Singapore’s Favorite Poem

Jinat Rehana Begum, educator and author of First Fires, nominates Isa Kamari’s poem “The Koran Chanter of Geylang Serai” as her favorite poem by a Singaporean. She writes, “I love poems that preserve our collective memories of places and spaces but this poem is my current favourite because of its complex layers of sounds, sights and meanings. The litany of typographical descriptions of Geylang Serai and Joo Chiat evokes the dogged recitation of the Koran chanter while mapping out in vivid detail yet another familiar and well-loved cultural space that is rapidly becoming unrecognisable in the name of urban renewal. The lyricism of the Koran and of Malay poetry is evident throughout these rhythmic lines which speak of change, loss and spirituality. It’s difficult to forget the biting irony of the final two-line stanza—it almost seems a call to arms.” The original Malay version follows the author’s own English translation.

 

The Koran Chanter of Geylang Serai
by Isa Kamari (translated by the author)

Turbaned he used to operate from a small plot
At the intersection of Joo Chiat and Geylang Serai
Under the shady Rain tree
With his wife, a microphone and large parasol
Pictures of past grandeur hang loosely
Fingers dancing on worn-out synthesizer keys
Chanting the Koran and its translation
Too often a nuisance sometimes entertaining
Beggars grasping for a morsel by the wayside
Mouth of Joo Chiat agape paving the way
Entertainment district and night vices
3 star-hotels well patronised even for just 2 hours
Eating houses sprout to whet various appetites
Malay village since born had a deformed soul
Will be demolished as decreed in urban renewal plan
New market promises clean and bright future
Chasing away food-poisoning crisis of makeshift stalls
Overhead bridge connects directly to a shopping centre
Elevating the commercial image of sophisticated Malay
New 20-storey blocks of flats change the demography
Koran chanter moves to a spot across the road
Not far from the main entrance of new market
Old hopes renewed by latest opportunities
Steadfast in defending dreams and slogan
Not to beg but to seek a livelihood
From the generosity of Geylang Serai’s visitors
Coming in droves manifesting solidarity and illusions
During the fasting month as Eid approaches
Chanting the Koran and its translation:
“God will not change
The condition of a people
Unless the people change their condition.”

Satisfied he smiles for he has changed
The spot to seek his livelihood from across the road.

 

*

Pelaung Al-Quran Geylang Serai
by Isa Kamari

Bersaban dia pernah beroperasi di tapak kecil
Di persimpangan Joo Chiat dan Geylang Serai
Di bawah pohon pukul lima rendang
Bersama isteri, mikrofon dan payung lebar
Gambar gemilang masa lalu bergantungan lesu
Tarian jari pada gigi synthesizer usang
Melaungkan Al-Quran serta terjemahannya
Sering mengganggu kadangkala menghibur
Peminta sedekah mengendeng rezki di tepian
Mulut Joo Chiat menganga membuka laluan
Daerah hiburan dan maksiat waktu malam
Hotel tiga bintang laris dihuni biar hanya 2 jam
Memercup kedai makan memenuhi aneka selera
Perkampungan Melayu sejak lahir songsang rohnya
Bakal diroboh mengikut pelan pemugaran bandar
Pasar baru menjanjikan esok bersih dan cerah
Menghalau krisis keracunan makanan di pasar sementara
Jejantas menghubungi langsung kompleks beli-belah
Merpertingkatkan wajah komersil Melayu canggih
Flat baru 20 tingkat menukar demografi
Pelaung Al-Quran berpindah ke seberang jalan
Tidak jauh dari gerbang kompleks pasar baru
Harapan lama diperbaharui peluang terkini
Tekal bertahan dengan impian dan slogan
Bukan meminta sedekah tetapi mencari rezki
Daripada ihsan pengunjung Geylang Serai
Berbondong menghadirkan solidariti dan ilusi
Pada bulan puasa menjelang Hari Raya
Melaungkan Al-Quran serta terjemahannya
“Sesungguhnya Allah tidak merubah
Nasib sesebuah kaum
Melainkan kaum itu sendiri merubah nasibnya.”

Dia tersenyum puas kerana telah merubah
Tapak mencari rezki dari seberang jalan.

 

Reprinted by permissions of author and publisher, the poem “The Koran Chanter of Geylang Serai” by Isa Kamari is first published in Fifty on 50, edited by Edwin Thumboo, Isa Kamari, Chia Hwee Pheng, and K.T.M. Iqbal, National Arts Council, 2009

 

isa ST A

Isa Kamari graduated with B.Arch. (Hons) from the National University of Singapore (1988), and M.Phil in Malay Letters from the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (2008). He is currently Deputy Director, Architecture Design with the Land Transport Authority, Singapore. He has written nine novels in Malay: Satu Bumi, Kiswah, Tawassul, Menara, Atas Nama Cinta, Memeluk Gerhana, Rawa, Duka Tuan Bertakhta and Selendang Sukma. Seven were translated into English: One Earth (Satu Bumi), Intercession (Tawassul), Nadra (Atas Nama Cinta), A Song of the Wind (Memeluk Gerhana), Rawa (Rawa), 1819 (Duka Tuan Bertakhta) and The Tower (Menara). He has also published two collections of poems, Sumur Usia and Munajat Sukma, a collection of short stories, Sketsa Minda and a collection of theatre scripts, Pintu. Isa also writes song lyrics and scripts for television drama serials and documentaries. Isa was conferred the S.E.A. Write Award (2006), the Cultural Medallion, the highest Arts Awards in Singapore (2007), and the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang, the highest Malay Literary Award in Singapore (2009).

 

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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