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Historically part of the Brunei Sultanate, the dating of the introduction of Islam in this part of the world is still debated but scant sources as diverse as Spanish and Chinese records suggest it perhaps extends as far back as the 13th century. It would certainly have been subjected to Islamic governmental influence as a vassal state under the Kuripan Empire of that period. Its instigation came however more from Arab traders who bore the title Sharif and who were certainly around at that time. The first state mosque was only inaugurated in 1852 however during the Brooke era (1841-1941), a square pyramidal structure made almost entirely of wood. Storyboards relating the fundamentals of Islam succinctly documented Mohammed's rise, explaining for example that he initially met resistance in denouncing the pantheism already practiced at the Ka'aba, it supposedly already being a house of gods at that time. After fleeing to Madinah he arbitrated on local conflicts and fought several battles in turn himself in order to secure his mission, returning in triumph to Mecca 2 years later in 630AD. He supposedly left behind an ideal of "Umma" (community) designed to cut across the interests of family, clan, tribe and nation. My cynicism gleaned another joke in that the storyboard told of human beings possessing fee will upon which their actions will be judged, which Islam promptly sought to take away. Explanation of Islam's 5 Pillars also gleaned the interesting revelation that the sunset prayer, number 4 out of the 5 daily submissions is known as Maghrib, literally the West where the sun sets. I knew that this has now been adopted to describe the Moslem lands of North Africa west of Arabia, sometimes used to refer specifically to Morocco. Quotes from the Koran revealed such delights as single people guilty of lust should receive 100 lashes, and that those married should be buried waist deep and then stoned to death. Quite a take on the ten commandments.

Amongst several stone obelisks here a copy of the Terengganu Stone inscribed in Malay language but Arab script reminded me that it is the oldest known such example, promulgating Islam as the official religion of the Malay peninsula in 1303. I learned that the first ever mosque built was constructed at Basra in 635AD with architecture synonymous with a fort, surely another insight into the prevailing political climate and strategy for dissemination! On education, a valuable quote from Muhammed was "a scholar's ink is holier than a martyr's blood", too bad they dont just stick to writing about it then, and there was also perhaps an inadvertant honesty in a storyboard telling of how " the Arabs had produced a literature of high quality before the coming of Islam. Poetry about deeds of valour, love, war, animals, the wind and so forth gave way to verses of praise of the oneness of Allah and the holy Muslim struggle, to set people on the true path". Free will and holy struggle, yeah? So now you could write about anything you wanted, as long as it was to fight for Islam!

Arab contributions to astronomy were interesting, first the fact that they invented the solar calendar and the first almanacs (derived from the Arabic al-munakh "the weather"). Mathematical advances made in this sphere are betrayed in further Arabic words such as Azimuth and Zenith. Their evolution of the astrolabe from the 9th century was an important development which must have allowed shipping to realise more far reaching dissemination of trade and so with it Islam.

Moving onto a music section, under Islam even this is deemed to be split into 2 judgmental classifications, with categories of permitted and forbidden recitals. The prophet allegedly allowed musical instruments as long as they were not used for sinful purposes, presumably such as shoving a flute up your arse. I wondered where Metallica would fit into all this. In a weaponry display, more contentious hypocrisy said "Islam detests war, so the contention that Islam was spread by the sword by force is quite unfounded...... the prophet himself was proficient in the use of weapons....... crafstmen depicted upon them the qualities of the holy struggle". Yeah, and if you don't submit to them they'll cut your head off. Unusual artifacts were an Ottoman sword with a walrus ivory handle, also inexplicably a camel saddle once belonging to Colonel Gaddafi and a replica of Mohammed's sword looking way too large, pristine and shiny, it was like the quintessential Excalibur. The display ended with ceremonial daggers similar to Acehnese Rencongs, called Keris' here, with the umbrella style handle attached to a wavy double edged blade. The final galleries of household items and Koranic writings were either uninspiring or for once devoid of translation so I was spared the espousement of more hypocritical hooey even if I was interested.

A very well presented museum in a fine shuttered colonial building even if it was of rather specialist interest, a large wall map of the Islamic world perhaps summed it up with the portrayal of Indonesia and Malaysia incontiguous with the remainder. Their nearest Islamic neighbour was distant Bangladesh, perhaps gleaning more of an insight into trade winds and the omnipresent desire for local produce such as highly prized spices as much as anything else. I moved on.

From there I came across several exterior exhibits at the neighbouring Sarawak Museum which had hitherto eluded me. First a couple of very grand and alternately carved or painted "burial huts", like small garden sheds elevated atop ghoulish faced totem poles. Of a similar function was a stone megalith reminiscent of the structures of Stonehenge which had been used as funeral altars as late as 1950. Mysterious rock carvings of a prone man and bird have been reproduced here, discovered near the Sarawak River delta near Kuching and tentatively dated to 1000 years ago.


A squarish pink building on the waterfront, Rajah Charles Brooke instigated it in 1911 in addressing the need for a dedicated courthouse for the local Chinese community. It only lasted 10 years before reverting to become the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, becoming a museum only in modernity. It had been set up through voluntary donations in order to educate first and foremost Sarawak's youngesr generations about the hardships and struggle the Chinese community endured since their arrival here around 150 years ago and their important contribution in developing the state. Linguistic groups from all over China emigrated here but naturally from the South China coast in the main. It's thought that Chinese merchants first arrived here during the 10th century since it lay close to already established trade routes running along Borneo's north coast and promised rich natural resources. Rare and prized produce such as Rhinosceros horn, bird feathers, bezoar stones and birds nests were traded for ceramics, metalware and silk.

The 19th century brought unparalleled pressure for Chinese people to emigrate, as domestic overpopulation created land shortage and poverty. The peoples of the South China coast were natural targets when Rajah James Brooke sought volunteers to develop Sarawak's agriculture, mining industries and trade with indiginous forest tribes. Emigrants tended to congregate according to their linguistic roots, and so it became predominantly Foochow and Hakka people from north Fukien province opposite Taiwan who concentrated in Sarawak. Pushed out by desperation, their arduous journey ended only with further privation in a contrasting land they little understood, and it was only initial government support with rations and their hardy entrepreneurial spirit which made them endure. Mutual help became essential, clearly demonstrated in the subsequent evolution of clan houses, and further migration programmes under Charles Brooke from 1863 provided the security of contract labour. The desire of many to seek their fortunes and return home was allegedly only realised by 1 in 10.

By 1947 the census showed the Chinese to now comprise over a quarter of Sarawak's population, and the largest ethnic group after the Sea Dayaks. Interestingly, that same census revealed the European contingency of the day to number less than 700. Present day, the Chinese number nearer 30% of the populace, an immediately striking revelation I had realised upon arrival but had not at all expected. The Hakka's in particular were susceptible to immigration since even in their native China they were referred to as "visitors", having already been forced into domestic nomadism which made them culturally distinct, their women could not afford the "luxury" of binding their feet for example. By 1820 they were already in Sarawak mining gold and antimony, preceding the era of "White Rajah" rule. They refused to entertain subserviance under James Brooke and so conflict arose until a final rebellion was launched in 1857. The museum did not relate its consequences, but the Brooke dynasty endured suffice to say.


Just across the river though largely swamped by trees and conurbation, I took a small touristy Tampang (row cum chug boat) in search of this 19th century fortification. Built on the instigation of Rajah Charles Brooke in 1879, its design reflects English renaissance style in a pleasing whitewashed tower house with a crenellated roof, attached to a small adjacent compound with round corner turrets. Built in order to protect the harbour area and upper river reaches, it never fired a shot in anger, though of course it was occupied by the Japanese during WWII. The fort was tricky and disconcerting to track down, hidden as it was now in the corner of a police compound sprawling with barrack blocks and riot vehicles, but I eventually came across it suitably deserted, its internal Police Museum now closed indefinitely. What had not helped was that immediately adjacent to it was a large fenced off worksite where the construction of a massive shuttlecock-like dome structure had me presuming it to be another overindulgent mosque, before later learning it was to be the new seat of the Sarawak parliament. Near its main doorway lay a water bore, still boasting a cast iron wellhead literated with "J. Taylor and Co., Loughborough 1882". The fort was a nice bonus in managing to squeeze it into the remainder of the day, which I subsquently rewarded with the obligatory isotonic drink by a prettified riverside promenade, appreciating views which opitimised Kuching's rather schizophrenic hue in an unexpected fishing fleet being dwarfed by the Holiday Inn. Even a small neighbourhood mosque here had been uncharacteristically sweetened in bright yellow, green and blue to match local tastes. Another brightly painted Tampang chugged me the seconds it took to reach the other bank, retracing the heart of the town along the pristine riverside promenande where I chanced upon more historical insight. In an untypically indulgent tourist touch, brass pavement plaques related in sequence the unlikely beginnings of Sarawak's colonial history, a story like no other........

From there I made my third determined foray of the day to Kuching's tourist office, frustratingly now finding that the queue had diminished only due to its closure. I had decided that my next move would be out to nearby Bako National Park, an attraction which despite its proximity and humble dimensions promised something more akin to what one might expect of Borneo. The guidebook and fellow travellers had both eluded tales of its reputed wonders, so its predictable popularity required pre-booking of accommodation in Kuching. That was rather overtaken by events however in that frequenting once again that night my favoured haunt the Spring Forest Cafe, I was accosted by Ben and Fulya, an Anglo-Turkish duo who both taught English in Istanbul and who were here on a leg of their honeymoon. It was a rare and fortunate quirk that I had sported my now weary looking Besiktas top that night, the Istanbul team Fulya supported, a highly unexpected reminder of home for her. Over beer and blether it was revealed that they had hired a car and were headed for Bako the following day, the invitation to tag along was too good to turn down.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Malaysia

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