Thursday, March 6, 2008

Tourist for a Day

This week Alex, my step-cousin from San Francisco, and her boyfriend Tom paid us a visit on their way to Vietnam. We've been having a great time, and we were extremely hesitant to leave them to catch our flight to Bangkok.

We met them in Kuala Terengganu and then headed to Kuala Berang to spend the night with friends there. The next morning we chartered a boat to take us across Tasik Kenyir, the largest lake in Southeast Asia, which is surrounded by virgin rainforest. In fact, it is one entry point for Taman Negara, the national preserve in the center of the country that is home to the oldest rainforest in the world. We stayed in a chalet on an island and rented kayaks to explore the lake. We followed the sound of falling water to the mouth of a small waterfall, which we climbed and followed to its source in the jungle. We didn't want to get our cameras wet, but I can say it was one of the most edenic places I have ever been.

Today we have some downtime while we wait for a bus to take us to the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. We're in a small town that is the embarkation point for boats to the Perhentian Islands, where we spent the past couple of days. The seas are very rough during monsoon season, so our rides out and back from the island were extremely difficult . . . the waves pounded the hull of our speedboat so that it was like being paddled for 30 minutes. Every time the captain mistimed a wave, the bow plunged into the trough of the next wave, completely drenching us. But we managed to hang on and ended up having a fantastic stay snorkeling the reefs. Even though the storm stirred up the water, reducing visibility to 5 meters, we were able to spot two sharks, a giant ray, and three or four sea turtles.

Tomorrow we will fly to Bangkok and then figure out how to get to our friend Jon, one of the researchers from this summer, who is volunteering at an orphanage in the mountains. From his place, we plan to trek through the jungle via elephant and then head upcountry to Chiang Mai. Then school holiday will end, and it's back to school again.

School meaning IMTIAZ Dungun, which as it turns out is much less restrictive than I at first believed. It is a conservative Islamic religious school where all students memorize the entire Qu'ran, spending four hours per day doing nothing else. Nevertheless, I have found that many of the strictures on teaching style have come not from basic fundamentalism, but from severe disorganization and a poverty of creative thinking. We had a meeting consisting of the principal, the heads of the languages, the ustaz (religious teachers), and myself. They had asked me to present my thoughts about how to improve language usage at the school. I expected a nod and a placating remark . . . then for business to continue as usual. But what happened instead is that that instantly adopted my proposal, just as it is, and turned it into the "Comprehensive Language Reinforcement Program," fully funded and launched a week later. This is extremely significant because it grants me de facto license to liberalize the English language instruction at the school, which includes Maths and Sciences, too.

Some of my programs are directly contrary to the conservatism of the status quo, but they have been endorsed enthusiastically by all - even the ustaz. I presented my case to them as a dilemma, asking for their help: "I know that Islam is actually a progressive religion, because everyone has told me just that, but I don't know enough about the Qu'ran to know the best ways to accomplish these goals for our students. Would you help me design programs that will accomplish our mutual goals while adhering to Islamic rules?"

It turns out, as I figured, that to do so would be impossible. You can't reconcile liberalism with Islam any more than you can reconcile homosexuality and the Bible. They are categorically opposed. Instead, I was simply granted exceptional status on the premise that Islam encourages "educational excellence," so many of the normal rules do not apply during English-education. The end result? American films (good ones . . . not the crap they get on T.V.); drama class where girls are allowed to act on stage with boys, so long as they do not touch; lectures on American politics and culture; co-ed field trips; and a whole host of similarly "sensitive" programs. Most important of all, we are developing a teacher training program that will attempt to shift the textbook/exam-oriented education at the school up the long slope towards the critical-thinking, collaborative, and participatory ethic that characterizes a good American education. That's huge. It means that our students will be less likely to adopt wholesale the beliefs and prejudices of their culture in favor of a reasoned examination of the facts. And I believe that is the surest (if longest) route to peace.

The creation of this program was a perfect example of how things happen here. One person called it Muslim "hypocrisy", but I don't think that's quite it. I think that it's a religious-secular pull more pronounced than that of Christianity in America, because Islam assigns itself a more directly oppositional role than Christianity, whose foundational text is a work of literature - lending itself to interpretation and study. From what I can tell so far, Al Qu'ran is a work of absolutist philosophy, lending itself to transmission and memorization but very little debate. The result is that on a pragmatic level people simply de-emphasize the less tasty parts, saying, "Well, I'm only a simple Muslim. I don't understand the entire Qu'ran." It's a point system. The biggest rules matter to everyone, while the littlest matter to almost no one. It's sort of like the way Christians gloss over those parts of the bible that call for separation of sexes in church - not because they believe less, nor because the language is unclear, but because they have learned to think according to the spirit of their holy text rather than its letter. It's just that in Muslim countries people who do so still feel ambiguous about it - like they aren't being "good" muslims. But I predict that will change, and their religion will be richer for it once it learns to embrace a healthy, complimentary role for secular thought.

So things are exciting - if demanding. My health has still been problematic, though the worst is over. The terrible rash that broke out over my entire body is, it seems, kaput. After three months of maddening itch, the itch is over. Our intestinal tracts have adjusted to local water. We haven't got the flu. Now all that's left is for our immune systems to figure out how to kill whatever bacteria turns every little cut and mosquito bite into a boilsome bloody pus fountain. Last count: 7 boils and 1 carbuncle for me, 3 boils for Zoe.

Also, our kitty is well and good. He is staying at "auntie" CK's house with 15 other cats. I'm sure he's having the time of his life.

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