Saturday, January 27, 2007


How I remembered prof syed hussein

It’s true that you’ll only realize that something is really precious when you lost it. Such is the case with Prof syed Hussein al atas who passed away last wednesday. He was 78. don’t want to regurgitate anything about him as he was relatively well known and here is a good orbituary of sort. He was one of our great intellectuals (which we have precious few) and to put him side by side with our current prime minister say, would make our Abdullah badawi looks like… well, a village idiot…but I for one have never been influenced much by him or his ideas although I knew well that he has a correct view about what Malaysian politic should be (multiculturalism and all that) because me being an ‘islamist’ (as people these days pejoratively referred to the muslims who used to be perjoratively called ‘fundamentalists’) in my intellectual make up (at least theoretically) are more attuned and influenced by his younger brother Syed Naquib al-atas’ writings in my younger university days especially his ‘islam and secularism’ and his translations of some works of the great sufi master imam al-ghazalli.

But for the past couple of years I kept bumping into Prof syed Hussein in book sales especially at the Sunday flea market at armcorp mall pj. I usually meet him at the stall in the basement where this Indian couple have stacks of cheap paperbacks and smaller mixbag of old non fictions on various topics, references, an occasional art book, biographies , the usual self help books and other stuff…and what I like doing was to observe him poring over all these crappy books and see what he chooses. He didn’t know me of course and will never notice a crabby mouse beside him anyway but I would pretend to browse alongside him and I feel a nice warmth of kindered spirit of book lovers secretly transmitted between me and him (without him realizing it) much like a horny guy fantasizing about having sex with that sensuous young girl standing beside him in a lift or some such place with her completely oblivious to his existence. I see his frail body bending over the books and noticed that his skin tone was exactly as described in that lovely little book the house of paper by carlos maria Dominguez for book addicts (or that’s what I imagined anyway, and I imagine I’m developing that kind of sickly skin tone now too…)

And I always noticed he hardly glanced over the fiction stack ( make sense too as this is mostly all those airport type paperbacks and pulp fictions) but would choose one or two non fictions after carefully looking at all the stacks for a long time before he moved slowly away like a turtle to somewhere else. One time the Indian guy asked me if I was with him together and I said “no” and he asked “are you a writer like him?” and I said “no , but I like to collect books too” and he said “the prof had many thousands of books” and I said “ me too, but not as much as him but one day I’ll have may be as much as him” …but now he’s gone… I shall miss observing him poring over all those crappy books….

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