March 3, 2010

Between the Sheets, Malaysia

We had been in Kuala Lumpur for five days, and the heat was starting to get to my head. I was sprawled out on the bed in front of the television, reading the subtitles of a Muslim soap opera. In this particular episode, a husband broke the news to his wife that he was marrying another woman. She would be his third wife. They weighed the pros and cons and how it would affect their marriage. When the husband left for work, naturally the first and second wife conspired an elaborate plan to sabotage the wedding. In my defense, it was the only thing remotely watchable during the high noon heat. But it gave me an insight -- albeit a skewed one -- into a culture that I knew very little about.

Malaysia was my first experience in a Muslim country. Much like their slogan, “Truly Asia,” (whatever that means), KL had all the makings of a truly Asian metropolis: Delicious street food, pint-sized citizens walking at a fast pace, and oh, yea…it’s freakin’ hot. I wasn’t sure how to feel after seeing women wearing burqas, the black full-body garment that covers everything but the hands, eyes, and feet. It was so different, and wasn’t that why I was traveling in the first place?

To be quite honest, it surprised me, giving me an almost dark sense of curiosity. It was their religion, their culture, their life, so I observed. I found myself staring into the eyes of covered women in passing. Many quickly looked away, but others returned a stare that might have penetrated to the back of my skull. Such light behind their eyes! The younger women often had painted fingernails and toenails and wore dark eye make-up. Takayo and I sat in sidewalk cafés asking each other, “What do you think she looks like under there?” I wondered how they spent their free time. And more puzzling, how did they go about eating messy foods.

We walked the streets of KL for nearly a week, documenting the cultural differences we saw. As it turned out, many of the restaurants had dining booths with privacy curtains. Once closed, women could remove their veil. I watched one woman just slide the food under the fabric and into her mouth. It was a little cumbersome, but she made it work. Many of our hotel rooms had vibrantly colored prayer mats rolled up in the closet. A green arrow on the ceiling with the word Kiblat or Qibla pointed toward Mecca. I found the call to prayer fascinating. Before coming to Malaysia, my friend Bruce recounted one particular morning in a shoebox motel next to a Mosque.

“I was blasted out of bed at seven o’clock by the loudest voice I had ever heard.”

Hearing the call to prayer for myself -- echoing off the buildings and emptying the streets -- was a humbling experience. It conjured some mixed emotions, and as much as I hate to admit, there was a part of me that almost felt threatened. Perhaps threatened is a little excessive, but there’s a FEELING to this place that unfolds from different angles.

At the KL airport heading to Penang, there was a woman in a burqa ahead of us in line. She was short, so I was able to look over her shoulder when she pulled out her passport. As if reading my mind, she opened it to the picture page. I motioned for Takayo to look. It was Tony Montana that said, “The eyes, Chico, they never lie.” In the Muslim world, this must be true -- it was the only part of her face that wasn‘t covered.

On a diving trip, I sat next to a girl who was visiting from Pakistan. She was in her early twenties and her head wasn‘t covered. It would be a long boat ride, so I decided to ask her about the “rules.” She sighed, and then began her lecture.

“Not all women have to be fully covered. It depends on your culture. When I‘m in Pakistan, I wear a hijab, those colorful silk headscarves you‘ve seen the Malaysian women wear.”

“Oh, I like those. What do you think about the burqa? Have you ever worn one?”

“No, I’ve never worn one, but I have friends in Karachi that do. You see, they don’t have to wear them in their home -- unless a man visits.”

“What about individuality, you know? How do they express themselves?”

“Just like anybody else. They buy Louis Vuitton bags and nice clothes to wear around the house. They have friends over, and visit friends. The husbands will leave so the women can have time to themselves.”

“Do they wear designer clothes under the burqa when they go out?”

“They wouldn’t do that because it’s too hot.”

“Oh. I saw this soap opera where this guy had two wives, and he wanted a third one. The two wives started plotting against him. How accurate is that?”

“Those type of shows, they are, how do you say…garbage.”

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