Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Ok, so I think what follows is part of a Menora dance performance. But I could be wrong. You see nobody, including the participants, could really explain to me what it was that they were all doing. Only that they'd been doing it for the past three days.

It wasn't down to the language barrier either. Most people's English seemed pretty decent.

Set up on a small side street, between two rows of townhouses, the stage was a simple bamboo shelter, open on three sides. Apparently, if any of the strings holding up these little flag thingies get broken, the whole structure must be torn down and rebuilt. Don't ask me why.

There's a lot of sitting around between dances, and the bamboo mats are littered with Guinness bottles. In this very conservative part of Malaysia, it's pretty rare to see alcohol being consumed in public, so I asked if there was any significance to this. 

I was told that it was pretty thirsty work, and that these guys just really dig Guinness. Doh!

Candles play a big part. People generally hold onto them until the hot wax dribbles down over their hands. People seem to be blessing other people with them, or waving them around at the crowd. I saw one guy even eating one. Mostly though, they just look cool.

Someone being "blessed", for want of a better description.

Then the dancing begins. I was led to believe that some people would enter into a trance-like state, but it just looked like dancing to me. Some looked serene and graceful.

Others looked a tad serious.

Masks also play a big part. Don't ask me what they signify... maybe they just like to dress up? No seriously, the following sequence is a guy who, after dancing around for a while, has his mask removed. And the look on his face of what... peace, happiness, release? Whatever it is, it looks like a big moment for him.

We spent five months in Thailand and never saw anything like this. Originating in Southern Thailand / Northern Malaysia, these events are now a pretty rare sight, like many traditional practices. Especially in Malaysia, where Islam is all-pervasive, and the government seems determined to drag people up out of the kampungs and into the 21st century.

If you follow the Wikipedia link, you'll see that musically it's all very simple. You'll also see that there really isn't much information out there about any of this.

From what I can gather, the people dressed in white are supposed to act as conduits to the other peoples' ancestors. What that means exactly... yeah. Sorry. A nice person tried to explain to me about her God, and how that person over there (pointing) had seven gods. And that other one had nine. And that she herself never believed in any of this until recently.

I burst her bubble as gently as possible by telling her I was an atheist. This wasn't completely honest - I'd consider myself an apatheist if anything - but telling people this just tends to confuse them, and they look at me like I'm some sort of nut-case, and start to slowly back away...

Actually while we're on the subject, I have no idea whether the phrase "free-thinker" has caught on in your part of the world, but in Malaysia it's the term a religious person uses to describe an atheist. For some reason I find the term incredibly patronising on the one hand, and incredibly daft on the other. I'll leave it to you to figure out why.

Apart from all that, there's no denying that whatever is going on at this event is a very intense and moving experience for the people taking part. So who am I to say otherwise?

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