Thursday, 4 December 2014

Malaysia Notebook 3 December:
Meeting the Diana Ross of the Mah Meri,
discovering the sky at the Straits

We breakfast in on the items we bought in Bangsar Village - some cereal, a water melon, a few bananas, some very nice if expensive bread and some cream cheese. There is a kitchen below but we are unlikely to make much use of it. Afterwards I return to our dim lit room to write yesterday's post until eventually it's time for lunch.

It's about ten minutes walk down to the shops to Antipodean, the cafe / restaurant where our daughter's friend took us for coffee. No sign of Snow this time. We order blended iced drinks with fruit and vegetables. I see paprika chicken on the menu and, just because I am curious as to what a Malaysian version of a Hungarian meal tastes like, I order it. It is nothing like Hungarian of course, more a kind of satay with a side dressing of beans. Very nice but not much taste of paprika. That's not a disappointmentI, it is an education, a perfect embodiment of Steiner's notion of modified meaning. (You ask for bread in different languages and you get bread but not the same bread). It would be different paprika, of course. There are many waiters for a small restaurant, each young, t-shirted and anxious to please. Outside it is building up for what promises to be a proper monsoon. On the way out the proprietor, a tall friendly looking Australian, asks us if we have umbrellas. We do. It begins to rain as we walk back. There are two cockerels on the pavement chasing in and out of yards. A man notes us on the hill and cheerfully remarks on the weather. There may be a lot of rain with plenty to come but we are slowly developing tans. The storm doesn't materialise.

In the afternoon we take a drive with Eddin and Pauline down to Pulau Carey to visit the Mah Meri people, one of eighteen (or nineteen, depending on sources) of indigenous people remaining on the island, each of them here tens of thousands of years before anyone else. Eddin and Pauline's organisation, Pusaka, exists to support them and their cultures. The drive takes little over an hour or so. Most of it is down four or five line carriageways, past apparently isolated, miserable looking high-rise estates that remind Clarissa of Kiefer's Monumenta. Eventually we turn off down smaller roads with ranks of palm oil farms and tiny kampungs or villages (pretty much like this) , or just a few stray houses in clearings, and find our way to Pulau Carey and the centre.

Rashid Esa at centre. Refreshments.

The centre is run by a remarkable man, Rashid Esa. Once upon a time he worked in IT then he threw it in and started walking. He walked across India, he walked the Silk Route, he walked to meet the Mujahideen, and to meet (successfully) the Dalai Lama then he found a hut - or built it - in a jungle kampung in Malaysia and lived there fifteen years. He shows us round the place. Many others have written about visiting the Mah Meri at Pulau Carey and their accounts are available elsewhere (for example here and here). When modern people visit indigenous people they describe what they see and look to catch them performing rituals and dances and crafts, which is understandable and even admirable in some ways. I feel a little awkward about it, if only because life isn't a performance and what shows is only part of what is.

Rashid is fully aware of this. He talks quietly. He dwells on Mah Meri secrecy, their several languages, the DNA, the relationship between men and women (the women considered to be equal). He talks of marriage, of sex, of the importance of boats as dwellings, of fishing, of animism and the absence of the concept of beauty. The dream life is as real is the waking life. Trance is part of ritual. The masks and figures they carve are associated with healing and are evocations of powers as dreamt. Beside the masks there is the palm leaf origami woven by the women into ornate crowns, wands, tokens, and skirts. The secrecy extends to the names. Names are taken on, so one girl in the tribe has adopeted the name Diana Ross. We meet her. She is a pretty, modern girl with a slight pout. She is responsible for selling the objects the tribe produces and which is a source of extra income for them. Not that they save the money: it goes as soon as earned. Their number system extends to the figure three.

These contradictions of living a life that, in one way, is ancient, that keeps very much to itself and rejects modernity but which, at the same time, accommodates itself to motorbikes (a red one is parked in one of the huts), amplifiers and various mod cons, are like a fog through which it is hard to see anyone. Who actually is 'Diana Ross'? What is she thinking or feeling? What does she do the rest of the time? Why be 'Diana Ross' at all? She can't be more than eighteen at most. We don't see many of the tribe around but someone is playing an instrument through an expensive wrecked amp. The tribe don't live in the centre, of course, but come in to make things and sell them. Their relationship with Rashid, he tells us, is one of distrust. He has enemies who will take tea or coffee with him.

Impossible not to admire and like Rashid. This has been his dedication and is his life. He persuaded the government to fund the building of the centre but they never asked him what it should look like. He was not consulted. The money went to the developer who put up groups of standard  concrete exhibition spaces and work huts ('losing' some of the money along the way so the open-air  auditorium part isn't finished). In appearance it is like any official idea of a 'heritage site'. The structure is ornamented with some bits of palm origami but it is clearly a product of cultural policy. No wonder the Mah Meri feel suspicious of it. They'd be suspicious of anything to being with.

The first thing I see on entering the centre is what remains with me. In the workshop immediately to the left of the entrance sits an old man. He has made a large 'tiger' representation and there is a smaller part-finished version nearby. He regards us without expression. He does not acknowledge or smile. But then I see his face isn't entirely expressionless. What I see there is a barely disguised disgust. I don't blame him. 'Diana Ross' is a mask too. The Mah Meri are expert mask makers.


Afterwards we drive down to the coast. The road is tarmaced, narrow, with the occasional house either side of it. A drunk man is being helped by his family or friends. One keeps slapping him on the back. Stray dogs (are they stray?) meander or flop or chase each other. They look like miniature deer, slender to the point of starvation, their heads pointed, their ears large. They are almost spirit, graceful and unconcerned about passing cars. Two capuchin monkeys appear in the way and scamper off. Right ahead of us the sun is rapidly falling through the sky. The clouds are complex, grandiose. The moon, almost full, is high and behind us. Then we arrive at the Straits and the sky goes into dazzling overdrive. It is so dramatic, so shifting, so pure it is irresistible. We take out our cameras and point at it. Here is a sample among many.

 Here is the water..

One man is fishing or gathering up nets. A small cormorant-like bird slips across the surface and lands on a stump rising from the water. The dogs lollop down and investigate something at the water's edge. A man a few yards away is reading a book in the fading light. Later his car roars past us back into settled territory. We stop at an enormous hangar of a basic restaurant to taste delicious fresh fish and crab while discussing our impressions of Singapore. The trouble with Singapore, says Eddin, is that it's a country of nerds. I consider the idea but am sleepy by now and fall asleep in the car like an old man. It's true I slept only two and a half hours the last night but I still feel ashamed of it. Once back in the house I quickly enter the kind of sleep out of which no animistic dreams emerge. I couldn't carve it. I can't remember it.

1 comment:

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

Thanks to the internet, we are all nerds these days - whether we want to be or not. My wife was one of the first people on Facebook and had one 'friend'. Look at it now!

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish