Faceless dreams, a remarkable ending

In 1989 while serving as Julau Scout District Commissioner I was had the privilege to join a special camp.

The big group of campers comprised Rela members of the district. It was planned to be for spending a night’s rendezvous at the famous Fort Brooke built in 1935, Nanga Meluan up the Julau River with pristine clear water. History has it that the fort was built to halt a rebellion by a former Iban penghulu Asun Paing nicknamed ‘Bah Tunggal’ (Flash Floods). In 2012 the fort was given a facelift.

My special place among the group was courtesy of then Sarawak Rela director Abang Balia, a long-time friend.

“If you sleep at the Fort Brooke, please avoid sleeping near to the middle ‘tiang’ (post),” reminded a friend who was from Batu Matop longhouse, the birth place of the late Dato Sri Temenggong Banyang. She however did not tell me why. So upon reaching the all-belian Fort – its roofing was also out of belian –  that had seen better days, I purposely chose to place next to the middle post all my belongings and camping gear that included a special scouting folded bed.

Others, including Abang Balia, were all scattered around, with some choosing to rest at the raised belian ground floor. 

It was around 2.30am when all entertainment, dining and drinking activities ended. It took my place at the chosen spot with my rest almost touching the middle post. Truly as I thought, I had a special dream. People in the odd looking longhouse mostly looked weird. Such a sombre atmosphere seemingly made me gulp for air but despite my predicament, people in the verandah were doing their chores unperturbed and none of them acknowledged my presence.

FORT Brooke at Nanga Meluan, Julau pictured circa 2012 when undergoing facelift.

Strangely nobody even looked at me. There were quite a number of them, including children, who were busily doing their own things but none of them even bothered to look my way. This wasn’t a typical Iban longhouse, I said in my mind but the words did not come out from my mouth. Iban’s hospitality is well known and typified by their generous greetings and pleasantries, even with strangers. On my own part I just let go. I went along the ‘tempuan’ the walkway part of the longhouse gallery and greeted no one in return for the same ‘favour’ accorded by the occupants.

The last person that I saw on the other end of the longhouse was an old lady who surreptitiously wove mats on the open verandah ‘ruai’. She was seemingly absorbed in her own world and couldn’t be bothered with my presence. Upon reaching the other end of the community dwelling I was thinking and pondering, these occupants seemed faceless. They were really faceless as I couldn’t remember looking close at any face at all as none of them looked at me. Somehow I felt no fear or pity. There was a little anxiety but before exiting I saw sunlight and was in a daze to be able to distinguish between night and day. But of course it was daylight as the golden morning sunlight crept into the upper floor of Fort Brooke patterned by the broken belian roof. So in my mind, the story about Fort Brooke being haunted was true. Souls of the dead have invaded this place, I wanted to say out loud but nothing came out from my mouth.

Abang Balia who was already up and seated on the floor a metre away tried to say something to me but I heard nothing and both of us were unable to find anything remotely suitable to the occasion to say. Sleepiness actually had the better of us both.

Months later when I related to father about the dream, he said it was a good thing that none of these longhouse folk looked or greeted me. He said these were people from another world, the world of the dead.

“You still have a long time to wait my boy,” he told me, adding by not looking at me or greeting me, it means I was still far separated from their world.

He then narrated me a story that happened long time ago of a man, Kedawa, a widower who was crestfallen after his young wife Banun died. For many days Kedawa refused to eat, bathe or go out from his room in their Munggu Sibau longhouse, causing concern and worries among his friends and other longhouse occupants.

One of his close friends got an idea and suggested they organise a cockfight to be held in a month’s time, knowing that Kedawa was a great enthusiast of the game. This went very well with the widower but he needed to look for a suitable cockerel or gamecock. So he went downriver and upriver but finding none to his satisfaction and expectation. So he went on foot passing though rivers, streams, hills and mountains night and day until he came to a large settlement consisting of several longhouses and individual houses.

Kedawa who was dressed in the Iban war attire and carrying a long sword went up one of the longhouses and started looking around for suitable cockerels. He found or two attractive ones but when he asked to speak to the owners he was shocked to find nobody would talk or look at him. They seemed faceless. He was given the same reception in the subsequent longhouses he ventured into.

Still not giving up, he went to the nearest  individual house but received no reply when he called from below. He then went to the next one and called. A voice, a female voice, answered and asked him to come up her house on stilts. Kedawa ascended the ladder and knocked on the door. It opened and he was shocked to see it was his deceased wife Banun standing right in front of him, asking him to come in.

He noticed that Banun was in the midst of weaving a ‘pua kumbu’. When he was fully settled and seated, Banun told Kedawa that he could not stay long for she was dead and living in the land of the dead. She told Kedawa the longhouses he had just entered were for dead people whose worldly relatives or descendants had built them proper burial home ‘The Sungkup’ (a mock home out of belian sent to the cemetery during ‘Gawai Antu’). Those in the individual houses such as Banun’s were the deceased who were yet to have permanent burial homes accorded by their families or descendants.

“You must go back to Munggu Sibau and tell the others about this. Tell them to hold Gawai Antu and build ‘Sungkup’ for their deceased relatives or family members,” Banun told her husband Kedawa.

The next morning Kedawa used a boat to go downriver on a supposedly trip back to his worldly abode. On one dangerous and sharp bend he capsized but clung to a boulder and collapsed on top.

A young boy in Munggu Sibau who saw someone resembling ‘the late Kedawa’ seated on a rice pounder ‘lesung’ alerted the others.

“Yes that is Kedawa,” said an elder. “So he is not dead.”

They performed a ritual to get him back to normalcy, telling him he had been away for more than four months and had thought he was dead.

Upon recovering from shock and trauma, Kedawa told them Banun’s message.

“That became the origin of Gawai Antu, the Festival to Commemorate the Dead,” my father ended his narration and I end mine here too.