A pious canine argues with a camel, a windy night lasts for years, and a Javanese keris blade is wielded to murder a village witch in Fairoz Ahmad’s enchanting short story collection Interpreter of Winds. A quick and charming read, this book includes four magical tales across Islamic communities in the Indonesian and Malay world. Some take place in a stylized colonial past and some in the contemporary world, where current struggles crash against the fantastical.
The main story with the same title of the collection follows the quest of a talking dog, whose master is unconscious of the adventure his canine pet is about to have. The dog wants to be inducted into the Islamic faith as a true Muslim like his master and sets out on journey after meeting a cantankerousness camel named Ghati on the roads. The dog soon endears himself to Ghati as they go in search of the winds of all four points. Upon meeting one of the fabled winds, the wind requests an “appropriate gift” to assist the faithful canine in his search. Another tale is then woven within the first as the dog responds, “The only gift I could offer to you is the gift of stories.”
This becomes a story within a story entitled “The Palace of Glass”—which is soon followed with another tale entitled “The Camel, the Sphinx and the Angry Arab.” Both highlight the book’s continued themes of Islamic piousness and the challenges of faith for Malay-speaking peoples so far from the cradle of Islam in Arabia.
The remaining short stories in the collection also return to this theme of Malay- and Indonesian-speaking peoples’ interpretation of the faith. Some practitioners hold true to contemporary understandings of Islam, emanating from the Middle East. Most, however, are syncretic, freely mixing local customs and beliefs with Islam. This more liberal attitude is documented throughout all the tales in this collection, as well as the tension this sometimes causes. Many interactions between the camel Ghati and the master’s dog in the main story captures the mixing of local tradition with dogma:
He spoke of offerings of water and food to appease spirits and pointed out evidence they exist: ‘The offerings disappear the next morning.’
‘Such things are forbidden in Islam,’ I pointed out curtly.
‘Yet it works. No one here understands the Quran well enough to make charms out of it. And the spirits cannot be curtailed by what is unintelligible,’ Ghati explained.
Fairoz Ahmad’s Interpreter of Winds is a brief collection—fewer than ninety pages—yet is vividly representative of how Islam has blossomed into its own rich form across the nations of Malaysia and Indonesia. Ahmad’s magical realism fits well with the Sufism that has a long tradition in Southeast Asia and serves as a useful tool to question some strictures in an indirect and often playful way. Enchanting and fun, Interpreter of Winds is wonderful reminder of diversity of thought and imagery that abounds across the Muslim world.