Wednesday, August 22, 2007

sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and transvestites

Right now I’m reading I Am Muslim, a collection of essays (first published as a newspaper column, as far as I can tell) by Malay writer Dina Zaman. It’s a heavy-handed title for a light-hearted yet sincere book.

(I felt a little weird reading it on the plane last week, not so much because I thought someone would make a Muslims-are-terrorists assumption and be afraid of me, but because I thought I might be mistaken for a pretentious provocateur just daring a TSA employee to “randomly” search me. Like I was all, “Ooh, look at me, I’m holding a sign that says ‘I Am Muslim’ at the airport. Even though I’m not Muslim. I am sooo edgy.” Also, the insole of my sneaker somehow got folded under while re-shoeing after going through security and I wanted to take my shoe off and flatten it out so badly once I got on the plane, but it just seemed too shoe-bomber-esque. This is another reason why I have to start buying nicer clothes that don’t fall apart so easily.)

A more accurate title might be Am I Muslim? because most of the essays address what it means to be Muslim in the modern world—how religious schools have become bourgeois status symbols, whether Indonesians (the “illegals-who-took-our-jobs” of Malaysia) are more spiritual than Malays, etc. Zaman writes briskly and irreverently and alludes to a lot of cultural issues in passing. I find myself struggling to figure out whether she’s A) not conducting the in-depth examinations she claims she wants to, B) writing to a Malaysian audience that doesn’t need further explanation, or C) succumbing to the constraints of a short weekly column.

For example, she ends one chapter called “After dark, my love,” a tale of her outing to a seedy restaurant featuring a drag show, by saying, “I heard more stories that night, but I’m sure you’ve heard them all before.”

I was thinking, No, I haven’t heard any of them! What’s an average night at a KL drag dive like?

But maybe Malaysians know. It’s interesting how drag queens, transvestites and MTF transsexuals seem to be highly visible in Southeast Asian culture. Zaman is a straight woman, but she mentions them frequently, as when rattling off typical temptations for young people. Apparently in Malaysia, it’s all about sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and transvestites.

I just read the chapter titled “It’s a Muslim issue: How gay are you?” which included a very sweet, sad Q&A between Zaman and a closeted gay Muslim woman who admitted she was in search of a loophole in the Qur’an but hadn’t found one that sufficiently alleviated her guilt yet: “If religion allowed it—then bring it on! Look out girls, ha, ha, ha.”

Zaman seems ambivalent about homosexuality—she has gay friends, but she seems to take it as a given that they’re sinners. The question is more whether sinning is all that bad—she sort of treats it the way you might if you had a friend who was sleeping with a married person. You’re not for it, but you can see how it happens. She does quote one gay male friend who suggests that, since Muslims believe all God’s creations are perfect, God doesn’t have an issue with gay folks any more than he would have an issue with someone who was born blind.

Which raises the question, are you saying being gay is a disability? Followed by, are you saying having a disability is negative? But Zaman doesn’t take things to their conclusions, she just puts them out there—and for all I know, that’s huge.


Claire said...

"...since Muslims believe all God’s creations are perfect, God doesn’t have an issue with gay folks any more than he would have an issue with someone who was born blind.

Which raises the question, are you saying being gay is a disability?"

Despite not having the full context, I'll take a stab at this anyway. I read it as the guy using blindness as an example of perceived imperfection. Not for its disability status, but rather it's generally perceived imperfect status.

Maybe there was more underlying it though... What example could he have used that would have seemed appropriate to you?

cheryl said...

Yeah, that's how I read it too, I just thought it would have been interesting if Zaman had "unpacked" it a little more, as they used to say at CalArts.

Jamie said...

I know you have no desire to write a screenplay, but if you did, I would totally go to see a movie about the adventures of a grrl writer, doing research for a novel about Malaysia in the era of the Iraq War and Homeland Security. You could make millions and billions of dollars!

Cheryl said...

Unfortunately, it would be a screwball comedy.