9th May 1999

Age and distance, as far as I am concerned bring clarity of vision because they free the mind from ambition and make me closer to old friendship. Friendship is like a bank account: I have to continue making deposits before I can draw on it.

It was in early June 1996 when Fauzah and I arrived in New York to begin my job as a diplomat and the life of an expatriate. Living far away from home has mellowed me quite a bit. I do not need to be in New York to get my perspective right but staying abroad has definitely contributed to it.

I wish I were a novelist like James Joyce and become famous for literary evocation of my native land and writing it away from home. As you would recall, James Joyce, that most quintessential of Irish men, left Ireland when he was only 20. However, he wrote about Dubliners in Trieste, and Ulysses in three different European cities. He wrote them as if he never left Dublin, capturing the tastes, smells and uniqueness of that fair city which I had the pleasure of visiting in the early eighties. But, alas, I will never become a James Joyce in another hundred years not even a Samad Said, Maniam or Shanon Ahmad. An ancient Chinese poet once said that to recreate a town, a people or something in words, is like being alive twice.

It is early spring in New York, tourists have started arriving, which is good for business and not good for us residents too many of them. Despite the intermittent April showers, the weather is pleasant.

I huddle beneath layers of blanket (I prefer cold than heat) and I always have great difficulty waking up. I have one of the best sights: the panoramic view of the world famous Central Park from my 29th floor apartment. I can see, even in bad weather, dozens of people running, jogging, biking and riding horses in the park until darkness.

New Yorkers are health freaks. Flowers have yet to bloom but soon the Park will be awashed with a hundred fragrant blooms and one hundred schools of thought!

I miss home though I enjoy life here: our discoveries, wanderings, daily life, and socialising also have been a pleasure. I long for the beaches of Pulau Perhentian, Langkawi, the lush grass, bushes, orchards and gardens of Janda Baik, Dusun Damai, the padi fields of Kedah, the light roads and lanes in Kok Lanas; its irrigation canal which snakes around the Kok Lanas parliamentary constituency and the generally clear blue skies and bright sun of Kota Baru.

I love the "house parties", listen to the plots being hatched, gossips and intrigues of all kinds which, like sex, keep KLites alive. KLites are always asking God to grant them long life and ever seeking greater social, political and sexual freedom!

Though I was born in Kelantan I have never lived there since I was ten. Except for six years at MCKK, KL has been home since 1956 but I return to my kampung regularly to touch ground with my roots. Kelantan has changed though not as rapidly as I would like it to.

It remains a uniquely romantic and cultural part of our nation; it is very much a Malay as much as an Islamic place. Politically, Kelantanese have an independent trait, preferring to elect Pas, almost 32 years out of our 42 years since independence, than the progressive and liberal Umno.

For as long as I can remember, Kelantanese have always ploughed their poor furrow.

Until Merdeka, Kelantanese were generally peasants, fishermen and kampung folks, living in the flat plateau between Kuala Besar (Kelantan river mouth) and Kuala Krai about 50 miles south towards Gemas. South China Sea provides many fishes as once did the Kelantan river and its feeder streams.

Bachok was once a famous fishing village. Would you believe now none of the kedai makan there during my recent visit had the fish on menu?

They told me nearly all the fish were sold to Kota Bahru, even KL because of better price. Bachok, besides Pengkalan Chepa where Kota Baru's Sultan Ismail Petra Airport is situated and where the Menteri Besar, Tok Guru, Dato' Nik Aziz lives, in a simple kampung house, is the heartland of Pas and Islandmist.

During the 1951first term school holiday I went to Bachok to spend a day at the house of a schoolmate, Yusof Muda, a senior, whose grandfather was a well-known local "towkay ikan".

Yusof's house had a superb view of the sea, on each side of the wooden house with zinc walls were coconut and palm trees and within the compound perabhus (boats) either under repair or being repainted and fishing nets were being dried. Children were playing in the vicinity whilst older ones were swimming in the turquoise water or playing on the part-white-and-part-terracotta coloured sands.

We feasted on grilled fish, fritters, prawn curry, fish soup, sambal, various salads (ulam) budu (a kind of Kelantan ketchup), steamed octopus accompanied by generous portions of rice, followed with air kelapa and local fruits for desert and coffee.

Then there were more supplies than demands and sea harvests were cheap. Kelantanese in Bachok, Tumpat, Dalam Ru, Sabak, Pantai Semut Api (alias Pantai Cinta Berahi or Pantai Cahaya Bulan) and other coastal areas love the sea and many years ago they always celebrated "puja pantai - sea festival" until it was frowned upon as unIslamic. The "puja pantai" was a thanksgiving festival to show appreciation to the sea they love which feeds them with bounty.

Yusof retired as a chief clerk and lives in Kota Baru and buys fish and squids from the market. What sticks most in my memory of the visit though it took place half a century ago was the abundance of fish, octopus, squids and prawns.

I could see either while I strode along the beach or in water the immense number of fish rising and swirling of fin and tail.

A sight rarely repeated in my travels anywhere. Legend says that Datuk Dr. Mahathir during his first visit to Bachok ( as a young doctor) in the late fifties rice, was entertained to lunch by the District Officer, Mohamad Ya'acob (now president of the Senate).

Every kind of fish was on the menu. Mahathir only ate rice and vegetables because the host did not know that Mahathir does not eat fish! If the Prime Minister ever returns to Bachok, he will definitely have meat on the menu.

Bachok, then as now, is the headquarters of the district which bears its name. It was and remains relatively a kampong though it now has electricity piped water and other modern amenities. It is not an apparition: Bachok is still much of an underclass district; many of its inhabitants are small tobacco farmers. Besides Yusof Muda who else has Bachok produced? The Second Minister of Finance, Datuk Mustapa Mohamad, Datuk Abdul Razak Salleh, a former Kelantan State Secretary, several senior civil servants in the federal capital and one or two ambitious corporate ladies.

The other things that had crossed my mind more than once is gulai sotong in its natural ink the way the wives of Bachok fishermen used to make it. I fantasise bathing with buckets of water from a well, being on night watch for durians.

Kelantan's attractions run to much more than its rich foods and beautiful women, some of whom are temptresses whilst many others are good and religious.

Despite religious resolutions, both the Kelantanese or visitors alike do not seem to be hurt much, (may even be better for the soul) nor have they thwarted incidents of fatal attraction!

One has to visit Bachok to see what it is like (and the consensus is it is content to remain as it is) and discover Kelantan which is almost another culture altogether with different rhythms, tastes, smells and even psyche. Kelantan is still very essentially rural, the musings, gossips politics, spirit and peculiarities would only add to the pleasure of your visit.

What do they all mean? Go and find out. You will find Kelantanese accent becomes more pronounced in Bachok, Kok Lanas, Rantau Panjang, Jeli and Gua Musang, which makes you wonder whether there is a need to study Bahasa Malaysia. There you know you are indeed in the heartland of Kelantan.

Kelantan has no museums and art galleries, and theaters of performing arts to speak of, not even the once famous Wayang Kulit and Mak Yong performances on special occasion. You can feast with great delight and cheaply, too on simple haute cuisine at warong and kedai makan (no restaurant) as you and I understand it, throughout the whole day and night. In Kelantan, satay is eaten as breakfast.

How Kelantanese will I ever be? Tun Razak once asked Tan Sri Nik Ahmad Kamil, the epitome of a Malay diplomat, about me. I neither asked him nor Razak what they discussed. However, the result was borne by what happened subsequently They were my patrons and good friends. I understood them though they were sometimes quite inscrutable. I am now closer in spirit than ever to Tun Razak and Nik Kamil.

On Friday and Saturday - the weekly holidays in Kelantan - and during school holidays, visitors will see hundreds of Kelantanese swimming in the sea and picnicking on the beach. I have never seen signboards prohibiting bathing in the sea or walking on certain stretches of the beach. The long stretch of inviting beach from Besut right up north to Tumpat is accessible to all those who want to enjoy it.

Kelantan may be poor but it is a much-favoured land because the Kelantanese seem to understand the need to seek a balance in life now and hereafter.

(Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad is our envoy to the United Nations)

(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Sun )

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