I cannot recall much about my late uncle Dato' Haji Ahmad Ismail (Dato' Lela Negara), a name well related to publications of books, magazines and translations in Kelantan circa 1920s and 1930s. He was born in Kota Bharu in 1899 and only passed Standard II from a Malay Government School and later he learned the English language from a Ceylonese teacher. On his own initiative he managed to master the Arabic language with the help of his friends and of course with the help of dictionaries (Arab-Malay in Jawi, I presumed) which was then his best companion.
Ayah Ngah became involved in the writing world when he was made an editor of al-Hidayah (1923) with Dato' Muhammad Ghazali Ariffin, Hassan Haji Omar, Haji Abdul Rahman Daud al-Makki, Muhammad Adnan Arifin and others. In 1929 he opened his own printing company, al-Mathbaq al-Asasiyyah (spelling?) located in a row of shop houses at Jalan Hilir Pasar, Kota Bharu right infront of the wet market of KB, a very busy area in those days. Cold Storage occupied the end lot next to uncle's 'opih chat' (that was the name we used to call his shop). It was around this time (1929 onwards) he printed and published books that was translated from the Arabic language...Egypt, Turkey, France and English being the background for these books. Book titles such as Tut Ankhamun (1929), Chogan Setia (1929), Pahlawan Perkasehan dan Peperangan (1930), Selamat Tinggal Ayuhai Timur (1931), Perjalanan Mustaffa Kamal Pansha (1931), Puteri Mesir dengan Puteri Raja Rarina and Rasputin (1935) were published. I can't for the life of me imagine how these books look like nor the contents because I don't know if there is any copy left lying around now.
He produced the magazine al-Hikmah (a popular magazine in Kelantan of that era) with the help of Abdul Kadir Adabi (Adabi... a very catchy name first used for a private school in Kelantan in the late 60s and later used as a brand name for food condiments..Kicap Manis Adabi etc etc). al-Hikmah was first published in 1934 but publications had to stop in 1941 due to the break out of the Second World War. The magazine featured translated serial stories such as Pundi-Pundi Biru (1936), Kecenderungan Perempuan (1936 - 1937) and Rahsia Kasih (1938)... a pity none of the mentioned stories were printed into novels/books. In 1937 he published the well-received 'Kerana Mahkota'. Sadly, uncle's 'opih chat' is no more in operation since the 1980s when his son who took over the business died in the early 80s and none of his siblings were interested in the business and the shop lot was sold off.
|A copy of al-Hikmah kept by a cousin as a personal collection|
Ayah Ngah was also influenced with Tok Kenali ( a very well-known ulamak in Kelantan) who played an important role in giving sound advises and ideas for al-Hikmah. Tok Kenali was a regular patron at uncle's opih chat where he spend the time to read newspapers and magazines of that era. Infact my mother used to tell us that Tok Kenali frequented our house after his asar prayers at Masjid Muhammadi and held intellectual discussions on current issues with uncle and my grandfather, who was also a learned man and kept journals and also involved himself in writing.
And yes...he brought back reading materials for my mother (his youngest sister). In the 1920s and 1930s malay girls were not allowed to go to school but my mum was one determined girl and self-taught herself in reading Jawi. She would hide what she was reading from my grandma and would only read after everyone else was asleep by using a small 'pelita'. However, her nocturnal activity was discovered by grandma and she was scolded for trying to enter a man's world. But mak...I'm so proud of you for being literate in those days and we (the siblings) caught the reading bug from you.
I remember being in awe and scared of Ayah Ngah and would always hide behind my mother whenever we visited him. Still fresh in my mind when after isya' prayers I would accompany mak to his house, we walked along the almost deserted road to his house which was about 1/2 km away from our house. He would be sitting cross legged in his white pagoda t-shirt and sarong and talked in a deep guttural voice which I do not comprehend at all and the times when he passed by our house on a 'teksi' (trishaw) on the way to his 'opih chat' complete with his tongkat (walking stick) looking sternly at my sisters and I sitting on the bar at the old wooden door. My sister recalled mum telling her, Mak Ngah (uncle's wife) would always prepare kopi O and a plate of his favourite fried bananas, the 'pisang khaghae' (small green skin banana) and he would settle down to write at nights. That's the only memories I have of my uncle... and he passed away in 1969 due to what illness I cannot recall.
|My youngest uncle (Ayah Su)|
Last but not least I can say that we have quite a few budding writers in the family, another uncle, Ayah Su my mum's youngest brother was a reporter with Utusan Melayu in Singapore in the late 40s. My second eldest brother (Abang Ngah) when he was studying at the Federal Military College (now Royal Military College, RMC) won an essay competition organized by the New York Herald Tribune and won a trip to New York in 1961. My sister, Teh Ani who was an editor with DBP and a daughter of Ayah Su, Kak Mah was a reporter with NST in 1980s and 1990s. As for yours truly, I can't be counted as a budding writer and it is only for the love of reading and writing that I caught the bug too. For the rest of the family who are reading this entry...please ponder for a while and ask yourself...am I bitten by the writing bug?..Probably you do!
My thanks to Haji Ahmad Farid Mahmood (Binaraya PKINK) for his time in searching and supplying me the above facts (written by Abdul Razak Mahmud) regarding Ayah Ngah (the picture is from a calendar published by BRP on Tokoh Penulis Kelantan for the year 2003);
and facts from 'Titih Galur AIF' - courtesy of our dear Teh Ani