Khaled and I stood where we were in the sand dune, with our eyes locked upwards to the cloudless evening sky. We saw a thick trail of grey smoke in the half light, before hearing a loud explosion that left us rattled. A fierce ball of fire broke the solemness of the slowly inching dusk.
We are Bedouins, we are the people of the desert. And this sight is not new to us. Since 1939, we had seen these iron birds falling from the sky. That was the time when the white men started warring among themselves. Father said that although they battle in our land, this war is not our war.
It sounded like thunder when the iron bird hit the desert ground. Bending our backs and with hands over our heads, Khaled and I ran for cover. The iron bird skidded into a hill of sand and laid there dead, while yet still burning furiously. I could feel the heat radiating towards us. Father had warned my brother and I not to go anywhere near a burning iron bird without him. And so we stayed put.
Most of the time, after the fire had died down, Father would ask us to accompany him to check the wreck. The men who fell from the sky would have died from the explosions. Sometimes we would find their bodies separated from the iron bird, and often times tangled in the huge white sheet that they used to glide through the sky. No matter how mangled the men were, Father always gave them a proper burial. He said that is the decent thing to do.
Father was not around tonight. And so my brother and I stood there, just watching the plume of fire engulfing the wrecked iron bird. It was quiet but for the crackling of fire.
“Ali! Look!” I turned to where Khaled was pointing at.
We could see a silhouette of a person standing and staggering slowly. As he moved, he dragged both his legs like they no longer belonged to him. His right hand was limp, while his left hand was in front of his body, like it was helping him navigate his way in the dark.
“Allahu! His head is burning! We need to help him Khaled!"
Father’s words were lost to us as my brother and I ran to the burning man who had fallen from the sky.
Malay speakers call female vampires, "pontianak". If we were to compare the pontianak to its Western counterpart, the vampire, one thing is obvious, both possess similar mesmerizing and attractive physical traits - their modus operandi to charm and lure their victims. What's different is that the pontianak is always female, and originates from a woman who had died while in labor.
I first saw her at twilight. I had entered the cafe to escape the heat, and darkness that was slowly enveloping the backpackers' lane. There were no streetlamps. The only glimmer of light came from the guesthouses and hostels that flanked both sides of the narrow gangway.
Things were kind of too quiet too early for a backpacker's lane, I thought. I had only passed by another person as I walked down the alley. The whole place was unfamiliar, and I felt a tad nervous being out there alone.
My croaky voice had deteriorated to a pathetic whisper. I realized that I had spent a good 40 minutes or so talking to the lady manning the secondhand bookshop a few doors away, as I browsed and flipped through the books on the shelves and the floor.
Unfortunately, I had caught a mild case of flu and sore throat after being stuck 5 hours in the delayed flight coming over. In all the humidity, my throat felt extra dry and stinging. Some water would be good.
Entering the cafe, I passed by a group of twentysomethings having coffee and busily chatting away. They sat on a sort of elevated wooden patio in front of the cafe. I was instantly grateful for the company of others, the cafe's bright white wash interior, and of course, the air-conditioner.
At the far back, there was bar high enough to hide the kitchen from view. 2 teenagers, a boy and a girl, both dressed in uniformed black t-shirts and blue jeans stood leaning casually against it as they talked to a tall Caucasian teenager in the local language. From their posture, I supposed he often frequented the cafe.
I sat down and turned my attention on the doodle-like graphics by the door. And just then, she walked in, looking stunning in black and white.
She looked to be in her late twenties. From the back, I could see her long, black hair held neatly by a sparkly banana clip. Her white baggy blouse was loosely tucked into her flowy long skirt with bold white and gray floral patterns. Its lacy bell sleeves bounced as she walked quickly towards the bar, briefly joining in the conversation there and laughing. In her high heeled shiny black boots, she stood a head shorter to the Caucasian teenager.
I saw her reach for the menu, and turned towards me smiling. She greeted me in English. When I answered in Malay, her round mascaraed eyes grew bigger slightly out of acknowledgement maybe, and her smile widened. She then continued to take my order in Indonesian.
Up close, I could see her face fully. Her eye brows were thick and neatly trimmed. She had a small, sharp nose and her lipstick were in the shades of plum. As she talked, her mouth revealed slightly crooked white teeth that actually enhanced her smile.
She had dark coffee brown skin with slight reddish undertones. And that was the most striking thing about her. Slightly bedazzled, I could only think of the Malay expression "hitam manis" (literally translated as black sweet) to summarize her coloring.
It didn't take long for my order of warm water, iced americano and churros to arrive. The warm water gave immediate relief to my sore throat. I forgot her temporarily as I savored the toasty, freshly-made churros and its chocolate dip. I took out my secondhand copy of Michelle de Kretser's "Questions of Travel" and began to read it.
"Kakak, are you from Malaysia?" She asked me in Indonesian, and pulled a chair to sit.
"Yes, how did you know?" I smiled and asked her back in Malay.
"From how you pronounce your words. Folks from my place speak Malay too, and in quite similar dialect to your Malay, you know. That's how I figured you're from Malaysia," She replied excitedly, her round eyes twinkling.
"You're not from Yogya or Java? Where are you from?" I admitted that she did indeed have a dialect like mine when she spoke. I thought she just code-switched to accommodate to a foreigner like me.
"I'm from Pontianak. And I am ethnic Malay just like you. I came to Yogya to continue my studies, and right now I manage the cafe..." she continued.
As I listened to her, my mind reeled quickly downloading old stored knowledge of Indonesia's geography. Pontianak is the capital city in West Kalimantan, Borneo.
"I only know that there are Malays in Bangka-Belitung. Didn't realize there were Malays too in Pontianak," I told her, interested.
"Oh yes, we are quite a big community there. And there are also people of Madura descent, Dayak, Javanese and Chinese too," said the intriguing Pontianak girl.
As the story goes, when Abdulrahman Alqadrie (the would-be Sultan of Pontianak) first set foot in a place called Batu Layang, his entourage came face to face with the undead pontianaks. He then ordered his men to fight and drove the pontianaks away by firing canons at the forest where they hid. And that is how Pontianak got its name.
This story is purely fictional. Rest assured, neither humans nor pontianaks were harmed in the midst of writing this piece.
"I've always had a thing for historical war stories - especially those set in Africa or Europe. No specific reasons, I guess I just find the landscape a little bit exotic, a little bit mystical.
Years ago, I watched "The English Patient", without knowing that it was based on a book. It was pretty embarrassing for me to know that fact later, considering that I call myself an avid reader.
Anyway, shortly after, I stumbled upon the book at Tower Records in Shibuya, Tokyo. When I was living in Japan, Tower Records was a favorite book haunt on Sundays, as it had the best selection of English books in Tokyo (my opinion, at least).
Since then, The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje has been a true traveling companion, reread every year - coffee stains, dog-eared pages and all...
I have traveled the African continent countless times through the pages of this book. Some day soon, I hope to set foot there myself and see all the beauty there as seen by Almasy.
This today is a sharing of what I regard as the most haunting page in the book:
There is a whirlwind in Southern Morocco, the aajej against which the fellahin defended themselves with knives. There is the africo, which has at times reached into the city of Rome. The alm, a fall wind out of Yugoslavia, The arifi, also christened aref or rifi, which scorches with numerous tongues. These are permanent winds that live in the present tense.
There are other, less constant winds that change direction, that can knock down horse and rider and realign themselves anticlockwise. The bist roz leaps into Afghanistan for 170 days - burying villages. There is the hot, dry ghibli from Tunis, which rolls and rolls and produces a nervous condition. The haboob - a Sudan dust storm that dresses in bright yellow walls a thousand metres high and is followed by rain.
The harmattan, which blows and eventually drowns itself into the Atlantic. Imbat, a sea breeze in North Africa. Some winds that just sigh into the sky. Night dust storms that come with the cold.
The khamsin, a dust in Egypt from March to May, named after the arabic word for 'fifty', blooming for fifty days - the ninth plague of Egypt. The datoo out of Gibraltar, which carries fragrance. There is also the ------, the secret wind of the desert, whose name was erased by a king after his son died within it. And the nafhat - a blast out of Arabia.
Other, private winds.
Traveling along the ground like a flood. Blasting off paint, throwing down telephone poles, transporting stones and statue heads.
The harmattan blows across the Sahara filled with red dust, dust as fire, as flour, entering and coagulating in the locks of rifles. mariners called this red wind the "sea of darkness". red sand fogs out of the Sahara were deposited as far north as Cornwall and Devon, producing showers of mud so great this was also mistaken for blood.
Herodotus records the death of various armies engulfed in the simoom who were never seen again. One nation was so enraged by this evil wind that they declared war on it and marched out in full battle array, only to be rapidly and completely interred.
Dust storms in three shapes. The whirl. The colum. The sheet. In the first, the horizon is lost. In the second, you are surrounded by 'waltzing ginns". The third, the sheet, is copper-tinted - 'nature seems to be on fire.'
From Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient