Ibrahim caught himself shaking his head at an empty room. In disgust, he threw down the newspaper he had spread at face level, annoyed that the lousy state of the country could manipulate him so physically, like a puppet. And now his fingers were smeared with black, the nonsense he read actually marking him. Sighing angrily, he got up to wash his hands, not noticing that his head was set to shaking again.
Malaysia was going to the dogs, quite literally. Activists were holding “I Want to Touch a Dog” events in all thirteen states, even the Borneo ones. Tch. He himself would never go against his religion and touch an unclean dog. But more than anything, he resented the rabble-rousers for muddying his thoughts. There was no benefit to embroiling his mind and soul, which he strove so hard to keep turned toward holiness, in the childish filth put out by headline chasers. His hands and brains were put to much better use behind the scenes, as it were, where no limelight shone and yet there was so much good done. For example, the work he did with the state Religious Department. It wasn’t just talking, talking, talking, which anybody could do. This was grassroots and on-the-ground, tackling concrete issues one human soul at a time. He was a real patriot, not like those dog lovers.
True, the RD was no police force, nor was it as far-reaching as a rival volunteer corps whose successes included sting operations that sniffed out buildings full of illegal immigrants, capturing them for deportation all in one fell swoop. Ibrahim’s work had a more personal touch to it. It wasn’t just rounding up foreign parasites clearly on the wrong side on the law. In his work, the focus was instead on cultivating and nurturing the young, strayed sons and daughters of Malaysia. These were often mere kids he dealt with, after all, barely mature enough to think beyond immediate gratification. Ibrahim was given the chance to be a father figure for these wayward youngsters who had but momentarily deviated from their true paths.
What he did required much more finesse. He was handling issues that were maybe more gray than strictly black and white. Black and white was leaving your own country in a little fishing boat by cover of night, and then plundering innocent, upright citizens when you found out jobs did not, in fact, grow on Malaysian trees. Gray was the teenage girl from last week, barely older than his own daughter.
Ibrahim scratched his chin, seeking the abrasive texture of his short beard. His wife peeked around the doorframe, her features drooping into worry when she saw that her husband was staring fixedly, eyes glazed, at his own reflection in the bathroom mirror.
“Dinner time.” The bath tiles echoed her voice.
Ibrahim cleared his throat and said he would be there soon.
It must have scared his wife too, his nightmares that had begun visiting every evening. That sweet woman. After patiently enduring the first few nights of his sweaty, flailing limbs, she’d made him herbal tea before bed. But it caused Ibrahim to struggle up for bathroom runs in the middle of the night, grunting, and the nightmares then actually multiplied, since every travel from wakefulness to sleep was a brand new trigger for another version of the same nightmare.
Next, she’d suggested Western classical music. He’d tried it for ten minutes. It only bewildered him. Flutes and violas and trombones, things from another realm—it was all so alien and it made him uneasy with its strangeness.
In the end, he’d given up on sleep and signed on for nocturnal operations with the town’s RD. They lived in a sleepy, traditional town, nothing like the big city lights of Kuala Lumpur or Penang, but in small towns too there were bad influences and crooked elements at play. If God kept him up and wished him to have more waking hours than most men, then he would not squander the extra time granted to him.
“Bang!” his wife called from the dining room.
“Ya!” he shouted back, leaving the bathroom at last.
His wife and daughter sat waiting at the dining table, plates and bowls of food between them. Out of the corner of his eye, he gleaned his wife’s glance of worry.
Retirement threw him off, she was probably thinking. He’ll adjust to it, she might hope. Give him time. It’s only been a month. God will guide.
That was his wife, Marina—hopefully patient, if nothing else.
He scooped up a piece of beef and cradled it with his fingers. Across the table, his daughter was chewing contentedly, right hand in a loose open claw, ready for the next scoop of food.
The teenage girl from last week, barely older than his own Siti, had peered with disbelief from the amoral dark car in which she had been trapped, trying to see around the flashlight beams and make out the faces of the men who shone them. It’d been a hot night. She and her partner in crime had cranked down all the car windows.
Whose cage of sin was this scratched blue Proton Saga? Ibrahim, putting off the mental processing of such an unbelievable thing as a young Malay girl willingly entwining with a Chinese kafir, started pondering the ownership of the vehicle.
It must be his, this hairless young man, engorged pupils blinking in the light of justice that cleared away the dangerous darkness of a tree’s canopy, their intended shelter from discovery.
Now the boy was putting on a brave face as Ibrahim’s RD brothers practiced the highly effective tactic of divide and conquer, ordering the boy to step out of his car. Stay inside, they gestured to the girl, palms pushing against the night air.
When the boy emerged, he had all of his clothing on without disarray. Ibrahim breathed out heavily. Perhaps they had been in time to preserve her purity after all.
In the back seat the girl shrank, hunched in belated modesty. One of his colleagues leaned close and hissed, jeering: “Is Chinese penis really that good?”
Ibrahim felt exceptional sorrow then. To think, how unfair it was. The man, the mentally stronger of the two (sometimes the mentally stronger, he heard his wife’s voice correcting him gently), instigates the whole disgraceful mess, tempts the poor girl to give up her natural honor and sense of shame to commit khalwat. And yet he gets to walk away free, without a mar to his life, because he is not Muslim and thus not subject to the jurisdiction of the RD or the Syariah courts. The best they could do was shine strong battery-powered light into his eyes, shake him up a bit. But the poor girl, so young, has sinned! Has sinned and will forever be subjected to scrutiny and judgment, both men’s and God’s. Ibrahim sighed once more. The silver lining was that she, at least, fell under their jurisdiction. He would do what he could for her.
That night there was no scheduled RD operation, and so Ibrahim had no choice but to put himself into a horizontal position under a blanket and close his eyes, first gently, then tightly, listening to his wife’s breathing, waiting for it to slow and lengthen.
She had massaged his shoulders right before bed and he had allowed it, willing himself to unclench, understanding she was just trying to help.
Tonight the nightmare started out as an audio-only presentation: a loud clacking of what sounded like high heels on tar. Gradually, his dream eyes adjusted to the black blank, and he saw that, once again, it was night in a marsh. For the thousandth time, his ex-brother’s shaved calves clicked disgracefully through mud and weeds to evade the volunteer corps that had come to salvage his soul. Stop, Ibrahim wanted to say. But he could not move any part of his body. He was still as a stone; stones rained on his ex-brother’s body; the word he wanted to say came out of his ex-brother’s lips—“stop, stop,” in screams, as the volunteers strip him and another cross dresser of their taffeta gowns, and when their hands reach to smear makeup the teeth gnash down.
Next to him, close to Ibrahim’s face, the whites of his wife’s eyes shone dully in the dark. He felt her hand reaching for his.
“You were calling his name,” she said.
He tried to think of something to say.
“It’s been so many years,” she said. “You are not responsible for him, even if he is your brother. He made his own choices. He was old enough to think for himself.”
For his virgin raid Ibrahim had gone to Jaya supermarket and bought a pair of Bata shoes. That had been a week ago. The shoes waited for him now, still shiny and alien next to his worn rubber slippers. The sales clerk had said that the shoes were best for badminton.
He had let himself fall back for that very first operation, bringing up the rear of the RD raid party. The moon was out that night, pockmarked and almost full.
One of his RD brothers turned to reassure him that this was one of their “regular” raids, and that they did not expect any extraordinary developments. Ibrahim wanted to ask what the other man meant, but the back ahead of him was already once more ruler straight. This one had a goatee, which therefore meant his name was … Safee. Safee’s hand swept a flashlight in steady arcs around waist level, as if showcasing selected scenery—to their left a padang, clumps of wild grass reaching for each other’s shadows with each gust of wind, to their right a silhouette of a tree growing next to what looked like tatters of a football goal. Ibrahim and his new RD brothers walked on the paved road running alongside the padang. Ahead, someone’s slippers slapped loudly with each step. Ibrahim was glad for his new shoes, quiet and solid in a rubbery way.
For the past half kilometer or so, the paved road had curved past residential houses, normal-looking ones with dim lights leaking through curtains and garden hoses curled in front yards. Then the normal houses thinned, and they were advancing past a giant block of oddly shaped blackness, as if someone had tried to scale up Lego pieces. An old tire factory, Safee informed Ibrahim.
Against his bidding, a dream-like scene visited: men wearing nothing but tires around their waists, covering their privates, trying to push-roll other men wearing nothing but tires lying on their sides. That was what lay within the misshapen Lego block, he was convinced. High up, a man wearing a dress swayed limply from the ceiling beams, seated in a tire swing, legs kicking ineffectually to propel himself. His ex-brother was there, too, hanging from his neck off a tire noose, his hands holding up the sides of his calf-length skirt, curtseying mid-air.
The volunteers ahead started slowing, flashlight beams arcing lower and closer to the ground. Ibrahim peered. They were approaching dirt lanes branching off the main paved road. Row houses flanked the lanes, looking just like the terraced houses they had passed not too long ago. Looking, in fact, like row houses all over the state, including the one that was Ibrahim’s own two-story, thirty-year-mortgaged unit.
Except these units up ahead were unnaturally dark: darker than the road they walked on, and darker even than the trees bowing over the wedges of black roofs. A ghost town? Ibrahim was confused. Right in his backyard, too. What had happened here? A terrible fire that had licked out a whole swathe of land? An entire village killed decades ago by Japanese soldiers, never rehabilitated? How had he not known about—and then he did know, the realization falling upon him as if from a great height.
It had many names: Kampung Mak Nyah, Ah Kua Village, Sodomia. Ibrahim had actually been here, once, inside, but he had approached it from a different road, not from this narrow tar one that slithered past the back of factory buildings. This must be the other end of the No Man’s Land. No Man, because all the men here did not want to be men. They wanted to be ugly women, willingly throwing away their lives to settle for that.
Of course he thought about Umar. How could he not? And again he wondered if things would have been different if he had not gone so far away for university. But he’d had no idea, no inkling that such strange desires coiled within his own brother. If Umar had only confided in him, Ibrahim would have done anything at all to anchor him in home and all that was holy. Instead, Ibrahim had gone away to study at the country’s best university, and his brother had ridden away for good on his motorcycle, enticed by the wrong kind of desire.
It must have been latent then, when he had come here with Umar. That was back when things were as one expected them to be and his brother was normal, just a regular skinny kid in secondary school. They were front-to-back on their shared motorcycle, going fast. The wind rippled their T-shirts, tight against chests but flapping out and away from spines, rippling like flags.
It must have been Umar’s idea to go gawk at the transvestites. Ibrahim had probably thought it a dare, or an adventure. Like going to the zoo, except this was free, and less safe with the absence of bars and moats, and therefore more exciting. The attraction was the mak nyahs, said to pose in various states of undress in the dark yards of the dark houses, waiting for customers.
In a flash, Ibrahim wondered if it had all been his fault after all, for agreeing to go along when Umar was then still so young and so impressionable. What if that had been the catalyst? Had it all begun that night, when they rounded the corner and the motorcycle’s headlights picked out a seated body?
An arm threw itself over the spotlighted face, but the mak nyah’s body remained pivoted toward them. Ibrahim’s eyes sought the presence of breasts. But it was too dark to tell their authenticity under that baby doll top, headlights only intensifying shadows and rounding contours. The brothers breathed in silence. Ibrahim tried to think of something witty to say to his brother.
Then the mak nyah made to stand up, the motion triggering a rustling. The grass grew as tall as knees, Ibrahim finally noticed. Behind him, he felt Umar stiffen. A protective instinct rose in Ibrahim. His right hand tightened around the handlebars. Out of the corner of his eye, something metallic glinted. He jerked up to see a row of bras hanging on a rattan clothesline strung through tree branches, swaying in the breeze but somehow seeming dense and heavy.
His brother screamed in his ear. By the time he refocused his sight on the transvestite, mismatching knuckles and cleavage were already right up against his face. Ibrahim understood that the free show was over, and that it was time to pay.
He whipped his head around his shoulder to gostan out of the dark street, catching one last glimpse of what they had come to see before they sped away. She was grinning triumphantly, mouth open wide and immobile.
Not once did he check the rearview mirror to see what expression his brother’s face formed.
So much older he was now, an age far along enough to command respect from most, but not yet so over the hill as to invite suspicions of weakness. He felt the perfection of his fit with the RD, savoring it as he kept pace with the other volunteers.
That first night they did not find anything or anybody. The mak nyahs must have had a tipster, Safee said while shaking his head, disappointed that they could not show Ibrahim what it was all about.
The next night was more rewarding, even though it was a small catch of only three transvestites. As they wrapped up, Ibrahim resolved to steel his heart against what the work required. They had chased the mak nyahs into fields and caught the ones cornered in a cul-de-sac. Those were shoved and shouted at to subdue their wailing, and one had unfortunately fallen on the ground and refused to get up, so a few of them had had to drag him a bit. Another’s purse was roughly yanked from his clutch and rifled through.
But it was for a purpose. The end result was extracted confessions and vows of repentance. One of the mak nyahs, the one who had tripped and fallen, cried messily in an absurd, hoarse voice. Ibrahim felt so sorry for her he stuffed five ringgit into the reformed captive’s manicured hands, then immediately regretted doing it, of course, for what would it look like? Like a filthy transaction, that’s what.
He looked around to see if anyone had noticed. All around him were men, busying themselves in semi-darkness, everyone finding something to do, even though they far outnumbered the mak nyahs.
That night, he felt his way across his bedroom and got in next to his wife. He was too rattled to sleep. Looking at his wife’s curly, uncovered hair next to him, Ibrahim felt waves of guilt. He had compromised the purity of their marriage by a thoughtless act of kindness.
At that moment in bed, Ibrahim vowed to be an even better man than he already was. He would make up for the roughness some of his fellow RD volunteers exhibited by being the thoughtful, avuncular counterpart. He would be the one who delivered sermons harsh on the surface, but with a tender-hearted core. When the perpetrators were sufficiently shame-faced, he would soften his tone and remind them how much of their precious future was at stake, and look! In their sweaty hands, this shrinking window to save it all.
Yes, next time he would play this role, and he would play it perfectly. Let no one say the RD was just a bunch of wannabe vigilantes on power trips. His mission was to save souls. It would be known.
The next night Ibrahim dreamt a different nightmare.
He was on a raid of a hotel, the sordid one at the edge of town. In the lobby, scruffy carpets raised clouds of dirt ash at their extremities, in corners no one tread. Naked light bulbs concentrated cones of light on the front desk and lit up, weakly, the door yawning into a dark stairway.
In the background, atmospheric sounds of pipes shuddering, cockroaches clicking and far-off trucks stumbling swirled in a bad blend. The hotel smelled of youth, which is to say unsanitary in a nevertheless glorious way. Dream-Ibrahim and his dream-brothers crept silently up the dim stairs. They were purposeful.
At the door they sought, the man in the lead produced keys and noiselessly inserted them into the keyhole. The door swung, and dream-Ibrahim saw a tiny room that was all bed and floor-length curtains. On the bed were two misguided young teenagers.
Oh, expanse of skin! Cream and sea fronds! Saxophones and bassoons! The girl gasped silently and turned around to look straight at her father, dream-Ibrahim.
Your hair is not long enough, he roared at her.
Ibrahim jolted awake, shaking. How dare you, he seethed, breathing hard. Give me such dreams. Dream such things. How dare you. He was furious at something he could not name.
“Bang, be careful tonight,” his wife said at dinner, eyes lowered onto her food.
“Tonight? Where are you going?” Siti asked.
Ibrahim shuddered. Her face was an unblemished patch of sweetness. So young. His eyes involuntarily lowered to seek out her bosom, wanting to gauge any changes, but the tabletop reached just south of her breastbone, she was so short still. Her hair fell straight until it met the obstacles that were her round shoulders, and there it started to curl charmingly, in obedient waves, uniform like the whorls of the smooth wooden posts at the end of their staircase.
When he left for the RD, the outside air was so humid it felt like walking through Tiger Balm. The patch between Ibrahim’s neck and shoulder blades ached, and he felt himself slouching. He thought that he must be tired.
The walk to the RD headquarters was short. As he hurried along, he renewed his promise. Tonight, he would calmly help whomever it was they caught, especially the girls and women. If any of his brothers made threats or exhibited roughness in general, he would step in and tilt the balance. He straightened, feeling stronger with purpose.
All along the way, Ibrahim fingered the switch of the flashlight in his hand. Fleeting, distorted circles of light clicked audibly on and off, picking out loose gravel, pebbles, and tough little tufts of weeds that sprang up through cracks in the tar. The flashlight felt right in his clutch, as if custom-made for him.
Around him families slept, bickered, watched mediocre TV or satellite programming. A few figures sat outdoors, letting the night breeze evaporate their sweat. Smokers. Old people. Unclean dogs.
When he passed under a streetlamp, his flashlight’s click ceased to produce the orb of light he was used to. He paused and looked up at the bigger, stronger light source that swallowed whole the output of his torch. Squinting, he could make out swarms of moths and miscellaneous insects batting themselves about haphazardly. He turned his flashlight on one more time, just to see it fail to do anything, subsumed.
By the time he reached the RD building, his collared cotton shirt was gently sticking to the small of his back. The building was grand by most local standards, the exterior a series of lofty columns topped off with faux gold dome arches.
Inside, his colleagues lounged, drinking strong tea, adjusting caps, testing flashlights. A short discussion took place, and it was agreed they would take Safee and Yaacob’s cars tonight, since those were roomier. It looked set to be another regular night of aimless patrolling, which Ibrahim quite enjoyed. It meant hours of strolling the main and back streets of this town he loved so much, feeling his contributions to its safety and moral cleanliness while everyone else slumbered, trusting and oblivious. As the night deepened, the air would cool, and that too was delightful.
But then the mobile phone of Azidin, their leader, rang. He turned his back on the other men and issued mutterings of “Ya” and “Ah ah” to the west wall of the room. When he hung up and turned around, his eyes were glistering.
Change of plans, he barked. They would be raiding Hotel Fajar tonight, that seedy place on top of the town’s second-biggest supermarket. The phone call was a tip-off from the front desk clerk who had checked in a young Malay couple just a few minutes ago. He had watched the couple ascend to their room, leaning into each other unsteadily.
The room perked and buzzed. Ibrahim blinked. For a second, he thought someone had put a color filter over the lights, maybe yellow or orange; the rays illuminating the space were warmer and yet shriller at the same time. He stood up. He understood—or perhaps it was the room’s mood he picked up—that something big would happen tonight.
“How much did that loser ask for?” someone asked Azidin.
Azidin muttered grouchily in a low voice. Ibrahim stooped to re-tie his Bata’s shoelaces. He did not hear what was said.
Now they were in Yaacob’s van, a black box charging down streets toward its target. Rocking in the car against Azidin’s warm thigh, Ibrahim absent-mindedly looked down at his lap. He started. His right hand was clenched tightly around his flashlight. Slitting his eyes, he looked out of their corners at the other men’s hands. They were empty, open and relaxed. It was an indoor expedition, after all. The suspects had nowhere to run, unless they tried the window ledges, which some of the male offenders did from time to time, Ibrahim was told. But they never got far, and it was always just awkward for them, perched or dangling.
When the boxy car came to a shuddering stop and the engine was killed, Ibrahim became abruptly aware of his heart, unrelenting as cicadas in the bushes. The car seat made a loud, rude noise when he slid off to touch gravelly ground.
Ibrahim stood still in the balmy night. Craning his neck, he saw that only a couple of windows higher off the ground were lit, veiled by curtains. The hotel’s sign was small and off white in a dirty way. Near its entrance were bags and cardboard boxes overflowing with rubbish, refuse from the supermarket, obviously picked over by tramps, mongrels, whomever.
Inside, the clerk gestured excitedly. He was thin and his shoulders hunched forward, bearing a head with untidy hair but an immaculate little mustache. Ibrahim looked at him with contempt. Even though they were supposed to be on the same side, helping the town, Ibrahim did not feel a man who took money in exchange for information was trustworthy. If he truly cared about the welfare of the wayward young souls upstairs, Ibrahim thought, the clerk could simply refuse to give them a room, could he not? “No vacancy”—easy enough.
The clerk was slumped over his desk, shaking his head to Azidin and miming sorrow. Ibrahim turned away. There was no functional furniture to be seen in the lobby. He started counting his fellow volunteers, milling about with nowhere to sit. Before he could finish, he saw Azidin sweeping the room with his gaze, trying to catch everyone’s eyes. It was time.
The door yawning into the dark stairway was propped open by a rubber wedge shaped like a miniature slice of Western cake.
Up the stairs they went, some trying not to breathe hard. Ibrahim clutched his belt buckle and yanked upward while jerking it from side to side. His other hand touched the banister. Dusty.
When the men ahead of him slowed, Ibrahim suddenly realized the disadvantages of bringing up the rear. He would be the last to see the sinners, censored here and there by the arms, shoulders and necks of his colleagues. No, he must. He pushed his way past a couple men and groped for the top of the stairs. But the door was already opening.
There was a shriek. The girl, eyes half-closed, saw the religious men before the boy did. Ibrahim made out that she was struggling to escape from the enclosure created by the boy’s body, his arms planked straight into the thin mattress, when a second ago she must have welcomed the screen of his flesh slotted between her and heaven, God’s eye shining.
Ibrahim shut his eyes tightly. From behind came an impatient shove. The others were rushing into the room, while he remained standing, holding on to the doorframe.
It wasn’t his daughter. Of course it wasn’t. Hadn’t he just seen her at dinner, picking out limp onion strands and beaching them on the edge of her plate? Wasn’t she a safe, dark lump in her room when he’d looked in on her, flashlight in hand?
Where was his flashlight? For a spinning second, Ibrahim felt very lost. He wondered whether it was true that he had a daughter. How had she appeared in his life?
And then the girl on the motel mattress sat up, insisting that she was a married woman, pushing at the boy to go get their laminated marriage card to show the volunteers. She was about to cry. Ibrahim opened his eyes. He thought about Marina, about Siti, about Umar. He took a deep breath and tried to feel good and strong.