A Big City With a Small-Town Feel

Figure 1: Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)Temple is a Zen temple whose top two floors are covered in gold leaf.

Kyoto is synonymous with incredible temples, cherry blossoms, parks, markets, serene gardens, tea ceremonies, traditional ryokan and craftsmanship.  It was once the imperial capital of Japan for over 1000 years and the finest gardens have been developed over centuries by many levels of society  namely the aristocrats and the monks.  It is no wonder that Kyoto was voted by travelers as the world’s best city, twice.

 

Learning that Kyoto was nearly bombed during World War II, was shocking .  Kyoto was the first target proposed to test out the capability of a nuclear bomb, the Little Boy, if the military brass had its way.  The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have included Kyoto as well.  On that fateful day in April 1945, when a meeting in Pentagon was held, the Target Committee decided to play God and met to discuss the selection of targets for nuclear bombing (according to Alex Wellerstein on blog.nuclearsecrecy.com).  Had it not been for the personal intervention by Henry L Stimson, the then US Secretary of War, Kyoto would have been  nuclear-bombed, its gardens  destroyed and buried under a sea of rubble.

 

It took us about two hours by limousine bus over a distance of about 100 kilometers from Kansai International Airport to reach Kyoto bus station. Our first destination was the air b&b accommodation, Mountain Retreat.  Mountain Retreat was  neatly tucked in the quiet neighbourhood in the periphery of the mountains in Kinugasa Akasakacho Kyoto-shi, in the Prefecture of Kyoto in the Kansai region of Japan.  Kinugasa Hills was a convenient choice because museums such as the Insho Domoto Museum of Fine Arts and the Kyoto Museum for World Peace were within walking distance.  Located at the foot of the gently-sloping Kinugasa Hills is the famous temple Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion (Fig: 1).  Taking a bus from  Kinkakuji temple, would bring us to the Central Bus Station in downtown Kyoto.

 

Kinukake-no-michi Road runs between Kinkakuji Golden Pavilion Temple and Arashiyama. Along the way it passed through many of the famous world-heritage sites such as the Ryoan-ji temple (famous 15-rock Zen garden), Ninna-ji temple (Fig: 2) in Omuro and Tenryu-ji temple in Arashiyama, also campus of the University Ritsumeikan, Museum of Fine Arts of Insho Domoto and the Museum for World Peace.

Figure 2: Kyoko-chi pond in Ninnaji temple with the pagoda called the Kondo Hall,  in the background.

Koji and his son were already waiting to greet us when we reached Mountain Retreat that morning.  Koji was a slight built man of about 37 years of age. He and his partner were tinkering with plants in his greenhouse.  Growing the plants was by no means a mere passion but one that paid him well. Koji spoke very little English but was always ready with a smile. I later found out that a little greeting of “sumimasen” or “ohio” and a slight bow will get you attention and possibly answers in English.

 

I was excited to be able to get a feel for traditional Japanese style accommodation. Tourists can experience staying in a washitsu (Fig: 3) in a ryokan or a temple to get a feel for Japanese living. The room called a washitsu, came with tatami mats and a futon mattress.  This futon mattress can be folded and stored away during daytime thus giving the room an impression of space.  The tatami mat is made of dried, woven rushes which are then wrapped around and sewn to a core.  Traditionally, the core consisted of rice straw, though now it is often synthetic material.  The washitsu room was introduced during the Muromachi period and was used by the nobles as a study room.

 

The washitsu came with a low table for us to eat from and a low, legless chair called zaisu tatami chair.  I may be Asian and used to sitting on the floor with folded legs but having to sit in a zaisu tatami chair to eat was tricky even for me.  There was no sliding door, thank goodness for that.  The downside to this accommodation was that the bathroom was located outside, some four flights of steps below our room.

Figure 3: A typical washitsu in one of the temples we visited in Kyoto.

The next thing we did was rent bicycles from Koji at ¥500 each.  Cycling around  Kyoto is a must.  It allows a more intimate look at the regular Japanese going about their life.  We did not manage to cycle through the oldest streets of Kyoto i.e Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka  but as we made our way back to Mountain Retreat, we did see traditional wooden shop houses like this one below (Fig:4).

 

Figure 4: A traditional wooden shop-house, on the street we took to get back to Mountain Retreat.

For most locals, cycling is a normal mode of transport. I saw mothers packing their little ones in baskets, the small one in the front basket while the bigger one was seated behind.  I also saw an old lady, in the  80s, effortlessly paddling on the road.  Her stamina would put you and me to shame.

 

Kyoto is voted to be one of the best bicycle cities in Asia for so many reasons.  The city is relatively  flat, the roads are well maintained and more importantly, Kyoto drivers are sane and patient.  There were also plenty of places where you can easily rent a bicycle. Besides, there were  ample parking spaces for bicycles in the grounds of the temples and museums.  And the Japanese in Kyoto were so honest that you could actually leave your bicycles unlocked.  Visiting the city in May would be perfect for cycling.

 

Among the stops we made while cycling, was the Kyoto Museum for Peace.  It is the world’s first peace museum, established after  two world wars and tens of millions of lives lost.  It was established by the Ritsumeikan University, as a social responsibility to reflect upon history and promote the development of a peaceful society it thought was necessary to build a peaceful world.  The museum was located far down the road parallel to the Ritsumeikan University campus that you could almost miss it, if you were not careful.  After going through the two floors of the museum for about two hours, I came to appreciate  how going through natural disasters and the World War II have conditioned the Japanese into a resilient, tolerant and disciplined people.  And more importantly, they were  able to draw on a sense of social order, unlike scenes in natural disasters in Haiti and New Orleans. There was little anger or looting amongst the Japanese, according to abcnews.go.com/ report, following the aftermath of such natural disasters like tsunami, earthquake in 2011, 2014 etc.

 

The first day we cycled a total distance of 15 kilometers, with some stops in between, mainly for a gasp of air.  We visited at least two temples (namely Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji). Another stop we made while cycling around Kyoto was for vanilla ice cream at an ice cream parlor on Nishioji Street. The cafe made beautiful concoctions of fresh fruits and ice cream. The second day we cycled another 12 kilometers to Ninnaji temple and the two museums.  On other days we took buses and trains.

 

Cycling along the streets of  Kyoto gave me a sense of being in the midst of an ancient centre of Japanese culture.  Kyoto’s history is tangible and accessible on many levels.  Going about in Kyoto means coming face-to-face with that heritage on a daily basis.  While walking on the street towards a bus stop, glimpses of that traditional  life surfaces – an old wooden entrance gate; a sweeping temple roof; a tree-covered mountain;  a traditional wooden shophouse (Fig4) ; ladies in  kimono walking on the streets (Fig:5); a zen monk wearing a traditional kasa straw hat walking past (Fig: 6); and a traditional hand-pulled rickshaw (Fig: 7).  Kinugasa Hills in north western Kyoto was perfect, being completely surrounded by nature.  The nature, the old buildings, the surrounding mountains and a population density almost 3.5 times lower than that of the Tokyo metropolis, all convey a small-town feel to Kyoto.

 

I love Kyoto….the big city with a small-town feel.

Figure 5: Korean tourists clad in traditional kimono walking towards the entrance to Tenryu-ji Temple, Arashiyama.
Figure 6: A Zen monk (?) in traditional Japanese robes and kasa straw hat walking past. I did not notice any straw sandals.
Figure 7: A traditional hand-pulled rickshaw, in Sagano bamboo forest in Arashiyama…a muscular young man tucking the ladies in the pulled rickshaw.
Cherry blossoms painted on a hand-fan symbolizes richness and good luck.

September 2016

The Dance of Death

bullfight image
Figure 1: Up close image of a veronica pass in a bullfight in the Madrid’s Las Ventas- taken from Wikimedia Commons, 2014.

 

As the first bull entered the ring through the gate charging with a soft galloping rush, the matador and his team immediately began assessing the bull’s reactions using their capote and their voices.  The work with the capote is often seen as one of the most visually appealing parts of the bullfight. The basic and most classic pass performed during this phase is called the “veronica”.  Each bullfighter tries to give a personal interpretation of this pass (Fig 1).

 

It was a known fact that Ernest Hemingway the writer, was a regular at bullfights across Spain, forming friendships with some leading matadors of that time (http://www.telegraph.co.uk).  He explored his own thoughts on the fear and courage involved in bullfights.  If there was anyone who could describe a “veronica” pass well,  it had to be Hemingway:

“Without hesitation, the bull charged at Chicuelo.  The kid stood his ground, simply swung back on his heels and floated his cape like a ballet dancer’s skirt in to the bull’s face as it passed.  “Ole” roared the crowd. The bull whirled and charged again.  Without moving Chicuelo repeated the performance again.  His legs rigid, just withdrawing his body from the rush of the bull’s horns, he floated the cape with that beautiful swing.  Again the crowd roared!  Each time he gave the bull a free shot at him, missing him by inches”

(1923 Hemingway Papers, Ernest Hemingway)

20160525_023918
Figure 2: End of Phase 1, the matador in green suit of lights together with his band of support crews of banderilleros and picadors (on horse-back) (as seen from the top of the stadium where we were seated).

I heard many ole from the stands that Wednesday evening (Fig 2).   All of a sudden, the entire stadium stood up exploding in a gasp of horror, triggered by an adrenaline rush. A body was suddenly tossed up into the air by a bull in a moment of a careless pass.  Even though the toss was not fatal, it was easily an eight foot toss no doubt.  The matador picked himself up while his banderilleros tried to avert the bull’s attention with their capes and voices. But his finery was stained by the bull, bloodied by the piercings of the lances of the banderillas and picadors.

 

It seemed that some matadors were not so lucky.  In early July 2016, 29 year old professional matador Victor Bario was tossed into the air and then gored in a bullfight in eastern town of Teruel.  He died on the way to the hospital.  Incidentally Victor Barrio was at the San Isidro Bullfighting Festival in Madrid in May 2016.  He was probably one of the matadors on the Wednesday bullfight that I attended in Las Ventas.

 

Once the matador gained control over the bull, a picador (wearing wide flat hats) sitting squarely on horseback, entered the arena for that final spike of the lance to inflict injury to the large muscle on top of the bull’s neck, the “morrillo”.  There was argument made by a veterinary group in a Madrid’s university, claiming that with each spike of the picador’s lance or the matador’s sword, the fighting bull would release high levels of beta endorphin hormones which produce pleasure, switching off the pain (https://www.telegraph.co.uk). Spain’s animal-rights group may not agree.

 

THE COUP DE GRACE

The final phase was the matador’s one-on-one encounter with the bull using the famous one-handed red cape, the “muleta.   The performance with the muleta, was the climax of the matador’s artistic display. The matador strove to display an aesthetically and technically coherent performance which culminated in the killing of the bull.  A skilled matador could kill a bull with one artistic pass and a swift, precise single thrust of the steel blade into the bull’s neck (the coup de grace).   The perfect kill comes from a perfect sword thrust accompanied by a stroke of good luck.

 

A few tourists left halfway through the bullfight, unable to continue watching the gory scene. The dead bull was dragged around the arena by the horses as  the entire  stadium grew aesthetic.  The crowd sparked by intense euphoria and chanting all the time, rushed into the midst of the arena to ‘shoulder’ and parade the king of matadors around the arena.  Even though Ernest Hemingway never apologized for it, there is no other way of looking at bullfighting as just a systematic and brutal killing of an animal for sport, putting aside the artistry of matador passes and technical precision using the banderillas and the cape.

 

Opinion polls have shown that 60% of Spaniards do not want the bullfighting tradition to continue. Despite the argument that bullfight enthusiasts put forth that execution of passes and the final kill is a dance of skill and art, the animal rights activists claimed that bullfighting is a cruel, barbarous blood sport in which the bull suffers severe stress and a slow tortuous death.

 

It seemed that bulls killed in the Las Ventas are sent to a slaughterhouse.  In Portugal, it is unlawful to kill the bull but in Spain, the bull is killed at  the end of the bullfight.  As one matador, Juan Jose Padilla put it, “In our culture, bulls are born to be killed” (vice.com, Guille Alvarez, June 2017).  I thought I saw  a restaurant in the neighbourhood of Madrid’s Las Ventas, suggesting “rabo de toro de lidia” which is a stew made of the tails of fighting bulls which came from the bullring.   Bull meat has a wild taste because the bull dies in the fever of the fight, according to http://www.livescience.com.

 

There were two images that would haunt me for a very long time.  One was when the bull’s legs buckled under him, staggering and collapsing as the steel blade was driven into the back of his neck in the midst of the cheering and screaming of approvals by the stadium.  The other was when the dead bull was dragged around the arena by the horses for everyone to see.

 

During the long walk back to the hotel, I began to understand why, on my way to the Plaza de Toros, the taxi driver kept asking me if I knew anything about bullfights and if I was really sure I wanted to watch one! No matter how one sees it, a bullfight is just a cruel, elaborate dance of death between man and beasts.

(May, 2016,  1133 words)

 

Romancing the Bull

Figure 1: Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza de Caballeria de Sevilla, dating back to 1762-1881, Seville.

Ernest Hemingway, the writer, believed that there are only three activities that could be called sports, namely: bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering. All the rest are merely games, he said.   Later on, perhaps driven by moral dilemma, he changed his opinion about bullfighting:

“Bullfighting is not a sport.  It was never supposed to be.  It is a tragedy.  A very great tragedy. The tragedy is the death of the bull played in three definite acts. Bullfighting symbolises a struggle between man and beasts”

(Hemingway Papers)

 

To others, bullfighting is never a sport.  It is often considered a ritual, an art, but never a sport.  Aficianados, lovers or fans of bullfighting, insist that bullfighting is an art form with a sporting character.  Whatever the opinion  is, watching a bullfight for the first time, can be a mix of emotions…intrigue, artistic, dangerous, heart-wrenching.

 

I could not appreciate the fascination people have for the bullfighting ritual.  However when we arrived at the hotel reception in Madrid on 24 May, we were told there was a bullfight at 7pm that very evening, if we wanted to watch one. Even though bullfighting was never on our to-do-list, we decided to give it a shot.  After all, we were first-time travelers to Madrid.  I was advised to go with an open mind, since I was seeing a bullfight for the very first time.

 

I heard that the best time to watch a bullfight is in May or June, when Madrid holds its world-famous bullfighting event called San Isidro Festival.  Ticket price depends on how close your seat is to the ‘arena’ and whether you are in the sun or the shade.  I saw a website called madridbullfighting.com offering tickets at €149 for a platinum seat, €89 for a gold seat and €45 for a bronze seat. We got our tickets from the ticket counter at €10 each so it’s not hard to imagine where our seats would be located….right at the top of the stadium, with the afternoon spring sun shining brightly.

 

THE BEST PLAZA DE TOROS

The best plaza de toros in Spain are in Seville, Cordoba and Madrid.  The magnificent bullring La Monumental Maestranza (Fig.1) in Seville together with Las Ventas in Madrid (Fig 2) are considered to be two of the oldest and most important in the world.  The best bullfighters fought in them and is the perfect place to experience the electric atmosphere of a corrida (bullfight).

 

The Maestranza building with an impressive baroque façade dates back to 1762 – 1881 with a seating capacity of 14,000.  Despite its size, the acoustics allow you to hear everything wherever you are seated.  Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas is the 3rd largest bullring in the world and is the most famous with a reputation for being the hardest bullring for matadors to succeed.  It is located in Guindalera quarter of the district of Salamanca, east Madrid with a seating capacity of 25,000.  It was built in 1929 and held its first bullfight in 1930.  Every year, 2000 bullfights are held here which meant a total of 12,000 bulls would have been killed every year.

 

While some cities have banned bullfighting altogether, Madrid has taken it to a new level, protecting bullfighting as an art form, of special cultural value.  Given the huge economics of the bullfighting industry, it is understandable that the city refused to consider a ban.  Anyone guilty of trying to stop bullfights is subject to fines for attempting to damage Madrid’s cultural heritage.  In fact a Royal Decree was drawn up in 1996, which laid out standards for the characteristics of bulls to be used in a bullfight.

Figure 2: Plaza de Toros de las Ventas, Madrid, where San Isidro Festival is held.

 

THE ENTHUSIASTS OR THE AFICIANADOS

I was wondering which sport commands a bigger following in Madrid – bullfighting or football?  Despite thousands of protesters demanding an end to bullfighting, that Wednesday evening saw the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas (Fig. 2) overflowing with enthusiasm and brimming with excitement. The Plaza was full.  Before the doors to the Plaza were opened, we decided to walk around the grounds of the Plaza.  There were hawkers selling all kinds of nuts, sweets, drinks and souvenirs.  Enthusiasts were lingering around waiting for friends to show up.  A group of matured Spaniards were deep in discussion, some laughing away in the shade of the endearing copper statute of El Toro (Fig. 3).  This must most probably be those highly opinionated group of enthusiasts called aficianados.

Figure 3: A meeting of aficianados in the shade of the endearing El Toro, Plaza de Toros, Madrid, during the San Isidro festival in May.

The majority of the enthusiasts were elderly or matured male Spaniards.  It seemed bullfights attract real ‘aficianados’ of the bullfighting world and they are ‘devotees’ of the bullfighting ritual. It seemed good aficianados watch the bull as closely as they watch the bullfighter.  But some older aficianados watch mainly for the bull’s courage, strength, determination and ferocity. They spent time to speculate on the bull’s character and look for defects.  One can easily recognise these aficianados; they come in small groups, armed with crates of beer in their arms, ready for the two hours or so of an adrenaline rush.

 

That Wednesday afternoon, a fairly good mix of age groups were lingering inside the stadium.  Some were a younger (most probably) local crowd and some were tourists like me, with a dubious curiosity for the sport.  I was seated next to some tourists from Taiwan, who came armed with cameras and field glasses.  A beautiful green-eyed Spanish young lady came “dressed for a party”, carefully picking her way through some 10 or so flights of tight, narrow steps on her 6-inch stiletto!

I could feel the excitement building up as the crowd started filling up the stadium…

 

THE FORMAT

The traditional and most common bullfight format sees three matadors alternating in facing and ultimately killing six bulls over the course of roughly two and a half hours. This format is followed in Spain, Mexico, France and other countries with this tradition.

 

The opening parade or paseíllo was led by two horsemen called marshalls, in black velvet with ruffs around their necks.  Behind the two horsemen came the bullfighters with their support crew.  The three matadors (the star performers distinguished by wearing a suit of lights with gold embroidery) entered the ring together with their cuadrillas, their support crews of banderilleros and picadors.  The parade also included the red-shirted monosabios who smooth out the sand between bullfights.

 

The bullfight would commence in three phases (or tercio).  The First Phase saw the entrace of the bull and the act of the lances.  The Second Phase commenced with the act of the banderillas.  The Final Phase saw the use of the muleta termed Moment of Truth.  Each phase was distinguished by the equipment used to maim or kill the bull – the lances, the banderillas and the seemingly-innocent muleta. 

 

It was a dance of courage, fear and grace between man and beast.  After all, at the heart of all romanticism is suffering….a suffering that ends in the death of either the bull (most probably) or the matador (occasionally).

(Check out the second installment on bullfighting titled “The Dance of Death” in the upcoming 15th February post).

(May 2016, 1218 words)

I Have Never Flown A Kite

Figure 1: Wau Bulan, a kite about 4 feet wide made by artisan Tan Sheng Hai of Kota Bharu, Kelantan.

 

My mother, unschooled though she was while she was still alive, taught me one thing about life and relationships. She used to say “Being in a relationship, is like flying a kite – you pull a little, let go a little so the string won’t break”.  I am not too sure if that valuable lesson did anything to my relationships but it sure did not improve my kite flying ability.  The closest experience I ever had with kites was when my brother allowed me to hold the harness of his airborne kite very briefly when I was 7 years old.

 

I confess I am more into ceramics and oil painting but kite design is somehow intriguing to me.  I made a trip to Kota Bharu recently to meet two kite makers, an arrangement made by a retired Prof Abd Aziz Shuaib, who taught architectural design in UMK.  He happened to be an ardent traditional craft enthusiast. That morning when we reached his beautiful house near Pantai Cahaya Bulan, I was surprised to find a kite maker of Chinese blood in an arguably 98% Malay tradition. His name was Tan Sheng Hai (Fig 1 & Fig 3).  The other artisan was supposed to be Anuar, a young man about 30 years old, son of the late legendary kite maker, Pak Shafie Jusoh, who used to launch his Wau Bulan on Pantai Geting beach on the outskirts of Tumpat.

 

While one has made it big commercially at such a young age of 30, with one workshop and a thriving business, selling his enormous 7 feet wide kites to Italian tourists for a neat sum of five thousand ringgit, the other remained a passionate artisan, working from the house at 53 years of age. Tan Sheng Hai is an active member of kite associations and participated in various local and international kite competitions.

 

Tan grew up in predominantly Malay communities throughout his life.  Growing up in Malay communities exposed him to Malay and Siamese traditions like wayang kulit, dikir barat, menora, mak yong to name a few. Tan moved around a lot during childhood even staying in Tanah Merah.  He was brought up by his grandmother in Kampong Kulim Wakaf Baru, Kelantan. While he lived in Wakaf Baru, Tan was surrounded by neighbours who spoke Siamese so Tan could speak both Siamese and Malay beside his mother tongue, Hokkien.

Figure 2: An intricate design or pattern ready to be tebuk or cut out to be pasted onto layers of colored paper in a 4 feet wide kite frame.

He showed keen interest in kite making since school days. At 10 years old he made his first kite. At 15, he made his first big kite.  A big kite could measure as wide as 10 feet from one wing tip to the other or 4 feet as in Fig 2 above. Some of the popular traditional kites are Wau Bulan, Wau Puyuh, Wau Barat, Wau Merak, Wau Kikik, Wau Kuching, Wau Jalabudi to name a few.  Tan’s first real entry into kite competition was upon encouragement by his father who was also an active kite maker himself. Anuar , the young man in a hurry, entered the kite world at age 16.  Upon his father’s insistence (when he was in secondary school), he entered a competition but did not quite make it.

Figure 3: Tan Sheng Hai, the artisan, showing me how to control the flight using  the teraju.

What makes kites fly? What is the science behind kites? The four forces of flight – Lift, Weight, Drag and Thrust, affect kites as they affect aeroplanes and anything else that flies (https//airandspace.si.edu, Mike Hulslander, 2012). To launch the kite into the air, the force of lift must be greater than the force of weight. To keep the kite flying steady, the four forces have to be in balance.  Lift must be equal to weight while thrust must equal drag.

 

Lift is the upward force that pushes the kite into the air. Lift is generated by differences in air pressure, which are created by air in motion over the body of the kite. The force of weight pulls the kite towards the earth.  Thrust is the forward force that propels the kite in the direction of the motion. While an aeroplane generate thrust with its engines, a kite rely on tension from the strings and moving air. Drag is the backward force that acts opposite to the direction of the motion. Drag is caused by the difference between front and back of the kite.

 

And to think that 7 or 8 year old boys, some of whom didn’t even know how to read, living in the kampongs during the 1960’s times of innocence, have actually crafted simple diamond kites (in the shape of Wau Kikik) using bamboo sticks and newspaper, then flew the kites and kept them flying in the air, truly amazed me now. We thought nothing of it back then.

 

That Saturday morning at breakfast of nasi tumpang et al, a gesture of Kelantan goodwill, Tan explained the play of factors affecting the flight of kites. He mentioned about teraju, the three strings that control the flight of a kite.  Manipulating this teraju (Fig 3) requires skill.  But the most interesting gadget was the busor.  Tan explained that a busor is a structure made of bamboo, shaped like a bow. The busor is fixed to the back of the wing of the kite. Once the kite flies, it will make a sound similar to waauuu…and that, it seemed, was how the name wau was given to our Malaysian kites.

 

Happy flying…and watch out for my next post when I will catch up with Anuar flying his big kite on the beach of Pantai Cahaya Bulan.

 

(10 January 2019)

Rumi, the Sufi Saint in Konya

Fig 1: The Konya Culture Centre contained exhibits of Rumi and all related events during his lifetime of Sufi work.

 

Fig 2: This particular exhibit showed Rumi discussing with his spiritual instructor, Shams of Tabriz, who changed his life forever & his manner of thinking.

Among the Middle Eastern countries, Turkey is second only to Israel in terms of having the most number of biblical sites.  According to Temizel & Attar “Faith Tourism Potential of Konya in Terms of Christian Sacred Sites” (European Scientific Journal, July 2015), Konya has biblical significance for the Christian world.  It was mentioned in the New Testament that Konya was one of the cities visited by Apostle Paul.

 

Today, however, Konya is famous for something else.  It is famous for its mosques, its theological schools and its connection with the great Sufi saint Jalaleddin Rumi (better known as Mevlana), the founder of Mehlevi order of whirling dervishes.  Rumi was a 13th century Sunni Muslim poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic.  Rumi’s influence transcends national borders and ethnic divisions: Iranian, Tajiks, Turks, Greeks, Pashtuns and other Muslims.  Today three countries claim Rumi as their poet: Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey.

 

Konya is about 225 km from Goreme by road.  It used to be a one-street town in 1972.  After 45 years, it transformed into a big bustling city, modern and vibrant.  We took a bus to Konya for one reason only…….to visit Mevlana Museum.  Unfortunately, the culture centre was closed by the time we got there.  A notice at the reception hall announced that a sema was supposed to be held on 17th December, the anniversary of Rumi’s birthday.

 

A sema (according to https://turkeytravelplanner.com) is a mystic religious rite.  It is an elaboration of the whirling Rumi did while lost in ecstasy on the streets of Konya in the 13th century.  A sema ceremony has seven parts symbolizing the dervishes love for God, humankind and all creation. The seven parts are: 1) praise for God, Muhammad and all prophets before him; 2) beating of kettle drum symbolizing God’s command “Be”; 3) Soulful music of the Ney symbolizing breathing of life into all creatures; 4) greeting symbol of the soul being greeted as the secret soul; 5) whirling and dropping of their black cloaks to reveal white costumes, symbolizing the casting off falsehood and  the revelation of  truth, with each dervish placing their arms on the chest to symbolize belief in  Oneness of God “the One”; 6) Prayer involving recitations from the Quran and 7) Recitation of the Al-Fatiha, first surah of the Quran.  Often Non-Muslims mistake Sufism as a sect of Islam.  Sufism is not a sect of Islam.  Sufism is more accurately described as an aspect or a dimension of Islam.  Sufi orders or Tariqas can be found in Sunni, Shia etc groups.

 

Fortunately for us on that day, the young caretaker, Ibraheem, who saw us fiddling with door knobs trying to get the doors to open, was kind enough to open the exhibit hall just so we could have a quick visit, since we came from very far.  We went down the staircase into a hall of the Konya Culture Centre with a number of interesting exhibits on display (Fig 1).

 

It seemed Rumi used to be a religious teacher until he met Shams of Tabriz.  Shams of Tabriz completely transformed Rumi from a learned religious teacher into the world’s greatest poet of mystical love (Fig 2).  Shams once told Rumi:

Your preoccupation should be to know ‘Who am I, what is my essence? And to what end have I come here and where am I headed and what are my roots and what am I doing this very hour and what is my focus?

(From Shems Friedlander of “Forgotten Messages”).

Its only knowing where we come from, can we appreciate where we are going. Life is not something that just happens. We are created for a reason.  According to Ata’Illah

The purpose of the rain cloud is not to give rain; its purpose is only to bring forth fruit”.

The Sanctuary

Fig 1: The fishermen’s boat getting a push out to sea to the waiting fishing vessels
Fig 2: If you’re an avid rider, Telaga Papan will give you hours of riding pleasure

I was suddenly awakened by the cold breeze sweeping through the tent.  The  morning was so still  I could  hear the thud of a tiny casuarina seed on the roof of the tent.  The entire stretch of the beach suddenly came alive with squid rigging.  A local boy strutted past happily with his meagre catch of four squids. As I turned to take a peep at the sea, I was greeted by a delightful shimmering  carpet of calm sea in the first blush of the sun.

 

The azan rang clear, breaking the silence.  The birds were chirping excitedly, exchanging calls while perched at the top of the casuarina trees. A shoal of tiny fishes jump in and out of the water in chorus, fleeing the relentless pursuit of predator fishes.  A small boat was chugging by, with the fisherman standing  stoic on the bow, a posture reminiscent of a warrior in anticipation.  It was the break of dawn.  The sun was bursting through the myriad of pink and orange clouds, like cotton candies suspended in the horizon.  It was truly a sight to behold.  Telaga Papan was the perfect setting for one seeking spiritual inspiration and closeness to god through endless hours of zikir, dua and night prayer.  But for me, I was just grateful to be a temporary guest of utopia (Fig 1&2).

 

Telaga Papan is no longer the exclusive enclave it once was planned to be.  It was targeted to be a high-end development project of a serene, quiet beach resort for the rich by the Terengganu state.  The estate development was designed to be large, wooden resort-like beach houses.  Unfortunately many were built too far out to sea.  The sea had been fiercely eroding the beach-front, uprooting the casuarinas, washing away the sand and depositing it elsewhere.  A few of the resort houses were laid to waste by the relentless sea and the state development project was duly abandoned.

 

Telaga Papan is now a hive of activity, although of a different kind. The fishermen have invaded the exclusive beach.  They found the beach rather convenient, bringing in their fishing boats (Fig 3) and selling off their catch of the day on-site.  It has lately become a routine for the village people, coming to Telaga Papan on their motorcycles or lorries, armed with baskets, waiting for the fishing boats to come ashore with their catch. But of late the fishes have gotten smaller. The bigger ones have been netted off by the big fishing trawlers belonging to Thai nationals.

 

The monsoons will be coming again this year.  For four months a year, from end of October till February of the following year, there will be a lot of rain and little sunshine.  But the other eight months more than make up for it, promising beautiful dawns, exceptional sunsets, clear skies and memorable riding experiences on the beach of Telaga Papan. Then there is the fresh fish……bakar tawar, where little spice is used.  Its delightful flavor is derived entirely from the freshness of the fish  and the hot black chilli dip.

Yesterday When I Was Young

Suspended umbrellas on Jonker Street, Chinese New year, Malacca town

Someone said that if Leonardo da Vinci had to tweet five times a day, people would still be riding bicycles. But modern living with all the technology has made us empty.  We are mostly half-present with the other foot in the digital world somewhere.  Modern life has created an urban dweller who is more isolated in the big city than his ancestors were in the kampong.  Today, modern living fail me.  My astro television subscription got cut off, my attempt at online payment  failed, my mobile phone had a flat battery, and my laptop went missing.  There was no television to watch my favourite Fox movies, no mobile phone to chat on, and no internet to browse or “google” (it seemed “google” is now accepted as a verb in modern English).

 

Suddenly I had plenty of time on my hands.  My mind began to wander back to the 1960s.  Just how did yesterday’s  9 year olds lived in the 1960s and 1970s, back in the then little town of Alor Setar, with almost no technology?  We watched black & white television, and listened to only one radio channel.  People took time to communicate with each other by having real conversations and not through whatsapp.  Young people back then  took time to read print books because print media was the only way they could get any information and bask in their imagination.  I used to read a lot of  books, the  Enid Blyton Famous Five series and as I grew older,  spy thrillers,  such as “The Day of the Jackal” by Frederick Forsyth, first published in 1967.  I doubt any of my children ever heard of the book.

 

In the evening I would  cycle  outside on  the dusty  laterite road on my father’s bicycle twice my height.  Riding an over-sized man’s bicycle was tricky.  It required children to contort and wrap their bodies underneath the horizontal crossbar in such a way that their legs could reach both pedals, their hands could steer the handle bar while  safely remaining in almost perpetual motion.  If only a machine of perpetual motion is possible. Regardless, I landed headlong, together with my over-sized bicycle, into the green slimy  ditch when the bicycle veered to the side and the brakes failed me.

 

But nothing beat the experience of catching fighting fish in the dark murky swamps behind my kampong house.  It never occurred to me then that there could be a python or water snake slithering in the dark mangroves.  Now I would squirm at the sight of a rattlesnake on National Geography television.  We would be so engrossed with catching the fighting fish that we almost always hardly noticed  the setting sun.  On weekends, we  would go out to play with the morning sun and head home with the setting sun.  On one occasion, I remember a second cousin being chased around the kampong by his 80 year-old grandmother because he came home late.  He was hoping to outrun her as the chase would probably tire her out.  But with a stick waving in the air just inches above his head, he was not about to take any chances.

 

Back then a household would have one bread winner present to take care of the home. Parents of that period practically allowed us children to be doing our own thing. I would like to think I was much happier than  children of nowadays living in a big city like Kuala Lumpur.   Modern mothers, hovering over their children about homework, or in anticipation of some danger lurking round the corner and fathers who never were quite home is the norm nowadays.

 

But my father was always home at magrib.  I recall my father was a man of few words and deeply, deeply religious.  He was a chief clerk in the land office in Alor Setar, and he cycled to office everyday.  I remember I was 5 or 6 years old running around in my skirts when I joined my father for magrib prayer.  He never uttered a word as he turned around to check the saf.  His gentleness and patience encouraged us all towards prayers. He hardly laid a hand on us or caned us as far as I could remember except for that one time.  Perhaps it was to teach us some much needed discipline.  My mother on the other hand, was illiterate and not able to read except for some jawi with a little rumi.  She loved to socialize, visiting friends for long hours.

 

Don’t get me wrong, we children of the 1960s had our fair share of responsibilities.  We washed, starched and ironed our own school uniforms especially during secondary school days.  During those days the girls uniforms had box pleats and ironing starched box pleats was no mean feat especially if you had only coal-fired metal irons to press clothes. Coal-fired metal irons were heavy and impossible for a child to handle. But washing  school shoes on weekends was a breeze. We helped our mothers sweep the floor or buy groceries from the nearby shop run by a Chinese family.

 

I walked to school when I was seven years old.  When it rained heavily, the river would swell, the fragile wooden bridge would be swept away by the strong currents and we had to skip school that day because there was no way of crossing the river to the other side. Sometimes I would take off my school  shoes if it rained, at the risk of my feet getting cut by broken glass buried in the mud, only so that my shoes would remain  sparkling white when I finally get to school that morning.

 

School of yesterday was not as burdensome as school of nowadays.  There was no tuition classes when we were 10 years old.  But punishment was considered necessary.  Wrong answers in class would mean a painful crack on the knuckles with the corner of a blackboard duster by the teacher.  Knuckles would get swollen but we never felt the need to report back to our parents as we took punishment as part of learning.  Perhaps we were tough kids back then.

 

I would like to believe that the punishment paid off, turning many of  us into upstanding citizens.  We became decorated naval admiral, school teachers, scientists, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers.  If there was anything to be proud of,  two prime ministers of Malaysia called Alor Setar home, one even returning to serve for the second time at 93 years of age.  Alor Setar was also home to the first woman deputy prime minister of Malaysia, an achievement for kampong boys and girls like us, many with parents who were unschooled and illiterate.

 

Yesterday when I was young
The taste of life was sweet as rain upon my tongue
I teased at life as if it were a foolish game
The way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame

The thousand dreams I dreamed, the splendid things I planned
I always built, alas, on weak and shifting sand………………………Charles Asnavour