Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Ioannis Between Covers

A terrible distraction popped into my mailbox yesterday in the form of a review copy of Ioannis Gatsiounis' Beyond the Veneer : Malaysia's Struggle for Dignity and Direction, which Philip Tatham of Monsoon Books had very kindly sent to me.

I only meant to have a quick dip into it over a cup of tea, but got completely sucked in and got no work done after that.

Ioannis is a freelance journalist, originally from New York and based in KL (and a friend I've not seen around for quite a while, come to think of it ...). His articles about Malaysia have appeared in a number of publications including Newsweek, The Washington Times, Al Jazeera, and Asia Times. He also writes fiction, and he is working on a (very Graham Green-ish!) novel.

This book is a collection of his articles covering the issues and events that lead to the "political tsunami" here in March 2008. (See the blurb and read sample chapters on the publisher's website here).

If I don't comment further on the pieces (apart from to say that I am finding them very well written and fascinating because the Malaysian political landscape is never dull!) it is because I feel unqualified to do so as a mentally lazy person who only really cares about books and trees and whether women are being prevented from wearing noisy high heels and lipstick.

But actually Ioannis does talk about books too.

He has a very nice review of Amir Muhammad's Politicians Say the Darndest Things among others, as well as a piece about a controversial book which almost didn't get written because it was so hard to buy the book (God is not Great : How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens).

I thought this part interesting ... and telling :
This was in a bookstore in majority-Muslim Malaysia's glittering symbol of modernity, the Petronas Towers. I had just been told by the sales clerk the store would not be carrying the title, (which as I write this is number three on the New York Times' nonfiction bestseller list).

Her face, framed by a powder blue headscarf, turned florid as her eyes clung to the computer screen. I requested to speak with a manager. The clerk ignored me. I asked again. The manager would inform me that members of Malaysia's Internal Security Ministry had swept through the store the day before and "requested" that the title be removed from the shelves.

"So there is no official ban?" I queried.


"So ... self-censorship?"

The manager glanced over her shoulder, "Religion is a sensitive issue in Malaysia."

"I understand that but should protecting religious sensitivities happen at the expense of free and open inquiry?" Put another way, should the rest of us be stunted intellectually because some people of faith are thought to be susceptible to intolerance?

She murmured, "It's not that we don't have the book, it's just we're not displaying it."

It was a subtle concession, and soon she was retrieving a copy from the back of the store. Book and receipt in hand, I hung a little longer than I might have on its sweeping subtitle, How religion poisons everything.
This bears out exactly what an audience member at the recent forum on book banning said about trying to buy one of Karen Armstrong's books (not a banned title) at the same bookstore.

You cannot blame the store, or its management (though it looks as if Ioannis would rather like to) but the intimidatory practices of the KDN who snoop around bookstores and ask staff to remove titles they don't approve of.

If a book is not banned officially (i.e. gazetted as such) then it should be freely available and bookstore staff not harassed, not forced to hide titles under the counter.

I have, incidentally seen Hitchen's book on sale openly in other bookshops, so it looks as if the frighteners are being put on this particular store.


Jordan said...

Your friend is too kind to Chris Hitchens. Chris hedges (who isn't exactly a firm believer in religion himself) gives a more balanced view.

But despite my own firm beliefs --- which include the firm belief that Chris Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and their ilk are as bad as the people they rail against --- I do agree their stuff shouldn't be banned or kept in a back room. It should be available for all to see and read, so we can all trash it together. But of course the government seems to be afraid Malaysians wouldn't be able to handle such material without being unduly influenced by it. Sad.

Jordan said...

When I say Chris Hedges gives a more balanced view, I don't mean a more balanced view of the book, but rather a more balanced view of religion. My first sentence might have been a bit vague.

bibliobibuli said...

tisn't the govenment though, but these kdn fellas acting unilaterally.

i say nothing about the value or otherwise of the book in question, just that all ideas should be out in the open for us to agree with or refute as we think fit.

Jordan said...

Ok, it was my second sentence. God, I need more coffee.

Greenbottle said...

ah... christopher hitchens...

what can you say about someone who as one NYT review put it;

"...and recently, he became the most (possibly the only) intellectually serious non-neocon supporter of George W. Bush's Iraq war."

but despite all that i kind of like this guy who in this review described him such:-

" Hitchens is an old-fashioned village atheist, standing in the square trying to pick arguments with the good citizens on their way to church. The book is full of logical flourishes and conundrums, many of them entertaining to the nonbeliever..."

and i v much like this quote from him in one of his interviews:-

Have you ever prayed in your life?

I probably once did pray for an erection, but not addressed to anyone in particular. Nor completely addressed to my cock. You’re too polite to ask if the prayer was answered.

Was it?

No. There was an answer, but I don’t think it was the result of the prayer. After all, if one was not a mammal, and could get erections on demand, there’d be no need for prayer in the first place.


and about that lipstick thing...
as usual, people tend to see the glass half empty when it comes to anything to do with my home state and my fellow dear taliban brothers.

they (the half empty glass gang) whack you first and reluctantly try to correct the statement later buried somewhere when the damage is already done...

In the STAR today;...

In Kota Baru, MPKB clarified that remarks on lipstick and high-heel shoes in its circular in May were only meant to encourage Muslim women to observe the Islamic dress code.

Its public relations director Azman Mohd Daham said the circular was merely a guideline.

“No action will be taken if they wear thick make-up or high-heel shoes,” he told journalists.

bibliobibuli said...

very true about kelantan always getting bad press ...

now see, jordan and greenbottle, it is so simple to refute hitchen's arguments intellectually and put him context. why then is there a need to ask for books to be taken off shelves?

Ruhayat X said...

Westerner comes to town and writes book about disappointments with the regressive natives. Wasn't this already done 200 years ago by that British woman during colonial times? Apparently, she even managed to influence British policy in Malaya to a certain extent.

I think a Talebani should go to New York and write a book imposing HIS worldview on the New Yorkers. Now that would be a book I'd be interested to read.

Anonymous said...

Alexander Cockburn once described Chris Hitchens as a popinjay. I didn't know what it meant and had to look it up... Now each time I read his essays or come across his name I can't seem to get that word out of my mind..Help

- rajan

bibliobibuli said...

ruhayat - which british woman? do you mean isabella bird? that was an awful long time ago if so, and you can't tar foreigners en mass with the same brush! (what's eating you, actually?)

actually malaysians do a pretty good job of criticising themselves ... just read the blogs. i don't think there's a lot that's said in ioannis' articles that hasn't been said in the blogosphere - just he does put his arguments together

and even if you don't always agree with what he says, it's always good to see another viewpoint.

Anonymous said...

A Talibani - if he gets through US immigration - is allowed to go to New York to write about his views and impose them on the world, why can't the same consideration be given to a non-Talibani to do the same in Taliban-dominated areas of Afghanistan?

The newspapers where I'm staying have a daily box with short but thought-provoking sayings from the Bible, the Koran and the Talmud each. Would the same degree of freedom and harmony be given in a Muslim state?

- Poppadumdum

kamal s said...

I can't wait to have a copy of The Satanic Verses on my hand, and shall prowl around KL with it, with biggrin on my face. What do you think, Sharon?

bookseller said...

And just as sales of that bk was great for bookstores, kdn and their comrade-in-arms depts/divisions have to go round and confiscate the bks, even pointing out specific pages and sentences which were offensive to Islam. Hell, the whole bk is meant to offend every religion! What else can you expect???

From the business perspective, it was lost sales, and another snuffing of our minds.

studio said...

"A Talibani - if he gets through US immigration..."

Quite so.

Sharon: I think we've pretty much established just how hopeless and useless the natives are by now, don't you think? To poke further fun at their betudunged faces under the brilliant illumination of enlightened minds is surely as much fun as kicking a mentally-retarded person in the streets, no?

studio said...

Oh, that was me above, by the way.

- Ruhayat

Greenbottle said...

..."I think a Talebani should go to New York and write a book imposing HIS worldview on the New Yorkers. Now that would be a book I'd be interested to read..."

actually it has been done already and even illustrated his view in a rather drastic manner too...

the book is "Message to the world: the statements of Osama ben Laden" ed & introduced by Bruce Lawrence.Translated by James Howarth.
The book is the translation of brother Osama's statements from 1994-2004.

i personally don't need to read it as i think exactly like him (except for the killing of infidels part).

and oh what a sad day for me today. turkey lost to germany 3-2.

bibliobibuli said...

ruhayat - yes, guessed it was you. me, i am not laughing at anyone but the banned/semi-banned/somewhat banned issue really bothers me. i'd fight that corner wherever in the world i happened to be.

your shop too, bookseller? how many titles is this happening with that we don't get to know about?

kamal - maybe that's the book you should chose for your "read while wait" project read. might you, that might make you an easy target.

kamal s said...

Take me. It's been awhile since I was in the limelight. Any news is good news, right?

studio said...

Sharon: posts not directed at you personally, as usual, but cannot be helped when I detect what I deem to be subtle inherent prejudices slash mockery that are meant to be taken as self-evident truths (paging Geraldine Brooks, a master of this craft), and which I'd have thought had already been exposed in "Orientalism" and the causes of which further explored in "Culture and Imperialism". Apparently not.

Reminds me of the days when whole stadiums in the UK would go ape (literally; by making monkey-like noises) whenever a black player gets the ball, or how black criminals seemed to always be identified by skin colour. Very insidious, these things, yet like subliminal messages very effective in pushing the prejudicial idea forward.

studio said...

I meant writing a book in that witty, intelligent manner that shows oh just how clever the author really is. Perhaps a watered down version of "Beyond Belief".

Have you heard about the aboriginal chief (and this is a true story I read in the British papers then) who took a flight to the UK, went up to Greenwich and stuck the aboriginal flag there while declaring, "I hereby claim this land in the name of the queen of the aborigines"? The British authorities didn't find it amusing nor paused to consider the ridiculous truth it contained, for some reason and promptly kicked him out of the country.

Yeah, write a book like THAT.

Greenbottle said...

dear studio;

i don't know, you may call that witty but i prefer to call it loony. and i do find osama quite witty. sometimes i feel like laughing and crying at the same time when reading about osama.

i read 'among the believers' yonks ago and i hated it. and i don't like naipaul's writing very much so i'll forgo "beyond belief".
and by the way i was reading sekutu mehta's Maximum city: Bombay Lost and Found and that chapter about shev sena thugs burning muslims is quite fun.

animah said...

Studio, I challenge you to write a piece/play/script about an aboriginal marching to Greenwich, sticking a flag there and declaring it his country's.

Put it on you-tube.

Anonymous said...

Oh, you're right, Studio, why should we let outsiders reveal "just how hopeless and useless the natives are," when we can do a damn fine job of it ourselves and make Edward Said posthumously proud into the bargain?

I mean, are you actually suggesting that a person's biological/geographic origins should decide what he/she can write about (not to mention whether their books should be banned after they've written them)? Or have you actually *read* Gatsiounis's book?

Because there is suddenly a proliferation of people here delivering pronouncements on books they haven't read or "don't have to" read (whatever that means, Greenbottle -- I checked out your blog and can point out at least 3 ways in which your thinking differs from "brother Osama"'s).

I strongly disagree with Hitchens about the war in Iraq, but I fail to see how he and Dawkins "are as bad as the people they rail against." Everyone says that and no one *who has read them* has actually been able to argue it convincingly.


Anonymous said...

"sometimes i feel like laughing and crying at the same time"

That would be high praise for any writer.

Greenbottle said...

oh good! so glad someone did an "analysis" of my blog and i'm happy to know that i actually have more than one differences with brother osama.

it worries me that i may be too similar to brother osama and i might start thinking of slamming aeroplanes into some local buildings here.

Anonymous said...

Try the new one in Dubai. I hear it's a moving target, so it's more of a challenge.

Amir said...

I remember Ioannis, before reading out a short story in Bangsar, saying: "This story uses quite a few subtleties, but I hope you can understand."

bibliobibuli said...

anon at 6:56 - LOL. yes saw that one the news. mazing.

amir - oh yes, i remember that well too. it actually translates as "this really isn't too clearly written"

marineko said...

what he didn't mention in his article was that he ranted and raged at the poor bookseller for practicing "self-censorship", when it wasn't even her choice. (as if we would purposely not carry a title that sells very well!)

i wasn't there, but she told me about it after i had a different, but equally rude encounter with him.

(the thing that bugs me, though, is how he has something to say against Kino and our staff every time he walks in, and yet he keeps coming back! why come to a store he claims to hate?)

Argus Lou said...

Was delighted to see you write "frighteners" - it somehow made them sound comical and ridiculous, which they are if not so insidious.