Of Lost Fathers and Broken Men

The younger generation often finds itself at odds with the older generation, and every era is not without its generational divides and conflicts. This is true of us living in the present as it has been throughout human history, and there is nothing to suggest that things will change in the future. Perhaps it is human nature after all, for the young to stand above the old and to pronounce their judgement on the past and the way things were, dreaming aloud of how things could be otherwise – until, of course, the time
comes when age makes us wiser and more humane, and we come to realise that
one day we too will be judged by the restless heralds of the coming age.

As we walk on the stage of human agency otherwise known as history, we should remember that ours are but bit-parts, to be played only momentarily before we move on. The characters may change but the paradigm remains, every generation being the inheritor of the role of Hamlet, yearning and looking for lost fathers, wary of becoming broken men themselves.

This was certainly the case for me, and if some of my columns have tried to uncover the hidden elements of the past it may well have much to do with a longing to return to a less complicated history, a time of epistemic arrest when words and ideas had simpler meanings that were arrested with certainty.

But certainty is a luxury that few of us can afford, and for societies like ours that have been in a state of convulsion and rapid modernisation, all truth has melted into thin air and we grasp desperately for even a semblance of it.

My struggle to rediscover the past of Malaysia has as much to do with the desire to uncover the marginal aspects of our national imaginary as it has to do with piecing together the dispersed fragments of my own personal life. It has to be said that some of it was motivated by the need to re-discover the father I did not really have, much less know.

On 24 December 2003 – Christmas Eve, in fact – I received a phone call from my mother while working alone in my deserted office in Berlin. She called to tell me that my father had passed away that morning. I would be lying if I said that I broke down and cried, for I did not. The truth is that I simply did not know what to feel and how to react. The news that a man had passed away would normally elicit some sympathy and emotion from me, and I have cried for others whom I did not know but whose passing I sorely regretted.

But this was a man whom I should have known, for indeed his blood still flows in these veins of mine. Yet the truth is that I felt nothing, could not feel anything and could not bring myself to feel even if I wanted to. All I could do was to take out the photo of my father that I carry with me and look at it closely, scrutinizing every detail – its yellowed dog-eared corners, the cracks and wrinkles on its surface, and the face, hidden behind
dark glasses, that stared back at me. He was once a handsome man, proud, virile and manly. He had one hand on his hip and a cigarette clasped between his fingers in the other, held with a cavalier flair that spoke of supreme self confidence, machismo, even panache.

The photo was taken when he was in his mid-thirties, the same age I happen to be now. In grainy black-and-white, small enough to be kept in a wallet, it was nonetheless a bold testament to a man who was once proud of being what he was, and whose pride was ultimately his undoing.

I never really knew my father. He was born in the 1930s and lived through the post-independence era where everything seemed possible and there were no limits to one’s expectations and dreams for oneself. He was away when I was born and showed up two weeks later to pick me up, take the obligatory paternal photograph, and then disappeared again. He was one of the first agricultural scientists in Malaysia and at one time was even described as the ‘blue-eyed boy’ of Tun Razak. During the hey day of the Green Book development plans of the 1950s and 60s, my father was one of those who was prized by the government because of his knowledge of agriculture and fisheries.

My father joined the Malaysian Radio services (RTM) and spent much of his time in the countryside touring farms and development estates, teaching farmers and fishermen how to improve their agricultural techniques and producing radio programmes to help educate farmers and improve agricultural production. The politicians loved him – in many of his old photographs I saw him walking along with the Tunku and Tun Razak on their tours of the Malay rural heartland. Unlike the other civil servants of his generation he did
not want to spend his time in the cities, but rather preferred to work in and on the field, where his heart really was. As a child, I would look at the photos and marvel at how he would go to the farms and villages, live and work there with his portable radio kit, even during times of flood and draught. I remember the photo of him holding aloft a microphone as he interviewed a farmer, chest-deep in flood water as the rain fell on them both without respite.

But my father was my father only in the strictest biological sense. He belonged to that generation of men who believed that their work came first and that families – wives and kids – were secondary. It was not that he was a bad man in any way: It was just that he, along with many of his generation, were simply not sensitive to the needs of wives and children and were not suited for married life. In the past I condemned him for that, but perhaps now I understand him better. He was born at a time when marriages
were arranged by families and not based on love. My parents’ marriage was a family-orchestrated affair, and had my mother been given the choice she would certainly have not married my father. But that was how things were done then, when young women had few choices before them, and at one point in my life I – along with many others of my generation I’m sure – condemned our elders for their ways.

As a result of this arranged marriage, my brother and I were born into this world. We certainly did not ask for it, nor did we feel that we owed the world any favours. Neither my brother or myself saw much of our father when we were young, and though I can count myself somewhat fortunate for having been the object of some of my father’s tenderness long ago, the same could not be said of my brother who was dealt none of it. From our early childhood we lived as children of a single-parent family and thought of ourselves as such.

The generational gap between my father and I grew even more when I began my religious education and took up religious studies under the tutelage of the numerous Ustazs and Ustazahs that my mother sent me to. My father – again, like many of his generation – was never a really religious individual and it was my mother who first taught me the Quran, how to pray, how to fast and all the other religious obligations of a Muslim properly. My father, on the other hand, was the one whom I had to drag to the mosque on Fridays and Eid, and many years later I reflected on the irony of the situation where I, the son, had to teach my father how to pray and read the Quran instead. (A
situation made less ironic with the knowledge that I was not the only son to have to do so.)

When I began my higher education and later went on to university, I, like many of my generation, were swept along with the Islamisation tide that engulfed the rest of the country. Though I was too young to be part of the first ‘ABIM wave’, I was certainly pulled along the same current during my student years in Europe. I experimented with a host of religious movements – ranging from the Sufi/mystical brotherhoods to the neo-fundamentalist Tablighi Jama’at to the downright hardline right-wing ones like the Hizb’ut Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun. (Those were the days when I, like an idiot, went around calling people of other faiths ‘kafirs’, I’m ashamed to admit.)

Like many young Muslims, I felt that all that was wrong with the Muslim world was due to the faults and mistakes of our elders. Having a lost and absent father merely reinforced my own prejudices, and made me even more intolerant than the rest. (So when I condemn religious intolerance today, dear reader, rest assured that I know what I am talking about. I was once one of those who would not hesitate to burn books or condemn others to hell myself.) The gulf between the two of us simply grew so wide that it became impossible for me to understand him, and him me. While I was reading Ibn Khaldun and al-Ghazalli he was still listening to Boney M; Earth, Wind and
Fire and Kool and the Gang. His attention was diverted to popular media and producing soap operas (during his retirement) while mine was occupied by the killings in Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir. I, like many of the Pharisees of my generation, looked upon our elders with contempt and loathing- though our criticism was seldom directed at ourselves or our own self-righteousness.

It is tempting for me to re-write the past and blame my errant ways on my father, the ever-absent scapegoat for my own mortal failings; and to say that my exclusive and intolerant religiosity then was really a reaction against my father’s own irreligious ways. But I would be a hypocrite if I did so, for I know very well that those wasted years were spent in idle searching when I really should have looked closer to myself instead. The
first pitfall that lies in wait for those of new-found religiosity is the trap of religious pride and moral arrogance. I, along with thousands of others, fell into that trap without even realising it. My father, though no fault of his own, became the excuse I turned to whenever I failed or proved too proud in my own faith. Looking back at it now, I realise that my own religiosity then – full as it was with talk of ‘jihad’ and curses against
the rest of the world – was mere prattle and empty rhetoric, similar to the sort of nonsense we hear these days from the so-called Islamists who claim to fight in the cause of Islam.

It was only much later, when I returned to Malaysia, that I saw alternative ways for me to come to terms with my personality and religiosity that did not exclude others. My contact with Chandra Muzaffar (who in a sense became my intellectual father), whose broad and all-emcompassing humanity showed me that Islam was indeed a universal faith that did not discriminate against others, was one of the antidotes to my own religious exclusivism. My work with Zainah Anwar and Sisters in Islam has also shown me how important it is for Muslims to reform themselves, and how important it is for Muslim women to be liberated so that injustices such as what was done to my mother will never again be repeated. Most of all my own involvement with Islamist activism gradually matured and developed in the direction of an activist Islam that sought to defend human rights, democracy and uphold the fundamental human dignity that we all share. Yet try as I might, my own claim to fraternity and love for all encountered one limit that it could not overcome: my past and my relationship with my father.

After the divorce of my parents I stopped seeing my father for good. Seventeen years passed before I saw him again last year, though by then age had taken its toll and time its costs. The man who was once for me the paragon of all that was manly, robust and confident was very much the shell of his previous self. In his younger days his skin was dark – burnt like leather almost, thanks to relentless fieldwork that he obviously relished – his hair shiny and resplendent, his gait and carriage sturdy and man-like.
What I found instead was a man broken and disillusioned, pale-skinned and
down-spirited, unable to stand properly, whose memory was fading and whose voice broke as he spoke. That struck me the most, for his greatest gift was his ability to speak and to communicate his ideas which he did with astounding ease. Now the same man, my father, could barely raise his voice loud enough to be heard, and when he did his words no longer made sense.

The final meeting we had last year proved indeed to be our last. If there was one thing that I wanted to do for him before he left this earth, it was to accompany him on a pilgrimage to Mecca where I hoped he would find peace in himself and make his peace with God. After a life of denial and self-abuse, he finally relented and said ‘yes’, as long as I went with him and we could do it together. I thought that at least we could make amends to each other – him for being a father that he never was, and me for being the
son who judged him too severely for things that were not entirely his fault, but rather the ills of the age he came from and lived in. Perhaps then a rupture with the past could be healed, and we could at least try to establish a bond of sorts.

That opportunity, however, has come to pass and I will never be able to retrieve it again. All that is left for me now is to look back at the past, exorcise the ghosts that have haunted me for so long, and retrieve the few memories of kindness, tender moments and closeness that I shared with my father long ago. It has become a personal archaeology of sorts, and oddly enough as my mind wanders back, I come across those rare moments that I thought I had lost for good: I recall receiving a present of a radio-controlled toy tank from him (when I was four years old) which he sent from abroad, while on one of his long foreign trips to God knows where, with a card that said ‘I hope you like this present. When I come back we can play with it together.’ That we never did of course, for he was never back long enough. I recall going up Mount Kinabalu in Sabah with him, and him explaining the names of the different plants and flowers that I had never seen. I recall him spinning all kinds of stories, including one of him being a pilot in the Malaysian Air Force and him flying a bomber (which he drew, a
crazy machine with four wings, eight tires and twelve engines which made a mockery of aeronautical engineering!), which was obviously untrue but entertaining nonetheless to a child of seven.

If there is anything to be learned from all this, it is that life moves on and that the young – impatient as they always are and have to be – should remember that in their haste to construct a new world order they should not demolish all that is past. The past remains with us, whether we like it or not, and the mistakes of the older generation as well. In this day and age where history is being erased and the monuments of the past bulldozed for the sake of ‘progress’ (or more often than not, profit), holding on to the
traces of the past has become all the more important – no matter how problematic that past may seem to us at the present. The younger generation of Islamists in particular should heed this message, lest they make the fateful error of burying all that came before them in their headlong rush to build the world anew: if there is one thing they should remember, it is that the same soil upon which the new world order they wish to build happens to bear the imprint of countless generations before, whose own lives and
identities they are obliged to respect.

‘The past is a different country; they do things differently there’, so the saying goes. My father belonged to such a past that I cannot possibly identify with or even hope to comprehend, but I pray that wherever he may be now his soul is at rest and he has found his peace. His intention (niyyat) to go to Mecca was perhaps the closest he came to performing the deed, but it did at least mean that in his final days he was still willing to change and come to terms with his own self. I in turn have lost the father I never
really had, but at least I hope to know him better now. Whatever anger or sense of loss and betrayal I may have held in my heart is long gone, and all that remains is the simple wish that things could have been better for both of us, young and old. And if the day ever comes when I finally do make my pilgrimage to Mecca (but only after the present regime has been replaced with a democratic government), I know that my father and his photo will be there with me too. God bless you, father, warts and all.

In loving memory of my father, Ahmad Noor, 22 June 1930 – 24 December 2003.