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The Star - Sharing the Nation - Yearning for a lost homeland (10 September 2017)
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At last year’s George Town Literary Festival, I was asked to give the keynote address on the theme of hiraeth, a Welsh word that means a longing for a homeland that is no longer there. Homesickness tinged with grief and sadness over the lost and departed. A mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness. An earnest desire for the land of the past.

As we celebrate our 60th year of independence and our 54th year together as Malaysia, I feel this yearning more than ever.

In fact, it seems like the whole of humanity is suffering from this longing for a homeland that is no longer there.
The millions of refugees, forced to leave their homes and living in misery and isolation in foreign lands – long for a lost home that has been bombed to smithereens.

Trump supporters in the United States and the Red Shirts of Malaysia seem to mourn over their perceived displacement and dispensability, and long for an imaginary ideal home, devoid of threatening “Others” – a utopia that never existed in the first place.

The pervasive sense of anxiety, fear, restiveness, and powerlessness over our ability to change the course of the world, the course of our own beleaguered nation, has led to this sense of hiraeth, of yearning for a much simpler, more harmonious past, a slower time, a comfortable context where we understood what was happening around us.

Last Thursday, I saw Sean Ghazi and Ida Mariana perform their delectable Tarakucha big band show, bringing Malaysia’s song book of the 1950s to a new audience. We lapped up all the P. Ramlee and Saloma duets, teared at the beauty of the lyrics of love found, love lost, love longed for. And we laughed at the playfulness and flirtatiousness of an era gone.

And we were all wistful of what it was once like. And yet, as someone who travels the world, on flying home, peering through the window at our green land below – a sense of relief and joy still permeates me.

If this is home, with all its warts, loss of values, where right is wrong and wrong is right, where the good are detained and charged, how can we make it better?

As a Malaysian who has no intention of leaving her country, I want to believe a different kind of hiraeth is possible. A hiraeth, a longing, a yearning that will compel us to create something better, to make this country good again, to make this world more humane.

And I believe, this is possible. I think of Bersih and what it has become. A yearning for free and fair elections among civil society activists has burgeoned into a mass movement, bringing diverse Malaysians together in a call for change; for an end to corruption and abuse of power, an end to business as usual.

Look at G25 – a group of retired Muslim civil servants who came together in a yearning for a Malaysia that used to embrace its pluralism, its diversity, its compassionate, kind and gentle Islam.

Their hiraeth for that lost homeland led them to take action – a group of retirees known for conformity, stepped outside their comfort zones to speak their minds in envisioning a better Malaysia.

Look at Sisters in Islam, the group I co-founded almost 30 years ago. A yearning for Muslim women to be treated as human beings of equal worth and dignity led them to unearth a rich tradition of scholarship in Islam that enables us to champion equality and justice.

That lost past can be resurrected in the quest for a better future. But of course this sense of displacement and powerlessness in the face of forces we cannot control, can also be easily manipulated by politicians desperate to remain in power or to rise to power.

Hiraeth mixed with politics in the hands of demagogues can be an explosive combination. For how does one make sense of the election of Donald Trump, the popularity of demagogues like Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines?

How have they been able to successfully mine the smouldering cauldron of discontent, and elevate racism, bigotry, misogyny and hate of “Others” – be they minorities, refugees, immigrants, gays, lesbians and transsexuals or just people who think differently, to the new normal?

How could they shamelessly display ugliness and get rewarded with electoral victory? These are troubling times for Malaysia and much of the world.

But I am first and foremost an activist. I can’t afford to spend my time bellyaching, knotted in despondency and fear. Because the core mission of activism is to bring about change for the better.

I believe in the power of the pen, the wonder of words and ideas to inspire, to reach deep into the good that I believe is inherent in all human beings; and how that can be transformed to collective action.

The longing for a better Malaysia and my utter belief that this is possible always triumph over moments of despair. There is too much good in this country for us to give up hope.

I think of my many friends in the United States and in Britain, who live there not out of choice, but are forced into exile because the homeland they once knew is lost and is no longer safe for them to live in.

I think of my Iranian friends from university days who had to leave their beautiful country in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution, and the many more incredibly talented and courageous activists and academics I met over the decades who were forced to go into exile when the revolution began to eat its own children.

I am sad that much of the works I read for my activism on Islam and women’s rights and human rights are written by Muslim academics living in the West.

While the West has provided them the safe space to conduct research, think critically and write freely, they still yearn for home and long to make a difference to their own countries, to be a part of the change that their beloved countries so badly need.

I plan to live and die in this country, for it is a country worth fighting for. What makes it heartening and hopeful is that there are many more of us today who are willing to take risks, to stand up, to speak out, to bring the kinds of changes we want to see take place.

While friends in Pakistan and Bangladesh are silenced in the face of death threats for speaking out critically on Islam, we in Malaysia have created a tradition of public debate on matters of religion – even before Islam became the fashionable interest of the rest of the world.

Yes, there are threats and attempts to silence us and shut us down, but the genie is out of the bottle. We are not afraid anymore. I do not wish to see Malaysia become a Pakistan, or an Iran or a Saudi Arabia. It is not too late.

We must recover our openness to diversity, rebuild our compass for integrity, regain our values, restore our reputation, reclaim our good name. So that this will never be a home to which we cannot return.

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