Wak Ali was not only the caretaker of the Siti Maryan shrine, but also custodian of its history and the stories of those who visited it.
Wak Ali Janggut, or bearded Ali. That was what they called him. “They” being the community of people who visited the Siti Maryam shrine, before it was exhumed and demolished in April 2011.
From the day the shrine had been demolished, Ali had been its caretaker for 25 years. His story with the shrine, shrouded in mystery, continues to fascinate. The same can be said about Ali’s life: from his birth to his days as its caretaker.
My encounter with Wak Ali was under rather unfortunate circumstances. Teren Sevea, a historian researching on shrines in Southeast Asia had come across the shrine and discovered that it was to be exhumed and demolished.
Ali was an able-bodied man in his late 60s. He was always seen shirtless and had a distinctive, white beard that earned him the nickname, Wak Ali Janggut.
Teren and I begun to document the space: from recording stories from Ali and the people who visited the grounds, to photographing the shrine, the objects that filled it, as well as of Ali in his everyday life.
Encounters with Wak Ali
Late one morning in August 2010, I headed to Stadium Link, the road along which the shrine was located. The shrine was not visible as the tall trees that lined the perimeter of the road, and coach buses that were parked along the street, tucked the shrine into an enclave of sorts.
It was located near the Old Kallang Airport and the then – People’s Association building. A small hut made of yellow planks and beams; the shrine was nestled right in the middle of the greenery. Upon entering the shrine, we met Ali – and through him, the shrine’s whole story unfurled.
Ali was an able-bodied man in his late 60s. He was always seen shirtless and had a distinctive, white beard that earned him the nickname, Wak Ali Janggut. He invited us into the shrine, showing us around the space, telling us stories about the area around the Kallang River, the voyage of Siti Maryam from Baghdad, and how she came to rest there.
The shrine was clearly segmented. There were the earthy grounds where the graves were, with tombstones beautifully wrapped in bright yellow cloth; the main tombstone of the saint, Siti Maryam; the working areas around the shrine; and a small portion of cemented floor. That was Wak Ali’s quarters throughout his years as caretaker of the shrine.
When he passed by the shrine on his way home one evening, he heard a woman’s voice. He claimed that it was the voice of Siti Maryam, the saint herself, appointing him to look after her shrine.
This makeshift room where he would unroll a mattress to sleep each night, also housed a mosquito net hung from the roof, some hangers for the few shirts that he owned, as well as a cupboard for some of his personal belongings like his bank book. Ali did have a flat but he said that he had to stay in the shrine for he had been chosen to care for it.
Before he became the caretaker, Ali was a diver for the coast guards. When he passed by the shrine on his way home one evening, he heard a woman’s voice. He claimed that it was the voice of Siti Maryam, the saint herself, appointing him to look after her shrine. As he was covered in dirt that night, he did not enter the shrine but resolved to come back in the morning.
And since then, he has been its caretaker.
Wak Ali’s daily routine as a caretaker was a busy one. He would begin the day by sweeping up all the dead leaves around the shrine, as he never liked it when the area was dirty. He would then remove the remnants of floral offerings around the graves, replacing them with new flowers.
Throughout the day, people would visit the shrine and often, Ali would pray with them, asking for the saint to bless them. Ali was also known for his prayers. He was able to recite specific prayers that could help those in need.
He related that a religious man had told him that his penghafalan or recitation and memory of Quranic verses was one of the best. And this was something he took great pride in. In fact, he used it to help many people with their problems, praying for them. This was all the more astounding as Ali was illiterate.
While recording his many stories, Teren asked about his birth. Ali was born with a twin, and his twin was a snake. It was said that his mother gave birth to a snake before giving birth to him.
So how was he able to know and memorise all the prayers and Quranic verses? He showed me his tape recorder from years ago. Inside was a tape that contained all the different prayers that he had recorded from people who he had asked to recite. Ali would then listen to the recordings over and over again and memorise them. He played the tape every night and soon, was able to recite the prayers himself.
His birth story was something else altogether. While recording his many stories, Teren asked about his birth. Ali was born with a twin, and his twin was a snake. It was said that his mother gave birth to a snake before giving birth to him. The snake was released into the water and never seen again.
However, Ali said that others had spotted him in places when he was actually somewhere else. This, he believes, was his twin whom they saw, and that he, she, or it is still out there.
On the day of the exhumation, I was not allowed to take any photographs. Ali was there as they dug out the grave of Siti Maryam. They did not find any physical remains.
After the exhumation was completed – the graves emptied, the structure taken down – Ali told us that she was still there, and that she had asked that he not leave her alone. Ali stayed.
Ali returned to the empty shrine grounds daily for months after. Although he took ill for quite a while, thinning his sturdy frame, he would still sweep the dead leaves around the area, and sit with some of the others who visited the shrine.
For them, it was still their sacred communal space.
Words and photographs by Nurul Huda Rashid
Published by the Singapore Memory Project and Studio Wong Huzir