Getting chased by a babi hutan (wild boar) is more fun. I am a lazy writer,” says Dina Zaman.
Not what you want to hear from one of the country’s leading nonfiction writers when you ask about her coming works. Not with the dearth of publications in her field of culture and religion. And definitely not from one as insightful and entertaining as Dina.
Lucky for us she is quick to confess that she is also a “frustrated anthropologist”.
This keen interest in observing and researching communities, race and religion has made Dina a unique voice amid the growing insularity and conservatism in the country.
Her first book, I Am Muslim (2007) – a collection of her columns from news portal Malaysiakini looking at what it means to be Malay and Muslim in a society reshaped by rising wealth and religiosity – was ranked by Time Out magazine in 2016 as one of the “10 Essential Books by Malaysians for Malaysians”.
Her latest book, Holy Men, Holy Women: A Journey Into The Faiths Of Malaysians And Other Essays (2017), chronicles Dina’s anthropological adventures across the country, investigating Malaysia’s faith systems. From Catholic nuns and Bidayuh shamans to Memali ustaz, Kadazan priestesses and Hindu devotees, the people Dina met offer intimate and provocative snapshots of our vast terrain of religious beliefs and cultural practices.
“I’ve always been very fascinated by religion, culture, identity, and all.
“After thinking and writing about Muslim life in Kuala Lumpur (for I Am Muslim), I just wanted to find out a bit more about other Malaysians who practise their faith.
“So Holy Men, Holy Women is basically that – an adventure around Malaysia, talking to people about what they believe in and don’t believe in.”
Her adventures have been unforgettable, she shares – favourites include “hanging out” with the mystical Bobohizan and Dayang Boris (priestesses) in Sabah and Sarawak: “Their lives in the jungle and remote areas seem to be more happening than mine!”
Still, the documentation of Malaysians and their faiths was not without challenge, she concedes. “I was rejected, waved away, and there were moments when I wondered whether I was insane to have embarked on this project.”
One was going to the places of worship in other faiths to be told to her face that Islam was feared or not liked. As one Hindu temple official put it, “You kill animals. I am vegetarian.”
Another encounter that left her depressed for a good few days, she says, was with a Buddhist meditation association. When she asked to join their meditation session, she was told, “No Muslims allowed”, because of the Buddhist chants following the breathing exercises. “Miss, if you come, we’ll lose our licence.”
Even her explanation that it was for research did not get her in the door, she recalls.
“Miss,” the representative, Mrs E, said. “This is Malaysia. Cannot.”
For the self-professed outsider of sorts – Dina moved around and changed schools a lot when she was young due to her father’s job in the foreign service – it only steeled her resolve to get to know the “other”.
As the 49-year-old has often joked in the press, she feels that deep down she is still “a teen geek who is always observing people from the fringes”.
Travelling and observing have always been a big part of life for the former journalist born in Kuala Lumpur. Writing or “telling stories” is the only way she can make sense of the world we live in, says Dina.
After she completed her degree in mass communications at Western Michigan University in the United States in the mid-1990s, she began writing a column in the New Straits Times called Dina’s Dalca, musings on what young women in Kay El, especially young Malay women, want.
Her current topic of choice, however, has often pushed her under the spotlight, sometimes not for the better. So much so that she felt that she had to take time off to recover after I Am Muslim.
“It was partly because I was bored with not only the topic but also the promotions and the readings.... Then there was the hate – many attacked me personally.
“I wasn’t expecting to be loved after I Am Muslim came out, but my God! There were many crazy people out there – I’m not talking about conservatives or ultras who did not agree with me – there were stalkers and real loonies.”
The hateful criticism was initially hard to deal with, she says, “When I started writing for NST, nobody really responded too critically. So what do I do now? I try to avoid reading my press and the social media comments.”
But it seems like she has also decided to embrace it.
Two years after I Am Muslim, Dina started writing another column about religion – this time including other faiths in the country – for online news sites The Malaysian Insider and Malay Mail Online. It is these writings, spanning at least two years, that were extended, reworked and compiled into Holy Men, Holy Women.
Then in 2015, Dina got together with like-minded friends to found a think tank called Iman Research to examine the connections between society, religion and perception, in order to strengthen our community resilience against terrorism.
“In Malaysia, culture, religion and politics are just intertwined,” she says.
“You’re a Malaysian, you’ve seen, you’ve read it, and I’m sure you’ve had to geleng kepala (shake your head) sometimes.
There is so much “sensitivity” in society, she laments. “You can’t discuss religion without sparking off some sort of war.”
As she wrote in her book, “Much has been said about the country and its tolerance for the many faiths practised by its people. Malaysia makes for a fantastic advertisement on multiculturalism. Note the word ‘tolerance’. Herein lies the root of all the problems the country faces.... In the past few years, religious tensions have dominated the news on a regular basis.”
The dawn of a New Malaysia has given her hope, though.
“My work is going to be irrelevant! I won’t have anything to look at,” she quips, before seriously noting that the hard work is only beginning.
“Everyone has a wish list but before we have reforms, we need to talk about the ‘sensitive, serious matters’.
“Now we have a jostling of voices and whether we like it or not, we have to start giving each other the space to express ourselves and listen to the ‘opposing voices’,” she says, adding that the discussions do not always have to be public and can be held behind closed doors.
“We have to have honest discussions, even within the religion and communities” she says, quoting Iman research last year that showed that the “orang kampung” (rural folk) and the “Taman Tun trust fund kids” (urban youth from the upper middle class suburb Taman Tun Dr Ismail in Kuala Lumpur) felt equally disenchanted and disenfranchised as Malay Muslims in Malaysia.
“Crucially, we have to talk about the elephant in the room. It’s contentious to some people but we have to start talking about what kind of Islam we want, how we can move to this place, without, you know, shooting each other.”
It’s going to be a long, uphill task, she admits.
“It’s not just about getting to know each other again. It’s also about looking at the education system and policies.
“But I’d like to think that because our parents and grandparents had the luxury and privilege in their time, I think, so can we.”
We cannot have “hot air anger” she stresses.
“We don’t have to be Einstein, but we need to think more critically and intellectually. Our discussions need to be rational, thoughtful and peppered with a big dose of humour,” she says.
Dina feels Malaysian writers and journalists, along with the rest of the civil society, have a bigger role to play now.
“Writers and journalists should observe and document the changes from the previous state. We can be the voice of reason and create the space for discussion. We are very priviliged to be able to witness the change in the nation.”
Nonfiction, in particular, has a lot of untapped potential, she says.
“Malaysia is so under-researched and under-documented. There is so much we can do, not just in books but also in documentary videos and films.”
As for Dina, her insatiable curiousity about people is nudging her down another trail, this time in search of the “new” Malays.
“I’ve always dreamt of making this series on Malaysian faiths a trilogy,” she jokes, admitting, “I am interested in researching and telling the stories of the ‘new’ Malays, specifically to follow up on (Tun) Dr Mahathir’s The Malay Dilemma (1970) – see how it is now.”
But it is not because she too wants to make changes, Dina quickly clarifies, “I want to do this because I enjoy doing the research and talking to people. I’m simple in that sense.
“I’m not ambitious.”