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Unvarnished snapshots of a changing society

Dina Zaman made her name as a lively chronicler of Malay Muslim society and religiosity, warts and all.
Dina Zaman made her name as a lively chronicler of Malay Muslim society and religiosity, warts and all.PHOTO: DINA ZAMAN

Writer charts growing religious conservatism in multiracial state

By her own admission, Malaysian writer Dina Zaman has a tendency to veer off track.

On assignment to write about the first Chinese settlers in a Malaysian seaside town, she steals off instead for several mornings to interview Catholic nuns via a confession booth at a nearby convent. Another time, in Baling, Kedah, for work, she wanders off to the village of Memali, in search of witnesses to a 1985 siege on an Islamic sect that left more than a dozen dead.

Frustrated editors aside, these detours have turned out to be a very good thing for her readers.

These tales and other pursuits of her curious mind are gathered in her new book, Holy Men, Holy Women: A Journey Into The Faiths Of Malaysians And Other Essays (2017, SIRD).

Zaman is a refreshing voice amid growing religious conservatism in Malaysia's multiracial, multi-religious society.

A practising Muslim, she made her name in the past decade as a lively chronicler of Malay Muslim society and religiosity, warts and all. Yet, as much as the 48-year-old has been celebrated for writing about the secret lives of Malays, with their desires and their doubts, she has also been attacked by conservatives for the same.

In recent years, the authorities in Malaysia - once considered a model of moderate Islam - have strengthened their control over the official interpretation of Islam as well as its influence on daily life.

In 2014, a local radio station was fined after airing an interview with the American religious scholar Reza Aslan, who questioned Malaysia's ban on the use of the word "Allah" - "God" in Arabic - by non-Muslims. Last September, Turkish author Mustafa Akyol was held overnight by the Malaysian authorities for giving an unauthorised talk on freedom of religion.

"Times now are just so fraught, with so much anger and hatred, you can't even have a conversation with people... about anything," said Zaman. According to her, religion - along with education and race - has been politicised to a point where "as a country, we suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)".

Zaman was born in Kuala Lumpur, the eldest of three girls. Her father worked for the foreign service and the family tagged along when he was posted to Tokyo and Moscow, with stints back home. She remembers being "very, very lonely" as she went through the revolving door of international and Malaysian schools. She was also homeschooled by her mother, an English teacher.

"That's why," she reckons, she lives life "at the fringes". Somewhere deep inside, she says, is "a 16-year-old geek who is always observing people".

She studied mass communications at Western Michigan University and creative writing at Lancaster University.

When she came back to Malaysia in the mid-1990s, it was right in the middle of the go-go Mahathir years. She began writing a breezy column in the New Straits Times called "Dina's Dalca", best described as a halal version of Sex And The City, a woman's chronicles of Manhattan's dating scene in the 1990s. Her column came about in answer to an editor's question: "What do young women do these days?"

Zaman was among a crop of young, modern voices emerging in Kuala Lumpur at the time, which included the late Fay Khoo, who would become one of the country's sharpest food writers, and Bernice Chauly, now director of the George Town Literary Festival.

Over the years, Zaman began writing more broadly about Malay Muslim society, which was being reshaped by rising wealth and rising piety. In 2007, her columns for news site Malaysiakini were published in a book, I Am Muslim (Silverfish).

It made the bestseller lists of several bookstores and has sold more than 13,500 copies, a "phenomenal" figure for a non-fiction, English-language book in Malaysia, said Silverfish Books' founder Raman Krishnan.

In 2016, Time Out KL included I Am Muslim in its list of "10 Essential Books by Malaysians for Malaysians", alongside Rehman Rashid's A Malaysian Journey and Farish A. Noor's What Your Teacher Didn't Tell You.

Three years ago, Zaman and two friends founded a small think-tank called IMAN Research. Its researchers traverse the country, studying why Malays support and join terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Its clients include foreign governments working in counter-terrorism.

"Malaysia's changing," she says, "but I don't think it's for the better." She's finding parallels between the "orang kampung" (rural folk) and the "trust fund kids of Taman Tun (Taman Tun Dr Ismail, a well-heeled suburb of Kuala Lumpur)", in that they feel equally disenchanted and disenfranchised.

Holy Men, Holy Women - where she pursues Catholic nuns, Hindu temple officials and Bidayuh healers, among others - was written in the years just before she started her new life as a counter-terrorism researcher. It contains pieces she wrote between 2009 and 2014 for news sites such as The Malaysian Insider and Malay Mail Online.

Since the government forbids proselytising to Muslims by non-Muslims, Zaman's interview targets are sometimes wary, worried they'll be accused of trying to convert her.

When she calls a Buddhist meditation association, for example, she is told "No Muslims allowed". Why? Because of the Buddhist chants following the breathing exercises. Her assurances that she will stay quiet or chant Muslim prayers instead get her nowhere.

"Miss," the representative says, with finality, "this is Malaysia. Cannot."

But others are more welcoming. In Sarawak, she climbs gingerly up to a treetop baruk, a circular Bidayuh house where healing ceremonies are held, dodging blood dripping from a strung-up, sacrificial pig on the way. She gets a front-row view of a man in a headdress pulling what looks like a long white string out of a woman's neck - with his teeth. The woman confides casually that the spell was cast by a jealous relative.

Zaman also returns to her familiar turf of modern Malay Muslim society, with all its contradictions, in essays such as Hijabi Pole Dancers And Then Some, about young professionals who join all-women pole-dancing classes for fun and exercise. In the essay Handbag Theory, she describes the young hijab-wearing wives of politically-connected Malay businessmen who drive Porsche Cayennes and Audi Q7s, send their kids to the same religious classes, and "tote a minimum of Chanel on their simple jeans and white shirt days".

Her writing can dart around, mixing journalistic observations, academic references and polling data with personal opinion.

But she is never boring. When it comes down to it, Holy Men, Holy Women is a passionate call for a national opening of minds, and for Malaysians of all faiths to talk to each other, not for each other.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2018, with the headline 'Unvarnished snapshots of a changing society'. Print Edition | Subscribe