Friday, April 29, 2011

On a Journey Homeward: An Interview with Muhammad Haji Salleh

Muhammad Haji Salleh adalah Sasterawan Negara dan penyair yang banyak mempengaruhi cara saya menulis puisi. Selepas membaca interviu ini, ada banyak persamaan rupa-rupanya.....


sudah sebelas hari aku hidup
di awan laut dan kakilangit ini
menunggu kepulangan yang dijanjikan.

awan laut dan kakilangit

kakiku kaku di atas pasir
membunuh ketam-ketam kecil dan hodoh
sebelum mereka dapat pulang ke lubang

miring pantai ini menolakku
ke gigi air
di mana buih-buih panas bermain di jari
dengan merdeka sekali

awan laut dan kakilangit

jikalau tak ada ombak
abadilah kesepian ini
menegang dan memecah telingaku.
timur ke barat ke timur ialah laut,
tenang di bawah matahari masam.
tak ada perahu, tak ada layar –
kosong dan panjang kebiruan ini
yang menyerbu dan menenggelamkan mataku

awan laut dan kakilangit

kubah biru ini penjara,
hanya aku penghuni
pantai suatu akal
sepi dan panjang.
awan-awan hanya mengejar satu sama lain,
ekor ke kepala, kepala ke ekor,
dan bercantum menjadi matahari yang merenung.

awan laut dan kakilangit

kurasa kesunyian ini
seperti jarum kakilangit
yang menikam di mana aku sakit sekali.
jikalau aku berputar dan berputar.
takkan ada hujungnya.

awan laut dan kakilangit

muhammad haji salleh
dipetik dari antologi sajak-sajak pendatang 1973

On a Journey Homeward: An Interview with Muhammad Haji Salleh
Mohammad A. Quayum
International Islamic University Malaysia

This interview, which covers a wide spectrum of issues, was carried out via electronic mail in February 2005. The discussion ranges across Muhammad’s narration of his formative years as a writer, his impressions of his own writings and of Malaysian and regional literature, and the shaping influences of his poetic mind. He further goes on to talk about his views on nation and national identity and the writer’s role in the formation of the nation, especially his feelings about the contentious but pivotal issue of “Bangsa Malaysia,” that requires this newly emergent heterogeneous nation-state to find an abiding/living unity and cohesion between its various racial and religious groups (in Malaysia, religion is the ultimate marker of ethnicity, as in order to be a Malay, one has to be a Muslim as well). Moreover, he discusses his sense of community, rootedness and tradition vis-à-vis the growing universal urbanism and modern capitalist globalisation. He also discusses the problems associated with Malay poetics and the translation of classical Malay literature into English, including the prevailing cleavage between Malaysia’s national literature, written in the national language of Bahasa Malaysia, and those dubbed as “sectional literatures,” written in its minority languages such as Chinese, Tamil and English. The interview also investigates Muhammad’s view of women and their position in society, and most importantly his dichotomous relationship with the English language, characterised by a rejection of its role in the formation of personal/political identity and yet a benign acceptance of its presence and significance as an emerging global language.

The title of the interview refers to Muhammad’s struggle to overcome his westernised, anglicised self, created by his personal English education and the colonial impact on his young and impressionable imagination in childhood and adolescence, and to increasingly identify himself with the indigenous values of his Malay culture and the language and tradition that he had inherited at birth but that was later distanced in his mind by his colonial education.

It is a journey of the soul towards being by overcoming the treacherous process of becoming. However, the problem and the paradox in the enterprise lie in the fact that his homecoming is dependent on the successful dismantling of his current two-ness, or the double consciousness in his personality, through an absolute erasure of his colonial knowledge, in order to reach the imaginary essence of his being. The process involves the near-impossible task of turning the wheel of history and looking away from the quintessential hybridity that remains a living reality in the poet’s personality.
Sasterawan Negara

Secondly, it also requires the poet to overcome the endemic alienation of a celebrated intellectual elite in order to realise the authentic culture of the disenfranchised masses and the subalterns of his society. However, having said that, if one accedes to Emerson’s principle of empyrean imagination that enables the poet to encompass the universe in his heart in a moment of visionary leap, or Whitman’s idea of connecting the various spheres of the world through a continuous process of spinning an imaginary gossamer, or Tagore’s axiom of Advitam that immediately connects the self with all and with God, then certainly Muhammad’s journey and wish for arrival are not merely poetic postures, but pregnant with deep cultural and spiritual meanings.
They take on the significance of a dynamic poetic aspiration to reach for a transcendent moral goal that is replete with the threats and challenges of everyday reality but positively not beyond the poet’s reach if he retains an active soul, or knows how to shed his garb of, in Emerson’s words, a “thinking individual” and experience an awakening into “Man Thinking.”

MAQ: How did you come into literature? Were you a voracious reader in childhood, or did you get your lessons mostly from life and nature? Tell us something about the books that fascinated you most in adolescence and youth.

MHS: Unlike many writers, I did not come from a family of writers or with a clear literary background. My father had a strong religious training; he studied in many colleges in Malaysia, and also in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for a few years. I only remember old folktales told by my grandmother—but they never seemed to be consciously present, and after some time seemed to have disappeared from my conscious memory.
I think I owe several teachers and professors for my interests in literature and writing. My English teacher in High School Bukit Mertajam, Mr. Mohan Singh, encouraged us to read and make a list of books read so that it may be shown to the class. I started late, only in Form II (Grade 8), and in English, as the education system then only supported the colonial language. So I was initiated by a wonderful discovery of a new world of language, of the imagination and literature, and a real discourse on life itself. In Form III, Mr. Long Heng Hua was our English teacher, and I remember being congratulated by him on my story. Sometime in the middle 1950s, I won an essay contest in Malay in the Utusan Kanak-kanak. The prize/honorarium was RM5.00.1
In 1958, in Malay College, Kuala Kangsar, Mr. Baird, a Scotsman, impressed me tremendously by his renderings of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice. I was a lonely (and quite poor) young man in a school of children of the well to do and nobility, and I came there late in my schooling life. So the new-found and well-stocked library became my refuge and friend. I read books for my age and also tried reading beyond: Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, after finding out about them. There were also several magazines, including London Illustrated (great reading for the already colonised kid!), Saturday Evening Post, and The Listener.
In 1958, while I was in Form IV, there was a competition for the Wise and Butler Scholarship. The requirements were to write two essays, in English and Malay respectively, and translate an excerpt from English to Malay. I can’t remember why I took part in it, but it must have been the lure of the money as I had a monthly stipend of only RM5.00 from the Penang State (can you think of a more meagre financial support? My classmates were receiving seven times that amount, and another, a prince, had an allowance of RM300.00 a month), and my father had to borrow at the beginning of each term. Anyway, to cut the story short, I won the competition, for reasons I was not told of. This certainly came as a great boost for this village kid, who liked literature, and the path among the bushes looked a little clearer now when it came to literature and my literary aspirations.
So it was reading, teachers and incidental surprises like these, I think, that brought me to literature. However, over time I began to realise that literature deals with the core of human life and meaning; it is close to philosophy, and complements the sciences. It is in literature that one is able to read the passions of a human heart, to know of the shapes and colours of his dreams and ideals, and also his search for meaning.

MAQ: When did you actually begin writing? Was there a particular reason that led you to write your first poem/literary work?
MHS: Other than the essay I won in the 1950s, I don’t remember writing much. However, my first poems seemed to have been written in May 1963, in the Malayan Teachers’ College, near Wolverhampton, England, where I was studying to be a teacher. We had come there in the midst of a very cold and long winter, and were meeting new people at rare instances.
It was a combination of the long cold winter, meeting of new people, and at the same time an eclectic but passionate introduction to contemporary English writing, a reading of new poets, and friendship with Omar Mohd Noor, who was also beginning to write, that turned me into a poet. The background was the beginning of spring, the bursting forth of a new life, not experienced before (Malaysia being a country of eternal summer does not experience the seasonal cycles like in other countries). All these found life in my first poem, which I wrote in English. Moreover, I was in an in-between world, two cultures, and I left a girlfriend behind. At that time I was also feeling through the sounds and the emotions of the English language. As I read it now I can see the elements and tones of the Malay in it, but why not?

MAQ: Why poetry? Why not some other genre?
MHS: Good question! Perhaps it has something to do with my personality. I was quite shy, and did not say much, and tended to think in metaphors. Perhaps I was impatient with long-winded information or explanations, and preferred not to explain myself. Moreover, I worked in the intense fire and blaze of concentrated short periods, which all drove me to poetry. And poetry as a genre is the great house of the imagination, closer to music and art—it is felt rather than explained or described.

MAQ: You have written several academic books side by side with your creative works. Aren’t they very different kinds of writing? Do they in any way interfere with one another as you pursue them?
MHS: It is true, when I was younger I considered poetry and criticism to be two parts of my person—one in verse, the other in prose; one from the left side of the brain, and the other from the right. But being younger in those days it was easier to switch from one to the other, but later I noticed that it was not so easy. But lately, thankfully, I was given back this switchboard, more because of practice and getting used to, rather than a natural tendency to be able to change immediately. For many years now I have been known as a poet and critic, and people have been kind to me—last year they were so kind, I had to write at least twelve seminar papers, about ten talks etc. At the same time I have been asked to read poems, old and new. So I had to live two lives at least!
As a lecturer I always had research projects. As you are well aware, our work depends on exploration into new areas, and therefore new discoveries. For many years my personal search for identity (especially after living overseas for about ten years) coincided with a search for native roots, especially in our Department of Malay Letters and the Institute of Malay World and Civilisation where I worked for over thirty years. I proposed and carried out projects on the Malay culture of the different states, including Perlis, Melaka and Negeri Sembilan—to systematically describe what has not been researched on before. On my own, I searched for the Malay images in European literature and then a theory of Malay literature, with some interesting results—books, papers and new projects, and have been recognised for the findings. For the last ten years, I have searched for the pantun2 around Southeast Asia, because it is a great example of the world form and able to renew itself in the most alien places and the most remote languages. And now with the establishment of the International Pantun Secretariat in University Science Malaysia, I am again combing the North (of Malaysia) for old and new poets, and am happy to report that three manuscripts of Kedah and Perlis pantuns are with the publishers now. So these projects, poems and research are part of my search for roots, my past and also, if I may add, my country’s uniqueness.
I usually work with a few projects running parallel. No writer’s block; if I get stuck with one, I would move to another. This last year, as I said, I had to write numerous seminar papers, prepare for keynote addresses, poetry readings, and meetings. At the same time, I was completing a long poem of my times in Japan (which came out at the end of 2004 as Salju Shibuya—Snows of Shibuya), while translating Neruda and German poetry. Another book of poems (translated also into English) was published with paintings especially done by Syed Ahmad Jamal, the National Artist. In addition, I had put together a book of Malaysian poems translated into English titled Emas Tempawan/Burnished Gold: An Anthology of Contemporary Malaysian Poetry.
I am sure my poems or essays suffer because of this incessant mixing of the genres, but then again, I feel I am contributing more, especially in a situation where there are not many bilingual students of literature in a Third World situation—Malaysia is still a Third World country where literature is concerned. We do not have the luxury of the poet and professor that is being enjoyed by our colleagues in more developed nations. Here we are called upon to contribute at short notice, for better or for worse. In such a way I get a lot of papers done, but quality-wise they do feel the effect of the lack of time and new and strong research.

MAQ: You began your writing career in the English language. Tell us about the literary scene in English in Malaysia in those early days. Were you personally involved in any literary forum/magazine at the university? Who were your fellow writers during that period?
MHS: This is a difficult question to answer. When I was a student in Kuala Kangsar, in the late 1950s, I only knew and was taught literature written by the British. In the fifties very few wrote or were published; anyway, it did not come to my attention. It was not long after the Second World War, and people were more preoccupied with meeting their basic economic needs.
It was only in the middle 1960s that I came to know and in fact became friends with my predecessors: Edwin Thumboo, Dr. Goh Poh Seng, Ee Tiang Hong, and Wong Phui Nam. We had a literary society at the University of Singapore and for about two years I was its president; it became the mould of new writing and literary spirit. There was also a keen sense of competition. In my years there were Lee Tzu Pheng, Chandran Nair, and myself.
I feel there was a blossoming of sorts then and we felt a little like celebrities. Not least was the encouragement of D.J. Enright and Edwin Thumboo. Poetry readings, discussions and play readings were held quite often. We even had a poetry competition. It was then my first poem appeared in The Bulletin (Australia), I think through the good offices of Enright (who was also a kind of mentor to me), besides the University magazines like Focus.

MAQ: Since there was no literary tradition in English in the region when you embarked as a poet, where did get your inspiration from? Who were your literary models, for example?
MHS: I was overseas then, and my models were mostly British, not even American. I was a voracious reader and would comb libraries and bookshops for new books. The Third Programme of the BBC was especially uplifting—it provided plays and poetry readings (I still remember Dylan Thomas reading his poems in his deep and romantic voice).
I am now embarrassed to confide that the ultra-conservative T.S. Eliot was my first model and he stayed with me for some years until I turned left. But I read a lot of and liked Auden, R.S. Thomas, Robert Graves, and MacNiece. However, I had crossed the borders of the Anglo-Saxon world and at this time I was also reading Goethe, Ibsen, and Baudelaire. American poets were also coming into the fore and were easily bought in the shops. I read Ginsburg, whom I met in Ann Arbor about ten years after that, and his friend Kerouac (not a poet, but his writings were more poetic than those of some poets).
It was also a time of exploring the poetry of China, India and Japan. I came to realise then that you can be an important and even great writer even if you don’t write in the English language. My colonial indoctrination was so complete, for some years I was made to think that only English literature was great. The Irish or the American were unimportant, and in some universities not even mentioned, what more taught.

MAQ: Why did you choose to write in English and not Malay? What were the difficulties you faced writing in a non-native language? Why did you give up writing in English and take to writing in Bahasa Malaysia in the 70s?
MHS: My first poem was in English, but a few weeks after that I began to write also in Malay, perhaps as a result of a kind of guilt, or a reflection of the split and the eventual coexistence of the two languages within myself, one the language of my mother and father, and the other, a colonial language, forced upon me. Subconsciously the problem was working itself out. From that time on I wrote in two languages until the early 1970s when I was studying in University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and decided to return to one alone—my mother-tongue.
In fact, what happened was that though both languages were used in the poems, the country where I wrote from seemed to decide the main language that I was to use in my own verses. Thus when I returned to Malaysia after 1964 my Malay matured and more poems came from this fountain. In 1965 I was in Singapore, and naturally more English poems were written. Then when I was back in Malaysia after 1967, and in Indonesia in 1968, again the Malay poems were flowing more easily from my pen.
For writers in the Malay language in Singapore and Indonesia, writing was an important nationalistic act; one wrote on behalf of others, of ideas of nation, urbanism, and a socialist future. These writers were read and known. I noticed they were more known there than the British writers were known in the English villages for example. While I admired the experiments of the British, I learnt of the social meaning of literature from people like Masuri SN, and later in Malaysia from Usman Awang, Baha Zain, and Samad Ismail.

MAQ: How has the language policy influenced the literary activity in Malaysia generally?
MHS: It returned the language of the people to their lives, their books and their poems. Malays and non-Malays—Chinese, Indians, Kadazan, Ibans—began to think and write in this language, that was also a unifying gel. Now we have an interesting literature that paints different colours of the experiences of many ethnic groups and with many special ways of using the national language. The Dewan Bahasa dan Pusataka, the National Language and Literary Agency, played a great role in this—there were a great many competitions, literary weeks and months, hundreds of seminars, performances, and not least, financial support and awards that lifted the language to a level not known during the colonial years.
I was better in English in the 1970s, but these last decades Malay became for me more natural, especially in poetry. We learnt from Indonesia too, which uses a very modern and virile species of the language, and together with Brunei and Singapore we created the MABBIM (The Malay Language Council of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia), and after that the MASTERA literary awards for writings in the Malay language.

MAQ: Since you are a bilingual writer, what are the advantages of straddling two languages? Would you consider them equally close to your imagination?
MHS: I live in at least two languages. In school I studied Malay, Arabic and English; in the university I studied French and Dutch, and after that I studied some German and even some Japanese, when I lived in these countries. So there is a storehouse of many remembered words and principles flying around in my head. In fact it is a giddy and swirling world of languages. But I have not been impoverished by them.
The first advantage: there is a study that has found that people who think and speak in two languages are younger in their looks and in their mind! And that is quite an advantage. The next is that for the poet, one can be used to enhance the other. English itself cannot fully express my personality, but only with tones and connotations imported from the Malay would it be able to convey more of me. So is it with the Malay, I think, as I am a person of two or more languages.

MAQ: Who are the local and regional writers you admire and why?
MHS: I have been lucky to be close to many of the writers of Southeast Asia and Japan. Firstly, I sincerely think the Malay Annals/Sulalat al-Salatin is a work of genius, not only in its language but also in its narrative strategies, because of the multi-dimensional talents of the writer, Tun Seri Lanang. Next, the finer Malay pantuns are as good as any of the great poems of the east and the west, so I have tried to become a student of its form and ideas. From time to time I also compose in it.
The other great (dead) poets are Amir Hamzah and Chairil Anwar from Indonesia; they are the great creators in the language, giving it a new life in the last glow of the traditional age and also in the Indonesian revolution. I was also close to Subagio Sastrowardojo, a poet of ideas and thought, when he was alive, and I have a great respect for the struggle and achievements of Pramoedya Ananta Toer. In Malaysia I think the achievements of A. Latiff Mohidin and Baha Zain are second to none. Anwar Ridhwan, a novelist and poet, shows the way to the future.
Nowarat Pongpaiboon, Ankarn Kalayananpongs (Thailand), Alfred Yuson, Bien Lumbera and Frankie Sionil Jose all teach me the meaning of being a Southeast Asian writer. I studied Japanese literature in the university and have been able to follow up with the new writers. Shiraishi and Tanikawa are model new poets whom we will meet in Southeast Asia quite soon. Bei Dao is an extremely fine and imaginative Chinese poet, and I was very impressed, indeed, discovering him two years ago. I read Tagore and Iqbal and admire their wide horizons and depth of thought, and their act of bringing poetry closer to philosophy.

MAQ: What is your view of tradition and modernisation? What should be the writer’s relationship with tradition and/or modernisation?
MHS: I come from what used to be a country of jungles. Please don’t mind me my forest (clichéd) metaphor: Tradition is the roots of the great tree; it is nurtured by its special situation, condition and make-up. A literature of genuine character and uniqueness will help to enrich world literature. So I think we have to keep the uniqueness all the time and help enrich each other. But of course even a tree changes and evolves, finding its place and special meaning in a changing situation. If it does not find this meaning it will become irrelevant. While having roots and traditions, I think writers must experiment with these traditions to enhance them, give them a new existence for the different and new generation.
MAQ: There is a lot of talk in the local media about the formation of a new, inclusivist national identity of “Bangsa Malaysia.” Where do you personally stand on this? Is this a viable proposition given the current political structure in the country?
MHS: For almost forty years now—and we have not arrived—the signs of Bangsa Malaysia are very elusive indeed, if they are present at all. We tried to bring the races together earlier with a common system of education, but Malaysians tend to think from their own cultural perspectives alone, and I think, are very selfish. So through political bargaining, we returned almost everything to the main ethnic groups; now we have very few things that bind us together, make us feel that we belong to one country. The radio stations blare out in the different languages, and they do not seem to meet or share spaces. And a student can follow one system of education and go overseas for graduate studies, without studying in the national language or being in anyway connected to the Malaysian culture. I know these are the times of deconstruction, but you can only deconstruct when there is a structure; we have no such structure as yet. I think we will all be floating in the tsunami of global rubbish very soon.

MAQ: What is your view of the future of literature generally? Do you think the current technological surge and the inevitable capitalist globalisation is going to have an impact on the growth of literature in the country?
MHS: I did a little study of the literary situation in Japan two years ago, and it looks rather bleak. These are my observations, and what happens in Tokyo will also be happening in other parts of the world soon enough: a. Literature is not looked upon as a meaningful subject; b. Enrolment in literature courses is suffering; c. The traditional space of literature is broken up and taken over by the manga—the comics, the cinema, TV, and now the computer and the cell phone; d. Now there is a battle between paper and the computer screen, and the future of literature has to be adjusted; in Japan novels are sold and read on the computer and the cell phones; e. The readership is shrinking, but loyal readers continue to read; f. Literature has to adjust itself to the new media, techniques and strategies to survive. I think all these have arrived at our doors, and it is not a pretty picture for literature.

MAQ: Where do you stand on the issue of the social role of women? You know, it is very interesting that Malaysian classrooms at the tertiary level are mostly populated by female students, which gives me the impression that it is women who are relatively more educated in the country, and yet somehow they are not treated equally in the workplace or seen with same social respect as men. Why is this the case—or is it?
MHS: I agree with you that there are more women in the universities, and likewise there are more women professors now, more than ever before. However, I am not sure that now, in Malaysia, they are less well treated than the men. In Malaysia anyway, there are many women deans, professors, and even deputy vice-chancellors. This is not happening in Japan now; you almost never hear of women as deans, what more deputy vice-chancellors.
I have no problem with women colleagues; if they are good and hardworking then they deserve all my respect. As I have been a teacher to thousands of women students, for more than thirty-six years, I have also recommended the best for any post—men or women. I think the women are doing the human race a great pride, and furthering still their special achievements.

MAQ: What is the state of translation in Malaysia? Are there many Malay literary works that have been successfully translated into English and other languages?
MHS: Our ambiguous language policy, especially at the end of Mahathir’s term, 3 has created a sense of indecision about the language of Malaysia. It is said that Malay is the national language but soon sixty or more percent of the subjects—the sciences and their branches—will be taught in English; something against the constitution and also a great slap in the face to the national language. I think the decisions about language issues should be left to scholars of language and literature as is done in other countries.
There is now very little translation, especially from the sciences, as the language of science in Malaysia is now English. There have been some novels, drama and poems translated into English, German, Russian, and French. Some of the translations by Adibah Amin and Siti Hawa are quite ine. They are sometimes better than those translated by the native speakers because they have a sense of the hidden echoes of culture, meanings and connotations. However, some of the pantuns have been rendered well by Winstedt and Wilkinson, though Hamilton and Sim are not bad at all. The Malay Annals can be rendered better, I think, especially if the translator is a writer and scholar himself/herself. We need to retranslate it and give it the benefit of a poetic and scholarly experience of the text.
I am working on the Malay epic Hikayat Hang Tuah. Interesting that nobody tried it; perhaps it is too big—over 500 pages. I have a first draft of the first 460 pages and have still about another sixty pages to go. After that, with a background of the difficulties and problems of translating Hikayat Hang Tuah, I would like to try my hand at the Malay Annals.

MAQ: I know that you have translated several of your own poems. Would you agree with Robert Frost that “poetry is what gets lost in translation”?
MHS: Only partly. Sometimes what is lost is made up in the recreation in the other language, with its traditions and special sounds.

MAQ: Malaysia currently has two different categories of literature: national literatures, written in Bahasa Malaysia, and “sectional literatures,” written in minority languages, including English. Is there a possibility that these two categories will come together in the future to form one national literature, where writings will be judged not on the basis of its use of medium alone but in a more holistic way, e.g., its cultural content or the locale of the experiences narrated in the text?
MHS: This is indeed a difficult question. I gave up the colonial language to write in the national language. For the time being I would like to see writers contribute their talents to a literature in this language. Of course they have a right to write in any other language of their choice. I tell young writers to write in more than one language, one of them should be their national language. That will solve the problem. Writers should have a sense of roots, national identity and pride in their language. Says Camus, “My language is my motherland.”

MAQ: I think your leadership in regional literature is unique and incomparable. You are a professor of English/Malay Studies as well as a National Laureate. What would be your advice to a youngster who is willing to take up the craft/trade?
MHS: Thank you! I would say it is a very meaningful art, enriching, and makes a thinker of one. There is no money in poetry or literature, but as somebody quipped, there is no poetry in money either. Literature is not imported; it is home grown from the special situations and experience of a people. It is their significant speech and draws a picture of their horizons and dreams and uniqueness. Furthermore its forms are locally developed. So it is the living product of a people, of their genius. Go to it, you will be a richer person, a better one, and one who is less selfish in this extremely selfish environment.
MAQ: How do you cope with the problems of readership and publication in Malaysia?
MHS: I am lucky—I have a job as a teacher in the university. Otherwise I would have been dead a long time ago, for reasons of hunger. I don’t think much about it as I did not write for money in the first place. Writing gives me a great satisfaction. As Kenzaburo Oe says, when answering whether he is worried that his readership is small: it has always been small, but the selected reader will find his type of novels and enjoy them. In my case the readership for poetry is smaller still. But I am an idealist—and getting fair or good reviews from time to time, going to schools to talk of the poems, and meeting readers who enjoy them, seem to be enough of a payment for me.

MAQ: How has your own writing evolved over the years thematically/stylistically?
MHS: Difficult question—for the critic to answer really.

MAQ: Tell us what you are writing now and what your future plans are?
MHS: I am a scatterbrain—I do so many things at the same time. Now I am writing papers for two conferences, and poems about nature in the USM (University Science Malaysia) campus—have completed seventy of them, I shall ask Zakaria Ali to illustrate them in watercolour or oil. I am also translating Hikayat Hang Tuah in the evenings, and as a kind of project I am collecting pantuns from the North of Malaya; editing two books of essays, one in Malay and one in English, and finally, also writing my autobiography. This last month I wrote drafts of about fifty poems about the tsunami, and now I need to polish them too.
I would like to write a long poem perhaps based on the Hikayat Hang Tuah. I have promised to look at the manuscripts of my research on the pantun in the Malay Archipelago and transcriptions of two hikayats. So I intend to keep myself occupied. And before I forget I would like to enlarge my Anthology of Contemporary Malaysian Literature to include post-1980s writings, and translate some of them into English myself.

Educator, critic, translator, Muhammad Haji Salleh is Malaysia’s best known bilingual poet, writing both in Malay and English for well over forty years. Born in 1942 in British Malaya, he was educated first at the University of Singapore, and later at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, USA, obtaining, respectively, B.A. and Ph.D. degrees in English literature.

Muhammad wrote his first poem in the English language while in England for a teacher-training course in 1963, but soon after wrote in Malay (later renamed Bahasa Malaysia), to quell his feelings of guilt at his involuntary allegiance to the imperial language. This push and pull tendency between the two languages—an attempt to decolonise his consciousness through a rejection of English as his creative medium and yet his continuous use of the language for translating his own work and for his academic projects—remains the central defining element of Muhammad’s poetry and poetics. Muhammad acknowledges this problem when he quotes the Algerian-born French writer Albert Camus, “My language is my motherland,” to suggest his deep allegiance to the Malay language and yet maintains, paradoxically, in the introduction to his collected volume Rowing Down Two Rivers, that as a poet he has “two rivers flowing within him” and that he could row down one river or the other at his wish.

While still an undergraduate student of literature in the mid-1960s, Muhammad’s first poem was published in the international Australian journal The Bulletin. Since then, he has published over forty books, including twelve volumes of poetry. Time and Its People, a volume of poetry published by Heinemann Educational Books in 1978, was written originally in English. The rest of Muhammad’s poetry was written originally in Malay, and some, such as The Travel Journals of Si Tenggang II (1979) and Rowing Down Two Rivers (2000), he later rendered into English himself. Muhammad’s other recent publications in the English language include The Mind of the Malay Author (1991), Beyond the Archipelago (1995), Burnished Gold: An Anthology of Malaysian Poetry (ed. 2004) and Malay Literary Poetics (2004). Muhammad’s poems have been anthologised in Singapore Poetry (1965), Commonwealth Poems of Today (1967), Seven Poets of Singapore and Malaysia (1973), The Second Tongue (1976), Contemporary Literature of
Asia (1996) and Petals of Hibiscus: A Representative Anthology of Malaysian Literature in English (2003).
In a distinguished career spanning four decades, Muhammad has received many accolades both for his poetry and scholarship, at home and abroad. He was named Literary Laureate of Malaysia in 1991, and has since received the Malaysian Premier Literary Award twice, in 2000 and 2002. He was the recipient of the Australian Cultural Award in 1975, the ASEAN Literary Award for poetry in 1977, the SEA Write Award in 1997 and the MASTERA (Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei) Literary Award in 2000. Muhammad received Fulbright Fellowships to teach and research at the State University of North Carolina (1977), the University of Michigan (1981-82) and the University of California-Berkeley (1992-93). In 1992-93, he was appointed Chair of Malay Studies, at the University of Leiden, Netherlands, and in 1999-2000 he received a Senior Fellowship from the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, Japan. Muhammad was the Director of the Institute of Malay World and Civilisation, National University of Malaysia from 1995 to 1999, and at present he is professor of Literature at University Science Malaysia. In September 2005, he was in Leiden, Netherlands, again, as a poet-in-residence with the International Institute of Asian Studies.

Abuya Memimpin Dari Alam Ghaib - Ummu Jah

Wawancara Eksklusif bersama Ummu Jah

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Fiqh of Facebook

Online pursuits are consuming an increasing amount of time of young people, and no less the Muslims. Those among the 500 million global users of Facebook (FB) know how it functions as a platform for many of these activities (such as news, entertainment, correspondence, campaigning, da`wah), going far beyond its description of a social networking site.

As an avid Facebook user of a few years, I have tasted its fruits but also experienced the sickness of excess and felt the danger of getting lost among the trees. Whenever Muslims are faced with a new environment, they enter it carrying their principles with them. We also need a sound understanding (fiqh) of the realities of this environment and how to handle some of its specifics.

If I dwell here on the potential and actual problems with Muslims’ use of Facebook, that is not to de-emphasize the great things that can be done with it. I say this just a week after a dictator fell from power in Egypt, with social media playing its role.

Fittingly, the genesis of this article was a series of short FB statuses I posted over 2010, each of which generated interesting discussion from friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances and contacts (all of whom are designated by FB as “Friends”). Here, I shall address a few of the most crucial aspects for the conscious user to consider, with a few quotes from the original “Facebook Fiqh” series.

A Question of Time

If time is life, then Facebook is many people’s favorite weapon of suicide. We struggle to find time to seek beneficial knowledge, yet trivial comments about trivial matters get more than their fair share. Someone remarked on Imam Suhaib Webb’s FB “wall” that we check out people’s latest FB updates more frequently than we check our Qur’an to take benefits from its verses. That remark inspired the following status update:
Sohaib Saeed wants a “Like” button in his mus-haf (written text of the Qu’ran) next to each ayah. “Like OMG that’s so true!” ;)
In a recent discussion with some students of Islamic sciences, we wondered aloud how the great scholars of the past managed to be so prolific in their writings, and how they managed to utilize every moment of their – often quite short – lives. Someone raised the point that nowadays we do indeed manage to write a lot, but it is mostly spent on trivial discussions and debates. The angels are writing down all the useless things we say in our days and nights. What do you think if you gathered all the comments (other than social niceties) that you have left on Facebook and other such forums? For many of us, it would add up to at least a small book.

The technological aspects of Facebook, particularly with its ever-updating interface, can have an intoxicating effect. It is built upon the principle of maximal stimulation of the eyes and brain; it is not far from the imagination to compare it with hypnosis. All this has a long-term effect on the mind and on the spiritual heart. This is why our attitude to such time-consuming activities is to use them for a purpose (even if that purpose be recreation), and not allowing it to eat into time better spent on other things. For some, this may mean taking conscious note of how often they open the page, and how long is spent on each visit.

What are the signs of excess? Specialists in addiction can list a few, but let me point out one thing that I believe is frighteningly common. I noticed once that when Twitter went down for a few hours then resumed, someone commented on the experience, writing: “When Twitter went down, all I wanted to do was tweet about it!” Ridiculous, yet I would suggest that it is quite representative of a common urge to use these media as a natural outlet for all our thoughts, desires and emotions. As I once wrote:
“We express our thoughts in the form of a status update instead of turning to Allah with our fears and joys. The day of a believer should be a constant conversation with God.”
Is this constant babble not a blatant distraction from the remembrance of Allah? Yes, even when we are reading and forwarding religious content, if we do so with hearts unaware. To quote from Shaykh Abdallah Adhami’s FB comment: “By all means: share, post, sms, blog, im, email, tweet… (though most importantly, internalize)”. This is the point! If you read a supplication with your eyes, it is no use if your tongue remains dry and your heart remains silent. Is reading a du`a’(supplication) anything like making du`a’? Many times, we write such things robotically in the same way we type “LOL” with a completely straight face. I won’t go so far as to call it lying, but it certainly is bizarre when you ponder on it!
Clicking “Like” is not a sign of commitment any more than saying “I love Allah.” The Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) was commanded to say, “If you should love Allah, then follow me, [so] Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful” (Qur’an 3:31). Our Islam is built on actions, not mere declarations.

Public and Private

Let’s be in no doubt that FB is a public space, though certain aspects (messaging) allow one-to-one communication. Even things you post on your own wall will come up on your friends’ homepages. Therefore, rather than merely decorating your home awaiting their arrival, you are actually dropping in on them every time you post something.
“If Facebook is like a public street, doesn’t it have rights? The first is lowering the gaze: not just from unseemly images, but from everything that doesn’t concern you. Think about it as hundreds of conversations are presented before you.”
The above FB Fiqh advice was based on a hadith (report concerning the Prophet ﷺ) reported in Sahih Muslim, in which Allah’s Messenger ﷺ questioned some people sitting in the road and instructed them to avoid doing so.  When these Companions explained their purpose, the Prophet ﷺ said: “If you must sit, then fulfill the rights of the road: lower your gaze, respond to greetings and talk in a good manner.”

Not only does Facebook make it all too easy to look at pictures of members of the opposite sex and personal details we have no business knowing, but it makes it tempting to pore through threads of comments that at best, are a complete waste our time, and at worst, involve a level of prying. Just as we take responsibility for what we post, we should also be ethical in what we access. Ask yourself: if that group of friends were chatting amongst themselves, would I feel right standing nearby and listening in?

Many of the problems with people’s Facebook usage stem from the confusion between public and private spaces. Consider a few such cases:

1. Saying aloud what ought to have been silent, or sharing with everyone what belongs to a certain group.

Such a public forum is not the ideal place for potentially confusing ideas – such as controversial questions of theology – to be shared, as people without the relevant background knowledge may get the wrong idea.

Moreover, Facebook is not the place to develop your thoughts, wondering aloud with things that could cause others to doubt. If you have a question, direct it to someone who knows. If you’re working on an idea, try keeping a private journal.

Most importantly, beware of spreading unsubstantiated rumors. If in doubt, clarify and make certain of the reality, as the Qur’an (49:6) instructs. The following is also a thinking point:
The Prophet ﷺ said: “It is enough of a lie for a person to narrate everything he hears.” (Sahih Muslim) So how about one who narrates every fleeting thought he hears from his self?
In short: before posting anything, ask yourself “Why?” – is it something that will be of interest or benefit to those who will read it?

2. Doing things shamelessly in front of respected people and near-strangers.

Examples of this include using bad language, or writing flirtatious things in plain sight of people who could make hasty – possibly unfair – judgments. Perhaps someone would suggest that writing on the FB wall of someone of the opposite gender is more appropriate than a private message, but that is only true if the public nature of the communication does not become an excuse for a lack of etiquette.
People are clicking “Like” for the craziest things, associating themselves sometimes with immoral and unethical people and ideas, and promoting this on the newsfeeds of all their friends. It would be wise to slow down and think, if only for the following reason:
Be careful whom you love and “Like” – do you want them by your side on Judgment Day? The Prophet ﷺ said: “You are with whomever you love.” (Bukhari & Muslim)
Another common sight is photos of sinful activities, with Muslim friends pictured in compromising positions. Rather than uploading and tagging photos of these lapses, the right course of action is immediate repentance, as in the hadith: “All my nation are safe except those who publicise their sins. A servant does an evil deed by night, and wakes up having Allah’s cover upon him. Then he tells someone, ‘I did such-and-such last night!’ – He went to bed with Allah providing him cover, and woke up to throw off Allah’s cover.” (Bukhari & Muslim)

Privacy in general is a major and widely discussed issue of concern regarding Facebook, so a Muslim should be even more aware of the issue. Both sisters and brothers need to beware of broadcasting details that could be misused, and especially pictures in which they are more exposed than they ought to be in public. Even a “private” FB album is never truly private, when you think about it.
These few thoughts on Facebook Fiqh are by no means exhaustive, but I hope they provide a starting point to a greater consciousness and care when using new technology and emerging media.

By Sohaib Saeed

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Of Dreams

What is wrong with dreaming? Of course, this itself raises several questions. Dreaming while sleeping or day-dreaming? Either ways, can one talk of having dreamt seriously?

But yes, dreams have been taken seriously, mystically, psychologically, prophetically and also comically. From this angle, dreaming has its own advantages. The impact, however, changes when an individual’s thoughts expressed absolutely consciously face the retort: “Are you dreaming?” Or the stunned exclamation: “Is that really true, not just a dream?” Reactions of this kind are suggestive of the tendency to de-link dreams from actual possibilities out of anger, irritation, humor or simple astonishment.

Should dreams really be dismissed as worth nothing but a work of imagination pictured mentally while sleeping or being lost in thoughts to the stage of being oblivious for a little while? But so what, even if dreams are viewed from these angles? Seriously speaking, they carry immense personal value for the actual dreamer. Though for a few minutes, while they last, some dreams have the power of carrying the dreamer into a totally different mental, even spiritual environment. If the dreams are highly positive, spelling great success and celebration, though for a little while, the dreamer is most likely to feel highly elated. And perhaps, after waking up to reality, the dreamer may actually start deliberating on how to work towards that stage. Highlighting the importance he gave to dreams, Martin Luther King (Jr) said: “If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream.”

True, all dreams cannot be even imagined to take a realistic turn. But relaxation spelt by happy dreams, whether they are of simply eating one’s favourite dishes, enjoying some success or travelling through the bright clouds cannot be ignored. Dreams, while they last, give the dreamer the liberty to enjoy life as desired by his/her imagination. The best and permanent part of this phase is that an individual’s dreams can never be stolen. Irrespective of whether the dreams are given any importance or not, they remain the property of the dreamer.
One is naturally tempted to consider the impact of destructive, negative and dreams which may cause tension or fear. Dreams remain precious for the dreamer. They, however, lose their value when they are sought to be imposed as “dreams” by a person or group on others.
Individually, nothing is wrong with dreaming and even taking delight at the dreams woven, remembered and even pursued. But as dreams hold a great personal value, the thought that they can be imposed upon others is questionable. Elementarily speaking, howsoever delighted a non-vegetarian maybe by dreaming of eating roasted chicken, the attempt to extend this in reality by forcing shrewd vegetarians to share the same dish is equivalent to shattering the diet-chart the latter dreamt of religiously adhering to. Dreams have a precious value, which cannot be stolen and is destroyed when imposed elsewhere!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Palestinian girl dies after being denied father's love

Palestinian child succumbs to psychological trauma after being denied the chance to hug father in prison

Palestinian girl, Abeer Eskafi
  • Image Credit: Supplied

Ramallah: The Israeli occupation of Palestine claimed another innocent victim on Friday when 10-year-old Abeer Eskafi died, her young life snuffed out before she could fulfil her dying wish — a hug from her father who is serving multiple life terms in an Israeli jail.
In a personal tragedy for the Eskafi family, which mirrors the plight of Palestinian people under occupation and oppression, the family said the little girl's untimely death only serves to highlight the heartlessness of the Israeli authorities, especially in the prison where her father is being held.
Gulf News had earlier reported how the officer in charge of the prison had prevented Abeer from hugging her father, Yousuf, on her last visit to see him.
Citing a technicality — that young Abeer had crossed the permissible age threshold — the officer had not allowed Abeer to go over to the prisoner's side of a glass barrier in the prison's meeting room so that she could spend a few moments with her father and get a hug from him as she had always done on her previous visits.
Abeer's grandfather, Abdul Rahim Abdul Mohsin Mohammad Eskafi, had told Gulf News that the little girl lived for those fleeting moments, few and far between, when she could be in the arms of her father whose sentence had no scope for parole.
After being so cruelly denied, she broke down psychologically, her health deteriorated and she went into a coma after suffering paralysis. Medical opinion concurred that psychological trauma was the reason behind the deterioration in her health.
Abdul Rahim told Gulf News that he personally held the Israelis responsible for the death of the girl.
"Next Wednesday I will visit Yousuf in his prison with his two other girls, Falasteen and Tahreer, to comfort him on Abeer's death," he said. "We are sure Yousuf has been informed about it; he must be in a miserable condition."
Wednesday is the first opportunity of a visit to the prison, coordinated by the Red Cross, Abdul Rahim said. He shuddered to think what state his son would be in.

Palestinian girl, Abeer Eskafi
  • Image Credit: Supplied

‘Inhumane decision'
Earlier, when Yousuf was informed about Abeer slipping into a coma he suffered a heart attack and had to be rushed to hospital where he underwent emergency surgery.
Abeer's family had placed a request via the Red Cross to the Israeli Prisoners Headquarters to allow Abeer to have a few moments with her father on humanitarian grounds, which could have surely improved her condition, as she mumbled his name even in her comatose state.
"We believe the Israelis have murdered Abeer, whose suffering started with an inhumane decision from an Israeli officer. The Israelis do not have pity even for the Palestinian children."

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior?

Can a regimen of no playdates, no TV, no computer games and hours of music practice create happy kids? And what happens when they fight back?

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

CAU cover
Erin Patrice O'Brien for The Wall Street Journal
Amy Chua with her daughters, Louisa and Sophia, at their home in New Haven, Conn.
• attend a sleepover
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.
I'm using the term "Chinese mother" loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise. I'm also using the term "Western parents" loosely. Western parents come in all varieties.

Ms. Chua answers questions from Journal readers who wrote in to the Ideas Market blog.
All the same, even when Western parents think they're being strict, they usually don't come close to being Chinese mothers. For example, my Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practice their instruments 30 minutes every day. An hour at most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It's hours two and three that get tough.


Amy Chua, 48, started a firestorm when she published her memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. When an entire nation reacts so strongly to something, you know you have hit a nerve. And Amy did. She hit us where it hurts, questioning our parenting, our kids' educational achievement and our nation's ability to compete globally in today's world.
Unlike the excerpt that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, titled (not by her) "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," Amy's book is a nuanced story of how her parenting had to evolve to take into account the differences between her children. Parenting is hard and humbling for all of us. If there were a right way to raise your kids, everyone would do it. Clearly that's not the case. In China, this book is being marketed as a tale about the importance of giving children more Western freedom.
Few have the guts to parent in public. Amy's memoir is brutally honest, and her willingness to share her struggles is a gift. Whether or not you agree with her priorities and approach, she should be applauded for raising these issues with a thoughtful, humorous and authentic voice.
And by the way, I've met her daughters. They are both phenomenal.
Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook

Friday, April 22, 2011

Of Respect!

Why do we respect someone and not another? What is that inexplicable quality that makes us say, now that is someone I can respect.
 Is it success or grit or simply determination to hang in there and win. Is it something less laudable but still overwhelming like fame and power and wealth and a collection of status symbols? Perhaps generosity of spirit or awesome displays of intellect and skill in a field of endeavour. Admiration for excellence, though how any of us have the moral fibre to praise another.
We have all heard the clichés of respect has to be earned not bought and you cannot order it and then there is that delightful adjunct called self-respect and how, if you don’t give it to yourself you cannot expect others to give it to you.
But that said, how many of us spend a huge amount of time giving respect a short deal because we mix it with fear, insecurity, sycophancy and survival.
It can be any of these and in any combination, often reduced to a game or a strategy loaded with deep insincerity which is why often the relationship between the human race and the respect factor is based on more slippery and expedient grounds. Break it down.. 
There is the respect of power in which one exercises control over another and therefore demands at least visual respect. There is the respect of rank by which society structures us into rungs and the lower rungs respond to the demands of the higher ones. There is the respect of finance where the receiver puts on token shows in deference to the giver because it suits him to do so. There is the respect of fear where resistance can hurt you and you need insurance against such injury. Often this is the most potent form of ‘respect’.
It is no wonder therefore, that we have successfully mutilated respect to mean everything but what it should. We see it as an oily and unctuous concession that serves our purpose rather than acknowledge it as a salutation to a higher achiever.
But these are easy forms of the new respect, so obvious and orchestrated that most of us have become adept at handling them. All you need is a little flattery, a few spoons of Uriah Heepish servility and a cheerfully amoral code of conduct and the odds on earth favour your making it safely through the shoals of life.
You see, most of us are delightfully susceptible to the counterfeit variety considering how difficult it is to attain the genuine.
There is one category that defies the general rule and sets itself up like a duck at the shooting gallery. That is the respect of and for those who offer us liberty. It is frightening courtesy and one that, for some reason, goes against the grain. You see, we don’t particularly like freedom even though we can kill for it as a concept. This is largely because we don’t know what to do with it. Freedom is a huge, intimidating monster because it leaves the choice to us and that onus is oppressive. It is much more comfortable to have the decision taken out of our hands and re-imposed so we can cavil about it and be happy.
One would have imagined that human beings would feel privileged to be treated as adults capable even on subordinate levels of making decisions and taking on responsibility. That does not always happen and one tends to dilute the offer of freedom with scorn and discourtesy, frequently taking advantage and seeing it as a chance to play truant. Which is acceptable if you are 15 but not so if you are a full fledged adult. But we see this in reverse so often. We tend to become familiar with those who treat us well, we take liberties, conspire and try and take advantage of courtesy instead of counting our blessings that we are dealing with someone who shows us respect of the real kind.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Anwar Ibrahim - it's the beginning of the end

As he reflects on a month during which he has not only been on trial for sodomy but also accused of being the mystery man in a sex tape featuring a Chinese prostitute, Malaysia's former deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim may be forgiven for wondering how his dream of finally taking power has crumbled so swiftly.

It seemed so close in 2008. That summer, Newsweek's one-time "Asian of the Year" emerged from a long period of humiliation and incarceration that had begun in 1998 when, after falling out with the country's long-term leader, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Anwar had been stripped of office on what were widely regarded as trumped up charges of corruption and sodomy. The news made global headlines: the great leader of the "reformasi" movement was not only down but jailed too.

Ten years later he was back. His opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, dealt the governing Barisan Nasional (BN) alliance the worst blow in its history, a "political tsunami" that gave the opposition control of five of the country's 13 states. The result was seen as Anwar's triumph, and when he won a by-election in August and returned to parliament as official leader of the opposition it truly appeared that he was "on the road to Putrajaya", the administrative capital. He vowed to topple the government by winning over 30 MPs, enough to give the coalition a majority, by September 16 that year.

Today Anwar cuts a diminished figure. The opposition did not take power and has suffered a series of by-election defeats. Stung by accusations of cronyism and defections from his own party, PKR, Anwar presides over a coalition whose momentum has stalled. The current trial, which has been going on for over a year, has left him distracted and unfocused and the opposition effectively leaderless. Are the glories all in the past for one of South East Asia's best known politicians?

One reason why the victorious air of August 2008 is now but a memory is because while that year's general election was a vote for change, it was also a negative vote, a rejection of the corruption, favouritism and mismanagement associated with the administration of the BN's then leader, Tun Abdullah Badawi, rather than a positive endorsement of the opposition coalition's policies.

If Malaysia had a presidential system, Anwar may well have won. But in a parliamentary democracy a leader must be collegiate, he must keep his party with him. And this, say the numerous senior members of PKR who have left, he has failed to do. Recent party elections were marred by allegations of vote-rigging, and with Anwar its leader, his wife its president, and his daughter a vice president, PKR is beginning to look like a vehicle for his circle. One MP and PKR founder member who left in January, N Gobalakrishnan, put the criticism in particularly devastating form. "Anwar may be God-given," he said, "but he thinks he is God."

PKR has now lost one-fifth of its 31 parliamentary seats to defections and resignations, a subtraction that matters because it is the glue that holds two very uneasy allies together - PAS, an Islamist Malay party, and the DAP, which is secular, left-leaning and overwhelmingly Chinese. PKR needs to be strong to maintain its claim to the premiership should the opposition ever win a federal election, as neither a PAS nor a DAP prime minister would be acceptable to the other. At the moment, however, Anwar's party appears to be the weakest link. This impression was only reinforced by last Saturday's election in the key state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. Considered a "fixed deposit" for the BN, both sides were looking for a result that would boost their hopes in the next national contest. True, the BN won fewer seats in the state assembly, but it still retained its two-thirds majority. And the opposition gains were mainly made by the DAP, which won 12 of the 15 constituencies it fought for in the 71-seat chamber. PKR, on the other hand, stood in 49 constituencies and only managed to gain a paltry three.

Meanwhile, the BN has not been idle. Badawi was ditched within a year of the election, and his successor, Dato Seri Najib Tun Razak, has projected a far more dynamic and effective image. Although his approval rating stood at 45 per cent when he took office in 2009, it has since risen to around 70 per cent in polls conducted by the independent Merdeka Centre over the last year.
Against this backdrop, Anwar's second sodomy trial drags on and on. When it started, his influential friends in the US - principally former vice president Al Gore and World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz - jumped to his defence. The two joined forces to declare in The Wall Street Journal that the Malaysian state itself was "on trial".

The assumption then was that the case would be swiftly settled. Instead, there has been an endless series of postponements and procedural arguments. It has been hard to sustain international outrage when no one knows when a verdict may eventually be handed down. Anwar still has his liberty, after all; and he did not help his cause abroad when, in a shameless piece of pandering to the Muslim chauvinist vote, he claimed that prime minister Najib's 1Malaysia policy was thought up by a "Jewish-controlled" public relations firm, Apco. He is currently suspended from parliament for making the allegation.

Worse, even if the charge is politically motivated (Najib denies interfering in the case, which involves a 25-year-old former aide to the opposition leader), far from everyone is convinced that it is fabricated. "I believe he is guilty as hell," said Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, a former senior PKR leader and law minister. "Anwar is compulsive. There will always be charges against him." The sentiment is surprisingly common in the liberal, urban circles one might have thought to be axiomatically pro-Anwar.

Ziauddin Sardar, a renowned UK-based scholar and critic who was an adviser to Anwar in the late 1990s, is adamant that the allegations are nonsense. "I have known Anwar for over 30 years," he says. "He cannot be bought, bribed or forced to deviate from the path of honesty. That's why the establishment in Umno [the Malay party that dominates the governing BN] had to attack his character." Sardar says he predicted that sodomy would be the line of attack two years before Anwar was first charged in 1998. "They had to find something unthinkable. I came to the conclusion that it was sodomy, as the Malays, especially the religious ones and those from the villages, find it abhorrent and unnatural. And it is an allegation that always leaves the seeds of doubt. I told Anwar my fears, but he thought Umno politicians would never sink that low. They did. Given what is happening now, they are hell bent on proceeding to even lower depths."

Those "seeds of doubt" swiftly took root. As one prominent blogger who is an old family friend of Anwar put it to me when the charge first surfaced: "A lot of people are saying, 'No smoke without fire'."

Innocent or guilty, the truth is that Anwar was never quite the liberal, pluralist champion his cheerleaders in the West imagine. His background was in an Islamist youth movement - Mahathir brought him into his administration in 1982 precisely to burnish its religious credentials - and in government he was seen by many as a Malay extremist.

If that is not the image put forward since 1998, that is because while Anwar may well be charismatic, determined and brave, he has still always been a politician. Before being struck down in a manner that made him into a hero, he had gambled - and lost. Were it not for that massive miscalculation, he could well be prime minister now; but as leader of the BN, as his nemesis, Dr Mahathir, conceded in his recently published memoirs, A Doctor in the House: "Anwar should have been the prime minister of Malaysia today," he wrote. "If he is not, it is because of his own actions."

For now, Anwar's trial continues. The prosecution completed their case on March 24. Proceedings were due to resume earlier this week, but in a by now familiar pattern, they were delayed yet again. Defence submissions will now begin on Monday.

An acquittal would be devastating for the BN, but if ultimately Anwar is jailed, any ensuing international condemnation will be ridden out and the opposition thrown into a chaos easily exploited by the BN-supporting press. A never-ending court case, on the other hand, wearies both the public and, more importantly, the defendant and the coalition he leads. This is the course most observers expect.

As he is now 63, Anwar may have to content himself with the "victory" the opposition won in the last election. "I don't think he's finished," comments Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad, an old friend of Anwar and a former minister, "but it does look like it's the beginning of the end."

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman and a frequent commentator on South-east Asian politics and religion.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Staying Human: The Heroic Legacy Of Vittorio Arrigoni

By Ramzy Baroud

'Dear Mary,' wrote Italian justice activist Vittorio Arrigoni to a friend. 'Do you [know who] will be on the boats?... I'm still in Gaza, waiting for you. I will be at the boat to greet you. Stay human. Vik.'

"Mary" is Mary Hughes Thompson, a dedicated activist who braved the high seas to break the Israeli siege on Gaza in 2008.

Vittorio Arrigoni, or Vik, was reportedly murdered by a fundamentalist group in Gaza a few hours after he was kidnapped on Thursday, April 14. The killing was supposedly in retaliation for Hamas' crackdown on this group's members. All who knew Vik will attest to the fact that he was an extraordinary person, a model of compassion, solidarity and humanity.

Arrigoni's body was discovered in an abandoned house hours after he was kidnapped. His murderers didn't honor their own deadline of 30 hours. The group, known as the Tawhid and Jihad, is one of the fringe groups known in Gaza as the Salafis. They resurface under different names and manifestations, for specific - and often bloody - purposes.

"The killing prompted grief in Gaza, but also despair," read an op-ed in the UK Independent on April 16. "Not only was Arrigoni well known and well liked there, but it escaped no one that this kidnapping was the first since that of the BBC journalist Alan Johnson in 2007."

However, Johnson's kidnappers, the so-called Army of Islam (a small group of fanatics affiliated with a large Gaza clan) held their hostage for 114 days. There was plenty of time to organize and pressure the criminals to release him. In Arrigoni's case, merely a few hours stood between the release of a horrifying video showing a blindfolded and bruised activist and the finding of his motionless body. The forensic report said that he was strangled. His friends said that he was tortured.

Vittorio Arrigoni's murder was an opportunity for Israel's supporters. Daniel Pipes wrote, in a brief entry in the National Review Online: "Note the pattern of Palestinians who murder the groupies and apologists who join them to aid in their dream of eliminating Israel." Pipes named three individuals, including the Palestinian-Israeli filmmaker, Juliano Mer-Khamis, and Arrigoni himself, and then proceeded to invite readers to "send in further examples that I may have missed".

Pipes' list, however, will have no space for such names as Rachel Corrie, Tom Hurndall and James Miller, for these individuals were all murdered by Israeli forces. Pipes will also fail to mention the nine Turkish activists murdered aboard the Mavi Marmara ship on its way to break the siege on Gaza in May 2010, and the nine activists abroad Irene (the Jewish Boat to Gaza) who were intercepted, kidnapped and humiliated by Israeli troops before being deported outside the country in September 2010. The 82-year-old Reuben Moscowitz, a Holocaust survivor, was one of the activists aboard the Irene, as was Lillian Rosengarten, an American "who fled the Nazis as a child in Frankfurt," according to a New York Times blog.

The people Pipes failed to mention truly represent a rainbow of humanity. Men and women of all ages, races and nationalities have stood and will continue to stand on the side of the Palestinians. But this story has selectively ignored pseudo-intellectuals intent on dismissing humanity to uphold Israel. They refuse to see the patterns in front of them, as they are too busy concocting their own.

Writing in the UK Guardian from Rome, on April 15, John Hooper said, "Arrigoni's life was anything but safe. In September 2008 he was injured (by Israeli troops) accompanying Palestinian fishermen at sea. Two years ago he received a death threat from a US far-right website that provided any would-be killers with a photo and details of distinguishing physical traits, such as a tattoo on his shoulder."

The group that murdered Arrigoni, like others of its kind, existed for one specific, violent episode before disappearing altogether. The mission in this case was to kill an International Solidarity Mission (ISM) activist who dedicated years of his life to Palestine. Shortly before he was kidnapped, he wrote in this website of the "criminal" Israeli siege on Gaza. He also mourned the four impoverished Palestinians who died in a tunnel under the Gaza-Egypt boarder while hauling food and other goods.

Before his murder, Arrigoni was anticipating the arrival of another flotilla - carrying activists from 25 countries boarding 15 ships - that is scheduled to sail to Gaza in May. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adamantly called on European Union countries to prevent their nationals from jointing the boats. "I think it's in your and our common interest… that this flotilla must be stopped," he told European representatives in Jerusalem, according to an AFP report on April 11.

Israeli officials are angry at the internationals who are "de-legitimizing" the state of Israel by standing in solidarity with the Palestinians. Arrigoni has done so much to harm the carefully fabricated image of Israel as an island of democracy and progress. Along with other activists, he has shattered this myth through simple means of communication.

Vik signed his messages with "Stay human". His book, detailing his experiences in Gaza, was entitled Restiamo Umani (Let Us Remain Human). Mary Hughes Thompson shared with me some the emails Arrigoni sent her. "I can hardly bear to read them again," she wrote. This is an extract from one of them:

"No matter how (we) will finish the mission… it will be a victory. For human rights, for freedom. If the siege will not (be) physically broken, it will break the siege of the indifference, the abandonment. And you know very well what this gesture is important for the people of Gaza. That said, obviously we are waiting at the port! With hundreds of Palestinians and ISM comrades we will come to meet you sailing, as was the first time, remember? All available boats will sail to Gaza to greet you. Sorry for my bad English… big hug… Stay Human. Yours, Vik"

Vik's killers failed to see his humanity. But many of us will always remember, and we will continue trying to "stay human". 

Ilan Pappe, a professor of History at the University of Exeter starts his introduction in the book by saying: “ It is first and foremost an eyewitness account of Gaza Stay Human – Vittorio Arrigoni/ Introduction by Ilan Pappe – Book Review gazastayhumanan everyman and a true humanist. He was there during the Operation “Cast Lead” and so his daily dispatches came directly from the killing fields of Gaza, and are therefore free of any media distortion or manipulation.”
Gaza Stay Human is an amazing book that introduces the twenty-two day Israeli offensive against Gaza strip in December 2008 and January 2009.
The book is simple but it attracts the reader to continue on reading to find out what exactly happened in this Israeli operation in Gaza. The book brings daily dispatches which were written by Vittorio Arrigoni who is a volunteer with the pacifist International solidarity movement that served as a human shield while working with the Palestinian Red Crescent ambulances during the Israeli attack on Gaza strip.
The conditions that Vittorio describes through his dispatches are not from his imagination or a text written for a movie but real events that took place in Gaza and shock the reader. Bombing, and lack of communication are two things which Vittorio lives like the thousands of other Palestinians in Gaza while they were all under siege and the Israeli attack. Eventhough the writers passes through the most inhuman actions which the Gaza strip witness while being under the Israeli attack, he insists on repeating the motto “Stay Human” that became popular today in his native Italy while protesting.
The book includes an introduction by renowned Israeli historian and human rights activist Ilan Pappe and also brings the dispatches translated to English for the reader.
The book was published on September 1, 2010 and is worth reading. It simply gives you an opportunity to live the events that the Palestinians lived while being under the Israeli offensive operation in Gaza. It is not a movie or a fiction story…it is a description of the daily life that these people lived while being under attack.
Daniela Filippin is the translator into English of Vittorio Arrigoni’s book Gaza Stay Human. Daniela made great efforts to get the book published.

If you believe you can, or if you believe you can’t, – you’re right.

“If you believe you can, or if you believe you can’t, – you’re right.” Henry Ford

Review Of 'The Biology of Belief' by Bruce Lipton

This is a curious book in many ways - its a kind of part personal monograph (touching on difficult but ultimately important things in his life like giving up being a Professor to become a failed Rock Concert Promoter... getting divorced... professional issues et al). The central core of the book is about Epigenetics of Cell Biology (no not as dull as you might think lol) but it ends with a chapter on Conscious Parenting. It somehow manages to weave all these together although it's perhaps his likableness and a lifetime relating what happens at a cellular level as part explanation, part metaphor for life at large that manages to tie these diverse things together.

Nevertheless it is a major work and most readable (providing you are not one of those people who "switches-off" when faced with some scientific terms). Naturally he perhaps falls into the trap of all iconoclasts of erring on the side of perhaps overstating his case and understating the 'opposing' view - nevertheless he lands some telling blows and the consensus view needs to move a long way (if not the whole way) in his direction.

I will use some quotes to show his major ideas:

[p26] "By that time I was an unabashed proponent of a "new" biology. I had come to question not only Darwin's dog-eat-dog version of evolution, but also biology's Central Dogma the premise that genes control life. [My italics here:MB] That scientific premise has one major flaw - genes cannot turn themselves on or off. In more scientific terms genes are not 'self-emergent'. Something in the environment has to trigger gene activity."

[p48] "I didn't know it at the time, but I now believe that another reason for my students' success was that I did not stop at praising cells. I praised the students as well. They needed to hear they were first-rate students in order to believe that they could perform as first-rate students in order to believe that they could perform as first-rate students... so many of us are leading limited lives not because we have to, but because we [i]think
we have to... I was well on my way to an understanding of the New Biology, which leaves in the dust the defeatism of genetic and parental programming as well as survival-of-the-fittest Darwinism"

[p49] "I will never forget a piece of wisdom I received in 1967, on the first day I learned to clone stem cells in graduate school. It took me decades to realize how profound this seemingly simple piece of wisdom was for my work and my life... He [Lipton's Professor] told me that when the cultured cells you are studying are ailing, you look first to the cell's environment, not to the cell itself for the cause."

[p50] "Even Charles Darwin conceded, near the end of his life, that his evolutionary theory had shortchanged the role of the environment... he wrote:

"In my opinion, the greatest error which I have committed has been not allowing sufficient weight to the direct action of the environments, ie food, climate etc independently of natural selection... When I wrote "Origin", and for some years afterwards, I could find little good evidence of the direct action of the environment; now there is a large body of evidence."
Scientists who follow Darwin continue to make the same error. The problem with this underemphasis on the environment is that it led to an overemphasis on "nature" in the form of genetic determinism - [MB italics] the belief that genes "control" biology"

[p52] "When a gene product is needed, a signal from the environment not an emergent property of the gene itself, activates expression of that gene". In other words, when it comes to genetic control "It's the environment stupid". "

[p65] [Following much contrary to the idea/concept/metaphor that the nucleus is the cells brain (Lipton suggests actually the membrane is more like that and that the nucleus is more like the cells hard-drive and gonads (for reproduction - he makes a good joke about not surprising that male cell biologists mistake a cells gonads for its brain lol)] Following enucleation, many cells can survive for up to two or more months without genes. Viable enucleated cells do not lie about like brain-dead lumps of cytoplasm on life-support systems. These cells actively ingest and metabolize food, maintain coordinated operation of their phsyiologic systems (respiration, digestion, excretion, motility etc), retain an ability to communicate with other cells, and are able to engage in appropriate responses to growth and protection-requiring environmental stimuli."

[p67] "Epigenetics: The New Science of Self-Empowerment

Genes-as-destiny theorists have obviously ignored hundred-year-old science about enucleated cells ... epigenetics, which literally means "control above genetics" profoundly changes our understanding of how life is controlled. In the last decade, epigenetic research has established that DNA blueprints passed down through genes are not set in concrete at birth. Genes are not destiny! Environmental influences, including nutrition, stress and emotions [MB: ie those elements that are under "our" conscious control....], can modify those genes without changing their basic blueprint....

...Since the late 1940s, biologists have been isolating DNA from the cell's nucleus in order to study genetic mechanisms. In the process they extract the nucleus from the cell, break open its enveloping membrane and remove the chromosomal contents, [MB italics] half of which is made up of DNA and half of which is made up of regulatory proteins. In their zeal to study DNA, most scientists threw away the proteins, which we now know is the regulatory equivalent of throwing the bay out with the bathwater...

...In the chromosome, the DNA forms the core, and the proteins cover the DNA like a sleeve. When the genes are covered their information cannot be "read"... How do you get that sleeve off? You need an environmental signal to spur the "sleeve" protein to change shape, ie detach from the DNA's double helix, allowing the gene to be read... As a result, the activity of the gene is "controlled" by the presence or absence of the ensleeving proteins, which are in turn controlled by environmental signals."

[p69] "Studies of protein synthesis reveal that epigentic "dials" can create 2,000 or more variations of proteins from the same gene blueprint."

[p83] "[Cell membrane protein] Receptor "antennas" can also read vibrational energy fields such as light, sound and radio frequencies. The antennas on these "energy" receptors vibrate like tuning forks. If an energy vibration in the environment resonates with a receptor's antenna, it will alter the protein's charge, causing the receptor to change shape [and hence function/'message']... [MB italics] because receptors can read energy fields, the notion that only physical molecules can impact cell physiology is outmoded. Biological behaviour can be controlled by invisible forces, including thought, as well as it can be controlled by physical molecules like penicillin, a fact that provides the scientific underpinning for pharmaceutical-free energy medicine." [MB I would have liked to see him give more evidence of this contention (after all its key to energy medicine/homeopathy etc etc]

[p90]"The [cell] membrane is a liquid crystal semiconductor with gates and channels.... "A [microprocessor] chip is a crystal semiconductor with gates and channels""

[p103] "This reductionist model suggests that if there is a problem in the system, evident as a disease or dysfunction, the source of the problem can be attributed to a malfunction in one of the steps along the chemical assembly line. By providing the cell with a functional replacement part for the faulty element ... the defective single-point can be repaired and health restored. This assumption spurs the pharmaceutical industry's sacra for magic-bullet drugs and designer genes.

...Biomedical scientists have been particularly confounded because they they do not recognize the massive complexity of the intercommunication among the physical parts and the energy field that make up the whole... Cellular constituents are woven into a complex web of crosstalk, feedback and feedforward loops".

[p104/5] "Clearly, biological dysfunctions can result from miscommunication anywhere within these complex pathways. When you changes the parameters of a protein at one point in such a complex pathway, you inevitably alter the parameters of other proteins at innumerable points within the entangled networks... underscores the dangers of prescription drugs. We can now see why pharmaceutical drugs come with information sheets listing voluminous side-effects that range from irritating to deadly.

Complicating the drug side-effect issue is also the fact that biological systems are redundant. [MB italics] The same singals or protein molecules may be used in different organs and tissues where they provide for completely different behavioural functions [quite a lot follows on this point in more detail - the same protein/chemical may have oppsoite impacts in different organs/places]"

So thats the key lines from a cellular level. This is about half way through the book. Its then a case of him explaining multicellular organisms and the role of the mind in creating the chemical environment for each cell etc etc. I wont spoil the story for any potential readers and it does get less "biological" from this point on and ends with "conscious parenting" (so a long way from the cell nucleus lol). Eg...

[p128] "When it comes to sheer neurological processing abilities, the subconscious mind is millions of times more powerful than the conscious mind, If the desires of the conscious mind conflict with the programs in the subconscious mind, which "mind" do you think will win out? You can repeat the positive affirmation that you are lovable over and over or that your cancer tumour will shrink. But if, as a child, you heard over and over again that you are worthless and sickly, those messages programmed in your subconscious mind will undermine your best conscious efforts to change your life."

[p144] "In the words of Mahatma Gandhi:

Your beliefs become your thoughts
Your thoughts become your words
Your words become your actions
Your actions become your habits
Your habits become your values
Your values become your destiny"

Anyway its a seminal book and a load of value for ~$25. It really does show that even at the genetic/cellular level the organism process is more driven top-down (ie ultimately 'beliefs') than it is bottom up. We are not prisoners of our genes (quite a lot on the anti-genetic-determinism/scientific-over-simplification/reductionism/commercial-needs-of-pharma-companies-skewing-scientific-paradigms etc line) rather we are Masters of Our Own Destiny - whether we acknowledge it or not.

Highly recommended and I hope you found this of value smiley

Peace to all