16.11.04

A Town Called Alas

On Sumbawa there is a town called Alas. We passed through it in the dead of night, the night before the US election, the night of November the 1st, as it was in that part of the world. Everyone was awake, all the lights were on, the greeny-blue, low wattage lights they use in that part of the world. Every house had a TV set on also, brighter than the lights in the room, showing soap operas, dreamy laid-back music videos, advertisements for things the people watching or not watching would never be able to buy, interspersed with Muslim hymns and sermons and rants. The people were awake not because of the US election but because it was Ramadam and they had spent the day fasting and sleeping or fasting and working and were now spending the night eating and talking or not eating and not talking. All the young men with nowhere to go and nothing to do, sitting outside watching the traffic (except there is no traffic apart from the occasional bus like ours roaring through the night), playing guitars, or chess, talking and not talking, waiting. For what? Alas, like every other town we passed on that strange hot night, under the yellow moon, a gibbous moon, was a town of hovels with, every now and then, a splendid, no, resplendent mosque, where the light was not that subaqueous greeny-blue but bright white, a tiled, clean, well-lighted place where white-robed men and women sat and talked or didn't talk, sang or did not sing, with, in almost every case, a white curtain made of sheets pinned or sewn together slung across the space to separate, I thought, the men from the women or perhaps the children from the adults ... the hovels explained the mosques, or the mosques explained the hovels, I couldn't decide which it was, but in that part of the world it is understood that a mosque will be made available if there are ten believers who want one, and some towns, the larger ones, really do seem to have a mosque for every ten hovels. But not Alas. Alas was just a small town, a few hovels, one mosque, and still that crowd of young men sitting outside on the stoops in the hot night with or without their guitars, waiting. Small children, dressed in rags, ran after the bus as we passed down the dusty single main street of Alas, yelling out in shrill high voices, boys and girls but mostly boys, dropping behind as we turned the corner and changed down and headed further east, where the road ran out of town and along a low shore with palms and the shadows of islands further out, behind which the yellow moon, the swollen moon, rose up in the brown sky. Alas.

2 comments:

Okir said...

beautiful, but also sad...

Martin Edmond said...

Yes - how it was; but I'm only looking through a window.