Category Archives: Malaya

How Burgess nearly became a Mohammedan

It was ’57, independence year. Burgess was living and working in Kota Bharu, and he he resisted repatriation*. He writes:

I wanted to be accepted as a Malayan. I proposed entering Islam, which would have entitled me to four wives but barred me from eating ham for breakfast. My name was chosen for me — Yahya bin Abdullah — and I started to study the Koran. It was an agreeable prospect. The tropics bestow on white men a great appetite for sensuality — food, drink, and sex†.

He would marry four Malay wives

and beget a host of particoloured children who would respect me and call me bapa. I would make the pilgrimage to Mecca and come back wearing a turban with the title Hajji. Hajji Yahya bin Abdullah. I would be a known and beloved figure at the mosque meetings on Friday.

* unlike in Borneo in ’59, when he craved repatriation, and indeed staged a nervous breakdown to facilitate it.
† In his Confessions, he writes:
I had better say a little about love-making in the East. With Malays there were certain restrictions on the amatory forms, laid down by Islam, so that only the posture of Venus observed was officially permitted. Islamic women were supposed to be passive houris. The demands of Islamic wives for frequent sexual congress did not indicate true sensual appetite: they were a test of the fidelity of their husbands. A Malay female body, musky, shapely, golden-brown, was always a delight. Malay women rarely ran to fat, which was reserved to the wives of the Chinese towkays and was an index of prosperity. Malay women kept their figures after childbirth through a kind of ritual roasting over an open fire, tightly wrapped in greased winding-sheets. They walked proudly in sarongs and bajus, their glossy hair permanently waved, their heels high. They were seductive as few white women are. Lying with Rahimah I regretted my own whiteness: a white skin was an eccentricity and looked like a disease. Simple though Malay sex was, it had an abundant vocabulary. To copulate was jamah or berjima or juma’at or bersatu (literally to become one), or sa-tuboh, asmara, betanchok (this term was peculiar to Perak), ayut, ayok and much much more. There was even a special term for sexual congress after the forty-day birth taboo — pechah kepala barut — and there were two for the boy’s initiation after circumcision — menyepoh tua, with someone older, menyepoh muda, with someone younger. The orgasm was dignified with an Arabic loanword, shahuat, or colloquially called rumah sudah ratip — literally, ‘the structure has gone into an ecstatic trance’, ratip or ratib being properly the term for the transport produced by the constant repetition of the holy name Allah. Where the Western term for experiencing orgasm is, in whatever language, ‘to come’, the Malay mind, using keluar, thinks of going out, leaving the body, floating on air.

Geography of Anthony Burgess: The Malay Peninsula

A Concise Introduction by Geoffrey Grigson

A Concise Introduction
by Geoffrey Grigson