Friday, May 8, 2009

Submission for a Day

I think that, as a writer, I've gotten too fond of the shock opening. You know, the one where my first sentence is one that gives away the middle or ending but has the nice effect of leaving you with the same feeling I have at the time: usually, "Joel, what the heck have you gotten yourself into this time?" this story would be a great opportunity to do just that. But I don't want to give away the ending yet. So I'll start at something like the beginning.

I was in the city of Kuala Terengganu yesterday morning. I wanted to go to Penang. I asked at the bus stop, and was told that the next bus wasn't leaving until 9 pm.

Terengganu is not a big town. There's a coast with some docks, a small, sleepy Chinatown area, and the usual assortment of shops, restaurants, internet cafes, etc. lining the streets. It's one of those developing world towns that's made about 5 degrees hotter by mostly being covered in dark pavement, making midday walks in anything but the shade feel a bit like a Native American sweat bath, minus any spiritual benefits.

I had about nine hours. I could wander around aimlessly exploring. I could hole up in the bus station with the latest book I'd swapped. My book was a little short for nine hours though, and after about two hours of wandering, I knew I hadn't seen all of town, but I wasn't exactly feeling inspired. That's when I got an idea.

Malaysia is a Muslim country. It guarantees freedom of religion, and there is a significant Chinese Buddhist minority (thus all the Chinatown districts). But it is majority Muslim, especially here on the east coast.

I felt like I should know more about Islam that I did. I've been reading an epic poem a good friend of mine has been writing on Facebook about Abraham and Sarah, so the subject's been on my mind. To get to know the country a little bit better, I thought it might be a good idea to get to know Islam a little better.

I found the town mosque, the one you can see in the picture above, and walked up the entrance. I checked if it was okay for me to enter wearing shorts. I was told politely that it wasn't. I could have given it up there, but I'd spotted a hotel nearby. A quick trip to the men's room and I was in long pants. I took off my shoes and socks, and quietly walked inside. I thought maybe I'd find an English Koran and do a little reading.

No luck. There were plenty of books around the open whitewashed inside, but I could hardly find any in Malay, let alone in English. Everything was in Arabic, most without a transliteration. So I thought maybe I'd say hello to someone official. No luck there either-- everyone in there (all men) were scattered across the floor, praying. Not something I wanted to interrupt. So I resorted to the obvious solution. If I can't come to them, let them come to me. A tall white guy with a massive backpack wandering aimlessly around the middle of a mosque was sure to get somebody's attention.

Sure enough, after a lap or two around the room browsing books, a man in a skullcap with blue eyes shuffled my way and quietly asked if I was a Muslim. I said no, I had come to learn about Islam. He seemed a bit surprised, then directed me to the tourist office to ask after the local "Islam department." He emphasized many times that I needed to find the "right people" to find the "right information." right when I thought he was going to politely ask me to leave, he summoned two friends, talked with them quietly in Malay.

I went outside with one in what looked like a security uniform. The original man thanked me with a wide, warm smile and a two handed handshake, saying "may God bless you." I was invited to sit under a gazebo and wait-- the Imam would see me in about half an hour. One or two people who spoke a little English tried making small talk. Then I was invited to lunch.

We went to a local place across the street, where I was served rice, chicken and some veggies on a sheet of wax paper over newsprint. I was the only one they gave a fork and spoon. I didn't use them, I amused the men eating with us by eating the way they did, with the right hand. This is harder than it sounds. They asked me about my parents. I told them what they did for a living and where they were living. Then they asked if they knew I was converting to Islam. I tried to clarify that I wasn't planning on converting, I was just there to learn. They seemed unconvinced, but stayed quite warm and friendly. They told me that their branch of Islam was one that was more "polite" than others. they had to do things a "certain way." They also said that they emphasized thinking before talking. I told them about where I was from, more about my family. They seemed very impressed and surprised when I told them that my Father is Jewish. At the end, they wouldn't let me pay for my food. When I protested, they made a lesson about Islam out of it: "When you give, God gives back 100 times."

I was shown into the Imam's office. A young man who must have been the Imam himself asked me a question in Malay. Then he told me, in perfect English, that he didn't speak English, then invited me, again in perfect English, to sit down. The man in uniform came back. I sat on a couch for about ten minutes while they talked in Malay and made a few phone calls. After they were done, they got my attention and beckoned me outside yet again.

Next thing I knew I was riding in a car to an office, where I was directed to a cubicle with someone who looked much more like a stereotypical Imam, who was not unfriendly, but didn't smile either. I introduced myself and stated my purpose.

"So you are just looking for information about Islam."

I said yes, and that I hadn't really expected to be in the office, I had originally just planned on reading a bit.

"You're not here to embrace Islam?"

I hesitated, and finally said that I hadn't come with that purpose in mind. He nodded, left his desk, and came back with a few pamphlets, and a large English Koran. The pamphlets were free, he said, but the Koran was the only English one he had, so they would need it back. He asked where I was staying. For some reason, I didn't tell him about the bus that night. I hadn't bought a ticket yet after all. I just said I'd only gotten in town that day and didn't have a place. I asked if i could just borrow the book for a few hours and return it later. He thought for a moment and said "Maybe you'd better stay here for a night in our hostel."

A phone call later and he was leading me next door. I asked him about the place and he said that it was a place for Muslim converts. Not wanting to create any false impressions, I again emphasized that "if I were to convert to Islam, it would not be tomorrow." He said that was fine.

"There are a couple other converts staying there at the moment, one is Chinese, one is Indian. They are a bit... well, please do not judge Islam by them."

With this mysterious warning, he led me inside and to a room. The place was empty for the moment. He bade me good day, and left. I stood standing there for a minute, Koran in hand, in the middle of hostel for converts to Islam that I'd been invited to stay in by the local Imam for free.

This would be the "what the heck have you gotten into now" moment.

The roommates who I was not supposed to judge Islam by were an old Indian man whose tongue seemed a bit short, like it had lost a chunk in front, and the fattest man I had ever seen shirtless, who seemed to have difficulty opening one of his eyes. After greeting me, the first thing they wanted me to do was go to the office and beg for money. That was the arrangement, they said. They complained bitterly that the office never gave them enough money for food. I refused, they'd been more than generous enough to me already. After that The fat man spent most of the time scratching himself while the old man went on, as casual conversation, to slander Mexicans for being "dirty" and black Americans for being "lazy and arrogant," always asking for money while doing nothing in return. I gritted my teeth to stop from pointing out that that was exactly what he had been doing himself just a minute ago and merely told him I didn't agree with his views and pointed out that I had much more experience with both Mexicans and Americans of any race than he did.

I put up with it long enough to be somewhat polite before going back to my room for some reading. For all the initial unpleasantness though, they were both quite warm and generous with me. They cooked dinner, invited me to eat with them. The old man spoke the best English. He told me a couple interesting stories from about Malaysia under British rule. The only real communication I got from the fat man was when he was popping some pills out of foil: he got my attention, pointed to the pills, held a limp forefinger in front of his crotch and straightened it, cackling conspiratorially.

I helped with the dishes and then decided to go to bed early. I found in the morning that they had made breakfast for me as well and set it aside so I could sleep a bit longer. It's always a strange experience when someone you don't particularly like does something especially kind for you. I made sure to thank them before I left.

I do feel like I've learned more about Islam, but not from the books (or my charming convert roommates). It was the whole experience that led up to my being offered a day's food, transport, and lodging for nothing. The pamphlets were informative about the attitudes towards prayer, and I did learn some interesting things about the Muslim ideology from the Koran, but only about as much as I would've learned about Christianity by reading most of Genesis and then random bits of Numbers and Mark. The sections on how to treat women were a bit... intimidating, but I'm pretty sure there are similar things in the bible for dealing with people who do things like wearing cotton. My overall impression is one of generosity and the extra little bit of pride I've found that goes with almost all religions. For something that's so often portrayed as alien in American media, it all felt pretty familiar.

I'm not going to add pictures for this entry. The only one's I've taken during this story are an out of focus one of the car ride and a candid shot of the larger roommate (which I don't think you want to see) but I will add a couple more for the last entry of my time on Kapas island.

With any luck, I'll be heading to Thailand within the next couple days, and will be beginning a famous backpacker trail I've been hearing stories about since I was in India two and a half years ago. We'll see if the hype is justified soon.


  1. That's a fascinating story, and one I'm glad you told in somewhat chronological order. I'm always amazed by your ability and your willingness to simply put yourself in situations like that. I also envy that ability. And if I did indeed have any small part in leading you to think about doing this...well, I'm honored.

  2. *ahem* Joel, as someone who's read the Torah from scroll-to-scroll, I can tell you there's no punishment for people who wear cotton. It is, however, forbidden to mix linen and wool.

    I'm pretty sure you'll find fairly similar attitudes towards women in both Judaism and Christianity, as a) all three have a similar source and b) modern audiences understand what's in the text with commentaries placing these attitudes in context. Though I'm also fairly certain if I'd entered that temple, I'd have gotten a different response -- hell, I'd never walk into an all-male prayer service, much less get into a car driven by strangers on my own.

    Either way, I'm glad you're having adventures and writing them out! I do agree you'll learn more about the religion from the people than from the books, and I'm glad you had such a positive experience!

  3. The "what the heck have I gotten myself into" fits better at the point of "next thing I know I was riding in a car". Quintessential American optimism in action and written about since Melville. Is it good or foolish. Perhaps it is both. Interesting blog.

  4. I'm glad you were treated very well. I think the instance one could tell that you would probably be okay (in reading the blog) was when the Imam told you not to judge Islam by the people currently in their hostel. That seemed like such an ordinary confiding comment compared to the more formal and perhaps tenuous interactions described earlier. They were taking some risk that you were as you described and flatly appeared and you were doing the same with them.

    Your description of the other two characters in the hostel reminded me of the switch in scenes in Henry V between the serious action and Falstaff's compatriots. Glad it all worked out well.

    Lv, Anonymom

  5. Count C- Eh, it's a combination of curiosity, reading too many adventure novels, some good advice from my father, and a promise to myself after a girl gave me a bracelet in Veracruz. We each learn how adventure our own way once we get out there. Sorry I haven't been keeping up as much with the poem as before-- internet is fickle on the road. Have you posted that anywhere aside from fbook? I can think of others who'd be interested in reading who aren't connected to you (yet).

    Rachel- Like you (see above). Thanks for weighing in-- I was hoping to have someone more knowledgeable say something on those points. I think I misheard the cotton thing from a friend who uses points like that to irritate door-to-door missionaries. Anyway it wasn't a service, there just happened to be guys hanging out and praying. Also, I'm fairly certain that if you'd borrowed a head scarf and used the women's entrance instead of the men's, you'd have been more welcome than you might expect.

    Anonymous- Thank you! And don't worry, I had second thoughts about getting in that car. It wasn't just blind "American optimism", it was calculated risk. When you are traveling anywhere you have to take a few. At the end of the day, it's just a question of where you draw the line (do I eat the street food/trust the taxi driver/walk down this street to get back to my hotel at night). In this case, if these guys had wanted to do me harm, they had ample opportunity to do so before the car ride (it was leading me into the first windowless office of the mosque that made me have second thoughts first). At that point, I felt I could trust them. Also there's the question of motive. Some religious groups might want to kidnap an American or hold them up, but not the leader of a Mosque in small-town Malaysia, especially since they still thought I might convert. You just imagine how they would feel and act if they were on the level, and then watch very carefully for any deviations from that act. I didn't see any red flags, so I took the risk.

    Anonymom- In the interest of brevity, I had to leave out how I was treated in general. After enough first impressions, you get pretty good at reading people. Not something you can rely on alone of course, but it can at least give you a good idea. I was treated better than the way a New York stock broker would've been treated if they'd walked into the old Steemus and asked to learn more about logging or something. So I had plenty of signs telling me that I'd probably be okay that didn't get written down here.

  6. Joel - No, it's not that I don't think I would have been welcome - I know I would have been, though naturally, I wouldn't have dreamed of entering such a male service. I just think the response to me would have been different. It's not a religion thing, it's a male-female thing. I've been not-allowed in synagogues because I was wearing pants. I mean, did you walk in with your head uncovered? It would have been completely improper for them to take me to the hotel for converts...

    I also couldn't have even pretended to be interested in converting to Islam - that actually is against my religion. (Not for the reason you think, actually - one of the interpretations of the verse "do not put a stick in the path of a blind man" is "do not give people false impressions about your intentions". This goes down to the level of "when you're in the marketplace, don't bargain for something you don't want to buy.")

    Yeah, your friend was probably talking about wool and linen together. Another fun fact that a lot of Jewish comedians are having fun with: there's actually three verses which prohibit everything that swims in the sea without fins or scales (Leviticus 11:10-12), calling them an abomination, and yet so many people who are against gay marriage because of Leviticus 18:22 eat shrimp and lobster and shellfish...since I am pro-gay-marriage, and yet avoid fish without scales and fins, I wonder.

    And yes, it does sound like I'd be interested in your friend's experiences! Yes to more blogging!

  7. Rachel- For the record, I never pretended I wanted to convert to Islam, and I did do my best not to mislead them on the point without offending them, and while the guys whose English wasn't that great might not have gotten it, the mosque officials did. And once again, if you had walked in on the male side, yes you would have gotten a reaction. Same as if I'd walked in on the female side.

    I'll remember that about Leviticus. Sounds useful. Also, don't various otherwise kosher farm animals know how to swim if thrown in the water? ;p

    Count C- You listening to this? Let me know when that poem is somewhere off facebook and I'll pass it along.