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!


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