By Allan Yap & Nigel A. Skelchy
By Karim Raslan
Published on August 20, 2002
The Holy Koran opens with the words “Bismillah Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim” – “In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, The Compassionate.” The immortal phrase follows you wherever you are in the Islamic world – it’s inscribed on the walls of mosques and homes and yet very few people, let alone believers actually stop to consider its meaning.
Clearly, forgiveness is an integral part of Islam’s timeless message and the prominence with which these two qualities – mercy and compassion have been singled out from the Ninety-nine names of Allah has, over the centuries provided a source of reassurance and solace for believers.
But man is flawed and all too often practitioners have been anything but ‘forgiving’. Instead, faith and belief is reduced to little more than a list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. In fact, contemporary Islamic practices in the Middle East (and especially the vein associated with Wahabism) appear to have sidelined the idea of forgiveness. Public debate – the Friday khutbah or sermon concentrates almost exclusively on transgression, on sin and on the suitability of punishment. Ritual has become all-important, assuming precedence along with a series of nasty ‘fire and brimstone’ lectures delivered by men (and occasionally women) who have no comprehension of humanity or a capacity for compassion.
However, the capacity to forgive and to be compassionate has not been entirely forsaken. Faith – true faith – can and does flourish in adversity, manifesting itself in the strangest places. Last month, in the heart Surabaya’s grimy, red-light district of Bangunsari – just ten minutes away from the bustling port of Tanjung Priok, I came across an understated couple who showed me – without realizing it themselves, that man hadn’t entirely failed to live up to the powerful and persuasive message.
Ustaz Khoirun with Suparti and Titin, photo by Rama Surya, Surabaya
Ustaz Khoiron and his wife Roudatul possess the quiet confidence of those who are truly religious. They are comfortable in themselves, they know that actions spoke louder than words: they don’t need to show off or pontificate.
I knew they were unusual even before I’d met them. I’d heard about the work they were doing in the lokalasasi (a designated area set aside for prostitution) – about the two schools they’d set up, the prayer classes and the ceramahs they organized as well as the impressive thirty-three meter high minaret that Khoiron had recently added to the local mosque. Located at the entrance to the lokalasasi, on the lane that brought many of the clients and ‘johns’ to Bangunsari, the Masjid al-Fatah’s striking minaret was an indication of the area’s growing sobriety: the encroaching world of the middle classes. Khoiron had also pointed out and proudly the small library alongside the mosque. In the evenings the building was as lively as one of the whorehouses, crammed with youngsters who had nowhere else to go.
Still, it took a simple and unexpected gesture by the forty-one year old Khoiron before I really sat up and took notice. At the time, I was observing a ceramah that Khoiron and a local community leader, Gusrianto arranged every Friday afternoon for the neighbourhood’s prostitutes. One of the girls (Linda, a 29-year old from Jember) had just completed a heart-felt, if halting recitation from al-Nisar, (The Women) the fourth Surah of the Holy Koran. Her voice was hoarse and her throat was obviously dry. Just then, Khoiron leant forward to offer her a small plastic container of water.
It was ingenuous act. However, given the woman’s profession his thoughtfulness was almost shocking. Most ustaz’s I knew would have been disgusted and appalled to have been in the presence of so many prostitutes even though all fifty of women were dressed demurely. But, for Khoiron, the women were a challenge. They were his challenge. Somehow, they gave him justification: they were his target – his objective: he wanted to win them over.
Later when I talked to Roudatul at their small home, I began to get a sense of the passion that had propelled the couple. Roudatul was thirty-three years old and despite the seedy environment she was always generous with her smiles. She wore a hejab, albeit casually. Still, the plain, white material couldn’t quite hide the beauty of her warm, guileless face. She cradled her youngest son in her arms as we talked.
“Khoiron and I had an arranged marriage. I was a pesantren girl – ten years studying at Bangil. I certainly didn’t know I was going to end up living in an area like this! I was so upset when I first arrived: I was angry and embarrassed. The prostitutes were right outside the house! They were everywhere. But later I realized that this is ‘my’ battle. I wouldn’t move anywhere else now: you must help people and we – Khoiron and I – must help these women to change their ways.”
The forty-one year old, Nahdatul Ullama ustaz Khoiron laughs when I ask him about his work in the lokalasasi. He’s a handsome man: darker than his wife and well built. He has a firm handshake and an easy manner: like a businessman. As we talk, there are moments when he looks slightly Arabic. This is not altogether surprising given the Pesisir’s (the north coast of Java’s) strong historical and cultural links with the Arab peninsular and the Hadramaut in particular.
“Can you imagine how bored I’d be if I was living in a quiet little community surrounded by santri (or religious students)? When I first started here, twenty-five years ago there were three thousand girls. Now there are only 900. You ask anyone about Bangunsari! It’s so close to the port and full of seamen. It was notorious!
“From a philosophical viewpoint we must remember that Allah is very loving. He gives food and drink to all men and women: good and bad. Who am I to judge? Who am I to say you’re evil or you’re good? My responsibility is straightforward: I must win the people over. Besides, if everyone was good I’d have nothing to do!”
The girls listening to Ustaz Khoirun's talk, photo by Rama Surya, Surabaya
Living in a tiny house along a narrow gang (or lane) in the middle of Bangunsari, Khoiron’s home is little different from the girlie bars that surround him, except that there is mushollah (a small prayer hall) on the first floor. The family is clearly industrious and hardworking. His mother who still wears a tightly wrapped traditional Javanese baju kebaya every day runs a small warung and his wife supplements her income with a Wartel (a telephone store). Otherwise the ustaz’s home is essentially as simple as his neighbours’.
The Nahdatul Ullama does not support individual ustaz’s: the families are on their own. Essentially, they depend on the surrounding communities for their livelihood. As a result Khoiron earns his income by giving ceramahs, officiating at weddings and even accompanying pilgrims to Mecca. His wife also organizes religious classes for over six hundred children every week: the parents pay Rp2,000 (RM1) per child per month. The house shudders when the kids dash up the external staircase to reach the mushollah. Their shrieking is almost deafening but Roudatul is so used to it she’s says she’d miss the commotion if it were to stop.
Every Friday afternoon, Khoiron and the local community leader arrange a small ceramah for the prostitutes. The location is neutral: the hall nearby – not the mosque. Having followed Khoiron as he walks through the lanes of the lokalasasi and watched him talking to the women I know the ceramah will be interesting. He is polite with them, respectful even. He smiles and says hello. He doesn’t treat them disdainfully and they respond positively to his manner.
As M’bak Yah a prostitute in her forties says of Khoiron: “He’s a good man. He treats us decently. I like his ceramahs – lots of us go. He isn’t proud or haughty. He encourages us to go home to our families.”
By Allan Yap & Nigel A. Skelchy
At first glance, the title given to this post seems contradictory. Paradoxical almost.
But after having watched "Gubra" you know that the 3 can perfectly coexist.
"Gubra" is a film that finally restores my faith in the potential of Malaysian cinema as well as, dare I say it, Malaysians in general.
I had the fortune of sitting next to a doyen of Malaysian cinema at a dinner party not too long ago and we had an amazing conversation. Datuk L. Krishnan has directed more films than I know during the 50s and 60s and spoke with conviction when he said "I keep telling these fellows to produce MalaySIAN movies, not just Malay movies."
Never was a truer word spoken.
And yesterday, I had the privilege of watching a true MalaySIAN film which entertained, tugged at your heart strings, made you laugh, made you cry, and made you believe that the best in our society is out there.
From the beginning, Gubra was a film that took risks. A Muezzin who pets a dog, which must be shocking (but watch what happens when the dog "walks" off) to our more fundamental brothers, a bare (but cute) bum flapping in the wind along with the hospital robe, pork being chopped in an ostensibly Malay film, penis jokes, Muslims who looked the part of "Koran" Thumpers but subscribed to the best part of Islam, a devout muslim couple who took time to make space in their lives for a couple of prostitutes, a meaningful loving hug for an HIV positive person who rejects it at first, a delicate discussion about non-Malays in our society ("Sometimes I wonder if you guys realise how hard it is for the rest of us to live here. It’s like being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back."), and most of all a juxtaposition of prayers which for once highlights the similarities between Christianity and Islam.
I've always believed that being brothers of the Book, Christians and Muslims have had their faiths hijacked by vocally aggressive fanatics who have no compassion or mercy or love. And for faiths that are 99% similar in preaching peace, brotherly love, truth, honesty, and compassion, those same vocally aggressive fanatics also set the agenda for discussing, arguing, fighting, and warring over that 1% of difference. A difference that can be attributed to nothing more than differences of understanding the same message.
From the opening scenes right up to the closing and the surprise ending (after the credits) I was marvelling at the humour, the heart, and the outright talent of Malaysian filmmakers and actors. "Gubra" articulated the best in our people. Fancy that, a film that makes me say "our people" without hesitation. This film made me proud to be a Malaysian. It just goes to prove, that with heart and passion, Malaysians are capable of being the best of the best.
I can't encourage, urge, coerce, or push everyone enough to go and see this stand alone sequel to "Sepet."
In the words of Jellaludin Rumi, which is flashed onto the screen at the end of the film, "The lamps are different but the Light is the same."
Well done, Aunty Yasmin!
By Allan Yap & Nigel A. Skelchy
Many years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Champagne region of France during a school break. Those were the heady days of RM3.80 to the £1. No visas were required, so it was literally a hop, skip, and a jump by ferry over to Calais one Bank Holiday weekend with two friends. My Greek buddy, an American friend, and I picked up a Pug (a Peugeot 305) in Calais and drove down to Paris through the Champagne district of France.
It was the first time I ever drove a Left Hand Drive car. I didn't really have any problems and it was late spring/early summer. The weather was, as they say in "Famous Five" books, glorious! Just the type of day for a picnic with bags of tomatoes and lashings of ginger beer!
I sorta had a thing for this Greek guy. So it made it all the more interesting. His name was Angelos. He had these really intense Meditteranean eyes and that accent...
Of course, I wasn't out yet, so had to yearn after him in private. It didn't help that he was very affectionate. He used to have his arm around me all the time. I put that down to the European in him. But then on some mornings to wake me up, he'd climb in to bed with and cuddle. Years later I actually wondered if maybe he was trying to tell me something. It was sort of a lesson I learnt; never miss an opportunity!
Anyway, I digress.
The sun was shining, the breeze was balmy, and we were in our late teens, early twenties. We thought we were such hot shit! NEXT was the big mid range clothing store of the day and bright jumpers, baggy pants ala Duran Duran/New Romantics were the rage.
We drove into Reims, parked and proceeded to be tourists. First, we visited Reims Cathedral, a gorgeous gothic icon. Next we visited the House of Pommery. A very popular brand of champagne then and now. They had these magnificent chalk cellars left behind by the Romans which keep a constant temperature year round. Although I doubt Methode Champenoise was invented then!
After that, we went to Moët & Chandon. As we were being taken round, by the resident tour guide who was also one of the employees of Moët, I noticed he kept on closing out the 'O' and pronouncing the 'T' of 'Moët.' Sort of like 'Mo-wett." I of course, being the impatient soul I am asked him about this, because the French don't usually pronounce the 'T's', and I had always thought it was pronounce 'Moh-ayy.'
He explained that Claude Moët was a French citizen but that his family was originally from the Netherlands. So Moët was actually a Dutch name. Hence the pronounciation 'Mo-ett' with the hard 'T'.
I blogged this because in the last 2 days I've heard numerous people pronouncing 'Moët' 'Mo-ayy.' And me being the infinitely curious soul I am, had to do a bit of searching to confirm my suspicions. Call it my bit of OCD. I can't stand NOT knowing. So, I headed over to Google and this entry came up on Wikipedia;
"Commonly mispronounced "mō-way", the actual pronunciation is "mo-wett". Moët is indeed French champagne, but it is spelled with a diaeresis, and this is where the confusion lies. Claude Moët was born in France in 1683; however, his name is not French, it is Dutch."
In any case, the subsequent drive to Paris was every bit as exciting as every tour book, and everyone said it would be. We lounged at cafes, picked up baguettes to eat with ripe Brie and Camembert along the River Seine. Ate at underground French bistros serving rustic French food, and of course, to wash it all down, straight from the bottle, sans glasses or cups, our "Mo-ett."