Faith­fully cu­ri­ous

Au­thor Dina Zaman of­fers an­other in­ti­mate look at the di­verse ter­rains of re­li­gious be­liefs and cul­tural practices of Malaysia.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Culture - By HARIATI AZIZAN [email protected]­tar.com.my

GET­TING chased by a babi hutan (wild boar) is more fun. I am a lazy writer.”

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 Zaman.

Lucky for us she is quick to con­fess that she is re­ally 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.”

— ONG SOON HIN/The Star

Au­thor (and frus­trated an­thro­pol­o­gist) Dina loves ob­serv­ing and re­search­ing com­mu­ni­ties, race and re­li­gion.

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