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Impressions From Our First Week Living in Aceh’s College Town

April 10, 2010
Jantong Hatee Rakyat Aceh

Jantong Hatee Rakyat Aceh

During our first week living in Darussalam (mid-March 2010), I tried to take a bunch of pictures to capture my first impressions.  I’ve collected them as a set titled “Jantong Hatee Rakyat Aceh” on my Flickr page.  I have been working full time in Darussalam since early September 2009, so moving there has now brought all my daily routines within walking distance, and despite several shortcomings in the area, on balance the change, so far, has been totally worth it.

Darussalam is home to Aceh’s two largest institutions of higher education: Syiah Kuala University (UNSYIAH) and the Ar-Raniry State Institute for Islamic Studies (IAIN). These schools border each other closely and the resulting mega-campus really sprawls. UNSYIAH is affectionately known as the “jantong hatee rakyat Aceh” (roughly translated as “the heart and soul of the Aceh people”) because it was the first nationally accredited institution of higher learning in Aceh, and for generations has reliably produced citizen bureaucrats for the provincial government.  I prefer to generously extend the term of endearment to all of Darussalam, not because I’ve developed some sentimental fondness for the town (hardly!), but rather because IAIN also deserves credit for producing equally competent (if not more so) intellectuals for Aceh, and also because I think UNSYIAH needs to get over itself.

Gedung Pusat Latihan Penelitian Ilmu Sosial dan Budaya - UNSYIAH

Training Center for Social and Cultural Sciences - UNSYIAH

I work at the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies (CPCRS) at UNSYIAH’s Training Center for Social and Cultural Sciences, which is conveniently located right at the front and center of campus.  It’s a lovely old building, recently renovated and restored by the Australian government.  The building has an identical twin, the Wisma UNSYIAH, right next door:

Wisma UNSYIAH

Wisma UNSYIAH

Unfortunately not all buildings in the greater campus area of Darussalam have fared as well as the building where I am lucky enough to work.  I suspect the combined legacy of conflict and tsunami has left much of the campus buildings unattended, especially over at IAIN (though I hear the Saudi government is financing a total reconstruction of their campus in the near future…a mixed blessing at best).  If I take the long way home to my new house, usually in the late afternoon, I pass by these sad lonely buildings.  I confess to some biased editing on these pictures, but I am also trying to capture the spookiness and slight discomfort that I feel when I walk through this area:

That's me at Rise Up Cafe, probably play Fishville

That's me at Rise Up Coffeehouse, probably playing Fishville!

But to be fair, the gloomy parts of campus are at the outskirts of IAIN and UNSYIAH.  The center of campus and the town are quite lively. The quality of life in Darussalam increased exponentially when the Rise Up Coffeehouse opened two months ago. Free and fast wifi, a space for art on sunny-bright walls, magazines for reading, guitars for playing, and a friendly student-oriented staff that includes women servers, a rarity in Aceh cafes!

Rise Up Cafe in the Early Morning

Rise Up Coffeehouse in the Early Morning

There’s a tension between Darussalam’s dynamic student life on the one hand and Aceh’s new legal framework for moral policing on the other. One might expect a higher level of tolerance and nuanced critique among Aceh’s educated elite, but I have not found this to be the case, at least not in Darussalam, which most people consider more conservative than the rest of Banda Aceh across the river. One of my research associates at CPCRS once told me that when she was still in college (at IAIN), she thought Darussalam would be an ideal environment to raise a family, but she doesn’t feel that way anymore. The formal implementation of Islamic law in Aceh has empowered religious student groups to patrol the campus for immoral behavior. In her critique of media representations of Islamic law violations, Sarah Newman begins with a description of how the laws have changed the atmosphere in Darussalam. Mob vigilantism, while technically illegal, is the normative mode of “justice” meted out to unmarried couples caught in the act of romance. I agree with my colleague; as a parent I would not want to raise children under this kind of surveillance with the implicit threat of gender-based violence.

"Dilarang Keras Khalwat Disini!"

"Dilarang Keras Khalwat Disini!"

This is the setting into which we have moved, not just for work, but now to live. Our new neighbors don’t quite know what to make of the foreigner (and that guy from Jakarta who stays part time) now living in their community, and the feeling is mutual. When we were moving in, the first thing one of our neighbors told Dez was that I should buy him a motorbike because all foreigners are rich and so I must surely be able to afford one for him. The day after that, another neighbor took it upon himself to tell us that we don’t need a daytime housekeeper–who comes to cook and clean three times a week–because she is a woman coming to work in a single man’s house, and that presents an unacceptable risk. He told us we don’t need her to cook because there are plenty of rice stalls to choose from less than a block away. Never mind that I prefer vegetarian food, and that the food for sale is mostly disgusting (and that the management of my household is none of his damned business…yes I was furious!). The misplaced assumptions in these first encounters speak volumes about what they must think of us. Welcome to the neighborhood…WTF!

Lest I finish this post on a sour note, I should end my first impressions of living in Darussalam by mentioning one more thing that I love about this town and noticed right away. Most homes really enjoy having greenery, and in particular I like that there is not a lot of focus on highly manicured landscaping… the greenery just surrounds and grows in all kinds of ways. I will try to take more pictures of household greenery in the future because there are so many kinds of creatively chaotic arrangements, but for now this is all I could get:

Note: An earlier version of this post appears at http://fotofoto.livejournal.com/209225.html

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2010 19:12

    Thanks for sharing this nice article. Having moved recently to Darussalam as well, I can relate to many of the impressions you describe. With the thousands of students around, one would expect more campus life and cultural events and human interactions, and that’s mostly what Rise Up Coffeehouse is intending to contribute. I have seen Aceh 5 years ago straight after the Tsunami and the 30-year conflict, and it was really a troubled sad place. Today and despite all the pressures and the so-many-missing things, I believe the situation has much improved, and can only get better. Am sure one day the aliveness and energy of the thousands of the new-generation young students that is growing in peace will take over! Darussalam will surely rise up!🙂

  2. April 11, 2010 10:03

    Thanks for writing this article. I know you posted the pics a while back and mentioned bits of it here and there, but it’s great to have them all tied up in one narrative. I feel like I can imagine life really like in your ‘hood.

  3. ayu permalink
    April 13, 2010 12:13

    thank you for sharing jess….especially for our nice pic he..he..he.. soal wajah darussalam yang jadi rada-rada serem itu adalah pekerjaan terberat buat kita barang kali yach…kalau ada yang melawan dan melakukan perubahan bisa jadi akan ada sesuatu yang lebih cerah di masa depan semoga!

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