Growing Up In Trengganu

Friday, December 17, 2004

Growing Up in Trengganu #12151

Sometimes on loose end days, when adults looked pretty well-disposed towards us, we went up the spiral stairs to the loft of the Masjid Abidin, where the big drum was housed. Actually, we did not need adults' permission at all to go up there as the son of one of the muezzins was a friend of ours, and he had the freedom of the loft because he beat the drum that announced the prayer times when his father did the azan call-out.

I remember the spiral staircase well: it was metal and painted green, and clinging on its winding cork-screw hand-rail on the way up filled me with dread. We walked round and round its central pole as if on a journey to nowhere, then suddenly, before us, lay the well-lit dusty, spacious, drum chamber of the Masjid Abidin, with its elongated drum on props, lying horizontally, its hollow end facing out to the Kuala Trengganu rooftops. Our guide, Dolloh, son of the Bilal or muezzin was a street-toughned lad with a tougher nut to crack. Behind his back he was called Dolloh Ppala Besor (Dolloh with the big head), and he had a forehead that protruded out, straight jet-black hair, and a skull that had probably withstood many knocks. Like many a tough lad I knew, he was a softie when his heart-string got tugged; and he sometimes spoke wistfully to us of a love he'd left behind in Mersing on Johor's east coast.

Mersing was then the El Dorado of Trengganu fisher folk, a place they sought for gals and gold, and Dolloh was there all right, for six months he said. He'd been in many fights and had a side-kick known as Mat whom I never saw in the Masjid. I met him a few times though, in the street, and he indeed had a slight scar in one corner of his mouth, an adornment that gave him the Malay sobriquet of birat. Mat Birat reminded me of those characters in Malay movies who had the attention of the heroine for only a bit, and then spent the rest of the footage being trod upon by P. Ramlee or Ahmad Mahmud.

The mosque stood among a cluster of houses and little shops. My uncle had his house on one side of the mosque perimeter, outside a huge wall that fenced in the graves and the outhouse that was called the marja' where mosque hands adjourned to in between prayers and where the Imam often dropped in for a chat or a nap. The marja', I was told, meant a place for consultations but it always had the smell of left-over food, or the sweet scent of hair pomade that drifted in the air after someone's had a hair cut. Just outside the 'spear' railings behind the Mosque was a photo studio called Lay Sing, run by a stern man with a square jaw and a son who never wore a shirt, whom we knew as Ah Leng. When I was in upper primary at the Sultan Sulaiman School, it was from Ah Leng that I learned the rudiments of photography, from his diagnoses of my under-exposed shots, or those overlapping pictures when I forgot to wind the camera, or those dark ones taken against the light. He hired out cameras to me at, I think, just over a dollar a day, and took in the film to develop. I still have pictures taken in those days with the Lay Sing Rolleiflex — mother sitting on top of the stairs of our house, my old friend C.H.Lim who once told me in earnest while we were being trishawed to school that he once ended a prolonged blackout by singing O Jesus Loves me, and K.K.Soh, who caused much annoyance because, some days, whilst waiting for me to be ready for our early morning journey to school, my father would walk up to him to broach some of my slothful secrets.

Just before I left Kuala Trengganu I heard that my friend K.K.Soh had died in a road accident, and that one day, as Ah Leng was tending to his work in the photo studio, a man walked in and plunged a knife into his shirtless top. He died instantly in his father's shop.

The Masjid Abidin was very much the centre of my life in Kuala Trengganu not only because it was the only place Father went to after work — oftentimes with me tagging along — but also because of my uncle's proximity to it, and an auntie lived just a shouting distance away down the road. I knew the Mosque and its people very well, ate with them during the mosque feasts, listened to their adult talk in between evening prayers, and sometimes, I'd stay there to listen in to the Imams when they gave their long talks.

One day, after an afternoon prayer, while the leading preacher Imam Haji Wan Hassan was giving a discourse on some aspects of a kitab, a slightly unbalanced man sitting in the front row produced a wad of $10.00 notes which, with one mighty burst of strength, he tore to shreds. I was terrified as I feared that he'd soon run amok — which he didn't — but was equally impressed by the Imam who batted not an eye-lid. The police arrived soon afterwards to take the man away in a strait-jacket, leaving a trail of confetti money on the carpet.

Later in life, when we were all suited for adult talk, Father shared with us his observation from a life-time of mosque-going. It's a place, he said, that attracts many types: the devout, the wayward, the scrounger and the desperate.

December 17th, 2004

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Growing Up in Trengganu #12150

The Grand White Mosque of Sultan Zainal Abidin dominated the centre of Kuala Trengganu by its size and height and by the reach of the calls of its muezzin. The locals knew it as the Masjid Putih for its gleaming whiteness, but I remember it as a Mosque of many colours.

A child remembers its cavernous interior, the massive pillars that reached great heights, and the depth of its mihrab in the inner reaches of its west facing front that was out of the reach to a young novice. This square forward position that jutted out from the vast rectangular body of the Mosque was the sanctuary of the Imam who led the prayer, The new Masjid Sultan Zainal Abidin, Kuala Terengganu. So different from the old one that I knew.Source: Muzium Terengganu.local dignitaries when they graced us with their presence, and of men with flowing cloaks and heads wrapped in dangly-tailed white turbans, and a local learned with a head-gear that looked like it'd been made from reeds, a man we called Ku Haji So-and-So of the serban bakul, the headgear of woven basket; a Ku by title he was, scion of the local royalty. When he passed on, his eldest son came to the Mosque in similar headgear, so we took it to be the regalia of office of some esoteric order of local dignitaries.

In the quiet after the Friday congregational prayer I often wandered to the front of the Mosque, to the mihrab niche where the Imam led the prayer. It was a confined quarter without the wide ambience of the main back chamber, and in this limited space one could presumably focus better on meditation and prayer. From this forward position which projected out of the main body I could see — not through windws, but portholes — the tips of tall tombstones outside in the burial ground of members of the royal household.

The Masjid Abidin as I remember it was a 'living' mosque that attracted people of many miens and disposition, and these were just those of my age. There was Ku Teng, who was reputedly born in a bottle ("beranok ddlang botol"), there was Pe'ee, who lived in Kampung Dalam Bata, and Cik Wa, whose father had one of the early motor cars in Kuala Terengganu. Some of the people I knew actually stayed the night there after the last 'Isha prayer, to be awoken again at the crack of dawn by the resounding beat of the Mosque drum or geduk as we called it, and the gentle lilt of the pre-dawn tarhim that was followed by the thunderous azan that bellowed out of speakers in the four minarets. There were people who worked in the mosque, people who slept in the mosque, and a brave, lone man who stayed the night behind a closed door in the annexe that housed the mausoleums of past Sultans and their close family members. His job was to tend to those tombs and offer daily supplications for the souls of the departed. Once in daylight, I saw the door slightly ajar and peeked inside to see him fallen among the pallisade of tombstones of the royal dead, fast asleep. Those supplications in the dead of night must've made him quite tired.

The muezzins were known to locals by volume and name. Bilal Sa'id, a handsome man with a mellifluous tone, lived in the vicinity of the Mosque; another, Bilal Haji Deraman, lived in the middle of a padi field not far from a romantic place called Paya Bunga, the pond of flowers. He was a bluff man with a gruff though not unpleasant voice that reached parts that other Bilals couldn't, even with benefit of the mike. Once on a Radio Malaysia play, I was listening to the nattering of Raffles' scribe, Abdullah, when Bilal Deraman's unmistakable voice boomed out in the background just as Abdullah reached the shores of 18th century East Coast Malay States. Father told me he remembered seeing the man from the Radio at the Mosque, recording Bilal Deraman for posterity.

My father set his daybreak routine by the sound of the tarhim in the morning when he rose for his ablutions, then, by the sound of the geduk he'd be dressed in his sarung and baju, to start his brisk walk to arrive just in time for the end of the azan. Regulars to the Mosque knew this routine very well, and timed their journey to the movements of the bilal, taking the gap between the sounding of the geduk and the azan to be roughly 8 - 10 minutes — the time the bilal took to walk from the loft of the Mosque, where the geduk was housed, to the foot of the stairs, where the microphone was placed. It worked out very well for Father unless it was Bilal Deraman's turn, for then he'd rush out muttering something about Bilal Deraman being at the helm. The reason was that Bilal Deraman had a muscle-rippling, silat practising son called Dolloh who did the geduk for him as he waited patiently at the foot of the stairs. As soon as the beatings of the geduk ended, Bilal Deraman went straight to the azan without pause, sending many a faithful scurrying and jumping down the stairs of their homes.

Picture Note: The picture of the modern Masjid Abidin (above), is completely different from the one I knew. Additions have been made without regard to the old architecture, and it has been completely modernised, even taking on the 'rocket' minaret of the Masjid Negara in Kuala Lumpur.

December 11th, 2004