How Isa Kamari’s Kiswah journeys from ‘the abyss of darkness to enlightenment’

Book review by Mitali Chakravarty

Front cover

Title: Kiswah

Author: Isa Kamari

Publisher: Kitaab, 2019

Isa Kamari is a well-known legend in the Singapore literary community. He has won numerous awards — the Anugerah Sastera Mastera, the SEA Write award and Singapore Cultural Medallion, the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang. He has been written about and discussed in Universities. With ten novels, nine of which have been translated into English — and some into more languages like Arabic, Mandarin, Urdu and Turkish — three poetry books and plays under his belt and one novella written in English by him, one can well see him as a maestro of storytelling.

The last translation of his novel Kiswah has been launched in November at the Writer’s Festival in Singapore. Isa, a reformer at heart who claims to write only when he is very moved, authored and published three novels together in 2002. Intercession was to do with much needed comments on Islam — an outcome of the 9/11 bombing in New York; The Tower was to do with an individual’s own journey through materialism to a more spiritual plane and the last, which is what will be dealt with here, was Kiswah, a critique on the effects of pornography on young minds.

Most of Isa’s books can be seen as the journey of the protagonist towards self realisation. The issues he takes up are of global concern, though he claims to focus on the Malay community in his books.

In Kiswah, the protagonist, Iryadi, corrupted by the free flow of lewd films and literature, breaks the Islamic codes of marriage and harasses his wife till she is kidnapped at Mecca and lost to him. He struggles with his feelings, journeys through the darkness of lust and finally finds his way towards light and faith. The ending is open. Is it one of a reunion with his beloved first wife of the lovely green eyes?

Seemingly, Isa’s plots sound simplistic, but they are not. Just like after reading a series of novels by any author, Dickens or Dan Brown, one can draw broad patterns, so can one do with Isa’s stories. Each plot of Isa’s novels is well researched and complex.

One of the features that impresses in Kiswah are the descriptions of how the protagonist journeyed through different places in India and Nepal on his honeymoon — Isa evidently took a similar route on his own honeymoon but, of course, here the personal departs from the literary. The adventures are unique to Iryadi and his wife, Nazreen. Isa also quotes from Nobel laureate Tagore’s well-known poem, ‘Shah Jahan’, while describing the Taj Mahal: “The poet Rabindranath Tagore had painted it as a teardrop that flowed down the face of eternity.” The English translation of Shah Jahan goes:

“Though emeralds, rubies, pearls are all

But as the glitter of a rainbow tricking out empty air

And must pass away,

Yet still one solitary tear

Would hang on the cheek of time

In the form

Of this white and gleaming Taj Mahal.”

Isa, as one can see, is learned in varied lore. One can figure that out reading his novels. The reason one always looks forward to a story from him is because he takes you on a unique and distinct adventure with each of his protagonists. He has a good story to tell. There are no overlaps.

Kiswah has nothing in common with any other story by him that I have read. The message is always clear and conveyed not just through the story but also through the title. Isa tells us about the importance of the title of his story. Kiswah is the cloth covering the holy Kaaba. Isa gives us the reason for the name.

“Kiswah, replaced at the beginning of every Haj season, covered Kaaba in majesty and mystery. It was as if his soul had been enveloped and transferred from the lowest level of experience to an unreachable peak of comprehension, from the abyss of darkness to enlightenment.”

And thus, concludes the book as Iryadi’s spiritual growth is at its nadir. Iryadi has completed his journey to Mecca and emerges a new and better entity.

One should not think that because Isa’s books are spiritual, they are boring. On the contrary, there is action, drama and melodrama. His endings are almost Shakespearian in their execution. The translation of this novel was done by his wife, Sukmawati Sirat. She must have an excellent understanding of her husband’s novels because the book is unputdownable for readers in English and yet, it retains the mild Malay flavour, like a satay (barbequed meat), grilled to perfection for an unfamiliar palate, spicy and delicious.

I would unhesitatingly recommend Kiswah as an entertaining yet thought provoking read.

Click here to buy the book.


Mitali Chakravarty is a writer and editor and blogs at


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