Miscellaneous and Other Interesting Articles
Living by the River
by Ayman Ahwal
I am not a scientist in the way one understands nowadays. From an early age my education had a distinctly classical leaning but I have a good eye for observing people and phenomena in the attempt to derive the universal from the specific, quantifying experience and learning from it. I might describe myself as a past master at the trial and error method. I have nothing against modern science and indeed I sometimes regret my lack of knowledge in physics chemistry, mechanics and the like. But I strongly reproach what people call modern science for its lack of an overall holistic approach in its various specialised domains. I have learned by experience that everything seems to be inter-connected in often unsuspected ways.
When my father retired from banking he disappeared into a Cornish garden with a gypsy gardener who arrived every day on a horse and cart hardly to be seen again in the household except for silently consumed meals and to read books late into the night. Twice a week he emerged from the garden to walk to the golf club where he would play a round of golf and a few rounds of bridge with his also retired cronies. We had a garden of some ten acres, with a stream running through it at its lowest level. It was big enough to get lost in. It included a large vegetable patch, a fruit garden, an orchard, a paddock, extensive lawns, rosegardens galore, a greenhouse, an ornamental pond, even a small wood of various species of trees. Dutifully, as a young boy I would sometimes watch my father and listen to him expound eloquent on the mysteries of rose cultivation, crop rotation, the intricacies of seedling boxes and transplanting in neat rows in well prepared soils. I used to wonder what an educated man found exciting about digging and getting his hands dirty with earth. I would watch as he and Jenkins the gypsy gardener patiently, endlessly weeded lawns and beds, while I was endlessly and patiently bored. Surely life was about other things, I thought.
Some fifty years later, by now in Malaysia, a writer, Muslim since more than half of my life, having lived in many countries and travelled all over the world, I suddenly arrived at a crossroads in my life. I had just divorced my third wife. In business as in my personal life I have not been so successful at choosing partners. I wanted to get away from the city and urban life. Living in Kuala Lumpur at the time, I just went to the forest and found a piece of land with a wooden house on stilts on it. I decided to settle there. From there my life took a totally unexpected turn from which, I believe, I will never turn back. Images of disappearing for ever in a tropical forest flashed across my mind. At last, I thought, I would write all those books I had intended to write but had never quite had the right quality time for reflection, or any time at all with city preoccupations. Now it was quality time all the time. So I made the intention to make the most of it.
The land I went to live on was by a river which rippled idyllically by. When it rained – and it does almost daily in the tropics – the river suddenly became a roaring brown monster which coursed threateningly down our narrow valley often overflowing its banks and flooding adjacent land, tearing down shrubs and trees situated precariously too near the river. From the house the sound of the river was a constant background 24 hours a day, more pervasive than musak in a shopping mall. I was immediately aware of any change in sound texture and pitch and would glance out of the window to check the water level and its colour. Abruptly I was back with the elements. Automatically I would also check the sky to judge how much longer the rain would last for a quick estimate of expected water levels and volume.
As there was at first no bridge to my land I had to balance-step my way often over a raging torrent on a fallen tree or a plank like a performer on a tightrope. So I built a substantial high bridge. Of course, I could only work on it while water levels were low. If it suddenly rained upriver, quickly the babbling brook would become a raging torrent and I would have to abandon work until the next day. I worked in such a way that I could safely leave my work at almost any time and not lose it all to the elements. Eventually I finished my bridge and, as far as I know it is still there. I built the bridge high to allow for a three metre rise in the water level. The design was, basic and pragmatic. I used materials to hand: river stones, sand and earth, using cement only sparingly.
Firstly I built two high escarped ramps with piles of river stones on each side of the river, filling up the inside gaps with earth and cementing the outside of the ramp and a top surface. Then when I estimated that the weather would give me a break I built two end pillars of reinforced concrete. The spanning of it was the easiest part as good wood from fallen trees is not difficult to find. They just had to be dragged and placed upon my pillars and the bridge infrastructure nailed into place. Eventually I was given two forty foot steel sections from a bridge that had succumbed to floods down river some years previously.
Finally I had a bridge and I was less prisoner of the river. But was I? In fact the river continued to dominate my life for the next six years of my life while living in its close proximity. Quite soon I realized that the river bed had to be constantly dredged. Rocks rolled down the river from upstream and filled up the river bed. So in order to keep the water flowing fast and to protect my bridge from being swamped by rising waters in times of rain, I had to pull out rocks from the river bed. This task I did every day and, of course, never ended. Little by little with the rocks dragged out of the river I built up and reinforced the river bank by terracing it.
Local people would scratch their heads at this old man as he heaved and struggled with sometimes huge rocks, pushing them up the river bank. It was a gargantuan and sometimes Sisyphean task which became manageable by a routine little-by-little approach. Sometimes gaining a bit sometimes losing ground to the river, but overall I won the river over to see things my way. Of course after some time I had amassed huge mountains of stones on the river bank, far too many to use on the river bank itself. So I began to build a garden, which I called Taman Taubat (Garden of Penance).
The taubat (penance in Malay) was real, dragging the rocks up the river bank. I dug a large fish pond which I lined with river stones and with the earth and sand dug out I raised the overall level of parts of the garden, which I paved with river stones. I found that nearly all the stones from my river had at least one flat surface suitable for a paving surface. With the larger stones I made features to mark the top of a flight of steps or just as landmarks, with rocks of unusual shapes or colour.
The next lessons the river had to give me were not so much from the river itself but from people’s treatment of it. The first was a very delicate matter indeed. The local inhabitants, Malay villagers, some of whom lived up the steep hill on the other side of my riverbank, were used to using the river as a toilet. This shocked me considerably. Moreover as my river bank had become quite amenable, local people would cross over the river using the bridge I had built, walk along my by now very comfortably terraced riverbank, step into the river, sit down in the water and do the unmentionable…..
Malays are Muslims, which makes the whole issue that much more astonishing as it is quite contrary to Islam to treat water in this disreputable way. They only have to take a lesson from the precise prescriptions of the ablutions for prayer to understand such things. But often in religious practice the ritual hides the reality, although it also contains it. Even though the ritual is respected, the ritual becomes habit and the real life application is often lost. Observing ritual is often so much more the preoccupation of Muslims rather than the understanding of its symbolic and substantial lessons for real life which they embody or can be seen to embody to those that seek meaning in religion.
Now this was a real problem, not only because I drank from the river. It was my only source of water, although at the time I was also digging a well. Malays are sensitive people and easily offended and I did not see myself ticking off grown men and elderly matrons for misusing the river. After all they had lived near to its banks for centuries and I was a newcomer. So I had to tread very carefully. Certainly I could throw stones and rant and rave at youngsters who polluted the water with their droppings but older people would have been most offended. They might even quote the ever powerful argument of “Malay custom” at me! Sometimes I was assured that because the river flowed at a certain volume and ran over sand and stones, it could regenerate itself, all of this from a sharia’ah point of view But, of course, that is not entirely the point. The important thing is how people themselves treat the water. I decided that the key to it all was a question of respect and that one’s treatment of water should reflect one’s respect for Allah’s most valuable gift to man. From then on things became clearer, as I began to think along these lines and consider ways to improve matters.
In earlier years I had lived some twelve years in the Far West of Islam in Morocco, of which three years were spent in the desert. Life in the desert taught me many things which were to be of spiritual and basic practical value to me in later life. Two things are scarce in the desert: Water and people. People of the desert, although in some ways fierce and uncompromising – their environment is such also – honour both with respect. To act without chivalry towards a person or water are almost equally serious misdemeanours. To sully fresh clean water with human detritus would be tantamount to slapping a respected person in the face. This is clearly another motivation than one for “scientific” reasons.
One wise man I visited in the desert put it into a nutshell when he told me that wherever one established life for a lifetime or even just for the time of the day, three places should be carefully watched over. The first place, which should also be honoured is the place where clean water comes into the living space, be that a fountain or a pot of clean water. The second place is where dirty water is discarded. The third place is a space kept clean where a traveller or a guest might sit and feel himself to be as if master of the house. These guidelines apply to any place where life is established be it a palace, a hovel or a place swept clean in the sand under the shade of a tree by the wayside. Significantly attention to water came first. Indeed a traveller in the desert would have little reason to stop if there was no clean water to drink or refresh himself in the first place.
Water and humans can both be described as being the crowning glory of God’s creation: Man of all living creatures and Water of the inanimate world. We are told in the Holy Qur’an that Man was created in order to praise and reflect his Creator. In the Christian tradition we are told that God created man in His own image. Water can be described in similar vein as being a reflection of man himself. Indeed if he looks into water he can see his own image reflected in it. This is doubtless no accident but by divine design. Water is a reflection of life itself. Without water there can be no life on earth including human life. Water can be seen thus as being a reflection of man’s destiny and survival. If water resources and rivers are polluted and dishonored, man’s future and destiny can also be seen as being blurred and uncertain.
So here in the Far East of Islam I was confronting an attitudinal problem of local Muslims, and this on account of a misunderstanding or ignorance of Islamic practices. Curiously enough perhaps the indigenous people (orang asli), whose village was adjacent to my bit of land, did not constitute a problem as they did not pollute the rivers with their human waste. Their respect for Nature and the natural order remains. Indigenous people still remember what we, more modern folk with our ‘advanced’ customs, have forgotten. They still have basic notions of what one might describe nowadays as “earth ideas”. In Islam there is a word for it, Fitra, the natural order of the creation. The notion of the left hand and the right hand is surely of the tradition of Adam and dates from time immemorial and is common to all races and peoples.
The very first word revealed in the Qur’an addressed by God to humankind through the Prophet Mohammed was not “I am your Lord, praise me!” but the command “Read!” This might seem strange as the Prophet Mohammed could not read. But the word can also be construed as “Learn!” or “Understand!” The level of understanding may well depend on the level of knowledge or information available to a person. But often the basic conceptual truth is far more basic and fundamental than most people in this modern information-saturated age would care to admit. People with “sophisticated” intellects often don’t like to be told simple truths of the sort which have been available to humans for as long as humans have lived on this earth with consciousness or “knowledge” as the Bible puts it (as in the tree of Knowledge).
I realized that somehow I had to make people understand the folly of their actions. Rather than going out and preaching I had to do it in actions, which would produce a real result. So I abandoned the digging of my well and filled it in again. I then obtained a pump, the type of which had never been seen before by local people. It was what is known as a ram pump. It uses neither electricity nor petrol to function but uses the natural force of gravity to pump water. Firstly I had to build a weir across half of the river’s width. This involved further intensive rock harvesting from the river and I could use some of the mountains of rocks already pulled out of the river. After several weeks of work during which there was relatively light rainfall, I built an impressive dam across half of the river. The water catchment area stretched a hundred yards upriver contained by a barrier of rocks piled in a wall bisecting the width of the river. I then had a good water level drop of two feet. I sunk the pump into the river bed just ten feet below the weir and connected the feed pipe from high level weir water to low level pump in the river bed.
The pump worked like a dream. Of course the novelty of all this greatly attracted the attention of the village folk, both the construction of the weir built by one old man patiently dragging rocks into place and the ingenious never-before-seen type of pump. I wondered why everybody did not then rush out to buy one. But then the Malays are not hasty people. In their laid back spectator manner they wanted to see where all this was leading, as obviously I was not through with all the work. I then built a 20 foot high water tower near to the house, intended for my personal consumption.
Sometimes a villager would stroll over to me while I was panting and struggling with an enormous boulder pushing it up the river bank. Just as I was at the most precarious point he would ask “apa buat Haji?” (“What are you doing?”) Of course, it was quite clear what I was doing! To explain in my breathless state while heaving would have been the last straw of exhaustion and laid me flat! The question always asked in an insistant manner exasperated me. Not to reply would be considered ill mannered. To stop and explain would mean that the stone would roll back down the riverbank again dashing several hours exertion. An Arab would probably say “can I help?” or, would immediately start being helpful by pushing enthusiastically in perhaps an inappropriate place so that the stone would become unbalanced and roll uncontrollably down the river bank again, dashing several hours of painstaking exertion! Just a way of striking up a conversation!
Meanwhile the garden was taking on a spectacular shape. I built water fountains, which would gush high out of the ground into an ornamental pond, a four tiered fountain which made all the ranges of sound that water is capable of making, a water clock with water pouring in carefully measured tipped amounts, waterfalls that cascaded into the fish pond. Another fountain of water which, like a water maze in miniature, channeled water under and over 16 tiny bridges. The whole work was in the shape of an eight point star, or Khatem Sulaiman, with a huge pinkish gold limestone rock from the river placed dramatically in its centre. The effect was reminiscent of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. I finished it off with some mosaic work in appropriate colors: blue, turquoise, pink and black. All this was made from broken tiles collected from building merchants and otherwise thrown away and some pieces of broken mirror. I called this the Al-Sakharah (Rock in Arabic, as in Dome of the Rock). Of course, an efficient piping system had also to be built underground. All of the waters from the various fountains and water features eventually were channeled back into the fish pond so that no pumped water was wasted.
The locals began to refer to me as the old river man or Tok Man. My reputation as guardian of the river took a turn when one early morning returning over my bridge from the dawn prayer I happed upon one village matron, who had come over the bridge to do the unmentionable from my more amenable side of the river. Caught by surprise she climbed out of the river and made towards the bridge. We met and I just frowned at her and very slightly shook my head disapprovingly. The next day she suddenly died. Of course that frown and slight shake of the head from the “old river man” was the talk of the village afterwards and almost made me accessory to her untimely death! She left seven young children, who often came over to my house to sit with me and play. I came to regard them almost as my own children.
Now everything was ready: The dam, the strange new water pump, the fountains, waterfalls, the fishpond, water maze and the water tower. For good measure I had also built a Turkish bath adjacent to the kitchen. I made it very clear that I was going to drink the water from the river. In fact over six years that was the only water I drank. True I filtered it with sand and charcoal and boiled it as a precaution, but essentially the river water was healthy and clean. I also made it quite clear to everyone when I was pumping. For when I pumped water from the river the whole terraced garden sang, splashed, cascaded and spouted in a spectacular festival of water.
I also thought carefully about water waste and the way in which it returned into the environment. I had two cesspits: One lined with concrete which overflowed at a certain level into another unlined cesspit where the water would sink into the earth. This was for toilet waste only. Bathroom and kitchen waste water went through a channel where reeds and weeds thrived towards the river. By the time this reached the river the water was virtually clean. To prove this and by way of a self control mechanism, the place from where I pumped water up from the river was downriver from the place where these minimal wastes were discharged. Their final trajectory ran through a sandy, stoney channel. Of course smell was a basic reliable test of the condition of my waste disposal system. If there was smell anywhere along the line, then something needed to be done. This was only rarely.
Zeolite based detergents are better that phosphates. (SPP). Phosphates can perhaps be described as the equivalent of “fast food” in the plant world. In the tropical climate reeds and other waste devouring roots and plants flourish any way. But like fast food is well marketed and made attractive to human beings to consume it at first glance, plants fall fast to the lure of phosphates for quick sustenance. Their overall health suffers making them somehow forget to consume those other organic nutrients in the waste water and thereby purify it. Plants get big quickly on these phosphatic fast foods which reduce their lifespans and utility. This rings familiar in the human world. Nature is all about “slow food”.
If you want to get to the hearts of the Malays, build a garden. One effect of my garden was that people were shy to use the river any more as a toilet! Especially as everyone knew that I drank the river water. I congratulated myself at my first success but my efforts were not yet over. So much for the locals, I thought. But now I had a more difficult task: To clean up the entire river upstream. As the river was a particularly beautiful one, and its upriver reaches coursed through some magnificent tropical forest, and being within easy reach of Kuala Lumpur, it was much favored as a weekend picnic place for city Malay families.
Malays are generally well mannered, decent and disciplined people. But take a situation like this: A group of Malay families decide to go for a picnic in the forest and, after driving around country roads they discover a nice shady riverside location to sit with their families. Their children can bathe in the river. The men can fish. The ladies can gossip and cook under a tree. Everyone has a good time. Having spent the day the women go about clearing up. As they are from the city they use industrial time-saving diapers. Being well organized folk they collect all the discarded packages and used diapers and put them into one neat large plastic bag. Then of all places they throw the entire bag and contents into the river! This astonishing behavior was not the exception. For every Sunday and Monday was diaper day down river, as the discarded toiletries found their way downstream to be caught up in my weir or hooked onto riverside undergrowth or wrapped around rocks in the riverbed.
This was clearly a more difficult matter as it involved people coming from the city. Malays, true, but outsiders. They would not notice the subtle antics of an old man’s riverine activities. But as the weekend trippers always went upriver for their picnics the whole length of the river was affected. I needed help. Help did appear: The kampong (village) young people.
As my garden developed I had constructed a pondok (thatch roofed platform) beside the fish pond. From its vantage point at the highest level of the garden thanks to the soil and sand from excavations for the fishpond, one had a splendid view of the river and the entire garden. One could sit there sheltered from the sun or the rain, watch the fish in the pond and hear the cascades of the various fountains and waterfalls. I called this place Diwan Muzik (music court).
It was not long before the young people from the area began to come and sit in the Diwan Muzik to enjoy the calm of the garden and as its name invited, they began to bring their guitars to play and sing their songs. They could also watch with curiosity this old man at his mysterious workings by the river. Malay youth in the kampongs are among the most accomplished layabouts in the world. These boys sit around languorously with apparently not a care in the world, laughing and singing. They have many places to choose from in their forest paradise: Pondoks such as mine, huge rocks on a river bank, or improvised huts in the forest. The young would sit around for a few hours and suddenly as one man they would all make off to another idyllic location in the forest, perhaps to return later in the day or night to my riverbank pondok. To observe them from close up was truly an honored experience. Their presence in the pondok just a short distance from the house was reassuring. They could watch me from a safe distance as I went about my various solitary activities and I could keep an eye on them. Shy to come to my house, they would never trouble me.
The boys had obviously been watching me carefully and taking note of my river bank techniques. One or two of them must have said to themselves “If one old man alone can make the river bank into a beautiful place, so can I.” A couple of them started to do a similar work on another river bank. They would come to me and somewhat sneakily ask me for advice. I say sneakily because Malays often don’t like to admit that they don’t know and have to ask the advice of a stranger. They probably also thought that I would be angry that they had pinched my ideas. Actually, of course, I was delighted.
Now was my chance. I began to tell them – teach them – about water, and how we, humans should respect this precious gift from Allah. To Muslim kids all this rang true Before long I found my words being repeated in the villages up and down river and that I seemed to have quite an unlikely following of young supporters. Moreover they had taken it upon themselves to clean up all the rivers in the area instantly evolving into a kind of mobile watch force. They took their new-found role very seriously. When they saw weekend trippers tipping their rubbish, pampers or hind quarters into the river they would heartily berate them. Day trippers in the area were soon found that tripping was fine but tipping was not and that sitting in the river for other than recreational purposes became strictly precarious. Some one reported to me that he heard the village headman mutter that I was training terrorists! Eco-terrorists perhaps!
It is worrying to read of the political project of the American Legislative Exchange council which aims to criminalize almost all forms of animal rights and environmental advocacy by means of the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act. The definitional sections of this legislation are so broad that they sweep away basically every environmental and animal rights organization in the country.
Now some of the villages along the river enjoyed the provision of water from the centralized water board. The water was pumped into the infrastructure from water plants a long way down river. The water of course actually was piped down from a long way up river from a dam which controlled the main river in the valley, the Langat. Most of this water went to supply Kuala Lumpur but some was pumped and relayed up river again from the water plants to the upriver villages suitably dosed with permitted poisons (chlorine) to village consumers.
There came a period when during some hitch in the infrastructure caused villages to be deprived of mains water. Then exhaust-spewing tanker trucks were to be seen doing their rounds in the villages supplying houses with water. Of course the irony was quite clear. Here they were living in a watershed of rivers gushing the purest of mountain waters being supplied with their own local water by tanker trucks coming from Kuala Lumpur, which polluted the air too with their diesel fumes just to makes things even clearer! My efforts were suddenly becoming clear to all. But, as I said Malays just don’t like to be told. The local village committee consisting mainly of appointees from the state capital’s political structures, began to show their irritation at being told by a younger generation of “layabouts” that there was something amiss in the way local natural resources were being abused and used.
It was not long before the politicians in Kuala Lumpur and the Selangor State capital, Shah Alam, tried to repair the situation. They sent car-borne officials with mobile P.A. systems cruising around the valley exhorting people not to empty their personal fluids into the rivers. Just for credibility’s sake, the health department was the operative agency and the reasons explained were predictably “scientific,” eloquent on river borne diseases and the like. Meanwhile I continued to drink happily from my river, while making festive with my water garden display, and hearing the P.A-distorted voices making their way up river on the other side of the river bank. Few actually listened to the P.A. exhortations. The Malays really don’t like to be told. But the lesson had been taken in.
All this only served to raise my own standing in the eyes of the “lepak” (layabout) youths, who were beginning to feel encouraged by their sudden appreciation of their worth and role in the local society. But the more they adhered to me and my advice, the less the committee under the village headman liked it. Indeed they began to see me as a political threat to their own appointed fiefs of influence. Not wanting to get involved in infighting of this nature, I began to think of leaving the village. The seeds had been planted for some of the young people to see a way ahead for themselves.
Although the river and water was my primary preoccupation, I had a number of other artisanal activities, some of which also attracted the attention of the young people, especially the orang asli, who themselves practiced a number of handcrafts. I kept myself busy with a number of crafts: tanning skins and working them into various useful articles; woodwork, joinery and woodcarving; mosaic work on floors, garden features and table tops for which I used discarded cable reels as great bases for round tables. These one sometimes found abandoned by the roadsides as the national utilities expanded and improved electricity and telephone infrastructures in the area. My eagerness to acquire new skills was fired by the abundance and variety of readily available woods, some whole trunks of which I sometimes rescued from the river, washed down by a flood. As I had no bridge when I came and couldn’t see myself balancing tight-rope like over the river carrying furniture, I resolved to make any furniture that I needed.
If something has to be made, it might as well be made well and beautiful, I thought. I became an adept of Islamic wood painting and intricate joinery. I also put my attention to bamboo and rush weaving. My Turkish bath became a work of art in its own right with arches and elaborate mosaics on the wall. The simple house I first occupied gradually became a palace with intricate arabesque musharabia, arches of complicated joinery which took hours of patience to piece together, wall calligraphies, beams painted with Islamic geometric designs, musical instruments made from skins and wood (modeled on African instruments), drums of various calibers and whole seating areas of carefully cut, joined and carved woods. I sometimes deployed Nature’s own craftwork such as pillars in tropical vine trunks which curled and intertwined majestically upwards to support a carved canopy. Wood was certainly not a mere commodity to me but acquired the property of being a wondrous and noble material to be honored by careful working and carving which befitted it. As perhaps any sculptor in wood or wood carver will tell you, it is the wood itself which dictates how the wood should be cut and carved. Appropriately wood should be worked by hand and not press-ganged into machines which torture it into shapes it never intended to take. But then tropical woods are famously beautiful.
When commodities are plentiful the respect and value accorded to them diminishes. This is certainly the case with wood and water in tropical rain forest areas. It is of course the same with industrial products, especially as they are produced and marketed in the modern era. People expect to own the latest industrial appliance or product only to discard it and replace it when the next more “advanced” offering is produced. We have forgotten to do our work as if we will live “a thousand years”. Things are invented and produced willy nilly and then a need for the product is fabricated for marketing purposes. The need itself often becomes only a temporary one, focusing on a particular product.
Waste and discarded man-made products have become a major problem for the environment all over the world. The Quran exhorts us to “tread lightly on the earth” and all must agree that in the final count man’s eco-footprint has to be reduced. It is perhaps easier to understand the basic cycle of life where living organisms are as profuse as in the tropical forest. The massive amount of organic matter that a tropical rainforest recycles daily is astounding, but neither it nor any other environment can cope with so many of the products made from altered and engineered matter in the industrial world. Every one knows this by now.
We also know that modern industrial activities destroy the environment often far beyond the frontiers where those activities take place. We are told in the scriptures that man was cast out of the Garden a long time ago in the distant past. Is it that man is now taking his spiteful revenge on the Garden by destroying it? It is certainly not a revenge worth taking. The forest takes its revenge in its absence, when it becomes desert. The desert, although it cleans to the point of sterility all that is in it, can support only little life. So, listen to the wisdom of those from the desert. They already know. We have to reappraise the balance of the elements known from ancient times: earth, water, air, lest they all become fire, desert and desolation for us all.
The boys who had started to clean up and landscape a river bank up river on the main river Langat began to attract the attention of the politicians. The Ministry of Sports and youth subsequently allocated an entire river to the boys to beautify in like manner. The river Lepoh was the next river up river from mine which flowed also into the river Langat. Excited at this, the boys came to see me and ask for my advice. Accordingly I wrote an entire project for them, suitable for Ministry consumption to prove how serious the boys’ endeavors were. It was full of innovative ideas and focused on local youth initiatives as opposed to centralized project developments, which invariably involved heavy machinery, masses of concrete, and the handing out of government contracts to local politically sponsored structures, which would marginalize the young peoples’ initiatives.
To initialize the project we decided to make a symbolic march up river to the river Lepoh (the river in question) and to make our way through the forest right up to its source. The source of this river was a spectacular 300 foot high waterfall which cascaded down over an impressive tiered rock formation. The intention was to give a name to the waterfall and the river’s source. The name chosen was Suci Salmah. Salmah is a woman’s name. Suci means “holy” or “saintly” in Malay. The place deserved the name and was indeed a mystical place: A place where saints and sages of old could be imagined dwelling and meditating in grandiose solitude. The choice of name was designed to imbue respect for the place and for Suci Salmah’s water as it tumbled down the river’s narrow ravines.
From my bridge the march was a good three hours’ walk including two hours through a forest track. The boys’ enthusiasm was further enhanced when they heard that Malaysia’s most famous singer, M.Nasir, had named his new born little girl Suci Salmah. A song was also composed called Masirah (march in Arabic) which kept the issue in the limelight. Further songs of praise and love (in Malay) for Suci Salmah were evolving and a whole mythology imagined for her: Grand daughter of Bilqis – the Queen of Sheba – servant girl of the Garden, Princess of the waters, weaver of dreams, mistress of the creatures of the forest, sad songstress of our yearning desires etc.
The Orang Asli, the indigenous people of the forest, always game for a song and a dance, were also inspired by these goings on, and the intentions as well as the festive nature of the march. Hitherto they just shrugged their shoulders impotently at the incursions of city day trippers who apart from contaminating their crystal clear rivers, left their industrial detritus and non-bio-degradables strewn all over the place. Many resolved to come. Apart from this they were informed by other forest people in other parts of the state and in other states how Orang Asli lands were being misappropriated for airports and other developments. They were being offered concrete apartment dwellings in exchange for their traditional habitats. They had been going to petition the Sultans in their states to protect them from such incursions.
Of course, when the village political worthies heard that more than a thousand young people from all the way up and down the river Langat were going to come on this pilgrimage with their music and guitars, they panicked seeing in it all a serious erosion to their power base and influence. A few days later I left the area in a convoy of lorries sent by the Son of the Sultan of Perak to transport me to another forest in the state of Pahang and to watch over another river (the river Sum Sum) adjacent to land owned by him there. It was not long before the young people together with orang asli came in droves to visit me there and help me to clean up the river Sum Sum. I spent three months in the forest of Pahang working on this river. But after six years it was time to leave. I had a forest to defend.
But I had learned that if we are to protect the environment, it is not so much knowledge of the forest and its nature that is required but knowledge of ourselves and the inner nature of humans. Of course if the forest and natural wildernesses are lost and destroyed then we, humans, lose an important dimension of knowing ourselves. As humans may be the mirror of divinity, nature is a mirror to ourselves, without which we are less capable of seeing ourselves and become the ultimate losers in ways that may not at first be apparent. Science only looks at what is apparent and makes conjectures. The only real proof of scientific methods would be the destruction of Nature. God forbid! This for the reason that diagnoses are only made when symptoms of disorder are found and ‘solutions’ are late in coming because they depend on man and his ‘learning curve’ where nature’s own solutions are allowed progressively less initiative in the healing processes.
Corruption has appeared on the land and in the sea wrought by the hands of men that Allah might give them a taste of their own deeds that they might return to their senses. (Qur’an 30:41)
The Bellum Project
The forest I had to defend is the noble and ancient forest of Belum. While in the Hulu Langat Forest, a man came to me from Perak to tell me of the wonders of Belum, a virgin tropical rain forest in Perak, which has miraculously survived intact. This was the good part of the news. The bad part was that the forest was threatened. I had already heard horror stories of illegal loggers crunching their way into the forest in search of valuable hardwood. There exist in the armories of logging companies machines called feller-bunchers. These machines are the forest's equivalent of whale factory ships that scour the oceans. One such weapon of mass destruction can clear over a hectare of forest a day, felling and stacking 15 tonnes of timber an hour. In spite of claims of "sustainable" forestry practices, trees in fact are not replaced, while irreplaceable specimens are plundered and lost forever to the drawing rooms and corporate offices of the rich. Some logging operators make a PR show of replanting whereas in fact actual replanting does not happen. In any case how can trees be replaced if they are of a rare or unique species? No! It must stop!
Logging represents a virtual military attack on the forest. Illegal (and often also 'legal') logging operations are equivalent to terrorist attacks on the rain forest and should be dealt with accordingly. The myth of "sustainable" logging itself is largely a sweet sounding ploy concocted by the exploiters of forest reserves. "Culling" or “scientific research” is the equivalent euphemism for continued mass destruction in the ocean. Silvacide is invariably accompanied by the genocide of those people whose abode is the tropical forest since time immemorial. The destruction of ancient forests is like the burning of Baghdad's priceless libraries and museums. It is history destroyed for ever. Belum’s natural antiquities must not be destroyed. “Cry murder! cry silvacide!,” I thought.
From my location on the banks of the river Congkak in Selangor my attentions moved to the mighty river Perak, which gives its name to the State of Perak. The River Perak has deep significance in the history of the Malay Sultans and people. Nowadays its upper reaches are living testimony of the primordial might of God's creation in all its diversity and of the natural history of Malaysia. Its beauty is awesome.
After the fall of Melaka in 1511 the Perak river provided safe haven and a power base to the Malay Sultans for subsequent generations, up to the present day. Nowadays in the face of 20th century industrial development with its continuing devastation of the natural order, the upper reaches of the Perak river provide safe haven and a last resort for the primeval forest, its wild life, its intricate ecosystems, as well as for two indigenous tribes of orang asli. This primeval forest is called Belum. It is one of the oldest remaining tropical rain forests in the world. It is little explored and remains an undisturbed lush wilderness: a true reminder of the Garden and a tropical treasure house. Its very name means “not yet” in the Malay language.
The area of the Belum forest of more than 200,000 acres is situated on the backbone of Central North peninsular Malaysia. The forest includes the upper reaches and sources of the Perak River basin extending as far as Southern Thailand and into the state of Kelantan. There are mountains, rivers and lakes. It is a vast panorama of breath taking beauty seething with a kaleidoscope of all forms of life.
The “not yet ” Forest
Hulu (upriver) Perak and the forest of Belum with its undisturbed history of up to ten million years constitute a vital and irreplaceable link with history and prehistory. In Belum original man, the orang asli, and the wildest of rare and noble creatures co-exist in primitive majesty. It is indeed a memory of the original Garden of Eden itself. Belum is a living testimony to millions of years of undisturbed natural development. It’s very name in Malay means “Not Yet!” The area of Belum thus acquires immeasurable value as a national treasure and a world heritage.
The Forest of Belum is a haven and breeding ground for many rare species of wild life: tigers, elephants, the almost extinct "Sumatran" rhinoceros as well as many other threatened species that roam and congregate to breed in this area of the rainforest. There exist also within the forest of Upper and lower Belum many species of flora and fauna that are unknown elsewhere in the world. Countless other species are yet to be discovered and documented. Expeditions undertaken by the Malaysian Nature Society never fail to return with scores of new recordings of hitherto unknown species. There are animals which are not expected to fly but fly they do under the forest's canopy in Belum. There are gibbons, orang utang, multicoloured birds, reptiles, plants and trees of outrageous dimensions and colour. Huge colonies of unique crested hornbills exist only in Belum. There are places where firefly congregations make Millennium firework displays look like amateur dramatics. The forest of Belum is truly one of nature’s most spectacular and unique treasure houses. Much of it is still unexplored. It was this forest that Allah has given me the honour and the trust to defend. I prayed that I would be up to the cause, and that the Almighty helped me to persuade whoever it may concern.
I went to Ipoh the State Capital of Perak to present my thoughts and plans for Belum to the State government. My intervention was treated with enthusiasm. But then I heard no news for a time. After some time and some additional concern expressed by environmentalists the State Government of Perak finally decided to designate the forest a State Park. At least that was a start, I thought. But recently the State government has been seeking huge capital investments in order to finance and develop a "sophisticated range" of tourist possibilities in the forest together with the necessary infrastructure. Concept and construction of extensive tourist facilities are envisaged to accommodate the expected large numbers of high paying tourists and "eco-tourists". Investors, if found, will want their money back plus profits. Investment is a serious threat. Belum should be charity-driven initially and not investment driven.
Tourism can be considered as being a real danger to all pristine places, especially tropical forests. There is always a knock on effect with even the most rudimentary and well-meaning "eco-tourism". If the venue proves to be popular, then sooner or later added facilities and comforts are laid on to please increasing numbers of visitors. The tourist threat is often couched in high sounding good intentions which may well appear credible even laudable to the average person. Terms such as “Eco-tourism” “Adventure tourism” and the like often dissimulate no other than "star" rated hotel development, with all the infrastructure and accoutrements necessary for such enterprises. Belum should be left to its own majestic devices.
The prospect of fast money in rapidly developing Malaysia, be it for urban, industrial or tourist development only serves to sharpen the cutting edge of the chain saws and roll out the bulldozers and cement mixers. Tourism is the thin edge of the wedge that precedes further more intense development. Where, for instance, do all those people who cater to the tourists' stay? - Guides, servants, cooks, managers? Of course they too need houses close to their work. By this time of course, Virgin forest can already be redefined as "real estate". By the end of the decade a concrete jungle complete with roads and infrastructure, houses and offices, night clubs and restaurants, police stations, fire headquarters and a town hall will have replaced the tropical jungle. No, please, this must not begin!
Why don't those in power understand that conservation and development are not the same thing? Tourist development runs contrary to the spirit and intent of conservation. The Forest of Belum constitutes such a priceless treasure house that it should not be ravaged and plundered by the irreverent treatment that tourism would engender.
It is very disappointing that the State Government of Perak can only assess the value of the Belum forest in terms of tourist revenues. If they appreciate their heritage and wish to benefit from the Forest they should understand that nothing should be done to disturb the forest's integrity. In any case nowadays there are other ways to "visit" and watch over a forest than inviting the physical presence of tourists. If suitably conserved, protected and maintained, the Tropical Forest of Belum will without doubt unfold its true splendour and real value.
Tropical rain forests today are threatened by a number of other dangers. These are primarily logging and urban development. Broadly speaking all “development" is contrary to forest conservation. The hunger of world markets for valuable hardwood constitutes a blatant temptation to logging companies and politicians, who hand out the logging concessions, to cut down trees for quick cash. The oceans have already gone this way with their nations of whales, sea mammals and fish stocks almost to the point of extinction. New logging tracks still persist in appearing. Unfortunately loggers routinely buy the complicity of officials to close an eye to their operations into the forest. The State government admits that there has been recent illegal logging activities. To remedy this the state government proposes an annual arial survey! Would this be to monitor the annual rate of forest depletion? Certainly the forest will take its revenge in its absence, when it becomes desert.
The increasing demand for land in a rapidly developing Malaysia presents another irresistible temptation to urban developers for quick money. Urban or industrial development constitutes the ultimate tyranny on the land and integrity of the forest, and must be prevented at all cost. Once begun there is little one can do to stop it. This must not even begin in the Forest of Belum not even in the name of tourism. Belum is largely unexplored. To a tourist a hitherto unknown species of plant or tree is just another plant or a tree. In a week perhaps the tourist will be gazing at the pyramids or lying on an idyllic beach somewhere. It is the reverence that is lacking.
For some fifty years the Ministry of Defence has been the protector of the Belum Forest. It has been a military exclusive zone, considered militarily sensitive since the days of the communist insurgency and has been used for military counter infiltration exercises. Consequently since the time of the communist insurgency the general public has not been allowed access. Ironically it is on account of the military presence in Belum over the years that Belum still remains largely intact.
In principle it should be the forest itself that dictates the ways in which it is to be conserved and maintained. The forest has its own rules. All man can do is to forbid access to those who would do the forest harm and alter its natural development.
But you can also help. Write a letter to the Sultan requesting him to "put his royal foot down" once and for all, to stop the terrorist loggers, to keep the intruders and developers out and to take care of the forest. May the ancient tropical rain forest of Belum remain intact for another thousand years!
And we say “Belum (Not yet), Forever!”