About ten years before the Twin Towers catastrophe I spent a couple of weeks on Pinang Island which is part of Malaysia but well offshore, as Tasmania is part of Australia, but somewhat further away. We were visiting my girlfriend’s brother before flying on to Japan from Singapore. I will call her Sara Lee (that’s a Chinese name, surely), and I’ll call her brother Edward, in honour of my old school friend Eddie Chen. Edward was an architect who also made documentaries. Sara was engrossed in Japanese culture, which may seem unusual, given the history. Her parents had virtual mansions in Ipo and in Bellevue Hill in Sydney. About half her time was spent in Sydney and the rest in a traditional house beside a Shingon temple at the beginning of the foothills at Daigo Ji outside Kyoto and I stayed there with her for six months.
Sara had her teacher’s license in classical Japanese dance and was one of the very few non-Japanese to perform in the much older Noh play. I loved Pinang and loved Japan even more as it turned out. While we were in Pinang we walked out of the city one night to watch the approach of a celebratory parade marking a Hindu holy day. Coconuts were smashed on the road, drums lilted and banged and one drum ensemble accompanied a sensational singer who tipped her megaphone back at the sky, rolled her eyes upward and speared angular phrases into the heavens that sometimes resembled Miles Davis’s playing from the Miles At Filmore period. There were also little shrilling ensembles of oboe-like double reed instruments. Everyone danced in to the city, including chaps who had fish hooks buried in their backs, with lines held out behind them by other chaps who seemed to be trying to hold them in check. Sometimes the lines were stretched out tight until there was some strain between the protagonists, but the dancers seemed to feel no pain. They also ran across beds of red hot coals, quite happily, or indeed ecstatically it seemed. With all the fantastic din, colour and movement I remembered reading about people having limbs blown off in the din of battle without knowing it until afterward.
A new friend Roland, who was a Catholic from the Philippines, declared that he would now become a Hindu. It was more fun! It was more than fun, I can tell you.
The food in Malaysia was a hundred times better than in any Asian restaurant I had experienced in Australia. Indian, Chinese and Malay food plus a number of hybrids could be ordered at the deeply wonderful food courts. My second best restaurant in the world was in a sort of vacant lot at the edge of fields and forest on one side, with the kitchen and the backs of shops and suburban houses on the other. The restaurant itself was very much like a bicycle shed with a trestle table lengthways down the centre and a narrow tin roof overhead. The sides were open. Primitive? Unprepossessing? Yes, but because the place had no walls, you sat out in the brilliant day on the edge of suburbia and the wild, under a narrow path of shade, with dish after paradisial dish appearing, ordered by Edward and his Hindu wife (sorry, sorry, the name won’t come – but, hey, I’ve given them all false names anyway). In Japan I encountered my absolute best restaurant and I might tell you about that somewhere along the way.
One day I was walking with Roland on the edge of the city, when I suddenly tensed and began walking a little faster, but not too fast. Faster but not too fast. ‘Roland, your flat’s near here, isn’t it?’ I asked in a strained voice.
Roland glanced at me promptly, saw all, and said, ‘Yes, follow me. We’ll just pick the speed up a little’.
‘But not too fast,’ I said.
He understood. Faster, but not too fast. Roland’s flat was on the first floor of a modern building. ‘Bathroom straight ahead,’ he called after me, because I was running up the stairs now. The time for restraint had just passed.
Crash! Blurt! Splat! Pardon me, but the artillery really opened up a moment after the pants came down and I just managed to throw the seat up, spin round and sit down. As usual in these situations you know that if the toilet had been another five metres away you would not have made it.
When it was time to head off and catch our plane Edward got us a hire car which we would drive back down the East coast (we had come up the west coast from Singapore in a series of taxis driven by suicidal men, from city to city) and leave in a designated place. Opposite the hotel in which we spent the night, in fact, before catching the plane next day. On the way up, after our relay of taxis, we had crossed to Pinang on a car ferry at Butterworth, but we drove back on an amazingly long and dead straight bridge across the sea. Was it technically a bridge at all? Or an elevated highway. Edward had told us that this was one of the extravagant monuments the government had built to itself, while getting a rake off from the successful tenderer. It is true that we saw no other car that I can recall, going either way. While it was easy to believe the bridge had no practical purpose, crossing a much wider strait than that at Butterworth, it was dream-like and exhilarating to zoom across the sea with the foot to the floor. The sea was flat and so was the road high above it. It was a perspective exercise that stretched before us, its twin vanishing points converging always just beyond our sight, hurtling toward us for maybe quarter of an hour. Possibly less. It was a long time ago, but I can still feel the sensation. Actually it was surreal in the manner of those surrealist paintings that were so superbly wrought as to practically prefigure photo-realism.
Equally memorable were the downpours as we drove east just below the Thai border. It was the rainy season and the road ran through jungle. When it came down, always in the late afternoon, visibility was reduced to metres and we pulled off the road and lay back staring up at the canopy where the rain thundered, While it began by clouting the stiff broad leaves above and gurgling and splattering below, a hiss was rising simultaneously, which quickly subsumed everything in a tremendous, even, sustained whoosh, drowning speech and song. It was hard and vindictive, yet oddly soothing. Often we fell asleep briefly and the silence woke us. The afternoon sky was a thrilling blue and the jungle steamed. As we approached villages and towns school kids in gum boots splashed home through deep roadside puddles and flooded ditches. There was something joyful about this.
When we did turn south the atmosphere completely changed. The east coast was the only monocultural part of Malaysia that I had seen, and this was where the Islamic fundamentalist revival – the Malaysian chapter – began and, as far as I know, disappeared, except for the routine Islamic traditions that did little to disturb racial unity or trade relations. The Indians and the Chinese were the bosses of business and the Malays ran the government. The former were complaining about the volume of the amplified muezzin calls, and when I experienced this it was quite overwhelming. In fact it felt as if I had been floated from my bed by a rising tide of weaving quarter tones. While irritating to some, this was unlikely to cause serious unrest but the east coast was quite threatening. I felt a kind of mournful darkness there. The women had recently been made to go back into veils and they did not like it at all. Before we set off Edward had told us of a charismatic preacher who had emerged from the region. Edward and his film crew went out to catch a meeting that had been scheduled in one of the villages. People had come from near and far and they sat on the streets in the village and out along the approach road. Loudspeakers had been mounted to spread the message. ‘He was red hot,’ Edward told us. ‘He was like Hitler.’ The government had sent observers to gauge his effect on the villagers and the others who had come to hear him. ‘They decided that this bloke could be big trouble,’ Edward said. ‘So they sent the military in and they shot him.’
Terms Of Unconditional Love
Now just in case you are inclined to take things too literally the God of unconditional love can be quite wrathful if you take another god before Him or even alongside or well to the rear or even worship a god who is not really a God but a graven image or idol or other seemingly harmless diversion. Icons? I’d avert my eyes just in case. He is quite egotistical – even for a God! Likewise jealous. But don’t you get jealous or He will cook you forever. Hitler and Stalin would probably have loved to be able to do that, but they really couldn’t hold a candle to The Man. Of course I am aware that on the day of judgement the sky will be filled with annihilating radiance, angelic choirs and tiered trumpets blazing ever higher; and of course His voice which is like thunder (as he tells Job: how dare you complain about a few boils on your head and the soles of your feet? Is your voice like thunder? Do the morning stars sing your praises? Poof! Pshaw!). Indeed your voice as you complain that you are actually quite a decent fellow though somewhat neglectful of unceasing worship (I mean you’d think He’d get sick of it anyway) will be as squeaks of radio static and he will say ”’Can’t hear you, buddy”’ and you will be gone. You know where.
I could go on about Lot’s daughters getting him drunk and seducing him in the mountains – the same daughters Lot has offered to the perverts outside his house in lieu of the angels they cry out for, who have come to warn him that he should get out of town – about encouragements to smite even unto the seventh generation and seed the earth with salt, but…
This is not an anti-Christian rant. Modern Christianity is the most humane of all religions. Certainly the Bible is replete with very puzzling anecdotes and some rather violent instructions, but the modern Christian ignores the commands to smite and conquer, and to tell other sects they will go to hell. The modern Christian homes in on the sermon on the mount and other inspirational texts. And so do the Muslims I know, with regard to the Glorious Koran. Their businesses and their families are their main concerns, and these are pretty much indivisible. Incidentally, Roman Catholics I know have told me that many of the faithful are well aware that, with the shortage of priests, the chaps taking their confessions, sloshing the fragrant incense about from their censers while dancing the rumba and the mambo and the cha cha cha and slipping them the prescribed dose of the bread and wine are gay. Because they are prepared to perform the rites many good Catholics ignore their proclivities.
It is all about selective reading re The Word Of God. Christianity, for all but certain fundamentalists, is about kindness, unification and charity. Is it true? Well, the fundamentalist stuff is so horrible it is probably true but there’s nothing I can do about that.
At this point in history we have to admit that the Islamists are problematical, for each other as well as us. yes, they are very sure that Australia will become Islamic, even if they have to kill the lot of us, and numbers of each other. yes, I’ve heard their slippery versions of what they’ve said, but I also have Islamic friends who have given me the translations straight.
Yet one night I watched a program about an Islamic school in Sydney where they taught the Australian constitution and held parliamentary debates where all the forms of our system were observed, but without the ugly protagonists, the horrible angry eyebrows, the ghastly spleen and vituperation, the gloating, the sheer hideousness of … we’ll leave his name out of it, and that of the well-tailored hag and indeed of the coalition version of Harry Secombe (Kim Beazley was Labour’s tenor bellower)… no, nobody as ugly as that. Let me explain. None of them are ugly in repose. When they speak the ugliness of ambition and triumphalism activates them.
I’ve seen nothing more about that school. Why aren’t their voices heard? Why don’t we see their earnest and beautiful faces?