Theatre of Experimental Sermons

In case you were wondering … demi Zaitun… is neither about olives nor a woman called Zaitun.

Written and directed by Sasterawan Negara Noordin Hassan, the play derives its title from a Qur’anic verse – incidentally named The Fig – which begins: “By the Fig and the Olive… “. The sermonic thrust of this play, however, is based on a later part of that verse, which says that human beings have been created ‘in the finest of moulds’, but alas, they are ‘abased to the lowest of the low’ through their own misdeeds.

Staged at Auditorium DBKL from Jul 9 to Aug 4, 2004, …demi Zaitun…, explores this mortal law of entropy through what we are informed was ‘experimental theatre’. It comprises a montage of non-chronological sub­plots, each of which can represent microcosms of larger events or metaphors for life.

Noordin Hassan’s intention to promote ‘teater fitrah’, or theatre of faith, comes through loud and clear. ‘Teater fitrah’, which seems to be something he is trying to pioneer, is essentially theatre that embodies Islamic teachings that enable viewers to reflect on their own relationship with Islam and ultimately the world in which they live.

If this is a style that works for you, you will relish the jumping boards that the play provides. The core message of The Fig verse is drawn through three sub-plots, two of which revolve around two individuals whose lives implode for different reasons. Tina (played by Betty Banafe) loses everything when the ill-gotten gains of her politician father were found out, while Professor Amin (Adman Salleh) slowly breaks down after a student of his marries a politician. Unlike Tina whose salvation comes in the form of kampung boyfriend Izzikri (Sahronizam Noor), the professor’s anger and depression ultimately undo him. He ends up eating out of bins at a train station.

Preachiness is not necessarily boring. Several lines vis-à-vis Islam and Muslims made for interesting rumination. Yasmin (Norzizi Zulkifli) for example, takes a swipe at rich folks who wrangle scholarships out of the zakat (tithe) coffers by “cleverly interpreting the Qur’an.”

Viewers also have to think a little deeper when Izzikri is labeled ‘sosialis, tak Islamik’ on account of his work with the poor. After all, in this land of ideological hegemony, the concept of a Muslim who is a Socialist is, we are told, a contradiction. Or is this just the government trying its best to prevent any sort of community mobilisation?

Then there’s the issue of kahwin mut’ah (short-term contractual marriages}. When this is suggested as an answer to Tina’s financial problems, she argues that these were allowed in the context of war and that it is now haram. If you take ‘contextuality’ to its logical conclusion, then presumably polygamy needs a rethink too. Indeed some scholars and nations do apply contextuality to polygamy and as a result today frown upon it; some even disallow it.

The third sub-plot laments the fragmentation of the ‘Malay’ community in Penang during the 1860s, which left it vulnerable to various attacks from within and without. The sub-plot is based on some interesting historical events surrounding the feud between two Jawi Peranakan secret societies, each supported by two different Chinese kongsis.

As an aside, using ‘Malay’ and ‘Jawi Peranakan’ interchangeably in this country is not without its dynamics. ‘Jawi Peranakan’, ‘mamak’ and ‘Melayu Pulau Pinang’ are terms used to describe Muslims of mixed Indian (especially Tamil) and Malay descent. For these ones, filling out the ‘Melayu-China-India-dan lain-lain’ section of the form, therefore, can be highly political and a bit tricky – some tick the ‘Melayu’ box cause the Constitution says so, some proudly tick it, some aspire to tick it, some feel that others thinks they are not ‘Malay’ enough to tick it, some feel they ought to tick the ‘India’ box, and some deliberately tick the ‘dan lain-lain’ box to make a point (until the officer at the desk makes the choice for you). Against this backdrop of identity politics, citing the fragmented state of the Jawi Peranakan community in order to make a point about ‘Malay unity’, well… you do the math.

In any case, I’d like to think that the ‘Malay unity’ message too will be treated as a microcosm, that if we are to overcome global injustice, then unity has to transcend ethnicity, religions and borders. After all, if you are unifying, who or what are you unifying against?

Within this sub-plot, you also get ‘Death’ – of boria, of ‘Malay unity’, of those killed during the riots – which is brought to the audience by 50 to 60 cloaked figures bearing batu nesan (grave-stones) in a solemn procession down the aisles of the darkened auditorium, against the eerily discordant sounds of a prayer in the background. It’s the kind of art, Howard Zinn would describe, which can bring home the costs of war and conflict so that “war does not remain an abstraction.” At the time he said this, of course, Zinn was referring to Bush’s inability to fathom the human cost of war, “because he has never experienced an artistic rendering of war in a way that would move him in any way.” This is very effectively done, I feel.

Music (by Pak Ngah) and choreography (by Mohd. Zulfarqar Awaluddin and dance director Sharifah Mahani) get a big plus. The use of boria (a form of synchronized community singing and dancing) to relate the Red Flag and White Flag story – yep, that’s really what the Malay secret societies were called back then – is apt and imaginative. In the early 1900s, when the two secret societies were outlawed, they actually used boria as a clandestine means of recruiting members.

…demi Zaitun… is swathed in metaphors and unless you are a student of semiotics, the cacophony of symbolism, drawn from Islamic, Biblical, Malay and Western inspired imageries can come across as overkill or go fuussshh over your head. There’s the almost-entirely white set (designed by Bayu Utomo) comprising, amongst others, a mirror-image clock, a suspended set of stairs aiming for the skies (go on, guess this one!) and the one-eyed winged entity as the embodiment of evil. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse gallop in with their message and there is a prevalence of the number seven.

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you felt lost amongst the symbolism, there are other things to get lost in. …. demi Zaitun... seem overpacked with issues, characters and messages that go on long past the making of the point. And apart from Norzizi Zulkifli, Ahmad Tarmimi Siregar, Normala Omar and perhaps to some extent Adman Salleh, the over-exaggerated performances of some of the other cast members, whether intentional or otherwise, is distracting.

In spite of the confusing weaving of plots and characters, ‘the key message’ of ‘finest of moulds to lowest of lows’ comes across a little too transparent and perhaps a little too often. Two hours can feel too long when didacticism overburdens a production. Ever sat through a two hour sermon? You are likely to walk away feeling the dire lack of resonance and communication.

Perhaps the challenge in a ‘teater fitrah’ should be having your audience figure the ‘moral of the story’ for themselves. Like solving a good jigsaw puzzle. I always feel greater satisfaction in staring at the pieces long and hard, and then figure out that that piece there goes in the bottom left hand corner, rather than have someone point to me that that’s where it goes.

First Published: 21.08.2004 on Kakiseni

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