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“We Build Our Own Stories”… at a Conference in Yogyakarta

August 16, 2013

I will be in Yogyakarta next week to present at the 6th Annual International Indonesia Forum Conference, held this year at Universitas Islam Negeri Sunan Kalijaga. Here is the title and abstract of my presentation:

Title: “We Build Our Own Stories”: The 19th Century Figure and 21st Century Myth of Dôkarim, an Acehnese Poet

Abstract: Few primary sources other than Snouck Hurgronje’s tell us about the traveling bard Abdul Karim, popularly known as Dôkarim, who composed the Hikayat Prang Gompeuni, Song of the Dutch War. Composed orally in Acehnese verse, the Hikayat borrows generously from the themes and narratives of the famous epic poems that preceded it while also recounting specific details of warrior bravery, political negotiations, and community devastation brought by the war. The Hikayat Prang Gompeuni was not only a work in progress with Dôkarim adding new verses as the war unfolded, it was also a performance piece tailored to meet the expectations of every patron that commissioned Dôkarim’s recitals. Among Dôkarim’s patrons were Hurgronje himself who commissioned the only complete transcription of the Hikayat and the Acehnese war hero Teuku Umar, who later went on to execute Dôkarim before the war’s end for his supposed defection to the Dutch. But we must interpret both Hurgronje’s transcription and Umar’s accusations as only partial narratives. In this presentation, I show how the ambiguous figure of Dôkarim in Aceh’s 19th century serves as a productive metaphor and cautionary tale for Aceh’s culture producers in the 21st. The Tikar Pandan Community in particular has leveraged the figure of Dôkarim and elevated his partial legacy to the status of a myth, assuming his poetic license to claim a space for building new tales that espouse a critical wariness toward all figures of authority. I use Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of rhizomatic social structures to illustrate Tikar Pandan’s critical and evasive stance.

To be fair, I presented a version of this paper in Bahasa Indonesia at the 4th Biannual International Center for Aceh and Indian Ocean Studies (ICAIOS) conference in Lhokseumawe two months ago.

#AcWriMo Debrief

December 11, 2012

After the crushing sleep-deprived agony that preceded my defense, and the soaring high of the defense itself on 6 December and the celebrations afterward, I am back on an even keel and it’s time to debrief on the November Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo on Twitter) exercise that helped me make it to the end.  Here is another good article about the AcWriMo project, and here is the link to the goals I set for myself at the start of November.  In short, with the last goal excepted in which I hoped to write some blog posts (ha!), I met all these goals and then some!  In addition to the original goals I set, I also completed two totally unexpected job applications, and set aside time for some unexpected major revisions to my dissertation’s Introduction and Conclusion.  It boggles the mind how much I actually did last month, including the conference in San Francisco, and family time on Election Day and Thanksgiving, with lots of travel to and from different places.

I have always been a notorious procrastinator, but apart from the #AcWriMo support and camaraderie there were two factors that made last November extraordinarily unique in my career as an academic writer.  First, since the end of July, I have been on a productivity upswing unlike anything I’ve ever known before.  The looming deadline of my dissertation, knowing that it absolutely had to be finished before I return to Indonesia at the end of the year, was the motivator, and each week saw more productivity than the one before it.  So by the time #AcWriMo started, I was already in a concentrated writing mode.  The second factor follows the first.  Once my defense date was fixed on 6 December 2012, again there was just no way I was not going to complete all these tasks in time for it.  And so I did them.  Without these “pre-existing conditions,” I can’t really say whether I would have succeeded as well as I did with #AcWriMo, but knowing me and my habits, I’m guessing it wouldn’t have been as successful.

Having said that, #AcWriMo did offer a social community for what is essentially a very lonely pursuit.  On my breaks, I routinely checked in on the #AcWriMo crowd to see what people were talking about and how they were doing.  Most of my tweets received fun, constructive, or supportive comments.  And I especially appreciated @mystudiouslife‘s academic writing accountability spreadsheet, which I filled in assiduously until the last few days when it got super hairy and impossible to keep track during the final stretch of hypercaffeinated sleepless revisions.  I also learned the value of routine, daily writing, and hope it becomes easier to keep up this rare habit, having seen how well it works.

Now I am in a transitional post-defense phase, sorting out what needs to be done before I head back to Indonesia.  I still have writing tasks, but not like I had in November, so I am not sure how or if I will keep up with the accountability spreadsheet, but I will try to find a way.  For now, I’m still basking in the grateful glow of this moment, when the five members of my dissertation committee passed me at the end of my defense, opened up a bottle of champagne, and concluded the ritual with nothing but the kindest of words:

My dissertation committee prepares a toast at the end of a successful defense.

My dissertation committee prepares a toast at the end of a successful defense.

This. Is Finally Happening!

November 30, 2012
Poster for "Humanitarian Encounters in Post-Conflict Aceh, Indonesia" dissertation defense by Jesse Hession Grayman

Awesome poster design by Karen Santospago.

If you are in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Thursday 6 December 2012, please join me from 9 until 11AM for the defense of my dissertation titled “Humanitarian Encounters in Post-Conflict Aceh, Indonesia.”  Here is a map that shows the location of Harvard’s Yenching Building.  More details on the poster image above.

The next day, at 10AM Friday 7 December 2012, the conversation continues with a talk that I will be giving at Harvard’s Medical Anthropology Friday Morning Seminar titled “Humanitarian Subjects in Post-Tsunami and Post-Conflict Aceh, Indonesia,” which will be a condensed version of one of my dissertation chapters.

Participation in #AcWriMo, Academic Writing Month, November 2012

November 1, 2012

I’ve kept away from this blog for most of the year for good reasons.  First I was preoccupied with a family tragedy, and then I slowly transitioned back to completing my dissertation.  Anything interesting I had to say went into the dissertation chapters, not this blog, but I’m going to try and get back into in again.  The past few months in particular have been especially productive, and I’m trying to keep the momentum going.  So for November, I am going to participate in #AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month), a modification on last November’s #AcBoWriMo (Academic Book Writing Month), which is itself a variation on #NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).  Here is the blog post that invites academics to participate in this year’s #AcWriMo:  “Announcing AcWriMo”

So let me review what I’ve done the past few months, and then list my goals for #AcWriMo.  I’d say I got back on track with my work when I did a significant revision of my dissertation outline in July, so I’ll start from there:

  1. Revised my dissertation outline.
  2. Completed Chapter Four.
  3. Completed Chapter Five.  This is the last substantive chapter for the dissertation.  I have complete drafts now for chapters one through five.
  4. Applied for a job at the University of Sydney and got selected for an interview.
  5. Prepared for the interview with a mini-lesson that I had to teach via Video Skype, and did my due diligence to prepare for the actual interview, also conducted via Video Skype.
  6. Applied for a travel grant that would take me back to Jakarta, Aceh, and Bali in January 2013.

I’m pretty satisfied with all that I’ve completed during the past three months or so.  Feels good to be back into my writing, and even better to be graduating soon!  So here are my goals for #AcWriMo:

  1. Complete Introduction and Conclusion.  (due date:  Election Day)
  2. Prepare for my conference presentation at the AAA meetings in San Francisco. (due date:  Nov. 14th)
  3. Work on chapter revisions in most need of it. (at this point, this is Chapters Two and Three) (due date:  Thanksgiving)
  4. Prepare for a Friday morning medical anthropology seminar talk at Harvard (which will be a short version of my dissertation’s Chapter Five), scheduled for 2 December.
  5. Prepare the opening statement for my dissertation defense, scheduled for 6 December.  (due date for 4&5:  Nov. 30th)
  6. If I can make good progress on these tasks on schedule, then I’d like to also write a few blog posts this month, maybe about my upcoming presentations, or some of the ideas I’m working with in my dissertation, or about Daniel Ziv’s much-anticipated new documentary about street musicians in Jakarta.  Lots of ideas!

I will use Twitter to update my progress on these #AcWriMo goals throughout November.  Wish me luck, I’ve got a lot of work to do.

Matthew Patrick Omans, 1988 – 2012

April 4, 2012
Matthew P. Omans, 1988 - 2012

Matthew Patrick Omans, 1988 - 2012

On 17 March 2012, we said farewell to our brother Matthew during a funeral service at the Raynor & D’Andrea Funeral Home in West Sayville, NY.  The love, support, and condolences for our family since the news of his passing on 9 March has overwhelmed us, and I’m sorry that we have not been able to reply to each one of you with the same kindness that has been shown to us.  Matt’s obituary appeared on the Raynor & D’Andrea Funeral Home website.  At his funeral, Matt’s close friend from college, Alex Aidun, and I each delivered a eulogy. I think these two pieces effectively describe the relationship that our family, many dear friends, and I shared with Matt.  With permission from Alex and Matt’s brothers at the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity at Cornell University, and from my family, we reproduce these two eulogies here:

Eulogy #1 for Matthew P. Omans by Alex Aidun

Eulogy #2 for Matthew P. Omans by Jesse H. Grayman

I have put together an album of photographs of Matt from throughout his life, in no particular order, on Flickr.  These come from Matt’s own collection, my photos, our family’s, and many friends who also contributed, and I have tried to give proper attribution beneath each photo.  If you would like to share a special photo of Matt with us, please leave a comment.

The wall of Matt’s facebook profile has been serving as a memorial where friends and family post messages, pictures, and videos.

We are grateful for contributions in Matt’s memory, which may be given to one or both of the following foundations:

1. The “Edgemoor Leadership Foundation,” the official non-profit foundation set up for educational and scholarship purposes to benefit current undergraduate brothers of Lambda Chi Alpha at Cornell University. Checks can be mailed to: The Edgemoor Leadership Foundation, 520 Brights Lane, Blue Bell, Pennsylvania 19422, memo line “In Memory of Bro. Matt Omans ‘10”. All donations are tax-deductible.

and/or:

2. The Stony Brook University Cancer Center, Office of Advancement, H.S.C. Level 4, Stony Brook, NY, 11794-8430. Checks payable to “Stony Brook Foundation.” Memo line: “In Memory of Matthew P. Omans.”

In lieu of any more words–because there are none to express the unexpected loss of such an outstanding, beautiful, and fun, young man–I urge anyone who knew Matt to read the eulogies and view the photos; they reveal residual traces of a charismatic life surrounded by friends, family, and love.

Matty Ohhmanz, 1988 - 2012

Matty Ohhmanz, 1988 - 2012

Notes on ICG’s Latest Indonesia Report: “Averting Election Violence in Aceh” **

March 7, 2012

When International Crisis Group (ICG) released it’s latest Aceh report last week, Indonesia: Averting Election Violence in Aceh, I wrote the above tweet with tongue in cheek.  But the truth is that when I inevitably lose track of every twist and intrigue in Aceh’s electoral politics, I know that I can always count on ICG to efficiently summarize the events, players, and issues that keep this drama unfolding, without resorting to headline-grabbing hyperbole or convenient generalizations.  This latest report is the tenth that ICG has published about Aceh since a peace agreement in August 2005 brought an end to the Free Aceh Movement’s (GAM) separatist conflict against Indonesian security forces.  Taken together, the reports document the slow transformation of politics in Aceh from center-periphery conflict into internal conflict.  That’s not to say Jakarta isn’t still a major player in Aceh’s “transition to peace,” but rather the prevailing axis of conflict is now more localized and horizontal; it’s “GAM vs. GAM” as the last ICG report called it.  Power brokers in Jakarta are left figuring out how to take sides (or how to take advantage), but they’re not making their choices in unison.

ICG Report Header:  "Indonesia:  Averting Election Violence in Aceh"

ICG Report Header: “Indonesia: Averting Election Violence in Aceh”

Recent Attacks on Javanese Migrant Labor in Aceh

Last January, I happened to be visiting Aceh for the first time in 18 months when the last few in a series of shootings against poor Javanese migrant laborers unfolded one after another.  At the time everyone was talking about (or refusing to) the ongoing electoral paralysis, but the shootings added a new layer of violence and terror to the coffee-shop conversations.  Attacking Aceh’s most disenfranchised residents has no obvious connection to electoral politics, and yet everyone was absolutely sure there was a political motive behind the violence.  This new ICG report does a great job contextualizing these killings in the current political climate, but the evidence always remains reliably inconclusive.  Check out the investigative detail here that makes a valiant effort to trace a connection:

The first attack took place at a workers’ barracks of the PT Setya Agung plantation in Kreung Jawa, Uram Jalan, Geureudong Pase, North Aceh on 4 December. Setya Agung, a company based in Medan, North Sumatra, has usufruct rights (hak guna usaha) for planting cacao, palm oil and rubber over an area of some 8,000 hectares in North Aceh. Like most companies working in Aceh, it contracted with a GAM-owned company, CV Cimita Rata, which manages the rubber plantation.

PT Setya Agung merely collects a fee of Rp.1,250 (about $0.14) per kilo on the rubber, but CV Cimita Rata does all the work, including hiring the labour. Many of its workers are ex-combatants, but the company also brought in about 100 Javanese workers from Medan and housed them in a barracks owned by Setya Agung; these men were hired by a CV Cimita Rata official reportedly loyal to [Governor] Irwandi. (p.4)

ICG is quick to point out, however, that until now there is still no smoking gun and too much opacity in the investigation of the recent killings.  Instead, ICG’s careful chronology of events correlates the violence in Aceh with Partai Aceh’s extraordinary lobbying efforts with various power brokers in Jakarta to postpone the elections until after Governor Irwandi’s term ended on 8 February 2012, when he returned to private citizenship without the organs of state at his disposal to support his campaign.  Violence against Javanese labor gets Jakarta’s attention, ICG argues, and intimates similar or worse violence to come if Partai Aceh does not get its way.  When the ministries, the Constitutional Court, and probably the president himself in Jakarta finally coalesced upon a policy of appeasement to Partai Aceh’s implicit threats, the violence against Javanese in Aceh ended. Partai Aceh leaders have no shortage of plausible deniability, but the optics could not be more clear.

Questionable Alliances

Most people I spoke with in Banda Aceh in January were sick of Partai Aceh’s manipulative and hypocritical interpretations of the peace agreement, and in particular their antagonism toward the Constitutional Court.  These aspects of Partai Aceh’s horrible governance are well-documented in the ICG report, but it’s important to remember that they still have a loyal base of supporters in large swathes of the GAM heartland.  Many supporters and even some detractors aren’t convinced that Partai Aceh (or rogue elements therein) was behind the recent violence.  ICG reflects back some of the theories I heard as well, and it draws upon a long history of epistemic murk that has characterized Aceh’s conflict:

no one is sure who the perpetrators are, and even if some prove to have Partai Aceh connections, it will be hard to prove the party leadership knew of or condoned the attacks. With no information available on current police investigations, there are as many Acehnese willing to believe the attacks were part of a security operation as to believe the party was involved. (p.5)

Ensuring this lack of clarity persists until the election and beyond, Partai Aceh recently announced the endorsement of Aceh’s former military commander, Lt. General Sunarko, the extremely unpopular and belligerent voice of the TNI during the 2009 legislative elections.  This is the guy who tried to prevent election monitors from coming to Aceh in 2009; who tried to prevent Partai Aceh from using GAM symbols in their campaign; who vilified Aceh’s local political parties, one of the key achievements of the peace agreement; who routinely engaged in counter-productive public hissyfits with Governor Irwandi.  Some speculate that Sunarko’s awful relationship with Irwandi drove him into an alliance with Partai Aceh, while others suggest “Sunarko is collaborating on economic projects with former GAM commanders” (p.6), but most observers can hardly understand what benefit accrues to either Partai Aceh or Sunarko in their bizarre alliance (this Radio Rumoh PMI transcript published in Aceh Kita does a decent job of sorting out the pros and cons, pitting the words of erstwhile peace activist and now Partai Aceh spokesperson, Fachrul Razi, against a well-known military and defense analyst, Teuku Ardiansyah, on the subject of the Sunarko endorsement).

Elizabeth Drexler’s 2008 ethnography about the conflict in Aceh shows how both GAM and TNI each benefited from a polarizing conflict narrative while the messy realities on the ground reveal a range of questionable alliances that only in the post-conflict era have come out of the closet.  Profit flows up the chain of command on both sides, and civil society suffers excessively without any accountability.  The situation hasn’t changed much when the police stubbornly refuse to investigate and account for the murder of Javanese laborers, when Jakarta capitulates to Partai Aceh in order to “maintain peace” at all costs, when Partai Aceh forces its agenda with thug tactics and brazenly inconsistent governance, and when sworn enemies join forces to defeat a common foe.  As a result, ICG concedes, “time is now very much on Partai Aceh’s side, and it has three major advantages: a strong political machine, a capacity and willingness to use intimidation and the support of powerful figures in Jakarta” (p.6)…

…but it has cost them legitimacy and trust from Aceh’s civil society.  After the shootings, a number of friends urged me to cancel plans to visit Bireuen and Bener Meriah during my January visit, so I stayed in Banda Aceh (with just a short trip to Blang Pidie on the west coast).  Think of all the other canceled road trips and its economic impact on the east coast in the wake of the violence!  And there are other costs:  The Javanese migrant exodus back home has created a labor shortage for the grunt jobs where most Acehnese wouldn’t deign to work.  Some other friends of mine have lost their jobs while waiting for this electoral paralysis to end because investors are waiting to see how patronage networks will reconfigure before they resume operations in Aceh.  Business owners need to know who are the right politicians to bribe in order to secure a license renewal; their employees, in the meantime, have been waiting more than six months while the elections were postponed four times because of Partai Aceh’s strategy to delay until Irwandi was out of office.

ICG Recommendations

The ICG report concludes with four recommendations:

  1. Deploy as many election monitors across Aceh as possible, immediately.
  2. Investigate the shootings in December 2011 and January 2012 and bring the perpetrators to justice.
  3. Empower the election oversight committee (panwas) to investigate electoral violations and take action.
  4. Leading candidates must control their supporters in the field, particularly the committed loyalists to Partai Aceh and Irwandi, because they both have strong ties with former GAM commanders who tend to rely on intimidation and violence to get out the vote.
pemantau asing (pemilu 2009)

The presence of monitors (and routine press coverage of their work) dampens egregious acts of violence, intimidation, and fraud.

Based on my experience as an election monitor in Aceh in 2009, recommendations 2, 3, and 4 are completely unrealistic.  The police in Aceh rarely bring perpetrators of politically motivated violence to justice, especially if there is even a hint of TNI, and nowadays ex-GAM, involvement.  Panwas officials, if their impotence is not already bought and paid for by one candidate or another, have the most narrow criteria for pursuing electoral violations that relies upon an undue (and unethical) burden of proof upon witnesses, thus ensuring their powerlessness while facing even the most flagrant violations.  Finally, the candidates practically celebrate their unruly supporters because their uncontrollable behavior ensures plausible deniability when they attack supporters from opposition campaigns or engage in voter intimidation.  Party leaders and their candidates love talking about how they can’t possibly control the “excess euphoria” of their supporters!

“Peace Provocateurs”

To be fair, ICG places the most emphasis on their first recommendation to bring election monitors to Aceh as soon as possible.  Given the time constraints and certain pushback from local authorities to accommodate them, this recommendation too might be a challenge, but the very presence of monitors (and routine press coverage of their work) does dampen egregious acts of violence, intimidation, and fraud.  What excited me the most, however, was ICG’s suggestion to enhance the role of election monitors.  Citing a recent practice used to avert violence in Ambon by activists calling themselves “peace provocateurs,” ICG suggests that election monitors, and perhaps civil society in Aceh more broadly, can make use of text messages, Twitter, and facebook to counter provocative rumors:  “Election monitors in Aceh could usefully keep track of and work with journalists to counter ‘black campaigns’ via SMS that have the potential for sparking violence” (p.9).

One of the most impressive and elusive electoral intimidation techniques in Aceh back in 2008 and 2009 was the use of text messages.  Using resonant idioms such as Acehnese poetry or reliable bogeyman figures such as the PKI (Indonesia’s long-extinct Communist Party), these messages spread like wildfire across Aceh, with both veiled and explicit threats, from sources that were always impossible to trace.  Peace provocateur election monitors could work with local civil society activists and journalists throughout Aceh, using the same technology as conflict provocateurs to check rumors, collect proof with digital photos, and disseminate corrections.  This technological innovation would not have been possible even in 2009, as the data networks (or availability of wifi) and use of smartphones to quickly send images along with text were not quite so pervasive or affordable in Aceh at the time.  User saturation and a supportive technological infrastructure have skyrocketed since then.  With just a little bit of planning and ingenuity, I agree with ICG that supporting a network of peace provocateurs would be the smartest investment in peaceful elections.

For the last two elections since Aceh’s peace agreement, I was in Aceh.  This time around I’m sending high-fives to Aceh’s civil society and their peace provocateurs from Cambridge, Massachusetts.  I’ll be paying attention to the campaign and the electoral outcomes—and ICG’s next report—from a distance, but with no less interest.

**  Last year, I wrote two blog posts about the politics surrounding these elections, including notes on the previous ICG report:

13 February 2011:  The Aceh Governor’s Election Heats Up

19 June 2011:  Notes on ICG’s Latest Indonesia Report: “GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections”

For more coverage in English, Edward Aspinall wrote a terrific summary of Aceh’s electoral issues in Inside Indonesia up through December 2011, at a moment when it looked like Partai Aceh would boycott the elections altogether:

11 December 2011:  Aceh’s No-Win Election

#back2aceh Day 1 & 2

January 5, 2012

After a year and a half away from Aceh, I arrived in Banda Aceh on Tuesday afternoon for a reunion tour to visit old friends.  At 8PM I hopped into a chartered car with only one other passenger for a night ride down the west coast to Blang Pidie.  The seven hour odyssey was anything but familiar and nostalgic!  In an overtired punchy mood, I tweeted some of the journey details, using the hash tag #back2aceh.  The tweets require some facility with abbreviated Bahasa Indonesia:

The next day in Blang Pidie:

Each tweet has a complete back story of its own… but I’ll leave them as is for now and perhaps elaborate some details later on.

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