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.

Personal Society

[2852] Two policemen and a migrant worker

Some time back in 2015, I walked down to the train station after having a late meal in Bangsar. It was almost an hour to midnight and I did not want to miss the last train home. It usually takes about 15 to 20 minutes to get to the Bangsar train station from Jalan Telawi by foot, and the train stops running close to midnight.

I remember jaywalking across Jalan Maarof and then strolling down to near the bottom of the street, before turning into the slip road into a smaller and less busy Lorong Maarof.

It was there where I saw two officers, one standing and another sitting on his motorcycle, interrogating what seemed to be a migrant worker by the road. The worker was of South Asian origin, I think.

It was somewhat dark in the area. The road was lit with orange light, making the night felt quiet and lonely. There is something about orange light emitted from fluorescent lamp. It makes a street feels mysterious, if not sinister. The sound of cars zooming by, speeding beyond the speed limits, made the atmosphere all the more isolating. Nobody on the main road would care or notice anything if something happened.

I walked closer toward the three men while wishing I was already in my bed. I had to walk pass them to get to the train station. It was the shortest distance available to me.

I was tired, but my eyes were fixed on the three. But the fact that there were two police officers and a migrant worker there did not quite register in my mind. I observed with my senses, but my mind saw nothing. My mind was that absent security officer snoozing at night in front of the countless screens in the central CCTV room. The cameras were recording, but nobody was watching.

The officers did not notice me, until I was right next to them. They were startled by the sound of my footsteps. There was almost fear in their eyes, in contrast to the South Asian person’s blank expression.

I did not comprehend what was going on but I noticed an officer was forcing his hand into the Bangladeshi’s pants pocket, taking out a wallet. I had a sense that that was inappropriate.

I understand everything now in retrospection. If you asked me what was the expression on the Bangladeshi’s face, I now would be tempted to claim that it was an expression of resignation. It was an expression that said, tonight, I was being unlucky.

I looked at the officers, but I walked on as my mind slipped further into some of kind delirium. I was a zombie, for all I care. I was both aware and unaware at the same time.

That was until the bright white light at the train station jolted my mind out of its slumbering state. Already used to the low energy orange light, the eyes screamed in pain while adjusting to the high-frequency, high-energy LED white light. The announcement blaring through the PA system made a good alarm clock, even as apart of me felt that I wanted to disobey its instruction.

By the time I boarded the train and was zooming across Kuala Lumpur, I was fully awake. White light filled the largely empty two-car carriage. I wish they had dimmed the lights.

The train runs on a viaduct from Bangsar to just after the Central Market in downtown Kuala Lumpur. Then it dives into a long dark tunnel, making repetitive whooshing sound as the train compresses the air against the concrete wall of the tube. It was at that moment, as train rushed underneath the city that I began to consider things that I saw.

It did not take long for me to suspect that the two officers were extorting the migrant workers for money. I have no proof of it happening, except for my memory and suspicion.

I am telling this story today because yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister, who is also the Home Minister in charge of the police, said that “Amalan mengutip ‘duit pau’ untuk perlindungan dalam kalangan agensi penguat kuasa sudah lama berlalu.” In Malay, in short, the police does not do extortion, anymore.[1]

Anymore, he said. Should I believe him?

Back in the train, I was filled with regrets, asking myself what if I had stopped and asked questions to the officers. I asked, if I had realized it earlier there and then, what would I do? Would I do what was right? I remember wondering, the degree of corruption in our society.

The train emerged from the tunnel just before the Ampang Park station. The swooshing sound was replaced with a cool humming.

It was dark outside. It was midnight, and I was leaving the last train.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[4] Amalan mengutip ‘duit pau’ atau habuan untuk perlindungan dalam kalangan agensi penguat kuasa sudah lama berlalu, kata Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. Bagaimanapun, Timbalan Perdana Menteri berkata, gejala rasuah itu masih menular kononnya menanggung perbelanjaan ‘meraikan’ pegawai atasan yang turun melawat anggota bawahan, khususnya di peringkat daerah. “Ini alasan tidak cerdik kerana bercanggah dengan pendirian anggota penguat kuasa yang diberi amanah untuk memikul tanggungjawab melindungi negara dan masyarakat. “Tindakan pegawai atasan membuli anggota bawahan juga perlu dihentikan kerana amalan ini menjurus kepada perlakuan menghalalkan rasuah dalam kalangan unit beruniform. [Mohd Iskandar Ibrahim. Farah Mashita Abdul Patah. Luqman Arif Abdul Karim. Ahmad Suhael Adnan. Era polis ‘pau’ duit perlindungan sudah berlalu – Zahid. Berita Harian. May 21 2017]


[2845] A generous migrant worker

I just got off work. I just got off the train. The sun was coming down and the tropical heat was subsiding.

The train station is not that far away from home and so I decided to walk home instead of getting on a bus or calling a cab.

I was not feeling that hungry but I figured, maybe I should get something light just in case. There was a Monday market nearby. I made a detour, looking for something I could munch on later at home.

The entrance was a narrow pathway with brick walls on both sides leading into a small square. Narrow, only because food vendors set up their stall on one side of the wall. They sold noodles, fruits, nasi goreng and other items typical in this corner of Asia.

Several beggars lined up along the opposite wall. The passing crowd had to navigate between the stalls, the beggars and those who stopped in the middle of the path, deciding what to buy, apparently oblivious to the foot traffic and the space constraint.

A blind old Malay man sat on an old worn tool wearing a white skull cap, ignored by the crowd. A foreign woman, possibly a Bangladeshi, in her Muslim headscarf, sat on the pavement with her palms extended out, not far from the old man. Her eyes looked down, seemed too ashamed to look up into the eyes of others. A kid, with lines on his face, sat farther away, hoping for a stranger’s generosity by selling ersatz serviette that nobody really needed.

I have been here before and I did not think much of the crowd, or the begging men and women. I was tired. I went on with my business. I walked past the crowd at the entrance, made a quick circuit in the square before deciding on a cheap meehoon for slightly more than three ringgit, packed in a white polystyrene container, apparently banned now. The seller placed the container into a flimsy red plastic bag before handing it to me. I said my thanks and he gave me a weak smile.

I headed out, passing the several beggars I mentioned earlier.

On my way out, a migrant worker was walking in. He stopped, reached out from his torn and worn wallet and pulled out a ringgit for the blind old Malay man on the stool. It did not look like he could afford to be generous, but he was generous to the old man anyway.

I walked on. I was tired and I wanted to get home as quickly as possible.

Halfway to home, walking up the hill, I slowed my pace. A sense of guilt filled my being. I felt so ashamed.

I felt ashamed for the rest of the day.

I wish I had pulled a note or two for those men and women. But no I did not.

Liberty Personal Society

[2762] Of paternalistic announcement that comes with an echo

Hearing voices announcing something over the loudspeakers in public spaces makes me uncomfortable. It gives me the feeling that somebody is watching me and worse, the unknown person is giving me an order. The automatic reaction by the libertarian in me is to question and resist, even if the announcement makes sense.

Most announcements in KL Sentral, Kuala Lumpur’s Grand Union Station with its wide atrium, are harmless. Please let the passengers on-board get off the train first. Please watch your belongings. Please watch your step.

Judging by how some people refuse to wait for others to get out of the train before getting in, it feels like I am not the only trying to resist the announcement…

But from time to time it gets a little suspicious. Come join us for the F1 racing this weekend in Sepang! Drink this coffee.

No, I do not want to watch the F1 under the tropical sun. No, I do not like your coffee.

Yes, they are advertorials telling you to buy something that you do not need.

One time in a train car, a “refresher” would spray a scent of a particular brand of quick canned coffee into the enclosed air. There was no way for me to run, except getting out of the train. The advertisement campaign assaulted not only my eardrums but my olfactory organ too.

I learned to identify which train cars were installed with the horrible refresher and refused to ride on it, preferring to wait for better smelling train sets. It was not hard to know which was which. Oh, that is the car with the horrible smell of coffee. Oh, that is the coffee Wonda train car! I will let the train go for a better smelling one.

The PA system does have it uses. Sometimes, when the trains break down, the announcement helps. But at other times, all the gentle reminders — in London, I think it is “Mind the gap” in New York, “Stand clear of the closing door, please” or was it in California with its BART? I do not remember. In Paris, well, the Parisian Metro is unique with its chime ”na-na-na-na” — are definitely a hint of paternalism. It is a kind of soft paternalism that almost everybody ignores but at its heart is that suffocating authoritarian worldview.

The cavernous badly lit KL Sentral exacerbates, as with any cavernous building would, the sensation with that slight echo that follows the initial sound wave.

Growing up Malaysia, I quickly associate loudspeakers and echoes with Islam. The calls to prayer, the azan, are familiar and with so many mosques around, it can be maddeningly incomprehensible and downright annoying. In this country, expressing dissatisfaction against the competition between mosques for the loudest azan prize can bring trouble as the overly sensitive conservatives ignore comprehension of the azan recital in favor of noise. The louder the azans, the sermons, speeches and readings, the louder will the echoes be.

The echoes give the idea that god the supreme being is speaking to you. This is not just me feeling it and writing crap theory. Switch on the TV or the radio when an Islamic program is up in the air and you can hear how the editors use the echo effect whenever a verse from the Koran is read. In a more adventurous unorthodox Islamic program — I think it was Imam Muda where judges look for the best “Islamic idol” (just like the American Idol!) — an echo would accompany the contestants when he or she read a Koranic verse. So, there is something holy about the echoes.

My travels across Southeast Asia have made me realized the role of echoes in depicting something as holy is not limited just to Islam. I stayed for a week in an alley in Mandalay, Myanmar. At the top of the short alley is the Ein Daw Yar Pagoda. The Buddhist chanting I heard every morning and in the evening through its PA system was, forgive me for the neologism, echorized. It sounded like a prerecorded mantra chanting. I could hear the word amitaba through the artificial echo and among the unrecognizable words. And there was also echo in traditional Christian chanting from the mediaeval times as they sang in their tall cathedrals.

Religion, either god himself (herself for the feminist?) or the institution is an authority, I suppose sociologically, rightly or wrongly. The echo is a signifier of holy authority.

Holy and authority. Those are two of my favorite things.

And so I come back to KL Sentral with its banal announcements along with its echoes.

The libertarian is clenching a fist, but with only four fingers closed.