I am a great Dina fan.
I first discovered her through her first blog The Gongkapas Times and was totally beguiled - by the honesty of the writing, by the humour, by the colourful characters who inhabit Dina's world, by the fact that she has a gift for writing dialogue which reflects how Malaysians really talk (switching constantly between languages), and by the gossipy readability of it.
We became friends when she asked me to read some of her stories and give her feedback. I'm a very reluctant editor, since most people are extremely sensitive about what they write. But when I sit with Dina in Starbucks, wielding a pen over her work, I feel I can be absolutely honest about what works and what doesn't: to go back to the washing instructions analogy I love to use, Dina is hot wash, fast spin, line dry. But she's also crinkle free, no iron, shrink proof and colourfast. A real pleasure to work with.
I was familiar with quite a lot of the material in Dina Zaman's I Am Muslim long before the book was published. I'd read some of the columns on the Malaysiakini website, some on Dina's previous blog (now defunct), and heard some of them in readings at Borders and at Seksan's.
Least folks be put off the book by the title, expecting a heavy religious tome, let me hasten to add the book reflects all that is best about Dina's writing. Her writing displays a lightness of touch, but is never lightweight in terms of the value of the discussion. It's also written with warmth, humanity and humour.
Raman's website describes the books as "a selfish journey of faith" and I really do take issue with the word "selfish" to describe this very personal search for meaning and truth because, although Dina describes an inward journey, she opens the book outward to record the voices of a whole range of individual voices working through their own (often very difficult) questions about Islam and what it means to be a Muslim. Dina, to her credit, doesn't set herself up as any kind of an expert to answer them, but in this self-censoring society it takes a great deal of courage even to raise issues (particularly about relationships and sex) publicly.
The portraits are often deeply affecting, the characters as fully realized as in any piece of fiction. The episode I most love for its lyrical beauty and narrative flow is The Student and The Teacher.
I Am Muslim is also an intriguing exposé of the urban middle-class Malay in Kuala Lumpur: Dina is a lady with her ear firmly to the ground. I didn't know about the expense of keeping up with appearances with designer telekungs (prayer shrouds), costly religious classes and "jet-set umrahs" andam now much enlightened. And there is an eye-popping account of the sexual prefences of boarding school educated Malay men which is going to be very hotly denied, I think. (But Dina has her informants ...).
My only criticism of the book is that there are places where I'd have loved her to escape the short article format and developed arguments further, and some form of afterword would have drawn the book together rather better. Having proofread the book towards the end, I'm glad that the ouchy bits have gone, and commend Raman on doing a good job with the editing.
Copies can be bought online from Silverfish and shipped anywhere in the world. I would love to see I Am Muslim in the hands of readers outside Malaysia, particularly as so much of the world equates Islam with terrorism and extremism and the oppression of women and this book presents a refreshing counterbalance to the stereotypical images.
And Dina, you gotta autograph my copy!