I finally have a chance to sit down and give you a little update on our adventures in Malaysia.
Prior to departing from the U.S., I finally “finished” my book, which has been in the finishing process for a year (Hegel, Derrida and Said talk of the complexity of beginnings but sometimes the sense of an ending seems even more elusive). I printed out the book – a monstrous 1400 pages – between midnight and 8.30 a.m. two nights before leaving. The last night I got no sleep at all, started packing at 3 a.m., and we were in the taxi at 6 a.m.
The journey outward took two days! Philadelphia to Chicago to Tokyo to Singapore (where we spent one night in a transit hotel at the fabulous airport), and then to Kuala Lumpur the next morning. What a change! From being stuck in front of my computer for four years, seven days a week, I was now in this beautiful country, staying in an exquisite hotel, with nothing to do except to spend time with my family and decide where next to eat!
For seven hot and languid days we stayed at the Corus Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, each morning eating a buffet breakfast of freshly squeezed guava or orange juice, scrambled eggs, sausages, fried bread and an assortment of fresh fruit, in beautiful surroundings. Hishaam and Hasan were in heaven. Lunch and dinner in the surrounding restaurants were equally spectacular. We did, however, rise at 5 a.m. to have a good work out, to help burn those calories.
Needless to say, this prelapsarian state could not last. The hotel bill was mounting rapidly ($20 for each internet access), and we had to find an apartment. After a few days of searching, we found a nice air-conditioned three bedroom apartment with a large guest room (in case any of you can get a flight out here), in which we are now settled. There is a lovely swimming pool, which we use a lot: the water is always warm, and people in the apartment complex use the pool even late at night. The area is a little noisy and the view is somewhat drab; we did see some apartments with dazzling views but in the end, being carless, we opted for convenience. The complex itself, however, is nicely landscaped, surrounded by exotic plants, banana trees and palm trees. From here, we can walk to a shopping centre and get taxis and buses easily. It’s wonderful not to have to drive (especially with my driving record). The landlady, Chinese, goes by the name of NG and her workman can do everything from plumbing to electrical repairs to installing water heaters. Maybe we’ll bring him back to America! Yasmeen is very happy because she has a maid who comes three times a week to do the cleaning and laundry; she communicates with her in sign language (as she has with me for many years).
Our next task was to find a school for the children. They are now enrolled in Fairview International School, which has a British curriculum (in which our children will need extra tuition to catch up). The school is not high tech and its facilities are somewhat mediocre but its academic and disciplinary standards are high, which is all we really care about. The school’s motto is “Ever Onward” – which somehow makes me think of E.M. Forster. Our day begins at 5 a.m. since the school bus comes to pick them up at 6.30. The driver is a tiny lady called Fan (but aggressive once she gets on the road); her son, also a driver, is “Kong.” So my children refer to her as “Kong’s Mother.” They have to wear a uniform, white T-shirt, blue shorts and black shoes. The poor things looked terrified on their first day, but they came back very amused at how strict the teachers were, telling me stories that reminded me of my own schools in England. Suffice it to say that the newer and gentler modes of teaching haven’t quite made it to Malaysia.
I will be teaching and researching at the International Islamic University of Malaysia, which has students from over 90 countries. The campus is stunningly beautiful, and very peaceful, surrounded in the distance by mountains. They have given me a nice large – and empty – office, in which a computer and phone still need to be installed. One thing you learn very quickly here is that things move slowly, and often not at all unless you are physically present (it is not just the Western tradition that privileges presence).
The Chair of the English Department – with which I will be affiliated – is a very nice man called Umar; by a strange irony, the curriculum here is somewhat similar to ours at Rutgers, and Dr. Umar even teaches a course in literary theory! I said I would be happy to help out, though I myself will be teaching Islamic literature. The mission of the University is admirably enlightened, aiming to integrate religious and secular knowledge along a broad spectrum of disciplines; and Dr. Jalal (already a good friend) has written interesting articles on the intersection of English and Islamic studies (much recent Islamic scholarship takes account of some of the fundamental insights of literary theory, dissuading, for example, the treatment of “Islam” by teachers as a uniform or hypostatised concept).
I am looking forward to working in this Department, which reminds me in other ways of our small Department at Rutgers, and at Bloomsburg before that. Two weeks ago, they had a lunch for my whole family, and they are very gentle, courteous people with a good sense of (even feminist) humour. I was gratified to learn that the first three Ph.Ds produced by the department have all been women. It feels good to be among Muslims of such a nature, in a country where Islam is practised in a tolerant and humane manner. I think this is the right country in which I can learn about a variety of important issues in the contemporary Islamic world.
It is now the eleventh day of Ramadan, and this month is giving me a valuable break from work (which I need, having taught every Summer for the last twelve years); it’s nice to be able to reflect from afar, to reassess priorities and think more carefully through one’s goals. I cannot describe the sense of exhilaration, the sense of novelty and of possibility that accompanies me during both sleep and waking. We are so grateful for this opportunity – provided in large part by my colleagues, past and present – and intend to make full use of it.
We hope things are well with you all.
I hope you will forgive the tone of inordinate contentment in the following e-mail, written before the recent disaster, which has left us at a loss, searching for adequate emotion. Mercifully and miraculously, we were spared: effects of the tsunamis were felt along part of the coast of Malaysia and in Penang Island. Life here in Kuala Lumpur, and at my campus, glides on as if in a state of insulated serenity. Our only contact with the disaster, apart from the ever worsening news reports, is a drive on the part of the University mosque and the local TV stations to donate clothing and money. But I feel sick with helplessness, pathetic against the scenes of so much human suffering, so many lives simply erased as if they had never been. Somehow one’s own endeavours appear trivial and tiny, utterly dispensable and diffused to an absolute contingency in the vortex of such vast destruction. What can one do but pray, and go on, and learn to live with a little more kindness? Thanks, by the way, to the many people who have inquired after us; when I sent out my first e-mail from here (to more than 100 people, in many countries), I didn’t expect any reply; but was delighted to hear back from over 30 people, including one or two former brilliant students, as well as esteemed colleagues. Anyway, here, for what it is worth, is the e-mail I had written…
Ramadan finished several weeks ago; it was not easy fasting in this heat but easier than anticipated; I sometimes made it harder by working out for an hour before breaking the fast; water never tasted so good! Depriving and controlling the body has a way of returning one to fundamentals, to reflection on what is truly important. When you’re hungry and thirsty, you don’t care very much about the rubbish that we often surround and encumber ourselves with.
On the day of Eid ul Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, we were invited to eat at the houses of various friends. Our faculty friends tend to live in townhouses, their income being modest by American standards. One invitation was from the maid, Alisah, who comes to clean our apartment. The “conversations” between Alisah – a tiny lady who doesn’t know a word of English – and Yasmeen would undermine any theory of language known to me. Yasmeen tried to tell her that she was not happy with her work; she conveyed the idea of “happiness” by smiling; unfortunately, she was not so successful at conveying the idea of “not” (Heidegger, if he had a sense of humour, would laugh); so the maid left thinking Yasmeen was very happy with her! Hence the invitation for lunch! Her house is tiny but tidy, set high in the hills with a lovely view. Her children are adorable but were too shy to speak to us; and her husband a very sweet man who insisted on driving us to our next venue an hour away. We spoke in sign language the whole time.
Indeed, the English language undergoes some, shall we say, stimulating transformations here: our children travel on the “Bas Sekola” and often eat “aiskrim.” the “teksi” drivers are usually friendly and talkative, though some can be pushy. One driver, appropriately named “Yap,” tried to sell me some powdered milk to cure my mother’s arthritis; another, responding to our question as to how far the Kuala Lumpur towers were from the National Mosque, said 500 millimetres; we sat in the back of the teksi giggling. On a student notice board, an ad for a motorbike ended with a reminder that the price was negotiable: “Everything can be talk.” There are untold Derridas in this part of the world also! I love the names here: my internet guy is “Moon,” and his assistant is “Song.” Hishaam has a school friend named “Quanky!” The Malay language is very musical; a nearby mosque is called Kampang Malaya Ampang; and people often finish their sentences or clauses with an exclamatory “la!” or “ah!” (Come quickly, la! Ah, ice cream’ah?) which Hishaam and Hasan have started mimicking.
However, the language I came here to learn was Arabic. And, if I thought I was going to have an easy time here, those unconscious dreams were extinguished when I enrolled for an Arabic class that meets eight hours a week, with homework every day! The teacher is an adorable young lady called Madeha who, following sound language pedagogy, addresses us almost exclusively in Arabic (so I often don’t know what she’s talking about). Otherwise, I am soaking up any information she gives, and I love writing the beautiful script. It is very strange to be a student again; it makes me realise how traumatic my own classes at Rutgers must be for my students, from whom I demand maximal effort and an untiring display of enthusiasm and personal affection (for me). And sometimes I cannot believe my own immaturity: I was actually glad when the teacher didn’t show up for class one day, and I treated myself to a freshly squeezed mixture of apple and orange juice!
In fact this campus has so many places to eat that it is difficult to resist the temptation to regard it as a huge restaurant. You can get English style fish and chips, Middle Eastern, Malaysian and Indian food, delicious tea made with sweetened milk, and a variety of freshly baked pastrries. On a more serious note: I had thought that with the students returning, the atmosphere would be loud and noisy. But it is still very peaceful; the Malaysian girls walk about with their elegant headscarves and gorgeously colourful dresses; even the young male students are very respectful. The mosque, serenely beautiful, stands in the middle of the campus, and you can hear the azan from wherever you are (I attach some photos). I sometimes wonder whether this is what it must have felt like in a Mediaeval cathedral school, or an Islamic or Jewish seminary, trying to reconcile the claims of reason and revelation, the gnawing demands of sense and the imposing frameworks of intellect and spirit, the paths of the human ego frail against the solidity of tradition and authority, resting upon the reassuring intransigence of a higher will.
What is not Mediaeval about our routine is our workout schedule. I begin with a 3 to 5 mile run at 6.30 in the morning, followed by a half hour of karate practice and weight training, then cool down by swimming 5 or 6 lengths of the pool. I practise my side kicks on a coconut tree. We promised our Sensei in America that we would conduct at least two classes a week – which we have more or less kept. We hold our karate sessions down at the pool in the afternoons and are often joined by a melee of children. I have something of a following among them: they call me “uncle” or “teacher,’ and are extremely respectful; one little chap named “Shish” – whom my children with their customary tact have nicknamed “kebab” – calls me “master” and kisses my hand at the end of class. O how I love these kids, they are so easily impressed! Even so, being only two steps from black belt, our training needs to be more structured and we are thinking of enrolling at a school in the next week or so. So don’t be surprised if we return to America bruised and battered…
There is little bruising of the ego, fortunately, in the graduate class I teach, in Islamic Literature. There are five students, all female. One of them, Rohani, is a little older and graduated from NYU so she speaks more than the others who, however, have surprised me pleasantly with their articulate and knowledgeable contributions to class discussion (I had been told that Malay students were extremely reticent). I was actually taken aback when they systematically impugned one of the course texts, Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History. I have used this book with my class at Rutgers, and I have a great deal of admiration for Karen Armstrong who is an impassioned and articulate spokesperson for religious and cultural tolerance. So I was somewhat distressed when my students – all demure-looking and softly-spoken – proceeded to enumerate mistake after mistake in her book, ranging from her description of the first revelation of the Qur’an through her account of the pilgrimage to her larger statements about the connections between the “axial” faiths and social justice. But what impressed me even more was their tolerance toward the book. We agreed that we would send Karen Armstrong a letter – it will be a long one!. In general, the Malaysian mentality of religious tolerance is exemplary; Eid ul Fitr was followed by the celebrations of the Hindu festival of light Deepavali, which is currently supplanted by Christmas decorations in all the stores, to give way in their turn before the Chinese new year. A group of Malays were singing Christmas carols at the large mall in KL.
I’ve also had the chance to teach a couple of undergraduate classes, filling in for my friend Jalal who is at MLA. These students have evidently never been exposed to our modes of teaching, which they seem to crave instantly. What if we had an exchange program between here and Rutgers? The experience would be transforming in both directions. Next Tuesday I am giving a presentation before all of the doctoral and Masters students, as well as faculty from various departments; entitled “Deconstruction and Islam.” I thought I had left literary theory behind, but in an Islamic university, of all places , they are just dying to know more…And why indeed not? After all, the reading and re-reading of the Qur’an – directly affecting the lives of a billion people, with ramifications far beyond – is one of the most important tasks facing the twenty first century.
And so, I sit here with some hope: there are indeed paths that lead through and beyond the forests of so-called fundamentalism, paths that lead back more than a thousand years through Aquinas and Al-Farabi, Rumi and Sa’di, to the early enlightenment of Islam, of Augustine and Maimonides, paths whose verdure is not yet exhausted, whose glory is not gone but hidden…
May the New Year sustain you in good health, reward your good works, and bring to fruition your profoundest endeavours.
Last weekend marked the mid-point of our stay here. I want to tell you about two of the highlights of our trip so far; the one a visit to Penang where we were able to meet some of the tsunami victims; and the other, a somewhat eye-opening trip to poverty-stricken, royalty-ridden, Nepal.
If there is a worldly paradise, then Penang Island must surely be one of the contenders for such prelapsarian status. Much of it is still unspoilt: a simply breathtaking panorama of mountains, hills, tropical foliage and, of course, the sea…
We stayed in a hotel right upon the Indian Ocean, whence the tsunami came. We arrived there late at night and sat on the balcony watching the black ocean glimmering under a full moon. How terrifying it seemed: we were only a few stories up, and we were told that the waves had approached this height.
We chanced upon a resourceful taxi driver who was able to take us to a small fishing village called Tanjung Bungah (“Gulf Flower”) where the tsunami had struck. On the one side there was a small mosque built just above the edge of the sea, with its foundations on the rocks in the water; on the other side was a disorderly row of small houses also elevated , with the beach below their back doors. Houses? Well, they were really shanties made of corrugated tin and wood, built mostly by the inhabitants themselves. On the beach were visible their tiny fishing boats, many still filled with mud and sand. The first family we visited invited us into their modest living room, had their daughter bring us some bottles of 7-up from outside, and told us in detail what had happened, showing us the marks of the water on the wall (about neck-high). Like the other houses here, much of the inside was destroyed; the fridge had been thrown by the waves across two rooms, and the floorboards had been torn out. I made sure my children videotaped and photographed everything.
What amazed me was the presence of a poster about the tsunami on the living room wall, entitled “Waves of Death.” The husband gave it to me and it now hangs above my desk, and of course I will keep it as a lifelong token; all of the residents here had little photo albums filled with pictures of the damage done to their homes, I’m not sure whether for the purposes of insurance/governmental aid or simply to commemorate this shock in their lives. In another house a lady called Zainab recounted how her son, seeing the huge wave coming, had saved his father’s life by warning him to leave the house; talking with my mother (who was staying with us at the time) Zainab broke down and gave vent to her grief. She had lost everything and her poor house had been destroyed utterly.
I don’t know if, in the West, you heard of this; but in the news here there was a story of a 20 day old baby girl who, floating on a mattress, survived the tsunami. We were lucky enough to meet her with her young mother; our cab driver took us to the apartment complex where she is now rehabilitated, and, after a few inquiries, the mother came down with her baby. Her husband also happened to return around the same time. They told us how the baby had floated around the back of the house; the mother had been trapped in her front room, where the water had risen neck-high before, mercifully, subsiding.
Needless to say, our meetings with these people were distressing. And these were the ones who survived without loss of their loved ones. To think of those who suffered harsher losses and the sheer scale of the catastrophe was all but unbearable. What cruel, vast, senseless, forces. Like many people, I have spent much time thinking about this…
From the sea to the mountains: last month I went with a colleague to a conference in Nepal. Arriving in Kathmandu, the first thing we noticed was soldiers everywhere (not a good sign). And then the dirt, the squalour, the run-down broken buildings, the dusty roads; after Malaysia (where the first thing you notice is the beautiful greenery and mountains, as well as the well-maintained roads on the way back from the airport), it was a shock. I had forgotten (not having been to these areas for many years) what a poor country looks like: there are hundreds of people, wherever you go, just doing nothing, with nothing to do but sit on the steps of decrepit shops or at the roadside tables of cheap restaurants. Nearly all of the cars on the streets are taxis, and these are very old; our hotel was clean but in a dilapidated area; people were working on a building site all night around the hotel, with an armed soldier standing guard. In fact, I didn’t see any “good” areas in Kathmandu; in India and Pakistan, alongside the poverty you also see many affluent areas and splendid buildings; here everything was squalid. No one here has a cell phone; and even the professors are poor, none having, for example, his or her own car. How (I ask naively) can even the most self-interested rulers do this to their own people? The King’s Palace takes up a whole street; right across the road there are slums.
What makes all of this squalour even more tragic is that it pulses at the heart of so much breathtaking natural beauty. Kathmandu is in a huge valley surrounded by mountain ranges; the tourist industry here could surely be much improved and given greater facilities. The were two redeeming features of this trip; one was a flight, in a small plane holding eighteen people, around the Himalayas. We were able to take photos and videos of Everest and other mountains.
The other restorative feature was the conference itself, which was attended by about a hundred people, mostly professors, Ph.D and Masters students from Nepal. It took place in a decrepit college, where the grass was dying, the walls everywhere peeling, and the classrooms entirely without modern facilities. Having seen all of this, I was taken aback, indeed astonished, at the intellectual level of discussion. Not only were the papers highly articulate, but the chairing of many sessions and the discussions were brilliant; the entire project of postcolonialism looks very different from this side of the world. Whereas we in the West tend to see some sort of contrast between colonialism and postcolonialism, the latter perhaps deconstructing the former, here they are seen as a continuity, infected by the same underlying assumptions.
My own paper was entitled “Islamic Studies and the Modes of Literary Criticism.” The almost exclusively Hindu audience responded well to it and were relieved to hear of an approach to Islam that they had not anticipated. One very bright student began to give me a hard time, asking why Islam, in striking contrast with Hinduism and later Christianity, did not appreciate the explanatory power of icons. Somewhat serendipitously, Hegel’s theory of art – and the chair’s intervention – came to my rescue.
But what a relief it was to come back to Malaysia, and to my family, with whom I had kept in touch from an internet cafe. Yasmeen is still happy here, having made a number of friends; and the children still claim not to like their school but are otherwise happy. Their soccer and swimming skills have improved greatly. They are working hard, with their exams looming just a week away. I have, most reluctantly, become a maths tutor for them; I never thought I’d have to do algebra again but here I am, squirming my way through ns and xs. Fortunately, Yasmeen’s maths are better than mine so she helps out when I get desperate. My Arabic is progressing well, but what a difficult language, and what a long road this is going to be! The course is finished, but I have asked the teacher to give me a private lesson once a week, in exchange for my help with her English.
Finally, we went on a day trip, courtesy of the Fulbright Commission, to an elephant park (photo attached); I think this is my true calling…
May your Summer come quickly; love from us all,
Some years ago, when I was sent to a drivers’ rehab programme – having accumulated more than twelve points on my licence – we were taught the archetypal principle of safe driving: that two vehicles cannot occupy the same space at the same time; failure to observe this principle is of course the official definition of an “accident” (for some reason, this came as a revelation to me).
What the safety police did not consider, however, was the philosophically more vexed question of whether one person can occupy two places at the same time. A naive empiricist or materialist would of course regard this as impossible. But to those, like Kant or Hegel, for whom existence is not a simple predicate nor haecceity an irreducible datum, and perhaps to someone as wise as Augustine, the impossibility is far from obvious. And I might agree with the wise guys: we are already feeling nostalgic about Malaysia, about an immediate future that has not yet emerged into eventuation, let alone vanished into pastness. We are already in America looking back; but also in America awaiting our own arrival, restless to return to our selves. Paradise is beautiful, but perhaps not as productive as Camden where one doesn’t take being alive for granted. We are beginning to miss our friends and our house. I need to get back to something resembling intellectual labour (I won’t flatter myself by calling it scholarship). Our children need more familiar teaching methods and fewer exams. And our somewhat distraught finances call, like Augustine’s mistresses, for refelicitation (we have stretched ourselves thinly with much travelling, beyond the Fulbright budget).
But what a wondrous year to look back upon: a year in which we saw the highest mountain in the world and the most beautiful building; met with tsunami victims; visited Singapore and the islands of Penang and Langkawi; stayed at the home of one of my students in the breathtakingly beautiful and peaceful state of Pahang; attended a traditional Malay wedding; visited Yasmeen’s family in Pakistan and gave a talk at the University of Karachi; visited my home town Hyderabad in India, where I gave a lecture at the Urdu Academy; dined at the home of the American ambassador; talked with the Charge d’affaires and his colleagues at the American Embassy; met several Malaysian dignitaries, politicians, journalists and captains of the digital empire; visited subversive groups such as the “Sisters in Islam;” met distinguished writers and critics from South East Asia and the Indian subcontinent; and above all, spent time together as a family.
As well as teaching a graduate course and some undergraduate classes, I have given some five papers in three different countries, and worked hard at learning Arabic (in which I survived three exams); the children have improved considerably in English and Maths, have learned to swim fairly well and play decent soccer; through all of this, Yasmeen, as always, has been a source of clear and sustaining good sense to her somewhat erratic male cohabitants.
We will miss these quiet (sometimes too quiet) and unassuming people; we will miss the climate here, the tropical landscape, the always clear sky, and the gentle radiance of the light; one of our joys here was being able to watch European soccer and cricket and Urdu soaps; I will miss having lunch with my children in their school canteen; we will all miss the lavish buffet breakfasts in Asian hotels; and a taxi driver, Dave, now a friend, one of the most perspicacious and decent human beings we have known; we will sorely miss late afternoons by the lovely swimming pool, the centre of our universe, near which we would play soccer with the other kids, practise karate and swim (I almost had to defend myself on two occasions; once, when a taxi driver started to come after me with a golf club, and again when a security guard was about to hit me with a metal chair); I will miss practising my Arabic with some delightful recently arrived Sudanese children. I steer the conversation toward constructions that I know, such as “I am watching the good trees” and “I am in the water with you.” They smile politely, but it is possible that they think I’m mad; and Yasmeen will miss her many friends in the apartment complex; we will also miss a small cat who has come to rely on us for food and who eventually found out our apartment on the third floor.
We had the privilege of being invited to a conference organised by the Malaysian Institute of Strategic and International Studies. We were housed in fabulous hotels for a week and participated in sessions hosted by the Economic Council, the National Bank, the Police Department, the Women’s Ministry, and various centres of technology. The conference ended with a weekend trip to the exquisite island of Langkawi (a sunset photo whereof is attached). There were two groups attending the conference, the Fulbright people and a group of journalists from Newsweek and various papers in America. The journalists were very pleasant people but appeared to know little about this part of the world, and were continually surprised by what they saw and heard. I admired them, nonetheless, for their initiative and courage in coming out here and being ready to modify their views. The Fulbright scholars and students provided a refreshing contrast: experienced travellers, they often had learned the local languages, and some were experts in Arabic and Persian; and they all without exception seemed to have an intimate knowledge of the political, religious and economic issues currently driving developments in South East Asia. The Fulbrighters included Carl Ernst, a major Islamic scholar from North Carolina, who gave a brilliant keynote speech on Sufism at the University of Malaya; another sharp mind was David Hakken, an anthropologist from Indiana University, Tom, a Fulbright student from Yale, was a real go-getter and a diplomat (I wish I’d been that intelligent and mature as a student); Mindy, a pleasantly assertive and motorbike-riding professor from the University of Florida. Asadh was a student with roots in Hyderabad like myself, so we had much in common. The Director of the Fulbright programme here is a very astute administrator, Dr. Donald McCloud (whose charming wife is Carol); as Don points out, America does indeed have the requisite expertise about the Middle East and Islam – but this expertise lies in the academy, in its scholars, not in its journalists and its media (among whom it is hard to find any with the requisite language skills or historical or religious or regional knowledge); and it is a pity that its scholars, its true experts, were not heeded in the framing of foreign policy.
One of the highlights of this whole trip was returning to my home town of Hyderabad (after 25 years) and giving a lecture at the Urdu Academy. It was one of the most wonderful honours of my life; advertised in the local papers, it brought out a sizeable audience of writers, critics and professors (as well as one lone intrepid American student who was there learning Urdu). There was an article the next day in the papers. I felt, at least for a day or so, that I had arrived.
Being out here has of course broadened and deepened our appreciation of how large and complex and irreducible to stereotypes the world is. Asia, almost the whole of Asia, is moving rapidly in so many ways, economically, politically and in terms of religious reform..Malaysia is on course to become a developed country by 2020; and India promises, if not like the Shelleyan Spring, to be not far behind. As for China, well most reflections thereupon lead to scary conclusions. The debates occurring within the Islamic world will be of momentous significance and it might be to our advantage to know what is going on, to educate our journalists and to equip them to give us a better understanding of events there. If we put into educational reform in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent just a fraction of what we are spending on war, we might see some long term benefits. We can encourage the growth of an educated middle class which is attuned to the values of rationality, the pursuit of knowledge, independent thinking and a relatively free exchange of ideas – all of which have roots in Islamic traditions also; this might provide a far more solid and permanent foundation of democracy than any degree of military coercion.
Being out here has also deepened our appreciation of what we have at home. In Malaysia there are basically three groups, the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians. It is common wisdom that the Chinese and the Indians run the economy; there is a fairly comprehensive programme of affirmative action for the Malays – who are, however, a majority. How does that make sense? A foreign professor has no job security here, being given only a series of two-year contracts, which can be arbitrarily terminated. A Malay professor, even if unproductive, has a job for life. Chinese and Indian people have often complained to me at the unfairness of this system. The sad thing is that it would not take long or much money to procure for any one of these Malaysian universities an outstanding reputation: all they need to do is attract some of the best scholars in the world, paying them fat salaries and giving them job security and good benefits. They don’t need expensive buildings or classrooms and fancy gardens and hi-tech equipment, but they do need scholars of the highest calibre, and teachers who are intellectuals. But of course the political and academic administrations here are too short-sighted for such simple schemes. They allocate a lot of funding to conferences which are beautifully organised and supported with all kinds of hi-tech multimedia – but intellectually mediocre, merely rehearsing the outward form of thought.
In contrast, I have never been treated as an outsider in American academia; and, like the other Fulbright scholars here, I have come to realise that high-level scholarship cannot arise in a milieu where the free exchange of ideas is not an integral aspect of the political culture. As an advocate of genuine – as opposed to a merely nominal – democracy, I have more than my fair share of complaints at the attempted erosion of the democratic process by factions in both the East and the West. But at least in the academic world, we still have a degree of freedom that we can cherish and defend and analyse.
And now to the main point of this e-mail: I wanted to send you a picture of the Taj Mahal. It stands as if floating above the plain, its flawless symmetry reflected deep in the shallow water of its gardened avenues. We were able to show our children another side of their cultural heritage, far across the world and still speaking faintly from the mists of the Mughal era. Its creator, the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, built it for his beloved wife Mumtaz; and he spent his last years, imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb in Agra Fort, looking across the Jamuna River at the miracle he had created. Its marble walls house on their intricate designs inlaid sapphires and agates and carnelian; and the light shines through its white marble, which changes colour according to the composition of sunlight or moonlight; it is breathtaking in its simplicity, almost ethereal in its purity of form. And in Hyderabad, Yasmeen and the children saw the house where I was born, in the old and still extremely poor part of the city; their great aunts and uncles treasured them. And so, another circle was completed.
Our deepest thanks to all of you who helped us, to all of our friends, who looked after our various affairs, our house, who took in our pets, who wrote to us and shared their thoughts and good wishes, who offered useful suggestions and advice, who enabled us to come here and to return. And let your praise be sung, you in whose serene depth our journey begins and ends.
See you soon,