Dina Zaman: I am Storyteller

It’s been five years since Dina Zaman wrote I Am Muslim, her eclectic collection of articles about the realities of religious life as seen and lived by Muslims themselves. Sumitra Selvaraj caught up with her at the George Town Literary Festival in late 2012 to chat, and winds up under Dina’s storytelling spell.

The first thing I do is tell Dina that her book resonated with me, which is a little strange for an atheist to admit. She laughs and tells me that many other atheists have said the same thing to her. I then tell her that with a title like I Am Muslim you could easily assume that the book is about a personal journey or even a fervent exposition of faith.

Dina sighs in mild exasperation. She must have had to clear this misconception a million times, I realise guiltily.

“People immediately assume that this is a story about me, but actually it’s nothing like that. My then-editor Steven Gan (of Malaysiakini) assigned me a column, and suggested that I find out what was going on in the minds of Muslims in Malaysia. So I went out there, got to know people and really talked to them to find out what was going on in their hearts and their heads,” she explains, completely charming, despite my irritating first question.

Sowing the seeds of I Am Muslim

Dina sees herself as an amateur anthropologist. “I really enjoy getting into people’s heads and finding out what makes them tick, why they believe in what they choose to believe. And I think that as a writer, especially so in Malaysia, all you need to do is sit at a kopitiam, and there’s already so much drama and content around you!” She laughs.

Dina explained that the seeds for this book were sown nearly 10 years ago when she had the fortune of meeting relatives in Germany who had a rather unique identity.

“About 10 years ago, when I was working on my Master’s in the UK, I discovered that I had German cousins. My aunt asked me to go over and get to know my cousins and meet my German side of the family. And I thought to myself, okay, this could be very interesting.”

It was eye-opening. “I was introduced to a new Malay diaspora. Malaysian Malays from Kampung Baru who boarded a ship for Germany in the 1940s and 1950s and sought out their fortunes in Europe. I met with their children and grandchildren, who identified themselves as wholly German. And of course I couldn’t resist asking one of them immediately: ‘Hey... so are you Muslim or what?’

“And he very matter-of-factly said, ‘No’. It’s not race or faith that defines them, it’s their nationality. They are German and that’s all there is to it.

“So I tucked this insight away, and then journeyed on to England where, as a student, I threw myself into practically every society the university had to offer. The Film Society and the Photography Society and everything else you can imagine. This allowed me to meet so many people. I joined the Muslim Society where I got to know a half-Iranian girl. One day she was atheist, another day she was Christian! When I asked her what she was doing in the Muslim Society, she said, ‘Oh I’m just testing out all the religions before I pick one that suits me.’

“And I thought to myself ‘Huh. So people do this. People search for meaning and identity, even Muslims.’”

Dina returned to Malaysia with an idea for a column. “I contacted Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran (of Malaysiakini); without having any idea of what I was capable of, they said, ‘Oh, you can write. Good, because we’re also looking for a sub-editor. Can you do that?’ So I ended up doing both.”

The sub-editing part of the job was fine, but not the writing. “After a month, Steven hauled me up and said, ‘Oi, your column is rubbish!’”

Dina knew he was right; her writing had little structure, and she had trouble finding people to interview for her column. “I had no idea where I was going to find people to talk about their search for religion. Until I spoke to a friend, Zain Hafsham, about my predicament and right there, the first real story emerged.”

Zain, then a 32-year-old Muslim, told Dina about an odd belief that Malay men and women shared: a man's 38th birthday is his religious crossroad. “Apparently, the two years before a man turns 40 are the years he spends defining himself as to whether he is going to turn pious or not. This was news to me, and I was hooked.

“Luckily for me, Zain said, ‘Okay-lah, I’ll share my innermost thoughts with you...’ and Zain's story made it into I Am Muslim under his very own chapter titled ‘Life begins at 40, oops, 38’.”

That kicked everything off. “The stories started trickling in. I am still amazed at how willing people are to share their deepest, darkest and, yes, most delightful even, thoughts with me.

“After my contract expired with Malaysiakini, I was feeling a little burned out. I approached a publisher who said that my columns had enough material in them to be turned into a book, so I started working on that. I landed a gig with The Malaysian Insider where all I did was write what I was told to write. I loved it actually. Sometimes, you just want to be ordered around and told what to write. It was exactly what I needed to recharge my batteries.”

Dina would later go on a holiday with her best friend’s family, during which her friend’s father sat her down one day and gave what Dina described as “a gentle talking to about faith and hope”. “He asked me outright, ‘What does it mean to be a believer?’ and at that moment, I knew it was time to begin writing my column again.

“This year has been a little quiet on the column side, because I’ve been putting a lot of time into researching different people that I want to speak to. So much so I think I’m going to have to hire a researcher to follow up on all my leads. I think I have enough for another book,” she smiles.

Changing times

It was then I realised that Dina’s been talking for 30 minutes straight. So much for being an intrepid interviewer, I chide myself in my head. But then I realise that it’s Dina, and her wonderful way of weaving anecdotes into stories, and drawing you into her narrative. I ask Dina what she wants for 2013, for herself, for Malaysia.

“I’m going to work extremely hard and spend lots of money on massages to destress. I’m going to finish the book and then get out of the media business for a while, just be away for a couple of years. But for now, I’m finishing the book in 2013,” she says with steely determination.

Her demeanour softens as she looks at my copy of I Am Muslim on the table between us.

“This book was published five years ago, and things have seriously changed. I don’t know whether it’s for the better or for the worse. Five years ago when I wrote it I thought people had quite a bit of fun talking to me, there was a sense of gila-gila-ness, and a sense of adventure and we had fun talking.

“Nowadays, I get the feeling that people are just a tiny bit more guarded. You can’t deny that religion has become politicised. It’s all a bit unsettling. And it’s the middle age urbanites that are grappling with these feelings of uncertainties. The young rural Muslims I speak to don’t really seem to have a crisis of faith. I don’t know, I don’t have all the answers,” she says, echoing a line from I Am Muslim.

“When I travel into kampungs, whether I meet a Muslim family or a Buddhist family or a Hindu family, the openheartedness is so different from what we get in KL. I don’t want that openness destroyed. And all I want to do is remind people not to forget that the openness exists within all Malaysians.”

Keep telling stories Dina, and we won’t forget.

In her first ever kindergarten report card, teachers noted that Sumitra Selvaraj "loves words and stories, but is often caught with her head in the clouds". Not much has changed since.

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