Prior to 9/11, it wasn't totally uncommon to run across men from time to time in Southeast Asia fully decked out in their full Islamist regalia, what the locals over here would refer to as someone who is very "alim" (learned, religious). Back in the late 80's and 90's what would be uncommon to find though was a Caucasian who spoke the language, a sure sign that the individual had a lot of interaction with the Indonesian and Malay community or perhaps had a local girlfriend. Times were much different back then and the expatriate community was quite small. Looking back, I suppose it was pretty much a novelty for the locals to see a foreigner who converse with them in their own language.
Hassan smiled and proceeded to heap accolades on me. "It's so nice to see an American who takes the time to learn our culture and language." I smiled and in response to his questions I confirmed that I did in fact have a Malay girlfriend that I liked very much. Hassan asked me if I had converted to Islam and I responded that I hadn't but that my girlfriend's mother spoke about it to me often. Hassan smiled and told me that if I was serious about this girl that I would eventually have to convert to Islam if I wished to marry her. Politely I told Hassan that is was a bit too early for that. Attempting to change the subject, I asked Hassan where he was from and what he was doing in Singapore. Hassan told me that he was from Malaysia and was in Singapore purchasing computer equipment for a madrassa and computer school that he ran in Malaysia. As I got up to leave the restaurant, Hassan scribbled his phone number in Malaysia on a napkin and asked me to stop up and visit sometime whenever I was in Kuala Lumpur.
A few months later I happened to be in Kuala Lumpur and being curious to see what a madrassa was like I decided to pay Hassan a visit. He wasn't exactly in Kuala Lumpur and in fact it was a bit of a drive and so I packed a few things in an overnight bag just in case I got too tired to drive back later. When I arrived at Hassan's madrassa I was bit taken aback at what I saw. The madrassa looked quite a bit rundown and all the students dressed in flowing white robes and turbans were standing outside when I drove in through the driveway to park my car in the back of the building. I walked around the building and spotted Hassan sitting with a few other gentlemen in the madrassa's canteen. Hassan stood up smiling and then introduced to me his "brothers" and then speaking in English, he told them that he had met me in Singapore, how I spoke Indonesian and Malay, that I had a Malay girlfriend and that I was interested in converting to Islam. Hassan's "brothers" smiled broadly and invited me to sit down and join them for a cup of tea. I noticed that Hassan's "brothers" were dressed slightly differently and then over a cup of tea, I came to learn that the "brothers" were in fact from Pakistan and were visiting in Malaysia for a few days before moving on to Indonesia. For the next couple hours we spoke mostly about Afghanistan and Islam and how the Taliban were transforming the country after the Russians had been defeated.
Looking back, what is interesting to note is how there was very little open animosity at the time the men were quite cordial with outsiders albeit their mannerisms made them seem crazier than shit house rats at times. In my attempts to be polite though I sat through the sales pitch that was now coming on strong and listened to the three of them go on about the beauty of Islam, how much it was a "way of life", one that united people around the world, how it was the fastest growing religion in the world and even of the audacious plans for an Islamic Caliphate that would encompass all of South and Southeast Asia. Hassan then took over, smiled at me and went on to explain to me how people's lives changed for the better once they had embraced Islam.
It was about this time that I noticed the students started assembling nearby. It was time to pray again. As the students came around I noticed something that struck me as disturbing, the students looked exhausted and tired, their eyes seemed listless and as they gathered around there seemed to be almost no deliberation in their movement. I couldn't put my finger on it, but something just wasn't right, and yet in this surreal setting I found myself almost overwhelmed with empathy. I wanted to do something. I wanted to help. I looked over at Hassan and asked "Do any of these children speak English?" Hassan frowned and told me that they didn't have an English teacher and then asked me "How would you like to help teach English here?" Without even giving it much thought, I agreed to help teach the students English.
to be continued....
to be continued....