THE morning after the successful launch of Surfing behind the Wall in Penang it rains. Huge, black clouds disgorge torrents of water. The clouds clear a little, and Georgetown comes to life. Youths on mopeds with their jackets back-to-front, buzz through the traffic.
My flight is at 10, 30 a.m. and I’m taken to the airport. I have time to enjoy a cappuccino. I see a well-dressed couple in traditional dress posing for the camera, which in this case is the ubiquitous i-pod or Blackberry. I learn that they’re local TV stars. The paparazzi are mainly airport staff.
My Air-Asia plane banks sharply before heading to Kuala Lumpur (in English “the city of two muddy rivers”). From the air the island of Penang is stunning; green, jungled hills meet a turquoise sea.
I can’t help thinking about the young Thai NGO workers to whom I gave a media workshop the day before. They’ll be leaving Penang too, but their journey will be a very different one to mine.
The Patani Malays of southern Thailand have been locked in a struggle for autonomy, or at the least equal political rights, for longer than the Palestinians. This forgotten struggle – in which thousands have died – is far from resolved. These young people carry a huge responsibility.
My close friend and Far East publisher, Dr Yunus Yasin, meets me at KL airport. This generous, hospitable and warm-hearted man is CEO of Fajr Symphony (http://www.fajrsymphony.com), an organisation that promotes science, culture and the arts. Dr Yunus is also founder of the Science Fair for Young Children (http://www.nsfyc.org) and edits a quarterly magazine, Constellations.
He has a busy schedule lined up for me. Our idea has been to publicise the book via a series of smaller, more intimate gatherings. I report to him my experiences in Singapore and the function hosted by PRECISE in Penang.
The next few days become a blur of functions and talks. I promote the book at an arts centre, in the hallowed halls of the KL Golf club (where George Galloway once spoke), the Al-Hunafah madrasah and a shopping centre (where I do a TV interview). I meet a young entrepreneur, who got so annoyed by Starbucks, that he opened his own coffee shops selling Malaysian coffee.
In between we meet a host of Dr Yunus’ colleagues and connections, including Syed Azmin of the Bukhari Foundation, who shows me on his lap-top images of a hospital and community centre built by his Foundation in quake-stricken Pakistan.
Syed Azmin, who bought the church that is now the Al-Jumu’ah mosque in Cape Town (next to Long Street Baths), tells me of its unique history as a Sir Herbert Baker designed building, which is protected by South African heritage laws.
Our other good friend, Sedik Ahmed, who attended the Imam Al-Ghazali conference in Cape Town, looks on. Sedik, who has been a behind-the-scenes supporter of my books in the Far East, was once a financial journalist, but as a qualified lawyer now deals with HR in the Bukhari organisation.
We also have an audience with Dr Mahathir Mohamed, former Malaysian PM, and head of the Perdana Global Foundation, whose brief is to criminalise war. It feels strange autographing something for a head of state. We get Dr Mahathir to sign a poster for my South African sponsors, the Kaaf Trust.
In the lobby, Dr Mahathir’s wife has a chat with us. She tells us of her humanitarian trip to Iraq during the sanctions era – and the awkward diplomatic niceties of being summoned to meet Saddam Hussein.
Dr Mahathir’s organisation is due to have a tribunal on war the following week with guests such as Denis Halliday (formerly of the UN) scheduled to testify. Dr Zuleika of the foundation gives me an official invite, but – unfortunately – I can’t stay in KL for another week.
The organisers are looking for something special to give the attendees of a gala dinner, a function planned to conclude the tribunal. It’s suggested that my book be an interesting, if not unique gift. Over 600 people will be attending and Dr Yunus has to make frantic phone calls to the printer to roll out another 1,000 copies.
I do my final interview with BFM 89.9 on their drive-time show, a little irony that is not lost on me as a drive-time presenter in South Africa. (See: http://www.fajrsymphony.com/index.php/news-events/item/19-surfing-behind-the-wall-launched-at-kuala-lumpur).
All too soon, the hectic, but satisfying Surfing behind the Wall Far East launch starts to wind down. In two weeks we’ve only taken one day off. We have lunch with Syed Farid al-Attas, head of the Malay Studies Department at Singapore’s National University.
Apart from being a descendant of the original, Sharifian Al-‘Attas family, he’s the son of the famous Malaysian scholar, the late Syed Hussein al-‘Attas, author of The Myth of the Lazy Native. We visit his childhood home in a leafy KL suburb. Syed Hussein’s charming widow, Sarojini Zaharah, generously gives me a copy of her husband’s biography, The Life in the Writing.
Syed Farid takes us to a Chinese shop which custom manufactures the most beautiful rosaries, or tasbihs, out of jade and semi-precious stones. The shop-owners are Buddhist, and they’re masters at stringing beads and tying the knots. The jade tasbih I got there is one of my most prized possessions.
On my last night I’m invited to a barbecue – or should I say “braai” – at the house of Kandar, a former schoolteacher, whose garden is a watery piece of paradise. It’s also an excuse to celebrate the birthday of Dr Yunus’ brother, Abdul Haque, a modest and silent player in the Surfing behind the Wall project.
Chicken sizzles over the coals and I relax in Kandar’s garden, which is an organic extension of his house. As night falls, fountains chatter while red khoi fin lazily in and out of the undergrowth. I sip a cup of Chinese tea.
Exhausted, yet invigorated, I realise that mere words would be inadequate to express my deep gratitude to my hosts, and all those who made my journey so comfortable. But I still have to say it: terimah kasih – thank you, thank you – and, yes, I finally got the Malay spelling right!