Wednesday 18 March 2020

The Day The Music Died: Elaine Chiew Sits Down With Fairoz Ahmad

Fairoz Ahmad, courtesy of Ethos Books

Fairoz Ahmad is the co-founder of the award-winning social enterprise, Chapter W. For his work with the community, he was awarded the National University of Singapore's Outstanding Young Alumni award and United Kingdom's Commonwealth Point of Light award. He also lectures in sociology and community development at Temasek Polytechnic. Fairoz graduated from the University of Oxford with a Master of Public Policy (Distinction) under the Chevening-Oxford scholarship. His book, Interpreter of Winds, was published by Ethos Books in 2019. The book is a reflection of his experiences and observations growing up Muslim in a world too busy, too distracted, to understand one another.

Book Synopsis:

Often an unnoticed caress on our faces, winds are voiceless and formless. How do we interpret them? What mysteries can we find in the whispers of winds? From a Dutch occupied Java where a witch was murdered, a dog who desires to be a Muslim, to a day in which all sense of music is lost, the mundane is aflame with the uncanny.
In these stories, Fairoz Ahmad invites you to take a closer look at ordinary objects, as they take on a life of their own and spin gossamer threads. This book is a celebration of the little charms and enchantments of our universes amidst struggles and eventual helplessness.

Courtesy of Ethos Books
EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Fairoz. Congratulations on the recent publication of Interpreter of Winds. The prose has such surprising turns, the tone is prosaic yet lofty, and the stories felt possessed of a layered existential depth that would take many more reads to unravel. 

Tell us how this project began.  

FA: When I sent the draft manuscript to Ethos Books, I wrote, as the opening sentence: Do Muslims laugh? I was in my early 20s old when the September 11 attacks occurred. I continue to feel the implications of the strong, negative representation of Muslims today.

Muslims have lovely worlds. Enchanting worlds. We have worlds where people just stumble along. Where people are afraid of change, ask questions of who they are in the bigger scheme of things.

I wanted to share these worlds with others, with the hope that readers, especially non-Muslim readers, get to peek into these little known worlds. Worlds of talking dogs and camels, of an era when the keris played a dominant role, of a month when a devil visited a village, and of a day when the music died.

EC: Wind is in the title, and winds itself in different forms through all the stories in testimony to its atavistic nature. For example, in the title story and opening scene, a spider is propelled by updraft to the top of the world and says, “The histories of the world are shaped by winds.” How does the concept of wind interact with all the different histories in the stories?

FA: In the past, Southeast Asia was called by Middle East traders as the land below the winds. The term ‘land above the winds’ refers to the lands “windward of the southwest monsoon”, a term that was first used by Persian navigators. Some of them felt that the ‘lands above the winds’ was the undisputed, genuine and pristine centre of ‘true’ Islam while Southeast Asian countries were inferior in terms of their level of Islamic scholarship, knowledge and practice. Trade, and faith, flows downwards via the winds.

I was struck by this characterization, that something so unremarkable as the wind can have such an influential role in history.

In the titular story, I used the idea of winds to explore how it shaped our myths and histories. For example, in The King in the Palace of Glass, I used the Greek mythology on winds, aimed at partly understanding seasons, and which paralleled to some degree how Arabs describe winds in the desert. The Arab understanding of wind however, is different. The desert has no seasons. The wind performs a different role and has to be interpreted differently. At certain months and from a specific direction, the winds create terrible sandstorms. But the wind ‘just is’. It is not responsible for consequences, yet has a profound implication on our civilization. I recently came across a fact that despite having so much sand in the desert, Saudi Arabia has to import most of its sand if it has to build something. Desert sand, through friction from winds, is too smooth, and does not mix well with concrete.

EC: Stories within stories, which you employ as a structure in the title story, reminds me not only of The 1001 Nights, it also evokes strains of Calvino and Borges. The stories also read like a hybrid of religious parables crossed with magical realism. Was that your intention? Stylistically, which genre or writers influenced you to adopt meta-layers and style-hybridity?

FA:  My intention was for some of the stories to reflect on faith while having a dream-like, fairy-tale feel, because a fairy tale structure is probably the friendliest way to reveal uncomfortable truths. Meta-layering is a method I chose in writing, influenced by a wide range of writers. I will share two examples. 

Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series The Sandman was a heavy influence in terms of experimenting with styles and genres, and in particular, experimenting with time and space. In fact, I feel the titular story might work best as a graphic novel rather than pure prose. In The Smell of Jasmine after the Rain, which took place in pre-Independence Java, I experimented with the idea of slowing down how a reader experiences time. 

The characters take their time, the dialogue is half-finished, but yet each character understood what the other meant. There is a senseless murder, but little urgency. No one panics. Yet things move, and they move in their own time and pace. This is to be faithful to the Javanese culture and way of life, which emphasizes respect, hierarchy and decorum. Now, if you are used to the Western or Hollywood rhythm of time, and you imagine the story in your mind as unfolding in a series of images like a movie plot, you will feel frustrated. Because it feels slow and ‘draggy’.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez was also an important influence. I recalled reading his short story ‘A Very Old Man With Very Large Wings’ when I was a teenager. An angel fell to earth. A villager captured it, put it in a chicken coop and started charging money to villagers who wanted to seek counsel from the angel, which for some reason, never spoke.  Rather than focussing on the angel, I was struck by how the story made so clear, so effective, how flawed humans are. The magical was made mundane, and the mundane was made crystal clear.

EC: The story of Amir Hamzah in the title story makes reference to British colonisation of the Malay world via the map. By juxtaposing the Arabic language with the reference and stories of British colonisation, do you agree that the story takes on a critical stance of post-colonial resistance?

FA: Post-colonial resistance involves reclaiming our own stories and histories, excavating and unearthing the hidden stories and indigenous understanding of one’s environment. The Amir Hamzah story was based on a historical account not known by many – the existence of mock manuscripts in the 18th-19 centuries. You see, there was curiosity to understand the colonized lands. But such curiosity stemmed partly from a wish to ‘collect nice things from the Orient for display at home’. Resistance of the colonial subjects can take the form of subversive trivializing or playing with these requests and getting away with it.

However, this was not my main intention. 

The story of Amir Hamzah appeared as a story within a story during the journey of the dog and a camel across the desert, where they, more or less, chit-chat about faith. For me, it’s a story about a man who thought he had complete agency in his life, and exercised a tremendous amount of free will, only for it to end badly. This was after all, a Malay scribe, who counterfeited an entire manuscript for the British and got away with it!  I wanted this to serve as a parallel for the dog’s journey -how the dog began with an abundance of free will, only to suffer disappointment afterwards.

EC: I’m intrigued by your decision to use English to write these stories instead of Bahasa, if English too can be argued to be an imperialist tool. 

FA: I am a product of a certain time and place. I find it easier and more comfortable to express nuances and ideas in English rather than Malay. But one can, and has, used the language of the colonials as a weapon against colonialism. The histories of colonial resistance in Southeast Asia and Africa have usually begun with the colonized, schooled in the language of their colonial masters, redeploying that very same language against them later on, as resistance. 

EC: I love that Malay history plays such a pivotal role in all the stories, such as the historical document of Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah – an existing manuscript apparently written by a Bugis scribe for an American missionary in 1842. Also, historical objects such as the Singapore stone (almost sounds like the Rosetta Stone), the Keris of Parangtritis, and numbers ‘7’ and ‘1000’ which seem to contain a mysterious symbolism within Islam. What do the numbers mean symbolically?  

FA: During Ramadhan, there exists one special night, where the benefits of praying is as valuable as that of praying for 1000 months. That special night is called Lailatul Qadar (in Malay) or Laylat al-Qadr (in Arabic). No one knows which particular night this is, although it is believed that this special night falls during one of the last ten days of Ramadhan. Because it could be any night in the last ten nights of Ramadhan, some have sought to seek signs of something special, different, something out of the ordinary, as evidence that Lailatul Qadar has arrived. 

The number ‘7’ is an auspicious number in Javanese cosmology as well as in many religions. For example, in Javanese cosmology, it is believed that a foetus has a soul from the 7th month of pregnancy. 

EC: What role or symbolism do you see these histories and objects play within ‘story-telling’? (Interesting too that the history and craft of keris-making are made much of in The Smell of Jasmine After the Rain, but the same object then kills a woman, which crime is then buried).

FA: There is this famous scene in the original Blade Runner, where the replicant, Roy Batty, played by the late Rutget Hauer, gave a soliloquy moments before his death, reflecting on all the moments he had experienced, and the memories he had, which will soon be forgotten, for his time is up, “like tears in rain”.

I wanted to capture moments in the past that are now gone and forgotten, and in the process, also capture the richness and diversity of Muslim societies across time and space. Aspects that had been forgotten, or neglected. For example, the oral tradition of story-telling, which was such a rich and important tradition of our past, for both Muslims and non-Muslim societies, was used as an important plot device in the titular story -the dog and camel telling stories in the desert.

The other way I aimed to do this was to capture the richness of histories in terms of objects, such as the keris, of limited relevance today, but which had its own Golden Age once. So, one technique I used was to put the keris at the forefront of the story, go deep into the details of keris-making and let the story unfold around it. 

EC: In The Night of A Thousand Months, a medicine man sees the name of God inked in the sky by the pattern of stars and then promptly fell and sprained his ankle, and when a garbled message of the same was transmitted to the imam (the religious man), he makes a hash of it in interpretation and them promptly falls into a pothole and (allegedly) broke his leg in two places. Why was it important for you to intertwine the sacred with the profane, and was it your intention that it should skirt the border of the ‘sacrilegious’? 

FA: Because the sacred and the profane, and the serious and the absurd, co-exist far more closely that we ever give it credit for, or want to give it credit for. This co-existence is the totality of what makes religion a very human experience. The ones that are made fun of are certain practitioners of the faith in the story, which are composite characters of what people would notice in their daily life, rather than the religion itself. In fact, the transgressions of some religious leaders as reported in the news are far, far worse than what was in the stories, which are mostly mild sarcasm.

EC: You wear quite several hats. Can you talk more about your work with Chapter W?

FA:  Chapter W is a social enterprise that empowers Indonesian women to become solar lamp entrepreneurs. I co-founded Chapter W a few years ago, and our work has benefited over 24,000 rural Indonesians with solar lights. We are now working on a new tech platform focusing on facilitating group savings within a trusted network.

EC:  Thank you for joining us at AsianBooksBlog, Fairoz. It was a pleasure to have you. 

NB: Interpreter of Winds may be purchased online and locally in Singapore at the following outlets: Ethos Books -
and Books Kinokuniya.