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Merryl Wyn Davies, a friend for all seasons

9th Apr 2021
Merryl Wyn Davies,  a friend for all seasons

Merryl Wyn Davies at the 2001 Muslim News Awards for Excellence inset Anwar Ibrahim courtesy of the Anwar Ibrahim

Anwar Ibrahim, Opposition Leader, Malaysian Parliament

As a politician, I treasure two things especially. First, is a friend, loyal to the bitter end that is there come hell or high water, a wellspring of encouragement and support. Second, a friend who holds all these tenets, plus courage that can only be derived from love and the courage to say “you’re wrong”. Merryl Wyn Davies not only lived and breathed this courage, she saw it more as a duty, rather – a pleasure. I think she rather delighted in telling me I was wrong, especially on the rare occasions where she may have, I must admit, had a point. “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say!”

I first met Merryl in the mid1980s when she was invited to Malaysia to speak at an intellectual discourse organised by our mutual friend and colleague Ziauddin Sardar. At that time, I was the Minister of Education. Merryl and Zia ran with a gang of intellectual luminaries, the Ijmalis, an intimidating lot whose ire of criticism Muslim scholars grew to fear during the conference fury of the 1980s and 1990s.

He would later relay to me that she had been struck by me, a curious, thin Malay man in a sharp suit who asked good questions. To quote a film beloved by both Merryl and I from the golden-age of Hollywood cinema, our Socratic approach towards the pursuit of truth and justice was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”. It was this spirit of inquiry and reasoned debate that she believed was at the heart of Islam and a major driver leading to her conversion only a few years earlier in 1981.

Our friendship continued to grow as Merryl made Malaysia her home throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Merryl could talk for days if allowed and every conversation would promise a critique of any thoughts brought to the table, several nuggets of wisdom, a hefty list of required readings you had not heard of, and a surplus of quips and laughs. And to have a conversation with Merryl that lasted less than an hour was an Olympic feat. The sheer knowledge she carried within her brain still takes me aback. Add to this, she was a voracious reader, a quality I attempt to emulate and a quality I hope to inspire in my staff and colleagues. She was also one of the few I could revel in the joys of literature, poetry, and the arts, an intellectual passion that was fostered during my school days at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar.

Endless debates we had on Shakespeare and the British classics. We shared a love for poetry extending from South Asian poems, to Rumi, and her beloved T.S. Eliot. And then there were the films. Merryl was a cinephile without equal. We would often reminisce on the films, we saw in the cinemas of our youth, from the classic love stories to the Bollywood films. Sadly, a cultural gem somewhat lacking in this part of the world since the days of the immortal

P. Ramlee. And even in film, Merryl challenged our notions and represented images. Between the frames, she saw raw lived culture and tradition and small historical details overlooked in casual viewing. And the film imposed upon us emotion, a humane demand from the audience to show empathy and question our moral sentiments. Her passion for films depicting Native Americans and the disadvantaged and minority communities of the world she saw as a call to ethics and compassion.

This mixed with her wickedly clever and fire-breathing Welsh dragon of a tongue made Merryl a truly unique woman and a gift to all humankind. Trained as an anthropologist, she took on the career of journalism, which she always quipped was just anthropology with pay, where she not only had a substantive career with the BBC but worked to bring a better quality of journalism to Malaysia throughout the 1980s. It feels a bit ironic that an anthropologist would come to care so much for the rest of the world. But Merryl, aware that anthropology was essentially invented by Western colonial powers to subjugate their foreign territories, knew that purer humanism could be excavated from its bloody history.

She rebelled against classic anthropology in all its white patriarchal dominance, calling for anthropology as both a human and humane discipline, one that seeks discovery, but does not jump to assumptions, where orientalism and ‘othering’ are opposed outright. Where common struggles are recognised and difference and multiculturalism are applauded. Her efforts to bring about a new brand of anthropology are brilliantly articulated in her great work Knowing One Another: Shaping an Islamic anthropology.

For many of us, to make a home is an activity cultivated over a life-time often requiring the fostering of deep friendships and community relationships. But Merryl was at home all across the world, and particularly in the most ancient of places. Throughout her life she took on many labels and reconciled many contradictions to be the person we came to know and love. And throughout the years and all the places, she always remained Merryl. Refusing to take an Arabic name when she converted was a stand that both represented a deeper-seeking approach to Islam and personal identity. While the vast quilt that is her identity contains patches of Wales, the working class of her upbringing, as well as those provided by Islam, Malaysia, and all the little communities she fought for along the way, the quilt was always distinctly Merryl’s, our Merryl’s.

Her breaths were equally spaced out with emphasising the importance of the Indus Valley Civilisation or the Indian Ocean World, as well as with how Welsh Steel made the railways, which held the British Empire together, or an opinion on the latest news, and, of course, the expertly placed poetic quote or film reference. Occasionally, she would take a breath, but if it allowed the other speaker to make a rebuttal, not a particularly deep one, or to sip her coffee (always black, no milk, no sugar). She, indeed, measured her life in coffee spoons.

And so it was, up until the very end. Malaysia was her second home, but she would never say it to allude to it being secondary in any sense of the word. She would often quip of the striking similarities between the Welsh and the Malay. And while she took comfort in our culture, Merryl was never far from home with her umbrella which unfolded into the great Red Dragon of Wales or as long as she had a television to watch “Her Boys”, the Welsh national rugby team, plays.

Her work as a speechwriter helped refine my own words throughout my career and her love for the Malaysian people only grew as she passionately stood along-side forging a greater educational ecosystem in this country, in our attempts to fight for the poor and disadvantaged, in the creation of Keadilan, and the tidal wave of Reformasi. When I was sacked and imprisoned, Merryl had to flee to Singapore, wherefrom there, and eventually Indonesia, she, along with a few exiled others, held down the fort in hopes that the arch of justice would just bend a little in our direction. During the two decades in which this wasn’t the case, Merryl wrote numerous passionate articles of the tragedy that was contemporary Malaysian history.

And then in 2018, by the will of the Malaysian people, that arc took a drastic bend. And with my release and return also came the return of Merryl and just like the good old days, we were back fighting for reform and working on the massive undertaking of turning Malaysia back around from its dismal chapter of corruption and greed. And as before, film references, Shakespeare, Eliot and long over-due laughs were in no short supply. In just the last two years our worlds have been turned upside downtime and again. Battles won and battles lost, we continue moving forward in that ultimate of human pursuits of betterment, peace and justice. Our world was turned upside down yet again with the loss of Merryl. We lose not just a compassionate champion of the cause, but a truly good friend.

Merryl always fought for a world where all peoples came together to dialogue and appreciate each other’s difference so that we can help each other advance and expand our collective knowledge. Her humanity was exemplary. Every person who met Merryl would become a member of her community, and she always took under her wing anyone she could help and lift or challenge to be better.

Whether you knew her for many years, or just in brief passing she left a mark wherever she went. She was stubborn, no doubt never surrendered in the field of debate, but above all, she never rested in her defence of others. I am reminded of this most recently, as members of my staff recalled lifting her one last time into her grave. It is truly remarkable to feel the love of one not obligated to give such care by blood or nationality and a special beauty that she lies to rest in a country she came to love without the obligations we find ourselves entangled in throughout life; a love derived unconditionally from the heart.

As I reflect on my time with Merryl, I found myself cracking open Knowing One Another. And I found, even before entering the meat of the book, that even the simple dedication was indicative of Merryl’s approach to the world “For the one who asked the pertinent question Alhamdulillah.” I pray we all take a page from Merryl’s book, continuing forward, remaining critical in our thinking, knowing and loving one another, so that something better is left after we are gone.

Anwar Ibrahim

Chair of the International Institute of Islamic Thought

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Over 120 people attended a landmark conference on the media reporting of Islam and Muslims. It was held jointly by The Muslim News and Society of Editors in London on September 15.

The Muslim News Awards for Excellence 2015 was held on March in London to acknowledge British Muslim and non-Muslim contributions to the society.

The Muslim News Awards for Excellence 2015 was held on March in London to acknowledge British Muslim and non-Muslim contributions to the society.

The Muslim News Awards for Excellence event is to acknowledge British Muslim and non-Muslim contributions to society. Over 850 people from diverse background, Muslim and non-Muslim, attended the gala dinner.

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