Wales Arts Review is pleased to present a new series of literary vignettes; next up is ‘Bukit Lawang’ by Hanan Issa. These vignettes will be glimpses into the thinking of the writer and their experiences; from the day-to-day to the extraordinary. They might have the intimacy of a diary entry, or have the scope of something much larger.
He told us to keep quiet. Odd since Bukit Lawang itself is never quiet. Bugs, birds, and everything else create a constant rhythm of jungle static. We left our guest house over an hour ago and every inch of my skin was sweating generously. Yousuf had decided the trek guide, Adiy, was his new best friend and I spent most of the journey watching him bounce around like a backpack, holding onto Adiy’s shoulders, as he skillfully picked his way over vines and fallen trees. He stopped at the base of a hill and exchanged a look with Hari, his co-guide, who scrambled up to scout ahead. He called down and Adiy grinned, turning to us, ‘She is here! Be quiet and be careful’. He sprang up the hill like a gazelle despite piggy-backing a 3 year-old.
Adiy had been quiet throughout the journey, apart from an impromptu rendition of ‘Country Roads’, or when he firmly pulled me away from resting on a log full of fire ants. Now, he was even more reserved; hushed in the same way you naturally quieten when entering a church or mosque. I tried to struggle uphill discreetly since it felt disrespectful bringing unnecessary noise. Adiy stopped, pointing at the canopy a few metres ahead, and there she was. The Mother. Suspended, leg stretched above her head like a dancer warming up. Her pursed lips chewed in relaxed circular motions. She marked each one of us then returned her focus to eating. I stepped forward and she tensed, turning her head. Measured by those human, not human eyes. She knew me for a mother too. I felt her relax as she stretched towards the branch of the next tree with more of a graceful glide than a swing. Balletic and confident in her movements. Up close, her fur was more coppery than red. She was beautiful in the way of aged things. I turned back but the others were focused on the trees directly above me. Then something brushed the top of my head. I looked up. The orangutan child had already started her slow motion swing back towards the mother but I was bewitched, unable to move.
Before setting out the guides briefed us on respecting the orangutans space; how we were entering their house and should take their lead during any interactions. Just that morning, one of the more reckless guides had been bitten for getting too close. But our guides were careful and on alert. It was the mother who had decided we were not a threat. She had allowed her child to touch my hijab. It was an affectionate brush, intrigued by the colour or pattern on my scarf perhaps. As we started the return journey back to the guest house I couldn’t explain why I was crying; tears of joy, tears of humility, I’m still not quite sure what to call them.
Hanan Issa’s work has been featured on ITV Wales and BBC Radio Wales, published in Banat Collective, Hedgehog Press, Sukoon mag, and MuslimGirl.com, and performed at the Bush Theatre’s Hijabi Monologues. She is the co-founder of Cardiff’s BAME open mic ‘Where I’m Coming From’ and is currently working on a feature film project in partnership with Film4.