Weaving with Hope. A series of articles on Tenun Pahang Diraja in celebration of its exhibition at the London Craft Week 2022 (May 9 – 15)
It is not easy being an ex-convict. First, your choices have made you a criminal. Then you pay for it by being shut away from society and learn to live with other men behind high walls and barbed wire, with only the most basic of freedoms. When you can finally leave, that same society may or may not accept you back as you try to adapt to life outside the prison walls. For some, the temptations of a life of crime lure them back. For others who endure rejection from society at large, find themselves pulled back in as their choices are limited. Whilst some find forgiveness, redemption, and an ability to lead life as normally as they can. This is one such story. A prisoner’s tale of redemption inspired by a woman who would become Queen.
Awie, a man who was jailed in both the Bentong and Penor Prisons in Pahang, for crimes we are not allowed to ask about, (as part of the Queen’s policy in public, lest they be judged for the crimes they committed and paid for, rather than the people that they are) is a quiet and retiring man. Cut off from his family, and slowly counting the years before his release, the first few years were hard for him. He says, “Life in prison is limiting and painful. Not least only being able to see my kids through a glass screen…And not being able to see my father before he died … Sometimes there were fights … I can’t say I miss prison.”
Then he enrolled into a programme offering to teach him the weaving and technical skills needed to make Tenun Pahang. What began as something he felt he had to do, became a way of coping with life in prison. He recalls, “I was in for ten years. When I learnt how to weave, suddenly the days became shorter, and I looked forward to weaving, as it helped me cope, and it really helped to pass the time.” Learning to weave also connected him with a friend from his village who was also in prison, and who had become an expert in weaving. Awie enjoyed the experience of creating—of creating a cloth that could be fashioned into a shirt or a sarong, that he made, thread by thread and weave by weave. Most of all, weaving Tenun and the camaraderie he shared with other weavers also reduced his sense of loneliness.
Next he met the Princess who would one day become Queen. And his entire outlook on life changed. He had met the Queen during a training session in prison itself. He says of their first encounter, “I was thrilled to meet her, I had never met someone so important in my life, and then I met the King too.” Over time, she offered him a job upon his release, with a guarantee of housing and salary. It wasn’t his first thought as an occupation, but as he imagined his life after prison, and the limitations there might be, he reconsidered. He says, “She has always been like a normal person to me – treated me like I was a normal human being, always guiding, joking around with us prisoners, and focused on the work. It was inspirational. She would come back with stories of how the cloths that I had made were selling, and it made me feel so proud that I could do that.”
Since his release, Awie has been steadfast in his commitment to a good life that he can build for his family. The kindness and stability that met him when he started in Pulau Keladi allowed him to settle in quite easily to the life. This week he is in London with the Queen for London Craft Week to demonstrate how Tenun is woven. We asked him before he left what his feelings were about the upcoming trip. “I am nervous, I don’t speak English very well. But I am looking forward to showing the work that we do, the patterns that we can create, and I am happy that I can get this opportunity. It would not have been something I thought would ever be possible in my life.”