On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Bell and a Stick

The man with the white turban wrapped around his red hat was our Mufti Sheikh Yusuf al-Zawawi, Egyptian and engaging, a man who was at ease with everybody and was widely respected for his presence and learning, and he leant on his walking stick as he looked around in the Tanjong market.

I don't suppose the Mufti of Trengganu in the present day goes to town anymore with his driver by his side and his handbasket of fish and fruit, but Sheikh Yusuf with thobe flowing and driver in tow looked at the array of fish laid out on the mat on the floor in the market and pointed at it with his stick. The fish seller, unmindful of the office of the mufti and the prospective customer in the flowing robe, grabbed hold of the stick and cast it unceremoniously aside.

This was a story I was told by many an elderly folk to illustrate the gap between foreign practicalities and Trengganu's delicate form and etiquette. Even the man of religion was liable to make grave mistakes when it came to what we in Trengganu called jjuruh, and its cousins tertib terning and tamakninöh. The irony is tamakninöh came from the Arabic tuma'nina meaning composure or calmness as in prayer, but in Trengganuspeak it has taken on the extended meaning of 'being prim and proper'. Someone who's lacking in it, i.e. takdök tamakninöh goes about hurriedly and waves his stick about, though I hasten to add that our Mufti wasn't a man who was intentionally rude. He was just not totally immersed in our local ways.

"Biar gök tamakninöh sikik wok! Tertib terning gök sikik!" is a reproach from an elder to a very young person (wok) to be mindful and polite and right. Tertib is, as you've recognised, from another Arabic word, tartib, order. Tertib terning is what I've called in the past, a ding-dong word. [see, Friends in the Night, infra;Growing Up In Trengganu, supra]. A tertib person knows the order of things and has the savoir faire that's born of good breeding, so his opposite would be löklak, a word I've also heard used in Kedah. Mat Löklak burns the bread, trips on the cat, walks in front of elders without stooping down low and wears his songkok with the edges aligned with his shoulder blades.

Here's the ultimate disapprobation for someone whose form is totally bad and manners absolutely out: "Dök jjuruh haröh setabok harang!" In other words, a way beyond redemption sort of folk.

Now our Sheikh Yusuf al-Zawawi once shook his stick at the Bukit Putri and silenced the genta bell that'd been tolling for a good many years on the Hill of our Princess; and so it was that the bell was heard no more in the Ramadhan months and on the eve and morn of our Eids (Hari Raya) after that. His reason for silencing the bell-chimes that brightened our festive months was because it was un-Islamic he said (and he could well have been right). For years Kuala Trengganuers felt the loss and mourned the silence and the emptiness of our genta-less Eids; but happily for them they still had the sonorous voice of Bilal Sa'id and the thunderous tones of Bilal Deramang that came down from the minarets from dawn to dusk to fill the emptiness in their hearts.

The voices of Pak Sa'id and Pak Deramang (Abdul Rahman) have long gone into the ethers of Hari Rayas past, and the genta is now perhaps forever silenced by the al-Zawawi stick, but I wish my Muslim readers a happy Hari Raya nevertheless: may your day be as sweet as the call of the takbir on this blessed 'Eid.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Taxed By the River

If you look up an old copy of the AAM Guide to Driving in Malaysia and take the road that wends and bends up Bukit Kijal, you'll see as you're coming down on the other side a breathtaking view of the beach in Kemaman, the sea framed by steep hillsides, coconut trees with leaves waving so nimbly and the sun shining bright in a cloudless sky. This was the view I saw many times in our journeys home from Kuantan by bus or taxi, and then maybe a few times more in our trips from Kuala Lumpur with Father when he drove us home in his ailing Hillman Minx and then later from inside a tank called the Volvo 122S that Father picked up from the yard of a second-hand dealer.

In 1936 the young colonial officer M.C. ff. Sheppard, delighted to be re-posted to Kemaman, found the beach there as beautiful and alluring as when he’d left it in 1934, so much so that he wondered how his fellow countrymen, coming as they did from a “nation whose youth has been spent on holiday at Margate, Broadstairs, Filey or Bude” could have left it alone and unspoilt.

Kemaman may have been beautiful and the place to be but not to all of Shephard’s fellow officers. In 1923, G.E.Clayton, a man who survived the Great War mentally and physically intact, found the solitude and the quiet life in Kemaman just too burdensome to bear. He took out his gun and just blew his life away. His successor had much the same view about Kemaman, but instead of pulling out his gun, he took out his pen and wrote his resignation letter just a week after being condemned to this life of beach, sea and sky.

I had no views of Kemaman except as a stopping place after the stomach churning roller coaster roads that we knew as jalan ular (snake road) after Kuantan, and the Kemaman ferry, the floating platform that bobbed up and down from one side to the other of the Kemaman water. Kemaman looked to me like a vast place, with villlage houses sheltering under coconut groves and miles of mostly straight but pot-holed tarmac to Kuala Trengganu. And then of course there was Geliga, that enchanted stone on Kemaman's shore.
The river that taxed (Chukai), KemamanA boy who was our cousin or maybe in a position further removed in the kinship line, went on a bus ride to Kemaman one day and came back with other unfortunates stretched out in the back of a lorry. They were all laid out fully clothed, with lungs still drenched in brackish water after the bus lost its brakes in its downward journey down the steep slope to the Geliga ferry. It plunged straight into the swollen river. That was a very long time ago but I can still see them all stretched out on the tarpaulin when the lorry pulled into the street light just after dusk for the bodies to be collected by grieving families.

It marked out Kemaman as a distant place in my mind’s eye, with loopy roads and deep rivers in the shadow of a steep hill. It was, after all, nearly a hundred miles away from Kuala Trengganu. And then there was a town called Chukai shimmering in reflection in yet another body of water. Chukai was allegedly named after the tax (cukai) collectors that kept their post on the river banks, but Mother told us a different story. There was, in times past, she said, a crocodile in the Kemaman river and because of its habit of regularly snapping up local inhabitants for food the place came to be known as Chukai, i.e. the place where the crocodile exacted its toll.

When crocodiles no longer swam the river and drill platforms rose along the shore, the trunk road from Pahang through Kemaman was lit up in the nights by a tall gas flare that signalled that one was entering oil country. It seemed aeons ago now when Tuan Separd (Sheppard) left his local idyll to take up further posts in the rarefied air of Kuala Lumpur, and then staying on after Independence to become the first curator (I think) of the Muzim Negara before moving on to distinguish himself in other things, not as ‘M.C.ff’ but as Abdul Mubin Sheppard, writer, historian, socialite, Tan Sri, Dato’ and Haji.

Kemaman had its ways of luring people. As the historian Heusseler put it: "For bachelors who were not overly reliant on clubs and European society, it was a paradise of vast, empty beaches and tiny kampongs dreaming under a tropical sun, peopled by ra'ayat who were as attractive as they were shy and suspicious of outsiders."

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Man of Oob

On a coconut tree, along the coastal road of Batu Buruk in Kuala Trengganu were three letters arranged vertically to read “OOB”. For a long time I wondered, as I cycled past it to and from school, what OOB meant vis-a-vis a coconut tree, until someone pointed out that it marked the boundary for golfers swishing it out by the Kelab Cosmo.

"Out of Bounds" makes an appropriate motto Dato' Sri Amar Dirajafor the man who comes to my mind every time someone mentions golfing in Trengganu. He started life humbly as Che Ngah Muhammad, Clerk to the Sultan Zain al Abidin III but later rose to the rank of Dato’ Seri Amar Diraja, the Chief Minister, a Trengganu patriot, a devout man and a skilled negotiator who kept both the British and the Sultans, first Zain al Abidin, then Muhammad, then Sulaiman constantly in check.

As chief minister he sat with another Malay judge (with the British Adviser presiding) in the court of appeal where, as the historian Heussler noted with a Westerner’s unconcealed irritation, “he could be depended on to shave the fine points of Islamic law yet finer by the hour and to find reasons for opposing things the BA wanted to do.”

But it was on the golf course that the Dato’ Amar made his lasting impression on the then British Adviser Jarrett when the latter was out on the green with Sultan Sulaiman. They got distracted in the course of the game and completely forgot whose turn it was to putt. So the man they went to for wise counsel was Dato’ Amar, and for this he finds a permanent place in my non-golfing heart for having given the golfers a long story about Solomon’s [Nabi Sulaiman’s] judgment when two women went to him claiming rights over the same child. Dato' Amar, said historian Heussler, concluded “after a seemingly interminable wait that there was as much to be said on the one side as there was on the other.”

Trengganu was fortunate for being seen as too inaccessible and too economically insignificant to be worth bothering about by the two intervening powers Siam and Britain. In the charming words of Heusserel, Trengganu was “the never-never land of Malaya”. But even then Trengganu rulers and court officials were astute enough to have sensed British intentions from the outset . Governor of the Straits Settlements Frank Swettenham made no secrets of his intention to take Trengganu over directly through negotiations with the Sultan (with the Foreign Office already having one W.A.Evans waiting in the wings as Adviser designate), but when he called on the Raja of Kelantan and the Sultan of Trengganu to get their agreements, the former accepted while the latter declined. Again, in Heussler’s words:
[C]ausing some embarrassment to Sir Frank , who was not accustomed to resistance from Malay royals, and to London , which had already found a man to serve as adviser.”
The British agent in Trengganu met with determined resistance from Sultan Zain al Abidin who refused to accept the 1902 British treaty with Siam.

Che Ngah (Dato’ Amar as he then was) looked at the Johor state Constitution and drew one up for Trengganu in 1911 to keep the British at bay. But this was power against guile, with their resources and experience in divide and rule, the British Agent finally brought in the excuse of maladministration, based allegedly on complaints by disgruntled Malay factions and some European miners, reason enough for them to bring in a Commission of Enquiry into Trengganu.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Sultan Zain al Abidin who once said that he did not want to live to see Trengganu fall into British hands had his prayer answered. He died shortly after the Commission finished its work. Sultan Mhammad ibn Sultan Zain al Abidin IIIHis successor the young Sultan Muhammad ibn Sultan Zain al Abidin III resisted attempts to bring him to Singapore to sign the handing over treaty. He couldn’t resist for long, but when he did go, on 16 May 1919, he took with him four Menteris (ministers) including our Dato’ Amar and seven council members, all opposed to the idea of British intervention in Trengganu. There the Sultan's attempts to strike a favourable bargain with the British failed; the treaty was signed, and, unable to suffer the humiliation, he abdicated just over a year later on 20 May, 1920 to live in Singapore as an exile.

Muhammad was succeeded by his brother Sulaiman who took the title of Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah. Dato’ Amar held on to his post as Chief Minister, trying his best to outmanouevre his old foe the British whenever he could from within. He frowned upon Brits who walked about in shorts, but complaints to the BA only brought the response that it was outside his (the BA’s) remit. He was the alim (man learned in religion) who saw himself as the upholder of religion. In this role Heussler said that he was “bent on stamping out animism out of the people’s souls with the white heat of cleansing Islam.”

In 1928 Dato’ Amar had to travel to the Ulu during the peasants’ rebellion to make initial negotiations on behalf of the Sultan. He refused British offers of help and brought with him a force of Malay police officers. It was the beginning of a complicated and sad incident in the history of Trengganu that caused Dato’ Amar, the defender of Islamic religion in the face of colonial onslaught, to cross paths with another religious stalwart, a rebel and a saint, Haji Abdul Rahman Limbong (See "Time Then and Now").

And as history is full of delicious ironies, the two alims, though now on opposite sides, had a thing in common: a distaste for the Brits and their colonial ways.

Robert Heussler, British Rule in Malaya, The Malayan Civil Service and Its Predecessors, 1867-1942"; Clio Press, Oxford, England; 1981.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

8. How to...Nnöneng

Nnöneng brings to mind other words by association: gelönder, serayok and ggatong, all showing a degree of abandon, but more importantly, they are all, generally, hanging out.

A fruit and nut case once reached out to the tall branch of a tree and declared to passers by that he was a fruit. He remained there for a long time, nnöneng (dangling) for all the world to see until the asylum-keeper, tired of waiting to lock up for the night, urged him to come down back to earth.

"Dök buleh," he declared. "Aku dök masök lagi!"*

So that was nnöneng in an unreal place, but what comes nnönenging in our real world are real fruits and bats in very dark caves and the tin of cash that hung to the ceiling of a shop called ‘Keda Bbunga’ in Kampung Daik. Keda Bbunga was the ‘Flowered Shop’ that had many other things a-nnönengning in its parts: Japanese pears and green apples and pomeloes and a strange fruit called kumquat. The man in the shop, head-shorn and naked to the world but for his deep blue boxer shorts, pulled the money-tin up and down from the ceiling by a pulleyed string, and all day long fruits and tin dangled and swayed slightly from the reverberations of passing vehicles and the daily trade in the shop. And this is the salient feature of nnöneng, that the dangle has to come with some sway in tune with Newton’s laws of motion.

Gelönder and serayok are states of nnöneng, the first in the manner of a fruit-laden tree, the latter like clothes on the line fluttering in the breeze, or pots and pans swaying from the overhead rack. In other words, ggatong serayok.

There’s a playful aspect to ggatong as well as a serious side: as when we travelled on the Bas Marang holding on to the vertical hand-bar that was for hanging on to to pull yourself into the bus. This was travel on the doorstep as the bus — filled like a well-stuffed curry puff — sped along Jalan Batu Burok on its way back to base. You either ggatong (standardspeak, bergantung, hang on [to something]) or you ggölek, i.e. roll out.

Which brings us to a good time to introduce a ghost.

As I have written here many times (but never seen), it is said that there was a ghost hanging out at the main gatehouse (pintu gerbang) of the Istana Maziah in Kuala Trengganu past midnight. He was an agile spirit that had one leg clinging on to the left side of the entrance and the other anchored to the other side; and all this just safely above the ground level but underneath the overhead connecting bridge. Now as to why a ghost was so disposed I cannot tell you with certainty, but the pose inevitably gave him the name of hantu kkekeng or the ‘ghost with legs astride’; and seeing the width of road that led into the Istana, this would have been the kekeng that’s generally hailed as kekeng ssöyök, a feat that found its literal fulfillment when Rumpelstiltskin — in exasperation — took one leg in each hand and split himself apart (söyök).

The point of this story is that as I knew no one in Trengganu that catered to ghostly apparels, and as our ghost was male to boot and hanging with legs out wide as the road was broad, I hope my lady readers will look away now as I put in the finishing words: that’s nnöneng for you, the dangly bits, that were chilling out in the night.

* "I can’t. I’m not ripe yet!"


Saturday, December 02, 2006

Saints & Singing Birds

Malaysian Merbok Stamp. Photohosting:Photobucket.comI have skimpy memories of birds and the twitterings in my head are either misplaced or misheard. In my recent blog, Conference of Birds I said that Grandfather in Kampung Raja, Besut, kept pigeons in elaborate cages, only to draw a swift and knuckle-rapping email from my brother, who said:
"Error. They weren't merpati but ketitir or merbok or Zebra Doves.

"To enhance the voices of the ketitirs, Tok Wan [Grandfather] would feed them with whole pickled cili padi. In fact not fed, but shoved down the throat of the birds. Done so, he would then tease them with ARKKK, ARKKKK...Then bathed them dengan menyembur air dari mulut dia."
So there you are, vivid imagery in your mind's eye and the distant play-back of the songbird, so haunting and so sweet — it is said &mdash and so plaintive a cry as to make grown men weep. Celestial sounds coaxed from the angelic voice boxes of little birds by bird's eye chilli, its heat drowned in vinegar and doused by a soothing spray from the pouted lips of Grandfather. Arkkk and the bird said Koooo!

And then came Bergen with fireworks up their throats. I was just recovering from this alarming thought, actually, when my mind was diverted by a comment by Atok, and mighty pleased I was at that, to an even more distant land of shamans and long-tailed birds dangling from clouds by the strength of colourful plumes.

I have never seen a Cenderawasih in my life though I spoke and sang about them when I wrote about some intriguing eggs in September last year. They were burak's eggs, we whispered in each other's ears when we were children, whenever anyone carried word of their alleged presence in the tomb of our local saint Tok Pelam. The funny thing is that we never bothered to go to take a peek into the tomb ourselves, even though it wasn't far from our Sekolah Melayu (Malay School) in Ladang.

It was only recently, while looking through a beautiful book of notes and etchings by Ilse Noor that I found that those eggs do really sit in the tomb house, cradled in net hammocks. It 'puzzled and troubled me', said Ilse Noor. I was completely astounded.

She was told by the custodian of the tomb that they were eggs of 'Cenderawasih', Birds of Paradise that still fly nowadays in East Malaysia, high in clouds of myths and facts as to strain the necks and minds of both shamans and fanciers. You will have to go to Eggs in A Net to read what I have said about the eggs and the man in the mausoleum.
Makam Tok Pelam.

I have actually been meaning to go back to Tok Pelam (real name Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz) so now that I've got the opportunity I shall take you there, not directly to him, but to another saint named Sheikh Ibrahim, a fellow Hadhrami (i.e. from Hadhramaut in Yemen) who, like him, arrived in Trengganu via Patani in the eighteenth century. Sheikh Ibrahim is a name that is as well-known in Kuala Trengganu as Tok Pelam as they both have cemeteries named after them, in proximity in death as in life, the two neighbouring kuburs of Tok Pelam and Sheikh Ibrahim.

Tok Sheikh Ibrahim is remembered in folk history as the man who single-handedly drove away ships that were shelling Kuala Trengganu by simply walking up and down the coast uttering prayers and supplications to Almighty God. The story goes that the enemies saw not him but hundreds and indeed thousands of men waiting to defend the shore, so they just went home.

William Skeat, who visited Kuala Trengganu in October 1899, said that the shelling was done by men of the Maharajah of Johor, but not so says historian J.M.Gullick in a short footnote to an extract from Skeat's report in his Traveller's Anthology, "They Came to Malaya"; it was the British that day who sent most Kuala Trengganu folk scrambling for the hills.

I have been to the Sheikh Ibrahim cemetery many times but was never made aware that the Tok Sheikh himself was laid to rest in this sprawling burial site, so I shall have to rely on Skeat to give us a description of his grave:
"The grave had five posts (batu nesan) at each end, making ten in all, instead of the usual single post; the superfluous ones had been added out of the funds provided by the saint's many devotees. To them also, presumably, was due the fact that it was protected by a triple mosquito curtain, and an atap roof-shelter was built over it."

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