i went to see “nadirah“, a play by singaporean playwright alfian sa’at, a couple of days ago. it’s about nadirah (d’oh), the vice-president of the muslim society at a university in singapore. her chinese mother converted to islam when she got married and raised her on muslim values even after she got divorced. things were dandy until her mother decides to enter into a civil marriage with a widower who is a christian…
…and hilarity ensues. ok fine, not really. i have to stop writing cliffhangers like this. mental note: hilarity does not always ensue.
the play explores several heavy issues. islam. apostasy. secularism. people of the book. the struggles of a single mother. what it means to be muslim or, for that matter, a follower of any religion or absence of religion. the malay identity in both malaysia and singapore. religious tolerance. evangelism. and, of course, love and all its complexities.
i expected the play to be provoking, but it wasn’t really. as a government scholar, i once attended one of the heavily-criticised “brainwash” camps. i know how some of my overseas-educated malay counterparts feel about “immigrants” taking what rightfully belongs to them. maybe at 18 i couldn’t fully understand but now, 9 years later, i can somewhat sympathise. it took time and alot of reading and talking to people for me to know why malay supremacy is so important to most and it no longer shocks, disgusts or saddens me.
it’s also a (happy?) coincidence that the play is being staged right when lembah pantai mp nurul izzah is being investigated by religious bodies for comments that supposedly suggested she is ohkay with apostasy (for the record, what she said was “there is no compulsion in religion“). the issue of conversion and marrying within one’s own religion isn’t confined to muslims. most chinese children of my generation must have grown up with tales of how horrible it is to be a muslim and to have to pray 5 times a day and abstain from pork and duck and every other chinese delicacy known to yellow man. in church, i am constantly warned against being “unequally yoked”.
i’m not going to go into what that phrase means (it goes beyond marrying a non-christian or non-catholic/methodist/whathaveyou); what i’m trying to say is:
alfian sa’at didn’t bring anything new to the table. at least not to me or anyone who has close friends of other races and religions and are open enough to actually discuss and allow our views to be challenged before we make our stand. not to me, someone who, more than once, invested a certain degree of “love” in a chinese christian guy who at one point or another chose to have an emotionally intimate relationship with a muslim girl. even the little things in the play, like the issue of malaysians hopping over to the sunny island in search of meritocracy and (the illusion of) freedom of expression, or the use of football to demonstrate a point; i’ve done it before, i’ve seen it before.
what he did do was make it just that little more accessible to people who aren’t used to talking about it. i especially like how “nadirah” gave a good overview of islam, or at least the elements of the faith that would interest people with very short attention spans. redza minhat did a great job at being a fiery version of the typical “melayu” malay while farah rani provided most of the entertainment as his witty, “tak tutup aurat punye” opponent.
the star of the play however, has to be neo swee lin, who gives life to nadirah’s mother, sahirah.
it has to have something to do with growing older but i cried during sahirah’s monologue questioning her identity as a daughter, convert, mother, woman. it was heartbreaking and sincere and though i have absolutely nothing in common with her, it resonated with me all the same. i wanted her to find companionship, i wanted her daughter to feel the pain i did. but nadirah was only 20, and her reaction to her mother’s decision to remarry a non-muslim man was, i guess, age-appropriate.
“there is no room for another god,” said nadirah as she stormed out on her mother. that line jolted me a little more than others did. it’s appropriate then that the discussion i had with my best friend after the show evolved mostly around the zeal of being religious and legalistic. i wonder how i can be secure in my faith yet not turn into a christian version of farouk, fiercely protective of my God (capital G), uncompromising on the reality of the resurrection, rejecting other religions regardless of their origins. how can i stay realistic about my prospects of finding a partner if i do believe i should not be “unequally yoked”? is it justified for religion to be a reason to drive people apart? those are questions that i constantly chew on, but find difficult to answer satisfactorily.
jo kukathas, who did a wonderful job directing the play, said she hopes the unexpected hype surrounding the show will reach the non-theatre-going masses. it’s exactly what i hope too. less informed malaysians need a play like this to trigger questions they may otherwise not think of. i hope it makes the “tak kisah” crowd care about what it means to love god and love man and if it’s actually possible to love both peacefully. i hope they empathise with sahirah and be open to farouk’s point of view. i hope they go out and read some rumi.
i hope “nadirah” has another run here in malaysia.