Personal Photography Society Travels

[2914] Madness in a holy shrine

I have an English translation of the Masnavi at home. It has been on my shelves for years but I have never read it full, much like my collection of Kafka’s, or writings of Robert Nozick and Bertrand Russell, or even the Koran.

The Masnavi feels like a reference material. You do not read it whole. You open the pages once in a while and read a verse or two or three now and then.

There is criticism that most established English translations have stripped the Islamic religion out of Rumi’s poems. That have made the Masnavi secular for a wider audience outside of the Muslim world; Rumi has been removed from his Islamic context. Meanings have been corrupted from its original intention.

My miseducation had misdirected my expectations when I was in Konya visiting Rumi’s tomb. He died here in the 13th century when this part of Turkey was ruled by the Seljuks. The tomb is officially called the Mevlana Museum. Rumi, or in full Jalal Ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, was a teacher, a master, a Maulana. But the tomb was no museum. It is a major shrine. And the population of Konya, I was told, is deeply religious but in a different way.

Growing up as a Muslim in Malaysia with religious education pummeled into me early on with questions discouraged, I had come to think of shrines as something absolutely unorthodox, bordering cultish. The religious authority in Malaysia strongly discourages worshipping at shrines fearing it could lead to effective apostasy at worst. In Keramat in Kuala Lumpur, a Muslim shrine was removed by the government to prevent the Malays from visiting it. By a long shot, Malaysia is not Saudi Arabia. But some aspects of it could be felt.

Rumi's tomb

And so it was a sight to see people coming in droves into the large shrine praying in front of Rumi’s large heavy sarcophagus.

The stone coffin, itself under a massive tall green dome, is lifted off the ground by a set of four legs. I, a person whose understanding of Rumi had been divorced from the Islamic context and understanding of Islam must have had approached puritanism from the perspective of these devotees in this shrine, was dumbstruck by the religiousness surrounding me. I did not expect to be in a pilgrimage, but I found myself stuck inside one.

It was all around me. Old women in black dressing covered from head to toes without a veil prayed toward Rumi’s remains while tearing up. There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger… and Rumi the teacher. It was as if Rumi was a prophet himself. The Masnawi after all was nicknamed the Persian Koran. I was unprepared for this. Their devotion was true.

Many were determined to make their way to the front, pushing those in the way out harshly. A majority of them were Turks, but I spotted some Iranians too and other foreigners by listening to the language they spoke. They must have seen me as a nuisance, a foreigner standing in the way, not praying as they did.

As I observed, I came to disapprove what I saw. It was not so much due to my religious education, but rather due to the situation at hand. I can understand how holy the experience could be, but in the believers’ eagerness to reach for the scared, they pushed and shoved others in their way with a greediness and disrespect that should have no place in a holy place. The madness was understandable but disagreeable. It felt too worldly to deserve a place in this tomb beside the maulana.

I frowned each time I was pushed aside.

I felt angry but relented. If I needed to be patient, perhaps here inside the tomb was a place to practice patience. After all, I came with a secularized understanding of Rumi. I had no rights to judge them.

Personal Photography Travels

[2900] Shoot it, or not

The digital life is oppressive sometimes. Because we are now able to record every single second of our life, some of us are in constant fear leaving any moment left unrecorded. So much so that we have become slaves to our digital memory, and failed to enjoy the moment itself without any assistance lfrom our digital devices. I am hardly different, though I would like to think I try to fight off such urge.

To get to Antalya on the Turkish Mediterranean from Konya deep within Turkey, the bus I was on needed to pass through the Taurus Mountains. I have read about the Taurus Mountains as a child, just as I have read about the Urals, the Himalayas, the Andes and the Rockies. To be there in the Turkish plains seeing the mountain range with my own eyes was somewhat unbelievable upon reflection. The ten years old me whom had read about it in encyclopedia and on maps would have never imagined he would one day see it for himself.

Konya, as I learned latter, Iconium during the Roman days, is located at the foot of grand mountain ranges, with mountain peaks of names I do not know off without further research. As I spotted the various peaks from my hotel window, I told myself I wanted to know their names. I quickly abandoned the exercise for fear I would be prioritizing the wrong thing: I am here in Konya, and I should be experiencing it rather than researching about mountains on the horizon. It did not help that Wikipedia was banned in Turkey.

Looking north from my bed, I remember three peaks the most. The highest had its top covered with snow. It was December after all. The other two peaks were much shorter but located nearer to me, with cup-like shape turned upside down. All were barren, with earth exposed with rocks littered its cliff, at least as far as I could tell peeking through my camera’s viewfinder equipped with a small zoom lens, pretending I was some kind of explorers, readying for the mountains.

Looking north of Konya

Konya felt like it was on the edge of a desert, with a more mundane landscape compared to Goreme in Cappadocia with its deeply Christian history that reaches to more than 900 years back into history.

But the view from Konya was nothing compared to the view from the road towards Antalya to the southwest.

The journey began tamely. The road ran on flat land southward before swerving eastward into the Taurus. Taurus means the Bull in Latin, and the Bull is the symbol of the Storm God. The mountains were named so because the ancients believed the rains brought by the Storm God created the Tigris and the Euphrates, which originated from these mountains.

The approach towards the Taurus from Konya was not as dramatic as the one I experienced in Laos. Back there, the flat land would suddenly be confronted by the mighty Himalayas. Back in Vang Vieng in Laos, a wall of one, two, three or even four kilometer high would stare you down, enquiring the puny you of your rights to be there. Here at the foot of the Taurus, the ascend was gradual and it betrayed little early on. Maybe because, I was already within the mountain complex, except I did not realize it.

So I had my camera switched off, and kept tightly inside my bag as the bus began to work its way to the Mediterranean. As the bus climbed up gently, my view was kept in check by the hills on my sides. Except quite quickly, those hills on my sides soared up into the sky, suddenly transforming into mountains with snow caps. Shallow valleys became chasms, slopes became cliffs, and daytime turned dark as the mountains blocked the sun.

I knew my camera was in my bag. I wanted to take them out. I really did. But in my mind, if I did so, I would miss something with my own eyes. And each corner revealed even more dramatic view, and even higher mountains out in the distance, and they would vanish within seconds as the trees and the rocks and the hills moved around, blocking my lines of sight. I dared not spend a minute taking my camera out. I could not take it.

And… I took my camera out and began shooting from my seat.

The pictures turned out crappy. But the memory in my head turned out just fine. Maybe for the next 30 or 50 years. We will see.

Economics Photography Society

[2868] The last Banton boatmakers

I consider myself lucky. I have gotten enough education opportunities to ride on the benefits of globalization and technological changes. So big are the benefits I have reaped that I think I could travel around the world tomorrow if I wanted to without worrying too much about my financial obligations back home. If I lost my job somehow, I could afford to enjoy my unemployment as a short holiday and more importantly, I could get another good job in Malaysia or elsewhere with the skills, the connection and qualification I have. My social capital and wealth are great enough to tide me through such difficulties.

But the same modernization can be unkind to others. Not everybody benefits from such changes. Some are unequipped to ride the waves with the same education paths available to me. Worse, the wave could smash and sink whatever raft they are on. That fact sometimes makes me feel guilty of living the life I live now.

The last time that guilt hit me hard was when I found myself on the side of the Irrawaddy in Mandalay several years back. I remember walking by a shanty town where homes were haphazardly built along the river, with no access to clean water. There was no sanitation. The people lived in wooden homes on stilts with pigsty below. Trash of various kinds could be found everywhere and some children no older than ten would play happily among flies, fleas and maggots, contend with their small world simply for not knowing any better. I have seen how poverty looks like before but the kind in that Mandalay village is by far the worst kind I have ever witnessed.

I felt guilty just for being luckier than them, just for doing much, much better than them economically.

That feeling re-emerged recently as I travelled through southern Thailand for work. The Deep South as the Thais call it is a Malay heartland, just as how northern Malaysia is. The people on both sides of the border, more so on the east coast, have cultural ties restricted by the logic of modern states.

Somewhere by the beach in northern Narathiwat, the province that borders Kelantan to the south and Pattani to the north, is a village called Naim. There is a traditional Malay boatmaker aged in his 50s working hard to meet his orders. The only additional hands he gets are his son’s aged 20.

Ten or twenty years ago, he claims there were about 20 boatmakers on the same beach. Today, he and his son are the only ones left. So few are the traditional builders throughout southern Thailand that he is busy for the next four years meeting whatever demand that exists. It takes about four months to finish a boat, and by that account, he should have 12 boats to build.

The traditional boats he produces are magnificent. Made out of wood, they are 20-30 meters long. He uses modern tools to saw off wooden plank, before shaping and carving them. During my visit to his workshop, he and his son were working on the bottom most part of the boat, which had holes drilled into the sides and wooden studs jutting out of it.

The final stage of boatmaking involves painting the boat in bright contrasting colors, making the intricate pattern drawn on its body impossible to miss on land and in the sea. I would later visit Pattani located farther north and I found similar boats floating on the river that cuts through the city. An former MP for Narathiwat told me even the painters are a dying breed.

The modern economy has made traditional boat building an unlucrative business. It takes about BHT300,000 to make a boat, with the labor share of the cost being very small. Obtaining capital to finance the boat is also very difficult and the boatmaker complained nobody has helped him to keep the trade alive.

He also told me nobody wanted to become an apprentice anymore because of great sacrifices required. Apprentices are usually, or more accurately were, taken in young. Doing so today would mean missing out school days and missing out school would mean limiting one’s economic opportunity to escape poverty and rise up the social ladder. And the people in the village are largely poor living in their wooden homes and riding their motorcycles. Many live in wooden shacks in fact that could be mistaken as having been abandoned. One could get modern education and try to integrate with the modern changing economy, or risk one’s life making traditional boat for local fishermen, who themselves likely unable to compete with larger boats with deep sea capability, at a time when fishing stock is depleting regionally.

Boat building is a heritage of this part of the world. And he and his son are among the last of Narathiwat boatmakers. They are the last of traditional boatmakers on Banton beach.

And the same economic setup I am benefiting is killing that beautiful boatmaking culture. The importance of modern education is taking labor away from this trade, a trade that is a public good.


[2854] Oh hello again Sarawak

Photography Politics & government

[2843] Comrade Takashimaya

I love this kind of contrast.

Within Southeast Asia, it is at its starkest in Vietnam.

I have been to Laos with its own nominally communist government. The hammer and the sickle would adorn lamp posts and facades in Vientianne and Luang Prabang, reminding tourists and locals alike the insecurity of those in power. But deep in the Mekong heartland, commercialization is still at its infancy, rugged and all. There are contrasts, but not like how it is in Vietnam, where consumerism is embraced wholeheartedly decades after American troops were chased out, sparking Malaysia’s first refugee crisis.

Malaysia received those Vietnamese refugees about 30-40 years ago, unwillingly. They are grateful to us, it seems, regardless of our intention.

Not much has changed today as Malaysia experiences its third refugee crisis, the second, I think, being the one caused by the civil war in southern Philippines. This time around, the new refugees from Myanmar are just a political football game to be played by the corrupt.