Friday, December 28, 2007

Happy New Year 2008: Lets go Japanese?

Nengajo: Japanese New Year Cards

Its end of December, and another New Year beckons.

On New Year’s night, thousands of Malaysians will throng the streets to party and celebrate the coming of the New Year.

Big corporate entities – and even a few government agencies – will be falling over each other to provide entertainment for the masses for the occasion (it’s CSR, lah*). Fireworks are a must. Concerts? Well…in Malaysia, it goes almost without saying.

Once the fireworks go quite, and after the last artist has belted out his last song, the entertained crowd will slowly head home. Tired and sleepy, no doubt. But hugely satisfied with the value-for-money (read: free) entertainment.

But after that, what?

I’m afraid, when it comes to welcoming the New Year, there is nothing much meaningful to it, for us Malaysians. It just comes and goes. Apart from the public holiday to look forward to on the day itself, it’s back to the usual daily grind after that. Nothing much will have changed.

But then, who am I to question these great celebratory events, which will be graced by no less than some of the top leaders of the nation and corporate big wigs?

So, let me just play safe. Let me take this opportunity to tell you something about Japanese New Year celebration instead.

The Japanese New Year is called oshogatsu in Japanese. Its date used to be determined based on the lunar year calendar. But the Japanese, being an adaptive lot, adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873. So since then, the first day of January is the official New Year's Day.

The shogatsu is without a doubt the most important holiday in Japan. This is when the Japanese really take a break, rest and celebrate the holiday with the family. It is a day for eating and drinking together with the family, at home.

On the eve of New Year the Japanese will visit shrines to pray and pay respect to their ancestors. The New Year itself usually starts with whole family having traditional food, such as the ‘mochi’ (rice cake) for breakfast, in front of the television set which usually features traditional performing arts of Japan.

Then they would read the New Year greeting cards, or nengajō, that they have received. Before that, they will have sent cards to their own friends, relatives, work mates and bosses. The cards are sent so that they reach their recipients on 1st of January. And the ever-efficient Japan postal service duly oblige by taking extra special care during this time of the year to ensure all cards are delivered on January 1.

One thing I like about the Japanese New Year cards is that they are usually simple in design, and yet do the job just nicely. It’s a contrast to our normal greeting cards, which has a riot of colours and cluttered designs.

Some Japanese proudly make their own cards. But, being ever busy with university assignments (no sniggering, now!) I used to buy mine off the shelf at stationeries. Sometimes (well, most of the time actually), I would buy them at the post office where it’s much, much cheaper.

Like many other Asian New Year traditions, Japanese adults also give money to children on this auspices day. Akin to our ‘duit raya’ and ‘ang pow’, in Japan it is called ‘otoshi-dama’ which means ‘new year treasure’.

The New Year’s season lasts well over a week in Japan. Most of the shops will be closed. So if you do not do your shopping and stock up before the holidays, then you would find yourself in the unenviable situation of having nothing to cook for week! In Japan, for a family of five like mine, the costs would be enough to run me bankrupt.

But we take the cue from the highly-organised Japanese and take to the stores with a shopping list in hand a week before to buy enough items to last a week of cooking.

As for the New Year day itself, we’d stay at home eating mee-curry or spaghetti made by Mem Besar. To avoid the wintry cold outside, we’d be huddled in front of the television all day long, in the warmth of our small, but comfortable University family accommodation at Ichinoya Gakusei Shukusha.

But if it was snowing, then you won't find me at home. Instead, I would be frolicking in the snow with Sakinah, Syafiq and Anas somewhere in one of the parks in Tsukuba. Aahhh, such nice memories.

Wishing everybody lots of Happiness and Joy. Blessings for the New Year 2008.

And to all Japanese friends, Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!

Note: * CSR – corporate social responsibility

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Longing for Makkatul Mukarramah

Jeddah King Abdul Aziz International Airport: Hajj Terminal

Last Friday, 21st December, was the last day of stoning of the jamrat in Mina for the Hajj pilgrims now in Makkah. With that, they will have completed most of the obligatory rituals. All that remains was for them to make the short 5 km trip to return to Makkah and perform the obligatory tawwaf and sae’i.

A short trip it may be. However, with three million pilgrims intent on getting back into Makkah almost at the same time, it is a huge challenge for the pilgrims, as well as, the Saudi Government officials who plan the logistics.

Just imagine thousands of buses ferrying three million passengers towards one point of destination within the space of a few hours. During this mass exodus, Makkah shall be choked full of traffic. A journey which would normally take not more than 15 minutes would now stretch to 3 or 4 hours, minimum, as the buses inch their way into the city.

Not surprisingly, many buses will fail to reach their final intended destinations in order to drop off passengers at their respective hotels.

What follows will be the sight of hundreds and thousands of pilgrims getting off their buses making the long trek to their hotels on foot. Each one will be lugging their bags behind them, forcing their tired limbs to the limit, mindful at the same time, that there is the obligatory tawaf and sae’i still to be performed.

Alas, once the tawaf and sae’i is completed, a huge sense of relief, joy and happiness breaks out.

The mood will now much more relaxed. Pilgrims congratulate each other with a huge smile and a sense of triumph reflected on their faces. They make jokes and tease each other as they call one another ‘hajji’ and ‘hajjah’, their new salutary, well-earned title.

But for those who had come to Makkah on the earlier flights, it is now time to start preparing for the trip back home.

And ‘preparation’ would include, of course, the customary last minute shopping. No doubt, the focus of the Hajj trip is to be close to God. However, spending and contributing to the economic and social well-being of the Makkah inhabitants is also said to be a sunnah. So, it would be a normal sight to see husbands and wives going out in pairs returning a few hours later, smiling sheepishly, with a handful of shopping begs in tow.

With just about everybody going on a shopping spree it was hard not to be infected by the shopping bug. Personally, I had to restrain the Mem Besar from over-spending. Alhamdulillah, she understood my reasoning - but, only just.

With the shopping over, suddenly a mixed feeling of happiness and sadness overcomes us.

Happy because we are now starting to think of our loved ones left in our homeland. The smiling faces of our children, parents, brothers and sisters even start to appear in our dreams as we sleep.

But yet, we will feel sad at having to leave this glorious city Makkah Al Mulkarramah, the blessed city, which has been our ‘home’ for the last one month. For the experience afforded by this sacred city – with virtues unparalleled by any other city on earth – is just overwhelming.

This is the place where our beloved Prophet Muhammad SAW was born. Makkah is the city where the first house of worship for Allah, the Ka'abah, was built. The Masjidil Haram is Islam's most sacred mosque where prayers are rewarded 100,000 times more than prayers in other mosques. This is also where the Zam-Zam well and the Hajar Aswad are to be found. And the list goes on.

As one sits in the King Abdul Aziz International Airport, in Jeddah, waiting for the plane which will fly him or her back home, already he or she will have started to miss Makkah and Medinah the two holiest cities in Islam. Yes, the longing will already have started.

In fact, in a do'a recited by all pilgrims after performing the tawaf wida' (the final tawaf before a pilgrim leaves Makkah for home) he will have begged of ALlah in front of the Ka'abah:

"Oh ALlah, bring me back to the Baitullah, provide me with the sustenance to return to the Baitullah, and let not this day be my final day of appearance before the Baitullah".

As for me, even as we entered the Malaysian airspace, and as I looked down at the lights dotting the streets and the buildings in the far distant below, the fond and exceptional experiences in Makkah Al Mukarramah kept playing in my mind. I hope it will remain indelibly etched in my memories forever.

And may Allah give me the strength and the means to visit Makkah Al Mukarramah, again.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Hajj: a true test in sacrifice

In just two days time, more than three million Muslims from all over the world would congregate at Arafah, a plain about 22km outside Makkah. This act, called the ‘wuquf’, represents the climax of the Hajj pilgrimage.

The Hajj is a test in sacrifice in the way of Allah. The sacrifices cover a completely wide spectrum from the time and money spent, to leaving behind loved ones and the comforts of one’s home. But more importantly, each and every of these sacrifices is aimed at seeking the pleasure of none but Allah subhanahu wa taala.

It is a totally different level of sacrifice compared to what one is used to when going through worldly challenges and experiences. It is an act of whole-hearted and total submission to God.

The Talbiyah, recited by pilgrims doing Hajj, perhaps encapsulates this very essence of act of submission and servitude to Allah:

Labbaik Allah hummalabbaik…“Here I am, O Allah, here I am. Here I am, You have no partner, here I am. Verily all praise and blessings are Yours, and all sovereignty, You have no partner”.

With just two days left to wuquf, all pilgrims will have arrived in this holy city. As a result, Makkah will be very, very crowded. The Masjidil Haram will be bursting at the seams, literally.

If you want to perform your five times daily obligatory prayers inside the mosque, you’d be well advised to be in the mosque at least one hour before the azan. Or else, you would most likely be praying on one of the streets of Makkah. And if you start leaving for the mosque only when the azan is being called then, for sure, you would find yourself praying at the very entrance doorstep of your hotel !

During these last few days before wuquf, pilgrims are advised to ‘take it easy’. What this means really is that they should rest and take care of their health and prepare for the big day of wuquf.

I remember how I spent this time sitting a lot on my small bed in our equally small, five-bedded hotel room. I would find myself looking up the do’a and zikir booklet given to all Malaysian pilgrims by Tabung Haji.

I would also make notes on additional do’a which I’d wanted to communicate to, and ask of, Allah during my wuquf. For wuquf is a big day in every sense of the word. It is the day when Allah would descend to be the closest to His servants, the pilgrims. It is, therefore, one of the best occasions to make self-reflection, ask for forgiveness and make do’a to Allah.

The day after wuquf is Aidil Adha, or what many Malaysians know as the Hari Raya Kurban. Muslims all over the country would slaughter cows or goats as a mark of sacrifice.

To many, this is the only sacrifice in the way of Allah that we have come to know. But for Hajj pilgrims the world over, the sacrifices had started a year or maybe even much earlier, as they prepare themselves financially, physically and spiritually for the journey of a lifetime. A journey to be the guests of Allah. A journey in answer to the call of Allah, …“Here I am, O Allah, here I am…”

May Allah reward all the pilgrims with Haji mabrur.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Another vintage European night performance

Gerrard scores the first goal

“Classy Liverpool qualify in style!”, screamed the headlines on BBC Sport web page this morning.

I could not have asked for a better headline for starting the day on a good and joyful mood.

Yes, Liverpool defied the odds yet again to book their place in the Champions League last 16, after beating Marseille 4 - 0. It was hardly a few weeks ago that they were rock bottom of their group. As usual, all and sundry were writing Liverpool's European season off.

Alas, three games later, they are in second spot -- just barely missing the top spot by a single point.

Well, what can I say. Liverpool FC just ooze confidence on European nights. Our European pedigree is second to none amongst British teams, full stop.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Liverpool whacked 3 - 1 !

Liverpool were knocked-out cold 3 -1 in last night's match against Reading. With that went the 14 games unbeaten run in the start to the season, leaving Arsenal to be the only team unbeaten so far.

But more than unbeaten runs is at stake here. A lost against a middle-rung team is something to be absolutely avoided if Liverpool is to really cement its credential as a title chaser this season.

I hope this will be just a small setback for Liverpool. After all didn't mighty Manchester United also lost to lowly Bolton recently?

All teams will undergo some lost of form. Well, at least I hope so. And I certainly hope Arsenal is in that group too -- sooner rather than later, I might add. If not, than it is going to be a hell of job to try and catch up with them come May next year.

From another angle, this lost might be a blessing in disguise. It might home in the point to the those ignorant American owners of the club that Rafa has a case when he says he wants to talk about the strengthening of the team as early as possible. They should learn to appreciate that Rafa is truly a strategist who thinks well ahead, and always for the goodness of the club on the pitch.

In the mean time, keep your chins up lads and continue with the fight. And of course, lets pray also that Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United will drop points, loads of them.