23 July 2014
The floating fortress of my soul
I like the sound of the words “Kota Kinabalu” when I pronounce them, it somewhat exhales an exotic flavour – well maybe not to Malaysians or those who know the etymology (one version is that it means the “revered place of the dead”) but it was certainly alluring to me when imagining this city on the Malaysian side of Borneo island, a city I had never heard of. And although it hosts Malaysia’s second busiest airport, Kota Kinabalu is a fairly small city of half a million people, gaining “city” status (by law) in the year 2000. What was most striking to me was the contrast in the city centre between the relatively few high-end hotels and posh restaurants and the relative deterioration of the pavement and the buildings, the slight segregation with distinctive Filipino market and food stalls (while there are many more ethnic groups in the city: Chinese, Bajau, Kadazandusun, Bumiputras, etc.), and the evident poverty of some of the city’s inhabitants – more obvious than in the other cities I visited in Malaysia.
KK, as Malaysians call the city, is a melting pot of religions, with Islam probably being the most worshipped religion like in the rest of the country. On roughly either end of the city which extends along the coast are two impressive mosques – very visible ones, and certainly more traditional than the very peculiar underground one I had visited in Yogyakarta. One of them is the state mosque built forty years ago and really looks like a green fortress with golden domes. I do prefer the other one though, KK’s city mosque, nicknamed the “floating mosque” since it’s sitting on an artificial lake – well, technically it’s a lagoon since I think it’s connected to the South China Sea just on the other side of the road where I took my pictures from. It may not seem like it but the building can fit in twelve thousand worshippers.
I had struggled to find the public bus leading to the floating mosque from the city centre – I’m sometimes too stubborn to bother negotiating a taxi fare when I’m not necessarily in a hurry. In addition, the daily afternoon rain didn’t give me much hope of taking great pictures. Perseverance paid off, the rain suddenly stopped and the sun popped out from beneath the clouds right before setting, shining a strong warm orange light on the façade of the building and reflecting it beautifully on the water. A few minutes later, the night covered the mosque with its dark blue mantle: the minaret sported pretty green and yellow colours, while the blue and gold Arabic-style dome disappeared into the darkness. “Arabic-style” do I say? In fact, the design of the mosque is supposedly based on the Nabawi mosque located in Medina in Saudi Arabia… another religious building I’ll never get to see since Medina’s city centre is forbidden to non-Muslims, alas.
The practice of charity, called “zakat”, is inscribed in Islam, the most well-off having to give zakat to get salvation and avoid damnation by not doing so. I am however not sure anyone needs any promise of reward nor fear of punishment to feel compelled to help someone in need… even if I do myself often feel too guilty or shy to be able to do anything. Wouldn’t being helpful make one feel humbly good about oneself, perhaps even a bit happy or rawly human, thus truly not requiring the use of a paternalistic carrot and stick approach?
Yes, my heart wrenches at the sight of homeless people, always making me wonder if I could teach some skills for them to get back on their feet. I can’t forget that woman sitting against the closed market building of KK, half-protecting herself under cardboard pieces from the cold of the night. As I approached, I distinguished the shape of a small boy asleep further inside the makeshift cardboard tent. Feeling too timid, I asked my accompanying partner to hand over the restaurant food leftovers we hadn’t touched (I knew we’d find someone to give them to). The woman seemed really grateful, although this wasn’t much of a gesture at all (they were leftovers after all, I almost felt bad), especially in comparison to all those I saw a bit everywhere around the globe pulling out and giving groceries they had just bought for themselves – or in comparison to those simply striking a conversation, still better than doing nothing even if it may not change much at the end of the day.
I cannot end this post without sharing with you the first few verses of one of the most famous speeches in The Merchant of Venice delivered by the beautiful and smart Portia in Act IV, scene 1. I always had some affinity for Shakespeare’s plays (and sometimes for his cheeky sonnets too), however difficult it is to sometimes understand his expressions without taking the time to analyse the double meaning of words and appreciate the beauty of the rhymes. While Portia’s speech emphasises the themes of mercy and forgiveness, qualities held in high esteem by Shakespeare, I still find the verses to have a nice ring to them and applicable to any act of generosity towards fellow human beings:
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.