LAST week, a friend from Saudi Arabia whom I have not seen for 20 years, visited me with his wife and two precocious sons.
What makes Khalid refreshingly different from many other Arab men seen walking with their families at the KLCC is that while he wears a pair of shorts and T-shirt like them, his wife is not covered up from head to toe in flowing black abaya and a niqab covering her face. She, too, wears a pair of pants and a shirt, and she, too, swims with him and the children in the hotel pool.
We had an animated discussion on culture, religion and change ó and how much they loved of what they saw in Malaysia. Because life seemed normal here. That you can be Muslim and have fun, too! I asked what they meant by that.
Khalidís wife, Balqis, said it was wonderful to see Malaysian women in tudung at the hotels they stayed in Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi, talking, laughing and interacting with men like normal human beings.
That women are out on the streets on their own or with men, shopping, driving, hanging out in cafes, walking in the parks. That women swim, play badminton and tennis ó living a public life as it should be led.
At this point, their 12-year-old son interjected to tell me how dysfunctional he thought the relationship between men and women was in his society. He said every night, all the Saudi men and other men from the Gulf states staying at their resort hotel in Langkawi would gather in the lounge to watch the World Cup matches.
Everyone was happy, laughing, chatting, shouting their cheers and despair as the matches progressed. They ate and drank all night long as they watched the 11pm and the 3am matches.
You felt a camaraderie and a friendship developing, so you thought. But the next morning was a different story, he said. As they passed each other at the restaurant, by the pool or along the beach, nobody wanted to make any eye contact, let alone say hello, sit together and chat over a cup of tea. It was as if they were total strangers, when the night before they were buddies.
That was because the men were walking with their women in abaya and, therefore, there could not be any interaction with other men who might see their wives. As with their tradition, the curtain must be drawn to prevent any possible fitnah or corruption that could happen if men and women who are not related to each other socialise together.
"Why canít we be normal like Malaysians?" asked Balqis.
What the Arabs and other Muslims love about Malaysia is not what our Islamist idealogues want for us. On the contrary, it is what they deemed as un-Islamic that makes us attractive and a success story for many other Muslims.
It was the same when I was in Teheran. While visiting a university campus to interview a professor, my journalist friend and I were stopped in the grounds by groups of young female students, who admired the colourful baju kurung we wore.
Why couldnít we wear this? they asked each other. It was colourful and cheerful, yet modest, they said. They bristled with resentment against their regulation black, brown and navy blue manteau and headscarf that they had pulled defiantly as far back from the head as they could get away with.
The next day, we were in a well-known bookshop in the northern suburbs of Teheran when a well-known Iranian film director walked in. When he found out we were Malaysians, he blew kisses our way and said how much he loved Malaysia. You could find a mosque, a church, a temple all within sight of each other and even a disco and a pub in that midst, he told the bookshop owner. "That is real life," he said.
Of course, we did not want to dent his optimism by saying that there were forces within our society that saw our rich pluralist tradition as a threat and a danger to Islam and Muslims.
The point is there is much that is good about Malaysia that we should protect and preserve and build on. And yet there are forces within our society who feel that all this is un-Islamic and, therefore, must be banned.
While some of us feel segregation between men and women and compulsory hijab should be imposed and music, dance, and cultural practices that supposedly lull our minds from God consciousness must be banned, other Muslims who live in such oppressive societies yearn for the freedom and space that we have.
They see in us a possibility of what the future for Muslims could be. That we could change and develop and be modern, and yet remain Muslim, Malay and Malaysian.
Khalid said Saudi Arabia was slowly changing, tentatively opening up. Just as the mullahs in Iran realise that the yearning for freedom and joy from the young and women in particular, could no longer be resisted, the Saudi authorities are gingerly allowing some space for dissenting voices and diversity of opinions to emerge.
Women and men are writing in the media ó not without risks though. They have begun to speak out and challenge some of the oppressive Wahhabi dictates that kill their spirit and force them to lead a schizophrenic life ó a public life of compliance and piety, and a private life that defies the religious rules and strictures that they donít believe in.
Change is slow, but inevitable, Khalid felt. That is why coming to a Muslim country like Malaysia where they can be free to wear what they want, do what they want, go where they want is enervating to Khalid and Balqis, and their sons.
They threw up their arms in horror when I told them some of our tourism officials and political leaders felt that the way to attract more Arab tourists was to provide segregated spaces in restaurants and segregated swimming pools.
"Oh no, we come to Malaysia to be normal human beings, not to lead the abnormal life we are forced to live in our society. Please donít let them do it," said Balqis.
"Donít let them pollute your culture," said their 10-year-old son, in all seriousness.
I felt a lump in my throat, not just for his future that might not be his for the making but that this spirited Saudi boy visiting Malaysia for the first time should instinctively feel protective and precious of what he saw of our culture and tradition, while some among us demand for his culture and tradition, confusing that with authentic practice of Islam and, therefore, the only way to be Muslim.