Thursday, February 26, 2009

In Defence of Karaoke (and Bad Singing)

What's with those people who have taken up arms against us karaoke ‘kakis’? My diatribe is actually directed at some of the inconsiderate blockheads who masquerade as members of a club we belong to.

Intense lobbying, not to mention outright scoff and ridicule of the karaoke crowd (which rightfully landed one such toff in front of a disciplinary committee), has resulted in our usual karaoke venue being shifted to an unlikely spot in the next block quite a distance away.

One has to climb two flights of stairs to get to the new venue, which is hidden between the squash courts on one's right and some obscure nook filled with junk on one's left.

And one must remember to duck one's head when climbing the second flight of stairs for there's a mean wooden plank there, waiting to hit any unsuspecting member on the forehead. Such indignity they put us though!

What I fail to comprehend is that the club has been in existence longer than any human lifespan (except those in Biblical times, I guess), yet they have never seen it fit to have a proper karaoke lounge.

This club has a decent karaoke following and has been winning interclub karaoke competitions for years, yet its karaoke enthusiasts are forced to use one corner of the main bar once a week to indulge in their passion.

When asked about having its own karaoke lounge, the answer is a pat "no space lah". I don't know; the Malays have a saying "kalau hendak seribu daya, tak hendak seribu dalih".

[In a nutshell it means if you really want something, you'd go out of your way to get it, but if you are not interested, you'd create a thousand excuses to avoid it]

The saddest part is this is not some 'chekai' club we are talking about. I won't go into details, but I do know that you know and that's good enough for me.

I guess the bar patrons won for now. From April onwards, the club's karaoke enthusiasts will have to make do with singing in the mini-theatrette, facing rows and rows of seat.

It's like auditioning for a talentime; that was how I felt when I went there a couple of days back to test the system. I sang facing those empty seats, with the lyrics monitor in front of me and the big movie screen behind.

I don't know what the strategies are to lure the club's young crowd into the place (that was the plan, I heard) when the mini-theatrette is as soulless and dry as the Sahara.

Worse, neither food nor drink is allowed in there (the club by-laws say so), a truly unfriendly set-up if ever there is one. It's like the club wants to drive us karaoke fans away!

Sure, the audio-visual system is a class above compared to our little corner at the bar (it better be, the place's a mini pawagam after all), but the total lack of ambiance is disheartening.

If I know young people, I can bet my bottom dollar that none will patronise a place where the only seats available are those arranged classroom-style and firmly screwed to the floor, and where you can neither eat, drink nor smoke.

Karaokeing is socialising; I don't see this happening in the new set-up. How do you socialise when you are sitting upright, eyes to the front, like a bunch of collage kids attending lectures?

I don't know how long the cinema will double up as a karaoke lounge, but I do hope the club can come up with something more concrete to ensure our rights as members are not trampled on.

All I can say for now is that this half-measure is not doing anyone any good. I, for one, may not be a regular after this. I truly don't like the environment.

What really pisses me off is this; what have these people got against karaoke singers? So what if some of us can't even tell the difference between a sales pitch and a singing pitch?

What's there to bitch about even if some sound as horrible as a person in need of Heimlich maneouver? Got people holding a knife to your throat and forcing you to listen, meh? Just keep your distance and stay away from us lah!

Anyway, let's be honest with ourselves. Bad singing doesn't kill, not that I know of (except for one fluke incident as illustrated below), but drinking, smoking, drug-taking and/or random fornication might just do one in.

We all have our passions and pastimes; for some, their lives revolve around the bottle, or snorting some of those illegal stuff up the airways, or practising jaded one-liners at anything in skirt in the hope of getting laid.

For us, we stick to what's safe - karaokeing. (I certainly hope it IS a safe hobby here in Malaysia, because one karaoke lounge patron in the Philippines was shot dead when he sang "My Way" one time too many!).

You know darn well that bottle-dependency can lead to excruciating hangovers and a hanging gut, the white stuff can, if wrongly handled, lead to a long prison term or even the gallows, and indiscriminate bonking with every Tammy (or Tom, you never know these days) may pave the way towards STDs if you are not careful.

The way I look at it, the biggest harm we can do to ourselves by indulging in karaoke is a sore throat. It definitely doesn't harm our lungs like smoking does. Nobody has ever suffered from lung cancer due to karaoke.

Our pockets may be slightly lighter, that I agree, because we tend to prowl for karaoke VCDs wherever we go. But those VCDs won't bankrupt us for sure; they are dirt cheap!

The most expensive I had ever paid for one is RM19.90, and that for an original compilation too. All those cover versions only set you back RM12.00 each.

Like this, the club can count me out lah for karaoke...

Awwa & The Pregnant Cat

Two Weeks Ago

Awwa: Ma, guess what. Karen and I were at 'Maulana' just now and we saw this pregnant stray cat dragging its leg. It looked broken, Ma, kesian sangat.

Me: And..?

Awwa: We were discussing what to do about it, Ma. I know we can’t have cats living in condo and Karen’s aunt can’t take any more cats either.

Me: What’s the plan then?

Awwa: We want to go back there and take it to the vet. I hope it’s still there. Is it ok, Ma? I asked the mamak guy and he told us some car backed into it a few days ago and it has been limping since. I don't know how bad is the injury. What do you think?

Me: I think it’s a very good idea.

Last week Pak Abu and I were in Singapore. No update from Awwa about the cat. This whole week Awwa was busy with her client shoot, photography and stuff, leaving the house 8am and coming home well past midnight. We hardly had time to talk; it was ‘g'morning’ and ‘bye’ for the past 4 days.

This Morning

Awwa: Guess what, Ma! Karen and I went to vet to check on the cat yesterday. It has been adopted by a family from Shah Alam! I am so happy! The vet said the cat was healing well and the family fell in love with it, so she gave it to them.

Me: I’m happy for you too. God bless that Christina (the vet)!

Maulana - mamak joint in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, KL
Karen - Awwa's bestfriend, galpal and occasional 'agony aunt'



Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

it's no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners

the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn't need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water

I wouldn't want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days

Frank O'Hara (1926-1966)

This one is strictly for the dreamers among us. I found this moving poem in a strange place indeed; quoted by, of all people, horror tale maestro Stephen King in his 2008 bestseller Duma Key.

I had just finished reading truly engrossing Duma Key (purchased in Singpore recently) this morning, but the prose had been on my mind from the time I stumbled upon it a couple of days ago.

I don't know why the poem appealed to me but I think I have just fallen line, hook and sinker for the works of American 'new age' poet Frank O'Hara who penned it. [O'Hara died in a car crash in New York in 1966, age 40].

Well-known American novelist/ short story writer/ poet/ literary critic/ editor Gilbert Sorrentino (1929-2006) described Frank O'Hara's work as "moving in a world of wry elegance, of gesture, a world made up of a certain kind of strictly New York joie de vivre: slightly down at heels and rumpled, but with the kind of style always a step above current 'style'."

Me? I feel frayed around the edges, yet refreshingly so (if at all it is possible t be so contradictory) reading this poem.....

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Holiday Yearnings



Mount Kinabalu

Sepilok Sanctuary

It has been such a long while since the family holidayed together that I can’t even remember for sure the last time we did. By that I mean ‘holiday’ in every sense of the word, not the occasional trips back home to attend weddings or bury loved ones.

Any which way you look at it, such milestones hardly merit being called a holiday. In the case of a wedding, especially if it involves close kin like siblings, your presence is a must and your contribution, financial or otherwise, is expected.

In the event of a death in the family, it is highly unlikely that anyone would treat the sorrowful trek home as a jaunt. You are returning to bury Grandpa or Grandma, or worse still, Mum or Dad; how jovial could you possibly be?

For us, the last time we journeyed together as one was in May last year when we trooped back to Dungun for the wedding of my niece Reeta and the death of my mom, both of which, unfortunately, happened on the same day, within ten minutes of each other (read here).

Since then we had not gone together anywhere as a family. With everyone having their own work commitment, it is getting twice as hard to organise a proper getaway.

The last family outing we had that truly qualified as a holiday was eons ago, when the ‘terrible trio’ of Naj, Joe and Ann were mere school kids and Awwa had not yet made her presence felt in our lives. We went to Penang during one school term break.

Considering Awwa is 23 going 24, I can safely say a quarter of a century on, and the time has got to be ripe for another family outing! If we wait a moment longer, someone is bound to get married and drop off the ‘holiday with mom & dad’ scene.

The kids and I got to talking about this some weeks back. By ‘this’ I mean the holiday, not matrimony, the latter being a highly sensitive, super-duper touchy issue and an absolutely no-go area for us perennially hopeful parents.

As usual, I was casting my net far and wide - Greece and Italy, to be exact – because I had missed the opportunity of visiting these two countries while living in Britain.

Joe, who shared my interest in history and whose Holland jaunt last year was still fresh in his mind, concurred with my choice.

Awwa was the easy one to ‘kowtim’; she would agree to anything and anywhere Mak decided. Left to her, she would probably pick all the known shopping havens like Bangkok, Hong Kong, Jakarta and the like.

Naj had been to almost all the major cities of the world - courtesy of his five years spent flying with Malaysia Airlines before deciding journalism was his lot in life - so he was not exactly hyped up about where to go.

It was Ann who suddenly piped up: “How about Sabah and Sarawak? After all, apart from Naj, none of us has ever been to East Malaysia.”

Three pairs of eyes turned to shoot daggers at her, their visions of a European holiday crumbling before their very eyes. The fourth pair of eyes looked up and responded: “Hmmm, why not?”

Last night, over dinner, the subject of family holiday surfaced again. This time around, I am quite determined to see it through and the kids seemed thrilled at the prospect of Sabah or Sarawak, or both.

Naj specifically mentioned the orangutan sanctuary in Sepilok. Ann, ever the ‘lasak’ one, vaguely contemplated the idea of climbing Mount Kinabalu.

Awwa would be fine anywhere, as long as she could shop till she dropped. Joe was more in my mould, revelling in history and nature, so he would be fine wherever I was.

All the while, poor Pak Abu, the would-be financier of our enthusiastic escapade plans, sat there glumly, puffing away while observing our antics, no doubt making some quick mental calculations on the forthcoming 'damage' to his pocket ....

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Singapore, Sentimentally

I kid you not when I say my first trip to Singapore was by boat. With that, however, I didn't mean a million-dollar big boy toy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It was an old tongkang (junk) with a faded tarpaulin cover - a true junk in more ways than one. It was rickety and flimsy, but outfitted with a motor.

With a vessel as such, my entry was decidedly inconspicuous. To my credit (and eternal regret!), however, I didn't enter Singapore furtively under the cover of night.

Definitely no rendezvous with shifty-eyed tekongs (boatmen) in the middle of Johore Straits, a la contraband smugglers. If only life was that adventurous!

Instead, I had one of those boring 24-hour immigration passes distributed quite freely then, giving me the freedom to sightsee, shop and litter the streets of Singapore with equanimity (this was well before Lion City became a 'fine' destination).

I was then 17 and a boarder in Sekolah Tun Fatimah, Johore Baru. It was the school holidays (can't recall which term), one of the few that I spent with my mother, stepfather and their children.

Because I was raised by grandparents, my relationship with Mak and her brood was, at best, distant. So, schooling in JB was the perfect way (at least to Grandma) for me to get to know my step-siblings better.

My late stepfather, a miner all his life, was then working in a bauxite mine located in Teluk Ramunia in the district of Pengerang, Johore.

The family relocated to Pengerang in the late 1960s when the iron mine in Bukit Besi, Terengganu, Bapak's last place of work, ceased operations.

The easiest way to get to Pengerang from Johor Baru at that time was also by boat, skimming the shores all the way from Tanjung Puteri, our point of embarkation, to Kampung Sungei Rengit, where Mak and family lived.

If my memory served me correctly, it was a two-hour boat ride from Tanjung Puteri to Kg Sungei Rengit. There were quite a few roads going Pengerang way but the overland route was deemed unsafe for a young woman travelling alone.

Not only were the roads twisting and turning across some remote corners of south-east Johore, the journey was also twice as long compared to sea travel.

For someone prone to travel sickness, puking away into Johore Straits in a two-hour boat ride was a far better alternative than continuously emptying one's guts into a plastic bag in a five-hour bus trip.

It took only 45 minutes by boat from Sungei Rengit to the south-eastern shores of Singapore. I remember the shopping centre we headed for immediately after getting off the boat. It was called Rochor Centre.

For a teenage kampung girl whose shopping till then was pitifully limited to Kedai Payang marketplace in Kuala Terengganu, Rochor Centre was heaven on earth. There were far too many things to contemplate and too little money to spend.

Nonetheless, I was happy as a lark to step foot on Singapore soil, even if my mode of arrival varied very little from that of an Indo-Chinese refugee. I had made it to Singapore!

To my simple mind, being in Singapore meant I had successfully scaled the heights of sophistication. Finally, I had that something extra to crow about to my bucolic peers back home in Terengganu. I had been to Singapore; I had 'arrived'.

Thoughts of those long-ago days crossed my mind when I was in Singapore recently. From the comfort of my 4th floor hotel room with its five-star amenities, superb view and first-class service, my mind couldn't help but wander to 1971.

I could almost feel the young girl's excitement, hand clutching her purse tightly, safe in the knowledge that in the worn purse were some Singapore dollars courtesy of her mother.

My emotion was like a roller-coaster as I recalled how the girl deliberated, long and hard, on how to stretch those dollars to make her Singapore trip worth her while.

Just as the girl has turned into a middle-aged mak cik (aunt), Singapore too has changed. Its vibrancy seemed somewhat muted, its people less harried.

Today's Singapore is also sanitizingly clean and one couldn't quite shake off the "Big Brother Is Watching You!" feeling.

Be that as it may, I enjoyed myself revisiting Singapore, in the way that an old couple enjoy the quiet company of each other..

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Shodding Bigfoot

Ya Rabbi! Besarnya kasut, macam sampan!
Good Lord! Such big shoes, they look like sampan*!
(*Sampan - traditional Malay boat)

So exclaimed my normally unflappable mother-in-law to-be upon seeing the pair of champagne-hued, four-inch heels her son brought home that long-ago day in 1974.

The shoes were part of the groom's wedding hantaran (gifts) for the bride and we scoured half of Kuala Lumpur looking for a suitable pair for the approaching nuptials.

We found that glittering pair in Ampang Park; it was absolutely so "not me' but I didn't have a choice. Either that painful-to-the-eye pair, or no shoes to go with the equally glitzy clutchbag.

I found out later that the good 'isteri polis' (police wives) ladies of the groom's retinue had a rib-tickling time trying to be artful with flowers and fronds to camouflage the glaring inner sole span.

Neither shoes nor marriage lasted. The former cracked up after five years, the latter collapsed after 13. But my feet remain hideously big, wide and flat.

If at all there is anything that can put me in a despondent mood, it would be shopping for shoes. As if on cue, the moment my foot crosses the treshold of a shoe store, my question would inevitably be: "What is the biggest size you carry?"

If the answer is in the single digit, rest assured I would be off and away before the salesperson could draw her next breath. It would be a sheer waste of my time, and hers, to linger.

On the average, I am a size ten (or 40 according to European measurement). Sometimes, even ten doesn't fit, especially if the front is stylishly narrow.

I can only drool at the sight of beautifully designed shoes, for I cannot fit into any of them. In Malaysia, it does seem that only dainty feet are deserving of gorgeous shoes.

'Bigfoot' like us are consigned to the heap of unflattering but sturdy models from the likes of Clarks and Scholl, to name but two.

We are the unfortunate Heidis of shoedom, hefty frauleins and fraus whose enormous feet could only be suitably shod in unfashionable, bulky yet incredibly pricey footwear.

When I was a journalist, a friend introduced me to Mr Pan who worked in our production department downstairs. Pan came from a family of shoemakers and during break time he would surface on the editorial floor with shoe catalogues in hand.

Our orders usually took two weeks to complete. You could ask for any fashion, style, design or colour and he would always oblige. The prices too were very reasonable, between RM30-RM40 per pair.

Because of this convenience, I used to own many pairs of shoes and sandals, my favourite being two-toned court shoes.

Then I left my job. Soon after Mr Pan too retired and we lost contact. I had to return to plain and predictable Clarks and Scholl (and the occasional pair from Marie Claire).

Some years ago I discovered a local brand carrying big sizes and I have been patronising that make ever since. It is called Princess and they have a big outlet in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman.

As usual, the designs are limited but at least the sizes are there. Beggars, sadly enough, can't be choosers. But I am not ashamed of my feet. On the contrary, I am proud of my 'Bigfoot' status.

My late mother once said I was firmly anchored to the ground by virtue of having big feet. I would like very much to think she had her foot on it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Porn Greets The Morning!

First thing first.

To the anonymous twit who sent me a porn video via e-mail, I have this to say: "Thanks for the initiative but I already knew 'what to do' long before you were born (am assuming this must be from some young punk lah).

Don't think I need lessons in kamasutra at this age. You want me to sprain my back, slip a disc, or pull a tendon, or what? If you think I have come this far without knowing what kamasutra is, you are so wrong, my friend. I already 'khatam' the book from cover to cover three decades ago, hokay?

Now that I've got that one out of my spleen, it's back to "business as usual", he he he. Aiyoh, terduduk mak aji sekejap!

As you can see, I greeted today with much enthusiasm; the tummy ache/migraine is history. Alhamdulillah. Went down for a quick chow before taking a much needed walk, just ambling around sans purpose.

Anyway, with me tudung and all, I felt like a piece of curio in an antique showroom amidst all the half-clad orang putih (Caucasian) tourists I passed by on my walkabout.

Strangely enough, a large number of the 'orang putih' who lodge at this hotel we are in, are older than Methuselah. Must be some kind of a special tour for senior citizens. So we are in the right company.

Bought three books from Times; The Appeal (John Grisham), Duma (Stephen King) and The Careful Compliments (Alexander McCall Smith), three for the price of two (total SD34). Good bargain, huh.

Excuse me now while I slip under the duvet to start on the first book...Aaaahh! This is the life!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Oooh, My Aching Head!

Three days in Singapore, and I have yet to feel good. Sorry, that didn't quite come out right, did it? The unfortunate truth is, I have not been well ever since we arrived; stomach pain on Monday, migraine today.

By the way, the tummy ache had nothing to do with whatever was consumed in Singapore. I was foolish enough to help myself to extra helpings of prunes in KL the day before, thus the tummy rightfully agitated in rebellion.

Hardly had that settled, it was migraine the whole of today. Unable to move, I huddled under the duvet, wishing the pain would go away. A few puke sessions later, the pain receded, thank God.

So here I am, like a hermit, holed up in this hotel room in a housecoat over my pajamas, feeling lousy as hell. It was a torment to even read, let alone blog. Let's hope tomorrow is a sick-free day.

And with that I bid you goodnight, for I am crawling back to bed (it's almost 11pm now) to nurse my pain and wallow in self-pity.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Singapore Getaway

Our 'home' for the next five days, at the corner of North Bridge Road and Coleman Street, Singapore.

Pak Abu and I are in good old Singapore. We flew in this afternoon and will be here for five days before returning home to Kuala Lumpur on Friday.

We were here last almost six years ago, in 2003, when The Royal Mint of Malaysia (where I was attached to at the time) participated in the Singapore International Money Fair.

As the Mint's head of corporate affairs, it was very much my baby to ensure our participation ran smoothly and our presence felt amongst the mints from all over the world.

I was fully occupied then. There was hardly any time for leisure. Event management has always been very stressful, anyway.

This time around, I am in Singapore as a spouse, just to keep Pak Abu company while he attends a workshop/seminar/training organised by his Singapore-based HQ.

So for the next five days I am going to be freer than free; don't know yet what to do to fill my time (apart from reading and blogging).

I don't really fancy shopping because things are rather expensive in Singapore and the exchange rate is not in our favour.

I have always found Singapore hard to fathom, and I can't even explain why. It's like visiting a rich distant aunt and spending a few nights as her house guest. You enjoy your host's hospitality but keep a respectful distance from the host herself.

On one hand, I like Singapore's obsession with cleanliness, which is hardly surprising, considering the neat freak that I am. On the other, I am weary of the inconveniences, things I take for granted at home.

It's a bother looking for 'halal' food places and the fact that I can't indulge in my favourite fast foods because of the uncertainly about the 'kosherness' of the meat and poultry.

The concierge suggested Arab Street but we have to take a cab to get there when we would prefer places within walking distance from the hotel.

There is a shopping complex called Peninsular or something across the street; we checked it out just now and found a food court on the ground floor.

We had dinner at a 'halal' outlet called Fatimah Asian Gourmet. Pak Abu chose rice and some lauks while I opted for noodles, something called Mee Betawi. Delicious! Looks like Fatimah's going to be my makan place for the next few days.

The last time I followed Pak Abu on a similar trip, I ended up watching TV reruns to while away time.

This time around, I remembered to bring my books. And with the laptop, I hope I won't be bored for long....

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Bloomless Life

I don't remember when was the last time I received flowers from anybody. I can recall getting a bouquet or two from grateful suppliers when I was running my PR consultancy way back in the 1990s, but as you very well know, this doesn't count for nuts.

If at all I can say with absolute certainty, it would be the day I delivered Nawwar in 1985, and this youngest child of mine turns 24 come December, making it almost a quarter of a century since a bouquet of flowers landed on my doorstep.

In that interim period of single-momhood, from 1987 to 2001, flowers and bouquets hardly figured in my life. There was no adoring beau to begin with, who would put me on a pedestal, and cater to my whims and fancies.

Life was difficult enough as it were; the kids weren't in a position to buy me blooms to mark any occasion. Flowers were frivolous, pricey, and they didn't last.

Truthfully though, there were times during those lean years when I was overwhelmed with this innate need to feel loved and wanted. An inner battle would then rage; "Shall I or shall I not send myself a bouquet?"

It was so pathetic, I know. Such episodes, thankfully, didn't last long, for sanity always returned in time to reign. Flowers were an indulgence I could ill-afford.

Therein lies my problem; lamentable experiences as such had inevitably coloured me into practicality, so much so that each time I felt the need to splurge on flowers, my mind would start doing the grocery list. Oh how I detest this mental tug-of-war!

As fate would have it, I married a man who just doesn't 'do' flowers; which is just as well, really, because the mind is already attuned to this no-bouquet existence. Today, I buy flowers only for Hari Raya.

For your sake, thank heavens there aren't many men like Pak Abu out there who shun flowers like the plague, for if there are, florists will surely be a near-extinct breed by now, shrivelling and wilting just like their charges, waiting for time to fade into oblivion.

On that note, I wish all my readers Happy Valentine's Day.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Brooking No Nonsense, for Books

Among kith and kin alike, I have acquired some kind of notoriety - for being 'kedekut' (stingy). Woh, if you hear them talk about this ‘despicable’ trait of mine, you would think I am nothing less than mean Old Scrooge himself.

What? A bit low on cash and need tiding over? Sure, have some. Cash (whatever little I have, that is), I can part with, easy.

Going to a formal do and need sparklers? A party coming up and you gotta have the right bling-bling to go with the cocktail dress? Waddaheck, take your pick. Just don’t forget to return them when you’re done.

Say what? Your little boy is collecting far too many naughts in his exam marks in school and need a bit of nurturing in the English department?

Bring him over. Let’s see if I can turn the tyke’s 'Manglish' (mangled English) into something good old Queen Beth could be proud of.

I'm no Shakespeare, but I sure can string two sentences together decently without embarrassing that wonderful 'cikgu' of mine, Cik Jawhariah, who taught me English when I was in Form Five.

I am never scrimpy with money, material things and God’s gift of the gab. Heck, I even gave my heart away one time too many (he he he). What more do you want?

I am not asking for the impossible. No special request for the moon, the stars, nor faraway planets in the Milky Way; nothing remotely resembling the universe.

Just don’t touch my blinkin’ books, y’hear?

It goes without saying that I love books; all 2500 of them in my mini-library, and still counting. Let’s just assume at RM40 per book, that would be RM100,000 thus far spent on shreds of paper with writings on them.

I know I had spent a helluva lot more than just that. And every single sen was well worth it. They had transported me to places I had never been, into the lives of people I had never met, and taught me things I never knew existed.

Before you crucify me for being ‘kedekut pahit’ (penurious) with my beloved ‘buku-buku’ (books) let me tell you a story. It's a tale guaranteed not to make you reach out for Kleenex, so relax.

I used to be very accommodating, lending my books to all and sundry; the second cousin of a friend of a friend, for example, whom I knew not from Adam (or Eve, for that matter).

You see, those days I had absolute faith in the kindness and integrity of fellow humans, that they would return what they borrowed. Sadly, they never did. I lost many books this way.

It’s not how much the books had cost me; that’s negligible. I can replace them physically, no doubt, but the emotional tie that bound me to those gone astray through no fault of mine, had been severed.

Then it dawned on me, that these borrowers were merely exercising their ‘right’ not to be a moron while duping me into becoming one. How so?

They must have read what I myself had read (but never practiced, stupid me) many years ago that there are only two kinds of morons in this world; the ones who lend their books to others, and those who return books they borrow.

I reckon since they had successfully made an idiot out of me, they had to double their efforts not to fall into the same moronic trap. I am sure it must have been one hell of an inner fight, to overcome this urge to return my books.

Well, I shall be a moron no more. The library is closed - forever and more. You still want to read? Get off that lazy arse of yours and haul yourself to a bookshop. Now git! No more free-loadin’, y’hear?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Diary of a Pilgrim - Groovin' In Madinah

She gave me a friendly smile as she spread her prayer mat next to mine that evening in the cool comfort of Masjid Nabawi, Madinah Al-Munawwarah. A comely Arab woman in her early 30s, she had exceptionally beautiful eyes and an unusually pert, upturned nose.

We salaamed and introduced ourselves. Her name was Seham; she spoke flawless English, was very articulate and came across both well-heeled and well-educated. I was struck by her humble demeanour as we chatted amiably while waiting for the muezzin’s call to Maghrib prayers.

She had just flown in from Riyadh with her husband to pray at the Prophet’s Mosque. It had been a tradition of theirs, she said, to spend a few days in Madinah immediately after the Hajj season, and at the beginning of Ramadan.

Upon learning of my nationality, she enthusiastically informed that her family had holidayed in Malaysia twice. “I always developed a headache after three days in Kuala Lumpur; the city is very busy and noisy!” she said ruefully, quickly adding, “But we know we’ll be back many times in the near future because we like Malaysia!”

She asked for my preference between Makkah and Madinah, and why. I told her Madinah won hands down because the city, with its tall, modern buildings, shopping malls, boulevards, avenues, plazas and wide open spaces, seemed well planned and organised.

[Pak Abu had, upon arrival, likened downtown Madinah to San Franscisco, saying this second holiest city of Islam ironically had an “American” feel about it].

Madinah was well-maintained, thus very clean. Despite the teeming crowd, traffic was less chaotic than Makkah. Even the bazaars and shopping arcades were neatly laid out.

Further, one could actually sense the friendliness of its people; the shopkeepers definitely more pleasant and the food a notch above, in comparison to Makkah.

“My sentiment, exactly,” said Seham, beaming broadly, when I finished waxing lyrical about this charming city that had offered refuge to Prophet Muhammad (saw) and his followers in the early days of Islam.

I simply loved the weather in Madinah; mornings greeted us with blustery winds (reminiscent of winter mornings in London), the evening air was cool and crispy and noontime was pleasantly warm. On the other hand, Makkah a mere 447 kilometres away seared under an unforgiving sun.

We were to be in Madinah for nine days before going home. Pilgrims from our group, Maktab 78-KT 73, were comfortably lodged, three to a room, in five-star Hotel Dar As Salam adjacent to Madinah Hilton and 150 metres away from Masjid Nabawi.

The day after arrival we were taken on a tour of the Prophet’s Mosque and its surrounds (ziarah dalam) which culminated in the highly anticipated visit to Raudah (literally ‘a garden’), a hallowed area in the Prophet’s mosque that lies between the Prophet’s house and his pulpit.

For the uninitiated, Masjid Nabawi was built on the site of Prophet Muhammad (saw)’s house and his burial place (which was his bed, for the Prophet died on his bed).

And the Prophet (pbuh) had said (as narrated in the hadith by Al-Bukhari): “What lies between my house and my pulpit is a garden (Raudah) from the Gardens of Paradise.”

While male pilgrims could visit the Raudah at any time of the day, visiting hours for women, for some reason, were regulated. It took us two hours of waiting to finally get into Raudah.

It was only 11 o’clock in the morning, but already thousands of women amassed there, waiting for their turn.

Upon reaching the Prophet’s mausoleum, I greeted him with “Assalamualaikum Ya Rasulullah”, and then I broke down and cried.

It was a strange feeling; one felt as though he, Allah’s Beloved, was watching and listening and that he answered one's salaam.

We also salaamed the two Sahabahs (Companions), Abu Bakar and Umar, who were buried alongside him, after which we quickly prayed and said our supplications before leaving.

We were advised by our Tabung Haji ustaz to say our doas while prostrating; that way the mutaweens (mosque guards) would not hurry us through for they would not disturb a prostrated pilgrim. If we did it the conventional way i.e. with palms upturned, the mutaweens would not be so considerate.

With the demands of the Hajj over, we found ourselves less stressed, thus more accommodating towards each other.

Before leaving for the Holy Land, we had been cautioned time and again by well-meaning relatives and friends (who had done the Hajj) that no matter how loving and tolerant one was, the Hajj would inevitably offer numerous opportunities to bicker with one’s spouse. It couldn’t have been truer.

We did squabble over a few issues (strangely enough, issues so minor we wouldn’t even bat an eyelid about under normal circumstances), but nothing that a forgiving hug could not cure. A couple we knew didn’t speak to each other for days, over the ludicrous issue of buying souvenirs!

Breakfast time saw us at a corner shop about 500 metres from the hotel, beyond a major traffic intersection. The shop offered deliciously crispy roti canai and we lost no time telling others about it. Soon enough, some of our friends also began patronising the place.

Tabung Haji’s caterer in Madinah did an excellent job with our main meals (lunch and dinner) and the cute-looking twin boys, no older than 18, who served us were eye candies indeed!

The duo were Madinah born and raised, but their parents, long-time Madinah residents, came from Pattani Province in South Thailand. As such they could speak Malay, but with a heavy Kelantanese accent.

One evening Pak Abu and I got together with his golf buddy Nik Faizul and his wife who were also on pilgrimage. We decided to have tea al fresco at a foodcourt nearby. We regrouped a couple of days later, this time for lamb curry dinner.

Three days before leaving Madinah we went on one final ziarah, to visit the historical mosques of Quba and Qiblatain, the site of Uhud War and the final resting place of the Prophet’s uncle Syaidina Hamzah and the other Syuhadahs (those who died in the war), as well as a date plantation..

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Amusing Hajj Interlude (II) – “Jalan-jalan Cari Laundry”

Doing the laundry in a hotel bathroom has never been my thing; I very much dislike seeing bits and pieces of damp clothing hanging this way and that over the washbasin, the shower curtain railing, the towel rack...

Then again, one just couldn’t be petty over such a trivial thing during the Hajj. It was, in a way, a necessary evil; either you do it or you drain your pocket unnecessarily by using the hotel’s laundry facility, and for such a prolonged period too.

In Madinah, however, I drew a line at washing the two-piece ihram garment in the washbasin, simply because there was no place to hang them to dry. At least in Makkah’s Qutubah Barakah Hotel, we were at liberty to use the rooftop as our drying area.

Thus it came to be that Pak Abu and I set out one cold, blustery morning in Madinah Al-Munawwarah, looking for a ‘kedai dobi’. We had seen a few along the side streets in our daily morning trek to this part of Madinah to seek breakfast.

There I was walking alongside Pak Abu, looking like the proverbial hobo with a bundle of soiled clothing in my arms.

Pak Abu (scanning one alley after another): Isyy, where’s the laundry when we need them? Didn’t we see quite a few the last time we walked this way?

Me (trudging along, bundle in hand): Alah, just walk along lah. We’ll find one soon enough.


Pak Abu: WAAH!

Me (wow, this is a new one, getting excited over finding a kedai dobi!): Mana?

Pak Abu (excitedly pointing): See over there! Tu!

Me (looking in the said direction): Where? Takdak nampak laundry pun?

Pak Abu: Oooo waaah, tak sangka Madinah pun ada karaoke lounge!!

Me (looking doubly hard): Maaana?? (all the time thinking, “biar betul Pak Aji ni; I hope he’s not seeing things!”)

Pak Abu: There! The signboard above that shoplot. Read la! Doesn’t it say 'karaoke'?

Me (adjusting my brand-new, made-in-Makkah glasses): Isssyyy Pa...! It says Karedee lah!

Pak Abu (suddenly deflated, smiling sheepishly): Ooooh.. hehehe... betui-betui nampak macam spelling k-a-r-a-o-k-e! Terkejut jugak la sat, takkan in Madinah ada karaoke lounge kot!

Oh dearie me.... Either he needs a new pair of specs or he must be seriously 'gian', missing our regular karaoke sessions!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Diary of a Pilgrim - Kiswah & Camel

Entrance to the kiswah complex in Umm Al-Joud, Makkah Al-Mukarramah

He's spinning some silver threads

Ruins of the old Hudaibiyyah Mosque

Gee, Pak Abu in ihram garb can certainly pass off as a camel shepherd!
The naughty, playful (camel) youngster is the one on the left. In this picture he was trying to 'ngendeng' water from the guy.

View of Kaabah at 10.30pm after we completed our Tawaf Umrah.

Saturday, 20th December saw us up and early, as always. However, there was no time for Subuh prayers at the mosque for we had to prepare for umrah; our miqat being Ja'aranah, 24 kilometres away. By 7.30 am, the buses were ready and waiting.

Our first stop in the ‘ziarah & umrah’ morning tour was the sprawling 'kiswah' (Kaabah shroud) manufacturing complex located at Umm Al-Joud just outside the parameter of Makkah City.

The draping of the Kaabah with a kiswah is a pre-Islamic practice and scholars differ on who was the first to do it; some say it was Prophet Ishmael (as) while others attribute it to Adnan bin Ad, the great-great-grandfather of Prophet Muhammad (saw).

Whatever the case, Prophet Muhammad (saw) left the shroud as it was after the conquest of Makkah in 630 AD. Unfortunately, a woman lighting incense in the Kaabah accidentally set the shroud alight, totally ruining it. Following the incident, the Prophet replaced the shroud with a white Yemeni cloth.

In the early days, the kiswah were made in either Egypt or Yemen, but in 1977 a special facility was established in Saudi Arabia itself, to manufacture the shroud and other items for the draping of the Kaabah interior and the Prophet’s mausoleum in Madinah. The factory also produces kiswah-related gifts for visiting dignitaries.

Enroute to Umm Al-Joud, we caught sight of a few Bedouin settlements. We were told many of these desert dwellers still lived the old nomadic way; in tents, herding camels, sheep, goats and cattle, and migrating seasonally depending on grazing conditions. They were, however, very hospitable to strangers.

The beautifully manicured lawn and frontage of the kiswah complex caught my eyes as we disembarked from the bus. Date trees alternating with majestic flame of the forest and flower bushes lined the avenue leading to the main building.

Inside, we were taken to the main sections of the factory to observe two key processes - weaving of silk threads into the kiswah main piece and sewing of gold threads onto silk strips adorned with Quranic verses. Due to time constraint, we were unable to see the rest.

Because photography was allowed, I lost no time in snapping pictures. While weaving was mechanised, sewing of gold threads on the verses were done manually.

Each kiswah costs SR17 million to make. Measuring 14 metres in height, it is made of the finest silk weighing 670 kilograms, dyed deep black. For embroidery, 15 kilos of gold threads are used.

Every year, on the 9th of Zulhijjah, the Kaabah is draped with a new kiswah to welcome Eid-Adha. The old one is then cut into small pieces, to be given to visiting Muslim dignitaries as gifts. During the days of the Caliph, the strips were distributed to pilgrims.

After 45 minutes in Umm Al-Joud we boarded the bus once again, this time to visit a camel farm. It wasn’t really a ‘farm’ in the truest sense of the word; just an open enclosure full of camels.

We saw many such privately owned enclosures dotting the landscape, each with busloads of pilgrims paying homage to this truly remarkable animal. I read somewhere that there are over 160 words for “camel” in the Arabic language.

I had never been up close and personal with a camel before, so I didn’t know what to expect. This much I can tell you - they have the most gorgeous eyelashes! I certainly can wax lyrical about camels despite the fact that they look so ungainly and that they stink to high heaven.

One youngster nudged my bottle of mineral water; that was one modern kid who just knew he didn’t need a ‘wadi’ to quench his thirst, so I obliged. He suckled from the bottle like a child, and then nudged me for more.

He kept licking my palm and when I moved away, he dutifully followed me like a dog, probably thinking I was a portable oasis! He was so cute and adorable that I couldn't resist putting my arm around his neck despite the foul breath.

I also tried camel milk; it was delicious, so I bought some to take back to the hotel. Camel milk is highly nutritious; three times as rich in vitamin C as cow’s milk and lower in fat and lactose.

All too soon we had to move again, this time to Ja’aranah (previously known as Hudaibiyyah) in the area of Shumaysi, some 24 kilometres away from Masjidil Haram and just two kilometres outside the ‘Haram’ boundary.

This was the site of the Treaty of Hudaibiyyah forged between Prophet Muhammad (saw) and the Quraish of Makkah in 628 AD, a pact that resulted in a ten-year truce which eventually set the stage for the expansion of Islam to the Arabian peninsula.

We took our ablution and prayed at the Hudaibiyyah Mosque, after which we expressed our niat (intention) to perform the Umrah. There was nothing to see in this place, save for the ruins of an ancient mosque and an old man selling tasbih and rings with semi-precious stones.

The bus deposited us at the hotel around noon. That night, Pak Abu and I performed the required Tawaf and Sa’ei, thus completing our umrah.

The next few days passed quickly, and before we knew it, Friday, December 26th dawned and the time had come to bid Makkah goodbye.

My roommates and I decided to go on a walkabout that morning, just to savour the atmosphere for one last time. It was a time of sadness and heartache, of grief and sorrow. Words hung in the air, unspoken.

We were leaving this holy city, this birthplace of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (saw), this place we had grown to love so unconditionally in the one month that we were here. And we were leaving Baitullah.

The mere thought of saying goodbye to Baitullah brought tears to our eyes. Would we ever return? My heart ached; the pain refused to go away.

Silently we carried our luggage down to the lobby and waited for Friday prayers to be over, before walking to the Grand Mosque to meet up with our respective spouses for the Tawaf Wida’ (Farewell Tawaf).

It was two o’clock in the afternoon when we stepped onto the marbled courtyard of Baitullah to begin the tawaf. Allahu Akbar, it was a hot day, and the courtyard was packed with pilgrims.

As I began, I could feel my feet touching the floor ever so lightly. Soon I was lost to the world, reciting the various doas while slowly moving with the crowd. Pak Abu later said I looked like I was in a trance.

The heat was still bearable when I prayed: “Ya Allah Ya Tuhanku, please shield me from this heat so I can perform my tawaf comfortably.”

Subhanallah, a piece of cloud then moved under the sun, effectively blocking it, while at the same time a gust of wind so cool and refreshing blew across the Baitullah courtyard.

I heard a cry behind me; "Alhamdulillah! Alhamdulillah!" It was Pak Abu, he couldn't quite contain his emotion. As for me, tears welled.... Thank You Ya Allah....

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Amusing Hajj Interlude

I was queueing up to use the toilet in Mina early one morning, still bleary-eyed with sleep; a matronly woman probably in her late 50s or early 60s standing in front of me.

She was clad in a worn T-shirt and batik sarong, with a 'kain lepas' (traditional east coast shawl) covering her hair. Out of the blue, she turned around and started asking me some questions.

No, make that an interrogation; she probed me relentlessly, speaking in that unmistakable logha' Klate (Kelantanese dialect). I had this sneaky feeling that she badly wanted to tell someone - anyone - something.

There were at least 10 other women there at the time, all 'pasang telinga' (listening intently), probably thanking their lucky stars they weren't the ones kena soal-siasat (cross-examined) so meticulously.

She: Mari 'mmano? [Where from?]
Me: Kuala Lumpur. Kak? [Kuala Lumpur. How about you, sis?]

She: Ttani [Pattani]. Anok brapo? [How many kids?]
Me: Tujuh [Didn't care to elaborate on the equation of four own and three stepkids]

She: Rama teh! [ That's a lot!]
Me: (Silently: Eh, banyak songel 'lak dia pagi-pagi buta ni!)
(Loudly): Ha'ah, saya anak ramai [Yeah, I have a few]

She: Lepah semo doh ko? [All done with schooling?]
Me: Ha'ah. Semua dah kerja [Yes, they are all working]

She: Molek la tu. Adik krijo ko? [Cool. Do you work?]
Me: (Silently: Ya Rabbi, kaypohnyer! Malaih eh nak explain pasal my work lak..)
(Loudly): Tak, saya duduk rumah aja [Naah, I'm a stay-at-home wife and mum]

She: Anok sayo blaja di Mesir. Hok 'ttino sulong [My eldest girl is studying in Egypt]
Me: Bagus tu [Good to hear that]
(Silently: Aduss, volunteer info pasal anak pulak. Saya desperately mau konciang kak oii)!

She: Dio nok abih doh. Blaja jadi doktor [She's studying medicine, almost finished]
Me: Alhamdulillah.

Silence prevailed.
Since no further response from me, she changed tack.
By then, I was already crossing and recrossing my legs...

She: Mari nge sapo? [Who are you here with?]
Me: Suami saya [My husband]

She: Kito takdok tok 'llaki doh. [I no longer have a husband]
Me: (looked at her blankly, perhaps pityingly too).. Oooh...

[What was I supposed to say? Takziah? Maybe he wasn't dead yet?] I was thinking hard for something appropriate to say, but the moment I parted my lips, she pounced on me:

She: Tu gigi beto ko tu? [Is that your original set of teeth?]
Me: (Silently: Isyy dia ni.. biar betul!)
(Loudly): Ya, gigi betul [ Yes, the real thing]

She: Molek teh. Hok sayo palsu semo doh [Nice. Mine's all false!]
She then grinned to show her row of chompers.

I wanted to laugh so much I almost 'terkincit' (leaked) there and then. Adooii...! Thank God, the cubicle door opened and she went in...

Monday, February 2, 2009

Diary of A Pilgrim - Hello Again, Makkah!

View from the top floor of Masjidil Haram

Yet another view from the topmost floor of Masjidi Haram. We prefered to pray here during Subuh because the morning air was cool and pleasant.

Pak Abu after Tawaf Haji

Yours truly, after Tawaf Haji

View of Baitullah at 4 am

Pak Abu's "Smoking Corner" in Qutubah courtyard

It was so good to be back in lively Makkah once again. After the challenges of Arafah, Muzdalifah and Mina, dusty and noisy Makkah, still very much ‘sendat’ (jam-packed) with pilgrims, was beginning to feel like home.

We were away for only four short days, but with all the trials and tribulations, and the physical discomfort the brief hiatus afforded, it sure seemed like a lifetime. Nonetheless, we were thankful to God Almighty for the experience.

To celebrate our return, we treated our respective roommates to a bryani dinner takeaway, bought from a very busy Pakistani eatery 500 metres down the road from our hotel.

As I was still sans glasses, our last remaining hajj ritual of Tawaf Haji had to wait a while longer, until I managed to get a new pair done. Thankfully I did, at an optician located within the confines of Hilton International.

The German-made titanium frame, with lenses, cost only SR650 (about RM630) and was delivered within 24 hours. All things considered, it was a good bargain; a similar pair would probably set me back at least RM1000 back home in Malaysia.

In celebration of the new specs (we were always on the lookout for reasons to make merry!), we adjourned to the Hilton coffee house for cappuccino. Maybe it was the ambiance, or the pleasant waiter, or maybe it was just us, two weary pilgrims in search of good coffee; but the cappuccino was heavenly!

With the new glasses, life finally took on some semblance of normalcy. Pak Abu decided we should do Tawaf Haji in the early hours of the morning, to avoid the crowd. And so we did, at 3.30 on the morning of December 14th, completing it with ease within the hour.

To mark the occasion, we decided to splurge on breakfast at the opulent Inter-Continental Hotel. The meal for two set us back SR140, but the spread was scrumptious and the coffee exquisite enough to make us forgive ourselves for the extravagance!

The next few days passed in a blur of activities; solat at the mosque, attending religious talks at the hotel surau, dinner at the various restaurants and eateries in the vicinity (we decided to give Tabung Haji packed dinners a break), as well as shopping for gifts and souvenirs.

And then there was the occasional ‘lepak’ with fellow pilgrims in the comfort of Qutubah courtyard (where one can dine al fresco) to check on Tabung Haji updates and catch up with the news.

Pak Abu and his coterie of smoking 'kakis' could be found here most evenings, enjoying the sulty evening air with a cup or two of 'teh tarik' or 'nescafe tarik' while waiting to walk to Masjidil Haram for Maghrib and Isya' prayers.

Occasionally Pak Abu would pray at the Khalid Al-Walid Mosque just 100 metres away from the hotel courtyard, down the two-tiered escalator to the main road. The congregation was overwhelmingly men of Arab descent.

The mosque had definitely seen better days, but it was strategically located between the many hotels in the vicinity and the Grand Mosque. And it seemed to be a favourite of North African pilgrims; I noticed lots of Moroccans and Algerians there.

For recreation, watching TV in our room was out of the question - not that we had the luxury of time to watch TV anyway - save for a couple of local Arab networks and what looked like a Tunisian channel, we couldn’t get anything else. Al-Jazeera however, was available at the hotel lobby.

As I understood it, Coco-Cola, along with a few other global brands, received one big ‘nyet’ in Saudi Arabia. If one craved for cola, there was always Pepsi. Other fizzy drinks were readily available too, although we were getting quite comfy with just ‘air zamzam’ and mineral water.

During one of our makan outings, we shared a table with a young and likeable Nigerian couple who, like most proud young parents are wont to do, showed us a picture of their four-month old baby daughter.

The husband was an Australian-trained accountant while the wife, who hardly uttered a word throughout, was still in college. He told us that he idolised Tun Dr Mahathir. In his own words: “One of the best Muslim leaders the world has ever seen.”

The moment they left, a young Indonesian couple moved in. The wife was a stunning beauty, fair-skinned with Arabic features, while the husband was a plain, very Melayu-looking guy with sawo matang (dark) skin.

They looked like newlyweds. We had, by then, finished our dinner. So we exchanged pleasantries before leaving the lovey-dovey duo to enjoy theirs.

Because Pak Abu and I had opted for Haji Ifrad (completion of hajj rites prior to umrah), we still had the umrah pending, which should be completed before leaving for Madinah Al-Munawwarah on December 24th.

As such, we decided to take a 'ziarah & umrah' day package offered by a travel agent stationed at the hotel lobby. Costing only SR30 per person, it included a visit to a camel breeding farm, the 'kiswah' factory (kiswah is the black shroud covering the Kaabah) and Hudaibiyyah Mosque.

This mosque is located in a place called Ja'aranah (previously known as Hudaibiyyah) some 20 kilometres out of Makkah, which was to be the miqat (starting point) of our umrah.

[Pilgrims doing umrah have the option of going to either Ja'aranah or Tana'im for miqat; Tanaim is favoured by many because it is hardly 10 minutes away by cab, but Ja'aranah, although further, has history associated with it, being the miqat place of Prophet Muhammad (saw)]

As December 20th dawned, we were back in our state of ihram, boarding the bus in silence heading towards Ja'aranah, the site of the Treaty of Hudaibiyyah, a pact with far-reaching Hajj consequences, forged between Prophet Muhammad (saw) and the Quraish of Makkah.....

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Post-CNY Reunion Dinner

Pak Abu flanked by sons Naj (left) and Joe (right). Adopted sons Dinesh and Jason are on extreme left and right respectively.

Joe with colleague, June
Dinesh digging into Yee Sang, with girlfriend Rachel. That's Ann on the right

The whole jingbang having a whale of a time at dinner last night. From left: June, Jason, Dinesh, Rachel, Ann, Naj's colleague Fuzzie, Naj, Pak Abu & Mak Labu and Awwa.

It has been quite a while since the Abus got together so we decided to regroup at the Royal Lake Club in Taman Tasik Perdana, KL last night, for yee sang in celebration of Chinese New Year.

After all we do have a Chinese son (Jason) and a Chindian son (Dinesh). I have known these two fellas since they were "budak berhinguih"; they were Naj and Joe's childhood friends and grew up under my ketiak, so to speak...

Dinesh flies (he's with MAS), so it has always been difficult to pin him down for makan and such. Fortunately, he's in town these couple of days. Jason is now a (recently single) father (of one adorable little girl). It was great to sit down for makan like old times..