Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner
Niqab woman arriving late for breakfast was one of the teachers of a small group of mid-teens. Four girls sat at an adjacent table and a half dozen others separating themselves down at lower ground. A madrasa excursion perhaps, though these were not of the lower class poor. Traditionally many poor families sent daughters to a madrasa at least in part to relieve the burden at home. These were middle-class girls, well-dressed, albeit modestly and covered. All wore the scarf, though none followed the example of the teacher. The pillar screened the girls at the near table and mostly the niqab teacher; her male colleague sat in direct line of vision. Bringing up the plates there had been pagis, good mornings with the girls in passing, both at lower ground and by the pillar. Late arriving, the niqab teacher had not witnessed that exchange. An experienced woman of course would notice the altered state of her charges, the alertness and tone of the giggles. Shifting in the chair now and again through the course of the meal the black niqab came into view a number of times and once when the woman had lifted her flap for the food. Earlier the eyes and segments of forehead had suggested a woman in her mid-thirties, which was confirmed by the jaw and mouth. Male colleagues and other men would develop a relationship with the niqab woman reading expression from her eyes, her gesture and tone of voice. Smiles would be suggested by the stretch of fabric; annoyance by subtle hints beneath the glossy black cloth. One could not help wondering whether the woman was disturbed by the presence of the bule.
The little Rubber-duckie beep from the man catching unawares. Without the baseball cap he had approached, newly dyed long hair. The man had never been seen bare-headed before; there had been no hint of locks of that length.
Two prata and curry delivered to a seat two across, third from the end in order to clear the spread of his friend’s papers. Back to the drinks counter and returning not with the usual baby-pink Iced Bandung that he liked—the cheaper raspberry.
Assuming the seat and settling, initially the road noise had blanketed the call.
On Onan corner a steamroller was going over the newly laid strip of tar. Earlier the Indian crew had gathered at the delivery truck this side for white gloves and masks. The men were already equipped with their yellow hard-hats, a dozen milling and some kind of trouble it looked at first a few months after the riot.
Saturday morning traffic churning and beneath the little horn from the side with squeaky short extension when the lead note went unheeded….
Shovel-hand pointing at the plate like everyone does here in universal sign to join the repast.
It had been noted many times, even perfect strangers sitting adjacent in these parts could not tuck into their food disregarding the fellow perhaps enduring without.
— Join me, they call, showing the offering.
Quite overwhelming always, and on this occasion how much more.
After a meal that size the Deaf would not have a morsel else for the remainder of the day.
Tubby with his yellow apron on the night-shift must have trudged up early. A recent hair-cut. All the lads at Reaz receive regular trims from the barber shop that was run by a branch of the family down in the ground floor well below the eatery. The red and yellow cap tonight that matched Tub’s Maggi apron had not been sighted previously; blue nylon short-sleeved shirt. Tough climb up the incline nights and not a happy camper on first landing Tub. At home at the bottom of the dark lane there was no one to wash, cook or warm Tubby’s bed. (Overcast, cool drizzly days upon us now at the tail-end of the year.) First notice of the chap’s presence was the strange half-yawned tune from the entry to the severy behind. Allahu’akbar in a tone certainly never heard before in these five and more years on the equator. Resting on the counter and head back-tilted, the cap pulled from his brow and scratching beneath, the man gave out the battle-cry of the suicide bombers and other martyrs just to himself there in a moment of lazy release.
Jakarta, Singapore & Johor Bahru
Paki from behind his pillar furtively observing the meal being consumed. Cool nights the man’s clay oven offered some welcome warmth—even here in the Tropics spitting distance from the equator, believe it or not. (Damp and breezy, grey skies like over the cricket fields of England.)…. White guy, journalist or writer something or other accepting bread from his hand, taking the finely diced shallots into his mouth with his fingers. Never tiring of the fare; invariably the same order night after night. There was a McDonalds in the near mall and KFC the one over the canal, queues at both almost every day and weekends particularly. Yet this regular preferred the bread he had shaped from his dough, raw onion and two plain sambal on the platter. Staying at one of the hotels nearby not short of a shekel, picked up the odd word of Hindisomewhere in his travels. Surprisingly, early on he had been identified as a Paki by this, guy who took his plate and glass out back himself before paying at the counter. Strange, strange bird indeed…. (It was impossible to counteract the drones of course for all that.)
Johor Bahru, Malaysia Dec2016
Chap standing behind in the passage at Al Wadi unnerved somewhat. Immediately behind standing there and not budging. Two minutes, five minutes and more. Indian or Bangla. (Turned out the latter). A member of a local Islamic community might have been listening to radicalized muftis in a number of locations across the globe, from any number of sources. Taking a head on the street like that—perhaps an accomplice filming from the corner—would make a large statement of protest and revenge for all his people had been enduring.… Pretended to be watching the EPL on the screen, at that distance. The Indians were less entranced by that particular game.… Surprised and hesitating at the offer of a seat…. Ah. Well, OK then. Thank you, sir. Many of the construction sites and industrial quarters had closed down early for NY, the engineers and managers needing some respite. (In fact two days off and then the weekend in the present instance.) Endless replays on the screen last few days unseen by this fan. Big Centre-Back Ivanovic for the blue team the dill penalized for handball, hanging his head, teammate half-heartedly protesting. The kicker stuttering in his approach, but in the end ramming past the hapless goalie and running into the corner with a celebratory sign to the delighted supporters. It had been played, played and played again on the screen at Al Wadi the last number of nights when there was no new sporting action for replacement. Stiff shit big Branislav, you screwed up! A classic Serb looking a lot like neighbor Rade back in Melbourne, up-scale lump here in this case.… Ya, of course. Taking a seat as a non-customer made a chap nervous, naturally. Foreign worker using the facilities, soaking up the comfort and entertainment. Ninety cent tea converting to Bangladeshi taka was a pretty penny.… A few minutes previous while still on his feet the man had noticed the photograph of his co-religionist refugees catching rainwater in their hands at their make-shift camp in Myanmar that was carried by the Straits Times in a photo survey of the year past. After commiserating with the Bengali it was more or less possible to put the man at some kind of ease.
Geylang Serai, Singapore Dec 2015
The men from the Horn were especially quiet that morning. They knew not to reveal their feelings, even to a trusted friend. Not publicly in front of others at least.
A couple of references to the event passed without comment. The local Liberal candidate at the recent state election seemed to assume the lads were more or less dependable on the matter.
Talk veered in other directions. With his limited English Fausi managed a couple of irrelevant jokes.
One response eventually came from Yousef, the musician-carpenter. To a seated fellow Sudanese Yousef had delivered a short speech in Arabic from his feet on his way out the door. The voice had been loud enough to include everyone at the tables.
A poet as well as singer, Yousef had called himself at the initial introduction a few years before. Short, vivacious, bright-eyed man.
The general reception through the café was clear without any head-turning.
A minute or so of closely channeled voice in a strong, ardent, albeit level tone that had been unintelligible for all but the name.
In the circumstances it was not an especially difficult guess.
Before Yousef got himself out the door he was stopped for the question and immediately the matter was confirmed.
Yes. Gone, Yousef the poet and singer admitted, leaning in a little to the table. But the—forefingers drilling either side of his temples—is ALIVE!
Melbourne, Australia 3 May 2011
Palestine & Christchurch
As usual after his nightshift Cabbie Cha was hunting the newspaper. On the miserable dollars he earned it was no surprise Cha wanted to save the buck ten. Every so often after the reading was done and Cha happened along he would be slipped the sheaves. A keen reader like the Convert could not be continually denied; polite requests always and never complaints when the man was rebuffed. Ordinarily Auntie Helen was gifted the paper, left on the chair outside her door late morning after the return from Wadi. Auntie had become a keen reader herself in the last few months; recently she had investigated a special offer subscription. There was always a need for newspaper in Auntie H.’s line with the felines; one of her litter had recently been peeing indoors and for some months now Helen had been stockpiling. Walking up the slope this morning some excitement from the Convert was apparent. After his grateful collection and sitting a while the matter began to be divulged. There was some doldrums mixed in Cha’s tale; but this was the lesser part and clearly outweighed by the gratification and pleasure. The former arose from an accident out at Changi Carpark No. 2, where Cha had been distracted by a YouTube item and didn’t see a pole looming. In a recent posting an Orthodox priest in Gaza had featured voicing support for the Palestinians. Why? the interviewer in the YouTube piece that had distracted the Cabbie had asked. Why was a Christian Orthodox priest taking the part of these others of the other faith?… Cha clearly had been gripped; the pole in the sidewalk approaching entirely unsighted. In answer to the question the priest had explained that his compassion for the Palestinians had been stirred; the priest felt sorry for the downtrodden people. At the interviewer’s further incredulity, the priest endeavoured to further explain that he in fact, the Orthodox priest, felt sorry for all. For you too, the priest had added—meaning the interviewer. The rounding like this on the hapless interviewer in particular had been a moment that the Convert Cha had relished. Ah!… A captivating interview; smashing indeed. The reclusive Han thinker that Cha had been signalling the last number of months in his person had semaphored more strongly than usual this morning. Almost a radiant presence the man. Cha had recently lost weight; at the same time his cranium seemed to have grown and his skin coloured in violet and chocolate tones like a blooming flower. The Tang-era poets who had gone up into the hills to seek refuge from the warring factions so many centuries before were evoked for an observer here without Cabbie Cha trying too hard. Even with backyard repair, the momentary lapse at the wheel of the hired taxi would cost a pretty penny, Cha reported. Painful as this would most certainly prove for a man of the Convert’s limited means, the effect of the priest’s humanity seemed altogether to override. Altogether and entirely. With the example of that man’s goodness the damage here to the vehicle could be borne somehow by the Cabbie; the financial drain would be overcome in time. Another piece too from the Tube likewise had recently enthralled Cha. Cabbie Cha glowed in this further telling and possibly even more strongly than before. The figure of the ancient poet in his threadbare garments outside his shelter became truly inspired with the additional item Cha delivered here. In Christchurch the week before the madman killer had murdered fifty people: Cha presented the accounting that had understandably appalled so many in this corner. Many in the Muslim quarter of Singapore had associations with the community in Christchurch; it had come as a surprise just how many there were. Family, friends, neighbours and acquaintances had visited, settled and toured the city on the South Island. Possibly Cha had viewed the ghastly footage from Christchurch; the man had presented gruesome YouTubematerial more than once of atrocities in one place or another across the Muslim world, perpetrated by one side or the other. In the short time since that terrible event in New Zealand, however, where so many had lost their lives so senselessly, Cha in fact revealed that three hundred and fifty men and women had converted there to Islam. Seven times the number of the lost in the shocking massacre had been saved in Christchurch converting to the faith; converting in the Southern city and the wider territories of New Zealand it must have been, according to the other piece Cha had found on YouTube. The remarkable fact had emerged overnight possibly; Cha might have seen it on his phone during his shift at the wheel in the early hours of the morning. Bright gleaming eyes and a rich vein of violet and lavender in the lips of the Cabbie; waggling chin too in the Indian manner when words were redundant.
Geylang Serai, Singapore 2011–2020
Australian by birth and Montenegrin origin, Pavle Radonic’s eight years living and writing in S‑E Asia has provided unexpected stimulus. Previous work has appeared in a range of literary journals and magazines, most recently Panoply, Modern Literature & The Blue Nib. A mountainous blog holding mainly the Asian writing is here— http://axialmelbourne.blogspot.com/