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His Word Is the Truth: Haji Ibrahim's Letters and Other Writings. (Book Reviews).

His Word Is the Truth: Haji Ibrahim's Letters and Other Writings


Leiden: Research School of Asian, African and Amerindian Studies, 2001. Pp. xi, 286. Maps. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index.

Many years ago John Bastin complained that Malay history lacked 'a personality base' because existing sources do not allow for an exploration of the character and emotions of so many key players. Admittedly it is not easy for those using court chronicles and early European documents to depict historical actors as knowable people or to attain what Bastin called 'an internal point of orientation'. (1) However, one possible means of accessing the private domain may be through personal correspondence, and we are fortunate to have some important sources from the nineteenth-century Malay world. In 1995 Jan van der Putten and Al Azhar published a collection of over a hundred letters from the respected Riau author, Raja Ali Haji, to the European linguist Hermann von de Wall (1807-73), who was at that time compiling a Malay dictionary. In this work, entitled Di dalam Berkelalan Persahabatan; In Everlasting Friendship: Letters from Raja Ali Haji (Leiden: Leiden University Department of Southeast Asian Literatures and C ulture), the reader encounters frequent mention of Haji Ibrahim, whom von de Wall also employed as a Malay language informant. The present volume, bringing together as yet untapped letters and other writings by Haji Ibrahim, shows that he, like Raja Ali Haji, became von de Wall's friend as well as colleague. In many ways, therefore, His Word is the Truth can be regarded as a sequel to Di dalam Berkelalan Persahabatan, albeit more mature and sophisticated. Not only does van der Putten deepen our understanding of the ways in which technology and monetisation increasingly affected Malay literary life, but by allowing a previously shadowy figure to assume a degree of individuality, this book also provides some entry into the mental world of an educated Malay man in the mid-nineteenth century.

Nonetheless, despite van der Putten's informed and insightful discussion, Haji Ibrahim remains something of an enigma, since biographical information is limited and even his date of birth (around 1809 or 1810?) remains uncertain. His father, the Riau Syahbandar (harbourmaster), was of Bugis descent, and Malay sources indicate that the family maintained close connections with the Bugis-descended hierarchy on the island of Penyengat, where Ibrahim acquired much of his knowledge of Riau court traditions. As a young man Ibrahim made the pilgrimage to Mecca, thus earning the title of Haji. By the 1830s his name appears in both Dutch and Malay sources in connection with joint efforts to stamp out piracy; as Orang Kaya Muda (a member of the elite), he was also in charge of the orang laut, or sea peoples. In 1842 he was appointed Superintendent of the Riau islands, and subsequently became a trusted point of liaison between the Dutch administration and the Bugis leaders, and occasionally the Malay court on Lingga. His role in settling disputes among Chinese groups in 1856 was particularly influential. In 1868 Haji Ibrahim's contribution to the functioning of the Riau administration was recognised when he succeeded to his father's title of Syahbandar. His death cannot be dated precisely, but occurred sometime between 1873 and 1876.

As this book shows, however, Haji Ibrahim had another 'career' as a researcher, an authority on Malay language and culture, an informant for colonial linguists and a compiler of Malay teaching materials in his own right. In some cases, Haji Ibrahim's input can be tracked in the individual entries in von de Wall's Malay-Dutch dictionary, and it was his name that was put forward when the publication of a series of Malay dialogues for the training of Dutch officials was proposed. An analysis of the content and style of Haji Ibrahim's letters and other writings could easily have deteriorated into a dry textual exegesis, but van der Putten has avoided this by consistently working to infuse his discussion with a sense of 'personality'. The tone is set at the beginning of the study, when van der Putten transforms the usual formulaic preface into a 'letter' that explains how he came to the topic and provides an engaging overview of the book as a whole. Making full use of libraries and recently published material, the first chapter treats the Malay tradition of letter-writing, noting that from at least the late eighteenth century there is evidence of increasing personal correspondence, a reflection of an expanding literacy in the population at large. As a result, some Malays began to question the necessity to follow the accepted formulae which had long governed 'institutional' letters and which were considered an integral part of the Malay epistolary heritage. For example, Abdullah Munsyi, the scribe of Stamford Raffles, was highly critical of the persistent use of set phrases and greetings, which he felt lacked the sincerity of individualised expressions. By contrast, Raja Ali Haji seems to have been more concerned to maintain established conventions, although his choice of style was contingent on context and his own relationship to the person to whom he was writing. Notes to a close friend such as von de Wall were likely to be more relaxed than a formal letter sent to a court dignitary. The fact that he, like Haji Ibrah im, began to sign letters is also indicative of a shift towards more personalised correspondence.

In his second chapter, van der Putten draws his readers into the intellectual world of Tanjung Pinang and the island of Penyengat in the mid-nineteenth century. The chapter also explains the motivations behind the colonial government's Malay-Dutch dictionary project, the reasons for the selection of Riau as a base, and the basis of the collaboration among Raja Ali Haji, Haji Ibrahim and von de Wall. In order to evoke the atmosphere of nineteenth-century Riau, and as a solution to the problem of inserting 'personality' into his textual discussion, van der Putten has employed an intriguing methodological device. From a range of fragments -- newspaper clippings, Dutch and Malay letters, Malay poetry, official reports and the occasional individual memoir -- he has composed a number of fictional but still plausible diary entries that could conceivably have been written by Malay and Dutch figures at the time. While some readers might consider this a bold move, particularly in regard to projecting Malay attitudes, I think most would agree that the evidence has been used judiciously and that the strategy is ultimately successful in imparting a sense of engagement with 'real people'.

Chapter 3, the heart of the book, presents a transliteration and an English summary of the 89 letters from Haji Ibrahim found in the von de Wall files, now housed in the National Library of Indonesia. Certainly the subtleties of language and the nuances of detail will be appreciated only by those who can read the Malay original, but even a cursory glance through the abstracts will make evident the dedication with which Haji Ibrahim approached his assigned tasks. His diligence in compiling lists of little-used terms and his alertness to the distinctiveness of Malay dialects speak to the high standards he set for his own work and his anxiety to meet von de Wall's expectations. At the same time, the letters provide glimpses into Haji Ibrahim's other life, such as the tensions in court circles among the younger generation and his relationship with his social superior, Raja Ali Haji. Above all, however, they reveal the intimacy that developed between himself and von de Wall, touchingly demonstrated in Haji Ibrahim 's care to seek out the kinds of delicacies his friend desired -- shrimp paste, durian conserves, pastry and biscuits. Yet the exchange of such gifts was not purely one-way; Haji Ibrahim's request for butter and cheese and his expression of thanks for two bottles of 'European fruit' raise interesting questions regarding the role of food in cross-cultural reciprocities.

As Chapter 4 shows, Haji Ibrahim's career demonstrates that he was emblematic of a new kind of Malay official who could work effectively with the colonial regime while never forgetting his responsibilities as an official of the local court. This is not to say, of course, that he operated without self-interest, for in affirming his links with the most influential groups in Riau society he was also trying to survive financially, to support his family and to provide for the future of his sons. Yet Haji Ibrahim's anxiety that his own reputation and that of Riau should remain unsullied reflects his larger concern with the maintenance of Malay linguistic standards as the printing press and spread of vernacular education steadily increased the pool of literate Malays. These changes (themselves just one facet of a range of developments associated with the colonial presence) form a backdrop to the final chapter, which discusses Haji Ibrahim's other writings, particularly the Malay dialogues he developed (originally pu blished as [Tjakap.sup.2] [Rampai.sup.2]). Sadly, only 32 of the original 126 conversations have been preserved, but they remain a valuable source of information regarding many aspects of Malay life during the period. Several, for instance, deal with practical subjects like the employment of workmen and the sale of vegetables. However, there are also other conversations, less 'practical' in nature; in the context of Riau-Johor history it is significant that the first dialogue concerns the division of the Malay world in the 1820s. Another, in which Haji Ibrahim obviously took much pride and which eventually amounted to 55 pages, concerned the ceremony of berlenggang perut, rocking the stomach during the seventh month of pregnancy. Haji Ibrahim's desire for accuracy in this and other conversations concerned with birth rituals is once again evident, this time in his careful consultations with midwives.

Nevertheless, we cannot assume that these pieces are innocent reflections of Haji Ibrahim's own preoccupations. For instance, although the insertion of dates in one conversation may have been intended to convey an impression of verisimilitude, that they round off neatly in Christian terms probably reflects von de Wall's editorial hand. As van der Putten points out, colonial officials also decided to omit two 'immoral' dialogues that treated miraculous births, arguing that these not only promoted Islam but would also be unsuitable should the published conversations be used for instruction in vernacular schools. The evidence of European oversight and intervention raises questions as to whether the criticism of Malay rulers (here put into the mouths of ordinary people) expresses Haji Ibrahim's personal convictions or whether he was incorporating opinions he attributed to a potential European audience.

The time that van der Putten has invested in archival research, his careful reading of secondary sources, and the thought he has given to organising his material are apparent on virtually every page of this book. Inevitably, perhaps, some queries arise. Supporting the actual discussion of Haji Ibrahim's letters by providing a full English translation in Chapter 5 is useful, since only abstracts are given in Chapter 3, but it seems hardly necessary to repeat some of the Malay transcriptions (e.g. pp. 95, 187 [letter 5]; 98, 198 [letter 91; 105, 190 [letter 15]; and elsewhere). The computer-generated index is disappointing (how does one deal with 36 undifferentiated citations under 'manuscript' or 54 under 'Encik Abdullah'?), and the decision to omit properly organised entries for von de Wall, Raja Ali Haji and Haji Ibrahim himself is difficult to defend, especially since personal information about the latter is scattered throughout the text. In some cases the integration of sections that seem to have been writ ten separately is uneasy; for example, the transition from discussions of opium and gambling to representation of the self in letters (pp. 239-44) is strained to say the least.

While the most historically questionable tactic is van der Putten's inclusion of fictive diaries, he indicates in his closing chapter (again a return to the 'Malay-style' letter) that he was fully aware of the risks incurred. He justifies his reconstructions on the grounds that the Malay epistolary tradition meant that the personal letters he used, while providing far more access to the 'interior mind' than official correspondence, still left so much unstated. We have no sense, for instance, of Haji Ibrahim's reactions to the death of his new-born daughter, a tragedy imparted to von de Wall as a simple piece of information followed by a request for young pineapple plants (p. 144). From this vantage point, it could be argued, the final result vindicates an approach in which the historical imagination is an important scholarly tool. Although we can only guess at Haji Ibrahim's physical appearance (possibly one of the individuals in a rare photograph of the sultan's entourage in Batavia?), he emerges in His Word is the Truth as appealingly human. Providing a 'personality' base to pre-twentieth-century Malay history may remain an elusive goal, but this kind of scholarly research encourages the belief that attaining Bastin's 'internal point of orientation' may not be completely impossible. As in his earlier work, van der Putten has also shown how intellectual affinities and shared interests can forge strong links between individuals who come from very different cultures. Appropriately, the final letter in this collection, written three months before von de Wall's death and towards the end of his own life, contains an assurance from Haji Ibrahim that he is still searching for the fish preserve and the shrimp relish his Dutch friend has requested.

(1.) John Bastin, 'Problems of Personality in the Reinterpretation of Modern Malayan History,' in Malayan and Indonesian Studies: Essays Presented to Sir Richard Winstedt on his Eighty-Fifth Birthday, ed. John Bastin and R. Roolvink (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), p. 152.
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Author:Andaya, Barbara Watson
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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