Orang Asli

Well, on the whole it was pretty cool. My mum's shop in Penang (eponymously known as The Bookshop) was hosting a talk on the Orang Asli presented by monsieur H. Berbar. He's a photojournalist and has spent five years on this project, including six months in the jungle, culminating in a coffee table book. Nice to hold, pretty to see, but the version printed for Malaysia has no naked people in it. He actually had to ask the orang asli to put on clothes. They were very confused about it. "It's for the KL people - they can't see nudity."

The Orang Asli are the indigenous people of the land. They exclusively live in Peninsula Malaysia and should not be confused with the Orang Asal who are those from Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak - e.g. Iban and Dayak.

Some Orang Asli have been integrated into modern society, but a number still live in the jungle. Most are nomadic and finding them is a little bit of a hit and miss affair. Berbar had to travel upriver for half a day and then trek through the jungle for a few days more to find some of them. Others are more straight-forward, such as the Meh-Mehri of Kerry Island.

Orang Asli pretty much live off the land, and they view the jungle with respect. Ceremonies are held before anyone leaves the village to go out into the jungle, and there is an idea that spirits of the dead roam out there.

They also believe that spirits are captured by cameras in photographs. Strangely, they believe that the spirit is in the first photograph you take, but not the others. Berbar took polaroids and returned the first one he took back to the subject. That way, they didn't feel as if their spirits were being taken away.

Be careful of whose hand you shake, it seems. Taking the hand of a woman is tantamount to taking her to be your wife. Berbar said he shook seven women's hands before discovering this.

Anyway, anything you do in the tribe needs the OK of the chief. You want to marry someone, see the chief. You want to divorce them, see the chief. Go into the jungle, "Yo, chief!". If you want someone to take medicine, you show it first to the chief and then he takes a bit, then everybody else takes a bit, and then you administer the medicine.

Food is what you find. Meat includes snakes, rats and monkeys. Berbar liked snake, I personally would find it an acquired taste. They hunt with blowpipes tipped with poison. One scratch, and you'd be dead within a few minutes. A single dart will take down an elephant.

The innate sense of direction of the orang asli is supreme. If you take one out of his village and leave him somewhere hours away, he will find his way back.

Anyway, the whole afternoon was filled with snippets like this, and I'll be posting a notice up when his book is available. His next project is on Penang island and the Bookshop is meant to have a small cameo role in it.
posted on Tuesday, October 28, 2003 - permalink
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