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Wednesday, November 26th, 2008
12:00 pm - i have an inherent tendency to tend towards inherence
So the Singapore High Court, yet again, has proven itself to be independent and fair-minded by successfully charging those who accuse it otherwise with--contempt of court.

Sometimes I don't quite understand these cases. Is it even possible for defendants to win in contempt of court proceedings? When he is being tried under the very same system he has supposedly outraged? In any other situation, wouldn't this be known as a conflict of interest?

And what are these rulings supposed to communicate to the rest of Singaporeans? The Court says, it is right. Christopher Lingle was wrong. Asian Wall Street Journal was wrong. International Bar Council's Human Rights Institute was wrong. And who says the Court is right? Why, the Court itself, of course.

In other countries, to deflect charges that the law of libel is used as a political instrument, you show, as evidence, past records that reveal how only a small percentage of libel cases taken against opposition politicians have been successful. And that in most of these cases, the damages paid were not aggravated, going by this supposed idea that reputations can be quantified. (ie, reputation of hawker < reputation of minister)

In other countries, to deflect charges that you practise cronyism, you avoid putting those with close associations with you in top-ranking positions.

In other countries, to deflect charges that you practise nepotism, you take pains to prevent your own son from occupying a position that you yourself once held.

In this country, you take your grievance to the court, and then it gets settled within hallowed chambers, those chambers where the Rule of Law is enshrined, and then bang goes the gavel and case closed. Victors vindicated, losers humiliated (often financially), and the echo of the bang radiates outwards, trying to get into other heads: clear your doubts now, the court has spoken, you're convinced now, aren't you, that we're not in anyone's pockets, oh, but you have to be convinced, the whole issue has been settled with people who are much wiser than you, specialists, in things like justice, who've got the final say, you might have had your doubts but they've been cleared in the court, rehearsed and rebutted, so rightfully they should be expunged from your head too.

In this country, you hitch a ride on a tautological carousel, a snake eating its own tail.

Even though one can't question the Courts, is one still allowed to question a ruling? Or has that particular freedom vanished too?

No marsupials this time. But something bovine (male), and that emission (methane-emitting) from its posterior.

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Monday, November 24th, 2008
11:47 pm - under the suicide tree (excerpt)
She had long retired, but she was still called Cikgu Hawa. It was a sign of respect by her former students, but even those who had not attended the two schools where she had taught for a total of thirty one years greeted her with that title. She sometimes wondered whether this was becuse it came closest to being called a Datuk or Datin, those honorifics conferred by Sultans up north. Could her husband, a school principal, have received such an honour himself? They lived in a bungalow, but he wasn't a self-made millionaire, or some famous cultural figure. Like Cikgu Hawa, he was a civil servant. And yet, here in Singapore, people pronounced the word 'Cikgu' with reverence, a throwback to a time when teachers held such status in the community, such power--parents would come to school offering her a malicious-looking switch of rattan, saying, 'Do to my child as you will'.

Cikgu Hawa smiled as she thought about how she had left the profession just in time--children had become more unruly as the years progressed, and that maternal way she replied to them--Cikgu? Yes sayang?--become more of an affectation than something which came naturally to her. Sometimes she noticed how calling someone 'love' caused one to shrink defensively, as if dreading an onslaught of teasing, whereas in the past, the one lavished with such affection would blush, while the others grew restless with envy.

Students had certainly changed over the years. They had become more clever, and less innocent. She recalled a time when girls came to school with thick plaits, their hair parted meticulously down the middle--as if this too was homework, something to present to the teacher, the only homework that illiterate parents could assist with. And the boys--she remembered one whose name was the Malay word for a little boy's penis, her confusion when she read it in the class register, and her embarrassment, certainly exceeding his, when he confirmed it was the right spelling. She had avoided, from that day onwards, calling out his name when she marked attendance, instead referring to him as the son of (his father's name). Whatever could have possessed his parents to give him a name like that? Or was it a mistake made by a nurse at the maternity hospital--her deafness, the parents' illiteracy (the Malay phrase was 'alphabet-blind'), conspiring to produce a fateful moment of dictation?

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Sunday, November 23rd, 2008
7:15 pm - yasmin
Met Yasmin Ahmad last night at her hotel room, to watch a preview of her latest film, 'Talentime'.

She mentioned wanting to do a film in Singapore one day. But she also asked if I was able to direct a film myself.

To which the answer is obviously not. I've never seen myself as a director, not even for theatre. But we might collaborate one day. Insyaallah.

The December holidays will be a time to write, write, write. I'm thinking of a short story collection--next year it'll be a decade since 'Corridor' was published. And poetry too. For the latter I just might want to apply for a writing residency in my beloved country, Malaysia.

By the way, Yasmin's film 'Muallaf' will be opening this Thursday at the Picturehouse. On Saturday, there'll be a Q&A with her at the Picturehouse Lounge. Come and support!

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Saturday, November 22nd, 2008
1:46 pm - tudung interviews (8)
Tudung Interview (8)

What do you want me
To say?

I went to a madrasah.
I was home-schooled.
I studied overseas.
All of the above
Or none at all.

Three others shared my story.
We kept in contact, over
The years. We drifted apart.
We made a pact to meet again
Where one of us would say,

They didn’t want us.
We were the unwanted.

They didn’t like what they saw
Of themselves in us
And claimed
That we were broken mirrors.

What do you want us
To say? Why do you stand
At the door, asking to be let in?

Don’t you understand?
There’s no room for you.
You can’t come in
Until you’ve understood
The speechlessness of exile.

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7:26 am - the years
27th Birthday

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28th Birthday

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29th Birthday

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30th Birthday

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Thanks for sticking around. : )

A big shout out to Shou Chen, Nick and Junfeng who are overseas now. We misssss yooooou!

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6:16 am - tudung interviews (1)
Tudung Interview (1)

How can they say I have
Imposed my will
On my child?

There is only God’s will
And we who are the willing.

They say the girl
Is too young
To think for herself,
That she is a pawn
In her father’s hands,

As he himself is a pawn
In the hands of others—
To corner the king
On a board
Of black and white squares.

But He above sees more
Than two colours
Infinite the spectrum of His moves

Of which we understand
Only mercy and wrath.

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Friday, November 21st, 2008
5:44 am - tudung interviews (6)
Tudung Interview (6)

This kind of thing, so hard to say.
I want to say also, later they will ask
Who are you, what you know about
Other people’s belief? So this kind of thing
Like my father say, is better don’t say.

Not say not my business. Not say
I just look away, pretend don’t know,
Other people’s problem is not
My problem. The newspaper already
Say, in school you cannot stand out,

Because this kind of thing is called
Common space, correct or not?
Everyone wear the same, look
The same, so people treat you the same.
Chinese, Malay, Indian, no problem.

Not say cannot wear. You want
To wear can go to the religious school,
Still got this option, correct? Or else
You can go Malaysia, I never say
Go back, not like people over there

Always say to the Chinese, if you don’t like
The system here, you can go back to China.
In Malaysia, it’s your people everywhere.
Your sense is common sense, your space
Is common space. But don't say I say.

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Thursday, November 20th, 2008
2:53 am - tudung interviews (5)
"4 still wearing tudung as deadline approaches: The Primary 1 girls face suspension if they don't stop wearing it to school by Friday; principals still trying to convince parents"

ST, Jan 30, 2002

Tudung Interview (5)

I had already bought
The standard blouse and skirt
For my daughter.

I told my husband it wasn’t
Plan B, but a sample,
For cross matching.
If we’re making this new set for her
We’d better make sure
We got the exact shade.

So I hunted for cloth in Arab Street,
Picked out
A dark cotton blue.
Made a skirt out of it,
Just longer than usual.

Until the very last moment
I waited for my husband
To change his mind,
The real school uniform
Holding its breath
In the cupboard.

My daughter never got round
To wearing it.
I think of it sometimes
Hanging in the dark
Like a kind of afterbirth
The unformed, stillborn twin
A ghost

Sucking on mothballs
As if they were sweets.

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Wednesday, November 19th, 2008
6:29 am - playpitch
For my playwright's message in the Snow White Programme, I actually managed to pack in enough details without once needing to mention being nominated for or winning the Life! Theatre Awards. This isn't out of any antagonism towards Life! or ST, but from a desire not to legitimise something whose judging practices I don't agree with.

It's opening next Wednesday! 10000 tickets have been sold already, so get yours soon!

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10 reasons you should watch it:

1) You get free door gifts, like party noisemakers: blowouts, squawkers, rattles, clappers etc which you can recycle for Christmas and New Year (we're in a technical recession, remember?)
2) I've written 16 songs for the show, set to wonderful music by Elaine Chan. There are chorus songs, pop ballads, torch songs, a rap number, 7-part harmonies, a tango, disco anthem etc.
3) The whole cast actually sings! Nobody gets to cheat with speak-singing.
4) There are kids dressed as animals--for those with Aksi Mat Yoyo withdrawal.
5) In a scene set at a zoo, there are no White Tigers.
6) There are also no Mas Selamat jokes in the play.
7) Play is actually less than 3 hours long.
8) I've resisted over-localising the play to the point of corniness, so for example, Snow White doesn't sell beancurd, or mooncakes, or the dwarfs don't live in a steamy cottage called One Seven (hmmm...), I didn't change the apple to rambutan and the Queen doesn't look like Margaret Chan. OK, so she does.
9) Programme has fun activities inside, like a maze and spot the difference etc, and if you've finished with those you can play join the dots by connecting the full stops at the end of sentences.
10) Who exactly did I model the queen on? Thio Li Ann? Ho Ching? Xiaxue (I still haven't figured out who she is, and I have no idea how to even pronounce her name)? Watch the play and find out!

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Tuesday, November 18th, 2008
9:33 am - the fuss (excerpt)
You. You will do. I’m not talking to the media. They’re not going to run a story on me, on my side of the story. They’ve made up their minds already. Especially the Malay papers. You know what the problem is? We’ve only got one Malay paper. If you’re the Chinese or English newspapers, there’s this luxury you take for granted. Meaning, you don’t have to decide whether you want to be a serious paper or you want to be a tabloid. They’re different papers, catering to different crowds. As it should be. But if you’re a Malay paper, you have this identity crisis. Don’t get me started on the other kind of identity crisis. We’ll deal with that later. But here I’m talking about reading about the fatwa on organ donation for Muslims on one page, the Mufti backing some controversial government policy, with a soothing, conciliatory speech (someone, I’m not telling who, used to joke that he had a rubberstamp with a Halal logo on it, locked in a drawer, made out of gold) and then flipping over to find a story on how some Malaysian pop singer’s appetite has increased ever since she got pregnant (she also claims that she doesn’t get pregnancy cravings, but her husband had twice slurped up some seasoning straight from a bottle, a charge he laughingly denies).

So there’s this weird mix. And often what happens is that some serious issue, requiring delicate attention, gets sensationalized. Or the opposite: something really trivial gets much more newsprint than it deserves. I haven’t decided yet which is the case for me. The most frustrating thing is that I know they’re writing about me, but they’re taking great pains not to mention my name. And don’t tell me it’s journalistic restraint. It’s more like I’m the girl at the party drooling and chewing on her hair and talking to herself in one corner and to register my presence would mean to unsettle the very dignified proceedings. So they have to find a way to talk around me, by referring to how rising stress levels are affecting youths, or how rhinoceros horns are made of keratin, the same substance as human hair, so its medicinal effects are largely mythical. Sometimes I’d wish they’d just publish my face, get it over and done with, this is the girl who did it, just nick a photo from my blog, maybe one of those where I’m camwhoring at the back of my dad’s car. But then again, maybe it’s more difficult to stone someone if you don’t put a blindfold bag over her head.

This is what happened. On a Saturday morning, I found myself sitting in an auditorium at one of the local polytechnics. We were assembled for a scholarship awards ceremony, and had to participate in a rehearsal, where we would learn the complicated choreography of ascending the stage when our names were called, receiving the certificate from the guest-of-honour, bowing gracefully, and then descending the stage. Why the supposedly brightest Muslim students in the country had to be drilled on something so obvious was beyond my comprehension. Perhaps whatever we possessed in academic intelligence created a deficit in another part of the brain; that which controlled psychomotor skills, spatial awareness etc. Maybe they were afraid one of us: gangly, over-tuitioned, blinking behind thick glasses or with asymmetrical socks (one less elastic than the other) might trip on the three steps or bow with a back to the audience. Maybe some of us were so routinised by school discipline that to hear our names called in a godly voice over a PA system struck immediate terror in our hearts and froze us in our tracks, as we envisioned our spotless records struck by the lightning bolt of disembodied authority.

Anyway, we were herded up the stage by an over-enthusiastic lady who called herself ‘Kak Azi’, which I assumed was short for Azizah, although I could imagine her spelling it as ‘Kak Azie’. She rallied us to ‘show more confidence’ and to basically strut our stuff across the stage, puffing our chests and squeezing out the dazzle in our smiles, this procession of harapan bangsa—the ‘hope of the race’. If this sounds too much like the Aryan Youth League I suppose I could modify it to ‘hope of the community’. Even though I knew the phrase was meant to connote the elevation of community self-image it always seemed to strike me as if there was something eugenic about it. Was our race dying out? And what were we supposed to do about it? Start breeding with one another?

I looked around me. The queue was populated mostly by JC kids in oversized school blazer jackets, with their ostentatious crests. Actually they looked large because they were equipped with massive shoulder pads—all the better, I thought, for these frail adolescents to bear the collective weight of their community’s expectations. There were around four of us who were not in school uniforms, all of whom I assumed were poly students. Because of the visual dominance of the uniforms—blue blazers, green ties, brown skirts, white trousers—I think we looked like people who went to night classes, dressed in office wear, here to get some kind of consolation prize for those who had been busying themselves with retraining and ‘skills upgrading’. We were to be rewarded for diligence, not genius.

However, I realized that we attracted less attention than a boy in a white shirt with brass buttons and khaki shorts. From what I had gathered, he was enrolled in a Special Assistance Plan school, one of those monoethnic Chinese institutions (and there were ten altogether), whose character could be induced by the lyrics in their respective anthems. I had checked once, just out of curiosity, and encountered grandiloquence--'enriching it with the best of all great civilizations', hand-from-bosom-to-sky recitative poetry--'Serene and picturesque are its precincts/And to Heaven does its spire soar' and cheerful denial--‘Multi-racial we study together, for knowledge we wish to attain.’ The auditorium was buzzing with speculation as to how he managed to enter one of these schools whose Forbidden City gates were barred to us (I always imagined brass handles in the mouths of brass lions) because Malay was not offered as a Mother Tongue subject. Did he speak Chinese? Did he bring packed lunches to school? And weren’t the last Malay Communists living in a Peace Village in Southern Thailand? If the boy ever felt lonely in school, he was probably lonelier in that auditorium.

Kak Azie started clapping her hands in that motivational way some camp counselors do, and shouted, ‘Come on, you guys are scholarship winners! You are the crème de la crème of the society, kan? This is your big day! Your parents are going to be in the audience, cheering you on. So I want to see some big smiles on stage. Come on, let’s see some oomph!’ She didn’t quite specify what ‘oomph’ really meant, but from the way she clenched both her fists and steeled her jaw I guessed it could mean gusto, a certain catwalk flair, or, considering the postures of those in the queue, a backbone. Kak Azie repeated the phrase ‘crème de la crème’ a few times, which frankly irritated me, not because it sounded plainly pretentious, but because I was suffering from a bout of menstrual cramps and did not need any verbal reminders.

Finally, the time came for the ceremony. The guest of honour was the President, a man whose official duties consisted of two things: inspecting the guard of honour during the National Day Parade, and having his photograph taken so that his portrait (and his wife’s), could be hung on office walls, to watch over the cubicled hives of civil servants all over the island. I never understood why his wife had to be part of this secular altar, and the closest theory I can offer is this: that official wedding photo (albeit estranged in separate frames) is placed there to encourage Singaporeans to mate. One could easily lose sight of conjugal imperatives as an asexual ant in a teeming colony. When he entered, we were all exhorted to rise to our feet. He walked down the aisle to his allotted seat, looking slightly amused by the attention, accompanied by security personnel who could be identified by their earpieces (attached by a spiral wire that sneaked erotically down their collars) and the absolute absence of facial muscles responsible for smiling.

A balding Malay man then stepped up to the rostrum and began his speech, the usual feel-good affair, supported by bar charts showing how the Malay community’s pass rates for national examinations have been increasing over the years. The picture was incomplete, however; excised from the top of the screen was the actual gap that separated these achievements from those of the other ethnic communities. He extolled the role that self-help groups had played in providing affordable tuition, and I imagined a whole troop of Kak Azie’s, Kak Anne’s, Kak Nurul’s and Abang Helmi’s, volunteering their Saturday mornings for Project Community Uplift. Throughout the speech, a bespectacled boy beside me was reading a novel. I tried to take a peek at the title, but I only managed a glimpse at the cover art: a winged dragon beside the silhouette of a tower.

The whole drama began when my name was called. We had dutifully assembled near the side of the stage, waiting for the emcee, a girl whose voice inflections reminded me too much of those announcements in MRT stations, the ones that tell you to stand behind the yellow line or to report suspicious articles. As we waited, I kept track of the applause after someone had swept across the stage—at times it seemed to wane, and at times swelled again. It did not seem to matter who was on stage at the time; the volume of applause was dependent only on the rhythm of the crowd’s stamina. Just when it seemed like the applause was trailing off, a few in the audience, sensitive to how they were perceived as support, even validation, would rouse themselves from the baseline of polite clapping and inject a bit more zeal. Nevertheless, I felt sorry for those who had bowed during a trough, bravely facing applause that had dribbled to boredom or indifference.

I was wearing a yellow baju kurung with brown floral prints, with a chocolate-brown tudung, the attire that I wear to school every day. For a touch of ceremony, I also wore a brooch that I had borrowed from my mother (at her insistence): a silver oleander, encrusted with cubic zirconia. As I went up the stage, I realized that we had not rehearsed a crucial part. We had been told to walk to the guest of honour, shake his hand, and receive the certificate—for the ceremony, just an empty red scroll—with both hands. Simple as that. Except that it wasn’t so simple anymore.

I started to panic. The guest of honour was not a mahram, a person related to me by blood. According to syariah law, it was forbidden for me to have contact with someone of the opposite sex. If I had known that I would have to shake the hand of a man, I would have perhaps worn a glove, anything, to prevent skin from touching skin. The other female students did not have a problem shaking his hand, but they were wearing skirts and had exposed hair anyway. As I neared him, I saw him beaming widely—ah, tudung girl made good, from obscurantist madrasah to labour-supply-producing poly—extending his hand as if to help me cross a threshold, from impractical religion to whatever this was: a certificate, a scholarship, a stamp of approval.

I smiled at him, winced, and quickly grabbed a scroll from the tray carried by the girl standing by his side. I spotted her raised eyebrows, the President’s scowl. I scuttled to the front of the stage, bowed as I had been instructed, and walked to the other end of the stage, intent on finishing up the whole ritual, in faithful order, as if to prevent anyone from noticing that I had missed a step. Later, my mum told me how the President’s hand was hanging in the air, as if it had been frozen, and how the ice had spread to the audience, a chilled silence that whooshed across the auditorium. But the President had allowed himself to chuckle at my rudeness, glancing once at me, recovering once more the hand that he had used to shake the hands of those who came before me. The emcee read out another name, the applause resumed, and as the President said congratulations to the students, each one in turn smiled back and bore the weight of apology, apologizing on my behalf, for my unforgivable behaviour. For in a moment of thoughtlessness, I had dishonored the guest of honour.

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1:16 am - lost in space
A beautiful story by Jonathan Lethem, at The New Yorker, entitled 'Lostronauts':

Some truly astounding passages:

We’re soaring atoms, Chase, that’s what orbit consists of, the inhuman hastening of infinitesimal specklike bodies through an awesome indifferent void, yet in our cramped homely craft, its rooms named to evoke childhood comforts, with our blobs of toothpaste drifting between our brushes and the mirror, our farts and halitosis filling the chambers with odor, we’ve defaulted to an illusion of substance. Inside Northern Lights, we’ve managed to kid ourselves that we exist, that we’re curvaceous or lumpy or angular, bristling with hair and snot, taking up a certain amount of room, and that space and time have generously accorded a margin in which we’re invited to operate these sizable greedy bodies of ours, a margin in which to dwell, to hang out and live our pale stinky stories. The space walk destroyed all that. (No wonder Mission Control has tried to keep this from ever being necessary.) Oh, the lie of weightlessness! We feel we’re floating only because we’re forever falling, as in an elevator with no bottom floor to smash into. And so, inside the elevator, the human party continues oblivious, the riders flirt and complain and mix zero-G cocktails, or chase bewildered zero-G leaf-cutter bees. Outside the ship, our consoling elevator’s walls dissolved, Keldysh and I were two specks falling forever, specks streaming down the face of the night. Ourselves plummeting downward to the gassy blue orb, the gassy blue orb also plummeting at the same mad rate away from us.

And also:

Remember (please remember) the Chinese garden at the Met, that unlikely bit of outdoors indoors? It shouldn’t feel so expansive, yet somehow it does. My favorite place in Manhattan, I think. Remember that we went there together, Chase? Did I already ask this? One of our first days in New York, we were so tired and drunk on sex and the sense of recognition of those early days of our love, and we meandered into the Met, not with any plan, and the suffocating heaviness of those galleries of European oil paintings made us drowsy and we escaped (I never remember the path exactly, always have to rediscover it) to the Chinese garden court, and were nearly alone there, and anyway the gurgling of the water and the rustling of the grasses, the bamboo, seemed to cover any human sound, and we lay down there on that stone which had been chiselled out and shipped from its ancient source and no guard troubled us and soon with our heads tipped together on that dark slate we fell coolly asleep, dozed for who knows how long? Do you remember, Chase? I remember, too, when we woke, and turned to look into the pool beside our heads, and you thought you saw a fish, a little black darting goldfish-type fish, but it was only the reflection of my glasses, a black shimmering reflected shape that had separated, for an instant, from the reflection of my head and from the rest of my glasses, and seemed a separate darting thing, a fish, or a tadpole?

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12:35 am - the fossil
Once, A had sent a message to M that read, “I want to slip my fingers into the grooves of your fingers. I want to make a plaster cast of the hollow between our palms and carry it with me everywhere.”

A had sent that message on a train, on the way to school. He had not considered the actual mechanics of this act. First he would have to get some plaster-of-Paris. He would have to mix it in a bowl, preferably with cold water. And then he would have to scoop up a wet, starchy lump, rolling it in his palm first, before clasping M’s hand, the other half of the mould.

How long would their little experiment take to dry? And with such pliable moulds, what kind of shape would they form? Perhaps a chalky disc, convex on both sides, or something even smaller—an alabaster cookie, a snow lentil, a lens clouded completely by cataract. And on its surface, would they also see the imprints of their palm creases too, faint rivulets, eroded runes on both sides of an amulet?

A looked it up: ten to fifteen minutes, on average. First the lump would feel cold in their hands, and then as molecules of calcium sulphate and water combined, it would become hot. An exothermic reaction, a system releasing heat to the surroundings. A would have asked M, what kind of system were we? Exothermic, endothermic? A trick question. We released heat, and in the process, grew colder inside. Or, we absorbed heat, in order to break the tiny bonds that held us together. One couldn’t win either way.

A sometimes visits the places that he and M had been. A thinks of time as wet cement. M had pressed his body here: on a bus stop seat, a void deck bench, sitting on the floor of a lift lobby, lying and pretending to be asleep on a parapet in front of a shuttered clinic, reclining with perfect feline balance in a circle hewn into a void deck pillar. Time is wet cement that dries after the person has gone. A sees M’s reverse relief everywhere: hollows and cavities, indentations and wrinkles, their surfaces unyielding as stone. Where once there were elbows, anklebones, earlobes, hair, motion, grace. Time hardens to clarify the space of M’s absence.

A looks at his palm and imagines: a handful of white dust. The experiment has dried.

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Monday, November 17th, 2008
12:18 am - the optic trilogy in berlin
Deutsche Erstaufführung: OPTISCHE TRILOGIE von Alfian Bin Sa´at in Berlin

Mit seiner „Optischen Trilogie“ liefert der in seiner Heimat Singapur gefeierte Autor Alfian Bin Sa´at Momentaufnahmen aus einer Metropole, wie sie heute überall sein könnte.

Premiere am 21. November 2008 um 20:30 Uhr im ACUD Theater, Veteranenstr. 21 in 10119 Berlin.

Regie: Hans-Albrecht Weber Bühne u.
Kostüme: Judith Mähler
Musik/E-Gitarre: Dietmar John

Weitere Vorstellungen am Samstag, 22., und am Sonntag, 23.11., ebenfalls um 20:30 Uhr

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Sunday, November 16th, 2008
4:41 am - the women write it better
The Primer
by Christina Davis

She said, I love you.

He said, Nothing.

(As if there were just one
of each word and the one
who used it, used it up).

In the history of language
the first obscenity was silence.

After Love
by Sara Teasdale

There is no magic any more,
We meet as other people do,
You work no miracle for me
Nor I for you.

You were the wind and I the sea—
There is no splendor any more,
I have grown listless as the pool
Beside the shore.

But though the pool is safe from storm
And from the tide has found surcease,
It grows more bitter than the sea,
For all its peace.

This Was Once a Love Poem
by Jane Hirshfield

This was once a love poem, before its haunches thickened, its breath grew short, before it found itself sitting, perplexed and a little embarrassed, on the fender of a parked car, while many people passed by without turning their heads. It remembers itself dressing as if for a great engagement. It remembers choosing these shoes, this scarf or tie. Once, it drank beer for breakfast, drifted its feet in a river side by side with the feet of another. Once it pretended shyness, then grew truly shy, dropping its head so the hair would fall forward, so the eyes would not be seen. It spoke with passion of history, of art. It was lovely then, this poem. Under its chin, no fold of skin softened. Behind the knees, no pad of yellow fat. What it knew in the morning it still believed at nightfall. An unconjured confidence lifted its eyebrows, its cheeks. The longing has not diminished. Still it understands. It is time to consider a cat, the cultivation of African violets or flowering cactus. Yes, it decides: Many miniature cacti, in blue and red painted pots. When it finds itself disquieted by the pure and unfamiliar silence of its new life, it will touch them—one, then another— with a single finger outstretched like a tiny flame.

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1:03 am - why i write what i write
The Malay Writer Rewriting In English

In 2003, I wrote an essay called The Malay Writer Writing in English. In that essay, I tried to examine issues of identity (or more specifically, positionality) from the perspective of a writer with an ethnic minority background in Singapore.

It is now five years later, and for some writers this provides an opportunity to revisit one’s positions, to observe whether they are still relevant, to even revise some of the points that were made hastily or impetuously.

There are two main strands to the essay. One is cautionary, while the other is prescriptive. The former advocated a certain oppositional stance, where the Malay writer is called upon to resist attempts to codify his Malay-ness in terms of a rubric that sees race in statist terms. The latter spoke of a need to write outside of one’s skin—to expand the meaning of multiculturalism by adopting voices beyond one’s native cultural community.

Five years since the writing of that essay, only a few Malay or Muslim writers have since risen to national prominence. No single work of fiction in English has been produced by a Malay writer. The poetry scene, however, is much busier, and has uncovered a few noteworthy writers. The Indian Muslim poet Aaron Maniam has published a collection called Morning at Memory’s Borders, which was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize in 2006. The performance poet Bani Haykal has a few self-published collections, and in 2007 launched Sitting Quietly in the Flood.

Neither of these poets overtly foreground their cultural (or rather, ethnic) backgrounds in their works. Bani’s poems are raw, vocally-driven pieces which owe their structures and sentiments to Beat counterculture. Aaron’s poems are mostly diffident and observational in nature, gesturing towards a cosmopolitan sensibility, with references to Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs and Martin Luther King Jr. In her foreword to his collection, the poet Lee Tzu Pheng wrote: “There is however, another kind of concern with persona, and its impulse is outward-looking. This is what we find in Aaron’s poetry, and more room should be made for this kind of writing which sounds more disinterested, and more trusting that it is the art which will shape persona and reveal the self willy-nilly, not the self which imposes itself on art.”

Nowhere in the foreword is there any mention of Maniam’s cultural specificity. A clutch of poems in the middle of the book point towards an attempt by the poet to address his cultural milieu: a scene at Christmas, where halal food jostle with Indian breads; a sonnet on the speaker’s inability to speak Tamil—‘As I, marooned native, the truly poor/ Tongue stiff and lazy from English lure’; a pantun, on the same topic, but this time also explaining how he is more proficient in Malay (an interesting feature of Indian Muslims is this interstitial existence between two official races—Malay-Muslims and predominantly Tamil-Hindu Indians); a piece on culturally-transmitted superstition; and a poem on the Muslim prayer.

When I wrote the essay five years ago, it was with the expectation that Malay writers would emerge to contribute to the growing canon of Singapore English literature. On hindsight, it was an optimistic projection, considering the paucity of English literature produced in Singapore in the first place. One can rank the genres of writing in terms of output: poetry collections tend to dominate local publishing, followed by short fiction, and then novels (this hierarchy, admittedly, deals with what I arbitrarily consider ‘serious’ literature, which would exclude the ubiquitous anthologies of ghost stories and pulp fiction for young adults). It is therefore not surprising that ethnic minority writers who have established their presence over the past five years have turned out to be poets.

Hence, I might have elided over certain crucial questions in forewarning the Malay writer about the dangers of being appropriated as part of an ideological project of tokenism. I had assumed, erroneously, that an ethnic minority writer would automatically inscribe his ethnicity in his work, and even institute it as a dominant theme, a situation that has been disproved by Lee’s foreword to Aaron’s book.

The question I had overlooked then, and which I will attempt to address here is: how important is it to write one’s ethnicity in one’s writing? To be more specific, how does the burden of representation affect ethnic minority writers in Singapore? And is the situation an inescapable one?

The question of what constitutes Singapore literature is a complex one. The national literature is not one written in the national language, Malay. The recognition of four (and only four) ‘official’ languages has led to the bureaucratization of literature. In other words, what is ultimately recognized as Singapore literature has to be written in one of these languages: English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. Consequently, it is this recognition that will determine whether a work of literature is eligible for state-sponsored funding and awards.

All these languages have their respective baggage. In the case of Mandarin and Tamil, they can be considered diasporic literature, a body of works produced by ‘overseas Chinese’ and ‘non-resident Indians’. In the case of Malay literature, Singapore was once a centre for publishing, being the birthplace of influential activist literary group, ASAS 50. However, after Separation in 1965, much of Malay literary activity has migrated north to its current base in Kuala Lumpur, where the status of Bahasa Malaysia as the national language has ensured committed state patronage. Because there is so little work done in translating works from one of these languages another, the condition of Singapore literature can be one described as the ‘four solitudes’.

Given Singapore’s ideology of ‘multiracialism’, and the de facto status of English as a ‘neutral’ lingua franca, it was English that held the greatest promise as a communal ‘Singaporean’ language. As a matter of fact, the first generation of post-independence Singapore writers who used English often yoked it to issues of nation-building and post-colonial identity.

A decade after independence, there began attempts, in earnest, at consolidating the works produced by Singaporean and Malaysian writers. One of these collections is the anthology The Second Tongue, published in 1976, a year before I was born. I first encountered this book when I was in Junior College, randomly browsing a shelf on Singapore literature. My reading diet then consisted chiefly of the British poets Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin, and the American poet Sylvia Plath. I didn’t know then what kind of curiosity drew me to that particular anthology, but I suspect that it was a desire to connect with a literary history which I wanted to be a part of.

Every writer chooses his own ancestors. Of course in the course of discovering his voice a writer commits acts of misreading and also denunciation, what Harold Bloom has described as the ‘anxiety of influence’. But it is impossible to kill your fathers before first acknowledging their existence. As I thumbed through the anthology, a name attracted my attention: Muhammad Haji Salleh. The title of one of his poems, a singapura sequence, struck me particularly, because he had chosen the old name for Singapore: Singapura, which also happens to be the current Malay name for the country. Did this symbolize some kind of rejection of colonial violence, even as he was writing in a language inherited from the British colonials? Was there a nativist turn in the title, a necessarily compromised reclamation of identity?

More importantly, why, of all the poets represented in that volume, did his name call out to me? Why this instantaneous identification with someone of the same race? Had I been raised in such a racialised environment that the scanning of any list prompted me to seek signs of my own racial presence?

Many years later, I found out that the Penang-born Muhammad Haji Salleh had studied at the University of Singapore, primarily because he had wanted to meet the British poet D. J. Enright. In an interview, he made the following statement:

“Having reacted quite strongly against the stifling British educational policy, I stopped writing poetry in the English language as a political statement of my total return to the language that was marginalized and humiliated by the British. The British educational system prescribed that Malay could only be used for the primary school level. So I was disconnected from the language, my intellectual language was English, and it stayed there for a long time until I taught myself to write in modern Malay, for more than 40 years. A choice of a mother tongue over a colonial language is a traumatic choice for people like me who went to school in that language.”

My total return to the language. Was this also an option for me? These struggles are not new—one thinks, for example, of the Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o renouncing English and embracing his native Gikuyu and Swahili, who once stated, “the bullet was the means of physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation.” In response, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe had this to say, “The British did not push language into my face while I was growing up…It doesn't matter what language you write in, as long as what you write is good”.

I happen to be more sympathetic with Achebe’s position. As a member of a generation that was born after Singapore had gained Independence, I have indeed taken the English language for granted. I have found a home in the language, whereas it is Malay that has become a kind of ancestral abode, which I can enter freely but do not own, and where some rooms remain stubbornly locked. Nevertheless, the project of writing in English remained for me a deeply political one, but now driven by the ideals of multiculturalism instead of postcolonial anxiety.

In choosing English, I was also choosing my readership. The fact of Singapore’s bilingual policy, where English is the medium of instruction in schools, meant that, hypothetically speaking, English is accessible to every Singapore person with elementary education and literacy. But what exactly is this Singapore readership? Who am I addressing as a writer? What opportunities avail themselves to me when I have this particular platform to address a reading public?

Issues of representation started to loom over my writings. A fact: there were not many Malay writers writing in English who have been published. I tried to search for voices with whom I could establish a cultural kinship. There was Derik Mosman, with his coming-of-age novel A Modern Boy. There was Shaik Kadir, with his short fiction collection A Kite In The Evening Sky, set in a rustic Geylang Serai. I also started looking across the Causeway. I encountered essayists like Adibah Noor, Amir Muhammad, Dina Zaman, Farish Noor, and most influential of all, the self-confessed ‘apostate’, Salleh Ben Joned. The latter’s As I Please was provocative and polemical, interrogating the orthodoxies of race and religion in Malaysia.

Among playwrights, there were Huzir Sulaiman (Atomic Jaya, Election Day) and Jit Murad (Gold Rain and Hailstones, Split Gravy On Rice), who wrote about the affluent Malay middle-class in Kuala Lumpur, a category sometimes called the ‘bumigeoisie’. Karim Raslan’s Neighbours, a collection of short stories, similarly dealt with the lives of Datuks, Datins, UMNO cronies and assorted members of the Malay aristocratic elite. Among these Malaysian writers, only the Kelantanese Che Husna Azhari dealt with the rural Malay, exploring religious conservatism alongside feudal and animist traces.

But these were Malaysian voices. They did not reflect the condition of being a Malay minority in Singapore. My alignment to these writers was based only on form, not context. While another writer without my cultural baggage might seek to sharpen his voice amidst other voices, to seek its specific music against other sounds, my task seemed more difficult, and more solitary. I had to find a voice arising out of relative silence.

I am not sure when exactly writing became not just a calling, but a call of duty. Writing suddenly became a project where one should correct, contest, and subvert the dominant images circulating in the media and the public imagination. Against the stereotyping tendencies of Singapore’s brand of multiracialism, built on a touristic pageant of four main races, I had to argue for complexity, for the exceptions, for the deviants that refuse to be disciplined by the normative.

For my Creative Writing Module at HSS, I was given two short story assignments. The first was almost a godsend: to use a news report as the launching point for fiction. It was an opportunity to excavate what lay behind the reductive headline, to restore what had been omitted by the insidious operations of journalism. The story I chose to write was about a death row inmate awaiting execution, who was one day asked to pose for a photo-taking session. The story was an extension of another scrap of fiction I had written three years ago, called The Hole.

In The Hole, I wrote about a father who has just received news of his son’s death—by hanging. I was very conscious of not overstating the ethnicity of father and son, deciding to reveal the fact that they were Malay with only the word ‘Bin’, read off an identity card. This was because I wanted to free the story from certain socially overdetermined readings: that this was yet another tragedy in the Malay community, one saddled with a ‘drug problem’ and over-represented in prisons and drug rehabilitation centres. As a matter of fact, I made the nature of the son’s crime deliberately vague, so that the focus would be on the father’s reaction to his death.

In 13 Ways To Look At A Hanging, I again tried to counter stereotypes by choosing a middle-class Chinese man as the protagonist, a drug addct condemned to state execution. Again, this was done to clear the path—of pop psychology (a broken home, negligent or abusive working-class parents) as well as conservative cultural deficit theories (the spiritual weakness of certain races, their inability to resist temptation, their hedonism and self-indulgence). One could actually argue that these concerns are largely imaginary, and that I should trust the perceptive reader to cast aside these prejudices in his approach to the story. But in all frankness, I do not believe such a Singaporean reader exists as yet.

In the second story, The Borrowed Boy, I wanted to explore a specific cultural practice in the Malay community, but strip it off its exotic sheen ('exotic' as lensed through a majority Chinese gaze, more than that of non-Singaporean readers). The Hari Raya celebration seemed to me a possible subject, where I could provide detailed snapshots of Hari Raya scenes: living rooms crowded with relatives, costumes, artificial flowers, baked goodies. However, I also wanted to resist ethnographic display, and therefore decided that there should be some disruptive element in the story, to break the façade of a ‘typical’ community portrait. Hence, I inserted a plot involving an orphan boy, an outsider who might unsettle the proceedings precisely because he refuses to be embedded into the scene, the idyll.

As I considered the boy’s outsider status, I also thought of an ethnic identity for him that is slightly aslant of his host family. Despite the seeming homogeneity of the Malays in Singapore, an impression reinforced by the fact that around 98% of them are professed Muslims, there does exist various sub-ethnic identities within the community. In addition, although not as pronounced as that in the Indian caste system, there is also a subtle ‘pigmentocracy’ that exists, where those of fairer skin are considered to possess desirable traits. And thus the boy became a Jawi Peranakan, or what some Malays call a DKK (Darah Keturunan Keling—Indian Blood Descent). While there is no overt racism on the part of the protagonist, Junaidah, it was important for me to break the monolithic Malay mould and address the spectrum of its constituents: Jawi Peranakan, Javanese, Boyanese, Arabs, Bugis, Banjarese, Minang, etc.

I hope I have demonstrated a few examples where issues of ethnicity directly affect the choices I make in my writing. One looks for fathers, but sometimes one inherits ghosts: as an ethnic minority writer in Singapore, I am haunted by the burden of representation. This is exacerbated by the fact that there are few voices from the Malay community who write in English. At this particular moment, I cannot but constantly feel the need to inscribe my ethnicity into my writing, simply because there are existing gaps in the literature canon.

And yet writing should not be about plugging holes, or staking territorial claims. I would have liked to be able to operate in a kind of post-racial environment, where writing is mainly aesthetic activity instead of ideological work, but this seems to me a luxury—that is, until marginalized ethnic groups have managed to secure adequate means of self-representation. And I am well aware of some of the dangers in adopting a ‘spokesperson’ role for any subaltern community: one’s lack of authority (judged on how authentic, representative or ‘typical’ one is), or a tendency towards more self-censorship and less self-criticism (especially of certain unsavory aspects of one’s culture, for fear of committing ‘cultural treason’).

In that essay, written five years ago, I expressed the wish for not only more Malay writers to write in English, but also for writers of other races to engage with subjects beyond their cultural comfort zones. In Singapore there is at least one precedent. The works of the Sindhi playwright Haresh Sharma have dealt with Malay experience in Singapore with an astonishing depth and sensitivity. Some of the most memorable characters in his plays are Malay, including Mr Razali from Still Building, Rosnah from Rosnah, Saloma from Off Centre, Habibah from Fundamentally Happy and Kartini from Gemuk Girls. One can argue that Haresh’s insight into the community is greatly facilitated by the participation of Malay actors in the Necessary Stage’s process of devised theatre. Nevertheless, these works do represent some of the most illuminating attempts at racial border-crossing.

On a concluding note, I should return to the objective of this essay, which is to address the fundamental question of why I write. The answer is simple, naïve and unsubstantiated: to write in the space of literature, I believe, is to testify against, to rewrite all the other documents: the newspaper article, the governmental speech, the academic thesis, the history books.

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12:02 am - have a good one, you
At some point during the night, because of the tussle-over-camera death matches that we had, my camera lens got dirty. And because I didn't clean it before snapping away, I managed to take these spooky pictures:

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OK this next part is like an expanding portrait series. Your very observant eye will tell you each succeeeding portrait has--ta-da!--one extra person!

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Now that Ash has moved out and that Junfeng is going to be away for a few months, Simei is going to be a lonely place come December.

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Saturday, November 15th, 2008
10:30 pm - monkey see monkey do
Junfeng's place on Friday. The boy's leaving for NY next week. So despite him saying it wasn't a farewell do, more than 20 people turned up, to bid a bon voyage, early birthday, early Christmas and early happy 2009 to our favourite filmmaker. But very subtly, so there weren't like presents and mistletoe and auld lang syne.

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We played rounds of Taboo, which of course have become completely mutated thanks to the innovations that Alex and Melbaby have introduced into the game. These include: 1) While opponent team is guessing, make up your own clues to mislead them (eg. if word is 'table tennis', say 'It's an animal' or 'Your mother likes it.') and 2) It is not as important to let your team members guess the word as it is to use the opportunity to insult as many people as possible.

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I wish we videoed the proceedings, because there are a few priceless moments.

Clue: Where do you get wine from?
Melbaby: Grapevine?
Alex: Shop 'N' Save?

Clue: Creationists don't believe in...?
Alex: Religion?

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So nice to see Brian again after so long. I remember first meeting Alex at Brian's birthday at Raffles City 6 years ago, and then Alex met Errol at the former's birthday at Haji Lane 2 years ago.

I would have taken more pictures if the two monkeys in the 3rd photo hadn't tried to snatch my camera every chance they had. How old already still want to play catching?

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2:33 pm - the film that started the persian fever for me
Mirrors of Representations: Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up

The phenomenon known as the Iranian New Cinema is often noted for its neo-realist aesthetics, characterized by a sentimental humanism and featuring child actors often enduring trials of hardship in hostile environments. Such an impression was cemented by the popularity of films such as Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon (1995), winner of the Prix de la Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven (1997), the first film from Iran to be nominated in the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards.

While this might affirm the often ethnographic bias among film festival audiences—who consume ‘Third World neorealism’ as a kind of cinematic exotica—it also ignores a remarkable aspect of Iranian Cinema, namely a self-reflexive strand which purposefully interrogates the boundaries between documentary and fiction. These films often confounded critics and audiences, who observed what they might consider a sophisticated, almost post-modern aesthetic emerging from a country with a supposed quasi-medievalist theocratic regime and forbidding censorship codes. Some critics with Eurocentric tendencies were also bewildered by what seemed to be a profound influence of European modernist aesthetics (such as Italian Neorealism or French New Wave stylistics) in a country famous for its demonisation of the West.

This self-conscious and often playful approach to filmmaking is evident in a range of Iranian films, from Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple (1998), Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence (1995), Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror (1997) and Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990). Both The Apple and Close-up are inspired by actual news events, and feature re-enactments by the non-professional actors who had made those headlines. In the former, the leads are a pair of mentally-challenged twin sisters, kept under virtual house arrest by their parents. In the latter, the protagonist is a man to be put on trial for impersonation and fraud. A Moment of Innocence re-creates an autobiographical episode from Makhmalbaf’s life, where the director, then a seventeen-year-old Islamist militant, had once stabbed a policeman. In The Mirror, a child actress breaks out of character halfway through the film, but is nevertheless tailed by a camera as she finds her way home.

Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up merits an in-depth discussion, as some of its thematics and techniques prefigure those employed in the other films mentioned above, as well as in later films by Kiarostami, such as And Life Goes On… (1992) and Under the Olive Trees (1994). The genesis of the film is located in a news article about Hossein Sabzian, an out-of-job printer in his 30’s, who had impersonated the filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Hossein had insinuated himself into the confidence of the Ahankhah family, promising them roles in a fictitious film called The House of the Spider. Kiarostami was so intrigued by the case that he requested permission to bring his film equipment into the Ghasr prison for his first interview with Hossein, and then later into the courts where Hossein would be tried.

Subsequently, Kiarostami also sought the participation of the members of the Ahankhah family. According to Elena (2006), “While the impostor, Hossein Sabzian, was for various reasons delighted with the idea of a film about the case, the Ahankhah family took much more convincing; their gullibility had been exposed” (p. 82). Nevertheless, Kiarostami managed to secure the co-operation of his desired leads, and crafted a complex, elliptical thesis on the nature of self-representation and truth—beginning with the metacinematic proposition that Kiarostami was actually granting the wishes of the Ahankhahs to appear in a film, and for Hossein to ‘act’ on screen as a director.

The film begins with a journalist entering a taxi, accompanied by a pair of soldiers. He tells them about a case that he is covering: a man had passed himself off as a famous director, to infiltrate a family and possibly defraud them. They arrive at a house in a wealthy suburban area, and then, instead of following the journalist into the house, the camera lingers on the taxi driver, a peripheral figure in the unfolding narrative. He picks a flower out of a pile of leaves, and then kicks a spray can down the gently sloping road. In a sequence recalling Henri Bergson’s conception of time as duration, the audience watches as the spray can rolls, dragged by gravity, and comes to a standstill—an event lasting close to thirty seconds.

This prosaic sequence draws attention to the film’s investigations on reality. By deliberately shifting focus away from the protagonists of the film, towards insignificant characters, and even more radically, an inconsequential object, Kiarostami raises the question of whether the camera is able to represent a transparent, unmediated reality. If all reality is representation, then Kiarostami is acknowledging the agency of his characters in shaping what his camera records as reality. The spray can, on the other hand, devoid of consciousness and subjectivity, is the ideal subject of the documentary impulse, a thing-in-itself that is incapable of deciding how it is to be represented.

An analysis of the film will benefit from a taxonomy of its scenes, categorized according to how the ‘real’ is registered. On one end of the spectrum, we have fictional recreations—the scene mentioned above is an example of how the filmmaker has imagined an event outside of the nucleus of his main story. And then we move to more ‘faithful’ recreations—where the actors ‘play themselves’ to re-enact scenes from the past. This is the strategy used to portray the initial encounter between Hossein and Mrs Ahankhah. While sitting on a bus, Mrs Ahankhah had noticed how Hossein was reading the screenplay to Makhmalbaf’s film, The Cyclist. Hossein then proceeded to introduce himself as the author and filmmaker, eventually accepting an invitation to the Ahankhah’s family house.

This scene is unsettling because of how it disrupts the viewer’s sense of time. For this scene to have been re-enacted, it would have been necessary for its two actors to have reached some form of reconciliation. And yet, diegetically, we are at the beginning of the film, where the seeds of deception are first being sown. The friction lies between two sets of relationships: their amicable, professional one as co-actors, and a latent antagonistic one as their real selves—the Mrs Ahankhah who is to later drag Hossein to court.

Then we have the interviews, where the actors are likewise caught in the act of ‘playing themselves’, but in real time, without retrospective artifice. Members of the Ahankhah family are interviewed within conventional ‘talking heads’ settings—in their homes, on armchairs—whereas Hossein’s ‘interview’ takes place in the court itself, where he entertains questions from both the judge and also Kiarostami. This disparity seems to connote asymmetries of privilege among the film’s characters. While Hossein has to testify in the dock, members of the Ahankhah family are afforded the luxury of airing their grievances in familiar surroundings.

Finally, at the other end of the spectrum, we have the filmed actuality, the cherished goal of cinema vérité. One can subdivide the actualities in the film into two kinds: whether or not the subjects are aware of or oblivious to the camera’s presence. It is obvious that in the scenes of the trial, those present are aware of the cameras. In fact, the title of the film is a direct reference to the multiple close-ups on Hossein’s face as he constructs a defence for his acts: he is an admirer of Makhmalbaf as a champion of the oppressed underclass, believes that the filmmaker has recorded his own ‘life story’, and feels an artistic affinity that slips into psychological identification. Throughout the trial, one senses that Hossein is not simply addressing the judge but also soliciting the sympathy of a potential jury of audience members. There is the implicit hope that his own identification with Makhmalbaf might be mirrored by someone in a future audience, whose empathy would exonerate him, on moral, if not legal grounds.

However, Kiarostami himself has admitted to his own interventions in the court scene. According to Elena (2006), “…Kiarostami did not confine himself to bringing his cameras into the courtroom and filming the proceedings in a neutral way. Instead, with the permission of the affable judge, he in fact ‘directed’ the trial himself according to the requirements of filming” (p. 87). This meant keeping the cameras running and asking questions after the trial had ended, such as ‘Do you think that you are now a better actor than director?’ and ‘How long would you have continued with your disguise?’ (Hossein’s answer is: ‘As long as they wanted to continue.’)

Indeed, the film provides various occasions where the viewer is forced to make judgments on the apparently self-evident nature of the images they are witnessing. The camera that is used in the initial encounter with Hossein adopts an angle that suggests that it is hidden, and that Hossein is offering spontaneous, unscripted responses. “I want you to make a film about my suffering,” he pleads. However, apart from the camera’s point of view, there is nothing else to reassure us of the veracity of this event.

Similarly, the final scene, a staged actuality, involves a long shot from a camera placed in a van. The real Makhmalbaf has been dispatched to meet Hossein at the gates of the court. However, the microphone on his lapel turns out to be faulty, and an off-screen member of the crew laments, “We can’t retake this scene”. While we witness Hossein collapsing on Makhmalbaf’s shoulder, we only hear intermittent snatches of his sobs and Makhmalbaf consoling him with the very words Hossein could have used as his own apology: “I’m tired of being myself.” The ‘accident’ with the sound could have been planned beforehand, and again there is no way to assess the authenticity of the reactions caught on camera.

Unlike conventional documentaries, Close-Up does not unfold in a linear fashion. In fact, the fictional recreations stretch the definition of a documentary, as does the orchestrated actuality at the film’s end. One would say that Close-Up is intransigent to easy classification, which would place it in an antithetical relation to Hollywood movies, the latter relying primarily on genre definitions. In fact Close-Up has been variously described by various sources as a film, documentary, docu-drama and even mockumentary. Other factors which secure its position as an ‘anti-Hollywood’ film are: the lack of major studio backing; a small budget, sometimes resulting in low production values (including the obvious 16mm grain in the court scenes and a ‘malfunctioning’ microphone); an improvised script; and the use of unknown, non-professional actors.

According to Farahmand (2002), “Kiarostami’s films bypass the most highly censorable themes, such as political or social criticism; as for the portrayal of women, he simply avoids the issue, by using only a few female characters…the political escapism in Kiarostami’s films is a facilitating, rather than a debilitating choice, one which caters to the film festival taste for high art and restrained politics” (p. 99) While not an explicit socio-political tract, Close-Up does provide glimpses of Iranian society in the early 90’s—which redeems it from being a self-glorifying exercise on the excesses of cinephilia. After the tumultuous Islamic Revolution in 1979, when the country became an Islamic Republic, Western-leaning citizens migrated en masse out of the country. The Iran-Iraq war defined much of the 80’s, a debilitating conflict that cost tens of thousands of lives. The Iran that emerged in the early 90’s was one that had suffered economic and infrastructural devastation, with an unemployment rate of about 30%.

Hossein Sabzian is an unemployed divorcee, whose poverty perhaps only achieves any meaning when it is used, as in Makhmalbaf’s films, as raw material for art. One of the Ahankhah brothers talks about not finding a job for six months, even though he has an engineering degree. Despite their antipodal stances as plaintiff and defendant, the two parties actually share a common faith in the power of cinema, as either artistic salvation or glamorous fantasy. Their escapism is almost symptomatic of a society which has failed to provide them with the roles to match their aspirations.

But another issue is also at stake; that of cinema’s ability to represent the reality in any given country to a global audience. According to Sadr (2006), “The political struggle between the Iranian government and Westen powers led to an external perception of ordinary Iranian people as rough, ruthless and inhumane. Cinema was the only medium to attempt to show a different image of Iranians” (p. 226). Kiarostami, who began his career at the filmmaking department of the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, directed short films which mainly featured children, to bypass certain censorship codes prohibiting, for example, extended shots of the faces of adult women or physical contact between adults of the opposite sex. The strategy of presenting an international face of Iranian cinema populated by children, has sometimes been criticized, mostly by diasporic Iranian audiences. At best, directors are accused of evading socio-political realities borne by the adult members of Iranian society, and at worst, of soft-selling the Iranian regime.

Close-Up problematises these issues of representation through its prismatic rendering of a man pretending to be what he is not. Reception of the film was polarised between Iranian and Western audiences, giving much credence to the film’s themes of multiple truths. For example, Mirbakhtyar (2006) believes that the film “opportunistically and brutally encourages people to display their own ignorance and humiliation in front of the camera” (p. 135), whereas Elena (2005) insists that “…its discourse is rather of solidarity and compassion” (p. 89). It would be instructive at this point to turn to the real Makhmalbaf, who often quotes the following observation by the poet Rumi in his interviews: "The truth is a mirror that falls from the hand of God and shatters into pieces. Everyone picks up a piece and believes that that piece contains the whole truth, even though the truth is left sown about in each fragment."


Elena, Alberto. (2005). The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami. London: SAQI Books.

Farahmand, Azadeh. (2002). Perspectives on Recent (International Acclaim for) Iranian Cinema. In Tapper, Richard (Ed), The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity (86-108). London, New York: I.B. Tauris.

Mirbakhtyar, Shahla. (2006). Iranian Cinema and the Islamic Revolution. North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc.

Sadr, Hamid Reza. (2006). Iranian Cinema: A Political History. London, New York: I.B. Tauris.

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Friday, November 14th, 2008
4:00 am - the bridge (excerpt)
No Muslims, and the followers of any other religion, are denied anything but the fullest scope to practise their faiths. … This is the only way for multi-cultural Singapore. The tudung and any other forms of religious adornment worn by Muslims anywhere, anytime, are nobody's business but theirs—except for schools…

Straits Times Editorial, 5 February 2002

Whenever Maslina was late, she would walk out of the toilet dripping wet, clutching a towel that was wrapped around her body. This was her way of telling me that she did not even have the time to dry herself. I watched as she took long, brisk strides to her bedroom, on tiptoe, to avoid leaving footprints of water on the floor.

“Are you late?” I asked. “Don’t run. You’ll slip.”

“I’m supposed to be at the interview at eleven. It’s ten thirty already!”

“I’ve ironed your clothes for you. Later I’ll give you money for a taxi.”

Maslina went into my bedroom, her face scowling, her hair soaked in clumps. I had prepared a white long-sleeved shirt for her, and black slacks. This was one of her two interview outfits. The other was a light green baju kurung. And then I heard her voice, suddenly rising, agitated.

“Mak, what about my tudung?”

“Your tudung?”

A sharp sigh from her. “You didn’t iron it?”

She didn’t wait for my answer, and stormed into her bedroom. I followed her and watched as she pulled scarves of various colours from her drawer and flung them behind her. It looked like a magic show that had gone very wrong.

“You don’t have to throw your tudung all over like this.” I bent over and started picking them up.

“Leave them. I’ll clear them when I come back.”

“Why must you lose your temper like this? What good does it do?”

“Mak, I have no time. Do you understand? I just asked you to help me, and you do this to me.”

“What did I do?”

Maslina had found a black tudung. She rushed back to my bedroom and switched on the iron. She had to wait for it to heat up. If she were ironing, she could have found a way for her temper to find its voice, through the hiss of the iron, its clank on the steel plate. That was usually the way she spoke to me when she was angry, always absorbed in a task that would prevent her from facing me. We were a family that could never look at one another in the eyes and raise our voices at the same time.

The iron clicked. Its orange indicator was an amber light that had broken her momentum. Maslina sighed. She looked at me, and her face had softened slightly, from frustration to self-pity.

“Mak. You know I always wear my tudung for interviews. What are you trying to do?”

“But your hair is so wet. You shouldn’t wear the tudung when your hair’s not completely dry yet. It’s not good for your hair.”

“It’s my hair, Mak. I can do whatever I want with it.” She had begun to spread the black tudung on the ironing board.

“You’re late,” I said. “Why don’t you just try not wearing it for today?”


“Mas, you’ve been looking for a job for the past three months. All your friends have found jobs. You keep going for interviews and I see you getting so excited whenever your phone rings. You’re a graduate, Mas. Why is this happening? I don’t like to see you like this. I feel so sorry for you, but I can’t do anything.

“So you think my tudung is the problem?”

“Why don’t you just try not wearing it? For today.”

“Mak, you don’t put it on and take it off whenever it suits you.”

“Once you get the job, you can start wearing it again.”

“If they want me, it’s because I can do the job.”

“You show me all these advertisements where they’re asking for Chinese, Chinese, Chinese. We’re not living in Malaysia anymore.”

Mas went silent. And then she spoke, softly, although the edge in her voice was unmistakable.

“That’s not my fault, Mak.”

I watched as Maslina folded her scarf into half until it had become a triangle. She put on a dark blue skull-cap and draped the tudung over her head. She then fastened it with a silver brooch. It was something she had done countless times, but today she was staging it just for me.

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1:23 am - the borrowed boy (excerpt 2)
Every Hari Raya, Junaidah’s husband would set up a self-timed camera in the living room to take the family portrait. But before that, they would participate in a ritual of forgiveness. Even though Hari Raya did not mark the Muslim New Year, it had always felt that way to Junaidah. In the morning, those who went for the Aidilfitri prayers in the mosques sought clemency from Allah. And then later, the members of her family would solemnly seek the forgiveness from its senior members. Time moves in a single direction. How else could one start anew, other than through absolution by another, an annual clearing of accounts? Hari Raya helped to formalize a necessary moment which might have otherwise been too difficult, too awkward. That remorseful sobbing while clasping another’s hand was rescued from theatrics by the fact that it was a scene that happened in every living room across the island on that one morning.

Junaidah looked around her. There were six Tupperware jars on the table, each one placed on a white doily. They were filled with the usual Hari Raya fare: pineapple tarts, layered cake, cashew cookies, almond biscuits, glazed cornflakes, shrimp rolls. She wondered when Mydeen would come out of the room to sample them. The living room was sparsely decorated; two vases of plastic flowers provided some cheer, the curtains, cushions and carpet were new. A wall was painted lime green, which provided Junaidah with yet another example of how some Malay families were colour-blind. They were kampung colours, she thought, their brashness perhaps suitable to mask the drabness of wooden walls, but entirely inappropriate for a HDB flat.

She gazed at the television. Every year, after a few conversations, everybody’s eyes would converge on the screen. The Hari Raya Variety Show was something everyone could agree upon; men preferred the news, the women preferred dramas. A new singer, someone probably unearthed during an idol-style competition, would sing a Hari Raya standard. There were cutaways to well-wishes from local personalities, like that singer who started covering up when her age advanced, but in her own flamboyant way: no tudung and long-sleeved baju for her. Instead, she wore a turban, and elbow-length gloves, which made her look like an exotic fortune-teller. There would be comedy sketches, and everyone would agree that P. Ramlee’s comedies were better, more unforced, his formidable deadpan leaving these mug-faced exertions in the dust.

Her mother-in-law started serving lunch. She had cooked her specialty: sambal goreng, a Javanese beef and vegetable sauté, in coconut-based gravy. The children were summoned to wash their hands. Haikel was panting when he got out of the room.

“What have you been doing, Haikel?”

“Playing monster-monster.”

Junaidah had seen a version of this game played once—one of the older children would adopt a fearful character, while the rest would huddle in a corner, sometimes shielding themselves with pillows or the edge of a mattress. They might sometimes launch futile guerilla attacks, throwing useless projectiles like balls of paper at their tormentor. Junaidah remembered one of the adults scolding Haikel for playing the game because it would give her child ‘nightmares’ later on—a euphemism, as Junaidah had later realized, for bedwetting.

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