A late Eid Mubarak everyone! For all Muslim friends and readers out there, hope your weekend was filled with love and forgiveness, not forgetting good food and company!“Malay Sketches” by Singaporean author Alfian Sa’at will be my recommended read for this festive season, tinged with a strong dose of Southeast Asian flavor.
This book is about the Malays, an ethnic group residing around Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and southern Thailand, where the majority are Muslims.
I have always took the identity of Malays for granted until when my foreign friends asked me and it become quite awkward because having grown up with Malay friends and relatives, I did not consciously think about who they were.
Through his keen observations and insider status as a Singaporean Malay, Sa’at brilliantly captures the dynamics outside and within his ethnic group.
Through a patchwork of narratives written in lengths varying from a few paragraphs to a few pages long, it is as if the author is trying to capture as many accounts as possible.
Moreover, it is also a bold book published in the context of a controlled environment stemming from a top-down effort to preserve racial harmony against inflammatory racist comments.
His stories speak volumes about stereotypes and criticisms of racial relations in a multicultural society, many of which are acknowledged as ‘common knowledge’ but rarely verbally articulated in the public realm.
Most of them are imbued with double meanings that are true sociological accounts of the unique tensions and relations in the society masked with fictional names.
In spite of the severity of the content, the stories are written to cover up the controversial nature ever so subtly such that they read very simply and use simple words with a singular, linear narrative.
But when it came to the topic of religion, Sa’at’s writing became a straightforward, stripped-down form of elegant, textual beauty.
“He doesn’t like praying with the lights on; probably he has noticed that everything feels closer in the dark, including God… In the dark too, perhaps, God’s blessings are received like a spider-filament of light, pouring into the concavity of his palms, visible only to the unseen angels.”
This book is a real cultural read offering insights into the realities of life of an ethnic group in Singapore and a handy accompaniment during the Eid period.