Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Mamak Chronicles

Ok, ok, forgive me. The new blog is finally up. Khalisah Stevens and Nour Merza are now writing of their Malaysian adventures exclusively for Minority Dreams!

The title of the blog is "The Mamak Chronicles." Wanna know why? Check out our first post, "Welcome to the Mamak," and you'll find out!

The second post is out too. Read and comment away!

The Mamak Chronicles at Minority Dreams.

Monday, June 8, 2009

On Home Turf

We finished our third day in KL yesterday. I realized that it’ll be impossible for me to go over everything we do every day we’re here, so I’ve decided to dedicate each post to a particular theme related to what happened to me during the day. It’ll give my posts a bit of structure – which I’ll of course end forgetting about as I write and go off on random tangents. Khalisah and I are still trying to figure out how to get this two-person blog together, and we’re each doing our own thing until we do. We’ll see how this works out. (Her version of our Malaysian adventures can be found here.)

So this post: all about our neighborhood. Here we go.

Khalisah and I are living with Winnie, one of Khalisah’s Chinese cousins. Malaysians, by the way, usually come from one of three ethnic groups: the Malays, the Chinese, and the Indians. This is a pretty general outline, and since race is a major (and sensitive) issue here, I’ll have to address it more fully in another post. For now, I’ll just say that Khalisah’s family is Malay-Chinese, and leave it at that.

Anyways, Winnie’s apartment is one of the many apartments that line the streets of her neighborhood. At the ground floor of all these apartments is occupied by some sort of shop: laundries, internet cafés, mini-grocery stores. It’s great because anything that we need is literally just a few steps away from home. On our second day in KL, we wanted to explore the neighborhood a little bit, so we went around to different shops and discovered an internet café with pretty good rates. One Chinese man stopped us while we were passing by his store and asked us where we were from. “Sini!” Khalisah and her sister Amani told him. “Here!” He was shocked, because Khalisah and Amani are half Malaysian, half Caucasian, and I’m Syrian-Circassian-American. Not your average Malaysians. The poor guy, we left him horribly confused.

As we were trying to find our way around the neighborhood, we stopped at the mamak we’d eaten at earlier to ask for some directions. A mamak is a little restaurant that sells local Malaysian fare. Mamaks are pretty basic, they’re usually the size of a small café, but without any of the fancy trappings of your local Starbucks. The furniture is usually nothing more than fold-up tables and plastic chairs, and most mamaks are open-air with nothing but a few poles and an awning that keeps potential rain away. Cats walk between tables and customers’ legs, hoping for a few scraps of food. A few people run around taking orders and making the food and drinks – mamaks are usually family-run. Most of these places sell the same standard fare, but they all have their special touch. According to Khalisah, “each greasy little mamak has something to offer.” The one on our street is made of beautiful dark wood, stands on stilts, and has electric lamps all along its parameter, so it looks some fancy restaurant you'd find on a beach. We love it.

Walking around our neighborhood every day is such a great experience. I have this theory that you can never really connect with a place until you walk its streets. You have to feel the sun on your back and the wind on your face; smell the exhaust when cars zoom by; bump into people who are going to work or school or the grocery; get to know your local laundry man; and memorize the different trees that line the street and the cracks that crisscross the pavement. Only then are you really a part of the place you’re in. It’s this process of interacting with a place intimately and appreciating its details that transforms it from being just another building or set of streets to being something sacred: sacred because it is now part of your consciousness, part of your life.

We’ll be going up and down these roads every day for the next few weeks, so I can’t wait to be more acquainted with this neighborhood, this city, and this country. I’m sure they have endless stories to tell.

Building Ourselves in America

(Originally published on Minority Dreams.)

As far back as I can remember, my family’s life has stretched across two parts of the world: America and the Middle East. We tore our hearts in two and buried them on opposite ends of the globe, traveling between them as we chased after a higher cause my dad labeled i’mar al-ard. Although the phrase doesn’t translate very well in English, it means something like “building the world,” and was my dad’s way of dedicating his life to doing something – anything – that would leave a positive impact on this planet he called home.

As he taught us later, building the world was a simple cycle in which we learned as much as humanly possible about the world we were in, while simultaneously working to make that world a better place. It was a wonderfully vague life plan that could adapt to any dream, take root in any soil. It would propel us around the globe, where we would meet all colors of people, and would (at least I hope) make us quite colorful as well. But my dad would never have dreamed, as he lay on his balcony in Syria watching the sky like a teenage Ché Guevara, that it would take him and his future family to America.

In preparation for his bit of building the world, my father spent his youth chasing knowledge the way he used to chase soccer balls in the alleys of Damascus. From the clutches of his family he ran to college in neighboring Halab. From a war that rained bombs in Halab he ran to Saudi Arabia to explore the uncharted territories of computer science. When machines didn’t satisfy his curiosity about the world, he set his sights on a place across the globe that was said to have enough libraries to satiate even Averroes. He and his wife packed all of their belongings in two suitcases, grabbed their two infants and jumped across a few continents and an ocean before landing in the middle of Chicago. They had nothing but those two suitcases, three thousand dollars in their wallets, and countless prayers to God – who they called by His Arabic name, Allah – that things would turn out alright.

My parents, when they set out, had no idea what was waiting for them in the country that was home to Hollywood and the White House. They would have been shocked to hear that they were going to stay there for over a decade, rather than the five years they had envisioned. They couldn’t foresee the Muslim communities that would take them in as long-lost cousins, my mom’s discovery of teaching and addiction to Burger King, my dad’s multiple lives as student, car dealer and activist, or their children’s mastery of English at the expense of the language of the Quran.

They didn’t know that a few years later they would make another life-changing trip, this time halfway across the continent, after my dad discovered an unmatchable political science program and a liberal Islamic Center in Los Angeles. They would fall in love with the San Fernando Valley, which eased the pain of homesickness with of all the Muslims it held in its lap and with its mountains, sisters of the mountains that encircled Damascus. I only understood what they were talking about years later when I drove through Damascus for the first time, and felt a sudden pang for the LA home I’d left when I was fifteen.

By the end of my freshman year of high school, we had decided to move to the Middle East, this time to Dubai. With two master’s degrees and a PhD under his belt, my dad felt that the time for his formal education was over. It was now to be the era of building. Building bridges between the two parts of the globe dearest to him. And as for us kids, it was time for us to formally meet the other half of our hearts – the annual summer trips we’d taken back to the Middle East were not enough to make us Middle Easterners. So we carted ourselves off to Dubai, not knowing whether to laugh or cry the whole way there.

Years later in the Middle East, my family is still under the spell of i’mar al-ard: that endless cycle of learning and working. And we’re still torn between our two halves. My dad makes trips back to the U.S. once or twice a year, my brother and I are doing our undergrad at a local American university with our eyes on New York for work and grad school, and my mom is a lover of all things organic in the best tradition of California culture.

But while we’re each busy trying to build our own world, it’s important to stop and recognize what built us. Among the many forces in our lives, America had no small role in helping us with our i’mar al-nafs, our “building the self.” It is the privileges, challenges and pleasures of American life that made us who we are today. And from the many lessons America taught us, perhaps the most important one is this: new worlds can always be created from those already existing. It’s a lesson we hold tight to, no matter what part of this Earth we find ourselves in.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

First Day in Malaysia!

Here's a quick entry from my Malaysia journal. A whole blog about this will be going up soon. Keep an eye out for it!


June 6, 200912:50 a.m. (Kuala Lumpur)

We arrived in Kuala Lumpur this afternoon at 2. Kay and I thought that we’d finally feel that we’d made it to Malaysia once we got out of the airplane. But in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, we were in the same plastic bubble that airplanes enter and exit in every major city around the world. Signs warning of swine flu were the newest addition to the airport since I’d last been there, but they were also sprouting out in sister buildings around the world. Once we got outside, managed to stuff our in-Dubai-everything-bigger-is-better-sized luggage into Winnie’s tiny beige car, and were on the road to the city, we managed to finally feel that we were in
Malaysia at last.

The country is beautiful, and it’s my exhaustion after a long day that began with the end of two uncomfortable hours of sleeping in an airplane seat that keep me from describing it in the way it deserves to be described. It’s green, green in a way that a desert can never dream of being. The short mountains and shallow valleys that marked the whole road home were so saturated with trees that not a spot of brown dirt or grey stone could be seen. Even when we got into Winnie’s apartment, which was in the middle of the industrial neighborhood of Subang Jaya, trees grew everywhere.

We dumped our stuff in Winnie’s tiny sky-blue apartment, then lounged there for a little while before heading off again to get some necessities for survival – shampoo, towels, etc. After that, we went for a pre-midnight snack at a little restaurant on stilts next to Winnie’s house, where we had satay, nasi ayam, and Milo Ice (a cold chocolate drink that’s very popular locally). Earlier that afternoon, on our way home from the airport, Winnie stopped at a nice rest-stop where I had my fist Malay meal of the trip. It was nasik lemak, which was coconut soak rice with anchovies, chilli, peanuts, and other fillings wrapped in banana paper. Delicious, but halfway through the meal I realized that my body might not by ready for Malaysian street food, and worried that I’d have to pay for that tantalizing meal for the next few days with some indigestion or something. Thankfully, I’ve been having Malay street food all day and I feel perfectly fine. Inshallah things’ll stay that way.

I wanna stay and write about all the details of going to the rest-stop, the mall, and the restaurant. How I could feel so many people staring at me, and how I was suddenly very conscious of being blue-eyed and white. I look different enough from everyone around me to seriously stand out. It’s pretty funny. But I can do that tomorrow, when I can actually think after a full night’s sleep. We’ll be going to the Central Market tomorrow too, so that’ll give me lots of material to work with.

But one thing before I go, because it was random and interesting and I might forget it. When the Maghrib adhan went off, Winnie got up from the sofa we’d been lounging on while watching Malay dramas to close the apartment door that had been since we’d arrived. All the flats in her apartment have two doors, one regular door like most apartments around the world have, and then a few steps outside that metal bars surrounding the flat entrance like a cage, with a bulky silver lock hanging heavily from it. That metal cage door is kept closed when we’re inside the flat, but the door is left open so air can circulate and neighbors can communicate (or spy on each other) more easily. It’s an interesting way of living, keeping yourself physically connected to the outside world even while in your home.

Anyways, at the Maghrib adhan, Winnie got up and closed the apartment door. Then she closed all the windows in the house. Why, I asked? “Because spirits roam mountains, forests, and apartment corridors at sunset, so you have to close your homes to them so they don’t try to come in,” came the answer. I’d heard a similar story from a Pakistani friend, and here I was hearing it again from a Malaysian. Pakistani women even cover their heads at maghrib so that the spirits don’t seep into their hair and then get tangled in it forever. Malaysians just try to stay home at maghrib, Winnie told me. It’s safer that way. Some cameras even captured the images of these spirits as the sun set, especially as they made their way across the threshold of a house. Stay inside, lock the doors and windows. It’s better.

Now it’s almost 2 a.m., and the air as sticky as honey spread across my body. Better get some sleep. Gnite.