Unfortunate Post Code: Afghanistan

(Click here for Malay Mail’s online version)

THREE YEARS ago, during a ghastly but compulsory maternity confinement, I sought solace reading anything ever written by J.R.R. Tolkien and Khaled Hosseini. Let’s talk about the latter and keep the former for future discussion when time and word-limits are kinder to us.

Hosseini, through his best-selling fiction (I have my doubts for I still think the book is a semi-memoir), The Kite Runner, conjured up a moving image of life in Kabul. Since then, I have longed to set foot on that history-rich desert where dust is considered a curse; it is a place so foreign that it invokes melancholia – and romance, even – in the deepest corners of our hearts, think you not?

I sought more and found numerous pictures, websites, write-ups and books on Afghanistan. Yet, my insatiable desire knows no bounds. So, I badgered my friend, who sits on Mercy Malaysia’s committee board, to send me there in the name of charity. She is still, as we speak, ignoring my desperate plea. Some friends I have!

Since I am not going to Kabul anytime soon, I seek your indulgence to listen to my story about Afghanistan – from my flawed perspective, of course. If you could spare a few minutes, that is.

Poor Afghanistan! For centuries – though arising from colliding continental plates and arid landscape – she has been geographically blessed to be at the crossroad of trade and migration between East and West.

But if you were to knock on the graves of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Timor Lang (Tamerlane), Persian Kings or even Turkish Sultans, to ask about Afghanistan, I think the answer from these conquerors would likely be something along these lines: “Frankly, my dear, this is a very unforgiving land.”

Great empires have fought futile battles to conquer this bereft land. None have ever succeeded in exerting their influence, let alone in leaving legacy for the Afghanistan spit out so unceremoniously. The British Empire, in a deluded dream to expand during the 19th century, still has rows upon rows of graveyards of the soldiers who died in Afghanistan to show for it – a painful reminder of their past mistake.

Even the great assault launched by the then Communist Russia resulted in defeat when their soldiers just refused to march on, singing phases like “even the tree hates you in Afghanistan”. So the story went. But a new type of conquest, heavily re-branded to avoid the nasty stigma of imperialism, is well under way in Afghanistan. Euphemisms like “the fight against terrorism” now replace more accurate (though less socially acceptable) words like “murder”.

Lest this new-age conqueror forget those failed attempts to conquer this unfortunate postcode named Afghanistan, history is bound to repeat itself. How cliché.

Poorer still would be the fate of the Afghans, who already have shorter lifespans due to things like lack of basic healthcare, education and amenities, and are now faced with the additional challenge of bombs falling on their rooftops.

Oh, did I tell that death now comes in a new form for the Afghans?

The last time the Russians came visiting, Afghans feared the deafening sound of flying bullets and bursting bombs that plied their skyline with the precision of a Japanese train schedule. Nowadays, with the advent of technology, death has been reengineered for them in the soundless serenity of the night using unmanned  aerial vehicles (or drones if you like), controlled hundreds of miles away from Afghanistan and her borders.To some, such senseless killing is in the name of curbing militant groups’ activities. I just wonder if the machines can differentiate between the militants and civilians – or children for that matter.

The poorest title goes to the children of Afghanistan. Conceived and born in a war-torn desert, their days are numbered. Poverty, a phosphorous environment, hunger and even stray missiles prey on them. Many have been turned into orphans and their basic needs of decent shelter, food and education are sorely neglected. Need I say more, really?

World War II American General Dwight D. Eisenhower had a message when he said: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those whose hunger is not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists and the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”

● Elviza Michele Kamal has always been fond of the road less travelled. She is now staring forlornly at her passport. She blogs at http://www.elviza.wordpress. com

 

Al Fatihah: Captain Yusof Ahmad @ Ancient Mariner

Updated on July 20 @ 10:37 a.m.

This is a message from Captain’s daughter, Aisyah:

“Dear All,
On behalf of my family, thank you for your kind words and wishes. We’re not sure how to contact all his friends, so hope this will reach some, if not most.
There will be a Tahlil tonight after Isyak prayers at Surau An Nai’mah next to our residence at Tiara Kelana Condo in SS 7 Kelana Jaya. It would mean a lot to us if you could attend.
Thank you.
Aisyah Yusof (Captain’s daughter)”

ORIGINAL POSTING:

    “Every soul shall have taste of death; In the end to us shall ye be brought back.” 
     (Surah Al-‘Ankabut The Spider 29:57)

AS I AM TYPING this, I still wish to be jolted awaked from this cruel joke. I waited three hours: I am still very much in reality. 

Syed Akbar Ali texted me this morning about Captain Yusof passing away, I confirmed it with Tony Yew and Nuraina Samad. Still no joke, it’s true. 

Captain has left us to see his Maker. He died in his sleep last night. His body has been taken to Seremban.

I don’t know where in Seremban, I don’t know where my car keys are, I don’t know who to call, what to say. But what I do know: my Tuesdays will never be the same again. 

I am going to leave this posting without moderation so, if you know more, kindly leave the info on the comment box. 

Captain Yusoff’s mother passed away six days ago. That was the last time I spoke to him. 

Husna, Jordan, Kak Ton, and the rest of MRT regulars, I hope you are reading this. 

This blog will be silent for seven days as a mark of respect for Captain. Let us recite the penghulu of all surah in the Al Karim, Surah Yassin, for the late Captain Yusof Ahmad. 

In Memoriam: 

1) Little Brother Amir Hafizi: The Last Voyage

2) Rocky: Alfatihah for The Ancient Mariner

3) A Voice: Al Fatihah to Capt Yusof Ahmad

4) Syed Akbar Ali: Al Fatihah Capt Yusof Ahmad

5) Pasquale: Ancient Mariner may you rest in peace bro!

6) Haris Ibrahim: Ancient Mariner has passed on

7) Tok Mommy: Al-Fatiha The Ancient Mariner…

8.) Pak Ngah Bakaq: Al Fatihah kepada Ancient Mariner

The Tale of Mok Nik Urai

(Click here for Malay Mail’s online version)

SPARE me the need to travel the 246km from Kuala Lumpur to Manik Urai to appease this desire to tell you a plausible story – I was born and raised in the hilly land of Kuala Krai to know enough about Manik Urai without setting foot there.

My old friend, Muhammad Abdullah, runs a Caltex station in La’loh. I bet if I were to drive off and drop by there today, I would see him… There, at the cashier’s seat, punching away on his cash till.

And I still remember one fish peddler at the Kuala Krai wet market.

To my mum, at least, the fish he sold were somehow always fresher than the rest – this fish taukey, whom I knew as “Pu’ji Ike”. Yes, this is the same Fauzi Abdullah (Pas candidate) from his glorious days as a fish taukey in Kuala Krai.

The people of Manik Urai – or the Kelantanese in general for that matter – have a distinctive if a little too independent point of view when it comes to politics. And the recently concluded by-election held in that constituency serves as evidence to my testimony.

En route to Kelantan via Gua Musang, you cannot miss this sleepy hollow with its famous cascading waterfall, Lata Rek. Unfortunately, this serene beauty is dying an untimely death for lack of better care and the absence of basic amenities. The fringe of this waterfall was where I had spent numerous weekends during my formative years; the folly of my youth made me blissfully unaware of the political game either in Kelantan, or even locally in Kuala Krai.

The old folk in Kuala Krai had told us kids the story of how Manik Urai was bestowed its name. A long time ago, there was this beauty of Thai descent, Mok Nik Urai, who was among the native settlers of the place. Her beauty was legendary; so much so that the place was named after her. There is no historical record to back up this folklore but growing up, I heard it being retold a million times, just like a broken record.

The recent death of its State assemblyman brought an inevitable limelight onto the face of Manik Urai. I confess – like many other Kelantanese now living elsewhere – I didn’t think the ruling coalition stood a chance of reducing the incumbent party’s previous winning majority; let alone winning this seat. I simply thought Pas would sail through easily – or, at worse, win with a slightly lesser majority.

There is one particular trait present in general among many Kelantanese: the defiance of never feeling the obligation to “kowtow” to anyone in so far as their political beliefs are concerned, making them mavericks in some way. I think what made Tok Guru Nik Aziz such a powerful figure at the axis of Kelantan’s politics is his demeanor and his subtle manner in preaching Islam as the way of life.

He places importance in the afterlife over the pursuit of wealth – and the Kelantanese have always chosen Tok Guru over anything or anyone else.

I wasn’t far off the mark when Pas did win again in Manik Urai on Tuesday. But securing the seat with a shockingly miserable 65-vote majority is definitely not something for Pas to trumpet around town about. Self-reflection is now a “must-do” for Pas, dare I suggest?

The Manik Urai by-election showed how divided the voters were between allowing PAS to retain its seat; or to take on a possible roller-coaster of change Barisan Nasional had vowed to bring them.

The internal fracas within Pas was pejorative for this by-election – and that’s putting it mildly. If you ask me, I think the messily ruffled feather between the Pas’ Erdogan and Ulama factions, if not controlled, will crack the party even wider.

The self-inflicted troubles in the Pakatan-held States of Kedah, Perak and now Selangor, helped dampen Pas’ chances to win big in Manik Urai. Politics, after all, makes strange bedfellows – and they aren’t exactly serenely positioned right now.

In retrospect, one cannot turn a blind eye on the Barisan’s quite exemplary campaign strategy this time. Its pragmatist approach in dealing with issues that were widely politicised by Pakatan Rakyat brought about a rather warm reaction from the rakyat, vis-à-vis a surge in the approval rating for Datuk Seri Najib Razak, as shown in a recent survey held by the Merdeka Centre.

But a win, by whatever margin, is still a win – the seat remains with Pas.

Pas and its cranky bedfellows need to take heed of this: BN is now well on the path of recovery post 2008 general election.

Manik Urai will undoubtedly return to being the sleepy hollow it has always been after this by-election’s fervour subsides, with people going back to tapping rubber and selling lemang by the roadside. What remains now is for the election promises to be fulfilled. Will they?

Elviza Michele Kamal is an idealist at heart – her husband told her so. She will continue to blog at http://www.elviza.wordpress.com

Ambalat, Siti Hajar & Manohara

I received an email from MRSM’s buddy containing photographs of protest held in Jakarta at Malaysian’s Embassy. The email lacks date and time of the protest but surely have some damning pictures for us to see. 

I try to hold my tongue silent on Jakarta’s boiling rage against her Kuala Lumpur’s counterpart. However, these pictures make that feeble attempt impossible. 

I haven’t had the time to read about Ambalat water/territorial dispute in its entirety, therefore I leave the issue until the next posting. 

As to the bizarre love affair between Mahora and the Kelantan’s royalty, I have no comment on that too, except: she’s 17 and pretty while he’s rich. You do the maths. 

In my country’s defense, I admit the treatment accorded to poor Siti Hajar was inhuman if not downright evil. Whoever has the capacity to hurt another human that way needs a serious mental therapy. For that I apologise on behalf of my country. 

Neither am I going to remain silent on the millions (or should I write ‘billions’ instead?) of Malaysian Ringgit the Indonesians have been raking in the name of better employment here. And that millions – I stand to be corrected – does not in any way boost their flailing economy in the slightest? 

What about the families who eat with their maids at the same table, day in and day out? What about the families who bring their maids together with them on expensive holiday? Give them a raise, treat them like part of the family and walk the extra mile to help the maids’ family in Indonesia? That – hardly surprising though – goes unnoticed. 

In this unfair world we live in, we must learn to co-exist beyond the boundaries of colours, religion and nationality. I love my country, warts and all, and I will not tolerate anyone talking rubbish about it. So, my Indonesian friends (who undoubtedly make better music all the bloody time), stereotyping is not cool, okay? 

And what’s with the open burning man?? Have mercy on the environment. 

Sweet Street Protest

Published in Malay Mail on July 3rd, 2009. Click here for the online version. 

DURING my student days abroad, when recklessness lorded over sound judgment, I did have one healthy penchant: hopping onto the bus and just walking along the streets of Sheffield – even when the unforgiving English wind threatened to freeze my ears off – in South Yorkshire.

That unfortunately ended shortly after I came home. I could not diagnose the cause of the fallout between walking and my-not-so-good- self. Perhaps it was the fear of the scorching sun wrinkling me faster (woman, get over yourself) and evidently, public transportation in this city – let’s just be kind and say – leaves much to be desired.

Last week, I found myself trudging on foreign ground once again, on Murray Street in Perth. While juggling with stroller and heavy baby bag strapped over shoulder, my eye caught something: a street protest at the concourse sandwiched between City Hall and the Forrest Chase departmental store.

Unbridled curiosity drew me closer to the gathering of about 1,000 people to find out more. The eyes of my three-year-old grew saucer-size in exhilaration while I ignored his inane questioning about “whatsa happening… apa tu, apa?” A brief enquiry addressed to one of the protesters at the fringes, and a pamphlet thrust in my hands, revealed the cause of the rally: they were protesting the death of an aboriginal elder while in police custody last summer.

Mr Ward, 46, whose first name is not used in respect for aboriginal custom and as requested by his family, had been a spokesman for his people in Australia and overseas. On a hot Saturday night, just over a year ago, police arrested Mr Ward for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Refused bail “because of his drunken state”, he was the next day transported some 400km across desert from Laverton to Kalgoolie prison in the back of a prison van (operated by a private security fi rm) – that had a malfunctioned air-conditioning system.

The weatherman had predicted temperatures that day to soar above 40 degrees Celsius. Inside the small compartment he was kept in, temperatures reached over 47 degrees Celsius, and the metal surface 56 degrees.

Mr Ward had third-degree burns and hyperthermia after the surface temperature in the van hit 50 degrees Celsius and was described as “roasted” to death in the back of the van. The coroner’s hearing on June 12 affirmed he had died of heatstroke.

“If there were something called bureaucratic manslaughter, the Department of Corrective Services would certainly be prima facie guilty of that,” read the pamphlet. The cacophony of combined voices drowned the speech made by the group leader. Shouts condemning the prison authority and the state Labour government (which held office from 2001 to 2008 and at the time Mr Ward died) filled every inch of the busy high street during this lunch hour.

The protesters liberally jostled for space to raise placards, banners and posters in the air in this show of anger and frustration at Mr Ward’s death. What struck me most was the minimal police supervision that afternoon. In fact, there were only two policemen present, and even then the duo were busy talking to each other, almost in exclusion to what was going on in front them.

I glanced around to look for a police truck or that much-dreaded tear-gas cannon but nada, nothing, zilch. The group demonstrated for as long as their voices lasted. The rather civilised manner of the rally, made sweeter by the authority’s scarce intrusion, had me in awe.

I too long for the same treatment to be accorded to Malaysians who wish to express their concerns without worrying about police permits or being sprayed with tear gas. I do understand the occasional need to have a tighter leash on hostile street protests in the interest of public safety.

But, in every society, the freedom of expression refl ects its maturity and trust between the public and the governing authority. I pray I will live long enough to witness people having an outlet to freely vent their anger over injustices they, as a part of society, cannot condone.

All through the protest I had been squatting beside my son – heaped with a pile of guilt for exposing him to this loud novelty – and with some explanation as to what was going on. Nonetheless fascinated, he just nodded to feign comprehension. Just before heading back to the hotel, I lengthened my unsolicited lecture to cover the issue of him never having to fear voicing out his convictions.

The poor boy just stared at me with unblinking eyes. It does not matter, son – one day you will understand what it’s all about.

● Elviza Michele Kamal knows of very good anti-wrinkle creams but she’d rather go to shelves that stock books. She blogs at http://www.elviza.wordpress.com.

(Pictures courtesy of David Cohen)