New Straits Times, 30 July 1994: “Iban way to cope with change.”
Peter M. Kedit: Iban Bejalai. Sarawak Literary Society, 1993. 202 pages.
review by Otto Steinmayer
Despite that many books on finance and politics get reviewed here, some of them stuffed with charts and numbers enough to make your head ache, it’s rare that a genuine scholar’s book makes it to these pages, even rarer that such a book is of local growth. Would you be put off if I told you that Iban Bejalai began as a Ph.D. dissertation? I sincerely hope not. In the first place, Iban Bejalai sits in the academic tradition of clear writing and presentation. It’s an easy read. Peter Kedit’s examiners must have been delighted to pass it. That, when it happens, is one of the biggest pleasures a supervisor can enjoy. The pleasure comes to all of us who pick this book up now.
Since Dr Kedit is present Director of the Sarawak Museum, it is a happy occasion when he has completed this arduous programme and gained academic credentials that bring honor to him and to Sarawak. Writing a dissertation for a doctorate, especially at a university of the calibre of the University of Sydney, is a grueling effort. The person who gets through it deserves, at least, respect for surviving. Dr Kedit has got a pretty good book out of it, on display for the world to approve, and that’s much more. His example ought to give heart to all the other Malaysians out there toiling away at theses.
The “bejalai” of the title is in the Iban language what Malay expresses as berjalan. But while the Malay phrase means little more than “go for a walk,” or at most “take a trip,” Iban bejalai is a concept dear to the hearts of the Iban people, an ancient tradition involved in considerable mystique, not to be summed up in one English word. It’s not to much to say that bejalai is one of those things that make the Iban what they are.
People in Semenanjung may think of the Iban as people who keep to themselves in their longhouses, tied to the task of growing rice. Nothing could be less true. Since time out of mind it has always been the custom for men, and especially young men, to leave their longhouses and rivers to go out into the wider world and seek work and adventure. In the longhouse communities on the Batang Ai’ that Dr Kedit studied nearly every adult man had been on bejalai at least once. Such travels were a normal part of life in all the past. Bejalai is surrounded with ritual, and frequently celebrated in Iban literature and myth. The great culture hero Keling, the model Iban man, is often away from his longhouse in the sky on extended errands.
Bejalai is not aimless wandering. The young men who voyage out most often band together in a group for mutual support, have a definite destination, a specific project in mind, and usually a notion of how long a time they will spend before returning. The average bejalai lasts half a year up to a year. In contrast, to belelang (no Malay equivalent) is to leave home permanently and to sever all ties with the longhouse of one’s birth. In some cases, belelang ends with the exile marrying abroad and ceasing to be an Iban.
Again, bejalai can be distinguished from other types of mobility, such as pindah, in which the whole longhouse moves to a new location—more frequent in the past—and modern forms such as bekuli and kerja (or makai gaji), in which a man seeks “blue-collar” or “white-collar” jobs respectively. And, of course, bejalai differs from war or headhunting parties, although sometimes in the last century Iban who set out on the pretext of getting money came back instead with skulls.
The Iban are not the only Borneans who leave home. Other Dayak peoples too go a-travelling. The Penan have their “beat” that takes them over time from camp to camp by known sago plantings. The Kayans call their trading expeditions by the kindred term pesalai. It appears that the Iban cultivate their own style more fervently and more seriously. In fact, the story goes that the name “Iban” itself meant originally “wandering stranger.”
Dr Kedit proposes a number of reasons for the Ibans’ cultivation of bejalai. Some are economic. Though farming hill-rice takes the most important place in the year, men are free of duties from the time they finish the clearing of land until they are required to carry the heavy baskets of grain back to the house at the harvest. Then, after Gawai, a space of several months intervenes before the cycle begins again. In the past, men used these times to go to the jungle to collect salable produce and bring it to the pasar. The old Iban style of shifting cultivation needed fresh supplies of virgin land, and while on their jungle trips, men scouted out suitable locations to which the longhouse could be shifted when the time came.
With increasing modernization, Iban men spent their months away from the farm working at jobs such as tapping rubber on plantations in more settled downriver areas, and diversified to other work such as construction and oil-extraction. Dr Kedit belongs to a family many of whose members early on distinguished themselves by going on bejalai to hunt and collect for museums and assist in scientific expeditions.
Attending university now is, despite appearances, classic bejalai. A higher degree is one of the most prestigious things you can bring home. A friend of mine, whose great-grandfather chopped off heads in the old days, went to Hull. He said that since now he couldn’t in good conscience travel to fight people, he was going to get a doctorate. I told him he was aiming to take his own head, and he said I was right.
Once you get down to it, it’s hard to tell whether Iban men go on bejalai for economic reasons, or find an excuse related to money so they can go traveling. Dr Kedit is surely right to trace the custom to that streak of restlessness and desire to be on the move that so many Ibans show in their character. Ibans can’t sit still, they have to be doing something, to be out and about, and they associate even fun and relaxation with going to new places and seeing new things.
Still, perhaps, Ibans go out so happily because they feel secure of a place to come home to. What typifies travel as bejalai is that the wanderer always has home in mind. The man who works on bejalai sends back regular remittances for the support of his bilek. In a normal end to a bejalai the traveller returns to the longhouse covered with glory, with money in his pocket, presents for the folks, and a fund of stories to dine out on indefinitely.
Once you didn’t need to stray long or far to get these advantages. Employers these days dislike providing jobs on short terms. Ibans stay away from home longer. Bejalai thus gradually shades into the way of life required by a cash economy. Men will get training, be hired, and live far from home until their retirement. Some stay in the city. From this Dr Kedit draws a somewhat gloomy conclusion that bejalai has become indistinguishable from the common third world rural-urban drift.
Yet I have met many Dayaks employed in jobs humble or prestigious whose ambition is to make their name and their fortune, earn their pension and retire to live the good life in their native place. It’s an ethic that combines an ideal of progress with a respect for origins and ties, and human limits. No wonder then that the Iban have adapted bejalai so well to modern conditions, and that bejalai remained, as Dr Kedit says, “a living institution,” and paradoxically a means for Iban themselves to cope with rapid change.