Monday, January 24, 2011

In Search of Besa

This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 23 January 2011.

Norman Gershman talking about his Besa project

It is quite a fallacy to think that Malaysia is internationally famed for being a moderate Muslim country that takes pride in its multi-racial and multi-cultural DNA.

When words got around that a Malaysian was volunteering for the Ethiopian Red Cross, I received a surprising but rather interesting visit from a very eager high ranking local staff at my office. He was Muslim. Normally this piece of information wouldn’t have mattered but in this story, it does.

When he introduced himself enthusiastically, I could sense that he was waiting to ask me something that was related to my nationality since he couldn’t stop gushing over how excited and honoured he was to meet someone from Malaysia.

The question finally came out and it was most unpleasant, not to mention unexpected.

“Is it true that when you arrive at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, there is a big sign which says ‘Jews are not welcomed. Please go home’?”

The initial smile that was plastered on my face disappeared instantaneously as I looked at his face holding the biggest and most gleeful grin I had ever seen in my life. He looked extremely pleased with himself; almost like a scientist who was about to discover a rare formula of epic significance before screaming out “Eureka!”

My heart sank. I was disgusted and he felt it. There was no celebration but only disappointment. From both sides.

“Ummm….you’re not a Muslim, are you?” he asked uncertainly but with eyes filled with hopes. Needless to say, my answer ended our conversation abruptly. From then onwards, he avoided me like the plague.

What an utterly charming man, he was.

When I am on home ground, I continue to hear disturbing stories of religious intolerance in Malaysia. Whether these stories have any truth in it or not, it is another matter altogether because in a democratically fragile country such as ours, an open and independent investigation into religious dispute would often result in a suicide mission accompanied by a big opened can of ugly worms.

The recent spat over the azan in Pantai Dalam area is one such example. Instead of trying to solve the issue in a mature, rational and civil manner, calls for the imposition of the Internal Security Act against the complainant was made en masse. It would make more sense to investigate and conduct a study to establish whether there is indeed a need to implement laws that regulate the loudness of calls to prayers, especially in residential areas.

I must confess that I do wonder myself whether the complainant had taken the opportunity to talk to the Imam of the mosque about the problem before taking the last measure of writing a letter of complaint to the Prime Minister. I suppose when it comes to religious matter, rationality and understanding seem to be the enemies, rather than ignorance and hostility.

I am a resident of Pantai Dalam and was most disappointed to know that the dispute was declared solved just because the complainant has allegedly decided to move out from the area for fear of reprisal. For me, this issue is far from being solved and it worries me tremendously to know that in order to co-exist together in this country, someone, usually the minority has to surrender in defeat. Whatever happens to striving for a win-win situation?

Someone told me recently that while she was living on campus in one of the local universities, a group of Muslim student leaders would often visit her dorm to make sure that Muslim students like her, would remain religiously pious. They were strictly forbidden from interacting with non-Muslims. They were constantly fed with ridiculous lies and religious propaganda so that they would avoid non-Muslims at all cost. For example, they were told that Christians walked around with holy water and with one single drop of the said water on a person, he or she would automatically become a Christian.

I feel sad and worried when I hear such stories. What will become of our nation when we continuously allow ourselves to hate and fear each other? Surely, something needs to be done.

Not too long ago, I attended a photo exhibition called Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II by photographer Norman H. Gershman at a Reformed Jewish temple while I was in the United States on a fellowship programme. It was the first time I’ve heard the stories of Muslims in Albania who risked their lives to save more than 2000 Jews during Hitler’s reign in Europe.

Gershman had travelled to Albania over the course of 7 years to search, speak and record the stories of those Muslims and their children. From there, he learned the meaning of Besa, a code of honour rooted deeply in Albanian culture and incorporated in the faith of Albanian Muslims. Besa demands that one take responsibility for the lives of others in their time of need.

I read the story of Ismet Shpuza from Gershman’s coffee table book with photos of his exhibition.

“My parents lived in the town of Durres. In 1944, my father befriended the Jewish family of Raphael (Rudi) Abravanel. They were originally from Yugoslavia. He provided the family with false passports for Rudi, his wife, and two children, and escorted them to the border. They escaped first back to Yugoslavia, then to Italy. Then our family lost all trace of the Abravanels. It was through the help of another Righteous Albanian, Refik Veseli, that in 1990 we again made contact with Rudi and his family, now living in Israel. We received letters and exchanged telephone calls. It seems strange to be asked why my father did what he did for this Jewish family. Besa is a tradition of the entire nation of Albania.”

I don’t think we hear enough of these stories and I don’t think we’re doing enough to promote religious harmony and understanding; not just the kind that demand us to accept and bury any unresolved issue under the carpet but the kind that teaches all of us to honour a code which compel us a duty to admonish hatred and fear amongst each other.

Being away from home for some time, I’ve also discovered that Malaysian Muslims are respected worldwide by their fellow brothers and sisters. It made me happy and proud when an Algerian, Kosovar or Senegalese Muslim told me that they like Malaysian Muslims a lot because during haj, the latter are amongst the most polite, courteous and friendly nationalities in the world.

It is pleasant and nice to hear such compliments but strangely enough, I don’t seem to hear the same kind of flattery when I am at home.

Where is our own besa?

If you know of any compelling story or testimony of Muslim and non-Muslim Malaysians living together and honouring each other as fellow human beings and neighbours, please write to Any photographer who would like to take up the challenge of documenting this should contact the same email.


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