Teaching Jawi in the pandemic

Mulaika Hijjas is Senior Lecturer in South East Asian Studies at SOAS University of London, where she teaches literature and cultural studies of the region. She is the principal investigator of Mapping Sumatra’s Manuscript Cultures, funded by a Leverhulme Research Leadership Award. Follow the project on Twitter or Facebook.

Jessica Rahardjo is a DPhil candidate in History at the University of Oxford and a committee member of Teaching the Codex. Her current research interest is the Islamic material culture of Maritime Southeast Asia. Follow her here on Twitter. 

Jawi is an adapted form of the Arabic script that was used to write the Malay language from about the 14th century to the mid-20th, in much of what is now Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Brunei, as well as parts of the Philippines and Thailand. The huge amount of written material in Jawi is a rich trove for understanding the history of the region. The Malay language has evolved into two main national variants, Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia, and in both cases is now written almost exclusively in roman script (or Rumi). Jawi script ceased to be used in the Indonesian national curriculum in the 1950s and in the Malaysian one in the 1980s. Many Muslim Southeast Asians nevertheless have some proficiency in the Arabic script because of the emphasis on reading the Qur‘an as a religious duty. However, first-language speakers of Malay or Indonesian with basic knowledge of Arabic script do not always find Jawi as easy as they expect. It is also worth noting that Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) technology for historical Arabic manuscripts is still in development, and similar tools for Jawi are likely to lag far behind. This means that anyone who wants to research topics as wide-ranging as Sufi brotherhoods in Sumatra in the 18th century, or trade agreements between the East India Company and the Malay sultanates in the 19th, or anti-Communist propaganda in the Malay press in the 20th really ought to learn Jawi.

In spite of this, there are no accessible courses available anywhere for learning Jawi. The usual approach is to teach oneself, which is doable, if inefficient. And it is not, after all, just a matter of learning the script, but also familiarising oneself with scribal and linguistic conventions, and getting a sense of the manuscript tradition as a whole. For several years I taught the only Jawi module in the UK, which Jessica Rahardjo took in 2016. At that time it was all that remained of a long tradition of the study of Malay literature and Jawi manuscripts at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and now, a victim of the decline in language study that has afflicted so much of UK higher education, is no longer offered. Taking advantage of the Zoomification of everything during the pandemic, Jessica and I decided to offer a free online version of the class to make this expertise available to those who might benefit most—learners in South East Asia.

We suspected we were on to something when we had to close enrollment 24 hours after the tentative announcement of the course on social media, because we were overwhelmed by the number of sign ups. What had been intended as a small project to gauge interest had rapidly attracted over 100 participants. Of course, not all of them completed the course, but we had an active group of about 35 for the eight-week duration. The classes proved to be a joy, especially in the dark days of the second pandemic year—bringing together people from across the world, all with a genuine enthusiasm for learning Jawi, and their own particular interests and areas of expertise.

Students were divided into two groups: complete beginners, with no knowledge of the Arabic alphabet, and intermediate learners, who had some facility with the script. All students were required to have basic Indonesian or Malay (but in practice almost all of them were first-language speakers). We set up a site on Google Classroom, and provided the study texts as well as a list of online resources and supporting readings. For the first two weeks, we used extracts from handbooks dating back to when Jawi was still on the school curriculum in British Malaya and independent Malaysia.

A selection of Jawi textbooks
Image 1: A selection of Jawi textbooks

Some of these, such as M.B. Lewis’ A Handbook for Malay Script (London: Macmillan, 1954) and Haji Abdul Razak Hamid’s Belajar Tulisan Jawi (Kuala Lumpur: Fajar Bakti, 1977) were intended for adult second-language learners, whereas others were intended for primary-school-aged first-language speakers, such as Belajar Jawi Cara Baru (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1983) (Image 1). Students were then given authentic texts, progressing in difficulty from 1950s advertisements (Image 2) to poetry (Image 3), to letters (Image 4), and works of religious jurisprudence (Image 5) (images run left-right below; click to enlarge). Weekly, I provided a pre-recorded lecture, and Jessica and I ran synchronous classes on Zoom, with recordings and solutions to the reading exercises uploaded onto the Google Classroom page. We also invited friends and colleagues to speak to the students on specialist topics.

The main difficulty of Jawi is that it does not mark all vowel sounds (other unwelcome discoveries for new learners: no punctuation, paragraphing, or capitalisation in handwritten texts, frequent elisions or slurrings of the dots and other key distinguishing features of the letters). All consonants are of course indicated, and some vowels (those classed as long in Arabic phonetics). Although this does not present much of a problem for Arabic itself, which has relatively few vowel sounds and is morphologically rather predictable, much ambiguity (and hilarity) can ensue in Malay.  The following Jawi word, for instance, has numerous definitions in Wilkinson’s Malay-English dictionary:[1]

بنتڠ b - n - t - ng

bantang: bunting-bantang, heavily pregnant

banteng: a type of wild ox

banting: (i) to take up and throw down; to clash together; (ii) a two-masted ship; (iii) assistance; (iv) a dock

bentang: to spread out

benteng: a fortification

bintang: a star

bintong: a tree, species unknown

buntang: (i) eyes staring out of the head; (ii) a floating carcass; (iii) a weaver’s rod; (iv) a kind of monkey

bunting: pregnant

Of course, context usually provides a guide, but there are all too many times when specialist vocabulary is required. This letter (Image 3), from the Pangeran Adi Wijaya of Palembang, south Sumatra, in 1787, is addressed to p/f-y-t-r: not Peter, as in an otherwise excellent recent transcription, but fetor, the factor of the East India Company trading post. At other times, no satisfactory solution can be found, even when the words are more or less legible (is an ikat dayung an oarlock of some kind, and, if so, why would a ship be carrying sixty of them as cargo?). But one of the students was able to draw on her knowledge developed in her work as a curator to provide a useful explanation of fish traps mentioned elsewhere in the same letter—a great example of how the class productively brought together diverse specialisms.

Speakers of Bahasa Indonesia, more distant from 19th-century Malay than Bahasa Malaysia, face particular difficulties in the class. In the 1970s handbook, students encountered the following dialogue:

Velu: What are your plans for the weekend, Lim? (Apa rencana awak pada hujung minggu, Lim?)

Ah Lim: Nothing much. Just staying at home. (Tidak ada apa-apa. Duduk di rumah sahaja.)

Velu: Come with us b-r-k-y-l-h. (Mari ikut kami b-r-k-y-l-h.)

Bahasa Malaysia speakers immediately read this as ‘berkelah’ (to go camping). Bahasa Indonesia speakers, however, read it as ‘berkelahi’ (to get into a fight), and were further mystified when this activity was proposed to take place by a waterfall in a forest reserve.

While Zoom and Google Classroom greatly facilitated teaching, we quickly realised we needed additional tools to effectively teach Jawi remotely. At first, Jessica used Google Docs with a combination of Arabic and Persian keyboards; this was an imperfect solution given the additional Jawi consonants found neither in Arabic nor Persian. The use of a graphic tablet would have been more efficient as well as more instructive for the students. Writing Jawi by hand allows us to easily reproduce idiosyncracies of scribes and demonstrate particular orthographic features (often perceived by beginners as misspellings). The lack of a standardised Jawi orthography, which European missionaries and colonial administrators saw as incompetence on the part of Malay scribes, is in fact a reflection of the long history of Malay writing traditions as well as the multidialectal context in which it developed.

If, even more than speakers of British and American English, Indonesian and Malay speakers are divided by a common language, one of the great rewards of teaching Jawi to students from across Southeast Asia was to develop their understanding of a shared past, as represented in the texts we studied and our overlapping interests. As one of our students wrote in his feedback form: “It was a delight to see so many fellow SE Asians in the same (virtual) room! If SOAS and other western institutions are exploring ways of ‘decolonizing’ Asian studies, maintaining virtual portals of access like this one seems like an excellent path forward… It was a delight to see food historians, city flaneurs, architects, literary scholars, and lovers of manuscripts gather in spaces like this.” And we can echo another student, who wrote that it was the “Best thing to have happened in a pandemic research reality.” In the future, as part of the Leverhulme Research Leadership Award ‘Mapping Sumatra’s Manuscript Cultures,’ we hope to reach more learners by providing an open-access self-study version of this module, as well as running in-person workshops in Southeast Asia. But we doubt these will be as unexpectedly life-affirming as the online module of spring 2021.

Mulaika Hijjas, SOAS, University of London

Jessica Rahardjo, Wolfson College, Oxford

[1] R.J. Wilkinson, A Malay-English Dictionary (Singapore: Kelly & Walsh, 1901), 117–18.

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