Saturday, June 18, 2011

‘ON BECOMING ALIJAH’: Part I: From the American – PART I. Revolutionary War through Burma, March 1957.

A review of the autobiography of Alijah Gordon by Mansor Puteh.

I met the writer for the first time about ten years before she died. I found her fascinating enough to be interested to follow her activities, mostly through the media and getting to know her better that way so each time I would meet her again it was easy to appreciate who she was and especially what she was doing – or had wanted to do.

I am sure most of what it was remained unfulfilled till her death – which is to see the independence of the State of Palestine so that those who had been expelled by the Zionists could return to their ancestral land.

It was at a ‘berbuka puasa’ function held by the Iranian Embassy at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur. At that time I was on two crutches, when she asked her staff to approach me so we could talk.

I do not know if she found me fascinating because I have always been mistaken for someone other than Malay and Malaysian especially if I am abroad or in local functions that have many foreigners and in hotel lobbies or airports.  

Then the next few times I met her, I was off crutches, while she was carrying a thin walking stick and looking much older, although our hair was of the same length, disheveled and equally long, with her hair looking white with a shade of gold, while mind was also up to the shoulders and still totally black then with no strand of grey hair sticking in it.

After that I saw her sitting in a wheelchair and the last time I met her, she was lying in bed in her room at the Malaysian Social Research Institute (MSRI) office in Lorong U Thant in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur inhaling oxygen from a machine and afterwards pulled a cigarette to smoke.

She invited me to the launching of her book by the then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohammed at the cabinet room of office in Putrajaya. But I declined because I had just met him alone in his room two weeks earlier and did not want to bump into him in the function.

I somehow I thought we had many things in common although in the oblique way.     

Both of us had studied at Columbia University in New York City. She had gone to Teacher’s College at the university to work on her doctorate before I was even born, while I enrolled at the Film Division much later in the Fall of 1978. By then she had already found herself in Singapore after spending most of her time traveling through many countries in the Middle East and much of Asia.

Not only that as I read her autobiography I realized that most of the countries she had visited are also the ones I had also visited including Iran and Palestine. And by a bizarre coincidence, too, she had also stayed The Strand Hotel in Rangoon in Burma (now Yangon in Myanmar) in 1957 in Room 138, while I stayed at the hotel in 1982. I can’t remember which room I was staying at.

All her journey and experiences are written in the minutest details, and this is what is so amazing considering that a lot of time had passed, yet she was still able to remember them like they were happening in real-time.  

Being away from America took most of her adult years and mixing with so many people of different nationalities and showing her concern for their immediate problems, she had to grow at a very fast rate and think fast, too.

This is especially so when she found herself in a spot, being arrested by the police, interrogated and then expelled from Egypt or finding how her wallet contained dust and she had to fly off to another country to start a new episode in her colorful and exciting life. 

And when she grew older and wiser, she started to concentrate only on one area of interests – the Palestinian Cause – which she would devote her entire life towards trying to help them in whatever way she could baring the severe limitations that even the major international political actors in this particular arena was not able to do.

She left America in 1956 and returned to the country only once in 1969 to visit her Grandmother Catherine who was still living in their hometown in New Jersey. It was three years after her mother died by committing suicide when Alijah was only 37 years.  

Alijah revealed how as a young girl, she would often go to the shore in New Jersey to stare at the ocean and imagined what lay beyond the horizons. I had also often done the same when I was in secondary school in Melaka studying at the St. Francis’ Institution which was near the banks of the Straits of Melaka and wondering what lay beyond the horizons, although I could tell, it was Sumatera!

In the end I found myself on the American West Coast while she found herself in Malaysia!

And I, too, could sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians, being a Muslim; and especially after my first trip to Ramallah in Palestine which I made in September, 1999 where I could meet many of them, even if they initially mistook me for a non-Muslim and a Japanese tourist and wanted to relate to me like a stranger.

I remember calling out ‘asalamulaikum’ each time I entered a hall or a bus station and being greeted with ‘mulaikum salam waramatullah hiwabarakatuh’ by all those who were there. It made the whole area reverberate.  

How many times I had to recite the affirmation to Allah or ‘syahadah’ to Arabs, especially to prove to them I am Muslim. It is something which I had taken for granted here, even when most of the time the Malaysians, including Malays who meet me for the first time in the streets, would think I am not Malay or Muslim. This has happened since I was still in Form Six in Petaling Jaya. 

In her own little and kind way, Alijah may have soothed the soul of some of the Palestinians, especially the kids, who knew nothing about what is happening to their country and who were left to their own device after their parents and grandparents were bombed to smithereens at their homes.  

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