Synonyms in this country: Dina Zaman
When Dina Zaman launched her second book, SH Lim turned the pages and found the thread between it and the first, although they are separated by five years
Religion is a sensitive issue in Malaysia. So is race. As for sex, we can’t seem to find the public space to say enough about it. With the exception of homosexuality, which is fair game for all the courts, newspapers, comics for students and protest groups. For sure, bringing all three religion, race and sex under one umbrella is as exciting as a ménage à trois beneath the same duvet. But it’s also an invitation to be pilloried, looked at askance and perhaps be the focal point of protests. It could, however, be a call to some hard thinking.
When Dina Zaman’s first book ‘I Am Muslim’ came out in 2007, she caught some flack. She said rather philosophically in a recent radio interview, ‘I had people who loved it; I had people who hated it. And I think that comes with the territory.’ She revealed that the Malays, who understood where she was coming from, were those from her parents’ generation; those who didn’t get it were from the younger one. As if to underscore the shifting terrain under our feet.
What’s worse, though, these younger ones hadn’t even read her book. But that’s not an unusual situation in this country. It’s quite standard practice to have very strong feelings vociferously expressed against another person’s ideas without having to study them at all. In the same interview, Dina said that she was willing to meet her detractors halfway to have ‘a discussion or an argument’, but then they hadn’t read the book. The circumstances made her ‘a little angry’.
When I ask why she wrote ‘I Am Muslim’, she summarises, ‘Did my MA in UK and met many Muslims of many stripes. Told myself one day I’ll write a book about the people I met. A few years later... I banged on Malaysiakini’s door and asked if they would take me and this project in. Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran liked the idea of me interviewing Muslims and tada.’
‘I Am Muslim’ is not doctrinal. Not an exegesis of sorts. It is a loose collection of Dina’s observations of the people she knows and their interactions with their faith. And then her personal reflections and questions arising out of her own practice. Her world then rubs against theirs. She attempts to see, observe and capture their private thoughts. But Dina comes from the position that ‘piety and faith are personal journeys’. So overt judgements are withheld. She says, ‘But [religion] is so politicised that if one does not have that thinking, that faith, that objectivity, one could get lost in the warfare.’
Dina’s second book, ‘King of the Sea’, seen together with her first, provokes the same questions of the Malay-Muslim definition. Are these terms synonyms in this country? What are the lived experiences of Malay-Muslims? What are the various manifestations of this marriage?
Through fiction set against a Terengganu landscape, she presents an array of Malay protagonists and their stories. Religion insinuates into their lives, although differently for each. For some it clothes like a second skin; for others it seeps in deep into the marrow. No two are alike. No two embrace their faith identically. Each confronts a different challenge.
‘Masbabu’ literally kicks off this collection of nine magical short stories. Here a nameless single Malay woman all dressed in red, driven by a ‘burly Sikh’ roars into a small kampung, assumes a rental, enlivens it with colour and music and gradually rocks the foundations of the little village. Eventually the womenfolk force her out of their community, accusing her of a litany of sins. Like getting their men to enjoy dancing, encouraging a transvestite to become a woman, setting a bad example for young girls who now want to kiss the boys.
This story, like the rest, forces readers to confront their sometimes unexamined notions of goodness and faith. Where indeed are the lines to toe? Does clothing define piety or is it merely one of its many manifestations? If a tudung is a sign of righteousness, are pretty flowers in your hair a warning of wickedness? Is it conceivable that a Muslim could desire to be an angel with feathered wings as depicted in Christian iconography? Can a people of a professed faith organise and participate in a secular celebration, like the Main Pantai Sea Festival when the imam has ‘declared it syirik, and that it was only Allah who provided the bounty from the sea, not pre-Islamic gods and demons’?
Together, ‘I Am Muslim’ and ‘King of the Sea’ seem to beg for more understanding and less judgement, more dialogue and less sloganeering, more private space for the exercise of faith. More importantly they assert the exclusion of politics from our private spiritual lives. They challenge definitions which assume homogeneity among Malay-Muslims.
These books too perhaps are a manifestation of Dina’s personal ways of working out her own questions. Near the end of ‘I Am Muslim’ she writes, ‘I was once told by a very smart person (who frightens the hell out of me) that I was a product of middle to uppermiddle class sensibility with liberal Islamic views... I had to scratch my head over than one.’
Dina has recently resigned from The Malaysian Insider, to concentrate on her column-cum-book, ‘Holy Men, Holy Women’. She’s still on her own spiritual questions.
'King of the Sea' is out at major bookstores.