Monday, June 29, 2015

Iftar in the Little Red Dot down south

I have previously written that the most significant event by which I mark the passage of time is the coming of the holy month of Ramadhan. Not my birthday or my wedding anniversary, but the arrival of the fasting month every year.

Tonight we are already entering the 13th day of Ramadhan of the Hijri year 1436. I have yet to put up a post to mark the occasion. So I guess I'd better squeeze in something before the month of June leaves us. Otherwise this effort of blog revival would not seem serious enough.

Last Saturday, I made a trip across the Causeway to the Little Red Dot to visit my parents. That's what some people call the tiny island nation of Singapore. I kid you not... just google those 3 words and the search engine will give you the city-state as the top result.

My mother is actually at the National University Hospital, recovering from a heart attack that occurred the previous Saturday. She is now in the normal ward after being in the ICU for 6 days. Alhamdulillah, she seems to be getting better although, for such an ailment to befall any senior citizen of her age, the overall effect of the attack is yet to be ascertained. Nonetheless, there is much we can be grateful for and to continue with our prayers.

Since mom is not at home, I had to look for somewhere to break my fast. Small matter actually. After about two hours of keeping mom company, I headed out to the old Masjid Hajjah Fatimah at the Beach Road area of downtown Singapore. My father is presently there on part-time duty as a muezzin (bilal, in Malay). In fact nowadays, he spends most of his time at this particular mosque, which is quite a distance from where he lives in Bukit Batok. There is another mosque just across the apartment block of his house, Masjid Ar-Raudah, but he still prefers the travel to Hajjah Fatimah, even though it means taking two different bus routes to get there. I don't have to ask him why, because I can well guess the answer. Sentimental reasons. Beach Road (or more accurately Kampung Glam) is the area where he grew up. No doubt, the kampung house of my late grandmother is no longer there but I'm pretty sure nothing beats the feeling of being in familiar surroundings of one's childhood days.

Masjid Hajjah Fatimah was built in 1846. Wow, that is a really long time ago. It is fairly small in size by modern standards but has unique architecture and historical connection. It is now a national monument of Singapore. One of the famous characteristic of this mosque is its leaning minaret, which is off-centre by 6 degrees.

While my father made the call for Maghrib prayer, which is also the indicator for the end of the daily fast, I sat down in the verandah together with other muslim brothers to break our fast. It was a simple meal of rice porridge plus mutton briyani served in a tray, to be shared at 4 persons to a tray. The meal was cooked in the mosque compound and paid for by donations from anonymous well-wishers. Simple and humble communal feasting at its best.

An old minaret surrounded by modern towers
Waiting for the time to break fast
Mutton briyani rice to be shared, with rice porridge for starters

Friday, May 29, 2015

Someone watching over me (Part 4 and Final)

Headnote : This is the 4th and final part of a short story that took too long to complete. The preceding parts can be read at the following links -> Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

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'I am so sorry… I didn’t know Amir has departed. I wish I had tried to look for the both of you much sooner.'

‘Now don’t be,’ my host graciously replied. ‘You couldn’t have known. It all happened quite suddenly, you know. My husband was out back tending to his favoured orchids when he collapsed. I was in the kitchen then, making him some tea. I heard something fall but wasn’t sure what it was, so I called out to him. When he did not reply, I came out to have a look. That’s when I saw him lying on the ground and his body jerking all over.’

She paused for a while. Her head was turned towards the orchid garden located at the rear of the sprawling compound, indicating to me where the incident occurred. We were sitting in the spacious verandah which the husband had built with his own hands. It was late afternoon of a bright and sunny day. A slight breeze was blowing and conditions were ideal for an afternoon nap, had it been different day. The verandah was constructed so that it faced open paddy fields, flat and green as far as the eye could see. In the distance, you could make out the balmy silhouette of Gunung Jerai, an imposing mountain overseeing acres of flat countryside. A truly magnificent view. I could well understand why my late friend had decided to uproot his city upbringing and settle down here. Indeed, it has become his final resting place.

My host turned back to me and continued, 'I was panicking at the time. I sought the help of some neighbours who took him to the hospital. He was there for one night but left us the following morning. Massive stroke, the doctor said. I informed as many of the relatives and friends as I could.’

She looked at me apologetically. 'I am sorry, I didn’t know how to get in touch with you. You went missing.’

It was my turn to say, ‘Don’t be. My fault.’

Amir and I had been very close friends while we were at university even though we studied different courses. We were housemates and shared many common interests, like movies and music. I was the best man at his wedding. I continued to be close to the couple for some time until their daughter was born. By that time, I was aspiring to start a family of my own but I wasn’t finding success in the courtship game. After two broken hearts, I took a job posting overseas and made myself oblivious to the happenings of friends or family back home. Two decades on, I decided to call it quits and come back. Amir and Maryam are the first friends in my Jejak Kasih list… and that’s why I am here now.

As I reminisce, a sweet young lady came to the verandah carrying a tray of hot tea and a plate of freshly-fried `cucur ikan bilis’ with some homemade chilli dip.

‘You remember this girl?’ Maryam asked me, as the young lady placed the refreshments on the table in front of us. She was of course, referring to their one and only daughter whom I last met when the girl was still a baby. Without waiting for my answer, she turned to address the girl, ‘Farah, this is the gentleman you have been asking about all those years ago. A very good friend of your father. The one in your baby photo where you’re sitting on his lap.’

I could see the young lady blushing. We exchanged pleasantries before she excused herself so that her mother and I could continue our conversation.

‘She’s all grown up now,’ I said. ‘How old is she? Twenty-one, twenty-two?’

Coming to twenty-three, her mother replied. ‘Amir told me that you were there during the time of her birth. And during the time when I was in that delicate state. I don’t think I had thanked you for keeping him company during that difficult time.’

I could have replied by saying that her thanks were not necessary, but kept silent because I could sense that she has more to say. There was a glint of tears at the corners of her eyes.

‘I had thought that my time has come. I would be leaving my husband and our little girl. But as you can see, it is Amir who has left us first.’ She wiped the tears from her eyes before they had a chance to fall down her cheeks.

‘I wish to tell you something… I hope you don’t mind. Something that happened during the time when I was in hospital. Except for Amir, I have not told this to anyone else. Not even to Farah.’

‘I don’t actually remember much of what happened during delivery. I must have passed out. But what I remember was the feeling of pain… intense pain. I really thought I was going to die. I kept praying to Allah Almighty… please, please take the pain away. Or if not, then please take me away. And then I remember the blankness. Cold and dark. And the pain came back again. It was like that, in cycles. I don’t know for how long.’

‘I thought I heard people whispering but all I could see were blurry figures. I thought some of the figures were beckoning me. I wanted to move and I wanted to speak but I couldn’t. And then it became dark and cold again.’

‘I heard a voice. A soft tone, not speaking but reciting. I recognized a phrase. Something familiar. “Salaamun kaullan mirabbir-rahim (peace, a word from a merciful Lord)”. Was I dreaming? I tried to open my eyes to see who was reciting those familiar lines… but I couldn’t. So I recited the words myself. Peace… and it felt peaceful, no longer that much pain. I think I drifted off to sleep.’

‘And then later, I don’t know how long, I heard the voice again. I fought hard to open my eyes. I saw a dim figure sitting by my bedside. When my eyes finally managed to focus, I saw that it was a middle-aged woman dressed in uniform. Not white like the other nurses but in light blue. She must be the head nurse or matron, I thought. She stopped her recitation when she saw me open my eyes. “Oh, you are awake,” I heard her say. “Praise be to Allah Almighty. They all thought you’ve gone, my dear… but I’m not one to be giving up so easily. I’m staying by your side until you come back.” I wanted to say thank you to her but my mouth just made mumbling sounds. She shushed me and told me to rest. “Go back to sleep, my dear. But don’t go too far. We’ll talk again tomorrow.” And I went back to sleep.’

‘The next day, or what I think to be the next day, I heard the soft voice again. This time I woke up quite easily and could see it was the matron of the night before. I manage to say the salaam and she replied in kind. I was able to speak a few words but she told me not to talk too much as I was still fairly weak. She then told me to continue to pray and be strong. Have the will to live, she said, because you have a beautiful daughter and a loving husband waiting for you at home. If you continue to recover like this, the doctors will let you go home in no time. It felt so wonderful to see a smiling face after those many hours of being in the dark and cold of nowhere. We chatted for a bit more before she advised me to go back to sleep. Before dozing off, I managed to look closely at the name-tag pinned to her uniform. Khadijah was her name. I managed to mumble a “Terima kasih, Kak Jah.” I heard her reply, “Sama-sama, Maryam” as she tucked me under the blanket and brushed my forehead with her nice warm hand.’

‘I finally recovered and later was allowed to go home where I saw my little girl for the first time. The most beautiful baby you’ll ever see. Amir told me that I had been in coma for five days. It was touch and go, he said. The doctors weren’t too confident that I would make it.’

‘I asked my husband to arrange to send some flowers to the hospital ward as a thank-you gift. On the accompanying card I wrote a brief note of appreciation to all the doctors and nurses for their good work. I made a special mention of gratitude to Matron Khadijah for being so kind and watching over me during the most trying period.’

‘A day after the flowers were sent, I got a call from the hospital. It was the Head Nurse who wanted to say that the flowers have been received. But she wanted to ask me something else. The matron by the name of Khadijah that I mentioned, could I describe her please? Well, I said, she’s middle-aged, slightly plump, fair skin, soft voice and the sweetest of smiles. Yes, that’s her, I heard the Head Nurse say. Well… if you know who she is, then why are you asking me?’

‘There was short silence. “Err… I’m sorry Puan Maryam, I’m just checking to be sure. Matron Khadijah is no longer with us.” What? I asked back. You mean she has resigned or retired? I just had a chat with her a few days ago.’

‘I heard the Head Nurse hesitating in her response. “Matron Khadijah works… err, I mean used to work with us. But she is no longer here. She died of breast cancer, five years ago…”’

Friday, May 15, 2015

In which state am I?

Cape (tanjung) or river mouth (kuala)?
Not in a confused state, I hope.

The above photo was taken during one of my unplanned off-the-beaten-track road trips recently. It shows a road distance marker (or milestones as we used to call them in the days before the metric system) where the name of two different states are mentioned. So am I in the state of Selangor or Pahang?

The answer may be quite obvious to some and an additional clue in the pic would confirm it. This milestone is of course, located in Pahang. Kuala Pahang is where the Pahang River meets the South China Sea. The main town in the same vicinity is Pekan. The 'C 101' label at the top of the marker is the road numbering system used by the Public Works Department (JKR) to record all the main federal and state roads in the country. The prefix 'C' is the one used for Pahang, similar to the registration numbering system for vehicles utilised by the Road Transport Department (JPJ).

What all this simply indicate is that there is a place, specifically a cape (tanjung), on the coastline of Pahang, named after Selangor. Tanjung Selangor in Pahang. It would be interesting to find out why or how this came about.

The use of one state's name as a place-name in another state, although peculiar, is not unique to Pahang. In the Pontian district of my home state of Johor, there is place called Parit Selangor. In Kota Tinggi district, there are two kampungs named after other places; Kg Kelantan (near the town itself) and Kg Singapura (further east near Sedili). In the Kelantan capital of Kota Bharu, there is this place called Pulau Melaka, the kampung of the late Tuan Guru Dato Nik Abdul Aziz. In similar vein, there is a river in Rompin, Pahang called Sg Pontian. The famous place in Kuala Selangor to view fireflies is known as Kg Kuantan. I'm sure readers can name other examples.

When it comes to the names of towns and villages, there are many duplicates or commonly-used ones. The place-name of Sungai Buloh is not exclusive to Selangor. There is one in Perak as well... but did you know that there are actually two separate and different places called Sungai Buloh in Selangor? The more well-known one is the area where the prison is located. The lesser-known Sungai Buloh town is located at the downstream end of the river that lends its name, in the district of Kuala Selangor.

Which place-name do you reckon, is the most commonly used in Malaysia? I have my own guess on this one but let's see if readers have other possible answers...

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The best udang galah in Malaysia

The town of Kuala Rompin in the state of Pahang is located on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, about 120 kilometres south of Kuantan. The by-election to choose a representative for the parliamentary constituency of Rompin was concluded yesterday, the 5th of May 2105. The ruling party retained the seat which fell vacant when the previous MP, Tan Sri Dr Jamaluddin Jarjis, met an untimely demise in a helicopter crash early last month.

During the time when I worked at Dungun in Trengganu many years ago, I would occasionally pass by this town on my drive back to Johor Bahru. My more frequent route would be Dungun - Kuantan - Segamat - Yong Peng and then entering the North-South Expressway at Yong Peng to travel down to JB. It meant that I would cross the width of the Peninsula on Federal Route 12, a delightful (but sometimes dangerous) road which cuts across large stretches of palm oil plantations plus whatever is left of our untouched rainforest. Sometimes I would take the alternative coastal route of Dungun - Kuantan - Pekan - Mersing - Kota Tinggi - Johor Bahru. Shorter in distance but longer in travel time due to the poor road condition (those days) and the many small towns along the way.

Kuala Rompin is one of these towns. Sometimes I would stop there for a rest break or petrol refill but I never had the chance to explore the place in greater detail. I had been told by a number of friends that Rompin is well-known for its `udang galah', a species of large freshwater prawns of which I know not of a specific name in English. It was also recommended to me that I should not miss trying to taste them at any of a number of foodstalls there. Fresh, tasty and cheap... those were the normal words I hear.

Unfortunately, my travel from Dungun to JB were almost always in the evenings and it would be late night by the time I reached Rompin and the stalls would already be closed. Hence I never had the chance to try eating those prawns.

But not anymore. In the middle of last month, we attended an event in Kuantan. The drive back to JB required a pit stop in Mersing and this meant that we would travel on the coastal road. An opportune time to drop by Kuala Rompin and check out what some people have been raving about.

Kuala Rompin today, is a very much developed town from the days of my earlier journeys. We spotted a restaurant at one of the new block of shophouses along the main road and made a random choice to stop there. It has a catchy name - Udang Galah King Restaurant. They serve the prawns in a variety of ways, cooked to order. Choices include `masak lemak cili api', `masak sweet sour' and `goreng black pepper'. My selection? Udang galah goreng telur masin...

What else can I say? Exquisite. Best udang galah I've tasted in Malaysia.

Tastes as good as it looks
The king is here..

Footnote : This post is my contribution to the collective blogger revival effort set for today 6 May 2015 and spearheaded by Kak Teh. May my other blogger-friends succeed in posting something too. But if you don't, then not to worry... just take your time, as long as you need.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Tujuh petala langit

In the Holy Al-Quran, there are a number of verses which mention the numerical value of heaven. The heaven referred to here is the sky (the Malay translation `langit') as opposed to paradise (`syurga'). It could well be seven separate and distinct heavens or seven layers of the same heaven. No definitive answer on that yet.

In Surah Nooh (71st surah), the 15th verse is translated as such : "Do you not consider how Allah has created seven heavens in layers."

Some Islamic writers have connected this concept of 7 heavens to the scientific findings that the Earth's atmosphere is made up of seven layers, thereby using recent fact to reinforce the miracle of the Quran that was revealed 1,400 years ago.I believe this is over-simplifying it somewhat. If we are to read other verses referring to this particular subject, it is quite clear that the heavens refer to a larger universe rather than just the atmosphere encircling our planet.

"And He completed them as seven heavens within two days and inspired in each heaven its command. And We adorned the nearest heaven with lamps (stars) and as protection. That is the determination of the Exalted in Might, the Knowing." (Surah Fussilat 41:12).

I do not think the present scholars and researchers have fully established what the 7 heavens mentioned in those verses actually refer to. It remains as one of the many hidden secrets contained within the Holy Book for future generations to discover. Indeed, Allah swt is All-Knowing.

Before I delve further on the title of this horrendously long overdue post, I must make a quick mention of the effort being spearheaded by veteran blogger Kak Teh aka Zaharah Othman and her friend Ailin Abdullah, to get dormant blogs (such as this one) to be revived and rejuvenated as in the days before Facebook and Twitter came into being. Quite a number of blogger-friends are being encouraged to get out of their slumber and simultaneously publish a new post on 6 May 2015. I am cheating a bit by putting up this one before the target date because I need to do it in this month of April (somewhat like submitting our income tax returns by the deadline). But fear not... I promise to join the spirit of mass blogger revival by writing another post for that particular day.

Ok then... April 2015 marks the 7th year of cyberspace existence for Just Observations...

My first post was made on 8 April 2008. In April of every year since then, I would write something to mark the occasion. Except for last year, that is. When my blogging mindset was entirely somewhere else.

Thank you to all readers and friends for the delightful company over the years. With this new impulse, I hope to rekindle the warm friendship with you all again.God-willing.

Early morning sun at Teluk Iskandar in Mersing, Johor