The Watcher

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What better way to spend a couple of hours than to enjoy a meal while watching the world go by. Just remember, things aren't always as they seem.

 Photo courtesy of Sumayah Abdul

We are at Naab, an Iranian restaurant on Jalan Bukit Bintang , one of Kuala Lumpur's hottest spots for night life. The entire front is opened up, and we are sitting at the first table, facing the street. Perfect for enjoying a meal, as well as watching all the happenings outside, and there is a lot happening. Life is being played out in front of us, while we eat our way through barley soup, taboula, kabab, and rice with butter, enjoying sips of mint lemonade in between bites.

At first glance, nothing looks out of place. A typical street scene. People strolling back and forth. A sketch artist sitting, waiting for customers to take a look at his drawings of “famous people” and to be inspired to sit for a portrait. A few people sitting just to rest for a while. A cute little girl wearing a green baju kurung, pestering her family, grabbing their hands and asking for things as they walk past the front of the restaurant. Lines of cars, bumper to bumper, moving slowly even when the light is green. That is the nature of traffic in KL. Always a jam, and pedestrians beware.

I am thoroughly enjoying my kabab, and the taboula is so fresh. I mix a pat of butter in with my white and yellow rice, and take a bite. Lovely! I see a few Arabs strolling past., as well as a sprinkling of “orang putih”, or white people, along with the mostly local Chinese, Malay, and Indian population. It’s relatively calm, but not necessarily quiet due to the music pumping out from the LGBT club across the street. I enjoy the music. Not only because the club plays a good mix, but also because it allows me to watch the street scene unfold in front of me, without hearing any bits of conversation. I take another sip of my lemonade, and watch.

A large Arab man is standing, eating ice cream on a stick. The green kind, with lime flavored ice on the outside, and a vanilla ice cream filling. The flavor my kids used to eat when we were living here a few years before. As he is eating, his friend approaches, and greets him by kissing him on each cheek. Then his friend reaches out and grabs the ice cream from his hand, takes a bite, smiling with enjoyment, then hands it back. They stand there talking for a while, and later I see the first man using the now empty ice cream stick to jab the air, emphasizing the point of whatever he is saying.

Artist hasn’t had any sit down customers yet, but he talks a little with a few different people who stop by to admire his work. He doesn’t seem dismayed. He just sits and smiles. I notice two teen aged girls sitting on the curb of a planted area just out front of the restaurant, and one is crying. They are wearing very skimpy shorts and tank tops. Because I have recently been made aware of the extent of the prostitution slave trade all over the world, when the girl keeps sobbing to the point of having red eyes, and looking as if they have no where to go, my mind starts going to bad places. Is it possible that they are there by force, wearing skimpy clothes in this superficially modest country, attracting attention in this tourist hot spot on a Saturday night? Artist seems to notice them also, but doesn’t look overly concerned. I am probably jumping to conclusions, but I am discomfited at any rate.

A family walks past with two little girls, aged about 3 and 6, grabbing at their hands, obviously asking for things and pestering the way that small children do. Green must be a popular color for girls clothes because the older girl is wearing a baju kurung the very color as the girl who walked by earlier. I watch and she lets go of the hand she has been grabbing at and runs back in the opposite direction with a ringett, the Malaysian currency, which is worth about 30 cents. What? No one minds that she is running off? Now a group of young men are walking past, and the same two girls little are grabbing at their hands and jabbering away. It finally dawns on me. The girl in green is the same girl! I have seen her quite a few times and only when I opened my eyes did I realize that her mother is just down the street, and the two girls are sent to beg and pester people for money as they walk past. This is at 11:30pm, a time when most little ones would be home, snuggled safely in their beds.

The girls who are sitting on the curb get up and walk into the restaurant. A woman walks over and comforts them, and gently scolds them. Seems they are not in as dire a situation as I had feared. Just frustrated with a father’s ruling. They fuss for a few more minutes, then go back to sitting on the curb. Their mother laughs and walks to the back of the restaurant.

Artist has done no business whatsoever, yet is still smiling. He is enjoying people watching as much as I am. Is it my imagination? Or has he been watching me all the time I was watching others? I realize now that the very fact that I am a white woman sitting in this spot guarantees that I will not go un-noticed. Although there is a lot of tourism in Malaysia, Westerners are still a bit of a rarity. The watcher has become the watched.

 

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