Bakari dreaded the mundane Parisian conversations at trendy afterwork cocktails. His urban lifestyle had lost all flavor since he started traveling. Even the best restaurants were quickly forgotten. To get a kick, he ran marathons, rock-climbed, and swam long distances. But like November in Paris, everything felt grey and bland, borderline depressing. Bakari craved a change of scenery, a new offshore mission.
In his search, he learned about a mission in Malaysia. An American contractor, Doug Wilson, had overstayed his visa and could no longer access the site. They needed somebody to resume where he stopped. Bakari had never been to Malaysia, but he had loved Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. In Malaysia, there will be novelty, growth, and no pompous Parisian wannabes. He did not think twice.
The scenery and climate in Terengganu, Malaysia, reminded him of Gabon. There was a tropical rain forest and abundant wildlife, but less trash and more people. That was something Bakari liked about South-East Asia. Thanks to his previous experience on offshore oil platforms, he knew he had to befriend the staff. With his dual citizenship, he did not need a visa to Malaysia if he traveled as a Moroccan. So, Bakari used his Moroccan passport, for once!
On the oil platform, he was greeted by Adam, the Malay site manager:
Bakari: As salaam Alaykum
Adam: Alaykum As salaam
Bakari: I am Bakari, the engineer who replaced Doug Wilson, the American.
Adam: Bakari? Are you Muslim?
Adam: Very well, very well. Welcome brother. Where are you from?
Adam: You’re Arab?
Adam: An Arab Muslim! Alhamdulillah! Alhamdulillah! What a great news! Welcome brother. Welcome to Kuala. Welcome to Malaysia!
Adam gave Bakari a vigorous handshake and a sincere smile. Bakari smiled back, then asked to tour the site. Adam led him through the machines, the canteen, the accommodations, and the prayer room. At every encounter, Adam announced the arrival of Bakari, their new Muslim brother who spoke Arabic. People greeted him with the same enthusiasm and sense of relief. He liked the attention.
At the end of the tour, they heard the call for prayer from the nearby mosque. Adam invited Bakari to lead the prayer. Bakari declined, saying he still needed to meet Jun Kai, his technician on site. Adam scolded him about the importance of prayer over work. Bakari replied with “next time, inshallah” and went looking for his partner.
He found Jun Kai eating alone at the canteen. Bakari introduced himself and joined him for dinner. Jun Kai was in his forties, slim and shy. But unlike all workers Bakari had met so far, Jun Kai was Malaysian Chinese. Malaysian Chinese were the second largest local population, after the native Malays, or Bumiputra. The Malaysian Chinese immigrated from South China in the early 19th century. They came for trade and stayed for life. Six generations later, Jun Kai, born and raised in Malaysia, was still a Malaysian Chinese.
Around sunset, Adam urged Bakari to come pray with the rest of the crew. Bakari fainted a heavy workload again. This time though, Adam was not satisfied with his answer. He interrogated him about Moroccan customs and the importance of prayers in Morocco. Bakari wanted to confess that he was Muslim only by name, but with 27 days more to go on the platform, he said nothing. Instead, he promised Adam a detailed explanation another day, inshallah. On second thought, he wished he came as a Frenchman.
Adam's insistence annoyed Bakari. He took the habit of hiding in the toilets during prayer to avoid sermons. After the last prayer, he headed to the canteen for dinner. Jun Kai was waiting in line. When his turn came, he grabbed a plate and moved forward. Then, three Malays in djellabas shoved him out of the line and served themselves before him. Jun Kai stayed aside, head down, and waited for the men to finish.
Bakari saw the scene and rushed to defend him. Jun Kai grabbed his arm and whispered, “Please be quiet. I’ll explain. Be quiet, please.” Bakari obeyed. They waited for the three men to move on, filled up their plate, and sat at the back of the canteen. Jun Kai, calm and unmoved, began drinking his soup.
Bakari: You want to tell me what was that?
Jun Kai: That is normal.
Bakari: What do you mean?
Jun Kai: I am not Bumiputra.
Jun Kai: Bumiputra means native Malay.
Jun Kai: Non-Bumiputras do not have the same privileges.
Bakari: But…weren't you born here!?
Jun Kai: That does not matter.
Bakari: Still, you should have let me stop those guys.
Jun Kai: No. Actually, you would have only made it worse. They might have backed down, but as soon as I am alone again, they will make me regret it. Better to stay quiet.
Bakari: This is outrageous! They were so nice to me.
Jun Kai: It’s because you’re Muslim.
Bakari: Not really…
Jun Kai: They think you are, so even if you don’t pray with them, they will try to put you back on the straight and narrow path. With me, they lost hope.
Bakari: Can’t you convert to Islam to get around? I mean, just on paper. It's a quick ceremony. That’s how foreigners do it to marry Moroccans.
Jun Kai: Even if I did, it would not change anything. Because I’m Malaysian Chinese, I don’t have the same rights and privileges.
Bakari: Like what? What are you talking about?
Jun Kai: Administrative rights. Education, scholarships, and jobs mainly. There are quotas based on one’s ethnicity and religion. As a Malay Chinese and non-Muslim, I am the runt of the litter.
Bakari: This is racial discrimination!
Jun Kai: It’s in the Malaysian constitution.
Bakari: And I thought Malaysia was a tolerant country!
Jun Kai: It is. Malay Chinese and South Indians live in peace among Malays. Malaysians are tolerant. The issue is not with the people.
Bakari: You call that tolerance?
Jun Kai: It's relative. In Myanmar, Rohingyas are persecuted. In China, Uighurs are imprisoned. In Malaysia, everyone can practice their religion in peace. There are Mosques, Churches, Buddhist temples, and even Hindu deities statues. So yes, Malaysia is tolerant.
Jun Kai smiled and thanked him for his concern. They finished their meal in silence in the now empty canteen. Bakari chewed over Jun Kai's words. He made a point that could not be argued. Compared to its neighbors, Malaysia was indeed a tolerant country.
Over the weeks, Bakari bonded with Jun Kai. He was the only person he understood and ironically, the least influential worker on site. Though Bakari was not affected by it, institutionalized racism triggered him. To him, France was a thousand times more racist than Malaysia. But there was no distinction among French citizens in the constitution. And somehow, that made all the difference.
Bakari completed his 28-day mission and faked a back injury on his last day, forcing his insurance to repatriate him. Otherwise he would have to resume work five days later, for another 28-day shift. Bitter, he put Malaysia in the same box as Israel and Saudi Arabia, and swore to never return until they changed the constitution.
He might even pray for that.