When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.  

– Albert Einstein, German physicist

A lot of people have asked me to share some items on the Iban traditional courting custom ngayap. This part of my column is dedicated to this unique practice of such courtship from a “longhouse-to-city boy” viewpoint.

It was in 1972 during the second school term holidays that I finally plugged enough courage to join the so-called “night hunters”. My debut in ngayap at 18 and about to sit for my Senior Cambridge School Certificate in about a few months’ time was out of curiosity.

A few guys from my longhouse had married girls from the longhouse intended to be our ‘hunting ground”, all being positive results of “night hunting”. Not that I was ready to tie the knot with anyone then, but it was more out of curiosity. As is usually said, curiosity kills the cat.

Our destined target was a 48-door longhouse, about an hour on foot through the Sibu-Kuching trunk road from our old Kedap longhouse.

In 1972, the road was still very dusty or very muddy, depending on the season. But during the two-week school holidays, the road was dusty. Our destination was about one kilometre from the main road through jungle paths.

I usually came with another friend of the same age. We came readily prepared with a few salted fish to be thrown to the dogs in case they barked. During my limited trips, no dogs barked; perhaps I was lucky.

There were some hilarious reasons for the limited trips. During all my three trips to the same “hunting ground” I was accorded a very kind welcome for the door was not locked, as if my trips there were anticipated.

Therefore, there was no necessity for me to climb to the loft from the verandah or open gallery by removing some planks as most of my peers did in the apartments they visited.

And for all my three visits, the two sisters both happily welcomed me to their shared bed, leaving me courting two beautiful damsels at the same time. After an hour of courtship, the three of us would go downstairs for coffee at around 11pm.

Their parents who knew me were very sporting but did not join our coffee sessions. So, our courtship ended with the coffee sessions. We even laughed at such hilarity. 

Honestly speaking, my target was the younger sister, but it was the older one that seemed to be very interested. Many years later, when we met again, we had a lot of hilarious items to share and had a good laugh.

We are still friends now as we are actually distant cousins. That was the end of my very limited ngayap experience.

Many interesting items were shared with us, the younger boys, on this night hunting experience by our senior friends and relatives, including the ladies. For example, in 1964 a friend who courted a maiden in a longhouse further up the Melupa basin had to escape from the loft where the lady was sleeping because her stepfather threatened to shoot him.

During the escape, my friend’s “sarong” got entangled in the deer horn that was attached to the belian post supporting the loft. Luckily, it took just some seconds for the horn to break, thus freeing him from further misery.

Many a time, the targeted ladies would share with others some items about men coming over to ngayap them. For example, one notorious individual would come over to court them, putting two or three pens on his shirt pocket to impress the ladies. Some of them were said to be apai orang (married with kids).

During an Aum Besai (large meeting) held in Kapit in 1981, chaired by Tun Jugah, just months prior to his death, one of the items discussed was ngayap. The conference was attended by all Iban Temenggong and Pemancha.

According to Vinson H Sutlive Jr in his book ‘Tun Jugah’, the penghulu in Sarawak were not invited to the event as Tun Jugah had met them in their respective districts earlier.

After a lengthy discussion, most of these Iban leaders were opposed to the ngayap custom and said it should be banned. Others said it should be restricted to the Iban communities alone.

It was stated that there was a number of recent incidents perpetrated by non-Iban on longhouse visits under the pretext of visiting girls.

According to some participants of the conference, these culprits not only ngayap the girls but also ngayap the pepper vines, rubber sheets placed at the open gallery ruai.  Even the belian posts were relieved of the cannons and brassware tied to them.

However, Temenggong Jinggut suggested the custom should be maintained because of its uniqueness but only for the Iban. It was agreed but the practice should be regulated.

A young Iban man was limited to three visits after which he must declare his intentions. If he persisted without serious intention, he might be fined.

No non-Iban should be permitted to ngayap in any longhouse, the conference agreed. That put an end to some notorieties about ngayap.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.