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In early 2021, Kat Rahmat and Alistair Debling began corresponding by letter. As Kat described her proposed doctoral research project, exploring the multi-temporal affective dimensions of human-elephant relations, unexpected synergies emerged with Alistair's own investigation of queer nightlife in Britain. 60% of Malaysia's primary forest cover has been lost, while 60% of London's queer venues closed permanently in the decade leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the letters unfold, these threatened ecosystems are brought into conversation with one an other: a conversation about grief (personal, queer, ecological), a conversation about visibility (and the risks that come with being "seen"), a conversation interrupted by shipping delays, thesis and video editing deadlines, travel, lockdowns and illness. Below are selected fragments from the conversation so far.


I packed light—I packed emotionally—as if I was going on a weekend trip. I left precious objects, like, my father’s pair of socks. He had packed them hours before he died, folded them in a half-roll. I left them thinking I could come back “as soon as”—but really that decision just left me anxious that someone would unroll them. That gesture my father left in the object would disappear. I was terrified. But I guess I wanted to give myself some idea that I’d return. I left crying. In the taxi I heard the driver talk about the money he’d lost the past weeks since people had stopped taking taxis. They were on speaker phone agreeing that they’d starve if things continued this way. So everything was a foreshadowing. 


Dear Alistair,


I keep thinking about the last time we met. It was the pre-pandemic world. Nothing remarkable happened, but that was the beauty. We hugged, we were maskless. We “knew” what was coming; we knew in the way we wouldn’t articulate our futures. The other trouble was dystopia had occupied popular imaginations as something distant, preposterous - or to do with “nature” as separate from us. We said goodbye, very much believing we had places to go. We couldn’t anticipate a future of “writing”, which really occupies no temporal place - and yet here we are, already familiar with “it”, for over a year - and reminded so often the remarkable privilege and fortunes there are to “wait” instead of to mourn or see one’s livelihoods dissolve. How did you grasp the pandemic? Did the declaration clarify for you a place you needed to be? Did it voice in you new questions? Briefly I did consider, in the days before deciding to fly back to Malaysia, the breakdown of society. I felt the (possibly imagined) stares of passers-by who imagine I am from China. I watched the buses and streets empty… I remember coming home from the empty libraries to sharpen kitchen knives. I needed to make sure I had some sort of weapon in the event there was lawlessness. The pandemic has taught me that I am a very practical person. I worried about my upper-arm strength (in random, possible combat) and the absence of hand sanitisers. It was not until the University announced that they will close the libraries—that Malaysia and the United Kingdom may enter lockdown—when my flatmate informed me that she had an autoimmune disease and that we could only enter the kitchens one at a time (you remember we knew very little about the virus then)—that I had to concede. And, anyway, I had to go where the elephants are.

In the pen drive I include three items. The first is a video I shot from my car at dusk in the graveyard my father was buried, about 19 December 2019. The dusk has a loaded meaning in my family. My mom takes spiritual beliefs literally. She thinks of it as the changing of the guards—the devils change shifts at dusk. So my mother always kept a strict 6pm curfew … And so naturally, I grew to love the nightfall—I love its cool, the promise that one can begin again, and the startling, individual colours that reveal themselves. It never once is the same. But in this particular video (one I shall keep forever, however badly shot and grainy) there’s a slight horror and sadness. The gravesite is encroaching on private forest reserves and with each human death, the monkeys are deprived of home and sources of food. So by nightfall, when the visitors and mourners have left, they swarm into the gravestones. They look for food. They fail. They graze the grass. I love the video—for many reasons, and perhaps more reasons I’ve yet been able to articulate. We have occupied space to the point that even our deaths are selfish. And there is something dark and sinister to see them emerge from the black of the foliage and scavenge. It is the ultimate representation of our alienation from both death and nature, old allies. It is also mingled with pity for my father, who I still see as having only these individuals for company. The image I am sharing because it is a fundamental part of me now. Someone has taken my place after my father died. I don’t know who she is. She has questions. She has images. She has one of these images when she thinks beyond death. Is there life beyond death? The monkeys bring satire to such a self-obsessed question. When I am brave and I have the time I toy with the video’s meaning.


17 FEB 2021


Dear Kat, 


It's funny to think back to the pre-pandemic moment in which we last met. The strongest recollection I have from that night is of fastidious handwashing and sanitising after touching door handles, tables, chairs. All the while completely unphased by the crowds of people packing the pub. And all of us maskless, naturally. We knew it was a respiratory disease but for some reason pinned out fears on surfaces (understandable, really, when the other option was 'the air'). Perhaps you remember that I was still deciding whether or not to go ahead with a trip to Oslo that weekend (6th March). I went. And continued the  hand-washing farce on the packed tube, then the packed plane, then the packed train. When I arrived, I asked my friend if I could take a nap before dinner. "Of course," he said. His husband was napping, too - he'd been feeling under the weather since they'd returned from Belgium last weekend. Our jokes about COVID over dinner faltered when his energy levels plummeted the next day and his coughing worsened. By the end of my trip he couldn't manage more than a few moments up off the sofa. I could hear him wheezing. For all my stupid sanitising, I was not expecting to stay with a COVID patient, back when Norway had fewer than 100 'official' cases.


He was in a strange kind of denial, insisting on driving us around the town (I was given a seat next to him on the front, for a better view of the city) even as he didn't have the energy to join us at whatever museum or beauty spot he dropped us. They invited friends (including their doctor, ironically) for dinner and - at the weekend's climax - we all went to Elsker - the city's biggest nightclub (the name means 'lover' I think). And while our friend's decision to join us may have caused to raise eyebrows, somehow we couldn't grasp that we, too, by way of our exposure to him, would be putting others at risk, despite our being symptom-free. (In the UK, at least, the extent of asymptomatic transmission only just seems to have been admitted by officials). Perhaps it was Oslo's developer-chic architecture, its icy winds and black waters, or perhaps it was our dawning sense of disaster, but there was certainly a dystopic quality to that night. Elsker had the smell of the gay bars I found myself in late at night, on my way home from Bristol. There's an almost aggressive atmosphere in those places after a certain hour, as dancing gives way to cruising. 


Mid-way through the night it appeared I had become an unwitting node in overlapping webs of friends, lovers and exes. I awoke the next morning in an unfamiliar bed, unsure whether I'd end up there out of true desire for a permanent occupant or out of some kind of spite. Somehow the laguable cliched, reality television drama of it made perfect sense within the prevailing air of apocalypse! I suppose I use this somewhat self-indulgent antidote to illustrate how the 'mesh of relationality' involved by queer ecology is something rather different from harmonious organisation: there's room for mal-intent, jealousy and pettiness, as well as hand-holding and 'togetherness' 

Fourteen days of paranoid temperature checks and suppressing every tickle at the back of my throat. I remember refreshing the news compulsively. About halfway through my quarantine I got a text from my host in Oslo. His test had come back negative but his doctor had advised him to assume it was a false negative in light of his symptoms and exposure (they had been skiing in a hot spot the weekend prior to my trip). It was exactly the kind of 'yes and no, we don't know' that would characterise much of the communications surrounding the virus. I never developed symptoms, nor did any of my friends that joined us at Elsker.


Fate would have it that the U.K. would enter its first full lockdown in the same day I was due to escape my self-imposed quarantine. I joked that I was 'more practiced' than everyone else. I'm not sure I did anything at all during those months besides watching the spring unfold on my daily walks (we had wonderful weather throughout lockdown, as if some kind of consolation prize from nature). I found it difficult to sleep before 5 or 6 am most nights and would sleep until 1 to 2pm - a habit I'm still struggling to shake. 


26 FEB 2021


Dearest Alistair,


I’ve been struggling to write my paper for some weeks now. By struggling—I mean just procrastinating. But I’ve also been procrastinating productively—I’ve been consistently meditating for a month now and I don’t think I’ve been as clear-headed until now. And sitting down to writing this, I forgot that I have exciting news to share - if my last letter was one of waiting—in a paralysis—in a kind of stasis—waiting has another complexion now. There is some anticipation! The government is seeking conservation consultants to assess human-elephant conflict in a Jahai village neighbouring my site of interest. One of my chief advisors is keen to hire me if he wins the pitch. Which he is confident that he will. This means I will be paid to do fieldwork! … It all sounds too good to be true—but there’s more! It’s a six month project engaging with two of my local supervisors. I’ll be spending a lot of time with villagers conducting surveys—assessing the impact elephant crop-raiding has had in their lives. Assessing the reliance on hunting (a major part of why I want to observe tracking methods) and how this is inevitably an inextricable relationship between both. I would have access to expert and respondents—and of course—the elephants! I found a pair that gives you an overview of the village that I enclose.

Screenshot 2021-08-12 at 17.34.18.png

The first time I broke out of the 'bubble' was to attend my grandfather's funeral in June. He died suddenly after surgery for appendicitis. it all happened within the days of him going into hospital, which, when you see how and prolonged illness can be, was a small comfort. Somewhat fortuitously, the government had just lifted travel restrictions for family members attending funerals (I know you'll appreciate the grim coincidence) so I was able to travel to Kent and be with my father for the service. Nevertheless, dystopia persisted. Only a handful of us were allowed inside the crematorium so others stood outside and listened through loudspeakers. For those even further afield, the service was live-streamed, which I know my father found uncomfortable. A certain over-cited television come to mind...


I never came out to my grandparents. On my mother's side, this was perhaps for good reason, as my grandfather and his second wife shared fairly bigoted views. But on my father's side it was a case of stolen thunder: one of my cousins came out before me and for some reason I always felt I couldn't burden them with two gay grandsons, even though I knew they hadn't batted an eyelid at the first. So at the funeral, though I did feel sad, I also felt a sense of relief - the last person from whom I was keeping their secret was gone (in fact I had lost three of them within the year). No more blushing at questions about 'girlfriends in America'. No more dreading questions of the kind. it had taken the best part of 27 years but there i was: out.*


(*It just struck me that 'never batted an eyelid' isn't a totally accurate portrayal. My grandfather did once warn me not to be hanging around 'hairdressers' at university. This was after my cousin had come out. I always thought this slur was rather hilarious, given that my grandfather had been a barber...)


09 MAR 2021

Dear Alistair,

As I read your letters I kept thinking about your description of the freedom you’ve felt on the dancefloor—if I could borrow the (probably very) inadequate word “freedom” as a space for “true grief, true hope, real ecstasy”—really, the elements that I think we hope we can have the privilege to experience—to then say we’ve lived full lives—and it moved me. “A place where one can both forget and yet be utterly yourself”, to me, would be the envy of any religion we know of today. Perhaps what many from the heteronormative world see as only hedonism—we can’t gully grasp how hard-won it is, how precious (and precarious). I don’t think the world has fully understood just how this awareness is still at a nascent stage. There’s a danger in saying things like “queerness has become mainstream” when the violence against queer bodies is still very real and terrifying everywhere. there is an active manhunt—yes, a literal manhunt—for a trans woman currently in Kuala Lumpur. She’s recently disappeared but it was a government-funded operation. In her frustration she has threatened to convert or leave the faith (she’s born Muslim) and now they cry that it is religiously permissible to kill an apostate. The truth is there’s a bravery to this “freedom” that gets expressed—a defiance to so much blood spilt. And still spilling. Recently the news has reported that her instagram account has disappeared. I hope she is safe, wherever she is. I am certain this is in retaliation to the liberalisation of laws regarding “unnatural sex” that I mentioned in a previous letter—and I am certain that they hate her personally for being beautiful, for being herself.


12 MAR 2021


Dear Kat, 


I came into town in order to film on Frogmore Street, where there are a number of what are probably still described as 'gay bars' since that demographic is their main focus. I can't say I have particularly positive associations with these places, though that has more to do with me than it does with them. They were places a 17-18 year old me would attend alone and usually blackout drunk. Their names, 'OMG' , 'Bent' (a UK homophobic slur that I assume refers to the position one adopts when 'sodomised') and 'Queenshilling' seemed to belong to a slightly older, camp era of gay culture even then (and in fact, as I learnt on Monday, 'Bent' has rebranded as 'OMG Bar'. I think it was always a subsidiary of its namesake). I read an article recently that described queer venues as an 'endangered species'. I was shocked to read that 60% of London's queer venues died int he decade leading up to COVID, with further casualities to follow in the pandemic's wake, of course (three already, I've heard). Part of it is London's insane property market: club organisers are forced out by ruthless developers and the city doesn't seem to care. But there's also the rise of apps like Grindr, which allow cruising to take place digitally. Profiles wear 'non-scene' in their bios like a badge of honour. The message is clear: 'I don't do any of that gay shit.' 

26 APR 2021


Dear Alistair,


I’ve been experimenting with the jungles close to the vicinity of Kuala Lumpur, where there are some indigenous communities living at the edge of the city and still hunting in some secondary forest, just at the gates, so to speak, of the more protected and older forests extending to the neighbouring states. I’ve gone on these long hikes through them with one of the senior village members, which was really magical in its own way, the more I think about it, and I will attempt to relate some of it to you soon—and this was before the arrival of the camera. On the day your package arrived, I received word of it from my partner and I was already off to Perak. This time it was with an NGO that did a great deal of work in Belum, almost weekly. Of course that was the same week that the positive [COVID-19] test was reported.


To enter this village you only need to drive your car into some well-trodden forest trails for a good fifteen minutes or so—and just then, just as you reach their doorstep—you will not have nay network connection. The village hadn’t had access to electricity until ten years ago (almost all villages I’ve encountered or was informed of, only had electricity from the government ten years ago). The village second-in-command, Jamil, would casually inform me who could and couldn’t work depending on their partiality to drink. I asked him to take me for walks, and we did. I think you’ve seen some videos I’ve posted. Jamil was talkative, the kind of chatty ethnographers dream about. I wish I could take the time to properly document the things we discussed. But weaving through the forest he’d show me little marks—like porcupine paths and goat hoofmarks, and tell me stories about how evil panthers are (‘They aren’t honest, because they don’t start a fair fight they pounce on you from behind’), how noble bears are (‘Bears are noble, they’re just like humans, and they’re your best friend if you raise them young’). It’s illegal for the indigenous to hunt now, so they hunt surreptitiously, they are cautious about sharing their knowledge of animal—so they’ve made close bonds with Chinese restaurant owners, who are always looking for exotic ingredients. Sometimes, Jamil could relax a bit and wind up telling me what is ‘in demand’ or not. Pangolins, he said, are less asked for (no doubt as its become something the authorities have begun paying attention to in the media). Wild goats are more popular. But in general, he was cautious, slow—his eyes looking over us a few times more on questions regarding animals. It has to be understood, however, that these Chinese businessmen have done more for the orang asli than the authorities who harass them to limit their multi-millennial practices. As one anthropologist who has focused on orang asli concerns for decades once told me casually, ‘when the storms and floods are bad, the Chinese come and help build their roofs. They come immediately when you call them and they even set up temporary shelter.’

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