My friend who is not Syed Saddiq

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I lost the friendship bracelet my friend bought me.

It was what, RM5? RM10? I don’t even know if that is expensive for rotan bracelets dyed with black paint. I came from a family in obscure Kedah where I had thought such gestures were hedonistic and were a western influence. My family (rather my parents) was pious, strict with religion, and just recently started doing better financially, so the whole Kuala Lumpur teen culture I was put into during high school left me restless, uneasy even. But that is not what I am writing for. I am writing about the bracelet from a dear friend I lost because I was scared that I would become hedonistic and indoctrinated by western culture.

After high school ended, I was looking for excuses to go to Kuala Lumpur, so that I could meet a few of my closest peers. For some reason, instead of just normally asking my parents that I wanted to stay in Kuala Lumpur for a few days, I instead troubled myself, finding volunteering activities to make my time in Kuala Lumpur seem worthwhile. Maybe that is why I found not many people enjoy my presence. I make things complicated. So then, I arrived in Kuala Lumpur, ate lunch and moved to the volunteer center. We cooked a little, gave them to the homeless and went to a friend’s house for an impromptu sleepover. The next day, the train back to Kedah would wait for me in the evening, so we went to Pasar Seni in the morning, only because I thought it had cool indie vibes. As we arrived at Pasar Seni, our group gradually somehow became bigger. It was only then that the friend who bought me the bracelet entered the story.

This friend, he was particularly amazing. He had a beautiful singing voice, skin paler than Syed Saddiq (not a reflection of my view on the beauty standard), was great at leading people, somewhat pious and always so strong. I would say his only fault was that he would befriend the heck of a person I am. We spent a lot of time together, mostly because we were in the same dorm house and we tried to go to the surau often for Subuh. Emphasis on the word try because by the time you are a senior, people just mostly pray at the dorm room by the time you are a senior. He was one of the most reasonable persons I met, too, in high school at least. I think it is fun to note too that he had a fan club when he was a senior, or so was how I remember it. This  was years ago, so forgive my maggi-ridden memory.

I cannot remember who exactly called this friend to hang out during that particular pasar seni trip, but I was elated that he would be there. We were walking then at Petaling street when one of the small Chinese street vendors caught my eye. She had a metal hanger racked with various synthetic leather bracelets. I know I said the bracelet was made of rotan in the beginning, but that is just because I had forgotten which one. If it is not yet clear, I lost the bracelet. Anyhow, I was looking to buy something here for quite the few reasons. Firstly, because I do not go out in Kedah often, I had few friends in Kedah so I never get the chance to buy things like that on a daily basis. Secondly, it was just because at the time, I found myself pulled to embrace the hedonistic and westernised culture of men bracelets. 

I have a particular problem with the last reasoning. Firstly, I would have to address and give context to why I am referring so much to this loosely defined hedonism and western culture, and why I speak of it with somewhat a negative connotation. Well to first establish a characterisation, I myself do not necessarily see hedonism and western influence as something unflawful and yet it does not necessarily bring harm. I was referring to it as how we were  taught (at least how I remembered) to write on hedonism and western influence as an agent of negative growth in high school grade Bahasa Melayu essays. And why were we taught like that? I would suspect it was religious fundamentalism and colonial trauma that largely resulted in this negative perspective towards the aforementioned notions. Though, I would not want to elaborate more on that today. What I would like to address however is the issue with muslim men wearing bracelet, which as a disclaimer now, I am declaring that I am threading lightly on this subject and is not trying to blatantly commit blasphemy. This humble self, who is still lost with a genuine religious anxiety only would like to inquire on the issue of men wearing bracelets being haraam, for such accessories are supposedly worn by women, and to wear them would mean to imitate women thus making it to be ultimately Haraam.

However, is this answer not based on the perception of one’s own self towards whom a bracelet is supposedly adorned? If in the first place, since I was born I was wearing bracelets, and by the time I knew that it was haraam because it is the accessory of a woman, how would that affect me? being a person who did not have at all the perception that bracelets were an exclusively women accessory. Would that excuse me from the sins of being a man who wears a bracelet because I do not recognise, and has internally accepted that bracelets are just accessories and were not exclusively made for one gender or another? Perhaps this should not be an accepted argument because when I, being the person who did not have the preexisting idea that bracelets are a women exclusive accessory, was taught that they are in fact a women exclusive accessory, this would since then made me obligated to recognise this notion as a reality, to adhere to the societal basis in which this notion is true. However, what if, as a society, we all perceive bracelets as a gender-neutral accessory, would this then remove the sin of men wearing bracelets? If so, is this not just a matter of perspective, in which, if I just accept that a bracelet is not meant for a particular gender, then I would be absolved of the sin of wearing one? I feel this question is especially relevant, particularly in a globalised world where a near homogenous culture is forming. An imitation of another person’s culture or another gender’s culture for that matter, would not anymore be relevant because the notion of imitation then becomes impossible. In a globalised culture, a man would not be able to imitate the clothing of a woman because at the basis itself, gender-exclusive clothing is not anymore an existing notion. So then, would this absolve men of the sins of wearing a bracelet?

Anyhow, this thought did not stop me from buying a bracelet that day. And as I was choosing mine, the friend that was supposed to be the subject of this essay interjected my thoughts and grabbed the one that was in my hands a moment ago. He looked a while at the rack and chose one with the same colour as mine, only with an alternating pattern. He then called the woman handling the stall and told her he was paying for the two bracelets in his hands, which one was the one I had chosen for myself. The Chinese vendor told him the amount he owed which he then paid (maybe I did pay half I just cannot really remember). He then passed me my bracelet and said something like “here, our friendship bracelet”. 

I wore the bracelet for a while then, and we continued to walk around Petaling street before having lunch and ultimately sending me off at NU Sentral in the evening. I was already in Kedah the next day, woken up early by my dear mother so that we could go to my grandparents’ house. Unlike Olivia Rodrigo who felt sadness in receiving their driving licence, I was always happy to drive around, so then I showered quickly and put on the newly bought friendship bracelet. As I drove however, I felt a feeling of uneasiness settle within my bones, a feeling of anxiety that my mother is quietly staring at the string of synthetic rope wrapped around my hands. The funny thing was, she probably did not even look at my hands at the time, and even if she did, it would be to scrutinise my hand placement as a new driver. Nevertheless, the paranoia kicked in and suddenly I thought of my grandmother who I would be seeing in a few more minutes of driving. I saw her in my head, alternating between fuming and disappointed that I adorned myself with such blasphemous clothes, both because it was sacrilegious and a signifier of western influence. The latter, finally signifying my defeat against the sad, hedonistic, immoral culture introduced in the urbanised, Kuala Lumpur elite environment of my high school. I was always somewhat anxious while driving, but somehow never this anxious, so then, as we approached the big mango trees that replaced the metal gates of a normal house that is my grandparents’, I quickly removed the blasphemous bracelet and left it in the car.

 

I might be exaggerating, but what is writing without a little flair. 

The visit was nothing eventful though. So uneventful that I do not even remember anything from this particular visit. To again reflect though, I feel my premature expectation towards my grandparents’ ways seems to be almost excessive and even putting them in a bad light, for how fundamentalistic and conservative does a person have to be to reckon such aggravating response to such an arguably menial gesture? Well, if that is what you think, that would be true, I see people, especially those close to me with a lot of prejudice. This is a problem therapy has yet to be able to fix so forgive my blatancy. Then again, perhaps this reaction is warranted, for when my older sister, who has clearly embraced the Kuala Lumpur lifestyle, once adorned a weird eye makeup that resembled a black sun in front of my grandmother. She commented how scared she was for my sister and how she had dreamed of my sister with such ghastly makeup. She had taken the chance to tell my sister to be careful who she is friends with, fearing bad influences. Ironically, it is actually my sister who is often the menace to her friends. Nevertheless, this same fear, that my grandmother would be so disappointed in me, was what almost gave me a panic attack when I came home with a failed hair bleach session. 

I feel like I am getting sidetracked again

After that particular visit, my mother drove back home because it was already dark and somewhat dangerous for the novice driver that I was. That particular night, I had forgotten about the bracelet as sleepiness bound my senses, which made me promptly go to bed after arriving home. The next morning, as I regained consciousness of what is important, I realized I should keep the bracelet somewhere safe, even if I could not wear it, but when I went to search for it in the car, it was not there. I did not know how much guilt I felt over it back then, but perhaps I did have it to some extent, as I found myself often searching for the bracelet when I am in the car.

A few weeks back, I had a conversation with a friend who lived on the other side of the country on what inherently became a discourse on free will and our accountability to our actions if it is deemed that we are not free. If what we think we ought to be at a given moment is the collection of events affecting us from the past, then only to what extent are our thoughts our own. So then, if our actions at any given moment posed harm to others or were just blatantly wrong and immoral, would it require us to take accountability for them? If how we think, react and act is based on the indoctrination of our past experience, how are we responsible for our own actions, when most things that constitute the person we are only reflect how and with whom we were brought up with.

I have had trouble accepting this notion of one’s own self, because then, what we are at a given moment, and whatever we had achieved or felt good about, were ultimately not the result of ourselves, but rather simply that we are lucky enough to be born such ways and not such ways, to be born to such families and not such families, to have met such people and not such people, so then we would not be able to take credit for what we are, and what we are not. Of course, I do not see this as an absolute, but even then, it bothers me how much of my thoughts are really my own.

That friend who gave me that bracelet, his mother passed away a few months ago, and because I was in France, I was not able to attend her funeral or much of anything that could have helped him. But there was a Yassin recital ceremony that I could attend because it was done online, mostly due to Covid, or so I thought. I did not think much before entering the google meet link where the recital was hosted, but when I was connected, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of nostalgia, and then the sense of collective consciousness or belonging I felt when I was still in Boarding School. Many of the participants were my peers from high school. I found myself unable to join the recital. I only listened as my voice was choked by tears. The recital ended. I found myself triggered by my mortality and I started to hyperventilate. I then cower in my bed, calming myself as I watch the clock ticked by. 

Reflecting then, in the grand scheme of things, perhaps globalisation, the agent of the homogenisation of culture is also paradoxically, the agent that disallows it. The growing global culture, in many ways, often ultimately erases the representation of another minority culture, so to speak, if one’s culture is not adapted to the mainstream, it will, in its finality, go extinct. Which is why media representation is important for a minority culture to avoid drowning in the waves of globalisation. Realising their culture is slowly disappearing, a minority group would start to react offensively against this globalisation of culture, and often those whose culture was not deeply enough ingrained would easily adopt into the mainstream culture and forget that of their origins. This trend perhaps is one factor that I think causes my elders to look so disgustingly at the western culture, for even if it is not necessarily harmful morally or religiously, it is harmful to the culture of one minority group. Even then, this does not take account of a culture that actually poses harm to the ways of religion and self-perceived morality. Of course, again, this is a simplistic assessment from a mere 1st-year university student and should not at all be taken as a popular or even acceptable notion. Though again, if what I propose seemed to somehow carry water, I would understand why my grandmother cried a week before I left for France, and why my mother did too at the airport. It is not just the distance that separates us, perhaps the eventual difference in the way we think too is so much of a worry for them, even more for I was departing to the clear secular state that France is, the Catholic university that I am enrolled in, and the indoctrinating nature of education. My sister cried too at the airport when I left, but I suspect it was not for the same reasons for I believe she had far diverged into the mainstream culture. Anyhow, I fear that my eventual return to my family is awkward, for when I may be too radicalised (or perhaps just adequately) to accept our political differences and world view. 

Perhaps I am lost, just as how the bracelet is, and perhaps I will stay this way, just as how the bracelet will, but perhaps again, the bracelet is not lost, merely misplaced in the wardrobe of my bedroom in Sungai Petani, and not lost during the car trip to my grandparents’, but I would not be able to remember anyway with the maggi-damaged brain that I have.