don't give a tuppence
to spite the millions
I was reading about zoomorphic and anthropomorphic calligraphy via moleskinerie (“This practice established itself only relatively late in Islamic art, when the taboos outlawing religious iconography had lost some of their power”) when I was reminded of an article (via BoingBoing) about how traffic scientists were trying out new crowd control measures applied from knowledge of fluid mechanics to reduce, or eliminate altogether, the risk of a stampede happening at Mina during the stoning ritual of the Hajj. Every year I have read in newspapers about hundreds of pilgrims who lost their lives when they fell and were crushed by the surging crowds eagerly thronging towards the jamarat for the penultimate ritual that would complete their pilgrimage. This year there has been no casualties and the experiment has proven to be successful—on Wednesday, at least...
A lot of us had so-called life-changing experiences or epiphanies in our teenage years, on the cusp of adulthood, whether we knew it or not. Whether we were ready or not. Since a young age I have been publicly asking questions, trying to make sense of the faith I had inherited. I was fourteen-years old, already interested in philosophy, and had started an online correspondence with a would-be professor in comparative theology (or so he claimed; I only told him my name, my age and interest. This was back in the days of flat-rate dial-up.) He introduced me to many names that I would later remember and look up in libraries. He introduced me to Rumi and then other mystic poetry. He was an atheist, but I believed that he was sincere because like me, he said, he was driven by the quest for knowledge. By this identification, he guided me into the corpus of the philosophy of religion.
A couple of years later, when our correspondence had petered out, I was still the same inquisitive boy who had gone on to read works by Muslim scholars, translations of the Qur'an, revelling in the poetry. I had also a healthy interest in the cosmos and the natural world, and I avidly took in images and information about the world, all the time actively trying to reconcile them with my experiences.
So when my parents took me for the umrah (a visit, as opposed to the actual Hajj pilgrimage, though much in the same spirit) in 1995, I went with my eyes wide open. I was an avid photographer, but quickly learned that I won't be allowed to take pictures of the holy sites, not even from outside. One man even made to confiscate the Yashica SLR camera I was using to take a picture of the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah from the hotel doors, but he then just took the roll of film out and destroyed it, unreeling it and exposing it to the light.
For two weeks I spent the better part of my days in the mosques in Madinah and Makkah, engaged in prayers, reading the Qur'an (I read it from beginning to end in those two weeks) or otherwise meditating. Other times, I went out to explore the cities and observe the people.
I saw many things, bits and pieces of which I still remember clearly now. Seeing the stone pillars at which pilgrims would throw pebbles in a symbolic act of stoning the devil. The blessed waters of the Zamzam flowing through my fingers. Thousands of people, male and female of diverse ethnicities circumambulating the stone house draped with a heavy black cloth embroidered with gold threads. The doors to this house, lavishly and ornately decorated with gold. The clay cast of Abraham's foot just off to its side. The hajar aswad, the black stone—said to have been as white as snow but now blackened by the sins of man—set into a corner of the house in a silver frame that looks like a vagina, where a mob converges to come close to touch. I saw many men and women pushing against the sides of the Ka'abah, some standing with arms spread to embrace and stand bodily to cling against its walls. At the hajar aswad, some clamber over others, tears streaming on their faces to press their lips on the stone. Those who could not go as far would reach out to touch the stone with their fingertips, and then bringing their fingers to their lips. Even in the very late hours of the night, when many are asleep, I would sit at one corner of the courtyard facing the Ka'abah, and watch the worshippers and listen to the the chanting, the singing, the cries: Labaikallah hummalabaik... I come, my Lord, to heed your call.
Sometimes I participated in this ecstatic worship; other times I would walk around or just sit and watch, all the while reciting the zikir softly, a rosary in my hand.
We went to other places, of course. I went for solitary excursions and walked all over Makkah. I talked and bargained with the local traders, some of them who could speak Malay better than my pedestrian Arabic. We saw the historical sites around the cities like the Hira' cave where the Prophet reportedly first met the archangel Gibrael and the divine revelation began. We went to see the scenes of the famous battles around Makkah. One day we went to a hill where there was another stone pillar, erected there to mark the place where Adam and Eve had found each other after years of separation when they were cast down from heaven to earth. Many pilgrims visit this hill in the belief that if you prayed at this spot to find your fated partner, God will soon answer your prayers. On the pillar were numerous graffiti of names and dates, perhaps names of loved ones remembered or asked for.
There is a ritual called the tawwaf wida when pilgrims to Makkah would circumambulate around the Ka'abah in the spirit of a farewell, and for this they would usually go in normal daily clothing, doffing the customary religious garb (the ihram) that one is required to wear in order to perform a normal tawwaf.
On the last day of my visit, I was performing this tawwaf wida, a few hours before I was going to leave to Jeddah for the flight to Cairo, where we were to spend some time before finally heading home. I was slowly walking around the Ka'abah, spiralling inwards towards the center and the hajar aswad —to get a final look and perhaps even to get a farewell touch this legendary rock—when I was accosted by a man wearing the common Arab attire of a robe and checkered red and white headdress. He grabbed my shoulder from behind, then stepped forward and stood to bar my path, forcing me to stop. He pointed to my t-shirt while saying something in Arabic that sounded like an admonishment. He pointed to the designs on my t-shirt which look like cave paintings of bison, sheep and other animals; they were aboriginal art from Australia, one of them funky ones from a zoo.
“Haram! Haram!” he said, pointing and pushing at the drawings on my chest forcefully, making me involuntarily take a few steps back as other pilgrims jostle past us, engrossed in worship, then grabbing the bottom my t-shirt and pulling it up, telling me to take it off. I protested that these were not religious icons, reasoning that these were just artistic depictions of animals, but this man then grabbed my arm and insistently pulled me away from the Ka'abah towards the mosque's gates and then left me there, pointing the way out, obviously telling me to leave for what is considered 'improper attire'.
That was how I left the holy land—distraught—without finishing my goodbyes.
I continued my conversations, engaging with anybody from all walks of life and beliefs. Then two years ago I met someone who stated to me that pagan Arabs used to worship stone statues, and stone was the object of animistic worship and asked: so are not Muslims everywhere facing a house of stone to pray five times a day continuing the same sort of worship?
I thought about it for a long time, and remembering what I saw and how I was ejected from the House of God, feeling foul and fouled to this day, I have since vowed never to return to that place.
But that has not stopped me in my quest for knowledge, for the truth. That is my reason to exist, above love and duty; the one command—divine or otherwise—that I heed, helplessly being human, all too human.
Posted by Madcap Machinist at 12:02 pm
It was a good trip. Back at home, the search continues...
Yo'Who's da book?' Interesting choice of words, I thought when Saint said it; who was Fernando Pessoa, really? He who said:
Seen my book man?
Who's da book?
The poet is a pretender...and published his works by fictional personas with names like Charles Robert Anon, Alexander Searches, Roberto Reis, Alvaro de Campos, Bernado Soares... each with a distinct personality, writing style and ideas... and even interacted with each other.
Who's so good at his act
He even pretends to be pain
The pain he feels in fact
Posted by Madcap Machinist at 10:55 am
I have a long drive in the morning for a day trip out to Segamat. After turning the lights out and forcing myself to get some sleep (keep wanting to reach out to switch my reading light on and continue reading Martin Amis' Dead Babies...but it's been giving me some strange dreams to be honest) I finally dozed off.
Then the phone rang and I woke up. It was 1.30am. Thinking that it was an overseas call—it was from an unknown number—I picked up and groaned when I heard the voice of The Stalker. With all this Altantuya fiasco going on you'd think she'd know better. Anyhow, the call only lasted a few seconds because I told her to bugger off. She apologized and then hung up.
I switched on the lights and then gazed at my bookshelf which is on a wall perpendicular to my bed. It is the last thing I see before I go to bed and the first thing I see when I wake up. Somehow I needed to look at the books again, to calm down. I wouldn't mind anyone calling late at night if they've got interesting things to say, certainly the loneliness can get overwhelming (not that I'll ever admit it, oh I just did) but The Stalker even fails at sweet nothings and she lies... she lied when she promised never to call again, and that pissed me off. So I looked at my books and read the titles on the spines, searching for my favourites among them, and for the ones I've been meaning to read, finding some measure of calmness return.
Suddenly I felt a sense of alarm and got up from bed to stand across the bookshelf, peering closer. A book was missing! Pessoa's poetry. I tried to remember when I last saw it and it was about two weeks ago, when I took it from the shelf to read a random piece. I could not remember if I took it out with me so I checked my bag and only found Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Yes, they were together last week, I remember now. Carlos Maria Dominguez' The Paper House joined them for a while, but I had quickly finished that, and now it is on the shelf. Pessoa should be right next to it. (Ironic, if you've read The Paper House...)
I went outside and checked my car, then the other cars. I checked upstairs, in the kitchen, in the garden. Could it be at the office? The Saint's? Zoul's? The Site?
I couldn't sleep now. A book is missing!
I don't know about you, but I'm miserable (and neurotic, can you guess?) when I lose a book. I'd be thinking about it all day tomorrow, and it's a long way to Segamat and back.
Posted by Madcap Machinist at 2:04 am
Apparently yesterday the tabloid newspaper Harian Metro carried on its front page a story about local pop sensation Mawi (cough) claiming that he is being 'disturbed' by malicious spirits. I have not:
(a) been in a taxi or the LRT or a bus,
(b) gone to a mamak,
(c) gone out of town,
(d) been unbearably bored out my mind
lately so I did not see this article. However, The Star picked up on this in its "Other News" section and I quickly surfed over to Harian Metro's website to see what other garbage will come out from this local pop sensation Mawi's (cough, cough) singing mouth.
From The Star's summary:
After going through several controversies, Mawi is now being “bugged” by spirits each time he tries to sleep, Harian Metro reported.Today's article on this piece of news in Harian Metro, with the spinning headline, "Mawi Amal Ayat al-Quran (Mawi Practices Quranic Verses)" tells us that the reigning pop idol had consulted his late father and was told to recite several verses from the Quran to ward off these 'spirits', and claims that the attacks have receded somewhat over time. Harian Metro sought comment from Datuk Abu Hasan Din Al-Hafiz (the official religious advisor to the King) who said that things like this do not only happen to Mawi, but many other people. Datuk Abu Hasan then reminds readers that while Quranic verses may help hinder 'spirits', they should be practised daily... yadda yadda yadda... and the public should always consult the clergy and not bomohs for these cases.
He claimed that in one instance, a woman wearing a red tudung gagged his mouth and pulled his legs, causing him difficulty in breathing.
“I am so scared to sleep as almost every night the spirits disturb me.
“I saw the figure of the woman only once, but there have been several other spirits,” he said.
Mawi said the spirits followed him wherever he went, including to shows in other states.
Although he thinks that the matter is not that serious, he is careful, as he is afraid that some people might not be happy with him and his successful career.
“Such incidences have been taking place ever since I got involved in the music industry three years ago.
“I believe in God and I recite holy verses for protection,” he added.
I bind you, Theodotis... by the tail of the snake, the mouth of the crocodile, the horns of the ram, the poison of the asp, the hairs of the cat and the penis of the god so that you may be able to sleep with any other man, nor be screwed, nor be taken anally, nor fellate, nor find pleasure with any other man but me.There, allusions to the ancient Egyptian pantheon notwithstanding, change the names and you've got the perfect curse the next time you get your heart broken. And since it doesn't have anything to do with dogs you can also sling them to the next rottweiler who had chewed through his leash.
[... let] Theodotis be rendered subservient, obedient, eager, flying through the air seeking after Ammonion... and bring her thigh close to his, her genitals close to his, in unending intercourse for all the time in her life.
Posted by Madcap Machinist at 3:25 pm
I've been busy—still am, some of you also working over the weekend, hey? My apologies in advance for being terse—the past couple of weeks but here is a burning issue in my mind.
There was an article in The Sun a few days back— eh? last week already!— about a couple of articles from The Economist being censored. From the article:
Here is the contentious passage in "A child of Bethlehem":
PETALING JAYA (Jan 8, 2007): It seems that reading about genies is inappropriate for local readers, and the authorities have chosen to black out the information — rather than let readers discern for themselves if it is beneficial to read and know about them.
In the Dec 23 issue of The Economist an entire two-page article has been torn off and two sentences from another article have been blacked out.
The first article, a special report entitled Jinn — Born of fire is about the belief among Muslims in Somalia and Afghanistan in the existence of the jinn or genie.
In the second article, A child of Bethlehem — No end of history, an excerpt about Muslim and Christian women visiting a shrine related to Mary has been obliterated with black ink.
When the matter was brought to his attention, Deputy Minister of Internal Security Datuk Fu Ah Kiow said he was not aware of this.
However, he pointed out that the government has the responsibility to censor all imported publications to ensure their contents are appropriate and suitable for Malaysian readers.
"We have guidelines in doing our job. We do not allow certain things such as pornographic materials and writings which are seditious, sensitive to religion and contain subversive elements," he told theSun.
The Persians who sacked Jerusalem in the early seventh century are said to have left the Nativity church alone because a mosaic showed the Magi—the wise men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus—in Persian attire. The Muslims left the church intact because of their own faith's respect for Jesus and his mother. Muslims and Christian women alike still flock to the Milk Grotto, where Mary is said to have breast-fed Jesus as the family was fleeing. As in so many shrines in the Ottoman world, women of both faiths leave scribbled supplications for a successful conception.I have taken the liberty to add the links to the offending articles above, in the interests of keeping valuable writing in circulation. I am certain that these articles were considered sensitive to religion...but by what standards?
Posted by Madcap Machinist at 2:14 am
Despite alerts for approaching heavy rain and warnings of flash floods happening, in KL the weather has been pleasantly cool and breezy with overcast skies. I spent the last weekend in a drowsy mood.
In other parts of the country, however, the floods are happening. This bridge was built to replace one destroyed in last year's floods. Let's hope they'll do a better job building a new one.
Seems that there's been worse-than-usual weather around the world, not to mention the earthquake that brought the net to a crawl last week. I'm fortunate that most of my business contacts were on leave and normal conversations have resumed without further interruption.
In Nebraska, US last week an ice storm left large areas of the state without power as ice forming on the power lines caused them to droop with the weight and snap power poles. From what I can gather, the ice storm is the most severe in recent memory.
Extreme Instability has a series of photos documenting the aftermath of the storm. They are beautiful scenes, and the ice-coated blades of grass are surreal to look at, freakish even. I wonder what the escaping cattle makes of the grass ice lollies.
Does frozen grass sway in the wind? Maybe just a bit. Imagine how still the ground must be.
Posted by Madcap Machinist at 11:03 am
I was reading Silverfish New Writing 6 in an alley outside a pizzeria in Venice while waiting for our take-away dinner when my father suddenly gave me two pizza boxes to carry to the hotel. It was the last time I saw the book.
I must have absentmindedly dropped the book to the ground when I accepted the boxes and then walked off. I went back to the alley (it was only a few minutes' walk away) to look for the book but it was no longer there. I concluded that someone must have taken it. Oh well, so there's a copy of SNW6 somewhere in Venice and I hope whoever found it has enjoyed it.
Like many lost objects, the lost book carries with it something of the personal about me. First, of course, my name inscribed on the inside cover. Then, the finder will also discover that I'm a compulsive proofreader when she comes across a striked-out word on page 19 of the book. Sorry to say that SNW6 has several errors throughout the book.
Posted by Madcap Machinist at 4:18 pm
The Vast Night
Often I gazed at you in wonder: stood at the window begun
the day before, stood and gazed at you in wonder. As yet
the new city seemed forbidden to me, and the strange
unpersuadable landscape darkened as though
I didn't exist. Even the nearest Things
didn't care whether I understood them. The street
thrust itself up to the lamppost: I saw it was foreign.
Over there—a room, feelable, clear in the lamplight—,
I already took part; they noticed, and closed the shutters.
Stood. Then a child began crying. I knew what the mothers
all around, in the houses, were capable of—, and knew
the inconsolable origins of all tears.
Or a woman's voice sang and reached a little beyond
expectation, or downstairs an old man let out
a cough that was full of reproach, as though his body were right
struck—, but I counted too late, it tumbled on past me.—
Like a new boy at school, who is finally allowed to join in,
but he can't catch the ball, is helpless at all the games
the others pursue with such ease, and he stands there staring
into the distance,—where—?: I stood there and suddenly
grasped that it was you: you were playing with me, grown-up
Night, and I gazed at you in wonder. Where the towers
were raging, where with averted fate
a city surrounded me, and indecipherable mountains
camped against me, and strangeness, in narrowing circles,
prowled around my randomly flickering emotions—:
it was then that in all your magnificence
you were not ashamed to know me. Your breath moved tenderly
over my face. And, spread across solemn distances,
your smile entered my heart.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Uncollected Poems, 1913-1918;
(trans. Stephen Mitchell, from The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1989
Posted by Madcap Machinist at 4:30 pm
Journal Entry, 18/12/06.
On the plane, Vienna—Dubai
We are now on our way home and I am now free to relive last night's events in Vienna. After dinner at the Nordsee seafood restaurant near Stephenplatz, I said goodnight to my family at the hotel doors and went off to find cigarettes and coffee. I had taken five packs of Dunhill Lights with me from KL and I had finished the last pack on the train from Venice. Not bad: only five packs over two weeks. Smoking is not so enjoyable in cold weather. I never used to smoke as much in chilly England as I do in balmy Malaysia.
Then again, Malaysian tobacco tastes so much better than what you get elsewhere. I gave away the last two sticks of the Dunhill Lights I had to the two men who came into the train compartment while I was packing up after Piscina the Pink left. One of them was a local youth, with a pierced nose and who you would describe as a punk, even if he's not. The other was more exotic to me, with his dark hair, fair skin, high cheeks and hooked nose, whom I guessed to be a Turk. I enquired if they minded if I smoked, more out of habit than deference and they waved my question off. The (suspected-)Turk was already lighting up, and the youth said something in German which I assumed to mean that he would like to bum a smoke and I handed him the near-empty pack in my hand. He snuck a look inside the box, and seeing that there were only two left — and this seems to be a universal gesture, a kind of international smoker ethic, not taking a fellow smoker's last stick — looked up expectantly and unmistakably asked in German, "Okay?" (OK, so it wasn't German.) I said, "Ja, Okay! Malaysianiche! Try it!" He then took one with a murmured danke (returning the last one to me), lit it up, took a long drag and then nodded his head furiously in appreciation. I offered the last stick to the Turk, who was watching the exchange, and he gladly accepted, stubbing out his own lit cigarette. Then the three of us sat for a while, puffing away contentedly.
See, cigarettes are guaranteed icebreakers. I think that even if I don't smoke, I'd still carry a pack on me while travelling for times like these. It wasn't long before the Turk turned to me and embarked on small talk. He asked me about Malaysia, if I was Muslim, and if there were many Indians in Malaysia. He then disqualified my assumption that he was Turkish when he said that he was Afghan, and then we spoke briefly of the war he escaped. It was a brisk conversation that lasted only a few minutes, and as we reached Vienna Südbahnhof he shook my hand and left with a salaam. The youth was silent throughout the conversation but he too left me with a handshake.
Anyway, later that night (and returning to where we were at the beginning of this entry), I bought a pack of Marlboro — @3.80EUR — at one of the ubiquitous vending machines you will find around Vienna (there are also condom-dispensers around if you look hard enough), I went into a café I had walked past earlier where I had seen through a window a single woman bent over a table — writing or drawing, I don't know. There were, of course, other cafés, but I hungered also for conversation and I sensed that I would find it in there.
The café occupied only a small space with five small tables and a bar. She was the only person inside, and I knew that I had chosen the right spot. When she asked for my order I requested a white coffee and then settled down at a corner table and took stock of her appearance. She was beautiful, with smooth alabaster skin that contrasted sharply with her long, jet-black hair. Her eyes were large and round with clear white sclera and darker-than-night irises, but with wrinkles around them that spoke far more than of a day's tiredness. She had on a white t-shirt, a denim jacket, jeans that hugged her legs and an ornamented silver belt that tinkled as she moved around behind the bar. No ring on her finger. Perhaps her only physical flaw was her teeth, stained black, must be from many years of drinking untreated water. The wandering guessing-gamer in my head quickly said: single, 25 year old, Eastern European.
I sipped idly at my coffee, feeling its warmth filling my veins while my skin adjusted to the heated conditions indoors, and I slowly removed first my gloves, my hat, my coat, and eventually my sweater. It must have been about 5 degrees outside, maybe colder, and inside it was a pleasant 20. I finished my cup quickly and asked for another coffee and after she served me — as she was settling back in her seat, back to her scribblings — I asked her if there was a pool table in the café. (The café a sign outside with the name 'Joker's Café' and a picture of a jester juggling American Pool balls.) She looked up and said, "no... five years ago, yes." So, she speaks pretty good English, and that was heartening. I asked her if she was writing, and she held up the piece of paper that she was scribbling on and showed me that they were just doodles.
We exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes. I asked for her name, and asked where she was from. Her name was Milica, and she came to Vienna from Serbia seven years ago. Later on, I learned that she had come to Austria alone, as soon as she was old enough to do so — at 18 years old — and I smiled inwardly, satisfied that I had guessed correctly. It was a study in courtship: first, the offhand remark; then, the introductions and vague comments about the weather, of life present and past; and as she came across to deliver my third cup of coffee, she shook my hand and let it linger as she asked for my name; after a pause, she asked for my lighter to light her cigarette and then coyly puffed a trail of smoke in my direction as she moved back to her seat.
She did not invite me to sit with her but I was content to continue the conversation from the other end of the room. What else did we talk about? I told her about Malaysia, about our people, about our beautiful islands and the sea that I love (this she asked me to tell her at length, because she had never seen the sea), and of the heat and evergreens. We talked of the Balkans, of the Russians, and my desire to go to Romania ("To see Drakul?" she asked me, laughing, and I nodded yes, and told her the story of Elizabeth Báthory in Slovakia, and I wanted to see that too.) If I ever get my chance to go there, she told me, come to Vienna first, "and I will take you there." I promised her the same of our islands, if she could find a way to come to Malaysia.
I learned more of herself: she had a younger brother, still in Serbia; her mother lives and works in Vienna; that in Serbia they had a choice to learn English, Russian, or Italian in school, and because of that she speaks five languages; her grandmother was a farmer, and she herself had a menagerie in her suburban home in Serbia, a saviour of stray dogs, cats, birds, pigs, goats, what-have-you (reverberations of Sophie's World there, but I digress); but in Vienna, where she can't keep any pets, much less farm animals, she tends to a garden. At the mention of a garden I asked about the flowers she grew, and when she couldn't tell me the names, I went over to her table and she drew them for me. For my part, I took her pen and drew for her a hibiscus (while commenting about how odd that our national flower is a hermaphrodite), bougainvillea, jasmines, chrysanthemums, lilies, etc. and we filled the spaces around her doodles with drawings of various flowers that we knew. Then I asked her about her native language, and she read to me from a dirty magazine she had hidden under the paper we were drawing on — it turns out that she liked dirty jokes! I laughed along with them, though many were lost in translation, but the cartoons sufficed to illustrate the humour.
Emboldened by her cheerful acceptance of my company but not knowing any dirty jokes of my own, I reached into my coat pocket for my battered bilingual copy of Rilke — I brought it along everywhere in Austria in case I met someone who would read it for me — and asked her if she would read it to me in German. Milica readily agreed — my own German being, in her words, "catastrophic" — and as I finally heard how the words I have read so often truly sounds, I saw her eyes water, moved by the power of Rilke's poetry. Yes, Rilke is so, so beautiful.
In this way the hours passed, as we bantered on and read to each other, and all too soon it was already midnight and she told me that she had to close shop. I got up to leave, thanking her for her company, and suddenly she turned to say to me, "I will close the shop now, and have to stay awake until five..." And then, her hand suddenly resting on my arm, "will you stay with me tonight?" Willing me to stay with her eyes.
Posted by Madcap Machinist at 3:09 am