Sunday, June 25, 2017

Looking For The Light

Hari Raya Puasa, Eid ul-Fitr; 1 Syawal 1438

Woke for the dawn prayer with a worryingly painful back. At that time I despaired of attending Raya Prayers since any kind of movement was potentially painful and I felt vulnerable in the extreme. However, I'm pleased to say that, with Fuad's help, I managed to get across to the small masjid opposite where we've been putting up for this visit at Rachid's place at Cheng Heights. I needed to use a chair for assistance, but I got through somehow and felt the better for it. Now wondering what the day will bring but reconciled to getting on with things and hoping some kind of recovery kicks in.

In dark times you've got to keep an eye out for the lights; and so for all who struggle to keep them in view: Selamat Hari Raya! Eid Mubarak!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Fast Approaching

29 Ramadhan, 1438

I'm sitting on the floor in the living room at Mak's house in Melaka typing this, having finally succeeded in getting on line and connecting with the world beyond. Lots of activity going on around me, though happily passing me by so I can type in relative peace, as preparations are afoot for the final breaking of fast for Ramadhan this year. It will be nice to drink tea whenever I wish to tomorrow, but it's equally good to enjoy the control and simplicity of the fast as I've been doing today.

Had a long chat with Hamzah earlier on the current state of affairs regarding the economy and running of the government here in Malaysia. There is much to pray for, a reminder of how petty one's own concerns are set against the needs of a nation.

Happy to report reasonably clear roads going south from the capital yesterday evening when we made our way down. Just what we needed.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Bad Dream

28 Ramadhan, 1438

I'd been wondering whether I've ever had 'eating dreams' in fasting month. I'm talking about the kind of dreams in which you suddenly realise you've been scoffing away at something when you shouldn't have been and feel appropriately guilty. Well, now I know the answer as I had precisely such a dream in the early hours of today and still feel the strange guilt of it.

I had the dream after going back to sleep after the sahur meal before dawn. In the dream I was rummaging in a box below the sink in the kitchen here, looking for something that Noi said she needed, when I realised I'd been munching at a chocolate wafer that had been left inside the box. I woke with the actual taste of the wafer in my mouth, and deep regrets that I'd failed in the fast so close to the end, having some awareness in the dream that we are into the final days of the month.

The relief I felt on realising that the wafer wasn't real was considerable, but, as noted above, wasn't quite considerable enough to completely wash away the feeling of guilt. I suppose this is all useful in some way, but I just don't know quite how.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Going Wrong

27 Ramadhan, 1438

As ever Noi has put and kept the house here in tip-top order since our arrival, but modern life presents so many opportunities for things to go wrong that it was unlikely we'd get away without having to deal with at least one or two problems. And it just so happens that two irritations in the smooth running of the household have made themselves felt the day before we depart for Melaka and our forthcoming Raya festivities. 

We've already had a few days without the air-conditioning functioning in our bedroom and we thought we'd got this fixed. However, the cold air it was blowing has managed to turn warm again and we'll need to get the workmen back again (after just two days.) Not sure they'll be able to come tomorrow though, so this is one problem that looks set to run for some time. At almost exactly the same time as becoming aware of our non-functioning air-conditioning we found ourselves unable to get any tv service though our less-than-trusty Astro box, so poor Noi will miss one of her favourite dramas tonight. Somehow we got through to customer service earlier and they say they'll send a technician tomorrow morning, so we live in hope of effecting a cure before moving on.

And to put a tin hat on it (as Mum would say) in the middle of all this I managed to tweak my back, whilst standing shaving (of all harmless activities!) Sitting here typing, I'm feeling the ache big-time. As you may imagine, I am not a happy soldier. All the more reason for reminding myself that things could be worse and that from certain perspectives this has been just another day in a paradise of sorts.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Within Reason

26 Ramadhan, 1438

Continuing to make headway in Nikolaus Wachsmann's devastating history of the Third Reich's Konzentrationslager. In some ways it's an easy read, being written with great clarity and never losing sight of the human stories amidst the formidable analysis of the development of the camps. But it's so overwhelming in its evocation of the unbearable suffering endured by so many that I can only manage a few pages at one time before feeling a deep need to get away from the twisted world within its pages. The problem is, though, that this is very much our world and there's so much that's easy to recognise despite the historical distance involved: the ease with which a culture can surrender to the irrational for one.

The sick twisted logic of the camps is simultaneously enraging and frightening. The guards find confirmation that the prisoners are less than human in the the physical degradation they suffer as a result of life in the appalling environment of the typical camp created by the guards. There seems no way out of the madness, and, of course, for the majority of the victims that was tragically the case.

But I suppose a way forward can be seen in the very publication of a book like this, in which reason and humanity shed some light, dark as it is, on what took place. Wachsmann's work, and the painstaking research on which it draws, does some honour to the despairing epigraph of the book, drawn from a letter written by one of the victims found buried in the Auschwitz crematorium: may the world at least behold a drop, a fraction of this tragic world in which we lived. We're frequently reminded in these pages of the choices which were never real choices given to the victims of the camps. Fortunately we have real choices and can pursue truth, can choose to reason in an honest fashion, can follow the light insofar as our limitations allow.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Not The Final Countdown

25 Ramadhan, 1438

There was a time when I'd mark off the final days of fasting in any given Ramadhan by thinking: This is the last Monday I'll need to fast on; this is the last time I'll have to fast on Tuesday - and so on. Childish, I suppose, but comforting. I don't do this anymore, not because I've miraculously grown-up, but because I've come to understand that, with good fortune, these will not be the final days of fasting for me.

Monday, June 19, 2017

In Detail

24 Ramadhan, 1438

Main reading of the day has been Nikolaus Wachsmann's KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. The KL in the title is from the German Konzentrationslager, a term that before I read some of the reviews of this monumental study was entirely unfamiliar to me, in something of the same way that I'd never heard the term Gulag prior to reading Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. I  wonder, in the light of the publication of Wachsmann's work whether KL will become as definingly familiar a term.

I'm roughly a third of the way into the book and already overwhelmed by its astonishing detail, astonishing both in the sense of just how much detail exists regarding every aspect of the camps (this is a text that Holocaust-deniers would do well to avoid if they wish to cling on to their pathetic illusions) and in the darker sense of its relentless revelation of the human capacity for extreme cruelty. Wachsmann skilfully blends accounts of individual behaviour involving both the perpetrators and the victims of the evil of the camps with a broader sense of the general development of the KL against the unfolding events of the 30s and 40s so that you're never allowed to lose sight of the horror in human terms. But the horror is never played up - I suppose because it simply doesn't need to be. The bare details are quite enough.

But the implications of those details are devastating in terms of how we look at ourselves. On the page I'm reading at the moment, dealing with the development of the Nazi euthanasia programme, known as Operation T-4, in relation to the camps, Wachsmann's flat statement regarding the physicians involved, Mass murder seems to have come easy to them, is massively troubling, and it's backed up with ample evidence. The doctors who singled out prisoners for execution in the first, experimental gas chambers enjoyed their work and the prestige, and chances for career advancement, involved.

I'm not sure exactly why I'm reading this, I just know that at some level I have to.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

On Balance

23 Ramadhan, 1438

Can I really write about the rigours of fasting month now that I'm so adjusted to its demands that those rigours have generally dissipated? Perhaps talking about the minor inconveniences of Ramadhan would be more to the point? Yet it's wise to remember that the demands of the month extend well beyond the merely physical and living up to all of those demands, each and every day, is rigorous indeed.

But sitting here feeling extremely full and extremely satisfied after scoffing Noi's chicken in a bag dinner doesn't seem in the least bit rigorous. Rather it puts me in mind of the need to go easy on the edibles for the next couple of days and to keep in mind how incredibly lucky we are to live at a time when for so many folks in this part of the world a luxury diet can be taken for granted. There was an article in today's paper about some fairly major research indicating that one in ten of the world's population is obese, with a good third being classified as overweight. I didn't find that surprising at all.

Yet another reason for meditating upon the not-so-simple good sense of the fast and just some of its many purposes.

Saturday, June 17, 2017


22 Ramadhan, 1438

Finished Patricia Cornwell's Chaos this morning. There was enough of a story to keep me going to the end, but not enough for me to feel the experience of reading the novel was worthwhile. Except, I suppose, there's some interest in seeing a writer getting it all wrong and somehow managing to get published. I suppose there are enough fans still around to make on-going publication of even the weakest Scarpetta novels financially worthwhile? I can't see how any reader new to Cornwell would even consider reading on. Everything in Chaos is predicated on familiarity and interest in the increasingly unlikely backstory of the forensic pathologist and the characters around her such that a good quarter of the text is spent clumsily rehashing that story. 

One thing that jumped out on me in this reading is the weirdly obsessional sense of hysteria generated by the central character in almost every sequence of the novel. Ms Cornwell's various personal problems are not exactly well kept secrets, but it wouldn't be difficult to guess their nature from a reading of this novel. I suppose the corrosive paranoia inherent in the Scarpetta world view worked to the advantage of the stories built around her in the early novels as a nobody caught up in events beyond her control. But she arrived as a heavyweight player a long time ago. The depiction of her as a victim of pretty much everyone and everyone thing around her is just very, very strange.

Friday, June 16, 2017

From The Ridiculous To The Sublime

21 Ramadhan, 1438


This time last year I vowed never to read another Patricia Cornwell novel after thankfully putting aside, though not before courageously completing, the dreadful Isle of Dogs. My feeling then was that it qualified as the worst novel I've ever read and, in retrospect, I think that was an accurate judgement. So it's an odd and unlikely coincidence that exactly one year later another Bloomsday should see me reading yet another Cornwell, this time the latest in the Scarpetta series, featuring the hotshot forensic pathologist (or whatever she is) from Virginia. Why have I reneged on my vow? you may wonder. Basically because Karen, recalling our joint affection for the first four or so novels in the Scarpetta series, made me a birthday present earlier this year of a rather fine and distinctly hefty paperback edition of Chaos, the novel in question and I felt obliged to read it at some point, setting it aside for the June vacation.

The good news is that it's nothing like as bad as Isle of Dogs; the bad news is that it suffers from exactly those faults that made me, and I suspect many other readers, fall out of love with Dr Scarpetta. It would be tiresome and ungentlemanly to list the faults in question but I will say that Ms Cornwell seems to have no sense at all of how comic it is to constantly insist on how deeply wonderful her central characters are - especially the tiresome Benton (Scarpetta's perfect husband) and even more tiresome Lucy (Scarpetta's perfect niece) - whilst failing to give them the slightest sense of realism, beyond letting us know what wonderful cars they drive, what fabulous food they eat, what wonderful clothes they wear and how good they look in them. The fact that these brilliantly accomplished characters generally behave with a level of emotional intelligence that would embarrass the average ten-year-old seems to escape their creator. Or, perhaps, this is all intended as subtly satirical?

Anyway, I decided that I couldn't let this Bloomsday go by without treating myself to a little bit of the greatest novel of the twentieth century. I chose to accompany Stephen, walking into eternity along Sandymount strand, and was glad I did. Never quite realised before the degree to which Chapter 3 of Ulysses echoes, reflects and sheds light on Stephen's glorious epiphany in Chapter 4 of A Portrait. Really must read the whole novel again (and again!)