“Be friends with one another. When I first came to live here in Semenanjung, the first impression I had was that people are afraid of one another. If you don’t know the other, you are fearful of the other and when you are fearful of someone, you won’t know him/her. I think that Malaysians need to play a part in wanting to know each other.” - Hadrian Awell
Hadrian Awell, also known as Ian, identifies himself as Iban-Chinese, and speaks the Iban Sebuyau dialect. As an Iban (from his father’s side), he is part of the Dayak community (which also consists of Bidayuh and Orang Ulu).
Throughout the interview, Ian shared about his culture, including traditional food, crafts, attire, games, music, and festivals, which we found very interesting!
He also emphasised how we should not stick in the same circle, because it’s easy to stay in our comfort zone. We agree that meeting new people is a gamble, but it could also change someone’s life. As we went on with the interview, Ian showed how passionate he is about unity and the small things we can do to make it happen.
What traditional craft is your community most known for?
The Iban community usually makes shields or weapons. We also make “parang”. The Duku is used for agriculture, while the Parang Ilang which is used for wars in olden days. The handle is made from human or animal bones.
We also make Bubu, an instrument for fishing. The elongated shape makes it easier to trap fishes.
What is your traditional attire like?
There are specific terms for men and women's attire. For instance, the Baju Burung is a jacket worn by men. Men do not wear accessories. The costumes for the Iban girls are pretty expensive and considered as heirlooms.
We also have the Pua Kumbu which I hang in my house. It’s like a woven textile, usually made out of natural dyes and the technique they used is ikat. It is showcased internationally and it’s like a world heritage kind of thing. The ladies must have the skills and dreams to make it. The pattern is not something they come up with, but they are given to them through dreams. They will see how they can relive those patterns and that is where Pua Kumbu is made up with different designs. Although there are generic terms for the characters and creatures, the pattern itself is unique to a particular wover. That is why Pua Kumbu material is very expensive because not everyone can make it.
Usually people wear them during weddings (preferred by younger generations) in most Dayak communities in Sarawak. In the city particularly, they will have their wedding in the morning (at churches) and in the evening for dinners. During dinners, they usually have 2-3 pairs of clothes, so one of them will usually be the traditional costume.
We also wear them during Gawai, and the days prior to it when they have gatherings and anything to do with parties. A lot of longhouses and communities chose to wear traditional costumes.
What are some of the festivals celebrated in your community?
We celebrate Gawai. There are many forms of Gawai. Officially, Gawai is on the 1st and 2nd of June.
Another Gawai is called Gawai Antu - this depends on the community and on the longhouse. It is highly expensive so it is done once in a blue moon. Not like Chinese or Muslim calendar where they have a certain dates to remember. It doesn't follow a lunar calendar but instead, follows the elders of the longhouses.
The purpose is to honour those who have passed away. They will set up invitations, tell the relatives, people in the vicinity and the neighbours in longhouses that they are going to have it. It is a big event so people in the longhouse will usually prepare in advance and feast. They will prepare and slaughter pigs and chickens, prepare rice wine and cook for the party. They will also honour the dead by offering Miring to the dead. Certain longhouses have skulls from headhunting (in the past, which includes in WW2 on the Japanese).
They decapitate people and take the skulls, bringing them home to appease the spirits. The spirits become their protectors. They do this by smoking those heads until the skulls shrink. The blackened skulls hang around the ruai which is the main corridor inside the longhouse. The Miring will involve eggs and poor chicken and pigs will be slaughtered. During this time they do a ritual when they cut open the pig’s heart and try to decipher what the future will hold like. Sometimes it depends on the shape of hearts, but I have no idea. Miring is also where they kill cockerels and drop the blood around on the offerings.
Speaking of festivals, is there any traditional song, instruments, or dance that is practiced in your community?
Ngajat is our traditional dance. Ngajat Induk is performed by a group of women, while Ngajat Laki is performed by an individual man.
He would wear a headgear and perform either with a sword or a shield or without any of them, and would dance by mimicking the hornbill.
How are weddings organised in your community?
Weddings are held over one night (people already come in the day before) and a lot of merry making. People bring different foods, people hang out and drink, and a big party during the wedding day where a lot of dancing, singing and drinking will take place.
In the olden days, since most of the couples are not from the same longhouses, it involved travelling a lot by sampan (boat). So when people in the longhouse receive guests, first, the poor pig gets killed (offering the guest something, honouring them with the best protein for a feast). Second, people will wait for you at the entrance and are offered a glass of rice wine which is called tuak. It is part of the culture to welcome you by giving you something. Imagine if your house is row number 20, the bride will pass house 1 to 19 and get 19 tuak before you reach the end of the house!
Is there a special ceremony for a newborn baby?
Yes, but I do not think it's practiced now. In the olden days, when the baby was born, after a certain number of days, maybe 7, the baby is brought down to the river by the parents and they will traditionally give it its first bath. And it is usually participated or watched by the people in the longhouses.
When there is a death in your community, how are the funeral arrangements like?
It's just like sitting in the church. Even when death occurs in the longhouses now, the body is brought up to the home for the body to lay in state where people come and view the body. Relatives and friends will come to pay respects. They will basically stay in the ruai, the corridor of the longhouses, then you have the “bilik”. Bilik is the personal apartments of the families (there are usually rooms with a kitchen and tanju at the back). Bilik is where guests are expected to stay but because the body is there, the ladies will be staying there and the men will sleep at the ruai. Food is provided for the guests, there will be lots of crying and lamentations but also makan (eat).
Who usually leads the rituals and ceremonies in your community, is it the men or women?
The men will usually lead rituals and ceremonies in the community, but women also play a role. In Gawai celebration, men will be the one giving speeches and without the women, we cannot have the party.
Can you name one "pantang-larang" still observed in your community and how are these pantang-larang shared through the community?
I have one, but I am not sure if it's Iban-wide. Do not eat crocodile meat. Reason is they do not perpetuate a cycle of violence with the crocodiles, which infest the rivers of Sarawak. But for my community, Iban Sebuyau from Lundu, we have 3 pantang larang, which I do not observe personally.
Do not eat monkeys (kera);
Do not eat deer (kijang) - a lot of people do not eat venison meat in the community; and
Do not eat midin or you will go blind.
Reason for these pantang larang is because all these help them to hide during war times. These pantang larang are basically handed down from generation to generation. But it depends on the families and themselves to observe or not. For example, my own immediate family does not observe these, especially midin and kijang, but my auntie questioned that.
Could you share with us a well-known folklore in your community?
The story of Kubang and Keling. Kubang is the beautiful one and wears a dress. Keling, with the traditional costume, means someone who is handsome, brave and chosen. It is a story about forbidden love. So they come from Pulau Libau, which is translated as the heavens. So they basically are the descendants of the god.
The old Iban beliefs have plenty of gods - we have practical gods for everything. Even the hornbill is a god, different birds are gods. Some birds bring good omens and some bring bad omens. In the olden days, they would walk through the field and hear the bird sound, they would translate it when they heard it. If it is a negative sign for them, they will go back home.
There is a fiction book based on Iban culture, called Iban Dream by Golda Fawe. I think the book has won an award somewhere.
What are the common stereotype(s) about your community?
There is a misconception that we live on trees, we live together with crocodiles. That is not true. Because the longhouses are on stilts. The Ibans community have to come down to the river banks and those rivers are the ones usually streams whereby the rivers do not quite have crocodiles. However, crocodiles are in the river areas.
How does it make you feel to be classified as a 'lain-lain'?
I think that the classification of “lain-lain’ sort of insults me because I am not a ‘lain-lain’, I am an Iban. I have always wished that some forms do not have that ‘lain-lain’. As a Malaysian, I would prefer that we don't have any classification at all, I am just fine being Malaysian. When people classify me as a ‘lain-lain’, it means there is no effort made to know who I am. Although some government forms have all the ethnicities in it, actually I don't see why you should classify anyone as a ‘lain-lain’. Why do you want to know how many Malays, how many Chinese, how many Indians, how many ‘lain-lain’ there are in the country? We should be identified as Malaysian. We all have our family history which you can never deny you are part of, but in an official form, it should be just Malaysian.
What are the current challenges faced by your community? And what are your hopes for the Iban community?
My hope for the community is to place more emphasis on education. Although now I must say it’s good because a lot of people send their children to school, I still think it is important that we learn how to live in moderation in our lives.
Sometimes, we see ourselves as tied to the community with things that we cannot achieve. I know that we can change, we just need to want to change and the community has to play a role in helping one another. For example, I know the Chinese community through their various associations, they do provide some sort of help, loans, and other types of support, so my hope for the Ibans is to do that too, to help out others in need.
How can Malaysians get to know each other better?
Be friends with one another. When I first came to live here in Semenanjung, the first impression I had was that people are afraid of one another. If you don’t know the other, you are fearful of the other and when you are fearful of someone, you won’t know him/her. I think that Malaysians need to play a part in wanting to know each other. We can be culturally different, but we are all Malaysians and sometimes we just need to make the first move and be friendly to each other. Unfortunately, now I see that we are growing up in this culture whereby the term ‘the other’ has a negative attribute.
We are beyond thankful to have met Ian as he is willing to share so much about his cultural heritage and speak out about his hope for his community and fellow Malaysians. We can see how much Ian values his community as he felt disappointed at how his community is being treated and feels left out.
Without this sharing session, we would not have the chance to communicate with an Iban, which makes us more curious to learn about other cultures as well!
___ Interviewer: Melissa Yau Pui Yi & Mufida Qatrunnada Azzahra, supported by Faye Lim Written by: Melissa Yau Pui Yi & Mufida Qatrunnada Azzahra Edited by: Yasmin Mortaza