South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: Insomnia is a writer's ally.
Date: March 16, 1995 12:14

4:16 Kancil Guest House, Melaka (Malacca)-Malaysia :: 13 MAR 95

So, what do you do when it's 4AM and you can't sleep? Drag out the computer and spew all the stuff running around in your groggy little head.

Managed to get connected in Mersing, at a little Inn called Omar's Backpackers. Omar graciously allowed me access to the vein of modern society (twice) for the price of $18 RM ($10 CDN). Hey, a fix is never cheap regardless of the drug.

Damn! Mosquito coil just quit. Gotta find another one before (slap) the blighters drive me nuts.

5:16 Kancil Guest House, Melaka-Malaysia :: 15 MAR 95

Well, it's two days later. I'm fighting off a bout of flu and the 13th was the first major loss. I rested much of the day of the 13th, even slept some, and then slept about 10 hours that night. On the 14th, I slept alot and had a good start on a fine night's rest this evening, until about 3:30 this morning. I'm still feeling that "flu hangover" but I think I'm pretty much through the worst of it.

Everything I've heard about Melaka suggests it's an interesting town, though I've yet to travel more than a couple blocks from the guest house which is none to near the most historic areas of town. Hopefully today I'll get a chance to change my ignorant condition.

Even if I was trying to get to sleep right now I'd probably have a difficult time of it. The roosters are going full blare, any moment now the amplifiers at the mosques will get turned up and somewhere in the next building a local has been attempting to clear the phlegm in his throat using that hacking we in the West were taught is too rude for anyone over the age of 6. HachhhhhkkK, PTUI! Hacchhhhhhkk, haaacchhhhhkkkk. HaaccchchhhhkkKK! PTUI! As this is not the first time I've heard such a display I can only come to the conclusion that there's no prohibition here against hacking up a wad of phlegm and letting it fly. However, it's apparently quite rude to pick your nose in public. In fact, I've never seen anyone dab their nose with a hanky. Then again, they're perhaps relieved of that necessity by constantly choking back the mucus and PTUI!

20:19 Kancil Guest House, Melaka-Malaysia :: 15 MAR 95

Hey, just about over the damn cold. Also figured out I'm not drinking near enough water. After walking through neat old Melaka town for a couple hours in the mid-afternoon heat I was exhausted and head-achy. Upon reaching the guest house I walked immediately to the fridge and purchased 1.5 litters of water. It only took about 15 minutes to drain it. I'm probably working on my fourth litter of the day by now. That leaves my water allotment costing me as much per day as food!

It's about time I got around to the question of Islam. As I've already stated, a sizable percentage of the Malaysian population is Muslim. Every town I've been through seems to have at least one Mosque. Indeed, while the majority of Malays are subject basically to British criminal and civil law, the members of the Muslim community are subject to Islamic law where civil/family matters are involved (e.g., marriage, divorce and some moral questions) while they revert to British law for criminal matters. Very interesting.

On my first full day I was sitting at the food stalls in the Central Market (Asians beat North America to the "Food Court" idea quite some time ago-our only additions are KFC, McDonalds-which DELIVERS here-and Pizza Hut. Coke plays second fiddle to soya drinks and sugar waters while Pepsi has no presence whatsoever). So there I am typing away at the keyboard, going "WOW!" and lots of other stuff. A couple tables away sits a group of men in their late 20s or so who don't look very local, but I could be wrong. I keep catching the eye of one, or he mine, and pleasant smiles are exchanged each time. Eventually, he comes over and joins me.

He's not a local. In fact, he's essentially a refugee from Algeria where the military junta that overthrew the freely elected government battles the "Islamic Fundamentalists" who wish to either re-install that government or simply convert the country to Islamic law. You can read all about it in the papers, or at least the Western Perspective of what's going on there. The Democratic, Freedom Loving West, as is not too unusual, backed and aided the use of force to dismantle a freely elected government. Gee. What a surprise.

Anyway, Achiff [phonetic spelling] and I talked for probably 4 or 5 hours about a bunch of things. We talked about religion and the relationship of Christianity/Judaism/Islam. We all worship the same god and share many of the same "prophets" such as Moses. Islam recognises Jesus as a prophet, though Mohammed, who came along later, is considered the most important. We talked about the strife in Algeria and how the political situation there for Achiff is less than ideal. We talked about being a stranger in a strange land chased from their own country. In retrospect, our discussions remind me of some great talks with Dejan Cvetkovic, a Serb who worked with Microsoft while I was there who also left his home and family in a troubled nation. Dejan's on the distribution list for this journal, so Hi there Dejan!

We talked about Islamic Fundamentalism and Islamic Jihad, which in the Arab world are not considered equivalent. Although the discussion in general was informative and often confirmed my suspicions contrary to popular (mis)understandings about Islam and North Africa, the discussion around Jihad and fundamentalism really stirred up my juices.

First, Islamic Jihad is not, as Peter Jennings et. al. would have us believe a "terrorist" or "fundamentalist" group. Some terrorist might claim responsibility on behalf of Jihad, much like George Bush claimed responsibility for invading Panama on behalf of "Democracy", but saying, "Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility today for the bombing of . . ." is kind of like saying "Western Democracy today claimed responsibility for the overthrow of the Algerian government." That is, Islamic Jihad refers more to a political ideal, or a series of inevitable events, not a small group of individuals planning acts of terrorism. Western Democracy may well be responsible, in a manner of speaking, for the overthrow of the Algerian government, but it's ridiculous to say that someone "representing the imperialist group Western Democracy" claimed responsibility for any kind of event.

What "Islamic Jihad" means, literally, to Muslims is something like "Special War". By "War" the Muslims do not necessarily mean guns and soldiers, though they will revert to such when necessary, but something more like what feminists call "The Gender War." That is, it's a struggle to attain certain goals. As dissatisfaction with the West in general and Western forms of government and economy in specific grows in the Arab world, the words "Islamic Jihad" find themselves on more and more Muslim lips, much like expressions such as "The Women's Movement" became popular with Women (and men) in the sixties and seventies.

22:44 Kancil Guest House, Melaka-Malaysia :: 15 MAR 95

As an example of Islamic law in practice, this just in:

New Straits Times

Thursday, March 9, 1995

Prosecutor: Man and 10 wives not true Shi'ites

Johor Baru (Malaysia) Wed.-Religious teacher Abdul Talib Harun and his 10 Singaporean wives are not genuine Shi'ites but merely claimed to be Shi'ites to justify their marriages, the Syariah Court was told today. In his submission before judge Zainuddin Munajat, prosecutor Abdul Karim Yusof said Abdul Talib and his wives had claimed to be Shi'ites in their respective cautioned statements. "However, Sabariah Abu (Abdul Talib's third wife), in her cautioned statement, had also said that in terms of their religious practices, they were 'just like other people'," he said. "By 'other people', I take it that she was referring to the followers of Sunnah Wal-Jamaah," he said.
Abdul Karim said that in Islam, a person's religious practices stemmed from his beliefs, adding that in their testimonies, none of the accused had either said they were followers of a sect whose beliefs allowed contractual marriages or 'nikah mutaah', or claimed that their parents were followers of such a sect. "This clearly shows that they fabricated the fact that they were Shi'ites, to justify their contractual marriages," he said.
Abdul Karim was giving his submission in the case involving Abdul Talib's wives who face several charges under the Johor Islamic Administration Enactment. Four of his wives-Jamaliah Kartimon, 26, Aslindah Seepon, 25, Sabariah Abu, 28, and Ummu Syafiqah Abdullah, 27,-are jointly charged with violating Syariah law by conspiring with Abdul Talib to enable him to have more than four wives at a time. The other wives-Salibiah Othman, 25, Norine Mohamad, 24, Khatimah Mokhtar, 24, Noor Afizah Baba, 25, Misiah Parnin, 27, and Suziyani Sumsuddin, 24-face a joint charge of breaching Islamic law by marrying Abdul Talib who already had four wives. They also face two charges each of engaging in illicit sex with Abdul Talib when he was not their lawful husband, and of living with him as husband and wife without being legally married to him.
Abdul Karim said that at least one prosecution witness- Abdul Talib's former neighbor, businessman Ahmad Muttakhari- testified that he was aware of the marital arrangements of the accused persons. The witness also testified that whenever Abdul Talib's parents unexpectedly visited their (Abdul Talib's) house, Salibiah, Norine, Khatimah, Noor Afizah, Misiah and Suziyani would run out of the house with their children by the back door to Mutthakhari's house. "The accused women never challenged or denied Mutthakhari's testimony. If their marriages were truly above board, why would they feel the need to hide it from Abdul Talib's parents?" asked Abdul Karim.
He said that centuries ago, the early Muslims had practiced the concept of contractual marriages. However, this practice was later banned by Prophet Muhammad. "Therefore, contractual marriages are illegal from the point of view of Islam." Abdul Karim added that under section 73 (1) of the Johor Islamic Administration Enactment 1978, under the chapter on the 'Syahadah wal Bainat', it was stated that even the testimony of non-Muslims could be accepted by the Syariah Court (under certain circumstances) for some cases. "As such, it was not necessary for four reliable and neutral male Muslim witnesses to actually witness the offenses." he said.
The hearing was adjourned to next Tuesday.

Now, I don't claim to have all this stuff worked out-suffice it to say that legalese in Islamic law is no easier to understand than legalese in any other variety of law. But, you kind of get some gist of the variety of transgressions that are punishable under the laws of Islam. A couple of important questions I don't have the answer to: has Abdul Talib, the husband, been charged with any wrong doing? and what punishments are likely to be levied if the women are found guilty (a verdict that this report seems to support)?

Now back to our regular program already in progress.

So Islamic Jihad, "Special War", refers to a grass-roots movement bent on a "special" purpose. This purpose is the eventual reinstatement of Islamic Law and governmental forms to the nations of Islam-all of them. The nations of Islam include such places as Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Turkey, Spain. . . To be specific, the purpose of Islamic Jihad is to bring any nation that has ever been ruled under Islamic Law back to Islam. Ashiff assured me that Malaysia was safe because, "Malaysia never Islamic Law", however, I've since learned that early in its history at least part of what eventually became Malaysia came under the 'jurisdiction of Islam'. Ashiff seemed to mean, though, that Jihad was only interested in current nations that had once been Islamic in their entirety.

A pretty scary thought when one thinks of what's going on in Iran, or rather, when one thinks on what Western Media deigns to tell us about what's going on in Iran. But that's another story altogether.

Iran is a bona-fide Islamic Fundamentalist nation but it receives little or no support from the majority of the Arab world, nor the Muslim world for that matter. Much like those familiar Christian Fundamentalists back home, Muslim Fundamentalists are perceived by most Muslims as 'going a bit too far', 'misinterpreting religious teachings' or, worse yet, particularly in Islamic theology, changing the wording of the Koran. Iran, for example, expelled all Jews from the country under its "Islamic Law" but nothing in the Koran states that Jews and Christians are not welcome in an Islamic country. Infidels are unwelcome but Jews and Christians, according to the Koran, are not infidels since God, Jehovah and Allah are all the same omnipotent being; even if they've gotten the facts somewhat screwed up, at least Jews and Christians are worshipping the right guy.

Not only is Iran unsupported by most Muslims, it is, paradoxically-if you've been listening too closely to Peter Jennings-considered one of the targets of Islamic Jihad.

Under Islamic Law, Jews and Christians may peacefully coexist with Muslims while living within their own legal systems within the Islamic nation. That is, they're not considered under the jurisdiction of Islamic Law, though they should be careful to be "Islamically Correct" in their behaviour: public drunkenness or lasciviousness will not be looked upon too, too kindly. Buddhists, Atheists, Pagans-anyone not Muslim, Jew or Christian-is not welcome within Islam, so there won't be any Hari Krishnas in Muslim airports.

Ashiff offered this advice: when entering Arabic countries such as Syria or Jordan, if asked about religious beliefs, it's probably unwise to say anything but Muslim, Jew or Christian, even though these countries are not under Islamic Law. Unless you actually are one of the other two, it's probably best to say Christian.

Oh, one more surprise. After having just been in Australia where the Aboriginal population speaks some 200 distinct languages and 400 odd dialects, I was amazed to find that all Arabia speaks a common tongue. As Johnny Carson would say, "I did not know that."

Here's another article concerning Islam. It's fun to read between the lines here.

The Sun (Malaysia)

Monday, March 13, 1995

EU split over aid for Maghreb

European Union countries that border the Mediterranean have long complained that the EU is facing the wrong way. They claim that while it focuses its attention on Eastern Europe, a much greater threat looms to the south. Now the EU's Mediterranean members have their big chance, writes Ian Mather.
During the 18-month period from January, France, Spain and Italy will occupy the presidency of the EU in turn. Though it is officially supposed to be neutral, the presidency provides an opportunity for countries to push their own agendas. Moreover, countries that hold the presidency in succession can join forces to produce a joint programme.
But will the southern governments succeed in persuading their northern EU partners to allocate more EU resources to the troubled Muslim nations of the Maghreb-Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Tunisia-across the new fault line that has replaced the Iron Curtain? Their aim is to persuade the EU to provide aid to develop industries in the Maghreb countries so that growing prosperity will reduce both emigration to Europe and support for fundamentalism. If they do succeed, it will be the biggest change in priorities since the collapse of eastern Europe in 1989 and the decision to give enormous political and economic help to the new governments of the east.
The campaign is already underway. Spain, which takes over the EU presidency in July, has begun to make its pitch for an EU cash programme for the Maghreb. It hosted a conference in Barcelona early last month that was clearly seen by the Spanish government as an opportunity to set out the Mediterranean agenda and prepare the grounds for a grandiose summit of EU and Mediterranean countries that will take place in the city this autumn.
Javier Solana, the Spanish foreign minister, told the conference: "Look at the disparity in incomes between north and south, combine that with population growth and you have the ingredients for the conflict between Islam and Europe that has made up so much of the unhappy history of the Mediterranean." Because of their history and their proximity to north Africa, France, Spain and Italy have a more intimate knowledge of the Mahgreb countries than the northern EU states. All three have vital energy and other economic interests, both as consumers and investors. All are aware of the growing economic gulf across the Mediterranean.
But while the southern Europeans may be in the political driving seat within the EU, it is the northerners who call the tune. With the arrival of Finland, Sweden and Austria the centre of gravity of the EU has shifted northwards. Germany and Britain are the biggest net contributors to the budget. They, together with the Netherlands and the new Scandinavian members, who are also net contributors, see things differently when they look south.
Instead of Islamic fundamentalism, the threat of conflict and refugee flows, they tend to see mainly the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East peace process and oil.
Both Germany and Britain oppose any plans that would dramatically increase EU spending in the south. For Germany, eastern Europe remains an imperative because Germany is at the eastern frontier of the union and cannot contemplate the possibility of instability in the region. Though Bonn accepts the need for an EU strategy for the Maghreb, it remains wedded to its drive to bring the ex-communist states into the EU by the year 2000. The Germans also insist they have reached their financial limit with the help they are giving to Russia and eastern Europe, far more than that of all other EU states together.
The British, too, say their resources are over-stretched, and that any extra aid for the Maghreb would have to be at the expense of bilateral British aid projects, especially in former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa.
A similar split is apparent over security policy towards the Maghreb. NATO has just decided to divert some attention to the security risks on the alliance's southern flank by opening a dialogue with Israel and four north African countries: Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania. The decision, which follows sustained pressure from the French and Spanish governments, represents a shift of emphasis away from NATO's traditional concerns to the east. NATO secretary general Willy Claes even told the Germans that fundamentalism now poses as serious a threat to NATO as communism has done.
But while talks are to be held with the four Muslim nations (plus Israel at the insistence of the United States), Claes' view is not widely held in Germany or Britain. London is luke-warm. It accepted the initiative only on condition that it remains at the level of informal consultation and does not lead to any new military or political commitments. "NATO is an east-west organization. To start a dialogue with the Maghreb is a new direction," said one British diplomat.
In general, any extra money for the Maghreb would have to be found by taking it away from existing programmes for eastern Europe or by breaching the EU's budget. But constraints on aid are the norm for the industrial world, and any EU government making an effort to curb its domestic budget deficit to achieve the criteria for economic and monetary union set out at Maastricht is bound to be in a budget squeeze.
There is an alternative to more aid for the Maghreb. The EU could open its markets to north African goods, particularly agricultural produce and textile goods. But this solution is unacceptable to the southern European states themselves. Their workers would face direct competition if north African farm products, such as olive oil and citrus fruits, were to be allowed in.
Throughout this conflict of interest over north Africa, the role of France is crucial. France has a foot in both EU camps. It has interests both in the Mediterranean and to the north where it has a close and enduring strategic partnership with Germany. It is also a net contributor to the EU.
However, France is in an extremely uncomfortable position.
Of all the Maghreb countries, by far the most urgent case requiring attention is Algeria, where the military governments and Islamic fundamentalists are locked in civil conflict as gruesome as that in Bosnia. The war in Algeria threatens to unleash a wave of refugees if the Islamists succeed in overthrowing the military regime, as they well might. Yet France is traumatised by events in Algeria. It looks on helplessly as the nightmare unfolds in the country it controlled for 132 years.
French policy is to prevent a collapse of the Algerian regime and the spread of the conflict to France and would dearly love to "Europeanise" the problem. It is seeking to persuade other EU leaders to increase aid to Algeria. Ministers believe that the dangers of the Algerian war are too great for it alone to handle.
In the end, there may not be time for the lobbying by the southern European governments. Even before the Barcelona summit a violent collapse could have ensued in Algeria. The "domino theory" of the spread of fundamentalist rule in north Africa will be put to the test. If that happens, there will be no question of whether north Africa would be at the top of Europe's agenda.
© The European/Fikiran Syndicate

4:02 Kancil Guest House, Melaka-Malaysia :: 16 MAR 95

Yep. That's 4:02 AM. It's pretty muggy tonight; the moon's almost full and the mosquitoes are pretty ferocious and unheedful of the mosquito coil burning in the corner of the room.

Enough of Islam for the moment. Instead, a trickle of observations.

Cats here are plentiful, uniformly short-haired, typically not much larger than a six-month old kitten, and seem to commonly share the genetic defects of a crooked and unusually short tail. Other than that, they're just like cats. One of the two residing at this guest house sports personality to spare.

Food is an ongoing treat here, and often packs a surprise. Among the pleasures is learning to say "I'll take one of those" rather than to quietly wonder what it is. Most food items rarely cost more than $3 RM so it's financially a low-risk gamble.

Katrin's much better picking up the language, at least the words likely to appear on a menu, so we're able to order the regular fare without much difficulty. Unless we're in Chinatown 'restorans' which post their menus in Mandarin or other places where servers don't speak English and we're interested in something out of the ordinary. When this happens we'll occasionally just look at the meals being eaten around us and point at one that looks interesting.

There's all manner of strange, exotic fruits. The mangoes aren't as sweet or fully flavoured as those I had in Oz, but these are the most mundane of fruits here, anyway. The papaya is very large, very cheap, reddish and sweetish when ripe. Apples and citrus are expensive. Pineapple's very good, and cheap. The bananas are small (The Australians call them 'lady fingers') but better tasting than any Chiquita you'll ever buy. There are several variations on the Lychee theme, all quite tasty and cheap. We've yet to brave durian, which the locals apparently love but which apparently releases an horrific stench when opened up. Could it really be worse than the streets?

You can get many of these as fresh-squeezed juices fairly cheaply, but they're heavily watered down.

Some restorans have items on their breakfast menu that others serve only as dinners. However, a meal at any time of the day generally has the same menu options as any other time; there seems no differentiation between breakfast, lunch and dinner.

If you walk down any given street at several different times of the day, you're likely to experience a different street each time. Shops and restorans open at various times and hours of operation seem to vary as much. Often a shop will close and a street vendor will set up shop in the space in front of it.

The Malaysian language borrows many English words, and spells them in a unique phonetic style: farmasi, teksi, restoran, ekspress, bas mini.

In KL I saw only one bicycle. Here, there are hundreds. One of the favoured occupations of old men: operating a bicycle with an open 'sidecar' and retractable sunshade seating two paying customers. I haven't seen anyone under about 50 plying this trade. Or maybe the toil has just made them all look old.

Since leaving KL we haven't been asked once to have our picture taken. Still, the people here are overtly friendly with easy smiles and this attitude seems one as much of genuine good-will as of active curiosity about foreigners.

Seemingly contrary to all the pushing and jockeying for position involved in getting a seat on a packed city bus, the people are gentle natured. Even in the wildest seeming bus-fray, you'll notice no anger or ill-temper, even from the bus-driver as he struggles to get off the bus while everyone else crams past him. Such scenes are simply a fact of every-day life.

There are no female bus drivers.

There are remarkably few panhandlers.

Street musicians play a pretty stirring rendition of Clapton's 'unplugged' rethinking of Layla.

Except for the growing number of western style shopping malls, commercial districts tend to consist of long stretches of connected, self-contained units, each about 5 meters in width, though newer structures are often twice as wide. The ground floor is a retail or service shop of some sort with a roll-down metal door. The upper floors, of which there are up to three, overhang the lower floor, forming cover for the usually narrow sidewalk. These floors contain living space, office/service/retail space or rooms for hire. Office/service/retail space is accessed through a staircase at sidewalk level. Private living space seems most often to be accessed through the shop, or the alley.

Back at street level, just beyond the overhang is the storm drain, really a deep concrete ditch, which usually separates street from sidewalk. In the Kancil guest house, all sinks and showers empty into the storm drains. The toilets, thankfully, do not. Still, the contents of these drains, particularly after long dry spells, can be quite foul. Malaysians are not particularly choosy about where they drop their litter and much of it ends up here on its way to the river. Debris sometimes stacks up forming blockages that damn up the already rank flow. These damns provide an opportunity for the drainage to stagnate and become really ripe.

I'm not sure if Melaka smells as badly as either KL or Mersing, but it doesn't seem to. The advantage of stuffed sinuses here is freedom from smell. The disadvantage of stuffed sinuses is the free-flow that occurs whenever you eat the spicy food or nice hot soup. We're going through tissues at an amazing rate. Since it's impossible to get serviettes from food stalls-they simply don't stock them-it's important to bring your own supply, especially when you're experiencing sinus troubles.

11:14 Kancil Guest House, Melaka-Malaysia :: 16 MAR 95

The preferred method of bathing for the Chinese, if you've seen the film "The Scent of Green Papaya" you'll already know this, is to squat beside a large bucket and ladle water from the bucket over oneself with a large dipper. Pretty much every guest house, hostel or hotel we've been in, except for the western hotels, provides the bucket and dipper in every shower stall.

No bathtubs so far. <sigh>

Bring your own toilet paper. I've told you about the Asian squat toilets and that wonderful wash hose. Well even when there are western toilets the room with the toilet doubles as a shower. Toilet paper is not often stocked since the stuff, when made soggy by bathers, just doesn't work too well. To make matters more difficult, if the toilet's western style, so is the shower head, meaning fixed at head height to the wall, making it a trifle difficult to rinse those sensitive spots without thoroughly drenching yourself.

If traveling by bus, do yourself a favour and carry an audio cassette of some inoffensive music that the locals will appreciate and you can listen to over and over again. The 5 hour trip from Mersing to Melaka was sound-tracked by a tape consisting of two songs, played continuously through most of the trip. Both songs were fairly innocuous, the first 20 times we heard them. After that, the vapidity became nauseating. A couple of brief breaks came first in the form of a cassette supplied by a group of wealthy Mandarins (you can tell by the length of their fingernails, an indication of their class in that they obviously don't have to work), an experiment that ended when the tape deck tried to devour the tape, and then later when the same group powered up their own ghetto-blaster and played amplifier wars with the bus' sound system.

Most of the bus companies use the word Ekspress in their names-e.g.. Batik Ekspress. Passengers should not confuse these names with the idea of express bus service. Going about 50km/hr on side-roads we criss-crossed a nice big expressway going straight to Melaka for about 2 hours without once getting on it.

The five-hour trip from Mersing to Melaka cost $11.60 RM . . . about $6.80 CDN. However, the 3.5 hour flight from KL to Kuching in East Malaysia (formerly, Borneo) cost more than $470 RM. That is, buses are exceedingly cheap and air travel is not.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --

A boy will toil up hill with a toboggan for the sake of a few brief moments of bliss during the descent; no one has to urge him to be industrious, and however he may puff and pant he is still happy. But if in-stead the immediate reward you promised him an old-age pension at seventy, his energy would flag very quickly.

  graphical element Bertrand Russell
from "The Conflict of Technique and Human Nature"
in Authority and the Individual [1949]