It's good to talk
Last week, Karen Armstrong came down to give a public talk! It is not often we get a famous author on these shores, so we were right chuffed. Who knows, another blonde woman scribe by the name of JK Rowling could be next. Then we’ll really get bring out the kompang and bunga manggar.
But all was not what it seemed. There was actually some anxiety among the population – oh all right, the segment of the population prone to attending public talks – that the event would be cancelled.
This is because several books by this religious historian and former nun are banned in Malaysia. The books are A History of God, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet and The Battle for God: Fundamentalism is Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Ironically, in the West, this same author is sometimes criticised by secularists as being too sympathetic to Islam!
I don’t think any proper explanation has been given for the bans. I doubt it has anything to do with the type of fonts or paper or binding that the books used. I don’t think our authorities had any quarrels with her grammar, either.
So we should assume that the ideas in them were considered somehow … dangerous. (But dangerous in what way? Do they have instructions on how to make bombs?) But maybe dangerous is too strong a word. Should we settle for iffy?
Iffy it is then. So if the ideas in the books are considered iffy, would they not be iffy in spoken form too?
The more alarmist coffee-shop pundits had visions of Armstrong being denied entry at the airport or a troop of enforcers marching into the hotel ballroom to arrest everybody. (Yes, bookish alarmists tend to pine for some drama in their lives). But thankfully nothing like that happened. Judging from reports, the appreciative crowd of 1,400 included quite a few VIP types and everything went well.
What makes matters seemingly weirder is that the talk was co-organised by the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations Malaysia (IDFR), which I have never heard of but which sounds frightfully official. This might point to some subtle contradictions within the Establishment.
Not quite a case of “the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing” but a matter of different priorities, agendas and interests coming into play. In the best cases, these contradictions then open up some spaces for the rest of us to swim around in. And so, even the Foreign Affairs Minister attended the talk -- but the books were banned by the Internal Security Ministry.
The phrase “internal security” itself is an intriguing one, is it not? (Then again, so is “foreign affairs”, but that’s a different story). It means that, even though we have padlocks on our external gates, there is something deep within our houses that is not yet secure. In which case, shouldn’t these internal insecurities be resolved by ourselves instead of punishing external agents such as writers who are knocking at our gate and just trying to flog a few books?
I am all for the books being unbanned, as I am now curious to read them, and a few other titles as well, such as the one on the Kampung Medan clashes.
After all, the Prime Minister this week said that Kua Kia Soong’s book “May 13” will not be banned as it does not contravene any laws. Just a day after it was launched on the eponymous date, some Senators (who would not have had time to read the book) were already calling for “action” to be taken against the writer. But I am glad that these reactionary voices did not have their way, and I hope the good vibes will spread even further.
There are some pro-choice (to borrow a term from the American abortion debate) readers who would say, rightly, that not many people read books anyway, so what’s the point of banning? This argument has a polemical purpose but is ultimately depressing. Are we so proud of the fact that we don’t read? And (let’s admit it) isn’t it boring to live in a country where there are no taboos?
The percentage of Malaysians who read books might roughly be the same percentage that goes to university, but I certainly would not make the elitist assumption that the two groups are one and the same. But the university analogy might prove a useful one: True, not everyone wants to go there, but there is always the choice. Just as in buying books.
Just as universities should be respected, so too should the rights of readers. It’s no use making a fuss about, say, maintaining the Universiti Malaya campus in its present location if we do not also put into practise the very ideals that a university is supposed to embody. These, by coincidence, happen to be not dissimilar to the ideals of reading.
Nude in Kelantan
Who says life in Kelantan is boring?
Even though it is run by a party that does not go out of its way to portray a partying image, there are some interesting things going on there.
A Bernama report of three days ago exposed the existence of a female bomoh with an unusual method of curing ailments. A woman who went to her with a mysterious illness (suspected to be the result of black magic) got a shock when this bomoh brought out some young men. No, these men were not there to perform a dikir barat for the patient’s entertainment, but to disrobe and dance in the nude around her. While this was going on, the bomoh was seated on a chair under a yellow umbrella, chanting.
The men were described as being “from a neighbouring country.” I wonder if this phrase was chosen out of an ‘all these foreigners look alike’ vagueness or in the interest of Asean discretion.
The place where she did the voodoo that she did so well is also interesting: Jalan Pantai Cahaya Bulan. Older readers will remember that the famous beach in Kelantan was renamed from Pantai Cinta Berahi, which was deemed too passionate. But a name-change has not deterred a certain sauciness, which probably burst forth from being suppressed under the repainted road-signs all these years, like something from a magic-realist novel of the Garcia Marquez or Rushdie mould.
The fact that it’s a female bomoh also reinforces the popular image of Kelantanese women as being more business-minded. And although I am enormously interested in Mona Fandey, it’s time that a few other female bomoh got into the news for other reasons. For a long time, Mona was in danger of spoiling the market. And the royal connotations of that yellow umbrella!
But one thing about the news report bothered me, though. It’s something that I would have expected any self-respecting news agency to have highlighted immediately: It failed to mention if the treatment succeeded.