Opinion

Chasing a ghost

Dina Zaman

Dina Zaman writes to find answers. Sometimes she doesn't. If she's not spending too much money on books, it's household items. She would like everyone to be happy.

MARCH 7 — Excerpt from Memali incident chapter.

Ibrahim Libya’s grave was at the nearby cemetery. We walked over and the mood was sombre.

“Sometimes there is a scent of attar,” Ustaz Hilmi said. “I’ve never smelled it but people have experienced it.”

The cemetery was slightly untidy and disorganised. Some graves looked unkempt. It was a tanah kubur kampung. A slight breeze cooled us from time to time.

Ibrahim Libya's tombstone... a simple grave for a holy man. — Pictures by Dina ZamanIbrahim Libya's tombstone... a simple grave for a holy man. — Pictures by Dina Zaman“Ini makamnya,” he pointed out. And there laid Ibrahim Libya and his friends, in simple graves. Where they were buried was guarded by old wrought iron fences, and the graves were overrun by wild flowers and weeds. The tombstones were weathered. How ironic it was to see historical icons, lionised by many and demonised by others, in rather humble settings. What a memoriam for simple, pious men.

Mak Su sniffed. Tears ran down her cheeks. “Mak Su ni… I’m not political. I don’t even understand it. But kesian. They’re just kampung people like me too. What an end.”

Ustaz Hilmi’s sekolah pondok was the direct opposite of the pondok I had stayed in last year in Dengkil.

What a contrast to Jenderam. This was a true sekolah pondok in every sense of the word. Old, recycled, damaged wooden planks had been used to build the huts. And yet, the houses were orderly. Of course the residents were segregated by sex and age, but they were friendly to anyone and everyone who passed by their homes.

Each pondok housed four inhabitants and toilets were basic. Each had an outhouse. Depending on the personalities who lived in the pondok, the huts could be colourful or dour. Some of the older residents sat out at the front of their pondoks, staring ahead and not minding passers-by, while some hailed us as we walked past them. One hut had a very old woman and a young girl who looked like she was still in school, sitting with their backs together.

Uztaz Hilmi pointing to the final resting place of those killed in the Memali incident.Uztaz Hilmi pointing to the final resting place of those killed in the Memali incident.Hilmi introduced his wife to us. She was his faithful sweetheart who had waited for him while he was in jail. It’s been a good marriage, he smiled. There is so much to be thankful for.

It began drizzling. Tea was served, and again, so sweet it could induce instant diabetes. Hilmi asked if this was the first time I had been to a sekolah pondok. No, I said, I went to one in Dengkil. He listened, astounded by the wealth I too was surprised by.

“Masyallah. I suppose all the sekolah pondok in Kuala Lumpur are like that too?”

No. Not all.

Aduhh, he smiled, his sekolah pondok could never muster a second glance, they were that poor. Who came to Baling anyway? Masyallah, people are truly rich in the city.

“Was it true that in Kuala Lumpur, there were certain ulamas who catered to only the rich?” his wife asked.

I laughed. There were some, but not all.

Where were all the usrahs held?

In mosques, golf clubs, homes.

“Golf clubs? Masyallah, truly people are rich. I don’t think we even have a community hall where we are.”

We do, his wife said, but it’s not grand.

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Memali is nothing to look at... a kampung like many others in our country.Memali is nothing to look at... a kampung like many others in our country.It was frustrating, the few days I was there. Many of the survivors and witnesses had died of old age. The survivors were too old, ill or senile. Who could I talk to, then?

The road in front of Ibrahim Libya’s house is a recent upgrade. After the tragedy, the villagers were compensated by the government, but even for a kampung family, how far could RM20,000 to RM50,000 take them?

Appointments were set up, but at the last minute, either they had other plans or a family emergency took them away. Still, by then, if the interviews had taken place, it would be about the incident and how they suffered during the standoff and in jail. Tragic it may be, but certainly one didn’t want to hear the same old story being repeated.

“Was he a good husband and father?” I asked his widow.

 She smiled and said, “Well, he must be, because he had a family!”

 The kampung folk... many just spend their afternoons sitting outside their homes watching the world go by.The kampung folk... many just spend their afternoons sitting outside their homes watching the world go by.I tried again. “What was he like? Was he romantic when both of you were courting?”

 She laughed, embarrassed.

There were the usual Memali lore: Of hearing men and women screaming and at war, and of gunshots in the area, during the day or night, and when one turned to look back, there was nothing. The smell of attar was another supernatural presence everyone talked about.

Some of the villagers were spooked; some who were cycling nonchalantly to their destination, cycled straight into what seemed like a re-enactment of the tragedy and within seconds, what they saw was gone.

Who was Ibrahim Libya?

 To find out, I had to come back to Kuala Lumpur. This was one holy and very much dead man I had to track down.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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