Book review: Ombak Bukan Biru by Fatimah Busu

ombak-bukan-biru4Fatimah Busu has a gift for telling stories of social alienation. Her stories are often a provocative social critique of Malay society but are easily accessible and good for philosophical rumination. In Salam Maria, her protagonist is a misfit, a social castoff who is forced to the depths of the forest to live with those of a similar fate. In Ombak Bukan Biru (The Waves Are Not Blue, 1972, Pekan Ilmu Publications), the turmoil of class, cultural and religious differences is told from the point of view of Imrah, a young Malay teacher from Kelantan.

Emotional, though paced at breakneck speed, Ombak Bukan Biru is a joy to read. From the beginning of the novel we know that Imrah has little patience for her boyfriend’s dalliances and leaves him with a broken heart and broken gifts from happier days. But a surprise visit from the school headmistress and an English guest teacher, Cik Celine, forms a kind of emotional distraction that relieves her from the painful break-up. Unbeknownst to Imrah of course, of the greater melodrama that will unfold following this chance meeting.

Celine and Imrah quickly become close friends and share a mutual enthusiasm for traditional court dancing, the tarian lilin (candle dance). Their friendship leads to an invitation to Celine’s home in Pulau Pinang where she meets her future love, Lawrence. Their relationship is encouraged by his family and Celine, but the same could not be expected from Imrah’s family. The clash of cultures she experiences is striking; while her white family and Lawrence are welcoming and permissive, her own family is uncompromising and suspicious of others different from themselves. The Malay attitude towards inter-religious marriage she discovers is both sexist and arcane. She learns from her deeply religious father that a marriage between a Muslim woman and convert (mu’alaf) is destined to doom. Feminine persuasion cannot lead a man to an Islamic way of life the way a man can lead a woman:

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Ramadhan book club: Salam Maria

Since it’s Ramadhan I thought it might be quite appropriate that I have a special religious feature in my feminist/Malay lit blog. So in today’s post I’d like bring to your attention a little known novel by Fatimah Busu, ‘Salam Maria‘ (or Hail Mary) published in 2004. Unfortunately it’s in Malay, and almost impossible to purchase even in Malaysia as many big-name book shops don’t stock it. But don’t let these be stumbling blocks to discovering the beauty in ‘Salam Maria’. In Fatimah Busu’s allegory, the central character, Maria Zaitun, becomes a religious leader of a community for social outcasts who live in a rain forest called Hutan Beringin.

Though a devout Muslim, Maria Zaitun is ostracised by members of her village for refusing to conform to patriarchal ideals of womanhood. Even the village imam chases her out of the mosque in her time of spiritual need. It is however, a group of women: old, poor, and disabled, who offer her sanctuary in their humble home in Hutan Beringin. Her highly charitable and non-judgemental nature towards rape and incest victims gains the reverence of the forest’s inhabitants. Maria Zaitun is not just a spiritual leader, she is also an entrepreneur: she is the one who encourages these women to start a small cottage industry, sewing and selling specially-embroidered telekung or praying attire for Muslim women in the urban centres. This helps provide them with some form of financial independence and security.

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