Sunday, December 10, 2006

Of Saunas, kitty cats and hijjabs

"So, here is my question," said Aziz for what must had been the fifth time last evening, "how is it that even four year old girls wear the hijjab?"

I was stumped for an answer that would satisfy the curiosity of my new friends from America, no, make that United States of America, for as Kathy, Aziz's wife, would say, "America would comprise the USA, Canada, Mexico, Brazil etc."

I met Aziz and Kathy during my holiday in Hanoi last month. We were booked on the same city tour and so shared the same tour van. Kathy is from Minnesota while Aziz who is Kuwaiti-American had spent much of his childhood in Kuwait where his parents now reside. We hit it off really well in Vietnam and decided that we would try to meet up when they swing by Malaysia on their way to Bali.

So in between mouthfuls of assam fish and sticks of satay dipped in peanut sauce, our conversation went from how their kitty cat isn't so 'kitty' anymore (it weighs 8kgs!) to why religion seems to fuel a lot of unrest and intolerance in the world today.

"I think it's because the girl's parents wanted to immerse her in basic Islamic fundamentals from an early age, you know, start them young..." was the best I could come up with. Being non-Muslim, I was certainly no authority on juvenile female Malay-muslim attire but I was more than pleased to enlighten Aziz in any way I can about life in Malaysia.

He then went on to comment on how some Kuwaiti girls would wear colourful headscarves together with midriff bearing outfits and the shortest mini-skirts money could buy, which he felt was defeating the whole purpose of wearing the hijjab (or tudung as is known here) in the first place. The hijjab, Kathy gathered, had become a fashion statement, a phenomenon that I noticed had gained momentum here as well.

Kathy, who is of Scandinavian heritage, had previously in Hanoi given me a brief history lesson on the origins of saunas (it's pronounced as Sa-u-na, not saw-na). It was so interesting to learn that whenever she tries to speak with her Kuwaiti in-laws, she would think in her highschool Spanish (yes, espaƱol) and then retranslate those thoughts into English, hoping that by thinking in a foreign language, she could communicate more clearly with Aziz's parents, never mind that Kuwaitis speak Arabic, not Mexican. In a way, I guess it makes sense.

I had ordered a repertoire of simple seafood dishes for our dinner at a popular local Chinese restaurant, making sure that the food was halal as Aziz was Muslim. Apart from the fish and satay we also feasted on some mussels in clear chilli broth and butter prawns in mayonaise and sesame seeds. They also tried the ubiquitous kangkung belacan, which they call morning glory, a plant they never knew was edible before they came to Southeast Asia.

I was glad to see that they loved it, and I felt like I had done my country proud by being the perfect culinary ambassador for Malaysia. That is until Kathy posed this question: How do you pick a good durian, the one with firm white flesh or the yellow creamy one? I sheepishly admitted that I avoid the durian like the plague and that as far as I knew, D24 durians are the best, regardless of the colour or texture. And that they should do all their kissing before eating it.

Of course, politics was the topic du jour and we exchanged amusing yet insightful stories about President Bush's conviction that invading Iraq was his God-given mission in life, the communist insurgency in Malaya back in the 50's, and how the concept of separation of church (religion) and state in the US is not the same now as it was when the Constitiution was first written.

All in all, it was indeed a wonderful evening of delicious food, hearty laughter and spirited intellectual discourse between three people who, despite the apparent differences in apperance, beliefs, and heritage, share similar values in life and appreciate similar things. Oh and the realisation that none of us can do a credible Australian accent even if our lives depended on it. Crikey!

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