Drawn by a thirst for learningAmerican among many who call "serambi Mekah" home
By IAN MACINTYRE
KOTA BHARU: Kelantan's reputation as "serambi Mekah" (the veranda of Mecca) has drawn many foreigners, including Muslim converts, to its shores over the past two decades.
The nickname was acquired in the early history of the coming of Islam to Southeast Asia, when visiting merchants and missionaries came here to set up schools and learning centres in Islam.
This brought about a semblance of the rich learning culture of West Asia and many people thought that it was a mirror to Islam's most sacred city.
With the reputation came a mushrooming of religious schools and it is estimated that there are some 100 of these "sekolah pondok" (traditional Madrasa) state-wide.
Inspired, many foreigners came to visit Kelantan and some stayed on and made their home here.
Among them is American Muhammed Taha Abdullah, 38, who has stayed here for the past 11 years.
There were setbacks initially after he ran into problems in his first job here.
But rather than give up, he chose to stay and teach the locals to speak Arabic.
Taha, who hails from Connecticut and studied at a university there, said he does not translate from Malay to Arabic.
"We teach Arabic as the native Arabs speak it. No slang. Just Arabic,"
said Taha, who has acquired a good command of Kelantanese Malay.
"I start with simple basic words. Just the basic facts. I do not want to complicate things."
Admitting that he was an atheist during most of his childhood, he embraced Islam in 1988 after meeting his Malaysian wife, Norliza Ghazali, 40, at the University of Connecticut.
In 1993, Taha was one of seven out of 2,000 applicants from the United States who was accepted by the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia.
He later followed his wife back to Malaysia, where they initially settled in Pahang.
However, the lure of "serambi Mekah" drew him to Kelantan, where he wanted to improve his knowledge in Islam.
Together with fellow convert Zulkarnain Khoo, Taha often takes part in open discussions on Islamic issues on a broad perspective.
In the aftermath of the "9/11" terror attacks on the United States, it is important to clear misconceptions about Islam, he said.
Source: The Star, 24.01.2007, page N27.