Hunger is not an issue of charity. It is an issue of injustice. ~ Jacques Diouf
Komorebi Post– I am sitting at Naab, an Iranian restaurant at the junction of Jalan Bukit Bintang and Jalan Sultan Ismail, one of the cities hottest spots for nightlife. The entire front is open to the street, and I am at the first table, facing onto the sidewalk. It’s a perfect spot to enjoy a meal while watching all the goings on outside, and in Bukit Bintang, something is always going on! Life is being played out in front of me like a play as I eat my way through creamy barley soup, taboula with pomegranate seeds, savory lamb kebab, and aromatic basmati rice.
What I see before me is a typical Bukit Bintang street scene. People strolling, some doing a bit of window shopping or stopping to glance at a menu. Others rush by more quickly, busily talking into their mobiles. Across the street is a ‘living statue’, a man covered from head to foot in violet glitter, silently appealing to tourists to take a photo with him in exchange for a small fee.
On the sidewalk, in front of me and a bit to my left, is a sketch artist. He has placed his chair at such an angle that he can see inside the restaurant, as well as down the length of the street. His easel is surrounded by the obligatory drawings of Elvis, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe and other famous personages to attract tourists to sit for a quick sketch.
An impish young girl wearing an apple green baju kurung, the traditional outfit of Malaysia consisting of a knee length tunic over a long skirt, passes by with her family. She is skipping along, grabbing their hands eagerly and petitioning for heaven knows what, in the way that all small children do. Beyond the sidewalk, cars are bumper to bumper, barely able to move through the street even though the light is green. That is the nature of traffic in KL. Always a jam, and pedestrians beware.
I am thoroughly enjoying my meal. I mix a pat of butter in with my steaming white and yellow rice and take a bite. Heavenly!
Arabs, and a sprinkling of “orang putih”, white people, are among the predominantly local Malay, Chinese, and Indian crowds. The overall mood is relatively laid back, but not quiet due to the music pumping out of the LGBT club across the street. I don’t mind the music. The club plays a good mix, and the noise allows me to watch the street scene unfold, obliterating any distracting bits of conversation around me. I take a sip of sweet-tart mint lemonade and continue to watch.
A man, Persian I think, and probably in his late 30s, exits the restaurant eating ice cream on a stick. Lime flavored ice on the outside, with creamy vanilla ice cream on the inside; the kind that my children used to buy from the Paddle Pop man, whom they would chase on his daily rounds in our neighborhood of Bukit Indah. His friend approaches, greeting him with a kiss on each cheek, then reaches out to grab the ice cream from his hand. Taking a bite and smiling with enjoyment, he hands it back. A short while later, the first man is gesturing with the empty ice cream stick, which has been licked clean, jabbing at the air to emphasize the point of whatever he is saying.
Artist hasn’t had any customers yet, but he makes small talk with the few people who stop to gaze at his work. Untroubled, he continues to sit and smile.
A man and woman and two young girls, around 3 and 6 years old, walk past the restaurant. The girls are holding onto the adult fingers, dragging along, seemingly disappointed at not getting whatever it is they are asking for. I note that green is a popular color this year, with the older girl wearing a baju kurung the very color as the girl who walked by with her family earlier.
A group of four young men approach in the opposite direction. Suddenly I am struck as I watch the girls drop the fingers they have been holding on to. The man and woman continue walking as the girls begin grasping instead at the hands of the young men, chattering and stepping in front of them, making it difficult for them to walk. When they are each handed a ringgit, the Malaysian currency roughly worth 25 cents, they rush in the opposite direction and hand it to a woman I now presume to be their mother, who is sitting in the shadows of the building next door. Then they are off to harass the next group walking past.
Reality hits hard as I finally understand that I have in fact been seeing these same small girls begging for the past hour. Bukit Bintang may appear to be a bustling and thriving center, but not everyone is there simply to have a good time. For some, it is a form of survival. Malaysia, after all, is still a country with a large population of people living on the fringes of society, and as I contemplate how many children will go to bed hungry tonight, my meal begins to lose its flavor.
There can be no peace as long as there is grinding poverty, social injustice, inequality, oppression, environmental degradation, and as long as the weak and small continue to be trodden by the mighty and powerful. ~ Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama