Jawa, Jinn, Johor, Jiran, Janda, Jodoh: A Malaysian Family History

With all the family history stuff I write here in my blog, one might begin to wonder why I don’t write about my wife’s family history. Well unfortunately genealogy is a very difficult endeavour here in Malaysia. A lack of accessible records (and in many cases a lack of records, period) means you’re forced to rely almost completely on oral histories. That’s not a horrible thing, as the old folks here can tell you quite a bit. However, reliance on oral histories definitely has its drawbacks, the major ones being 1) you won’t get very far back into the history of any given family, 2) you won’t get a lot of specific information such as dates, and 3) you will get a lot of stories that include all sorts of fantastical elements.

That pretty much describes my wife’s family history. I haven’t been able to go very far back, especially on her mother’s side of the family. Even when I have been able to find information on ancestors, it was usually just their names, with the rest of those people’s lives remaining shrouded in the fog of time. Also, while there are family members who claim to know a lot about the family history, it’s difficult to know how much of it is true. Leen’s paternal ancestry is rife with tales of jinn and psychic powers; her maternal ancestry, if the uncle who’s supposed to know the most about it can be believed, includes a pirate treasure at the bottom of the sea.

Still, when it comes to Leen’s family history, I’ll take what I can get. After all, it’s all part of my children’s ancestry as well. And mine, in a way. I mean, these people are my family now. Their blood doesn’t run through my veins, but still…we’re family.

Anyway, the furthest I could trace back in Leen’s family was a man named Raden Ipok (no one is sure of the actual spelling), who lived in Pekalongan, in Central Java, Indonesia sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century. I know very little about him other than his name and the fact that he was not a Muslim. I’m not absolutely sure what religion he followed, though it seems he was either a Buddhist or an animist (his indigenous culture, whatever it was, may have included elements of animism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, or at least some of those things). His son, Raden Peroyo, supposedly had 17 wives but only ended up with three children. One of those children was named something like Raden Ritz. He was the one who brought the family into the fold of Islam. As the story goes, Raden Ritz fell in love with the daughter of a kyai (the head of an Islamic boarding school) and converted to Islam so he could marry her. Upon conversion he changed his name to Rais.

Accounts of this lineage by different family members begin to diverge somewhat here. One story has it that Rais had a son named Qudri or Qadri and that he, not Rais, was Leen’s great-great-grandfather. In yet another version of the family history, there isn’t even a Rais, and Leen’s great-great-grandfather is Peroyo. Whatever the case, after either Rais or Qudri (or maybe even after Peroyo) came Leen’s great-grandfather, Raden Falali (sometimes called Palali), who married a woman named Ummayah. They were fairly well off, with lots of land and horses and other material wealth. Leen’s eldest surviving uncle, Pak Andak, says that Raden Falali feared for the lives of his two sons because of the persecution of several noble families by the Dutch. He sent the boys to Malaysia on a steamship, but before they went he supposedly gave the elder of the two, 15-year old Raden Baron, a slip of paper upon which was written the name Salma, which wasn’t a woman’s name but that of a jinn (and a male one at that) that would protect Baron and his brother in Malaysia.

My wife's paternal grandparents
Baharom Bin Fadzil & Jamiah Binti Yusof

Raden Baron dropped the title Raden when he got to Malaysia and changed his name to Baharom Bin Fadzil (I’m not sure if Falali actually used the name Fadzil or not). Baharom settled in Muar, Johor and married a woman named Jamiah, a daughter of Javanese settlers named Yusof and Rubiah. Yusof was one of several brothers (three or four) who settled in Kampung Tengah in Muar. I’ve been told that about 90% of the people in Kampung Tengah are Leen’s relatives.

No one really knows what happened to Baharom’s brother, Selamat, also known as Pak Ngah Selamat. It seems shortly after getting married he was taken by the Japanese, who occupied Malaya from 1941 until the end of World War II. He was put on a train and sent north to help build a railway in a neighbouring country. One version of the story says he managed to jump off the train somewhere in Kedah and carried on with his life. According to another version of the story, he was taken to Burma but eventually released by the fearful Japanese, who had tried to boil him alive but couldn’t hurt him. Whatever the truth is, Selamat was never seen again.

Baharom had many different jobs over the years (including working the ferry that crossed the Muar River) and was supposedly aided in each by the jinn that accompanied him everywhere, the one whose name was written on the little slip of paper that Baharom always carried with him (usually in his hat). Stories abound of his miraculous accomplishments, such as completing a week’s worth of grass-cutting in one evening, or buying a banana and somehow arriving home with a whole bunch of them. His feats didn’t go unnoticed by others. One day he was riding his bicycle near his home when he was struck by a car belonging to Othman Saat, who was also from Kampung Tengah. Othman was shocked to see that while the bicycle was wrecked, Baharom didn’t have a scratch on him. Family lore has it that Othman coveted Baharom’s source of power. Baharom, fearful that the jinn’s power would corrupt him and anyone else it touched, buried the slip of paper with the jinn’s name on it somewhere on property that belonged to Othman. Othman dug it up and became the Chief Minister of Johor.

Baharom Fadzil & Jamiah Yusof
Baharom is the man holding the little girl; on the right is Jamiah. The little boy standing in front of Jamiah is my father-in-law, Abdul Rahman; next to him is his sister Aminah (Busu Noi). I’d like to find out who the other people in the picture are and if they’re also Leen’s relatives.

Baharom and Jamiah lived a quiet life in Muar and had 16 children, one of whom was Leen’s father, Abdul Rahman. Half of Baharom and Jamiah’s children, including my father-in-law and a set of triplets (Salam, Salim and Selamat), have passed away. The remaining children are Mak Uda, Pak Andak, Mak Alang, Mak Uteh, Mak Anjang, Bibik, Busu Noi, and Pak Jak (those aren’t their real names, just the names I know them by). It’s interesting to note that while none of them use the title Raden, Leen has one cousin (a daughter of the late Abdul Kadir, a.k.a. Pak Long) who does. I’m told some of Leen’s cousins also include the name al-Qudri in their names to denote descent from Raden Qadri/Qudri, who as I mentioned above may have been the son of Raden Rais.

Baharom, who would be called Tok Bak by Leen and his other grandchildren, continued to show signs of having mystical abilities throughout his life, despite having given up the slip of paper upon which was written the name of his jinn guardian. The slip of paper may have functioned as some sort of talisman, but apparently it wasn’t the true source of Baharom’s powers (as Othman Saat may have later discovered, when the rise of Mahathir and Musa Hitam led to his marginalization and eventual resignation, and a failed comeback attempt via the short-lived party Semangat 46). Baharom did his best to keep his abilities secret, but Leen remembers seeing some strange things. For example, she says one day she was in a room with Tok Bak, but then when she turned around and looked out the window, there he was, suddenly outside. His grandchildren loved him, but it seems most of them, including Leen, thought he was a little scary because of things like that. I’m not sure how much of it I can bring myself to believe, but I do wish I could have met him. Both of Leen’s paternal grandparents died several years ago.

Tok Bak in his later years
Tok Bak in his later years.

I wish I knew as much about Leen’s maternal ancestry as I do about her father’s family history. Leen’s dad, Abdul Rahman Bin Hj. Baharom (Hj. is an abbreviation of Haji, which means Baharom had gone on the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca) married a nurse from Batu Pahat named Mariah Binti Hasnan, who is now my mother-in-law, my beloved Ibu. Whereas my late father-in-law was of Javanese descent, Ibu is of Bugis ancestry. Her father, Hasnan Bin Mohamed Ali, was a jack-of-all-trades who did various jobs in and around Kampung Minyak Beku. He married Khatijah Binti Osman and they had three girls, including my mother-in-law. However, Hasnan and Khatijah divorced not long after the birth of their third child, and Hasnan married a woman named Hamidah. She bore him several more children (I’m told that in all she had 16 children but I don’t know if some were from a previous marriage or not). Hasnan died fairly young, the first of Leen’s grandparents to pass away. Hamidah, whom Ibu calls Mak Uda, is still living in Kampung Minyak Beku; we usually visit her during Raya.

Ayah & Ibu on their wedding day
Abdul Rahman Bin Hj. Baharom & Mariah Binti Hasnan (a.k.a. Ayah & Ibu) on their wedding day.

Khatijah, Ibu’s mother, remained single for many years, but a tragic event would eventually lead her to marry again. When her older sister passed away, Khatijah became close to her newly-widowed brother-in-law. Each wanted someone who would take care of them, so they got married. Sadly, Khatijah developed breast cancer and, like her sister and her first husband, left the world too soon. Her second husband, heartbroken, followed soon after.

It goes without saying that Leen has a lot of cousins. Her relatives are all over the country and work in a wide variety of professions, such as the doctor who delivered Alisdair in Shah Alam. It’s actually really hard to keep track of Leen’s extended family. There are some I’ve never met or hardly ever see. There are also some we’re quite close to, like Bibik’s family. I think of them as my family too, just like I consider Leen’s parents and siblings to be my family.

My Malaysian family
Celebrating Hari Raya in 2007 with my Malaysian family. Ayah passed away just a few weeks later.

My father-in-law passed away on November 6th 2007 in Muar, only two months after retiring from his job as an auditor for the local school district. Ayah’s passing was hard on Ibu but she’s been doing just fine. She retired not long ago and now spends a lot of time with her grandson Afiq. She gets to spend time with Alisdair quite often too. I don’t think Al will remember his Tok Ayah, but we’ll be sure to tell him as many stories as we can about his grandfather, and the other people from both sides of the world whose blood runs in his veins. We’ll tell him all about how his Tok Ayah was a pretty good drummer and had a great singing voice. We’ll tell him that his Tok Ayah would do anything for anyone, even if it meant he had to go without. We’ll tell Al all sort of stories about his Tok Ayah, and maybe a few about ancestors from further back.

As I said earlier, there are several different versions of the story of Baharom and his ancestors. It seems Tok Bak himself told more than one version of his family history. The result is that his children and grandchildren might not all agree on what the real story is. One of his grandchildren (the one I mentioned earlier who calls herself Raden) swears direct descent from the saints known as the Wali Songo, particularly Sunan Ampel. If that is indeed true, it can’t be through the direct paternal line (maybe through the kiai instead?), which may have been Buddhist until the mid-19th century or maybe even later. Of course, there’s no way of really knowing if that is even true. I don’t know anything about Javanese history, but I have to wonder if anyone in a family of Buddhists (or animists or any non-Muslims for that matter) would have even carried the title Raden.

This was supposedly written by Tok Bak
Some information on the family written in the Jawi script, supposedly by Tok Bak himself. I can read Jawi newspapers with some effort but this handwriting really has me stumped. If anyone would like to have a go at it, I’d appreciate knowing what it says. There’s another sheet of paper on which he wrote a short genealogy in Rumi script, but I’m not sure if both pages have the same information.

Whether the story of Baharom is true or not, it certainly is interesting. And at least there actually is a story. It’s a shame that most of my kids’ maternal ancestry will be a big blank space compared to what I can tell them about my side of the family. But at least there is a story to tell. Maybe we’ll even uncover more someday, somehow. Who knows?