mengamok Malay verb. 1. to become hysterical, to “run amok”
“Look at you, you’re gorgeous!” Dalila said, sitting daintily on the folding arm of my desk. I looked at her sideways. I had come straight from an afternoon interview with the Malaysian Deputy Minister of Defense and I was still wearing my business suit. Though Dalila and I had been classmates for some months already, the change from my habitually casual attire obviously caused her to look at me differently. She continued to flatter me with nonsense while transmitting sexual energy in my direction. Though she was not unattractive, she was uninteresting, and now her behavior was raising my defenses. My first assumption was that she presented a foreign intelligence threat, but her clumsy approach led me to rule that out. Dalila wasn’t an intelligence officer, but with her fiancé Zabir also in the room, her unwanted advances could spell real trouble.
Foreign intelligence was not an idle concern for me. I was a member of the administrative and technical staff at the United States Embassy in Kuala Lumpur and as a Special Forces officer I was known to have a high level security clearance. On at least two occasions while I lived in Malaysia, someone had sent an altogether different kind of woman in my direction to see if I would take the bait. One was more aggressive than Dalila, the other more subtle, but both were far more skilled, dangerous, and attractive than my current admirer. I didn’t fall for it then and I wouldn’t now. I shooed Dalila off my desk and glanced at Zab.
Zab was by all measures a fantastic guy but he was young and like many Malay men his age, lacked the romantic experience to recognize — or deal with — the vices of a woman like Dalila. At one point I counted four men she was involved with besides Zab. One was a classmate of ours, another was one of our instructors, and a third was an older gentleman from Penang that wanted to make her his second wife; a very uncommon practice in Malaysia. Guy number five was a Bengali PhD candidate that lectured in our department and used to do all her homework for her, a fact that made me wonder if she had used men to get through law school. Yes, Dalila was a lawyer, and Zab was an innocent kid in comparison. Unfortunately for him, I wasn’t close enough to him to provide a warning about his girlfriend. He would just have to learn this lesson the hard way.
The Strategic and Defense Studies program at the University of Malaya began in 1999 as a joint venture between the Department of International and Strategic Studies and the Malaysian Armed Forces Staff College. Intended to boost education opportunities for serving military and police officers, classes were held at night to accommodate their busy work schedules. Nine years on, the program still had a robust exchange with the Staff College but the student body was far more diverse. About two-thirds of my classmates were foreign students from the Commonwealth, the global Muslim community, and East, Central, and South Asia. I was the only westerner. My classes were a fantastic mix of people from all over the world with a wide range of professional experience, political views, and English proficiency. National education culture was on display with students falling on a spectrum of capability. On the high end were my very well-educated Korean and Maldivian colleagues (both Army officers); and on the opposite extreme were those from nations where absenteeism, plagiarism, and rote memorization was the scholastic norm. Sadly, the relatively affluent Malaysians ranked near the bottom of this scale because years of widespread affirmative action policies for the majority there corroded their school system. Plagiarism was so widespread our teachers had to pick their battles; more often than not, class presentations were simply recitations of Wikipedia. In those instances, students with marginal command of the English language were suddenly very articulate and there was occasional comedy if one member of a presentation group failed to show up with his section of the Wiki article. Dalila was by no means the only cheater in the room.
At the start of the term, our excellent instructor and head of our Department, Mr. K. S. Balakrishnan — Bala — communicated his expectations of us. He made it very clear that as master’s degree candidates, we would provide the content for his lesson plan by researching topics and presenting them to our colleagues for discussion. It was adult learning at its best and we rushed to sign up for subjects that fit our interests. Three weeks later, I sat in the front row of the classroom waiting for Dalila to begin her presentation.
From the moment she took the podium I knew something was not right. Bala watched patiently from behind his desk as Dalila anxiously rearranged the papers in her hand. Looking up at the small classroom, she was jumpy and nervous. She shuffled her feet and glanced at Bala who just gazed back at her. The minor impasse increased her agitation and she rearranged her papers again. Looking briefly at her reflection in the small window on the wall, she lifted her head to the class as if to speak but couldn’t bring herself to begin. Her eyes grew wilder and she began to sweat. It dawned on me what was wrong. For some reason, Dalila’s Bengali boyfriend had refused to do her homework and now she had no idea what to say. She had been getting away with her charade for so long she hadn’t even bothered to learn the slightest thing about her chosen topic. I noticed her upper lip beginning to quiver and I became uncomfortable with her proximity. Mine was the closest desk to where she was standing. The tension was unbearable.
Once again Dalila looked at Bala but this time with tears in her eyes. One could just about hear the pleading behind her panicked gaze but Bala’s face hardened. He was a respected academic and had decided he would fight this battle. There seemed to be no oxygen left in the room as Dalila’s despair dominated everything. Sensing she was trapped, she again looked out the window to the darkened courtyard outside, drew a sharp breath…and collapsed shrieking on the floor in a flurry of papers! Screaming in terror and clutching at her eyes she repeated “Takut! Takut!” (I’m scared! I’m scared!) over and over. Writhing uncontrollably, she knocked over the podium and began doing real damage to her face with her fingernails.
I pushed my desk backward with a violent kick and watched in stunned disbelief as Bala sprinted out of the room. Mahmud the Palestinian leapt instantly to his feet. A former champion body builder with bearded good looks and an aggressive confidence to match, Mahmud was a charismatic leader in our class. A cousin of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Mahmud was used to being in charge and was now leading the room in prayer over the writhing and still screaming Dalila. In their shock, the characteristically devout Malays obediently joined him while the rest of us watched incredulously. The noise in the room increased as they tried to overpower Dalila’s shrieking with their ritual.
Zab was beyond panic. With Mahmud’s prayer group between him and his stricken love, he ran aimlessly in circles with eyes wide and hands in the air, shouting incoherent bits of prayer along the way. Initially dumbfounded by the bizarre scene, I restored conscious thought with a nervous laugh and decided Dalila had to go. Slamming my palm down on my desk I called sharply to her frantic future husband, “Zab! Get her out of here!” I yelled, pointing at the writhing heap on the floor.
“Right!” he replied, his face white with fear. Pushing his way violently through the small semi-circle of the faithful, Zab scooped Dalila off the floor and emerged with her in his arms. Instead of heading for the door however, he immediately resumed his frantic pacing, this time with the wildly flailing Dalila knocking over desks and threatening the safety of anyone unlucky enough to get too close.
Again I slammed my palm on the desk. “Zab! That way!” I commanded, pointing at the door.
“Right!” he said again, his eyes still wide. Swinging rapidly away and bolting for the exit, Zab made such a hasty retreat he slammed Dalila’s head on the steel door frame on his way into the corridor. The loud thud stopped the prayer group mid-sentence and the chaos gave way to a terrible silence as the sound of Dalila’s shrieking receded into the night. For a moment, no one dared to even breathe.
Energized by the drama, Mahmud broke the silence with harrowing accounts of similar encounters he had at his university in Egypt. This, he proclaimed in his booming, overconfident voice, had all the hallmarks of an attack by a djinn, an apparition famous in Arabian lore. I laughed at Mahmud’s tales but he was clearly increasing the anxiety of the Malays that remained in the room. As if on cue, Bala returned and announced the cancellation of class. There was real fear in his eyes and he insisted we leave at once.
There was only one thing left to do. Glancing at my watch I summoned my Korean, Albanian, and Iranian colleagues to an emergency beer call to discuss the event. Relieved to get away from the awful yet comical scene, we exploded into the narrow corridor with Mahmud in front still telling stories and Bala behind pushing us out the door. On the way to the bar I chuckled at the bizarre thought that I may be the only American ever to get drunk with Muslims in the aftermath of a djinn attack.
I learned a tremendous amount about Malaysian culture in the days that followed Dalila’s episode. She later claimed the demon had entered her body through a gateway to hell in the lady’s room. This put the University in a bad position and classes remained canceled for a week while they determined what course to take. When lessons resumed, we convened in a different building because ours remained off-limits at night. There was tremendous concern the news would reach the undergrads whose classes took place in our building during the day. The University made no announcements and it was clear the leadership was taking the situation very seriously.
The controversy seemed ridiculous to me. In my mind Dalila had faked a demonic possession to avoid doing her homework. It was as simple as that. Why would the intelligent administrators at the University of Malaya encourage her buffoonery by acknowledging it?! I expressed my annoyance during a subsequent beer call. Listening to my complaints, a Malaysian friend stood up and grabbed a local newspaper, thumbed through its pages for a moment then placed it on the table and pointed to a story in the national news section.
“Hysteria Strikes Girls at the Haji Ismail Secondary School for a Third Time this Year“
I read the story with amusement. Dozens of teenage girls at the school were having repeated episodes like the one that afflicted Dalila. The situation had become so problematic that administrators closed the school temporarily while a multi-faith cadre of Islamic ustaz, Buddhist monks, and traditional Malay healers called bomohs worked to rid the institution of its otherworldly infestation.
My friend explained the seriousness of the situation. “Hysteria” is so common in Malaysia that in any given week, one can find a similar story about it in the papers. Oddly, the phenomenon is limited almost exclusively to Malay girls; the Chinese and Indians are seemingly immune as are the Malay boys. With Malay girls comprising nearly 60% of undergraduates at the University of Malaya, there was a real danger that entire cohorts could run amok, causing great damage to the University and its reputation. The response to Dalila’s tantrum was therefore not about the supernatural, it was a very sensible attempt to quarantine a potentially much greater problem.
Weeks later, Dalila finally made it through her presentation without being violated by the djinn. This was her third attempt. The second one had ended like the first, leading her family to hire a bomoh to rid her of the vile demon she had contracted in the lady’s toilet. They had innocently invited all her friends without realizing she was romantically involved with several of them at once. According to a later account by one of her boyfriends, there was a moment of intense awkwardness at the bomoh ceremony as he, Zab, the gentleman from Penang, and the amorous instructor all realized why each of the others had been invited. Though it seemed the bomoh succeeded in freeing Dalila from the djinn, he could not protect her from the coming drama. At least she would not have to worry about her Bengali beau, he was nowhere to be found.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC