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Dancefever

Text by MARINA MAHATHIR
SOME 25-odd years ago, a cleft-chinned young actor donned a white suit, showed some deft footwork and unleashed a phenomenon called disco fever. Suddenly everyone was pointing their fingers skywards as a group of falsetto-voiced brothers accompanied their moves. I was one of those caught up in this dance craze, spending university evenings at the Gay Disco on Mondays and the Soul Disco on Thursdays and whatever other discos on other nights. I even won a disco dance competition once.

Back home in KL, the legendary Tin Mine disco was the hotspot. Many a Saturday night was spent polishing slick moves on the dance floor. From today’s perspective, what we did might be called line dancing but at the time, it was cool to be able to do a routine with friends to the latest songs. Never mind if we did the same routine for each and every song.What was great about disco fever was that we all learnt how to dance. To be able to execute some complicated steps was considered the height of cool. We danced and sweated, then we had a drink, then jumped onto the dance floor again ’til the wee hours of the morning.

Two decades have passed by and my disco dancing days are pretty much over. The body would rather curl up in front of the TV at home than put on high heels and heat up a dance floor. Besides, disco dancing is no longer fun.

For a start, no-one else on the dance floor looks like they were born before John Travolta put on his white suit. Fresh-faced young things fill the discos (or clubs as they are called these days) dressed, oddly enough, in the same fashions as those in the Saturday Night Fever days: batwing sleeves, glittery make-up, strappy sandals. Young men now, as then, stand around awkwardly, trying not to show that they are even remotely interested in what’s going on on the floor.

Secondly, nobody really dances anymore. They may stand around and shake a bit but there’s no style to it, or any form of choreography. You do whatever comes to mind. Which is a necessity since music these days hardly has any distinguishable beat. Techno or house music, in my book, is one endless stream of noise. My youngest brother, who aspires to be an occasional deejay ( short for disc jockey, though I doubt if anyone knows that anymore), once played me a house album which, he claimed, had about 20 songs on it. I could not tell the difference between them, let alone dance to them.

Thirdly, whereas before you celebrated the songs and the singers or bands for coming up with great rhythms to shake your booty to, nowadays the real stars are the deejays. In my disco days, deejays certainly helped to create the right atmosphere by playing danceable songs but they did not become phenomena in themselves. These days, clubs advertise the deejays, with all sorts of creative nom de turntables, to attract people and some apparently earn almost as much as the singers or bands themselves. They travel from country to country playing at clubs and parties, attracting huge crowds. The spotlight thus has moved from the dance floor to the turntable so what is the need anymore to know any dance steps?

The only thing that has not changed is the records themselves. Technology may have evolved but deejays still prefer playing vinyl records. The odd thing is their young audiences hardly know what these are. In a quiz I once observed, young people did not know that RPM stands for Revolutions Per Minute because you don’t need to know that with compact discs. The other thing they find impressive about records is that you can play them on both sides.

I watched my teenage daughter and her friends recently at a party where a deejay spun his records and tried to get them to sweat a little bit. It seems that young girls these days, though dressed more expensively than when I was that age, are more self-conscious than before. Or perhaps they are afraid they might shake their coiffures loose. They all look like they need someone to teach them some steps first, preferably similar to those that models use on the catwalk. In any case, they never cut loose on the dance floor like we used to.

Boys of course haven’t changed at all. They could not dance in my time and they still can’t today.

Perhaps the state of modern music is so monotonous that young people don’t tap their toes anymore and therefore never learn rhythm. I can never keep still if a James Brown record is ever on the loudspeakers no matter where I might be, much to the mortification of my daughter.

But I felt vindicated recently when, after cajoling and coaxing my daughter and her friends to risk perspiring to little avail, the deejay at her party pointed at me as I strutted my stuff, “SHE’s more happening than you all!” Better still, one young man in all earnest sweetness said to me, “Auntie Marina, you put Ineza to shame!” Indeed!
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Easttimor

TO MAKE an argument for visiting East Timor you can’t rely on the staples of Asian tourism — low cost and exotica. The world’s newest nation is more expensive than many first world countries, and with its colonial legacy many of East Timor’s physical aspects will be familiar. Still, there are a million reasons to visit soon. East Timor’s people are her greatest attraction. Outgoing, tolerant, fun loving and family-oriented, the East Timorese are the perfect vacation hosts.

Carvings

Wherever you go you will feel welcome and respected. Ninety-five percent of the people are devout Catholics, crime is rare and all essential services are functioning. You’ll get by with English, Bahasa Indonesia or Portuguese but try to learn the greetings of the indigenous language, Tetum (pronounced Tetun).

Allow at least two weeks to sample what East Timor has to offer. Tourism is in its infancy so there are no package tours, but the freshness of the experience will delight you. Sensible health precautions include the usual travel shots and avoiding malaria and dengue fever by taking malaria prophylaxis and using insect repellent day and night.

On arrival at the airport, pick up a free copy of Discover Dili — a brief up-to-date guide to tourism in East Timor with handy contact numbers. There are two public Internet cafés charging $2 for 15 minutes.

Where to stay:
Expect to pay between $15 and $120 per night. Within Dili a budget option is The Purple Cow on White Sands Beach at $15 per night including breakfast. Just a ten-minute taxi ride from Dili Central, it’s a new well-maintained beachfront restaurant, nightclub and small hotel that rocks on Friday and Saturday nights. I rate it three stars. Or for backpackers try the JC PAV Community Centre near Taibessi Market, Dili, with its new, clean rooms starting at $14 per night (email: cjpav@hotmail.com).

The newest resort hotel is the Esplanada at Coconut Beach, ten minutes from downtown Dili. With its swimming pool, cool green tiles and indigenous carvings the $100 rooms are reasonable value.

Top of the scale in the luxury market is the Portuguese-owned Hotel Timor in the downtown area. Opened just in time for independence celebrations in May, the hotel claims five stars and rooms start at $120 per night. The lobby with bar/restaurant is cool, spacious and invitingly decorated in a mix of Portuguese classic and modern East Timorese chic.

Dili Hotel lobby

You don’t need to book all your accommodation in advance, reserve the first couple of nights and then check out your options as more accommodation comes on-stream weekly. An interesting-looking resort hotel is being built on embassy row — Rue Alve Aldeia.

Getting around:
Dili is a busy city with many of the sights within walking distance. Mikrolets (minibuses) cost a few cents. Taxis are plentiful and charge just one dollar within the city limits for all trips regardless of the number of passengers. Thrifty is the main car rental company but their prices are outrageous. Instead try Dili Rentals for four-wheel drives at $50 per day — you’ll need one if you plan to explore beyond greater Dili. The days are a hot average 31°C so keep out of the sun and stay hydrated on bottled water.

Ermera woman

Eating out:
East Timorese love their meat, especially BBQ and the seafood is plentiful and good value. Try the seafront restaurants for dinner and watch the sun slide into the sea. Classic eateries are The Dili Club with its pizzas, burgers, Indian curry and perfectly chilled beers, City Café, and Angelo’s $5 all-you-can-eat buffet. Expect to pay between $4 and $10 for main meals and $1 to $4 for drinks. There are some low price options such as the Singapore Coffee Shop, but you won’t find the variety of street stalls you’d see in Malaysia or Singapore. Sports fans worried about missing their matches can view them in comfort at The Monkey Bar with its four big screen TV sets under a large thatched hut. During the World Cup it did a roaring trade in Ronaldo Rolls and Beckham Burgers.

Local news:
Read the local news before you go at www.easttimorpress.com, East Timor’s independent online news service.

Things to do:
For shoppers the local markets hold the most interest. Three markets sell local produce — stock up on organic coffee, creamy coconut soap, fashionable woven handbags and high quality handloom cloth in a range of bright colours, shapes and sizes costing between $2 and $60. You’ll be contributing directly to the local economy where it needs it the most.

When you’ve exhausted the sights of Dili’s markets, beaches, nightclubs, monuments and historic sites, such as Santa Cruz cemetery, it’s time to head to the hills, islands or coastline. Hill towns like the coffee-growing district of Ermera and beautiful Maubisse offer cool, scenic retreats. Overnight at the Pousada de Maubisse, a large white bungalow four-star guesthouse with 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains for $33-77 a double.

Coastal diving is said to be among the best in the world and you can charter a yacht to visit the islands and bays. Dive Timor, Free Flow and Dili Dive are a few local companies.

A spectacular two-and-a-half hour drive east of Dili brings you to Baucau where another comfortable Pousada awaits. Baucau’s beach rivals Tahiti and the town is worth at least two nights. Much more lush than Dili you will enjoy Baucau’s contrast between the colonial architecture and traditional thatched houses.

Timor Lorosae (the Tetum name for East Timor) will struggle economically until her oil revenue streams are established. Why not support this nascent nation now by having the holiday of your life!

(NB: All figures are in US dollars, East Timor’s currency.)

amsterdam 760x434 - Amsterdam

Amsterdam

amsterdam title 3 - Amsterdam
amsterdam bridge 4 - Amsterdam
Text by AFDHEL AZIZ
Photographs courtesy of the
AMSTERDAM TOURIST BOARD
The Skinny Bridge, seen here at night, is one of the famous wooden drawbridges in Amsterdam. (photo: Piet van der Meer)

IF YOU are looking for a place to visit that is small enough to explore but big enough to offer plenty of delights, then the charming city of Amsterdam must rate high on the list. Founded on a dam on the river Amstel in the 13th century, the city went on to become a hub during the busy days of the 17th century when the Dutch were expanding their trading empire and doing interesting things like invading Southeast Asian countries.

Modern Amsterdam is filled with exciting contemporary architecture that somehow manages to blend harmoniously with the older houses. It is a city with a youthful approach to life, always alive and ready to try out new ideas and experiences. It also helps that many Dutch people speak perfect English and are usually friendly and willing to help people who are as clueless as I am.

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Browse at the Waterlooplein fleamarket. (photo: Jurjen Drenth)

Central Amsterdam is quite small but filled with interesting sights to see. Amongst the many attractions the city has to offer is the Anne Frank House, the wartime hiding place of a young Jewish girl and her family and friends, who were evading the Nazis. After spending two years avoiding discovery, they were captured and taken to the concentration camps, which only Anne Frank’s father survived. The diaries of the young girl, detailing their life in hiding, were found in the house and, since they were published in 1947, have gone on to sell 13 million copies. The house remains exactly as the Frank family left it, right down to the movie star pin-ups in Anne’s bedroom and the marks on the walls detailing the heights of the children.

Amsterdam is also home to many good art museums, including one dedicated to the work of the Netherlands’ most famously insane painter Vincent Van Gogh, he of the severed ear and Sunflowers fame. For those of you who like modern art, the Stedelijk has a major collection from the 18th century onwards, featuring the works of Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian and Chagall, as well as Impressionists like Manet and Monet, and newer painters like Mark Rothko and Ellsworth Kelly — enough to make any modern art lover salivate. For those with a more classical bent, the Rijksmuseum has a fabulous collection featuring works by other great Dutch 17th-century painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt, whose famous The Nightwatch adorns their walls. It also contains fine collections of Asian art and displays on Dutch history.

Amsterdam: life is lived on and around the canals.
Amsterdam: life is lived on and around the canals.

Amsterdam has superb public transport facilities, with an efficient and logical tram service that can whip you around the city without leaving a serious dent in your wallet. Buy a strippenkart from any tobacconist, post office or railway service and stamp it yourself — no hectoring conductors shortchanging you here. Amsterdam is also very bike-friendly, so the adventurous amongst you might choose to rent one and explore the city that way. It certainly makes a big difference to the pollution levels in the city. But be warned if you are a pedestrian — you not only have to cope with cars and buses, but tram lanes and cycle lanes as well. This means that if you do not want to be decapitated, you have to keep a very alert eye all around you when you are crossing.

But in a city cobwebbed with canals, undoubtedly the best way to see the sights of the city is by boat. Tours last 90 minutes and give you a spectacular introduction to old and new Amsterdam. The tours meander around the beautiful tree-lined waterways, giving you a close-up glimpse of life on board the city’s 3000-plus houseboats — a great way to live if you don’t get seasick. With the wind in your hair, and the sun on your back it is a truly civilised way to get to know a city. If you’re feeling particularly romantic, then maybe you might want to try taking your partner on a candlelit cruise in the evening, complete with dinner, flowers and music. However, the energetic amongst you might want to rent a pedalo or peddle boat, and you can happily wander around the canals at your own pace. Unusual sights abound from one-man bands on tiny rowboats to grand pianos being hoisted into the top floors of houses via cunning block-and-tackle devices. During the strictly controlled development of the city, even the wealthiest citizens had to conform to stringent design specifications which meant that individualism in residences was limited to things like the ornate gables that decorate each building. Bizarrely, property taxes were also levied according to the width of the house — hence the prevalence of tall, narrow buildings.

Relax with good food and friendly people along Rembrandtplein.
Relax with good food and friendly people along Rembrandtplein.

There is so much more to say about Amsterdam — the many restaurants and cafés serving delicious food from creamy cakes and pastries to spicy Indonesian and Surinamese dishes; the friendliest and coziest bars I have ever encountered in the world, where to strike up a conversation is to learn something delightfully new; clubs which play an exciting range of music from hip-hop to house to stuff you just can’t put a name to; the verdant Vondelpark south of the Leiseplein, ideal for lazing around on a hot summer afternoon; having a coffee in the orangery of the Hortus Botanicus, a botanical garden with over 6000 species — truly an oasis in the city. One thing is for sure — I’m going back for another visit.

rodeo 760x434 - Wild Men of Rodeo

Wild Men of Rodeo

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A bull rider in action at the Dayboro Rodeo.

Text by SHARON TICKLE
Photographs courtesy of EXTREME BULLRIDING
and SHARON TICKLE

DUST, SWEAT, testosterone and two tonnes of bucking, sharp-horned bull. Tight, blue jeans, wide smiles, high-energy music and Akubras. Welcome to the world of the wild men of rodeo.

Rodeo used to be a well-kept secret. Apart from the occasional Hollywood appearance, the city slicker’s rodeo experience was usually limited to the annual Royal Show’s equestrian events.

But since serious sponsorship dollars entered the picture in the mid-’90s, professional bull riding, wild horse racing, barrel racing and camp drafting extended rodeo’s reach. Now it’s easy to treat yourself to some real excitement. Before your next trip to Australia check the calendar of events for both the professional circuit and country town rodeos but be aware of the difference.

Extreme bull riding is for purists who want a well-run spectacle of man and mean bovine muscle without any distractions, whereas country rodeo has bull riding plus, plus, plus.

The pluses include a host of physically challenging men’s, women’s and kids’ events like children’s ‘goat tying’ (the child who lassoes and pins the goat first wins) and ‘mutton busting’ (kids ride a bucking sheep), as well as side show alley and a mechanical bull the punters can try their luck on.

And if you miss out on the rodeo circuit drop by Rockie’s Great Western Hotel’s Friday night rodeo. With an indoor rodeo arena, top rib fillet (exported to Raffles Hotel, Singapore) and cold beer on tap, the Great Western fills up quickly with locals and visitors all year round. Call +617 4922 1862 to find out the event schedule.

BULL RIDER PROFILES

1. Troy Dunn

So what does it take to stay on a raging bull for more than 8 seconds? I talked to two professional champion bull riders about how they prepare mentally and physically to stare down death. At 35 years of age Troy Dunn is the old man of rodeo with 13 years at the top of the sport. World bull riding champion in 1998, Troy’s cash winnings to date are impressive, but he doesn’t take success for granted. “So much of bull riding is mental, being ready for the animal in the chute. It takes at least four years to develop the skills. I train with weights and sprint three to four times a week all year round because a fit body makes a confident mind. Ninety per cent of bull riding is mental. I’m not superstitious any more, I used to have a special pair of socks but now I just do some self-talk before I go into the chute. My worst injury was at my first world final in Las Vegas. I got thrown and did the splits when I landed, dislocated my hips and was out for six months.”


2. Wayne Darr

2002 could be Wayne Darr’s year. The handsome 27-year-old Queenslander has been sitting at third or fourth place in the rankings and is fit, confident and looking forward to enjoying the championship season. “I practise on two or three bulls several times a week and go to the gym four times a week. I don’t smoke. It’s important to be positive, to think you’re a winner, to think you’re better than the bull. I respect the animals, they’re athletes in their own right and they’re seventy per cent of the sport. One time a bull’s horn hit the side of my face and caved my cheek in but I don’t think about that.”

GLOSSARY

Akubra
A type of black or brown, wide-brimmed hat made of rabbit felt that’s worn by Australian country folk.

Barrel Racing
Women’s and men’s events see expert horsemanship as the rider races her steed around a figure eight course to clock the fastest time.

Camp Drafting
The rider must separate or ‘cut’ one steer from the herd and drive it around a course marked by poles in the fastest time without losing control of the beast to win.

Rockie
Rockhampton is the beef capital of Australia. About four hours drive from Brisbane along Queensland’s beautiful coastline, Rockie is a traditional country town.

Rodeo
(pronounced ‘rodayo’, emphasis on the second syllable, by Australians over 50; and ‘rowdio’, with emphasis on the first syllable by the under 50s and all Americans except those who shop on Rodeo Drive). A kind of country carnival held at night where cowboys and cowgirls compete in skilful events involving horses, steers and bulls.

Wild Horse Races
A team of men must lasso, saddle and bridle an unbroken horse and assist one of them to ride it through a marked course. First rider across the line wins for their team.

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Beckham

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AS I WRITE this piece, English football has just had a very good week at the expense of the Greeks. To begin with the English national team clinched a point at Old Trafford in their final World Cup qualifier against Greece, which was enough to give them automatic qualification for next summer’s World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea.

Then the team that usually plays at Old Trafford, Manchester United, thumped the Greek club side Olympiakos 2-0 in Athens to move to the top of their group in the European Champions League.

The link to both these results was old (well, not-so-old, actually) ‘Goldenballs’ himself, David Beckham, who scored a last minute equaliser for England with a scintillating 25-yard free-kick and then knocked in Manchester United’s first goal in Athens from all of six yards.

Beckham, who was originally given his nickname by his wife Victoria (otherwise known as ‘Posh Spice’) but is now affectionately referred to as ‘Goldenballs’ throughout England, appears to be finally coming of age.

I must confess that I didn’t use to have any time for him. Not out of jealousy you understand (although anyone could be forgiven for being a little jealous of him, after all he has been gifted with a marvellous footballing talent, is Captain of England, married to a Spice Girl and makes millions doing something he loves), but rather because he typified the new breed of sporting hero, who couldn’t string two proper sentences together, showed little regard for authority and generally set a bad example to young people.

Young Manchester United fans — beginning a lifelong obsession.

However I have to admit that I now have nothing but total respect for a person who just three years ago was nationally vilified as the man responsible for England’s World Cup defeat by Argentina, after he was sent off for utterly reckless retaliation against one of the galloping gauchos. How much he has matured since then and what a wonderfully hard-working, gifted and inspiring captain of England he is now. It makes any English football fan almost dare to dream of winning the World Cup again, especially after the way in which they thrashed Germany 5-1 in Munich in September.

On the Premiership stage it remains to be seen how memorable a season ‘Goldenballs’ and his teammates can make it for Sir Alex Ferguson in his final term as Manchester United’s manager. Ferguson’s stated aim is to win the European Champions League for the second time, following their success in 1999. If they are to achieve this aim they’ll need to wake up goalkeeper Barthez, whose two tragic blunders led to their home defeat to Deportivo recently. And the rest of their defence has been frail in Europe.

They’ve also looked vulnerable in the Premiership this season and currently lie third, three points behind David O’Leary’s Leeds United, who were England’s best-placed Champions League team last season when they reached the semi-finals.

Leeds are looking good this season, especially Robbie Keane, the striker they signed from Inter Milan for £11 million, but they still don’t arouse the same kind of passion outside of their native city that Manchester United do all over the world. So great is this international passion for the Red Devils that they probably have more fans in Malaysia than they do in Manchester and, accordingly, a Manchester United shop has been opened in Kuala Lumpur to service the need for Manchester United shirts, boots, scarves, books and goodness knows what else, amongst Malaysian fans. There’s also a Manchester United shop in Singapore.

Man U Store
The Manchester United store in Singapore’s busy Orchard Road.

The Malaysian Manchester United fervour was further fanned last July when ‘Goldenballs’ and co. undertook a short Southeast Asian tour, visiting Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, and attracting the kind of crowds in KL that the Malaysian national team can only dream about. Other English Premiership teams with strong followings in Malaysia are Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, and they’re all having mixed seasons so far.

Arsenal currently lie second to Leeds in the Premiership, ahead of Manchester United on goal difference, though they’re struggling in Europe having won only one of their Champions League games so far.

Liverpool are also struggling in the Champions League and suffered the ignominy of being knocked out of the Worthington Cup, one of the three trophies they’re defending this season, by Nationwide First Division opponents Grimsby Town. However they’re fairly well placed in the Premiership, currently five points behind Leeds with a game in hand.

Chelsea are also motoring along OK so far, being unbeaten in the Premiership, though they’re managing to draw more games than they’re winning under Claudio Ranieri’s leadership despite striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink having struck (forgive the pun) a rich vein of form with seven goals from just six games. The boys from Stamford Bridge were also sailing through the early rounds of the UEFA Cup, until they came unstuck in Tel Aviv, losing to Haptoed Tel Aviv 2-0, largely because six of their star players were too frightened to travel with the rest of the team to Israel. Given the current situation there, it’s probably understandable, although they would appear to have let down their courageous team-mates who did make the journey. Let’s hope that they can atone for this in the return leg at Stamford Bridge.

Man U group shot
Will Manchester United be able to repeat their 2000/2001 Premiership win?

But it’s early days yet in the Premiership, though most pundits would expect the eventual 2001/2002 champions to come from those five teams, with possibly a rejuvenated Aston Villa as a dark horse outside bet.

At the other end of football’s toughest league Leicester are really missing manager Martin O’Neill after he left to join Glasgow Celtic towards the end of last season. Firmly rooted to the bottom with just five points they’ve already parted company with his replacement, Peter Taylor. Ipswich, West Ham and Derby are also looking to be in trouble and the relegated teams at the end of the season may well come from those four and perennial strugglers Southampton. But as I said, it’s early days yet.

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iamm

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The Museum entrance, courtyard and Art of the Mosque exhibit all show superb Islamic detailing.

EMBRACING 1,300 years of history over a vast arena the arts of Islam are evidence of the magnificent, but often little known, accomplishments of one of the world’s major civilizations. With its vast repositories of architecture, calligraphy, book illumination, paintings, ceramics, textiles, glassware and metalwork, it’s hard to imagine how a single museum could do it justice.

It’s not an easy task, but the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia has not only taken it on, but has succeeded admirably. The first museum of its kind in the Asia-Pacific region, it not only serves to present the arts of Islam to the public, but also educates them in the finer points of the religion and its civilization.

Situated in the middle of Kuala Lumpur’s “tourist belt”, adjacent to the National Mosque, the museum mirrors the Islamic ideal of paradise: fountains play in the courtyard and views of verdant gardens appear through the transparent walls. With architecture being the most dominant and spectacular of all Islamic arts, the museum doesn’t disappoint. Built at a cost of RM70 million, the four-level building combines contemporary museum style with superb Islamic detailing.

Dome interiors
Dome interior
Dome interiors

“Travel through the Earth and see how Allah originates the creation”, is but part of the peculiarly apt Qur’anic inscription that greets visitors entering the Iwan, the traditional Persian mosque gateway. Its flowing calligraphy and arabesque tilework were created on site by Iranian craftsmen.

The museum is an oasis. Kuala Lumpur’s heat and humidity disappear when you enter, substituted by the welcome respite of an almost Arctic cool, essential for the preservation of the many priceless objects. Traffic noises are replaced by sonorous Qur’an recitals.

Ascending the marble staircase visitors arrive in a spacious hall to gaze up at another architectural triumph, a unique inverted dome. Created by Uzbekistan craftsmen, this pure white dome protrudes from the lofty roof. Qur’anic verses in gold pattern its rim and arabesques of cut glass glitter over its surface.

From this level, resist the impulse to experience the cuisine at the museum’s restaurant or be tempted by one of Malaysia’s most sophisticated gift shops. These can wait till later. Take the lift directly to Level 3 for the Art of the Mosque and the Art of Architecture. Here are intricate scale models of some of the Islamic world’s most enduring architecture. Discover the immensity of Al-Haram, the Islamic world’s holiest mosque in Mecca, the soaring façades of Samarkand’s Great Mosque and the infinite purity of the Taj Mahal, among others.

Giftshop
The Museum gift shop, a treasure trove of interesting pieces.

For anyone who has longed to visit the great mosques of the world, this exhibition is a wonderful introduction not only to these houses of worship but to the underlying factor that encompasses all Islamic art — it may appear disparate, but it is all essentially a physical manifestation of the worship of God (Allah). Art and faith are interchangeable in Islam since the precepts of the faith pervade all aspects of life and work.

The Art of the Mosque is even more revealing, especially for non-Muslims, as it shows the interior aspects of mosques, featuring essentials like the Minbar, or pulpit, from which the Imam delivers his Friday address, and the Mihrab, a false door which shows the direction of Mecca. But even more fascinating, because only Muslims are allowed to view them in the original in Mecca, are the large velvet cloths embroidered with Qur’anic verses that formerly covered the Kaabah, the “House of God”.

Ottoman Room
The Ottoman room was reconstructed from a house in Damascus.

Islam’s glorious history is well reflected in both the museum’s permanent and changing exhibitions. Of course, the most important exhibition is of the Qur’ans, reflecting the importance of the Muslim holy texts. The beauty of the calligraphy, and the delicate illuminations can be viewed at leisure while listening to Qur’anic recitals. It’s a lesson in the ageless appeal of the Qur’an: while many of the written works are ancient, the source of the audio is high tech at its best. It’s an interactive Qur’an with monitors giving a simultaneous translation in English. The wall display is linked to a touch-sensitive panel from which the viewer can select any surah — verse from the Qur’an — and then play to hear the celebrated Mohamad Jebril recite the selected passage.

A recent invention, the Fraser-Nash Sundial, calculates astronomical movements to an accuracy of less than three seconds. Five coloured bands across a world map indicate the five prayer times across the world at that instant, showing at a glance the global impact of Islam.

Another highlight of the museum is the lavish, wood-panelled Ottoman Room, formerly from a rich merchant’s summer house in Damascus, which was reconstructed by a Syrian craftsman. Panels are painted with calligraphy, floral arrangements and depictions of old Istanbul houses, while the intricate ceiling is carved, gilded, painted and mirrored to an astonishing degree.

Children's section of the library
The children’s section of the library.

This intricacy of work, a constant in Islamic art, is repeated in many of the exhibitions. There are manuscripts, ceramics, textiles, prayer rugs, coins, metalwork, weapons, jewellery and glass. The unique Chinese calligraphic scrolls inscribed in Arabic, are a personal favourite of Dr Norbert Heinrich Holl, the German Ambassador to Malaysia. “I’ve never seen anything like them anywhere else”, he remarked. He should know as not only does he collect Qur’ans and Islamic art, but he has also handed over his collection to the museum for public viewing during his tenure in Malaysia.

Dr Holl’s generosity was praised by Syed Mohamad Albukhary, the director of the museum and the Albukhary Foundation, the Malaysia-based philanthropic enterprise, which provided the majority of the funds for the museum. “It will certainly create an impetus for others”, he said, “to come forward and work with the museum in educating the world on the timeless beauty of Islam and its Arts”.

Others have also been forthcoming, particularly the Sultan of Brunei whose fabulous collection of artefacts certainly enhances not only the viewer’s pleasure, but the prestige of the museum.

It has only been two and a half years since the museum first opened, but it is well on the way to realising its commitment to be the custodian, restorer, preserver and educator of Islamic Arts, not only in Malaysia but also in the Asia-Pacific region.

INFORMATION:
The Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia
Jalan Lembah Perdana, 50480, Kuala Lumpur.
Tel: (603) 2274 2020
Email: info@iamm.org.my
Opening Hours: 10am to 6pm, except Monday.
Entrance Fee: RM8 (adults); RM4 (children).
sakura 760x434 - Sakura

Sakura

It’s early spring in Japan. The television weatherman stands before a map of the country crossed by familiar undulating lines. But these aren’t isobars delineating high and low pressure systems, and they don’t measure temperatures either.

The lines delineate the sakura zensen, the cherry blossom front. On each line is the date when cherry blossoms there will peak. The dates start in late March in Okinawa and Kyushu in the south and advance steadily up the archipelago to Hokkaido in late April.

Japanese watch the sakura zensen with the same fervent anticipation with which Indians await the monsoon. Once the dates are announced people prepare with the same intensity people in the northern hemisphere prepare for a major blizzard. At times cherry petals swirling in spring breezes do resemble a blizzard. It’s hard to imagine the hold cherry blossom time has on the Japanese. Once you see a hillside covered in delicate white-pink cherry trees in full blossom, though, you’ll understand.

Under the trees
Soup, fish salad, and everywhere
Cherry blossoms


In 1690 master haiku poet Basho wrote that, but it could just as easily have been penned today. Japanese still celebrate cherry blossom season as they did then, with joyous hanami — flower-viewing parties held under the trees. Hanami are a national phenomenon. Everyone, from the smallest schoolchild to the president of the largest corporation, attends at least one.

As the sakura zensen advances company sections hold hanami party organizational meetings. Municipal crews prepare parks for the onslaught (and organize their hanami party). School children snip thousands of paper cherry blossoms (as teachers organize school hanami parties). Friends gather at bars (to organize hanami parties). In fact, the Japanese fixation on meetings may originate in the need to organize hanami parties, but that’s another story.

Hanami aren’t gentle social gatherings with quiet “ohhs” and “ahhs” as blossoms float down. They tend to be no-holds-barred bashes. Eyes seem more fixed on the bottom of the beer or sake glass than the ethereal blossoms overhead.

There’s a reason for that, based in the Japanese view of life as reflected in the cherry blossoms. The blossoms are exquisitely beautiful, but fragile and short lived. Within days they’ve fluttered down to the ground, trampled and spoiled in the dirt.Boaters at the Imperial Palace enjoy the gentler side of cherry blossom time.

The Japanese see life the same way. Youth, beauty, and happiness are gone before we know it. Like cherry blossoms, the petals of our life fade and disappear just as we recognize our blossom’s beauty. Life is short. Not a happy thought, but because life is short we should enjoy it while we can. So gay parties roar away beneath the trees, but there is also a touch of sadness for the all-too-short life the blossoms and we viewers share.

The touch of melancholy usually gets washed away in the “life is short, enjoy it while you can” portion of the philosophy. For this short time, Japanese abandon their notorious nose-to-the-grindstone mentality and party. Bacchanalian excess overwhelms Japan’s reserved, dour seriousness.

Party-goers go to extremes for places under the most beautiful trees, pitching a tent the night before a party to hold a choice spot. Company section leaders dispatch junior staff in the early morning to hold a spot until everyone else arrives in the late afternoon. Woe betide the staff if they can’t get the spot the section leader or company president designated.

Some viewers make do with potato chips and “American dogs” (hot dogs at their worst), but others lay out lavish buffets of sushi and sashimi, as well as grills and portable stoves for cooking.

Food and drink lead to song and dance. Traditionalists bring shamisen, a sort of three-stringed banjo. Others bring battery-powered karaoke machines. The more crass (usually somebody high on the corporate ladder) have the flunkies carry in a generator and an enormous laser disc karaoke system.

Still, none of this would happen without the cherry blossoms. Even the hardest drinkers and party-goers sigh wistfully as they brush a fallen petal from their shoulder.Few other cultures bestow such significance to a flower.

Few other cultures greet a blossom with such passion and view its passing with such melancholy.

About 900 years ago the great tanka poet Saigyo (1118-1190) wrote:

Could I but die
Under the cherry blossoms
In springtime
On the night of the full moon
In the second month of the year.


He was lucky enough to get his wish. It’s believed he passed away with the cherry blossoms in full bloom.

Sakura means the road in Japan will be look mess during the changing season between spring to autumn.
shibuya 760x434 - Shibuya

Shibuya

shibuya titlepic row1 - Shibuya
SHIBUYA - Tokyo's Hip Corner
Concert billboard
Text & photographs by
JON BURBANK

WHAT IS HIP changes, but in Tokyo where to find hip doesn’t. Shibuya, one of the main sub-centres in that great pulsating web of work, play, culture and domicile that is Tokyo, is the place to discover what is hip and hot with young Tokyo-ites.

Shibuya's buskers
TOP: Teens queuing outside Tower Records for a glimpse of V-6, the latest Japanese boy band.

ABOVE: New meets Old: A traditional busker band on Shibuya’s Center Gai.

The crowds here are so young that it seems the mythical Fountain of Youth must be hidden somewhere in Shibuya’s maze of trendy boutiques, “nouvelle cuisine” restaurants, throbbing nightclubs and noisy video arcades. Walking through Shibuya, middle age seems a twisted figment of the imagination. Even 30 seems so far out on the horizon that it sounds like a bad joke.

It wasn’t always like this. Compared to the glittering sakariba (bustling places) of Shinjuku, Ginza and Ueno, Shibuya used to be a mundane characterless suburb, the wrong side of the national railway lines and hemmed in by hills.

All that changed during the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. The main Olympic village was housed in Shibuya, and suddenly its streets filled with young foreigners who brought with them fashion, food, culture and music that the Japanese had never experienced: a jolt of energy that Tokyo’s youth rushed to grab, and continue to be mesmerised by today.

Precisely because it had no established character, Shibuya became a place that the young could call their own, and even today nothing is ever around Shibuya long enough to get that settled feeling that is the opposite of youthful spontaneity and invention.

After the Olympics young Tokyo-ites continued to flock to Shibuya to see what was new and hip in New York, London, and Paris. Japan’s postwar economic boom also gave them not only the will, but also the purchasing power to create their own styles. Today designers from all over the world roam Shibuya’s streets to discover what’s going to be hip.

Schoolkids

As the work-day ends, Tokyo’s 20-somethings switch from work to play, and gather outside the Shibuya underground station. Dull suits and wrinkle-free polyester uniforms give way toÉwell, whatever is hip at that particular point in the never-ending march of fashion.

Next to the station is Tokyo’s most famous meeting spot, a monument commemorating a dog, Hachiko. The tale behind it is as follows: each evening Hachiko’s master would return from work to find his faithful pet waiting outside the train station. Rain or shine, the dog was there, awaiting his master’s return. For an entire decade following his master’s death, Hachiko continued to wait each evening at the station, fulfilling his duty and responsibility, until his own death. A statue to Hachiko was subsequently erected, and there is now even a festival honoring him.

Hachiko
ABOVE LEFT: Shibuya locals – the youth of Japan checks out the latest world fashion.
ABOVE: The monument to faithful Hachiko, a popular meeting place in Shibuya.

Hachiko embodied duty, dependability and devotion to responsibility, all the qualities that the young people who meet beneath his statue are making one last attempt to avoid before they start down the bland path of routine that most in Japan view adulthood to be.

Starbucks Coffee has just hit Japan and naturally there is a huge outlet across from the station, packed with the latest fashions, including some that appear pretty bizarre to the newcomer. Take the girls, who teeter by in shoes with soles up to 30cm thick. Combined with micro-mini-skirts, a tanning-salon tan so dark it practically glows, fluorescent lipstick and eye-shadow, topped by hair dyed strawberry-blond, and you have a look that is, well, distinctive.

Young men also go for the deep-tanned, blond-haired look, accented by a gold neck-chain. Others sport spiked hair that would make a London punk proud, and designer T-shirts (a tip for the in-crowd: Van seems to have overtaken Nike) over nylon sports pants.

Here, even department stores, usually bastions of matronly establishment taste, cater to the young. One chain, Marui, even renamed its Shibuya store “Marui Young”. The ledge outside its display window is always crowded with 20-somethings, cell-phones and cigarettes held casually but coolly at the ready.

Just up the street is another Shibuya landmark, Tower Records. Long lines of fans, mostly young women, regularly pack the sidewalk waiting for the appearance of the latest “J-pop” (Japanese Pop Music) singer or group who have made it big.

But to really see Shibuya at its raucous youthful best, take a walk down Center Gai (Alley). This narrow street basically goes nowhere, but touches upon every current trend in music, fashion, food and culture. You won’t be alone; the pavements are always crowded with the cool and the wannabe’s. Karaoke bars, fast-food chains, boutiques and nightclubs assail you with neon light as well as a cacophony of music and sales patter.

So come to Shibuya, where you’re never more than a step from a reminder of how great it is to be young, and never more than a half-step from a sales poster for what to buy to be young. Don’t worry about not coming immediately, because in Shibuya although the look may change, the attitude never will: life is good, life is young.

Tokyo is an eight-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian Airlines flies to Tokyo every day of the week.  Call Malaysian Airlines at
(60) 3 746 3000 for bookings.
alhambra 760x434 - The Alhambra

The Alhambra

Text and pictures by Mathias Tugores

arches - The Alhambra

IN 1492, Spain had more than one reason to celebrate: on October 12, Columbus crossed the great Dark Sea and discovered the New World, while in early January, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel the Catholic drove the Moors out of the country. The Reconquista was a slow process which lasted nearly eight centuries.

In 711, 5,000 Berbers under the leadership of Tarik landed in Gibraltar. Within a matter of five years the whole of the Iberian peninsula (with the exception of the small Christian nuclei in northern Spain) was theirs and the course of Western civilisation was altered. The culture and science they brought converted Moorish Spain into a land of learning well ahead of its time.

At times, the Islamic presence in Spain flourished, at times it dwindled into warring and fratricidal fiefdoms. The Moors and the Christians went on building fortifications and castles to consolidate and expand their territories.

It was in Granada, which rose at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, that the Moorish architects, inspired by educated emirs keen on Art, built their most outstanding works, both military and civilian. They transformed the capital of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) into a jewel, the most important architectural achievement of the Middle Ages.

The favourite of the last Moorish kings whose empire was shrinking under the raids of the Reconquest was a small independent state stretching from Gibraltar to the frontier of Murcia.

Medina Al-Hamra (the city of Alhambra) stood up on the Red Hill, one of the three mounds over Granada. It was shaped like a vessel whose prow, formed by the alcazaba (the citadel) was oriented towards the city, with a length of over 700 metres and a maximum width of 200 metres. It was the seat of the government and the sultan had his residence there.

spainmap - The Alhambra

Sober-looking from the outside, the spell begins when one walks past the 14th-century Puerta de la Justicia, a rectangular tower linked by one of its flanks to the city wall. It fronts the Puerta del Vino (the Wine Gate) whose name was derived from a wine market which stood there from 1554. The intricate labyrinth of the medieval city led to the upper part of the Alhambra where around 2,000 inhabitants lived.

Though the palaces of the Alhambra were built during different epochs, they nevertheless give the impression of unity and harmony. The Alhambra grew from century to century; from its beginnings it went on unplanned, extending from the alcazaba which was built near the end of the 9th century.

In 1238, Muhammad ben Yusuf ben Nasr, the ruler of Arjona, took possession of the city. As the alcazaba was not regarded as fit for a king, he and his successors relentlessly built small palaces, mosques, schools and baths all around the grounds. Over the years the Alhambra grew to be a palatine city housing an aristocratic population in constant growth. Its Palace of Camares with its Hall of the Ambassadors and its Patio of the Arrayanes, the centre of the diplomatic and political activity of the Alhambra, comprised the most important nucleus of the residential area.

lioncourt - The Alhambra

Its Patio de los Leones (Lion courtyard) was the nucleus of the private house of the Sultan. By the end of 1362, when the structures surrounding it were being built, there was nothing standing except the Hall of the Two Sisters. It is today Spain’s most precious Moorish monument. The fountain after which it is named is believed to have been inspired by the one which according to the Bible stood at the entrance to the temple of Jerusalem. It was known as “Sea of Bronze” and was supported by the bulls of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Twelve marble lions surround a basin which is thought to have been richly decorated. Along its rim is engraved a poetic composition of Ibn Zamrak which explains how the complex and ingenious hydraulic system supplying water to it functioned.

The courtyard is lined with 124 slender columns of white marble. Their capitals, which were originally painted, are highly elaborate: the ceilings of the arcades enclosing it are exquisitely worked and the walls covered with delicate pillow-lace-like stucco ornamentation.

Slightly off-centred, the Generalife, which derives its name from “Djennat al Arif” (high garden) was used by the sultans as a country residence. The architecture, gardens, and the view the Generalife commands makes it a delightful and serene place.

Islamic culture in Spain, which had begun to flourish in earnest during the reign of Abderraman I, came to an end in January 1492. The Reconquista which had been initiated as early as the year 718, when in Covadonga King Pelayo crushed the troops of the emir of Cordoba, was finally over.

fort - The Alhambra
welsh love spoon 760x434 - Welsh Love Spoons

Welsh Love Spoons

Text and pictures by Mathias Tugores

TO DECLARE HIS LOVE for his sweetheart, man has always been
resourceful and creative. In the early days of Great Britain, suitors expressed their feelings for their Dulcineas by exchanging arrays of love tokens. In Wales, rustics and seafarers were often illiterate and they found it easier to convey their feelings using a wooden spoon aptly known as a love spoon.

No documentary evidence exists that suggests the acceptance of an offer of a love spoon by a suitor for his beloved will develop into a betrothal. It is, however, generally believed that the offer forms part of the prelude to courtship and represents a desire to form a liaison between the two parties.

The origin of the custom is obscure and thought to date back to the 16th century. The carving of wooden spoons as a pastime to relief the tedious long dark evenings became very popular in Welsh farms. Some of these spoons were undoubtedly designed for use, but from the 17th to 19th century, the highly decorated spoon presented by a carver, as a token of love became a common feature of rural life. While the utilitarian spoon represents the will of its maker to help himself, the so-called love spoon symbolizes the desire to help one’s loved one.

lovespooncarver - Welsh Love Spoons

A wealth of imagination is reflected in the carving of these mementos of love. Their bowls, gradually, became virtually expandable while their handles grew to enormous proportions. An overflowing blend of symbols and patterns elaborately carved into an ever-increasing complication of design and dimension, they became works of art in their own right.

Sycamore was the most commonly used wood. According to tradition, it was to be winter felled as this ensured a pale lustre, free of all blemishes and stains. Though extensively used, sycamore was not essential: oak, birch, lime, apple, pear, peach and cherry wood, ash, yew and mahogany would handsomely fulfil the same purpose. It is important to use a dense, knot-free, straight-grained piece of wood.

lovespoon2 - Welsh Love Spoons

The carver commences with the shaping of the spoon with a sharp axe or hatchet, followed by the smoothing of the bowl with a drawknife and a spokeshave; the scoop was created with the help of a gouge or and old traditional tool known as twca cam. The spoon has to be carved out of one single piece of wood, and this applied to all the parts like links and balls that had to be shaped out of the original log. The elaborate and symbolic shaping and cutting of the large handle in fretwork style emphasize most the carver’s feelings for his belle. Originally it was used for engraving the name of one’s darling as well as the date the spoon was given, but with the passing of time, it was used to depict a likeness to the loved one. Occasionally, it was completed with a rectangular or circular panel, and a swivel shackle or chain link symbolizing loyalty and fidelity would be attached to it. In the hands of the most talented and imaginative makers, the spoon handle was transformed into a fretted, clotted and pierced sculpture. Some handles were carved to represent pairs of spectacles (“I love the one I see”), while others were hollowed out and had small spheres running freely in a slotted cavity (these characterized as a general rule the number of children the carver wished to have). Some spoons even had two bowls sprouting from one handle (“we two make one”).

A wealth of symbols was carved all over the spoon. The heart, quite naturally, was the most conventional sign and it was to be a full heart carved into the depth of the spoon. A merely fretted heart could imply the lack of real desire, linked hearts meant love reciprocated, two hearts on a spoon indicated that both the giver and recipient felt the same about each other, while a heart-shaped bowl expressed the wish to share a full and bountiful life. Wheels and spades suggested work and service. With a lock the carver let his maiden know that he wished to lock her in his heart, and with a key, keyhole and house, he told her his heart and house were hers to unlock. Anchors were often carved on spoons suggesting that the donor had found a place where he wishes to settle. The representation of growth was often depicted through a vine tree and similar motifs.

Far less conventional features were those spoons with coal and sugar glued onto the wood, both being symbols of domestic bliss: coal stands for warmth and sugar for sweetness. Horseshoes, dolphins, diamonds and four-leave clovers epitomized good luck and fortune. The dragon (the symbol of Wales and a sign of protection), ropes and cables, windows, animals, flowers, the daystar and crosses were also frequently used.

Today, a handful of artisans continue the age-old tradition. The love spoon, however, is no longer a Celtic symbol of betrothal. It is being hand-fashioned for special occasions such as marriages, birthdays, anniversaries, and carved as gifts of friendship, affection and love.

lovespoon3 - Welsh Love Spoons