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To Speak with Their Pens: A Conversation with Zakariya Amataya and Najib Ahmad
以筆倡言—與札卡里亞.阿瑪塔雅(Zakariya Amataya)和納吉阿邁德(Najib Ahmad)對談
December 25th, 2019Type: Interview
Author: Zikri Rahman , 李蝶衣 (copy editor), 黃鈴珺 (翻譯) Editor: Rikey Tenn
Quote From: 《群島資料庫》
Note: Not to confine it to either or, the definition of Malay, as language and identity, itself has been at the forefront of contestation. The language must serve its utopian openness. It must betray the very identity which confines it and is given to it. Through literature, the language is where “the people speak with their writing”; writing is the crystallization of articulation and thinking. During his residency in Buku bookstore in Thailand's deep south, Zikri Rahman had interviewed with the founders of The Melayu Review journal. They also reflected on historical complexity of the deep south by articulating the current situations of Malay language / identity in its context.
Zakariya Amataya (left) and Najib Ahmad (right), 2019; photo courtesy of Zikri Rahman

In the past, there were only two notions for those who sported a beard here: either you were in a religious preacher group or a notorious person. You were either black or white. But as human beings, we are more than that in society. We are grey.

The witty Najib Ahmad is a seasoned cultural activist who styled himself as the tok dalang(註1) – he who sits behind the screen playing with the shadow. It was Kherā (เครา) nighttime in the year 2014, recalled Najib, when he first became acquainted with Zakariya Amataya, a poet who won the prestigious Southeast Asia Writers Award. They continued to collaborate in establishing The Melayu Review – the non-periodical journal based in Southern Thailand after prolonged ‘debates’ via facebook, unsurprisingly, while exchanging perspectives on the history of the Thai royal family. The second time they met was during the commemoration of the 60th year after Haji Sulong’s ‘disappearance.’(註2)

For those who are not without a grave, the grave is everywhere.

The poignant lines read by Zakariya seemed to reverberate to Imam Al-Sadiq’s cry of “everywhere is Karbala!when he mourned the slain Imam Al-Hussein.(註3) Indeed, the martyrs are eternal. They are the spectre haunting the power which history will indefinitely absolve.

At a glimpse, the first sentences that came from Najib reminded me of the Cuban revolutionaries circa-mid 1950s, who were battling the guerrilla warfare against Batista’s dictatorship, marching towards Havana while, coincidentally, sporting scruffy, rugged beards. It was the order given at the time by Batista’s army to execute those with beards on site, and it is not far from the everyday reality here in the three provinces of Southern Thailand: Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani. History is doomed to repeat itself, says George Santayana, and worsens whether you are sporting a beard or not. The violence ensued remained unequivocally between the State and its own people given the pluralised labels such as rebel, militant, separatist, fundamentalist. They are the people of no man’s land(註4) — the forever personae non-gratae — neither belonging to the State nor the Nation.

In Pat(t)ani, 2019; photo courtesy of Zikri Rahman.

The spectrum of today’s violence requires no introduction. With the privilege to paraphrase Jean Genet, the reluctant ‘French’ dramatist who wrote the seminal essay “Violence and Brutality”, it is the intimacy and banality of the unknown lived experience where “brutality takes the most unexpected forms [and is] often not immediately discernible as brutality.”(註5) This can be exemplified in the differentiation of Malay-Muslim identity vis-à-vis the hegemonic Thai-Buddhist society; the babel of words – the continuous translation and transliteration between Jawi, Thai and Malay on its many signboards on the road; the spelling of Pat(t)ani – with double ‘t’ or a single ‘t’ which questions your fidelity to whom and what; the anxiety of passing through hundreds of military checkpoints in your neighbourhood and still not knowing how to answer them; the fear of reading your own Hikayat Patani(註6) and being fined if you are speaking in your mother(less) tongue(註7), so much so that you end up whispering among each other. All in all, it is the intricate layers of brutality which suppress the most primitive longing of human beings and its many stories that have yet to be told. Brutalities here are no longer fragmentary, disjointed events but rather to be understood as structure. Regarding this, we need language to articulate and be heard but who’s there to listen and for what?

The questions are, indeed, rhetorical. It is not merely a question concerning the language per se, but an attempt to observe the emerging cultural interventions(註8) in spite of the spiralling violence in the South. Metaphorically, the introduction of The Melayu Review “is like starting a farm”, said Najib, “if we didn’t bustle around to set things in motion, how is it possible for us to find the treasures and wisdom in the forest?”

Growing up during the continuous process of rathniyom directed by Field Marshall Phibun Songkhram(註9), Najib vividly remembers how the intrusion of the Thai language took place. “We no longer use the Malay language in daily life. It is broken up. We were struggling with both languages, Thai and Malay. We are only able to have basic conversations (in Malay) as it is not for literary use,” he said. The Thai language, once and for all, particularly in its written form, has an almost sacred and exclusivist status as the national language. To a certain extent, the protection of the status is a matter of national security, hence the homogenization of the Thai language by integrating not only the Malay language, but also other existing languages, ranging from Lao, Khmer, Northern Thai dialect to Karen amongst others. Speaking Central Thai, though a minority language spoken by roughly a quarter of its population in 1940’s, has been deemed as a repository of exactly what Thai-ness is.(註10)

"Masjid Dato; ratusan tahun tempat singgahan segala dagang di Teluk Patani." 2019; photo courtesy of Zikri Rahman

Language is an ever changing landscape and has the potential to de-geographize one’s identity. It resonates with how Zakariya reminisced Bukit, the place where he grew up. He states that it “is not the same as I used to imagine when I was growing up; the sky is no longer crystal clear as it is darkened by the overhanging rubber trees.” The familiar yet disorientating feeling has baffled Zakariya to such an extent that he decided not to take refuge in the place where he grew up. The same goes with the language that might no longer be his. It has to surrender to the fate that it belongs to something else and is always in contestation.

Choosing the word ‘Malay’ as the journal’s title not only comes with risks but also serves as a raring manifesto of something subversive that is yet to come. In an attempt to provincialize Bangkok, the hegemonic centre of Thai-ness, Najib continues to stress, “we want those in Bangkok to read this, to see what we think of.” The undercurrent at stake is the discontentment towards the competing “nation-of-intent”(註11) which transpires here. The Malay here is the archipelago, it is a “political concept” in formation says Najib – they are, to put in Shamsul A.B’s illuminating definition, a “nation without a state”. The project has to go beyond the State which is why we are “looking at the possibilities of the project (The Melayu Review). We are thinking of going to Bandung, Kuala Lumpur and Kaherah where there are a lot of students from the three provinces”. This phenomenon is precisely the reason behind the influential, amalgamated, mongrel version of Malay language here in the three provinces; it does not necessarily have to be Malaysian-Malay, Singaporean-Malay, Indonesian-Malay or Bruneian-Malay, it is of its own. The possibilities are alluring.

The complex constellation of the word ‘Malay’ does not just end there. Back home, we struggle with the nationalists who “glorify how huge our empire used to be in the olden days”, jested Najib, “but what exactly does it mean?” For some, the ‘Malay’ without any trace of Jawi scriptures – ironically, the journal only receives submissions in Thai and English, and does not accept Jawi or Malay – can be disorientating, particularly considering how intertwined Malay and Jawi are as systems of language. Hence, the journal is not ‘Malay’ enough. For both Najib and Zakariya, it represents more structural challenges to the conception of Malay language and its functions. Is it merely being used as a nationalist rhetoric of its performative roles or do we really treat it as a “living language” as stressed by Zakariya?

buku books & more (ร้านหนังสือบูคู ปัตตานี), 2019; photo courtesy of Zikri Rahman

Not to confine it to either or, the definition of Malay, as language and identity, itself has been at the forefront of contestation. The language must serve its utopian openness. It must betray the very identity which confines it and is given to it. Through literature, the language is where “the people speak with their writing”; writing is the crystallization of articulation and thinking. It is through rigorous practices that the excavation in “experimenting with the formation of kalimah, definitions or terminologies,” is pertinent to dialogue with other knowledge. Zakariya convinces us that “language is an act of remembering, we have to live it. The language here is not contemporary enough”, and that is precisely the prevalent complexities that we have to confront. Zakariya adds,

It is only possible through writing, for writing [has been seen] as a process of institutionalization.

Institutionalization carries with it a sense of rigidity and bureaucracy. History has witnessed the process of institutionalizing cultures; what other language in the literary dimension has been – to put it bluntly – more counter-productive to the vibrancy of the phenomena itself. Having said that, the Malay language dynamic here in the South has been negotiating its complex constellations quite a lot – from the multiformities of knowledge production, of pondok and its intelligentsia class of Tok Guru, to the introduction of conventional school systems in the mould of Thai-sation as the national indoctrination. But of course, to institutionalise the language in Southern Thailand, will be seen as an act of resistance. With the initial idea of creating a writer’s movement here in the South, Zakariya has to leverage the situation by tracing the historical complexities so they do not end up “like the writer’s groups in the 1940’s and 1950’s from Bangkok or from the South and Isan. Not like that.” History surrenders to its fate again and again for “those accustomed to being part of a political group – those in support and against the coup – rather than being in a literary group”.

I was looking at the possibilities of having a writer’s movement here in the three provinces – not for those who are in Bangkok, but we are open if they want to write for us and as long as their writing resonates with our theme”, stressed Zakariya. In response to my naïve questions of how we should locate the literary genesis here in the South, he thinks that for the literary tradition to nourish it “should be built from scratch, from zilch”.

“What about the whole tradition of pondok—producing diverse religious writing?” I asked them, “Is it not considered literary enough?”

“There are those who want to say that it is part of literature, but for me it is not. There are some which have indeed demonstrated aesthetic use of language, such as Imam Ali’s collection of sermons, but here (Southern Thailand), I would not take it as literary writing per se.” Zakariya then traced back to the formation of Azan(註12), a short-lived Jawi-Malay magazine based in Pattani in the early seventies. “It was a modern magazine compiled by local intellectuals, with translations of Rabindranath Tagore and short stories in Jawi-Malay,” he said, “but after they left Pattani to pursue their studies overseas, Azan was closed.” Being the last literary magazine since then, the drought did not end there, it affected the source of the whole literary ecosystem in the South, where we are confined to using the language of the modern state that we have become a slave unto.

This is the oppressor’s language, yet I need it to talk to you.(註13)

Writes the feminist poet, Adrienne Rich. The reclaiming of literary prowess in The Melayu Review, be it in Thai or Malay, romanized or in Jawi, should serve as a constellation and reminder that language (whether in the mono-, pluri-, or multi-) has inherent anarchic dimensions which remains steadfast in how we are making sense of the world around us. It does, at the end, come with an intertwined agenda, “a political one”, Najib states, “we have to rethink how are we going to do it” and take into consideration the trans-local historical connections of language politics in our region.

Footnote
[1] Tok Dalang means "the master puppeteer" in the traditional shadow play of Wayang Kulit.
[2] See Omar Farouq, The Origins and Evolution of Malay Ethnic Nationalism in Southern Thailand, Islam and Society in Southeast Asia, ed. Taufik Abdullah and Sharon Siddique, 1987
[3] Ali Shariati, Martyrdom. Available at: www.al-islam.org/martyrdom-arise-and-bear-witness-ali-shariati/martyrdom (n.d) (2019/12/25 retrieved)
[4] See Satha-Anand, 2012.
[5] See Jean Genet, Violence and Brutality, The Declared Enemy, ed. Albert Dichy, 2004.
[6] Though there is no “official” records on banning the reading materials, there are several cases mentioned by my interlocutors on how the military used to seize Jawi-based publications and religious reading materials.
[7] "Malay language and conflict in Deep South."An Interview with Hara Shintaro by Thaweeporn Kummetha (n.d.) Retrieved on 2019/11/17 from prachatai.com/english/node/6295
[8] As being observed during the short stint of residency program, the significant number of cultural initiatives and interventions; from alternative bookstores, heritage and architectural groups to fashion-based initiatives has cropped up in the recent years. As being shared by Dr. Muhammad Arafat, an anthropologist working on Southern Thailand, the phenomena has been encouraging that he coined the phrase “berjuang tanpa bedil” (struggle without arms).
[9] Craig J. Reynolds, ed. National Identity and Its Defenders, 1991.
[10] Ibid, p9.
[11] Shamsul A.B and Sity Daud, (n.d.). Nation, ethnicity, and contending discourse in the Malaysian state. State Making in Asia, pp150-161. doi:10.4324/9780203338988_chapter_7
[12] MAJALAH AZAN Pelopor Media Modern Patani. (n.d.). Retrieved on 2019/11/17 from: deepsouthwatch.org/dsj/th/3848
[13] Rich, A., Rankine, C., & Conrad, P. (2016). Collected poems: 1950-2012. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.