Tuesday, June 21, 2011

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

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

Alijah was able to recall most of the things she had experienced mostly as a kid, because she must have developed a photographic mind, and her penchant for collecting bits of notes and even train tickets, which she could use to remind herself of what she had experienced then.

Her introduction to photography when she was still young must have cultivated her to think photographically and remember interesting incidents in her life in their minutest details.

She was forced to study photography and work in a photo store in order to earn some income that she could use, and to take her away from her everyday miseries.

Being born in the Great Depression in American in 1929 was not at all thrilling or enjoyable. But she took the experience in stride and managed to educate herself, even when her parents had not shown any particular need for their only daughter to be so well educated. Her father was not yet ready to become a father when he had her at the age of 21.

No wonder her parents were once divorced, until he returned to the family. But Alijah suspected that he had not done so for the same of maintaining family unity but for purely selfish purpose, i.e. to avoid from being drafted in the US Army.

I was quite shocked when I learn how she was sexually abused by an adult male neighbor whom her parents trusted to look after her.

Being who she was, it was also not a surprise that she would start to come face to face with the law, as it happened few times; the notable of which was when she was caught shoplifting in a store and was taken to the local police station for questioning.

When questioned by the manager of the store in the police station, with harsh lights hitting her faces, she meekly said she took the clothes for her friends. They believed her and this saved her from being charged.

The first chapter of her autobiography is stunning to the point of being incredulous. How could anyone trace her ancestry as far back as the mid-Eighteen Century in England?

It could have been taken straight out from a history book. And she would have her ancestry tree spreading in all directions that is written in the greatest detail with the dates of her ancestor’s birth and death written with their names given in full.

This was due to the fact that her parents had come from totally diverse backgrounds and even worlds and of different religions… Her father was Jew while her mother, Protestant. 

‘On Becoming Alijah’ was written by Alijah Gordon formerly Shirley Gordon. She had studied at Columbia in the mid-1950s and went on to the Middle East to work on her thesis. She had a German-Jewish parentage but reverted to Islam at a later age and started to wear the headscarf or ‘tudung’ in public. 

Somehow she never returned to America until 1969 after being involved in the local politics of the many countries in the region as well as Asia, before she arrived in Malaysia where she died in 2003 and was buried in a Muslim cemetery in Kuala Lumpur.

The book is basically an autobiography, and it was published privately with contributions from some of her admirers. Despite heading a social research institute, she refused to allow the institute to finance the publication of any of her books including this one.

She became a neutralized Malaysian citizen few years before she died and was also given an honorific title of ‘Datuk’ by the Malaysian government.

I suppose there is no other Columbia alumnus who had a distinguished and colorful background as she was, having been born in New Jersey, sexually abused as a child by a trusted neighbor, and being locked in a televised debate with the then Israeli Representative to the United Nations, Abba Eban, who was later to become its Foreign Minister in New York City, when she was studying at Columbia and was only 24 years old then.

Alijah admitted she was not sure how she was able to confront Abba Eban in a televised debate considering how young she was and also the fact that Abba Eban had been in the Oxford University debating team.

By many accounts, she won the debate because she knew she was fighting for a just cause, while the Israeli diplomat was trekking on soft ground after its military had seized land from the Palestinians and forced many of them to flee from the land of their ancestors.

It endeared her to many Egyptians, Palestinians and other Arabs who were with the United Nations, with some of them who would later become prominent political and business leaders in their respective countries.

She studied photography and worked in a photo store, which was how she was able to take many interesting photos related to her work.

Her mother committed suicide at the age of 40. She was expelled from Singapore for raising the issue of the state being the launching for the resale of goods from Israel to Malaysia.

She was also arrested briefly under the ISA in Malaysia before she was allowed to return to the country (Malaysia) years later with the change of leadership which could see her differently until she became friends with the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr Mahathir Mohammed.  

Amongst those whom she had come in close contact were Egyptian President Gamal Nasser whom she asked to distinguish between the Zionists and Israelis or Jews, Burmese Prime Minister U Ba Swe, United Nations Secretary General U Thant, some African and other Arab leaders of her period in the course of her work as a researcher and photo-journalist for German publications.

The first part of her autobiography stops in 1957 and the second part is currently being published. I have not seen the manuscript for this chapter so I don’t know if Alijah had come to Malaya before ‘Merdeka’ and came into contact with some of our national leaders especially Tunku Abdul Rahman.

But I did mention to her to submit her manuscript for the first book to Columbia University Press, but she was not happy with the idea and wanted the book to be published and released quietly.

However, now that she has died, I hope that she could 'return' to Columbia if her book can be published by the university and be distributed more widely.


hasam rocket said...

howard zinn is from columbia too

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Anonymous said...

I remember Alijah Gorden. I had just commenced pharmacy practice in Port Klang when she called and we responded to her appeal for medical aid to the Palestinians. May she RIP.