Fairy tale times, or perhaps time for a fairy tale. Yes, because walking here and there among the stands at the Rainforest World Music Festival in the Malaysian Borneo, at the concerts and meetings with the most varied and fascinating people, there is always a story to hear, a life story that ignites your imagination or unleashes a river of emotions. Real life stories or legends, or real facts that have been handed down for generations. Fairy tales in the truest sense of the term: those short narrations in which both men and animals, plants or other inanimate beings can be the protagonists. These are generally symbols or representations of typically human aspects of life that have the purpose to make a moral truth easily understood.
I leave the moral truth hidden in the story that follows to those who want to get to the bottom of it. I limit myself to relating it as it has been told to me, hoping that in defining it a ‘fairy tale’ I do not enrage the various Aesops, Phaedrus, La Fontaine, Trilussa and all those ‘real’ writers whose fairy tales we have listened to since we were children, and with whom we grew up. “Domine non sum dignus”… I’m just a little short of a storyteller.
Still, fairy tales they are, tales where animals perhaps play a fundamental role but where the real protagonist is always the ‘orang’: the person.
Fiona is an artist from the Melanau tribe. We meet her at the ‘Borneo Boat Lute Revival’, an interactive exhibition aimed at keeping alive in the new generations, and at making foreigners familiar with the art of the various forms of the Malaysian lute. Instinctively nice and sociable, Fiona is eager to talk, and to tell: “My family and I cannot eat deer meat”. This is apparently because of an agreement, a kind of contract signed hundreds of years earlier between an ancestor of hers and… a deer of course. Nothing in writing, of course, much less a notarial stipulation but, not for this reason, a less binding and significant agreement. She learned this story the hard way when, at the age of nine, after accidentally eating venison, she developed a severe rash.
Although Fiona is a young woman, I imagine that perhaps when she was a child there were no specialist doctors nearby to consult. So it was that an aunt, one of her father’s sisters, suggested a cure to follow: she had to take fragments of deer antlers, but without killing the animal.
She had to collect the splinters that fell when the deer ‘sharpened’ the antlers on the trees, mix them with essences, burn them and get her body ‘smoked’ for three consecutive nights. Naturally Fiona recovered.
Sure, we could easily dismiss the incident as a banal allergy to deer meat. But here we are not in a dreamless and cold American metropolis; we are in Sarawak, where there is still room for fairy tales and legends. At the time, Fiona asked her grandmother about an explanation, and she told her a tale: one of her ancestor, a hunter, had been seriously injured in a leg while in the forest. The wound was slow to heal and the leg continued to lose blood; it almost seemed there was no way out and that the fate of the unfortunate hunter was to bleed to death. But some benevolent spirit had decided otherwise. A deer had arrived and had licked his wound until it healed completely, and the man was saved.
The hunter, grateful to the animal, entered into a pact on the basis of which there should be no bloodshed between future generations of men and deers, binding the descendants of the man to the pact that they should never again eat the meat of the descendants of the deer.
Fiona gladly accepted the explanation but a doubt remained: why had one of her brothers who lived in Kuala Lumpur eaten venison several times without suffering any consequences? But of course… the deal was with the Sarawak deers, not with those of Peninsular Malaysia. Fiona laughed at this explanation and pointed out that “something is not right”.
Despite life’s injustices, to my question: “Did you ever think of going to eat venison in Kuala Lumpur with your brother?”, Fiona replied that she was so traumatised by that experience that she would never eat venison again anywhere in the world.
Fairy tales almost always have a happy ending, and during our trips in Kuching and Miri we had the opportunity to listen to a few of them. They tell us about women in a type of society where they may find it difficult to emerge, but when they do emerge they are always almost disruptive personalities. Women who express a solid characters that has its own affirmation as its goal, while not turning its back on its religion, its traditions and the rules of the community. Women who perhaps try to get where they want with the help of some innocent subterfuge, but proving in the end that they were right thanks to their merits, in a world where no one gives you pink quotas.