Bit of Malay Culture Is Now Vanishing Under Muslim Rules

Introduced to Southeast Asia in the 13th century, Islam gradually supplanted Buddhism and Hinduism, but co-existed with ancient traditions over the centuries. Since the 1970s, however, fundamentalist Islam has spiked in multicultural countries such as Malaysia, with Muslim students and scholars galvanized by Iran emerging as an Islamic state. Political gains of Parti Islam parallel the increasing conflict between fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and traditional Malay culture. For example, since the early 1990s, the ruling party banned the dance form Mak Yong, performed by women, often Muslim themselves, for interpreting mythological Malaysian stories. The elderly transgress the state to preserve such cultural practices, while the youth increasingly look to Middle Eastern Islamic culture for identity. As a result, fundamentalism infiltrates the culture – Arab words replace those in Malay, schools ban girls from reading contests, stores require separate lines for men and women. While many moderate Malaysians claim to deplore the controls and lost heritage, protests are neither loud nor organized. Older dancers still don elaborate dresses and perform to shrinking audiences, but the magic and relevance of Mak Yong has faded in Malaysian communities. "Our traditions are very old," asserts one aging dancer. "Why is it wrong now?" – YaleGlobal

Bit of Malay Culture Is Now Vanishing Under Muslim Rules

Chris Prystay
Friday, April 21, 2006

KAMPUNG BUNOHAN, Malaysia -- Rohimah Zakaria, dressed in a fringed black tunic and matching pants, with a silver dagger tucked into the waist, rocked hypnotically on a wooden stage at the edge of this rural village.

The 53-year-old grandmother was dressed as Dewa Muda, a mythical Malay god raised as an earthly prince who travels by magic kite to meet his fairy princess in the sky, only to be slain by her attendant. Arms outstretched to a starry, palm-fringed sky, Mrs. Zakaria moved slowly to the discordant wail of a three-stringed fiddle called a rebab.

Mrs. Zakaria, who is a Muslim, is one of the last experts in Mak Yong, an endangered form of dance theater rooted in the animist and Hindu religions that held sway in Southeast Asia long before Islam arrived eight centuries ago. In more recent times, the dance has been deemed un-Islamic by Parti Islam, the political party ruling this lush, tropical seaside state of Kelantan on the South China Sea.

Since the local arbiters of taste banned Mak Yong 15 years ago, people like Mrs. Zakaria have performed it in secret. And because interest is waning, her troupe has been able to stage just a handful of shows in the past year.

The version Mrs. Zakaria did this recent night was just a 20-minute sketch, not the traditional three-hour performance. And there was no shaman to put in his traditional healing appearance at the end. The performance was put on mainly to give visitors from Kuala Lumpur a taste of the culture.

"It's not the same," Mrs. Zakaria sighed. "But at least people can see a little of what it's like."The steady creep of a more fundamentalist version of Islam throughout Southeast Asia -- which is home to more Muslims than live in the Arab world -- began in the 1970s when Muslim students and scholars overseas were energized by the emergence of Iran as an Islamic state. They brought home fire and brimstone.

Ethnic Malays, who are Muslims, make up the majority of Malaysia's population. But about 25% are ethnic Chinese, who are largely Buddhist or Christian. About 8% are ethnic Indian, many of them Hindus. In Malaysia, most rural villagers are Muslim Malays.Indian traders brought Hinduism and Buddhism to Southeast Asia in the third century, and Hindu and Buddhist monarchies dominated the Malay peninsula and what is now Indonesia until the 12th century. Traders brought Islam to the region around the 13th century, and Islam eventually supplanted those religions.

For centuries, ancient traditions coexisted easily with Islam. In Malaysia, village girls learned dances like the Mak Yong, which is performed by an all-female cast. Village boys learned the Wayang Kulit, a shadow puppet theater that originated in Indonesia and Malaysia to tell Hindu epic tales.

No longer. A handful of senior citizens in Kelantan, the heartland of Malay culture, are the last to practice traditional theater.

"What you have is the gradual emergence of a new generation of Malaysian Muslims who will be completely cut off from their past," says Farish Ahmad Noor, a Malaysian political scientist at the Center for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin. "They're losing their cultural compass.

"Many Southeast Asian Muslims now navigate by guideposts from the Arab world. Young men in Indonesia are starting to wear turbans and grow beards. In Malaysia, Malays have adopted the Arab word for prayer, salat, to replace the Malay word, sembahyang, which literally means "offer homage to the primal ancestor.

"Kelantan, a leafy state of shimmering rice paddies and thick jungle, is Malaysia's front line in the clash between Islam and local Malay culture. Many Malay traditions, like the Mak Yong, originated here.Kelantan is also Parti Islam's stronghold. When the party won the state in 1990, its ultraconservative state leader, Nik Aziz Nik Mat, ordered grocery stores to provide separate lines for men and women, and told girls they could no longer take part in Quran reading competitions that are popular in schools. He banned Mak Yong and Wayang Kulit.

"We need to purify our local theater from those alien elements," says Mr. Aziz, a somber-looking man in a flowing white robe who has a thin gray beard on the point of his chin. Mak Yong and Islam co-existed peacefully for so long only because Malay Muslims didn't know any better, he says.

That view baffles Mrs. Zakaria, the fifth generation in her family to dance the Mak Yong. When she was 12, her grandmother built a small practice stage next to the rice paddy behind her house and gave her lessons every day. Later, she joined a troupe and toured the state full-time. "Our traditions are very old. Why is it wrong now?" she asks.

A Mak Yon performance, which runs over two or three nights, tells one of a dozen stories of mythological royalty. They are typically morality tales about the perils of lust or pride. The story of Dewa Muda, who struggles with sadness because he can't reach his princess, is the most popular.

The performances are also therapeutic. Villagers seeking a cure for depression or other emotional ills don the same costume as the lead dancer and shadow her as she dances around the stage. By acting out Dewa Muda's own struggle, they purge their own. At the end of the play, the shaman leads the villager into a trance dance, chanting verses to banish the illness.

Rituals like this are now performed in secret by a handful of retirees like Mrs. Zakaria and Mek Jah binti Deris, 61, another Mak Yong dancer who grew up in a village in South Kelantan. Mrs. Mek Jah last performed in October for a neighbor who was feeling low. Mrs. Mek Jah knows Mak Yong is illegal, but she doesn't care. "We have to do this to balance nature," she says.Mrs. Mek Jah's two sons-in-law are having none of that. They have forbidden their children to learn the dance. The two men used to pull Mrs. Mek Jah aside at family dinners and beg her to quit, says her brother, Muhammed Nor, 64. "It's terrible. Nowadays, you have young people who tell their parents 'Don't die and go to hell because of this.'

""The younger generation is very narrow-minded," sighs Mrs. Mek Jah, a compact, feisty woman dressed in a tunic and a bright yellow Muslim headscarf.Life is more black and white, argues Mr. Aziz. Things are either Islamic or they aren't. He recently lifted the ban on the Wayang Kulit, provided puppeteers substitute Islamic stories for the traditional Hindu epics. And shamans are out. "That kind of 'healing' is not in line with Islam," he says.

Although many moderate Malays worry that their culture is fading, few speak up. One of the most vocal champions of Malay culture in Kelantan is Eddin Khoo, who is of Chinese-Indian descent. He runs a foundation to keep Malay arts alive and has scrounged up funding to stage a few traditional shows each year and train youngsters in Kelantan in traditional Malay arts. No kids have signed on.

He worries about Mr. Aziz's move to water down Malay arts. "Without the rituals, it's meaningless. The Mak Yong would just be some movements," he says.This tension is beginning to worry some in the capital of Kuala Lumpur. "The upsurge in Islamization is part of the process of searching for identity," says Culture Minister Rais Yatim. "If we don't guide that, it could well go off on a tangent, and it could be very difficult to revive culture.

"His office staged Mrs. Zakaria's recent performance of a watered-down Mak Yong. Her bit was followed by a five-minute Wayang Kulit show. The event drew a few hundred villagers. At the back of the field, a group of women wearing headscarves sat on the grass, feeding their children rice and coconut curry. It was enough, however, to upset Parti Islam, which later described the show as "a sign of disrespect."

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