preparing themselves to gather enough magical powers that would enable them to not be scratched, even if a Chinese sword were plunged into their chest, right into their hearts and souls next?
Wait a minute. My teacher Miss Chan is Chinese. My best friend in school, Fook Shiang is Chinese. My grandfather’s best friends that visit the house often are Chinese. And wait a minute – my aunt’s a Chinese! Grandpa adopted her when she was a few weeks old. She was saved from the invading Japanese army who massacres Malayan Chinese by even plunging bayonets into the heart of babies. My beloved Ngah was saved. This is not making sense. Fear began to engulf me. Robespierrian fear. French Revolution fear. Guillotine fear. The fear for the Ilongots the headhunting tribe. The fear of decapitation. A real fear, for real. The fear of even thinking of scenarios: of what ifs.
Those days – of screaming and slaughtering.