The room, to my eyes, looks surprisingly American, almost midwestern: dark blue carpet and light blue, almost robins-egg, walls that turn white above the molding strip; a plywood-and-veneer desk, curved in a vaguely modern, vaguely Eero Saarinen-way, meant for a corner but arranged instead to create a protected area, like an office; a huge IBM monitor, maybe five or six years out of date, large and bulky and deep; scattered clothes and DVDs; a bong made from brown-and-gold rubber hose, a three-inch piece of gray plastic tubing, and a 150 ml bottle; built-ins filled with computer and photo equipment and books upon books of comics and poster design. There is a ceiling fan, and recessed lighting, and the fan hangs from the center of an ornate piece of zinc- or tin-work, the type I associate with older brick buildings in Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia.
And yet: duku fruit in an orange bag atop the cabinets, a 100-Plus can in the wastepaper basket, a framed silhouette of a wayang kulit puppet on the wall. Underneath my neat and tidy stack of belongings: a long piece of inexpensive batik cloth from Kota Kinabalu, on Borneo; and a brochure for an art exhibition in Kuala Lumpur that shows Victorianesque brocades and repeatedly uses the term pelan cap, a euphemism for "to masturbate." Pelan cap is transitive, takes an object: So the opposition politician Anwar Ibrahim is masturbating over the People; the curator of the Central Market Annexe, where the exhibition took place, maturbates over the Annexe; Dato` Seri Najib Tun Razak masturbates over the submarines that he got rich buying on behalf of the government; and Atlantuya Sharibuu, whom Najib had first shot and then obliterated with explosives for daring to get pregnant while she was his mistress, masturbates over Komposisi 4, or C4.
This is Pecel's studio, his "office," closer in location to the overgrown crossroads town of Ayer Keroh than the crumbling colonial capital of Melaka. He and I are lazily browsing through his unedited, unphotoshopped pictures of the state of Sabah, and of Afghanistan, when I ask to see the pics he took while working as a photographer for Anwar Ibrahim.
The photos are not on his computer, and he has to root through his tall cylinders of burned DVDs until he finds the right one.
"If ISA1 comes, won't they also look through the CDs"—I mean DVDs, but Pecel understands—"and not just the hard drive?" I ask.
"I take them with me when I go out," Pecel says.
ISA has already visited him once, Pecel has told me, asking for all his pictures of Anwar; he refused, but the visit shook him enough that he quit. It is no small thing to look at being disappeared. A few months later a man he had ever met before approached him and offered to buy outright his entire collection of Anwar photos; Pecel refused again. He's afraid, now, that the next time ISA will simply take the pictures, will knock on the door—or not—and confiscate everything he has. Anwar himself spent years in jail for sodomy and corruption after farcical and unjust trials.
None of the pictures I see is obviously incriminating; Anwar is not pictured drinking, or with another woman, or sinning in any of the myriad other ways that he could be prosecuted for, as a Muslim, in Malaysia. Indeed, Anwar's repeated temporary imprisonments have been for alleged gay sex, mostly with his subordinates; the subordinates, of course, are never temporarily disappeared in the same way.
I ask Pecel if he thinks the rumors or charges are true.
"Not true," Pecel says. "I spend six months with a person, you get to know their character." And then, after a digression about how the current government is running scared, he adds as an afterthought: "You know, all politicians is the same. Just want power, just want control."
Pecel, of course, is not his real name—that's the word for a common street food of beans and tofu—but nicknames are common in Malaysia, especially among ethnic Malays. Pecel (pronounced peh-CHEL) is instead a corruption of his given name, Faisal: "Faisal-Pecel, Faisal-Pecel," he says, "you understand? Ah." Pecel shares the wonderful Malaysia propensity for inserting Ah as a discourse marker—like well or anyway in English—which gives a sense of wonderment to each and every sentence he speaks. And like many Malaysians and Indonesians speaking English, Pecel has a habit of mixing up his genders: He could refer to to either a man or a woman, for example, and the sentence "He gave her things to me" could involve three discrete people, or perhaps just two.
The great majority of images that we look at are nothing interesting: people have turned away at the last moment, Pecel was jostled out of position, the lighting is wrong, the moment mundane. This is normal, of course, as Pecel is a professional photographer and better the excess shot than the shot missed, especially in digital.
We come to pictures of the Pakatan Rakyat annual meeting—Anwar's political coalition—which apparently all sorts of regional leaders attend; I recognize both Megawati and her opponent and rival Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia, both former Presidents. Here is Anwar at the microphone, Anwar with his daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar in the aisle, smiler, Anwar shaking hands with the audience.
"This is my friend Thomas," Pecel says, pointing to a man with short hair and a Richard Nixon 5 o'clock shadow in the very first row, wearing a generic, unplaceable dark suit. "Ah. We work together in Afghanistan. I see him again here, we are both working."
He works for Anwar's party coalition as an American?
"Before I see Thomas here," Pecel says, "I hear many rumors about Anwar Ibrahim and the CIA. Ah. Before I think just so many rumors, but now I think maybe there is some connection there."
So Thomas is CIA?
Pecel laughs. "Oh yes, CIA. He has three wives, all over the world": one American; one Afghani; one Indonesian. Tomorrow Pecel will tell me, however, that two are Malaysian and one Indonesian; I will be unsure whether it is the story or only the words that have changed.
Thomas, Pecel says, was in Afghanistan as an election monitor when Hamid Karzai was first voted in, the same job that Pecel was doing at the time. But Thomas was interested in two things: taking copious notes on Afghanistan's little remaining infrastructure, and bedding the female election monitors.
Thomas is a good guy, Pecel says; and Thomas, over the course of three months with little to do when off-duty, spilled all sorts of information about how diplomats and spies—in general, of course—work together on Intelligence. "Very informative," Pecel says—and to me as well. Who knew that embassy officials know who the American spies are? Facetiously I ask Pecel if Thomas thinks he's James Bond.
Pecel looks at me perplexedly. "No, not like that" he says, more..." and says some word that I don't catch, don't understand, but in the moment think might be subtle. I don't press the subject of Thomas any more, and soon Pecel and I are discussing the marijuana shortage in Kuala Lumpur.
1 ISA is actually short for Internal Security Act, not the name of an agency. When the "ISA comes," it's actually the police, who have determined that the individual they are arresting is a threat to the well-being of Malaysia. Under the ISA, the police are allowed to hold anyone they so deem a threat for two years without trial; for the first 60 days the victim is typically held incommunicado.