Controversial writer Faisal Tehrani believes dialogue can bring change


Having seven banned books out of the over 30 to his credit was a sore point for writer Faisal Tehrani. What put salt in the wound was that no one in the fellowship rallied around him.

“I felt downcast, angered and abandoned by my fellow writers when my freedom of artistic expression was violated. When my books were banned, I had to fight for my rights on my own. For me it was a tragedy, a school disaster.

Justice prevailed when Faisal took his case to court and four titles were restored in January 2018. But the experience left a bad taste in his mouth and led to Sastera Adalah Makanan Anjing, one of 44 essays in his latest book, named after the main article, published earlier this year.

“After May 2018, every time someone said that literature is for the betterment of society – you know, the kind of tone that fits in the days of Pakatan Harapan (PH) – I felt insulted . The truth is, literature has been the food of dogs. The irony is that we don’t even give our pets litter.

Politics, culture, and themes such as feudalism, oppression, extremism and violence are covered in the collection, which he began working on before PH took power.

“Literature talks about humanity, so it must be provocative. Artistic creation is an ultra-natural activity, an immense and tiring process of cognition. The essays here are not just about being human, but about becoming human. The determinants of this come from nature, history, our way of life, faith, self and our understanding of society.

The fiction serves as a reminder of what happened before and could happen again, he says. “As we speak, Kabul has fallen into the hands of the Taliban. It’s scary, and crazy. So while my essays reflect the dark pre-Pakatan days, they may reflect what is happening today.

Which leads readers to understand why Faisal – real name Dr Mohd Faizal Musa, researcher at the Institute of Malay World and Civilization, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) – writes.

“I write to achieve perfection. Not the perfection of oneself, but the perfection for the company. It is a difficult task. Writing is the only sane way for me to be both disobedient and civilized.

Disobedience – going against the “norm” and espousing ideas contrary to those of the majority – was at the root of Faisal’s downfall from being a “poster boy” to the mainstream. Malay literature to that of foreigners, after the Interior Ministry imposed in 2014 the first ban on his work, Perempuan Nan Bercinta, because “it can be prejudicial to the public order and the public interest”.

The 2012 novel, which focuses on feminism and Shia Islam, is still banned, as is Aku ___, Maka Aku Ada! (a collection of articles and essays on politics and religious and LGBT issues) and Spiritual Sinema (Dramaturgy and film criticism from the Islamic point of view).

Faisal’s disgrace was sealed by the 2014 publication of Bagaimana Anyss Naik Ke Langit, on logging and the fate of the Penans in Sarawak. An English translation by Brigitte Bresson (How Anyss Got To Heaven; Dubooks) was released in 2016. Call it serendipity: his new focus as an “accidental” human rights defender coincided with the start of the third phase of his writing career.

Tracing his transition, he says, “I started writing during my high school years. I was very naive and followed in the footsteps of many writers before me. Fortunately, I learned from the best.

“When I started out, I created a healthy nationalism in my fiction. In the second phase of my career, my conservative days, I wrote mostly Islamic works. Today, as a reformed and repented author, I hope to be able to speak or write for all.

Reform, for him, meant moving from traditional ideas and views on Islam to those with “progressive tones.” Winner of the 2006 Anugerah Seni Negara and the 2005 National Book Award for his unique take on Malaysian history and identity in the novel 1515, says: “I looked at myself, my carelessness, my mistakes. A man of letters must have the courage to admit his mistakes and change the course of his path. I revolutionized myself and went from the second to the third phase of my career.

Faisal, who turned 47 on August 7, did Sharia politics at Universiti Malaya and a Masters of Arts at Universiti Sains Malaysia. He obtained his doctorate in philosophy from UKM, where he is conducting research on the Shiite minority in the Malaysian world.

His writings are often associated with Shia ideology, a fact that he does not deny. A report from August 28, 2017 in Jakarta Post Quoted him as saying, “Islam is a religion that is immune to opposition, criticism, disagreement or even ridicule from insiders and outsiders.” I believe my religion has this ability, but Malaysian clerics can be easily offended.

In 2018, he told Malaysiakini he wrote because he felt the government and the clergy “were leading people down a path full of neglect.” Looking around today, would he say things got worse?

“We are definitely sinking. So many things should be sorted out again. Democracy has been threatened, human rights have been abandoned, religion has been violated and the economy has deteriorated.

“We have to go back to our history. We have been careless and our mistakes keep coming back to haunt us. They will haunt future generations.

“What went wrong in Malaysia? I wish I could list all the reasons, but the most important is that there is no fairness. A fair society is a society where everyone has the opportunity to develop their talents and potential, and where everyone occupies the social position they deserve. There is no fairness for all races, for Malaysians.

But Faisal still believes in the possibilities. And he is convinced that dialogue can bring about change.

“The only way to move forward is to understand each other. The dialogues are not debates; we are not looking for champions. We want to understand so as not to alienate ourselves from others, especially minorities. Stories are the bridge to connect us.

“I still have hope. We must not stop striving for perfection for society and our country. Humans are creative and have been given the potential to fully revolt against evil. We should not be tired.

The beauty of being an outsider, he says, is that although he has lost a significant number of old readers, new readers have come forward eager to learn more about his books. “They call me friend and brother. Today, I am committed to improving our society. I am happy to have been tested deeply during these difficult days.

As a scholar who spent years poring over books written by sages before learning that Islam is wider than people assume, how can he open the minds of those who do not? hear dogmatic sermons?

“It is the duty of the intelligentsia. By intelligentsia, I do not mean only scholars or intellectuals. Literate or illiterate, we all have roles. Scholar or layman, we have responsibilities. How to wake people from sleep? By making them understand the true Islam, which consists in defending the oppressed, the poor, the needy. It is never about the elite or about certain ethnic groups or races. It is never about believers and non-believers. Islam is not just a question of jurisprudence.

“My role is to write. As stories and ideas are permanent, I choose literature. Others must also get involved. All of us. Those who read my writings, for example, should tell others about it. “

No one can afford to be apolitical or say they don’t care. “If a person does not oppose oppression and inequality by his words or deeds, he is on the side of the oppressor,” adds Faisal, who is inclined to political novels and enjoys reading Mo Yan, Jose Saramago, Kenzaburo Oe and Toni Morrison.

“For some reason that’s hard to explain, I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez over and over. Another writer I never tire of is Witi Ihimaera. The stories are so important. They make us come alive. They make us dream and immerse us in a timeless space with many lessons to be learned.

“Yes, literature won’t put potatoes and vegetables on your plate, but writers who struggle with people in difficult times can help them understand what’s going on. When we step aside, literature is the manual [to lead us back]. “

Some of Faisal’s creative works are available in French, Mandarin, German and Bahasa Indonesian and he has written academic books in English but does not consider himself bilingual.

On his pen name he says: “I read a lot of Persian books during my teenage years and my companions started to call me Tehran, derived from Tehran. [capital of Iran, formerly Persia]. The name has never ceased to bring me luck.

Hopefully the pandemic will not delay the English edition of Sastera Adalah Makanan Anjing (Gerakbudaya), on which Bresson is working. She also translated her Professor (Fixi, 2017), “a meditation on the meaning of justice, sexuality and religion in a society increasingly dominated by extremism”, in English (The teacher; Gerakbudaya, 2020).

What motivates Faisal, whose creative freedom is violated, to keep fighting: anger, passion and a stoic sense of justice?

“My God, what else? I refuse to believe that Victor Hugo wrote Wretched in relaxed, comfortable and practical conditions.

“As for the controversy, I am not looking for it. They just follow me. It’s not that I don’t scold them or ask them to stop. They are just stubborn and choose to follow me and follow me.

Which can be boring sometimes. “I’m getting tired, yes. But I am obsessed with perfection and I can only find perfection in words.

“I wish it was easier. I would love to be the Prime Minister, offering false perfections and deceiving people with televised and recorded statements. But I hate politics; most of us do. I just have to accept that I am a writer and although tired I have to keep going. Fortunately, a writer can never resign.

To refresh the mind, heart and soul, Faisal indulges in wishful thinking. “I would like to be an agent and be able to sell a million copies of my books so that I can settle and write in Bergamo, Italy. But here I am, answering questions and hoping that my mad mind, if given the chance, will catch the attention of a few readers.

Buy ‘Sastera Adalah Makanan Anjing’ for RM38 at Gerakbudaya here.

This article first appeared on August 23, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.

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