"Travelling – it leaves you speechless then turns you into a storyteller" Ibn Battuta
Category: It’s All About People
The most exciting part of my journey is always about meeting new people and reflecting on their lives and ultimately on mine. Such encounters include the Bedouin who drove us to Madinah or Imam Extraordinaire in Sousse, Tunisia. Read on and find out if you have met interesting characters on your own journey.
(I received this newspaper clipping way back in 2014 from my daughter who studied, lives and works in London. I just thought it is hilarious)
Are you confused by what is going on in the Middle East? Let me explain.
We support the Iraqi government in the fight against Islamic State. We don’t like IS, but IS is supported by Saudi Arabia, whom we do like. We don’t like President Assad in Syria. We support the fight against him, but not IS, which is also fighting against him.
We don’t like Iran but Iran supports the Iraqi government against IS. So, some of our friends support our enemies and some of our enemies are our friends, and some of our enemies are fighting against our other enemies, whom we want to lose, but we don’t want our enemies who are fighting our enemies to win.
If the people we want to defeat are defeated they might be replaced by people we like even less. And all this was started by us invading a country to drive out terrorists who weren’t actually there until we went in to drive them out.
It was a real hot, dry afternoon with no sign of relief from the rain clouds. I could feel beads of sweat trickling down my neck and elsewhere even as we sat underneath the shade of some coconut trees with the wind softly blowing from the sea (Fig 1). Even cold, sweet pineapple juice in tall glasses could not douse our hot discussion about drug use and remand prison time with two pill kuda users.
Pil Kuda is locally referred to as methamphetamine. In Kelantan, its retail price is RM10 but in Terengganu, it is RM15 – RM20. The pills are smuggled from Thailand into Kelantan and are what some people term as a poor man’s drug. Ketamine is called pill kuda because its use was for calming horses. Then we have syabu or pure methamphetamine, heroin, ganja (whose real medicinal value is as a pain killer), cocaine (like cocaine tooth drops to relief tooth ache) and ecstasy party pills (methylenedioxymethamphetamine). I did not realize how bad the drug problem in Terengganu was until that morning in Permaisuri.
Seated in the front row of the lower court that morning, I had an opportunity to listen to many remand cases while waiting for the specific case of interest to be mentioned. It seemed that out of 24 remand cases mentioned that morning, 23 were drug related and all involved Malays. This is an alarming trend. One remand case I heard was a well-dressed 65 year old man with dark glasses called Cikgu (teacher in Malay). He looked more like a headmaster of some remote school than a drug user or a drug peddler. The 65 year old drug user made an appeal for the magistrate to reduce the charge of RM6000. He made all attempts using poetic language in his appeal to impress the magistrate. The magistrate, a sweet young lady with hijab and beautiful painted lips, granted him a reduction of RM2,500. But he was far from satisfied. As he was being led out by a policeman, I heard him swore under his breath, with a look of disgust on his face. The “headmaster-look” completely disappeared and in its place, the face of an unrepentant drug peddler.
A young drug user on remand failed to attend the lower court hearing that morning , forcing his old man to present himself at the court since he was the one who posted bail. In Malaysia, you can pay bail to go home instead of going to jail while waiting for hearing. The lady magistrate did not hide her disgust and threatened to take away the old man’s bail money if the son failed to attend the next hearing. Then there was a young man about 20 years old who presented himself. He was dressed in short-sleeved tee shirt revealing old scars on his arms indicative of intravenous drug use. Almost all prisoners made gestures of defiance as they were being lead away. Many were young men maybe in early twenties and a few seasoned-looking hard-core drug users or drug pushers. One was a fresh-looking man in his early forties whose charges were duly dropped. And later when we met him outside, he related to us how he tried to help my friend’s worker during a raid by ADDK. But having watched too much American cop movies, his story made us a little skeptical. Could he be an informant?
Mezoh, a Patani who was working on my friend’s house, is a recreational drug user, resorting to pil kuda once or twice a week when he felt a physical burnout after his daily work on site. He is only 45 years old and very lean-build. Although from Patani, he spoke little Thai. On the day he was arrested in an ADDK (Agensi Anti-Dadah Kebangsaan or National Anti-Drugs Agency) raid on a house in Permaisuri, 2 months before, he was with some friends, smoking. The raid happened suddenly and quickly. ADDK officers appeared out of nowhere as if an informant had a hand in it. Mezoh suddenly found himself in jail waiting to be charged (Fig 2). If the court decides to put you on remand, it means you will go to prison until your hearing at a magistrate’s court. Mezoh was kept in jail for two months due to investigation by the police who had to be extra-careful with cases involving foreigners.
Mezoh related how much he suffered mentally and physically while on the two-months remand in Merang. 65 prisoners were confined to a space of about 30 feet by 30 feet. Space was so tight that if he left his spot to ease himself, he would find his space “gone” by the time he got back, duly occupied by another prisoner. The same space was also used for sleeping and there were no beds. Food was scarce. Prisoners were allowed five spoons of rice twice a day. Tea drinks were without any sugar and sometimes prisoners fight over tea. He looked like he did not lose much weight but then none of the prisoners did any physical work. They were not even allowed to attend weekly Friday prayers. Mezoh thought such conditions were unheard of in a Thai prison, on remand or not.
Lae, a 60 year old seasoned drug user, was constantly in and out of jail for drug use making him almost resilient. How he “got over” the drug habit was actually a result of an attachment to a tablir group during his parole years. It seemed to have straightened him out a bit, although it is anybody’s guess when he would cave in next. He had been taking drugs on and off since he was 20. Now he seemed to show some promising signs of discipline and resolve. He now keeps a dairy to jot down his duas and daily expenses from the little money his children gave him. This was seen as positive step towards recovery.
Figure 3: A peaceful, beautiful place in Mangkuk, Terengganu.
It made me wonder why these youngsters and even a few elderly men like Mezoh and Lae (residents of Mangkuk, Fig 3), resort to drug use? According to a 2018 AADK survey of drug addicts, (https://www.adk.gov.my) by state, showed Kelantan to have the highest number of drug addicts at 4,153 followed by Kedah at 2,693. Out of 25,267 drug cases surveyed, 82% are Malays, 6.3% are Indians, and 96% of this number are males. Among the drug users, the top most prone to drug abuse are the unemployed (3,650), the general workers (5621) and the part time workers (8,086). Socio-economic factors such as poverty and lack of employment opportunity are cited as some of the causes for high drug use among fishermen, according to Malaysian Crime Prevention Foundation (MCPF)(August 2017,nst.com.my).
Malaysia may have the strictest drug laws in the world, but the rising trend in drug abuse may require a rethink of its drug control strategies.
Going down the road towards Madinah, reminded me of one particular taxi driver, who drove us from the Hajj terminal to Madinah on one of those soul cleansing trips. Since most passengers were flying into Jeddah for umrah, we were brought to the Hajj terminal instead. Despite the crowd, the immigration processed the passengers fairly quickly that evening and we were soon out of the terminal.
Once out of the terminal, we went looking for a taxi. Finding a taxi to take us to Madinah proved rather troublesome since there were very few private taxis at the Hajj terminal. One taxi runner quoted SAR1500 just to take us the distance of 250 kilometers away. We thought it was rather steep. We were then directed to a private taxi presumably an arrangement of mutual benefit for both runner and taxi driver. After the SAR1500 shocker, any lesser offer was deemed reasonable. Later we found an even cheaper fare of SAR500, but only if taken from the international terminal. It was already late in the night and we settled for the only taxi-driver to drive us to Madinah in his Toyota sedan for SAR1000.
The taxi-man, Muhamad, was a Bedou, for the Anglicised term “Bedouin”. The word Bedouin comes from the Arabic word Badawi which means “desert dweller”. Badawi are nomadic Arab people who have historically inhabited the deserts of North Africa, Arabic peninsula, Iraq and the Levant. The Arabic term Bedouin was traditionally used to differentiate between nomads, who made a living by raising livestock and those who worked on farms or lived sedentary lives in towns.
Bedouins tend to be small and thin. One reason for this is that food is scarce in the desert. But Bedouins love freedom thus the appeal for nomadic life. The number of true nomadic Bedouins however is dwindling. There may be less than 3% nomads left in Iraq, Libya or Saudi Arabia. According to Wikipedia (https://en.m.wikipedia.org), there are over 10 million in Sudan, about 2 million in Algeria, some in Egypt, Iraq, UAE, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya etc.
Calmness and patience are valued traits. But the one thing that struck me that particular evening was Mohamad’s Bedouin hospitality. Bedouins, it seemed are well known for gestures like breaking bread with a stranger. Since we wanted to reach Madinah before 2 am, we didn’t stop to have a bite to eat before boarding the taxi. Needless to say we were grateful when Muhamad stopped along the highway and bought us cups of good strong coffee with a pinch of cardamon added. Bedouin kahwa is a strong aromatic coffee made with cardamon powder, saffron and rosewater. Later on along the journey he again bought us bananas and juice.
Arab drivers in Saudi were not much different from Malaysian drivers. They both have little patience when it comes to driving. I have seen similar mercurial drivers on highways and roads in Malaysia. Muhamad, small built, his face brown and drawn, probably in his forties (though he did look older, maybe because of the dry desert winds), was blowing his horn ever so often when he wanted to overtake other vehicles. He seemed like a dangerous driver, keeping to the fast lane and weaving in and out between trucks and buses while overtaking. Even though we were exhausted from the flight and the journey, I couldn’t sleep a wink. I was rather anxious watching the way Muhamad drove. I thought 75% of road accidents were caused by young Arab drivers but Muhamad was in his forties. One driver had his headlights on and kept pressing the pedal as if saying “Get out of my way”.
It was close to midnight and Muhamad was probably very sleepy. He found many innovative ways of keeping awake while driving on the highway. He sometimes turned on the radio way up playing traditional Bedouin music, singing and clapping loudly. And as if he suddenly remembered we were seated behind, he would turn down the music. Then he would unwound his head-cloth, put on his keffiyeh and silence returned as he drove quietly on. Sometimes he would smoke and this routine he would repeat every now and then throughout the 250 kilometers journey.
We arrived in Madinah in the wee hours of the morning. We had little exchanges with Muhamad since he knew absolutely no English and we do not speak Arabic. He had no use for the GPS to locate the hotel. All he did was stop fellow drivers along the way. After doing this for a number of times, one driver relented to show us the way. What a colorful character Muhamad was, reminding me of Lawrence of Arabia movie…. a Bedouin with a curved sword in a scabbard ornamented with silver, laid across his knees, or the Arab-speaking nomads in Hugh Kennedy’s “The Great Arab Conquests ”, who rode their horses over 200 miles a day to spread Islam. It seemed the Bedouins possess the same endurance, strength and loyalty as the Arabian horses they rode.