The One on Finding a Place Called Home

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Photographed by Noor Iskandar

The past ten months has been nothing short of freedom and independence to me. I enjoy the ability to pack up and leave for another country in an instant. I enjoy the flexibility of working on my own. And most of all, I enjoy the fact that I am alone responsible for my own happiness.

Recently, Singapore has been crowned Lonely Planet’s top travel destination for 2015. I stopped in my tracks to read the article on my phone to be sure that my eyes were not deceiving me. Yes, I sure do love my country, but what have I missed about my homeland that makes it a top destination for travelers from around the world?

I thought about what makes Singapore so attractive to foreigners. Some said it was the efficiency that impressed them, others loved how safe this country is and the rest just enjoyed Singapore’s little quirks. There was a New Yorker I met in Morocco who got so excited when I told him I am from Singapore, “Dude! Your subways are like fifty years into the future!”

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Man sleeping on the job, Chefchaouen, Morocco, 2013

When I travel, I look for experiences that I cannot find in Singapore. I seek adventure. I seek the wilderness. I seek ruggedness. And most of all, I seek the country life. Perhaps I have always been the kampung girl at heart, preferring the outdoors to city skyscrapers and air-conditioned malls, and my idea of retirement is having a home with enough land for me to grow vegetables organically with love and a butcher who knows me by my name and choice of cut.

I love traveling in ruggedness, not having plans for the day and just sitting down somewhere with a drink and a book to read. I have been approached by fellow travelers asking me about my religion and why I chose to cover my head with the hijab. I make friends with people from all over the world and make it a point to keep in touch just in case I drop by their hometown in my future travels. I thrive on spontaneity and randomness – it makes me feel less guarded and wary, of which I usually am.

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Angkor Wat, Siam Reap, Cambodia, 2014 

Last year, I left Singapore for Europe without a job waiting for me back home. I wanted to do something crazy and bold. I wanted to know what it feels like to be invisible and not know what to expect. I left Singapore for a trip to open my heart and mind. I left Singapore without attaching my heart to anything, or anyone for that matter. I left Singapore knowing that there was a possibility I would not come back.

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Brighton Beach, Victoria, Australia, 2014

In my pursuit to find myself, I realize I enjoyed being anonymous and not having any worry for the uncertainty that lies ahead of me. A friend once told me that this lack of worry is because of a heightened faith in God – like what they say, do not pray for God to make things easier for you, but pray for the strength so you can go through challenges better. When we travel, we learn to let fate take its course while we take a back seat. In essence, we accept whatever happens to us because God has already willed for it happen in our lives, anyways.

Halfway through my month-long trip, I broke down. I was missing my family. I missed my mother, my three cats, my sisters and brother. Most of all, I was missing my nieces and nephews a lot. When I got home after 28 days away, my room was filled with about a hundred balloons. My brother would probably kill me for telling the world about this but he blew each and every one of the balloons. I went over to my sister’s place with presents for my nieces and nephews only to be greeted with hugs, kisses, and fights as to who gets to sit on Aunty Ida’s lap.

My then four-year-old nephew Yan Yan looked me in the eye and asked me, “Where did you go for so long, Aunty Ida? Don’t you love me anymore?”

There are a million reasons for you to go away, but find one that keeps you coming back – I found mine.

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Mia Familia, 2013

This article first appeared on The Shawl Label’s Sisterhood Project on http://www.theshawllabel.com.

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On Being the Only Muslim in Town

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Little Mosque on the Prairie was one of my favorite TV shows back when I was in university. Set in a little town in Canada, it tells the story of a growing community of Muslims living with the Anglo-Christian majority. I was always intrigued by the existence of Muslims in areas where there weren’t any Islamic governing bodies or authority.

Having born a Muslim and lived in a country and region where Islam thrives, it is pretty much easy to take everything for granted. Halal certifications are aplenty in Singapore, and halal certified or Muslim-owned cafes are sprouting like wild mushrooms. Across the Straits we have Malaysia, where almost everything is halal for Muslim consumption. Needless to say, Singapore and the Southeast Asian region makes being Muslim fairly easy.

I never had the chance to live abroad but my wanderlust needs have brought me far and wide across the globe in search of my true existence as a Muslim. I struggle with my faith sometimes so traveling helps me to strengthen my love for Islam and my Creator. In my few years of traveling, never have I been faced with a huge challenge until quite recently.

I packed my bags for Daylesford, Victoria in Australia for a food photography workshop with Ewen Bell and Iron Chef Shellie. Truth be told, I did not do a lot of research for this trip. I did not look at the map to figure out where exactly Daylesford is, and neither did I Google “halal restaurants in Daylesford”. Shellie did most of the cooking and baking, so I merely wrote in to Ewen saying that I do not mind seafood, but strictly no meat of any kind.

The best thing about Australia to me is the ease of being vegan, vegetarian, paleo, gluten-free, kosher, halal and whatever-allergies-or-food-preference-you-have. The diversity coming from all sorts of cultural and religious backgrounds is taken into account to form an accepting and open society. Sure, there will be always a small minority who thinks the whole world is against them and stir up trouble, putting a bad name on the beautiful and kind majority of Australians.

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On my way to Daylesford with another participant, Atlanta, we discussed the food scene in Melbourne because after all, Melbourne is the city to be in if you are a foodie, cafe enthusiast, caffeine addict and avid Instagrammer. Basically, hipster was born in Melbourne. It was a very exciting experience for me to hear first-hand stories behind the ever-thriving food industry in Melbourne. Atlanta is a manager of a Middle-Eastern restaurant in the city so she would definitely know a thing or two about running a restaurant.

Upon our arrival in Daylesford, I was greeted with even more food lovers. Olivia is a stay at home mum who makes everything from scratch – even butter; Winston is an avid cook who runs his own blog; Leslie is a grandmom who takes beautiful photos and of course, there’s Ewen and Shellie. I was to spend my weekend with not just foodies – they were food connoisseurs.

And there I was, the city girl whose biggest accomplishments when it comes to food is to make her own pasta and lasagna sheets. Needless to say, I was about to get schooled about food and my biggest assignment was to ensure they were halal for my consumption. It was a “rusa masuk kampung” moment whenever I entered a restaurant for dinner as heads turn towards me. I felt a bit like Cinderella because I stood out from the rest with the obvious headscarf covering my hair

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I had no clue on what to expect during the first dinner. We had the Degustation menu where food magically appears for 5 or 8 courses. It was my first experience with fine dining and I was superbly excited. Thankfully, Olivia is a vegetarian so I didn’t feel like such a party pooper for having a special dietary requirement. I went vegetarian for the entire weekend and truth be told, vegetarian food has never been so delicious. Although there were times the beef or quail or chicken the others had look amazingly delicious, and there I was with puppy eyes wishing I could have some.

On top of making sure there was no meat on my plate, I had to ask about every single thing that was on my plate. I really did not have to worry but I wanted to be sure I knew what I was eating. One of the entrees we were served was a garden of seasonal vegetables and flowers, and it was served with some black little crispy things which I thought was blackened garlic. To my amusement, it was in fact a type of edible soil. It was a literally “makan rumput’ moment for me.

While I wished I could have some of the chicken or kangaroo meat that was served, I relish the fact that I was able to experience something out of the ordinary during the workshop. Food is such an integral part of my life, and experiencing food in a way that was beyond amazing is something I am thankful for. I came back from the weekend inspired and ready to try out some flavours and vegetables I never knew would go so well together.

I am thankful for living in a city where halal food is readily available, and I can only empathise with Muslims who live in far-flung places having to always question how halal the food is for their consumption. It is certainly not an easy task, to dictate for yourself and put in real effort as to what is halal and what is not given your living situation but it is also a blessing because it is when you are the only Muslim around do you really test your faith as well as your understanding of the religion your believe in.

Wallahua’lam.

This article first appeared on Halalfoodhunt’s Halal Diaries.