Tuesday, December 27, 2011


In the spirit of all things festive, the story of Mariam or Mary inspired this post. As you know, the Qur'an tells us the story of Mariam's miraculous virgin conception. Another person who was created out of exceptional materials was the first man, Adam, and his wife (unnamed in the Qur'an but conventionally known as Hawa or Eve).

It seems that until today, many Muslims like to keep on thinking of conception as miraculous,* and here are two examples that illustrate this.

The first example is the spells we are taught to execute for safe (not in the sense of safe sex, haha!) and healthy conception of a baby. This is found in a manual for a pre-marriage workshop in Singapore, designed specifically for Muslims. It's from the chapter on sexual intercourse, and because we Malays are so shy about sex, there are lots of euphemisms.

Notice the lack of activity between 5 and 6 :D
At stage 6 of these 'encounters', a dua or supplication should be recited at the point of ejaculation. Depending on sources, this should be done by either only the husband, or both the husband and wife. (I guess the man has to let the woman know when!) This is the dua given in the Addendum, which is actually from a hadith from Bukhari, narrated by Ibn Abbas:

بِاسْمِ اللَّهِ، اللَّهُمَّ جَنِّبْنَا الشَّيْطَانَ، وَجَنِّبِ الشَّيْطَانَ مَا رَزَقْتَنَا

which roughly translates to:
In the name of God, O God protect us from Satan, and protect from Satan (the child) which you provide/grant us.
Needless, at this point in the counselling session I almost fell off my chair -- something the counselor was probably trying to prevent by using all the euphemisms he could during the session.

The reason for my surprise was not that we were using the word 'encounters' instead of sexual intercourse, or that ejaculation is the endpoint of mutual intercourse, or even that sex always means reproduction, but that a couple, during sexual intercourse, should be ever-aware and afraid of Satan.

What happened to earthly expressions of God's love? Or the sanctity of sexual intercourse? (Not to mention, the fact that Satan is constantly anthromorphosised, which downplays our internal satans, haha)

To give a second example, here's a conversation I had with a married male friend some time ago:

- Dude, I think my wife is pregnant.

- I thought you guys weren't ready to have kids yet. Didn't you use birth control?

- Yeah, we tried condoms but I didn't feel much.

- Did you count the days of her cycle?

- Yeah, and we had sex on one of her fertile days.

- Did you ejaculate inside her?

- Yeah.

We all learnt in Biology class how conception works, right? What do you expect to (probably) happen if you have unprotected sex on fertile days? I say, a high chance of conception, but what say you?

* Conception is a miracle in the sense that it is a sign of God, like mountains, rain and the sprouting of grain, but in this context I am referring to miracle as something that occurs outside of scientific laws.

Monday, December 26, 2011

White man's burden.

In the festive spirit of things, here are several flyers I found in the church of Sluis, a town in the south of Netherlands. Won't say much since the holiday spirit gives me a short attention span, but just pay attention to the kinds of people that, according to the church, need help (and saving).

Mission newsletter about children

Is Vietnam a developing country?

A special feature on Vietnam!

Reconciliation as a source of peace and justice
Over 60% in Rwanda, Burundi and Congo live below the poverty line.
A growing number of Catholics are asking for more guidance.

Education and training build a country

The fight against poverty gives hope for reconciliation
 African children holding food and toys, being helped by white men and women in Catholic outfits.

Think big, act small.

Children representing various needy continents.
Behind the mask of Brazil
Support missionaries and missionary workers in their fight
against marginalisation and poverty via (bank transfer)

Here we have women pounding, surrounded by animals; old men and women looking miserable, women and children, and children in trees.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A first Christmas.

New tradition: Take photos that look like decorated Christmas trees.

Instead of the Dutchman's last Christmas, this year on 25 December, will be my first Christmas.

Last year I escaped this dilemma of whether to spend Christmas with his family, by escaping to Belgium to visit a friend where I ate a yummy Christmas dinner with her family and watched them open presents. (I know, the irony isn't lost on me.)

But this year we are dutifully spending three days on his mother's side and one afternoon on the father's side. All in Dutch (but of course!).

Since he became a Muslim in the eyes of the law and society of my country, there's been some social pressure for him to behave according to the social norms of Malay Muslims. Specifically, he should try to become as conventionally Malay (learn Malay, dress Malay) and as conventionally Muslim (celebrate only the two Eids, and a handful of optional celebrations) as possible.

But we decided that he should not give up a tradition that grew up with, because there are aspects of it that are good. We are not trying to Islamise the entire celebration, but we are looking carefully and critically at the purposes and intentions of the aspects of the celebrations. Because listening to scholars just makes me feel close-minded and dangerously arrogant at the superiority of being exclusive.

How does saying 'Merry Christmas' become equivalent to drinking alcohol and eating pork? Because a scholar thinks he has the power to forbid. And a prominent American male convert says that this is copying the religion or deen of others.  Oh heck, sometimes you don't even have to give a reason -- just say it is haraam.

The purported pagan origins of the 25 December Christmas is another reason for Muslims to not partake or acknowledge it. Then how do we deal with the 7 January Christmas of Orthodox Christianity? While we like to point fingers at other religions, we hardly look at ourselves. What about the links of dubious Muslim 'celebrations' of certain dates in the Islamic calendar beyond those clearly stipulated in the Qur'an, sometimes based on weak ahadith, but celebrated anyway? Let's not say that we just follow what people have done before (5:104).

Here's a wonderful piece by a female convert who tries to incorporate Muslim, Christian and secular traditions into her interfaith family. I especially liked that she took the opportunity to present Saint Nicholas to her daughter as a pious man. Another learning opportunity for the end of the year is to talk about Mary, the mother of the Prophet Jesus (she's the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur'an by the way!) -- this is exactly what a mosque-based theatre group is doing on 24 December.

I am starting to think about this more and more, since it will be important when we have children, in order for them to have meaningful family traditions that does not ignore both our upbringings.

Right now though, we are doing what we have chosen to for the same reason as the author above (2:83, 4:36, 6:151,17:23, 19:14, 29:8, etc.). We're "showing kindness" to his mother, who basically brought him up to be a man with amazing, upright character and a compassionate personality. Besides, she's cooking stuffed organic chicken when she doesn't usually cook. How can I leave roast chicken to waste! :)

We may not share the same religious beliefs but hey, as long as she's not bringing up Geert Wilders in every conversation, and respects our beliefs, we've decided that we can have a halal dinner with her and the extended family. We will give her presents and a nice handmade card because I consider gift-giving a secular aspect of Christmas.

You'd be heartless to reject a sheep wearing a hat.

Besides, for much of Dutch society, Christmas is a time to meet the family, eat good food, and buy nice things for others. As a testament to the secularity that they are so proud of: churches, which are normally empty for most of the year, needs to give out 2 euro tickets for Kerstmis or Mass on the eve of Christmas.

I'm looking forward to my sharing my first Christmas with a fellow Muslim -- can you tell?

Stories from Merzouga: Modernity and other discourses.

So on this organised tour, I wanted to bang my head against a kasbah wall more than once.

The first time was when Hamid, our Berber guide in Tinghir, is explaining the traditional method of construction. A mixture of rocks, clay, straw and water is called adobe. It's used to build houses for many reasons: it keeps the inside cool in summer and warm in winter, it's cheap if not practically free since it uses natural materials including palm tree trunks and bamboo stems for roof beams, and it is a symbolically and spiritually significant link to the land.


Adobe wall

Upon hearing that the walls are rebuilt every five to eight years because of natural weathering, a guy in the group asks quite petulantly:

"Why don't they rebuild it with modern materials like concrete?"

Nevermind that Hamid had just explained the benefits of these materials, which are presumably in comparison to concrete and steel, "primitive"? How do you even start to explain that there is deep wisdom in constructing something the same way it has been done for hundreds of years -- clearly there is some economic or social value in it that makes it last.

There as also another guy in the group who was clearly not any of the following: Arab, Moroccan, Berber, scholar of the Middle East. But he knew a lot about Berbers evidently, and had to interject every now and then with what he knew. When Hamid was getting on the subject of nomads: "They go up into the mountains..."

"...Yeah, with their animals,"

That is all what Berbers are! Nomads with animals. Arghhhhh.

Amazigh for "Freedom"

On a more positive note, last month I met a Moroccan woman of Berber descent who is a singer, and also produces monthly theater pieces on Islam through science and art. No politics there, please!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Stories from Merzouga: Tourism and power.

I just came back from ten days in Morocco, where I did something that I very rarely do when I travel:

I went for an organised tour.

Le gasp, right? I did this once before in Chiang Mai, Thailand, because we didn't know any other way to hike in the surrounding mountains without getting lost. Both tours though, left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

This time, with a friend, I signed up for a three-day "Sahara Expedition". I figured it might be fun to sit and be driven around, enjoying the disproportionate privilege that my Global North money can buy in the Global South. A coach would drive us from Marrakesh to Merzouga over two days, stopping at various scenic points and tourist sites like Ait Ben Haddou, Ouarzazate, Dades Valley, and Tinghir, before reaching the scarred sand dunes of Erg Chebbi.

In Dades valley, a Berber named Hamid (practically anonymous without the family name) explained the division of land between tribes, crops important to them (alfalfa, olives, dates) for their economic and spiritual significance, and how the kasbah is still built and re-built the old way (adobe, palm trunks, bamboo), before bringing us to see how Berber carpets are woven the traditional way.


Land division
Another Berber man, Hassan, took over. He brought us tea and his sister, Fatima, briefly demonstrated the wool preparation process (for women only!). After explaining to us the significance of the materials, colours and symbols used in the carpets, he pitched his sales line: that these are hand-made, "three times cheaper than in Marrakesh", and the profits go straight to the family. And everything was of course, privately negotiable, so we never knew what the cost or market price was.

That was as much of a guilt trip as you are ever going to get. There was the longest, most uncomfortable silence after he asked if any of us wanted to buy a carpet, when no one did because we didn't know it was part of the tour -- but of course it is, the push to sell things to (rich) tourists.

When we reached Erg Chebbi, we were immediately told to get onto the camels (actually dromedaries, since they have one hump) and two Berber guys led a line of five camels each, walking for about an hour, to a 'camp', set up like a hotel with solar panels!

I couldn't bear to talk about where else in Morocco they had travelled and how much they spent, so I snuck into the kitchen and had a chat with Mohamed and Said, the two guys who brought us there, in a mixture of English, French and Darija. I found out that they were only paid 50 dirhams each, for walking with us to the camp, cooking dinner, 'entertaining' us, and then walking us back on our camels to the hotel.

The travel agency got about 10,000 dirhams from our entire tour group. Taking away the costs of petrol (400 dh), one night in a (cold) hotel (400dh), two breakfasts (200dh) and two dinners (400dh), it still makes a whopping profit.

Mohamed is the same age as me, but he always lived as a nomad and never went to school. He started working with this hotel as a "Berber guide" because a few years ago a drought killed off his family's animals. Said was 19, and he also never went to school and he didn't know where his family was. For both of them, working there is better than nothing, but it's difficult to find something else with no education.

I know another Berber who is the only one of ten children who was sent to school. Income and life chances change dramatically with education: he can access international tourists through the Internet and be paid 300 to 400 dh for each trip he does into the desert. He also lives in a more residential area of the Merzouga, where the dunes are not so scarred with the tracks of 4x4 and hundreds of camels...

Smooth dunes

Run over by 4x4s

I've never felt my privilege so acutely.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Diversity in Singapore.

This is what you get when trying to talk about Singapore to outsiders. :)
Singapore is made up of multiple ethnic groups which, for the sake of political brevity, are often condensed into CMIO, or Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other. The pervasiveness of ethnicity, or race, in the politico-social context implies that there are deep-seated, primordial characteristics of each race that transcends national boundaries. The purpose of such political classification become clearer when one looks at how various issues relating to social peace are handled in Singapore.

In the last five years or so, there has been a dramatic influx of Chinese immigrants to Singapore. This migration has been largely government-encouraged, if not directly government-sponsored through the provision of educational subsidies, scholarships and offers for permanent residency and citizenship. The government puts the reason for largely favouring Chinese migration over Malaysian or Indonesian migration as incredulously simple: the population of Chinese in Singapore needs to be maintained at 75 percent against the increasing numbers of Malays and Indians who are having bigger families than the Chinese. 

Politically, no distinction is made between Chinese from China and Chinese Singaporeans. Much like how I feel completely Singaporean and far from being Indonesian despite having Javanese roots, Chinese Singaporeans feel separate from the new members of their Chinese community.

Furthermore, while new Chinese immigrants are given permits to stay in Singapore and the public is reassured that their second generation will be as Singaporean as anyone else, other migrant workers are not favoured in the same way. One million, or half of the total labour force in Singapore is made up of foreigners, who are then further classified based on their countries of origin. 

There are thus, in descending order of income: ‘expats’ or high-skilled workers, and ‘foreign workers’ or low-wage transient workers such as male construction workers from mostly Bangladesh, and female live-in migrant domestic workers from mostly Indonesia and The Philippines. The latter group form the bulk of all foreigners in Singapore.

The rhetoric of ‘racial harmony’ in Singapore focuses mainly, on as the term suggests, race. Riots that occurred between Malays and Chinese in 1964 are commonly referred to as ‘racial riots’, and today children celebrate Racial Harmony Day on 21 July to commemorate these riots and work towards it not happening again. On this day, Singaporean children in virtually all schools dress up in their traditional costumes (or they borrow a friend’s) and learn about the games, cuisines, and practices of the other two main ‘races’.
Government-led interfaith initiatives focus on race and religion (often conflated with race, in the case of Malay Muslims). I think that therein lies one of the biggest challenges in promoting peace in Singapore. Political rhetoric is far removed from social reality, where people in Singapore are not only divided by ethnicity, but also by migrant status, nationality, and class (among other aspects). 

Increasingly, there are more reports in the heavily-censored mainstream media about various other conflicts that are not primarily based on ethnicity. Examples are those between foreign domestic workers and employers (migrant status), a Chinese immigrant family wanting their Indian neighbours to stop cooking curry (nationality), and a murder of an Indonesian female domestic worker by a male Bangladeshi migrant worker (gender).

In short, where there are relations of power there is inevitably a potential for conflict, and to focus on religion and race in Singapore at the expense of other intersections of power makes these other conflicts invisible. I feel that grassroots initiatives would be more effective in promoting peace among different groups in Singapore, because people identify the power relation that is under strain. 

In conclusion, ‘diversity’ in Singapore encompasses much more than ethnicity and religion; there is also great diversity in other aspects, of which I have addressed that of mostly nationality and migrant status in this statement. While official rhetoric promotes thinking solely along the lines of ethnicity and religion, grassroots initiatives often show a more nuanced understanding of peace and social cohesion.


Sorry for being on such a mad and sorry hiatus, but I just came back from ten days traipsing around in Morocco.

I have much to blog about, but will have to take a few more days to sort out my migrant status (lest I risk becoming undocumented), graduation, farewell dinners and parties, and work.

Hang in there, and read some old entries (column on the right) in the mean time!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Enchantment! Or, how Dragon Age 2 can teach us something about shirk.

Here are some some uses of the Qur'an and the verses within which I am not completely comfortable with.

1. Jewellery.
'Allah' necklace

Ayat al-Kursi necklace
Arabic script is beautiful. I understand that people find it aesthetically beautiful, and Muslims who encounter Arabic more often than not also appreciate this. I guess I'm uncomfortable with it because it's easy to start thinking that the necklace provides protection, which is dangerously close to shirk, or the sin of believing in the power something else other than God.

The second necklace is more explicit in its claim for protection. I met several young men in Morocco who wore this around their necks. When I asked them what it was for, they said that they were given it by their mothers for protection. Ayat al-Kursi (lit. Throne Verse) is actually verse 2:255 of the Qur'an, and is traditionally taught as a verse that afforded protection -- as a child I was encouraged to memorise it so that I could recite it in places where I was afraid of being possessed or attacked by spirits (like in jungles, for example!) This link details more benefits of memorising and regularly reciting this verse, based on many ahadith.

Verse 2:255 is really beautiful, as it elaborates on God's glory and power:
The One True God, there is no god but God, the Living, the Originator of life, the Self- Subsisting Sustainer of all creation.
Neither slumber, nor sleep overtakes God.
All that exists in the highs and the lows, in the heavens and earth, belongs to Godalone.
Who can intercede in God's Court except by God's Leave, and then, only in accordance with God's laws?
God knows what lies open before humans and what is hidden from them.
God's knowledge transcends time and space.
No one can encompass a trace of God's knowledge but through God's laws.
The Throne of God's Supreme Control extends over the highs and the lows.
No fatigue touches God as God benevolently guards God's Dominion and creation.
God is the Glorious, the Supreme.
I understand that reciting and pondering over the meaning of the verse can help, psychologically. But it's the pondering that helps, not the mere recitation of it. I'm afraid to say that many of us memorise the Arabic words without knowing exactly what it means. And when this is translated into a physical object like a necklace, it's easy to start thinking that the physical Arabic script carries the protective function instead. (Unless you can read the small script to recite it, haha.)

It might also be rather ironic that 2:255 is surrounded by other verses that tell us to not seek out false gods. This tendency to favour 2:255 is extended to various other verses and chapters too.

2. Psychological spells for protection. 

The way people promote recitation (without understanding) makes it seem to me that the Qur'an is full of special phrases to recite for good luck, good fortune, protection, etc. Religious teachers often list out certain verses/chapters to be read at certain periods, for a certain number of times. Recently someone shared on Facebook a list that her religious teacher gave her, which included chapters 32, 36, and 67, amongst others, to be read regularly after prayers. To her credit, someone emphasised that she would read the Arabic along with translations, and reflect, regularly.

Surah 36 has also been the object of much adoration, especially in the Nusantara, or the Malay archipelago. It became quite a tradition until about five years ago (I might be mistaken, but I don't hear much about it now), to recite Yasin on Thursday nights in the mosques or in other prayer congregations.

Another popular habit taught to me as a child was to recite the short chapters 112, 113 and 114 before going to sleep. Optionally, after recitation, you may blow into your hands and wipe your face and body for maximum protective effect of these words, as recounted in a hadith. Check out this site for more examples of using recitations as healing. Definitely takes the verse 10:57 to a whole new level. :)

This second use of the Qur'an may also sometimes be combined with (3).

3. Physical spells for protection. 

These includes writing verses onto pieces of paper, then burning, mixing them with water, or stuffing them into wall cracks; or reciting over water. In other words, ordinary objects are enchanted with the power of God's words, instead of God actually working directly to grant us whatever it is we are asking for.

For example, some friends I have in Morocco were renovating their house and they came across a small leather pouch filled with a piece of paper tightly folded many times. There were verses and spells written in Arabic on it, and had been put into a small between the bricks of the house when it was being built, to protect the house from calamities.

Also, the whole idea of a bomoh, or a healer in archipelago traditions, has pagan roots. But since the spread of Islam to the region, these healers have mixed in some 'Islamic elements' in order to make it more acceptable to the Muslim population. There are still many of these kinds of syncretic healers in Indonesia and Malaysia. I remember one coming to our house when I was very young. Apparently he was trying to cure my sister, but I don't remember much beyond a lot of scented smoke, recitations, and a magical trick he did to make it look like he extracted a piece of flesh or tumour from my sister's body.

Anyway, it's still common to recite zikr (remembrance of God, usually after prayer, and consists of numerous repetitions of a single phrase) in magical sets of 33 or 99 over glasses or bottles of water, and then have someone drink this water to reap its... spiritual benefits. This is of course, encouraged by various ahadith and is sometimes the source of worry for those who wonder about the purpose and legality of this and seek rulings from jurisprudence. The most common reason for saying that this is acceptable is that one hadith narrates that the companions of the Prophet used to do this, therefore it's acceptable.

Those who summarise the various opinions as 'acceptable' emphasise the source of the power, which is God/Prophet/Quran, while those who rule 'unacceptable' sometimes also focus on the same thing. In other words, they say it's not acceptable if one thinks the reciter has the power, and not the words themselves. But very few will actually take the issue of using mere words and recitations as being superstitious in itself. I don't think the Qur'an is a book of incantations either.

I shouldn't discuss these things with video game enthusiasts :) The Dutchman said it reminded him of Sandal, a idiot-savant dwarf in Dragon Age 2 who can enchant a player's weapons and armor with powers. For example, if he enchants a "Rune of Frost" on your sword, you get a "+1 Ice Damage".

So in summary, because I find God to be the ultimate Provider and Sustainer, and God's words to work through the contemplation of our thinking minds and our thinking actions, I find the above uses of the Qur'an worth being wary about to avoid attributing God's power to something else. Shirk is sneaky!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ability and opportunity.

Baby Mario Kart

A few weeks ago, I played Mario Kart on a Nintendo Gamecube, for the first time. Both for Mario Kart and the Gamecube (yes, don't judge me!). I played with another friend, C, who had also never played hand-held video games before. What was interesting was how the Dutchman, who witnessed our feeble attempts at racing Mario around the different tracks, remarked that I played better than C.

It would be easy to pin it down to ability, but opportunity should also be taken into account. For example, I had access to computers and all kinds of technological gizmos since I was five, while C only encountered and started regularly using a computer in her workplace, at the age of 23 or so.

The level of hand-eye coordination or whatever other psychomotor skills I have must be in part due to having been exposed to years of computers, online games, Tamagotchis, and electronic diaries, calendars, dictionaries, etc. I had the opportunity of being able to use all these things. I also had the opportunity to take computer lessons in school at the age of 10, where we experimented with typing games.

Take oil painting and sports for example. In high school I had a friend who was really good at oil painting. But that was because his parents were both artists and so he had the opportunity to experiment and gain experience in using oils, which is an expensive painting medium!

In the ISS, the students play sports every Sunday. For soccer especially, more women get the opportunity to play in an all-women's team, and so they get better. It would be fallacious to say that girls can't play soccer well when they may have never had the opportunity to play, train, and develop skills before.

Likewise, during my short stint as a sports assistant in Boccia, it was clear how good equipment was particularly crucial to the success of the training and performance of athletes in the BC3 category. Even in the Olympics, where athletes try to shave off milliseconds from their time, a special streamlined outfit that costs thousands of dollars can help.

Therefore, opportunity comes with money, and what we often mistake as ability can often be the result of life chances that are linked to one's class.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Commodification of religion.

My favourite place to visit in any European city is a church or a cathedral. The older, the colder, the more stained-glass windows, the better. But when I arrived here, I was quite surprised to see how many churches were not in use. Some are emptied of carvings and figures of saints and outsourced to be sites for flea markets, restaurants or even parties (where people make out in the west front).

However, mass on the night before Christmas is so popular in some cities that the church even has to sell tickets to avoid overcrowding! Now, if they distribute tickets so that two or three people can visit a church every day of the year, I'm sure it can stay open all year round...

Reform Christians are looked upon with some hesitation, mostly because they have large families and dress nicely to go to church every Sunday.

It's also probably clear that Islam is not the most popular religion here. Nevermind that plenty of white Dutch people are also Muslims. Thanks, Geert.

That leaves Buddhism as the most popular religion here, in the form of Buddhist imagery and cliches at least. A glance at any of the yoga shops will tell you that. No politician has railed against Buddha heads, Oriental souvenir shops, yoga shops and meditation sessions. 

A whole theory and symbolism has developed around Buddha heads in particular, even down to the details such as: You can't buy a Buddha head for yourself, it has to be a gift from someone. Apparently this trend started when looters of temples sold parts of a statue off to Western tourists looking for an 'exotic' gift from the Orient. An Indonesian friend once saw a Buddha head from Borobudur temple complex sitting in some museum in the US, after the 2006 earthquake damaged a lot of the Buddha statues in Borobudur.

So now Buddha as an image popularly signifies spirituality. But I'm uneasy with selling it so easily in the form of common goods, like these gifts I found in a flower shop a few days ago:

Buddha candles

Huggy Buddhas, really?

This is a revered figure of a group of people in the world! Don't make a mockery of religion, even if you don't want one yourself.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The ethics of 'halal' food.

Let's talk about food. If you know me personally, or have eaten a meal with me, you'll know that I'm a little obsessed with food -- the combinations of colour(!), taste, textures, cooking style and origins. Luckily I have the Dutchman as a partner-in-crime, who was practically vegetarian until I introduced him to the controversy of halal meat.

Like many others, I was taught that halal food encompassed these four basic criteria: anything not from the four forbidden categories mentioned in the Qur'an (2:173, 5:3, 6:145, 16:115). So no 1) dead animals, 2) blood, 3) flesh of swine, and 4) anything dedicated to other than God. Game from the sea is fine (5:96) -- that means all kinds of tasty seafood! This is a simple list of what you can or cannot eat.

In verses 5:1 and 5:3-4, there are more details as to what makes specifically meat halal or not. All herbivorous livestock is lawful. Animals that have been strangled, beaten, or gored to death are prohibited. Animals that fell to their death are prohibited. Animals that were eaten by a wild animal (unless you can slaughter it while it's still alive) are prohibited. Animals slaughtered on idolatrous altars are prohibited. Animals caught by hunting animals trained by humans are also lawful to eat.

Golden retriever hunts ducks.
From 'Tips on Selecting a Hunting Dog'

Eagle catches a rabbit in Kazakhstan

Falcon catches a hare in Kyrgyzstan

This elaboration emphasises the manner of death for the animal, and is related to the above list. The animal whose meat you'll eat has to have died in a respectful, painless, and purposeful way. It also has to die specifically because you want to eat it, not senselessly or because some animal higher up in the food chain was going to have it for dinner. Using hunting animals such as dogs or falcons would also be acceptable because these animals catch the prey for you, and not for themselves. Besides, I believe animals do a better job of it because they submit unconditionally to God, unlike us. Haha.

There is actually no fixed 'Islamic way' of slaughtering, since if there was God would have told us specifically. So in my opinion, what we consider the Islamic way is a series of general guidelines which was developed in the Prophet's time, since details such as sharpening knives are found in various ahadith. These videos from Mercy Slaughter, a ranch in Texas, gives the entire details, and also shows an actual slaughter. You can watch Part 1, Part 2A, Part 2B (Warning: actual slaughter) at Youtube.

But in jurisprudence there are all kinds of other prohibitions, exceptions, and permissions -- I'd be way in over my head to try and enumerate them all. This site lists a selection of other prohibitions and permissions from the different schools of thought.

Some of these prohibitions are related to the importance of the animal. Eating horse and camel meat is discouraged, because in the Arab world they are important for transportation. It reminds me of why cows might have been considered sacred in India -- they are so greatly needed for milk that the bit of meat from killing them outweighs the long-term benefit of having a live animal, according to Marvin Harris in his book 'The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig'.

In Sunday school I was taught that insects and other 'disgusting' creatures were also forbidden. Cultural-based value judgments, anyone?

Ant-egg salad in Luang Prabang, Laos
Because of this awesomely complex reasoning for what is divinely, conventionally, and unconventionally considered halal or haraam, I usually say I'm vegetarian if a host asks me what I can or cannot eat. If my host doesn't ask, I eat whatever I consider necessary for respect and feign allergies or a full stomach.

My friend who was raised a Muslim, gave a really fresh take on this. Her mum told her that if a host serves you food, just eat it! Showing respect to a host who has taken the trouble to prepare food for you is worth more than grousing about what you, as a Muslim, can or cannot eat.

Another friend also recounted her time in a rural village in her country, where she was served meat that tasted a little off (I experience this once too -- there are no refrigerators when there is no electricity, people!). The people in the village hardly ever cooked meat and here they had prepared something for their urban guests. What would you do in such a situation? (My solution which is by no means the only one: I ate around the meat.)

Recently, in the spirit of Eid al-Adha, there have been several calls for a more compassionate Eid and a vegetarian Eid. The concerns that these writers have about the intensification and focus on ritualistic halal slaughter and how this quite possibly does not make the meat halal anymore, can also be applied to halal slaughter in general. When animals are mass slaughtered by machines and a loudspeaker saying 'Allahu Akbar', is that meat still halal just because it has a green round sticker in Arabic on it?

In the same vein, huge fast food chains like McDonalds and Burger King also have those green stickers and certification from their country. But when they pay their workers, legal and illegal, such low wages, cook dubious kinds of meat patties that come from meat raised, slaughtered and processed in conditions that are unsafe and unhygienic for both animal and human, is their food still halal by default? Why bemoan the lack of halal McDonald's in the West?

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are all around.

Just to show you how ubiquitous they are, here are some more photos of where cartoon depictions of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet can be found in the Netherlands this time of year.

AH Supermarket
"Design your own Piet hat, and go as Piet to the Sinterklaas landing"
Actually if you look at these two depictions, they are quite similar in terms of the relative sizes of the eyes, nose, and face. However, Sinterklaas is beige, which is the actual skin colour of light-skinned people, not "white". But Piet is completely black. He's not even dark brown, which makes the character look definitely non-human.

And during the landing and procession of Sinterklaas in Dutch cities, you can see many children dressing up as  little Piets, waiting for the 'real' i.e. grown-up Piets (with blackface) to come and give them candy. There are also loads of small-sized Piet costumes sold in supermarkets, toy and costume shops. So Sinterklaas is unique and no one dresses up like him (except that one white guy who acts as Sinterklaas in a city), but Zwarte Piet is not one unique person. He has no identity so anyone can be him!

On a pack of cookies

The Piet on the left looks drunk.

A little doll probably, actually drunk in a wine shop
There are more, of course. Get with the times, Netherlands!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sinterklaas, blackface, and racism.

Sinterklaas landed in the Netherlands (and also Flanders) two days ago. Simultaneously in all Dutch towns, landing at the beaches from his steamship called Pakjesboot 12, bearing gifts for all good children. He is accompanied by his black slaves who are individually and collectively called Zwarte Piet, who may or may not hint at a racist colonial history since they may or may not be black because of chimney soot or being formerly Moorish slaves.

Curly black hair and red lips
Funnily, the idea that white people put on black face paint and red lipstick, and dress up in colourful court-jester costumes isn't considered racist by the mainstream. For the many people lining the streets, dressing up their children as Zwarte Piets and waiting for the procession of Sinterklaas to come down their street and give candy to their children is considered harmless fun.


Poster along my street

I don't see any dark-skinned people dressing up as Zwarte Piets. Why is that? I think the Zwarte Piet get-up is just the human version of a golliwog, a racist caricature that views 'non-Whites as less human, less intelligent, and less civilised. And I think it's highly insensitive for people to keep on saying that it's all in good fun, and that children don't see it as racist. That's because racism is socialised into us -- wouldn't it be better to teach children about respecting everyone instead of giving them a cultural reference that places dark-skinned people as subordinate to lighter-skinned people?

My friend S said something so apt, that 'Sinterklaas is the only allochtoon (foreign-born) who is still welcomed with open arms every year'. She's alluding to the social antagonism that exists here now in reaction to the political classification of Dutch people as either 'native-born' or 'foreign-born' when they have to fill up forms for schools or hospitals. Dutch people of Moroccan or Turkish descent, being forever marked as 'foreign-born', don't stand a chance at ideological integration or being considered Dutch, with no hyphens.

Sinterklaas is white, and he has black slaves. Harsh, right? That's why later version of the story softened the colonial blow by changing the term to 'helpers', or claiming that Piet was a liberated slave to willingly serves Sinterklaas.

But in the Global South people make fun of the dark-skinned too. This is what I saw during a yearly procession called the Reog in Ponorogo, which celebrates the triumph of King Kelono Sewandono  over King Singabarong the King of Lions and his army of lions and peacocks. A group of men also dress up as dark-skinned people supposedly from Irian Jaya, but who are now said to be 'mysteries':

Whoa. Maybe I'm just linking everything to transnational domestic workers (haha!), but this softened version of the Zwarte Piet story reminded me of a quote from 'Global Woman' by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild (which I'm reading for my thesis-writing):

"Today's north does not extract love from the south by force: there are no colonial officers in tan helmets, no invading armies, no ships bearing arms sailing off to the colonies...Today, coercion operates differently."

What I want to take from this is that it is not just economic coercion, but also ideological coercion that operates invisibly. It operates by making us all think that dressing up in stereotyped caricatures is just simple fun, and that dark-skinned people bear the burden of trying to convince us that this is not amusing.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tourism Malaysia and rich Arab women.

So the Dutchman is home after a week of travelling, and he brought me Emirates in-flight magazine. (I love flying Emirates and I used to take it all the time until they started regularly stopping in Colombo on the way from Dubai to Singapore -- extremely tiring because you can't sleep on that leg. Also, their food is fantastic.) I adore reading travel articles and also scrutinising tourism ads for Orientalism and other fancy theories like that.

Here's an ad for Malaysia, which targets (rich) Arab women from the Middle East. And men, I guess, but they're secondary here. Because the print says
Luxury Brands, Luxury Spas, Decisons, Decisions. 
Discover luxury spas nestled between designer labels in Asia's finest malls. 
Hydrate or detoxify? Tote or clutch? It's now or never.
It sounds almost a little sarcastic, because deciding between two kinds of handbags or two kinds of pampering is hardly a life-altering decision. But what gets me most of all is the way these Arab women are portrayed as being utterly frivolous, with nothing to do except shop and pamper themselves. Stereotyping women as obsessed with shopping and all things frivolous is nothing new. At least in this case, it isn't harmful, just offensive.

Actually, I can't deny that this is what it seems like. When waiting in airport terminals in Dubai and Doha, I've seen many well-dressed Arab women decked in jewels, thickly made-up, and occupying their children. It's possible of course, that they live a life of luxury.

But that doesn't mean that that's all they care about. And Malaysia, seriously, usually your problem with advertising your country is that you emphasise the indigenous tribes too much, or claim to be representative of Asia (Malaysia Truly Asia!). Advertise your halal food and ubiquitous musollahs! Why did the advertising change so starkly just because you're targeting a really rich demographic now?

A quest for fireflies at Kampung Kuantan

For the record, when I was queuing up for a ride in a small wooden boat in Kuala Selangor to catch a glimpse of fireflies in Pahang, there were Arab tourists there too (made up and in jewels and all, but keen to find fireflies nevertheless!). People are multi-faceted. People are not defined by their money, even though we might want to define them as such.


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