I have mixed feelings about #Nadirah . To its credit, I applaud the guts that it takes to approach the subject of inter-racial relationships so boldly. I congratulate the playwright #AlfianSaat and the director #JoKukathas for posing important questions to the audience which it attempts to include into the story. Do I believe, like many have put it, that these questions are timely? No. I believe the answers are. And I suppose there won’t be an imposition for answers without the questions, but in reality, these questions have been around for a really long time. And this is not the case of these questions becoming more important either. Though deliberately swept under the carpet, these questions have always been important. It’s just that the necessity to answer these questions have never posed an urgency in our society.
I am a real life Nadirah. Well, close enough. I am a child of a mixed marriage only slightly different from #Nadirah’s Nadirah. My father is a Chinese convert and my mother, if necessary, could be classified as a Melayu. This circumstance makes me a Chinese (in Malaysia, the race of a child will always follow the father’s) and by virtue of my Melayu mother, a Bumiputra. It took me many years to realise that I was not a Melayu, that of all the children in my Agama classes, I was different.
Unlike Nadirah, I was not enrolled into a Madrasah. And my parents never separated. My mother did not put a scarf in my head as a little girl and while I absolutely believe that she did everything she could to provide my siblings and I with a religious education outside the government school we attended, I was brought up in an almost secular household. We were close to our non-muslim relatives, and I could boast celebrating all of Hari Raya, Chinese New Year and Christmas with my family. Clothing, while kept conservative to the standard of any young girl growing up, was never an issue, at least for me.
And yet I struggled with the issue of identity, which was never explained to me. My parents never told me if I belonged to one race or another. Do I blame them? No. Because I had the privilege of growing up virtually race-less. In their own way, they taught me that race did not matter. Because if it was important, they would have drawn the lines for me. They taught me that I was a muslim, and that our family has non-muslims in it, and that is okay.
It is the world that told me that there was something ‘wrong’ with me. It is the world that attempted to classify me, to pigeonhole me into a category that they would feel comfortable with. The world that insists that I define myself my their presets. And as a child growing up, it was the scariest thing I had to go through: Realising that I am different in a bad kind of way. As a result, I had few friends, if any at all, and none I could relate to, as a mixed race child.
I cannot help it, but this confusion instilled a bitterness in me. A bitterness that I’ve carried all my life, even up to this day. I still get asked on an almost daily basis if I was a Chinese or Melayu. Bank, post office, wherever. On a good day, I do not break into a lecture about how thing like this really does not matter. On a bad day, my carefully cultivated vocabulary of politically corrected sarcasm still gets the better of me. Questions like these are beyond irritating and far beyond annoying. It is vexing.
And the height of its discrimination was when I was in the university, where kids are hormonally charged to champion causes that they believe are close to their hearts. Where kids learn to take a stance. Even as a muslim, because of my Chinese descent and being accepting of other races, I faced a prejudice that many find difficult to comprehend. Whether they are my Chinese or Indian friends telling me that they feel short changed because of oppressive Melayus, or my Melayu friends that say that they find it hard to compete because of opportunities taken up by non-Melayus, I fall in the crack between them that frankly, no one really cares about. I got used to, and even developed a preference for, solo assignments as opposed to group work, because I really could not stand the racial battles, or have gotten sick and tired of it and can no longer be bothered by it all.
I did not be a Nadirah. Could I say that became a Maznah instead? I don’t think so. She stood up for her opinions, and for the greater part of my university experience, I did not. I could not. It is one thing being a minority, it is a whole other thing to be alone in this. The one who refused to align herself with any racial sect.
To me, Nadirah did not expose this about a mixed race child. Maybe because her mother chose a side for her. She chose the safest side for her. A side that came with protection. A side where, in its embrace, will always ensure her of friendship forged by virtue of identity. Superficial, many may say, but I know what friendlessness does to a child growing up. It can be a very big and very lonely world out there.
Which is why I found a greater connection to the supporting character, Sahirah. The loneliness and bitterness, while could do with so much more depth in expansion, is very real. Always being under society’s microscope. Always being scrutinised because of identity. When these scenes played, it struck something in me. While it is not revealed until later in the play, I know the sadness that resides in this character; what she would have gone through, how the world would have looked at her and the hurt that comes with every ‘innocent’ or ‘curious’ remark that the world tosses her way. I know the war she rages within herself, and I know that it is not really a war of faith. Faith really has nothing to do with the circumstance that puts her here. The war is between the pressure the world puts upon her to conform to its prescriptions, and her own instincts as a mother, to raise her child in a way she deems most fit.
In this breath, I congratulate #NeoSweeLin for a beautiful and delightful portrayal of her character.
I guess it comes down to whether or not the play gave us the answers that I mentioned when I began writing this, and in my opinion, this is where the gloss comes over the issue. The play develops to a heightened conflict between the characters, and then cuts into an ending where acceptability is somewhat achieved, or at least have some promise of achieving. The answer I waited for was swallowed into the blank space between all of this. How was this acceptability, or promise of acceptability achieved? What happened? How did it happen? Where is that bridge that our society today desperately needs to build in order to get to this hint of a happy ending?
Or could it be that the bridge is simply an illusion? Many of us reach that other side without a bridge. But importantly, it does not mean that these questions don’t need an answer. It simply means that we continue to ignore it and I am uncomfortable with the implication that this is okay. That it does not matter whatever it takes, as long as the happy ending is achieved. That whatever means justify this ending. I live in this society of constant bickering and nit picking over this issue and I want this incredible ending which I know is right, but how?
That is the answer that people like me bleed for. That is the question that frustrates us. And I can appreciate that many in society are only just now being introduced to questions like this, to be exposed to issues that people like us have had to live with all our lives. The judgements we encounter. The oppression that we face. The ignorance that may be lifted by someone enlightened by a play like #Nadirah . But here is society faced with questions. And here are the people like me who wait desperately for answers.
I don’t need to be reminded of the questions. I’ve lived with them far longer than the realisation that this play has helped spread to many in society. And I suppose that now is better than later. I wait for the day when someone turns to me and say, “Really?” And I’d say yes. Yes, and so much more. The sadness, the loneliness, and so much more. The strength to fight, and so much more.
Having said my peace, would I recommend #Nadirah . Absolutely. Welcome to just a little taste of the world of the mixed race and our search for identity, our search for acceptance, and our search for love.