I took this photo of fourteen exuberant young people in eye-popping attire on July 7, 2016, two days after the end of Ramadan, at the entrance to Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Center near the town of Sandakan, which is in Sabah, one of two Malaysian states in Borneo, the third-largest island in the world. That is a lot of information for readers in the Western world, but it is important, in many ways, for me to establish the date and place. Malaysia is a multi-faith country with about 60 percent of its 32 million constituents practicing Islam. It is the first Muslim country I have visited.
We had come to Borneo to watch birds, many of them as exotic and eye-popping as this flock of kids, as well as primates and other mammals, and to be in forests with lizards, snakes, insects, orchids, fungi, the largest flower in the world, and some of the tallest trees on the planet. Borneo is a mega-diverse island, contains 20 percent of the world’s animal species. I will never forget the first Orang Utan I saw. We came back home dizzy with indelible experiences of the natural world and the rich and complex human culture.
A photo is a frozen moment in time, simple as that. But a photo also has context. Its moment stands in a continuum of present, past, future.
The photo’s present: While we were in Malaysia, details were emerging that then Prime Minister Najib Razak was busily looting and laundering money from a public investment fund he himself established to promote economic development. The sum was estimated to be $3.5 billion, millions of dollars of which he parked in the United States.
The photo’s most recent past: What is now called Malaysia became its own country in 1963 after centuries of domination by Portugal, the Dutch, and the British Empire. Global trade defines human history and human behavior. Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy with a government system based on Westminster parliamentary protocol. Malaysia has a robust economy—one of the best in Asia since its independence—and it strongly subsidizes free public education and free access to healthcare.
The photo’s recent future: Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, four months after I took the picture. A week after his inauguration in January 2017, Trump announced his travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim counties. Malaysia was not among them. In September 2017, as the U.S. Justice Department was investigating Najib Razak, Trump welcomed the Prime Minister to the White House and thanked him for “all the investments you have made in the United States.” In May 2018, caught up in his scandal, Razak was roundly defeated in the general election by a 92-year-old former political leader Mahathir Mohamad. In September 2018, a year after Razak was Trump’s guest at the White House, he was arrested on corruption charges and is awaiting trial.
I keep the photo of the Malaysian kids on my desk. All their youthful beauty, energy, and goofiness make me smile. Yes, a moment in time. But the longer the photo sits on my desk, the more I dwell on what has happened in my country and on the global stage since that moment. I see my photo as a metaphor of the multiple intertwined universes we live in. There is my universe where my fellow travelers and I merely want to be good citizens with rewarding work, educational opportunities, access to decent health care, occasions to have fun and be silly, the comfort of kinship, family, and friends. Then there is another universe where power corrupts and where this corrupted power can take down democracies, rob public coffers, build walls, start wars, divide races, ignite genocide, turn up the heat on climate change, bring on global economic disruption. In short, blow my universe to hell and back.
When I saw the kids hanging out, waiting to get their tickets to enter the rainforest, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I wanted to capture their radiance. I had just arrived in Borneo and did not know the customs for taking photos of people in a predominately Muslim culture. I took a chance, walked tentatively over, and asked if I could take a picture—English is the second language in Malaysia. It was as if they were just waiting for me to ask. They immediately choreographed themselves, striking poses, making hip hand gestures, laughing and smiling the whole time. Well, it was actually a short time, less than a minute. They went their way, and I went mine with my husband, off with our friends to watch more birds.
I will never see these kids again. I will never know where life takes them—or rather, where they take life. To a person, they are beautiful and lithe. The scourge of snacks and fast foods, so rampant in my country, has not taken hold among the people we encountered in Borneo. Their clothes and accessories are all over the global map—traditional Asia Islamic fashion, Westernized sunglasses, a shoulder bag, wristwatches, a fanny pack, headgear ranging from a hijab to a pork pie hat. The guy kneeling in the center has a flower tucked in his right ear. I have so many questions I wish I could have asked them. Maybe there is a future despot among them. But I am going to imagine, if only for my own peace of mind, that they will make their way in the universe of good citizenship, rewarding work, abundant learning, good health, fun and silliness, kinship, family, and friends.