Indian Muslim cafe owner speaks perfect Iban

Proprietor of Azreen Cafe, Mohamad Rafi.

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By Wilfred Pilo

KUCHING, Nov 27: Azreen Cafe, an Indian Muslim cafe located in the heart of the bustling Satok Commercial Centre, is no different from any eatery in the city until you meet the proprietor, 62-year-old Mohamad Rafi.

Hailing from the Thanjavur district in the Tamil Nadu state of India, Rafi and some of his family members can speak perfect Iban. Unless you’ve met Rafi physically, the eatery owner could be mistaken for an Iban.


“Yes, I can speak, write, and read the Iban language like any other Iban person,” he told this writer at his cafe recently.

“Aku beterima Kasih ka Pettara laban ka nemu bajako, nulis enggau maca Iban (I thanked God for being able to speak, write, and read in Iban),” he said in the Iban language.

“I learned the Iban language in Simanggang when my father Mohamed Kamaludeen started his textile business there in 1966.

“I was five years old when my father brought our family to Simanggang as he and his partner wanted to expand their textile business in a new town,” he revealed.

“His partner left him, but my father never gave up. He diversified his business into a grocery store and later ventured into the food business,” he added.

The statute of the White Doves is now Simanggang’s icon, a town where Rafi called home and a place he picked up the Iban language.

Rafi recalled that Simanggang town was a small but lively place with a closely-knit community.

“Everybody in the town that I knew in those days can speak Iban, and I suppose my local linguistic journey began when I started mixing with the local children.

“Living in a small town like Simanggang, almost everybody I knew is bilingual and spoke many languages including English, Mandarin, and Bahasa Malaysia.

“But I apprehended the Iban language when I started my primary school education at St Luke Primary School in 1968.

St Luke Mission School is where Rafi learned the Iban language.

“I have fond memories of my teachers, namely Albert Sanggat and Wilson Sampai. The two were also our Iban language teachers.

Rafi said he loved listening to his teachers telling the ‘Ensara Iban’ (Iban folk stories). He learned to read, write, and speak in the Iban language apart from the other subjects taught.

“In those days, Iban was already a subject taught in school. Like other subjects, we have to study and pass the Iban language. I learned the Iban language until Primary Six.

Rafi said he had no problem speaking Iban and used it often, even after taking over his father’s food business in Simanggang and moving to Satok in Kuching.

“In business, being able to communicate with customers in a language they understood is very important so that you get closer to them and provide better services.

“I can speak not only Iban but also local Chinese dialects, and I find it is useful in my business,” he said.

Rafi jested that he could be a linguistic expert if he had not followed in his father’s footsteps.

“I could be a language lecturer or some sort, but I focused on the legacy that my father left me, and the food industry is lucrative too,” he said.

Azreen Cafe is an Indian Muslim eatery located in the bustling Satok Commercial Centre.

Rafi said he often amazed his Iban customers who patronised his cafe and spoke to them in Iban.

“That is the way we should approach customers if we can communicate comfortably with them and improve on our services,” he said

“Sarawak is often known and cited as a multi-racial, multi-religious, and cultural society, and as a foreigner, I must learn to integrate into the local way of life. It could be through a common language like the Iban language.

“Even with my food, I prepare it to suit the local palate, and I make sure that all my customers, irrespective of race and religion, can enjoy the dishes I prepare,” he said.

The Briyani Kambing (Mutton Briyani) is a favourite among customers.

Rafi said his cafe serves savoury Rojak India, Southern Indian style Thosai, Poory and Chappati, Chicken Briyani, Beef Briyani, Mutton Briyani, and a variety of noodles.

“The food we serve has been using the same family recipes over the years, and we learned to be better,” he said.

Rafi, who has made Sarawak his home for himself and his family, hoped that Sarawakians would live together in peace and harmony.

“My family loves this country and made it our home. My children were born here, and they grew up here. So I am pleased to see that they have a good job here.

“Even though I am not a citizen yet, although I came in 1966 and I still hold on to my Red Identity Card, I will continue to contribute to the State.

“Always be willing to learn and speak other local languages to be able to communicate with one another. Most importantly, don’t be selfish, be sincere, live in moderation, and be willing in helping people,” he said. — DayakDaily