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Sunday March 25, 2007

Of hookers, hustlers and holy men

By Dina Zaman
Publisher: Silverfish Books, 237 pages
(ISBN: 978-983-322-1157) 

Review by FARISH A.NOOR 

THIS is, in many ways, a timely book that states what should have been stated publicly long ago. Indeed, the very title of the book, taken from the title of author Dina Zaman’s column in online newspaper malaysiakini. com, is already a statement in itself: “I am Muslim”. 

And what a statement it is, at once confessional as it is assertive, particular and yet curiously universal, an appeal for acceptance, understanding, sympathy, support and celebration, and ever so commonsensical and commonplace. 

In I Am Muslim – launched on Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur – Dina explores the complex world of ordinary Malaysian Muslims living in the here-and-now of Kuala Lumpur as well as the Malay heartland somewhere out there in the unchartered region between Utopia and Nostalgia. 

Those who have read Dina’s articles online would know that many of them were written in the somewhat hybrid format of narrative-interviews, an eclectic medium that suited the eclectic crowd she was trying to portray. 

Perhaps in the end this was the only way that such articles could have been written in the first place, for no degree of empirical certitude can be gauged by scientific studies on the subject; nor would the statistics (if any believable ones can be found) vouchsafe the testimonies of those whose voices come to life in these pieces. 

Interestingly, the articles appear to be better served by their publication in book format, for what the reader feels and gets from the individual pieces pales in comparison to the overall sense of pathos that emerges after reading many of them, and having taken some objective distance from the book. 

I Am Muslim is better (re)read in afterthought, for at the immediate moment of reading these stories we are confronted by contradictions so apparent, so poignant, and sometimes so ridiculous in the lives of the subjects that little of it makes sense. 

But stepping back from them we view the subject in his or her complexity, with the pain, anguish, hope and longings of these people coming to life on a broader canvas. 

The rationale behind these pieces was to catch a glimpse of the interior life of Muslims in Malaysia, be they pen-pushing religious bureaucrats, housewives, modestly-attired hookers or urban hustlers running just one step ahead of their lagging guilt and injured consciences. Nor does the author spare herself from the survey. 

What we get is a series of apparently random encounters that touch the reader in different ways, some comic, some tragic. When we read of the man whose faith is shattered when he finds himself on the verge of being buggered by an apparently well-meaning fellow traveller in the mosque to which he has fled in search of refuge, we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. 

Likewise our reactions are bound to be mixed when reading of parents who spend thousands of ringgit to send their kids of posh “Islamic kindergartens”, sustained by the hope that a costlier religious education somehow earns you a place closer to the gates of heaven when you kick the bucket. Or about whisky-sodden red-eyed Lotharios teetering on the edge of moral and spiritual burnout, gambling with fate and balancing between fornication and piety. 

We have seen these figures before, they populate the urban landscape of Malaysia as so much human flotsam, and our lives have been marked by many characters similar to those Dina writes about. 

It is this strange and unnerving familiarity that we discover in these character portraits that makes them endearing and disquieting at the same time; like admitting that drooling misfit talking to himself in a at the corner of in of the bar happens to be a relative.  

Dina’s pen manages to tease out the humanity of the people she talks to, modern Muslims all of them, and reminds us that they are not alien to us. 

All in all it has to be said that Dina’s articles about being a Muslim in Malaysia today captures the multifaceted aspects of difference and alterity in normative religious life better than many academic studies on the subject. 

Her articles are not about Islam per se, but rather about the realities of religious life as seen and lived by ordinary Malaysian Muslims. In the vignettes contained in this book, she captures the ironies, foibles and follies of ordinary Muslims who have tried to find meaning and focus in their lives, albeit in an ever-changing world where tastes and trends are dictated by the media as much as the realities of geopolitics.  

The portrait of Muslim life in Malaysia that emerges is not a simple one, and though some may wonder at the contradictions and uncertainties that drive those whom she writes about, Dina’s pen captures their all-too-human condition in a manner that is sympathetic and endearing.  

This is a mature read for adults who have grown up and chosen to live in the real world.  

  • Dr Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political historian and one of the founders of the othermalaysia.org research site.  

    ‘I Am Muslim’ is available at RM30.90 from Silverfish Books, Kuala Lumpur (No. 67-1, Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar Baru). Call 03-2284 4837, fax 03-2284 4839, e-mail info@silverfishbooks.com or go to www.silverfishbooks.com to order online. Delivery is free within Malaysia.  

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