Review: Baby Arabia
The dichotomy between religion and culture is often blurred. What is missed out in such debates between culture and religion is that, culture, in most sociological definitions, means a set of values, beliefs and practices that a group of people adhere to. Thus making religion part of culture. What is cultural is often seen as ‘unIslamic’ while what is ‘Islamic’ is often seen as culturally-‘free’.
Such tensions can be seen in Baby Arabia, a documentary film featured in this year’s inaugural Asian Cultural Cinema Symposium organised by LASALLE College of the Arts, Faculty of Media Arts.
Directed by Panu Aree, Baby Arabia follows a naseb band of the same name in Bangkok, Thailand. Formed in 1975, the band, which plays Arab-Malay beats, has been performing at weddings, mosque fairs along with their occasional solo concerts. Popular amongst the Thai-Muslims in the provinces, this band travels within Thailand to showcase their sounds. Some of the songs played were covers from Malaysia’s folk singer, Noraniza Idris and Egypt’s famous singers. These songs were sung respectively in Malay and Arabic, languages foreign to the band. They also play nasheeds.
[quote]”We just try to get the emotion of it,” says husky-voiced singer Jameelah Boonmalerd, adding that much care is taken with the sacred Arabic songs. And, she says, Arabic and Malay speakers who’ve heard the band say they’re quite accurate.[/quote]
The question of religion and culture was amplified when the band faced criticisms by a section of the community about the ruling against music, an issue that has been debated by scholars for centuries. With female lead singers and girls as dancers, this band faces some controversies.
Aside from documenting concerts, the film also captures the band members in their daily lives. Shocking as it may seem to some, one of the lead singer, Jamilah, who reads the Quran beautifully also taught the Quran to children in a madrassa as part of her day job. Such exposés into the lives of the band members brings to the light the crises of identity faced by these Thai-Muslims.
Being a minority in a Buddhist-majority country, this documentary grants an oft-neglected lens on Muslims in Thailand. Aside from narrating to the audience about the band, Aree was able to present to the audience on the richness of the Thai-Muslim culture from the cradle to the grave.
With these colourful insights, Aree painted a picture to show the beauty of diversity found in Thailand and also the Muslim world. Some of the scenes portrayed may seem oddly familiar in Southeast Asia while some scenes portrayed are of a uniquely Thailand experience.
A documentary that is definitely worth your time, it makes one better equipped to traverse the slippery slope when it comes to discussing culture & religion.
Addendum: Jamilah passed away about three months before this film was featured in the symposium.
Umm Amatullah is slightly Extraverted, moderately iNtuitive, highly Feeling, and somewhat Perceiving… well according to a mother-daughter team called Myers & Briggs.