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“These Go To Eleven” My Adderall-Fueled Birthday Blog Post

November 14, 2011
These Go To Eleven

These Go To Eleven

I wrote this on 11-11-11 during a celebratory birthday moment:  I’m at this freakin’ amazing organic farm in Cicurug, a hillside town in West Java about two hours away from Jakarta, in the valley between Gunung Salak and Gunung Gede, a few kilometers up the Gunung Salak slopes off the main road to Sukabumi. It’s owned by this dude from Northern California (natch) who is a friend of my close friend Mercedes, so that’s how I got here, but Dezant and I are paying guests (they have three very different lodges for rent) for the long weekend. This is our (me and Dez together) birthday present to me! It would take a long time to describe just how awesome and weird this place is, but for now it’s worth it just to say that we made the right decision to do this for my birthday and I am so very happy to be here. I’ll try and do an actual photo-bloggish post about this place soon.

My birthday! This year! 11-11-11!!!!!!111111 How awesome is that? I’ve been anticipating it all year, and I’m not someone who cares that much about my birthday. Nor at my age now (say it softly now, in the interest of honest disclosure, 39. Can you imagine if today was my 11th birthday instead? *head explodes*) am I too interested in party planning or even social events. Ya, I’ve been kind of a recluse the past few years. And yet, for a birthday on 11-11-11, I had this nagging thought that I had to do something special. 11-11-11. It’s palindromic. It’s a bunch of ones. It’s a couple of elevens! Fucking Spinal Tap! It’s Nigel Tufnel Day! This date, this birthday, goes to eleven! It’s also Veteran’s Day, a national holiday where I come from. That’s important too. President Barack Obama is going to Arlington Cemetery to honor national heroes who have served in the military, the fallen and the living… ON MY BIRTHDAY!

So we had to do something special. This was our solution. Get out of Jakarta, go to the mountains, but also avoid the hotels with pools and “outbound” team building workshops for corporate Jakartans. I remembered Mercedes had a friend with a farm in Cicurug, and from there everything fell into place. I couldn’t deal with planning a special 11-11-11 themed birthday party (as cool and as fun as that would have been), but I can totally embrace what we’re doing here instead!

At the same time, this is supposed to be a writing retreat for me. My advisor imposed a deadline of November 15th to submit a draft chapter of my dissertation. This bloggy post about my birthday is a warmup exercise to get my writing juice on. What? Work on a dissertation for your birthday? I know right. But guess what this is totally going to work. I said everything fell (continues to fall?) into place for this long weekend, and that includes the writing part(y). I’m sitting on this here terrace on the second floor “library suite” at this farm, with a fabulous view of the valley and a gentle breeze coming at me from two directions. I’m also sorta inspired by this Academic Book Writing Month thing (#AcBoWriMo on Twitter), a new riff on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, it’s every November). I’m not planning to write a book (LOL! as if!), but I am planning to write a draft chapter, and if I’m lucky I’ll get the outline ready for another one. For the current chapter I’m working on, all my ducks are in a row. I’ve done the reading, the data is mostly organized, and there is a satisfactory rough outline. This chapter is practically ready to write itself. I don’t know how much I will be sending to my advisor on November 15th, but I sure hope it’s about 7000 words of a semi-coherent chapter. I’ve got my Scrivener open, I’ve got the word count targets set, the outline is imported and ready to be filled in. If you haven’t figured it out, I’m trying to psyche myself out into actually writing something, but to be honest, this is the most ready I’ve been in about a year, and that’s pretty cool too.

I was pretending to be “off the grid,” but I’m not. There’s a cellphone tower within our line of sight. I can still check my email, my facebook, my Twitter. The stream of birthday greetings on facebook is always gratifying. So “off the grid” this long weekend has turned into “resist status updates, replies, link retweets, etc.” But I’m still checking them out. This has to stop. So I’m writing some warmup words instead to get my #AcBoWriMo groove on. Let’s do this!

How I Celebrated My Birthday & #AcBoWriMo

How I Celebrated My Birthday & #AcBoWriMo

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

June 19, 2011
ICG Report Header:  "Indonesia: GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections"

ICG Report Header: "Indonesia: GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections"

A few days ago the International Crisis Group (ICG) issued their latest Asia Briefing titled “Indonesia: GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections.” ICG reports are always excellent and this one is no exception, featuring a clear review and honest assessment of the internal divisions within the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) since their peace agreement with Indonesia in 2005, and how those divisions are playing out leading up to the governor (provincial) and bupati (district) executive elections to be held on 14 November 2011. The report begins with the announcement in February—which I have written about HERE—that Partai Aceh (GAM’s local political party) would not nominate Aceh’s incumbent governor Irwandi Yusuf, also from GAM, for reelection. Instead they nominated Zaini Abdullah, a senior figure within GAM’s government in exile during the conflict, and Muzakir Manaf, former commander of GAM’s armed forces, as his running mate. They have since been cleverly dubbed the ZIKIR ticket. Irwandi, still a popular front-runner according to polls, intends to run for reelection anyway. The ICG report argues that if violent friction on the ground can be prevented, then GAM’s internal divisions may add healthy competition to the electoral process and “produce better policies and improved governance” for Aceh.

GAM vs GAM

GAM vs GAM

But that’s not how Partai Aceh sees it. The party has autocratic tendencies, backed up with thug tactics on the ground by KPA (Komite Peralihan Aceh, the Aceh Transitional Committee, representing the interests of GAM ex-combatants), which they are using to steamroll toward one-party rule in Aceh. The political issue at stake to ensure their ZIKIR ticket wins is whether independent candidates (without party nomination) may contest executive elections. If Irwandi cannot run as an independent candidate as he intends, then he effectively loses the election as nomination from one of the national parties would compromise his credibility as a former GAM leader, and there are no other local parties that could (or would) capably back him. In order to ensure this outcome, Partai Aceh leaders are arguing that independent candidates are not allowed under the terms of the peace agreement even though Indonesia’s Constitutional Court has clearly established the legality of independent candidates running for executive office across the country and specifically found this particular provision of the Aceh peace agreement unconstitutional. The irony here is that it was precisely GAM’s peace agreement with Indonesia that allowed independent candidates to run for the first time anywhere in Indonesia (thus enabling Irwandi’s first term), at least until local parties were formed. GAM’s own precedent paved the way for the Constitutional Court to allow independent candidates all across Indonesia, widely seen as a crucial democratic reform for the country. Now that Partai Aceh has a near monopoly over Aceh’s government, GAM is backtracking on its pioneering step for the country from which they no longer seek independence.

That’s a quick summary of the ICG report, which has a lot more detail about political maneuvers in Aceh, violent incidents that may be related to GAM’s electoral competition, and a refreshingly honest assessment of the emerging candidates for governor. I found two particular points in the report worth discussing further:  one is symptomatic of Partai Aceh’s poor governance, and the other is an amusing linguistic footnote.

Partai Aceh’s Delay Tactics as a Mode of Governance

Perhaps as a kind of face-saving measure to cover up their all-out effort to consolidate power, Partai Aceh has turned the issue of independent candidates into an ideological battle between Aceh and Jakarta. They claim that when the Constitutional Court struck down the article of Aceh’s autonomy law that awkwardly allows for independent candidates until local parties have been established (i.e. effectively for the 2006 executive elections only), it violated the peace agreement by interfering with Aceh’s autonomy. This is classic GAM ideology based on decades of rapacious and brutal intervention from Jakarta that understandably validate Acehnese suspicions of central government motives. If Partai Aceh allows the court to chip away at the powers granted under the autonomy law, their argument goes, then it’s just a matter of time before other aspects of Aceh’s autonomy law are revised, presumably toward Jakarta’s advantage (ICG, p.4).

But since assuming legislative office in 2009, Partai Aceh’s inability to legislate or resolve pressing issues has in many ways invited Jakarta’s intervention. Take for example the two controversial “last minute” laws—the Qanun Jinayat and the Qanun Wali Nanggroe—that the outgoing politicians from national parties passed in 2009 just before Partai Aceh legislators assumed office, widely criticized as cynical legislative gamesmanship. Both laws pertain to Aceh’s special autonomy but outgoing legislators framed them quite differently than what GAM intended when negotiating their autonomy provisions during the peace process. Irwandi refused to sign both laws, but then the new Partai Aceh legislators failed to take up either law for revision, leaving the central government to respond to related pressing matters in its own fashion.

The Qanun Jinayat legislates some of the more barbaric aspects of Islamic law such as the stoning of adulterers to death (Aceh is the only province that may legislate Islamic laws), and triggered a wave of embarrassing bad press and international scorn for Aceh. When Partai Aceh refused to revise the law, perhaps wary of alienating their Islamist constituents in Aceh, the discourse shifted to leaders  in  Jakarta  such  as  the  Chief  Justice  of  the Constitutional Court, the President’s spokesperson, the head of the Department of Internal Affairs, and leading national human rights activists, who all publicly speculated upon the legality of the law’s harsh punishments for adultery and other crimes against Islamic law. The debate is no longer whether Jakarta should intervene to repeal Aceh’s religious laws if they violate human rights, but how.

The Qanun Wali Nanggroe establishes a royal leader for Aceh reminiscent of the Aceh sultanate prior to colonialism, and the outgoing legislators passed a version of the law that establishes merely a ceremonial figurehead, far from what GAM had in mind. While the Wali Nanggroe’s status remained ambiguous, in early 2010 the central government issued a routine government regulation that outlines the role and authority of governors across Indonesia and took the initiative to specifically include the Wali Nanggroe as a member of the Regional Leaders’ Forum (Musyawarah Pimpinan Daerah, MUSPIDA) for Aceh. The regulation states that the governor convenes and leads MUSPIDA, placing the Wali Nanggroe figure in a subordinate role, which accords with Jakarta’s understanding of the position. The regulation does not prevent Partai Aceh from enacting a revised law investing the Wali Nanggroe with more authority, but it does reinforce Jakarta’s normative understanding of the institution.*

When Aceh cannot get its legislative house in order, small discursive acts from Jakarta establish—in a piecemeal fashion and on an as-needed basis—precisely the kinds of regulatory precedents over Aceh’s autonomy provisions that Partai Aceh is worried about. The ICG report describes Partai Aceh’s second tactic to prevent Irwandi’s reelection bid (after disputing the Constitutional Court’s ruling), which is to delay issuing election regulations so that the clock will run out on Irwandi’s chances of mounting a campaign before his term ends (ICG, pp.4-5). This pattern of delay, whether strategic or merely incompetent, clearly invites intervention from Jakarta, most recently prompting the National Election Commission to instruct Aceh’s Independent Election Commission to follow the 2006 election law if the Partai Aceh led provincial assembly is unable to pass one for 2011. Partai Aceh only has itself to blame, and choosing now to pick an ideological battle with Jakarta reeks of hypocrisy given their inaction on other matters of importance to Aceh’s autonomy.

GAM & the Sacred Terms of Indonesian Statehood

I enjoyed a few LOLZ at Partai Aceh’s expense when the ICG report quotes senior party figure Adnan Beuransyah commenting on the Constitutional Court ruling. ICG correctly translates his statement as “rejection of the ruling is non-negotiable.” But in a footnote we learn that what he said in Bahasa Indonesia was “Menolak Mahkamah Konstitusi adalah harga mati,” where the phrase “harga mati” is translated as “non-negotiable.” For Bahasa Indonesia speakers, at least those who have spent a long time in Aceh, the kneejerk association with the rabidly nationalist and militaristic phrase “NKRI Harga Mati” is unavoidable. The acronym NKRI stands for Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia (The Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia), a state philosophy used as a bulwark against federalist frameworks (Republik Indonesia Serikat) that some argue would herald the disintegration of national unity. Pro-Indonesia groups in Aceh (especially national security forces) included this phrase in every statement and banner related to the conflict and subsequent peace process. While “non-negotiable” is a correct translation for “harga mati,” one may also infer more confrontational overtones because the phrase literally means “the price is death.” “Harga mati” conveys the sense of an aggressive line drawn in the sand.  (Meanwhile, Google Translate defines “harga mati” as “fixed price.” What.)

 "NKRI HARGA MATI" signs in Aceh (photo by Mercedes Chavez) "NKRI HARGA MATI" signs in Aceh

"NKRI HARGA MATI" signs in Aceh "NKRI HARGA MATI" signs in Aceh

Perhaps Adnan was deploying some satire with this turn of phrase, but the two times I met him in 2009 he had the sense of humor of a lamp post, so I’m guessing he spoke without a trace of irony. GAM has a habit of defining their struggle against Indonesia with sacred, thoroughly Indonesian, nationalist terms. Merdeka (as in Gerakan Aceh Merdeka), meaning “freedom” or “independence,” is an attenuated allusion to Indonesia’s revolutionary war for independence from the Dutch. On every Indonesian independence day, the word merdeka echoes across every village and city of the archipelago. Now Adnan Beuransyah defines his non-negotiable opposition to a court decision issued by Indonesia’s highest constitutional authority with similarly sacred nationalist grandiloquence. The ease with which pro-Aceh activists slip into rhetoric that evokes Indonesian nationalism has led some observers to emphasize the point that Acehnese and Indonesian identities were never mutually exclusive.** At a more prosaic level, other observers note the ease with which former GAM activists have slipped into a thoroughly Indonesian style of governance through patronage.*** And that’s what seems to be at stake here: Irwandi has not patronized Partai Aceh enough to earn their nomination. In order to consolidate their fiefdom, Partai Aceh will shamelessly try to cut Irwandi out of the electoral process in order to get what they want, but there are few left who are fooled by their stall tactics and appeals to a hollow “non-negotiable” ideological opposition to Jakarta.

* This discussion of Qanun Jinayat and Qanun Wali Nanggroe is paraphrased generously from the Syiah Kuala University’s Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies publication titled “Aceh Peace Monitoring Update September – December 2009” 

** Siegel, James T. “Possessed.” In The Rope of God. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

*** Aspinall, Edward. “Combatants to Contractors: The Political Economy of Peace in Aceh.” Indonesia, no. 87 (2009): 1-34.

Krakatau Day Trip

June 14, 2011
Krakatau Islands (circa 2000)

Krakatau Islands (circa 2000)

This past weekend my friends Chloe, Simon, Rob and I learned that if you’re willing to hit the road at 5am then it is possible to have a complete, unhurried, outstanding day trip to the Kraktau volcano islands! I’ve been wanting to do this for years, especially after I read Simon Winchester’s history of the Krakatau explosion in 1883 and its aftermath (including the birth of Anak Krakatau island in 1927).

Book Cover:  Krakatoa by Simon WinchesterWe took the toll road west all the way out to the Krakatau Steel Industrial Wastelands Park, and then caught a Banten provincial road along Java’s west coast, arriving in the sad beach resort town of Carita at 8:30AM. At a roadside warung beside a river, we drank a quick coffee and bought some durians, then hopped onto a speedboat that our guide chartered for us (more on our excellent guide below).

The boat trip to the Krakatau islands out in the middle of the Sunda Straits took another hour and a half.   The weather was just hazy enough that we couldn’t see Krakatau from Carita, and once the islands emerged on the horizon we could no longer see the mountains and shoreline of western Java.

Foolhardy Pine Trees

Foolhardy Pine Trees

A small grove of pioneering tree species and other plants has grown on the black sand eastern shore of Anak Krakatau island. That’s where we landed and registered our visit with the park rangers posted there. Just a few meters down a leafy path, and the ascent quickly begins in earnest. The only growth on the slopes are the foolhardy pine trees, impressively sturdy, but there were probably more dead tree stands than living, as they die en masse with each major eruption that blows hot gas and lava their way. The hike up did not take more than 30 minutes, and we enjoyed stunning views that set the steep dark gray slopes against scorched trees, green lowlands, blue ocean, and the neighboring islands. In front of us, Anak Krakatau’s cone towered above like a pyramid.

Anak Krakatau's volcano cone (looking up from "Level One")

Anak Krakatau's volcano cone

Anak Krakatau is currently active, so we were not allowed to climb up to the top, but there is an older caldera rim that our guide called “Level One,” and that was actually a perfect place to stop, rest, take pictures, and then explore.

In the gully between the older caldera rim and the huge cone there are sulfur deposits that look like light patches of snow. We walked down “Sulfur Avenue,” littered with steam vents and lava rocks that could only have been hurled out from the newer caldera way up above us during eruptions. Simon observed that many of the rocks were fresh arrivals because we could still see the crater-like dents where they landed or the tracks they left in the ash as they rolled to their current positions.

the big rock at the upper right rolled around a bit before arriving at its spot

These pictures here are all from our walk down “Sulfur Avenue.” (Complete set of pictures, including some of Rob’s and Chloe’s pictures, are collected HERE at my flickr site.)

Big Lava Rock (Chloe's photo)

Big Lava Rock Detail

Sulfur Crystal Detail Dead Tree

Burning Descent (Chloe's photo)

Burning Descent (Chloe's photo)

After exploring around for another half hour or so, we started back down the hot slope. My feet burned as the black sand sifted through my sandals; the faster I tried to slide down the slope the worse my feet were burning (ow! ouch! Oh no no OUCH! OMG OW ADUH GANTENGNYA PACARKU AUW!!!!11!), and for a few scary moments I thought I might get stuck until I realized that a slow step-by-step descent kept the sand *beneath* my sandals instead of in them.

Back on the boat, we circled around Anak Krakatau, and saw the barren landscape across the vast majority of the island. Rocky lava shores encircle nearly the entire island except where we first arrived.

Signs of Life western slope of Anak Krakatau

After circling around, we took the boat over to Rakata Island, which was part of the original large Krakatau Island before it exploded out of existence in 1883. We parked on a small beach where some fishermen had made their camp and ate our boxed lunches. During lunch we had the unsettling experience of getting harassed by a monitor lizard (biawak). Every time we chased it away, it came back, and when we poked it with sticks and rocks it would thrash its huge tail as if trying to betch slap us. Another first in a long day of surprises… every other time I’ve seen monitor lizards they would scramble away from people, but this one must have been familiar with the tour lunch routine, regularly getting leftover scraps.

Biawak (monitor lizard) on Rakata Island

Biawak (monitor lizard) on Rakata Island

After lunch, we went snorkeling near where we ate, but I was actually more interested in the floating sheets of pumice rocks that surrounded us while we were swimming (another first!), and I collected some to bring home as my Krakatau volcano souvenir. Less appealing was the floating plastic trash, which even got caught in our boat engine on the ride home. Our guide said it comes from Lampung province at the southern tip of Sumatra.

Anak Krakatau Eruption (Chloe's photo)

Anak Krakatau Eruption (Chloe's photo)

On the boat ride home, we saw dolphins! And then, while I was jotting some notes from the day into my phone, Chloe grabbed me to point back at Anak Krakatau, fading away into the haze, and we saw a huge belch of volcanic ash shooting up into the sky. Eruption! We missed it by just an hour or so… good thing it didn’t happen while we were at the Level One caldera poking around the sulfur crystals, “moon rocks” and steam vents.

I think we all agreed that the whole day was a smashing success by any standard. I am grateful to Chloe who found our tour guide and planned the trip for the rest of us. The tour operator Chloe found is based at Jalan Jaksa in Central Jakarta, called Krakatau Holiday. The owner of the company, Thommy Samba, who grew up in the Carita area and speaks excellent English, was our capable guide. He packed our meals and lots of cold drinks, chartered our car and boat, handled the park visitation permit, and took us up to the volcano. Krakatau Holiday also organizes tours to Ujung Kulon National Park (and more!) just south of Krakatau, another big to-do on my Indonesia travel list. If you can get a group of friends together to share the cost of one of these all inclusive tours, Krakatau Holiday has my recommendation!

LINK TO FULL FLICKR PHOTO ALBUM: KRAKATAU ISLANDS TOUR

Southeast view of Anak Krakatau (as we headed toward Rakata for lunch)

Southeast view of Anak Krakatau (as we headed toward Rakata for lunch)

Book Club: Kedai 1001 Mimpi by Valiant Budi

May 30, 2011

I stumbled upon Valiant Budi’s Twitter feed (@vabyo) thanks to a recommendation from another Indonesian writer who mentioned that his stories from Saudi Arabia were the funniest serial tweets she had ever read. Too many Indonesians abuse Twitter to give lectures (so called kultwit, or kuliah twitter) to their followers, but when he was working abroad @vabyo mastered the form to tell wildly hilarious stories under the banner of Arabia Underkampret (a pun—plesetan—of Arabia Undercover), about Indonesians living and working in the Kingdom. Every two days or so, another installment of @vabyo’s Arabian Underkampret would unfold in a series of 140 character length “chapters” over the course of about an hour. In real life, Valiant Budi was working as a barista at an international coffeeshop in the city of Dammam. With self-effacing humor and linguistic wit, @vabyo’s stories on Twitter described Saudi society as seen through the eyes of foreign workers from Indonesia.

Book cover for Valiant Budi's "Kedai 1001 Mimpi" (front and back)

Book cover for Valiant Budi's "Kedai 1001 Mimpi" (front and back)

my copy... signed, kissed, delivered!

my copy... signed, kissed, delivered!

Upon his return to Indonesia last year, Valiant wrote a travel memoir based in large part on the stories he already told on Twitter, his personal blog, or facebook. My signed (and kissed!) copy of Kedai 1001 Mimpi: Kisah Nyata Seorang Penulis yang Menjadi TKI arrived in the mail at the beginning of May. I haven’t settled on a fair translation of the title, but for now I’m going with the utilitarian but decidedly less catchy “Shop of 1001 Dreams: The True Story of an Indonesian Writer who Worked Abroad.” Each chapter recounts a series of short vignettes, partly reflecting its Twitter origins, making the book easy to pick up at a free moment and read quickly. I don’t think I could do Valiant any justice by recounting his experiences in detail, but there is plenty of shock and outrage, leavened with enough wordplay and humor to highlight Valiant’s absurd circumstances in the Saudi Kingdom

The parts of the book that I consistently enjoyed were Valiant’s “translation” moments. Throughout the book, Valiant interacts with Saudis (of course), Filipinos, Indians, Americans, and several fellow Indonesians. Among non-Indonesians, Valiant is probably speaking English as he mentions several times that he only learned how to say a few work-related coffeeshop words and curse words in Arabic. He must always translate these interactions for his Indonesian readers, or translate Indonesian for his foreign interlocutors in Dammam. Here is what Walter Benjamin says about how signifiers relate to the signified in translation:

“While content and language form a certain unity in the original, like a fruit and its skin, the language of the translation envelops its content like a royal robe with ample folds. For it signifies a more exalted lan­guage than its own and thus remains unsuited to its content, overpowering and alien. This disjunction prevents translation and at the same time makes it superfluous.” [from “Task of the Translator.” Emphasis mine on those awesome metaphors.]

The “ample folds,” the yawning gaps between language and content, “overpowering and alien,” that prevent translation are the source of Valiant’s humor. He starts by noting the common challenge that speakers of Tagalog and Sundanese face when distinguishing between the consonants “p” “f” and “v,” further complicated by Arabic mispronunciation of the consonant “b.” For the rest of the book, the voice of Valiant’s Filipino supervisor Albert, who speaks to Valiant in English, is written in Indonesian, sometimes in English (as below), with this particular Tagalog speech impediment that Sundanese Indonesians from Valiant’s hometown of Bandung frequently experience themselves. Every speech act by Albert turns into sitcom-style slapstick:

Excerpt from Valiant Budi's "Kedai 1001 Mimpi" (p.377)

* Albert is trying to say “finance” but says “binans” instead. Binan is Indonesian slang for “gay.”
** Valiant has slipped the speech impediment into his narrative voice.
*** Note that the first two lines combined, and the third line, are each less than 140 characters.

In another scene, Valiant awakes from a nightmare in which he explains it was the first dream he had in the Arabic language, but with English subtitles: “Yes, I saw English text on the screen of my dream!” (p.371, my translation) Valiant wrote all of the dialogue and description of the dream in Indonesian, so the reader is receiving the complete transcript of Valiant’s dream, translated twice (first into English then into Indonesian) from a language (Arabic) that Valiant himself does not understand!

In my favorite “translation” sequence on pages 307-309, a customer walks into the coffeeshop and asks Valiant to translate several text messages written in Indonesian. They were sent by an Indonesian woman working as a domestic laborer in Saudi Arabia, and apparently in a romantic relationship with the customer because Valiant realizes that she has been sending him lyrics from her favorite popular Indonesian dangdut love songs. The customer shows Valiant four different text messages, and with embarrassment and exasperation, Valiant provides the translations in awkward English:

Okelah kalo begitu Okay if you said so
Eh eh, kok gitu, sih? Eh-eh why is that, though?
Lelaki buaya darat, BUSET! Aku tertipu lagi!    Land crocodile man! Damn! I was fooled again!
Gantengnya pacarku, Auw! Such a handsome my boyfriend… Auw!

Valiant lies when he is asked to translate an Indonesian text message for another customer:

Dasar lo tukang berzinah! Moga-moga buntung penis lo! You’re such a good man. May you and your family always be blessed.

I haven’t even touched the “overpowering and alien” scenes (from an Indonesian perspective) of Arabian sexuality, alternating between deep repression on the one hand and hyper-perversion on the other. Then there are scenes of conspicuous Arabian wealth wielded by people with unparalleled combinations of stupidity and arrogance. The realities of extreme discrimination faced by foreign labor in Saudi Arabia, particularly by women working as housemaids, are touched upon as well. Finally, there are many scenes of religious hypocrisy, the likes of which are sadly becoming more common here in Indonesia. Valiant recounts all of these scenes based on either his personal experience or the experiences of the Indonesian friends he met there. Apart from the hundreds of laugh-out-loud moments (the LOLZ or wkwkwkwkwkz depending on your slang preference), these stories reveal some of what lies beneath the Kingdom’s carefully managed public image as the Muslim world’s pious caretaker of Mecca and Medina and global supplier of oil. For Indonesians, Valiant’s book surely makes them proud and grateful of their home country and then think twice about the so-called “arabization” of Indonesian Islam. (Hundreds of appreciative Indonesian reader reactions can be found on Twitter by searching the hashtag #kedai1001mimpi)

My critique: Valiant’s book presents dozens of short vignettes, loosely tied together by the chronological arc (arrival, culture shock, acclimation, outrage, revenge, escape) of his time spent in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. I recognized quite a few of the stories from his Arabian Underkampret series on Twitter. Here is what I learned: it’s not easy to jump genre from serial tweets (or even blog posts) to long form narrative. Serial tweets impose a strict rhythm (140 characters or less) on internet communications. The #hashtag, which @vabyo uses as much more than just a topic or category marker in his tweets, is an important part of that rhythm. @Vabyo uses hashtags as a reflexive counterpoint to his stories, moments when the narrator comments upon his own storytelling, with brilliant comedic effect. Furthermore, each episode was an event with dozens if not hundreds of @vabyo’s followers reading along in real time, anticipating and savoring the arrival of the story’s next sentence every few minutes. Readers could reply in real time, sometimes asking for more details and receiving @vabyo’s answers. The temporal and prosodic qualities of Arabian Underkampret are not easily transposed into prose. First, the hashtag method of reflexive self-comment disappears, losing some of the delightful cognitive dissonance that they offer. Second, @vabyo’s efficiently descriptive, alliterative, rhyming tweets become oddly overwhelming after Valiant links and revises them as sentences on the page. Third, Valiant loses track here and there of certain promising narrative threads introduced in one or two vignettes, but without follow-up. For example, we never found out why coffeeshop customers from Riyadh are extra-arrogant compared to average-arrogant Saudi customers in Dammam. We also never find out if Valiant ever took up Eldo’s offer to try private pole dancing for paying Saudi customers. I wonder if @vabyo would answer that question if I asked him on Twitter?

Confucianism Gets the Short End of the Joss Stick in Hanung Bramantyo’s “?”

April 19, 2011

In one of the opening scenes in Hanung Bramantyo’s new film “?” (“Tanda Tanya,” or “Question Mark”) we meet one of the main characters, Rika, who is busy cleaning up and organizing the shelves in her bookstore. I don’t remember her exact words, but she says with exasperation to her friend Suryo who stops by at closing time, something to the effect of: “The novels are in the self-help section, the school books are in the business section, and worst of all… these pulp romance novels [Rika holds up a paperback with a sexy scene on the cover] are in the children’s section!”

With these few lines Rika has summed up the whole movie for us with a cute metaphor. The multi-faith, multi-ethnic characters in “?” live in an old tempo doeloe nostalgia-inducing downtown neighborhood of Semarang called “Pasar Baru” (“New Market”). Pasar Baru is like Rika’s disorganized bookstore, and the characters are the books, who try relentlessly to classify and organize each other onto their respective book shelves (by religion, ethnicity, gender and family roles), but always come up against the messy realities of everyday life that refuse simple classification. Ironic that Rika complains about her disorganized books because her story poses the most confounding and stigmatizing situation of all (like pulp romance in the children’s section) for her neighbors and family: Rika is a recently divorced single mother who is unapologetically yet haltingly in the process of converting from Islam to Catholicism. Janda murtad! Apostasy!

The characters’ melodramatic stories of faith and family, love and death, take place in present-day Indonesia, specifically throughout the year 2010, which is to say their mixed-up lives are set against the backdrop of increasingly intolerant black-or-white religious discourses. The film begins, climaxes, and ends with scenes of headline-grabbing religious violence—all in Pasar Baru no less—that sadly and too easily overshadow the small acts of tolerance, consideration and accommodation that nearly all of the characters make, with plenty of personal struggle, for one another. Here is the promotional preview clip:

Hanung Bramantyo has produced this film as a statement in favor of tolerance in a diverse society, and the film is sparking a lot of debate on social media that generally embraces the film’s message, at least on the surface. A quick search for #TandaTanya on Twitter yields a lot more favorable than negative comments. But of course, a small number of religious purists are able to hijack the debate and denounce the film making absurd statements and fatwas peppered generously with shallow understandings of words like haram, sesat, murtad, pluralism, and kafir to describe it. They say it’s a hate piece against Islam, as if there were no crass depictions of intolerance among the Catholics and Confucians, as if there were no positive images of Islamic faith and practice, as if we can safely assume that the depictions of violence were committed by Islamic extremists. Hanung addresses these silly one-track diatribes point by point here, so I’m not interested in addressing further the strange and disruptive influence of just a few adherents to Indonesia’s majority religion so dangerously insecure and uncomfortable with everyone else around them.

Although I should probably question my methods, I tried to do a little score-keeping throughout the film to see who gets the short end of the metaphorical joss stick. The main groups depicted are Javanese Muslims, Javanese Catholics, and Chinese Confucians. One character from each group dies violently in the film. We witness one conversion from Islam to Catholicism, and another from Confucianism to Islam. If we want to zealously police the boundaries of organized faith—keeping our bookshelves in order so to speak—then we might consider conversion into a faith as a net gain, and conversion out of a faith as a net loss, or a metaphorical death, for each faith community. By my count, the Confucians in the film lose two characters, the Muslims lose one, and the Catholics come out even.

Ironically, it’s the Chinese-Indonesian family in the film that makes the extra effort to accommodate the Muslim majority in Pasar Baru. They keep a separate set of dishware and cooking utensils at their restaurant for the customers who don’t eat pork; they gently remind their Muslim staff that it’s time for prayers; they cover the windows and do not serve any pork during Ramadan and then stay closed for the major feasting holiday at Ramadan’s end. It is the elderly Chinese couple who own this restaurant that stand out as compelling moral anchors of accumulated day-to-day wisdom and tolerance in the film, no doubt born from necessity living as a persecuted minority for generations in Java. They remind me of the wise old black women and men that show up in so many Hollywood films. (to be fair, there is also a wonderful young ustad and an elderly priest who each give wise counsel to their congregations throughout the film) For all that wisdom, in service of some greater communal good in Pasar Baru, the Chinese characters are rewarded with an unequal share (per capita, let’s say, for emphasis) of death and departure from faith. The film ends with a secular celebration of the New Year (2011) for everyone in Pasar Baru—its community reconstituted and at peace once again—plus an affirmation of the human capacity for change, to continuously struggle for what’s right for oneself and one’s community based on heart and faith… but there is little evidence to suggest that any deeper change has occurred. The categories that organize the people in Pasar Baru remain in tact, and the religious and ethnic minorities have made disproportionate and requisite sacrifices in order to keep it that way. Rika’s book store? Still in business!

The Aceh Governor’s Election Heats Up **

February 13, 2011

After months of speculation the leaders of the GAM conglomerate—here defined simply as the combined leadership of KPA (Komite Peralihan Aceh, or the Aceh Transitional Committee, which lobbies on behalf of GAM ex-combatants) and Partai Aceh (GAM’s local political party, which won the 2009 legislative elections)—held a press conference and released a statement on Sunday 6 February 2011 announcing their candidates for governor and vice-governor in the upcoming executive elections in October. The statement, signed by Muzakir Manaf (head of KPA and Partai Aceh, and senior commander of GAM combatants during the final years of the conflict) made six points:

  1. The KPA leadership meets routinely to evaluate the peace process, security, development, and the political situation in Aceh.
  2. The leadership agrees that the peace and security situation in Aceh—Alhamdulillah!—remains conducive although there are minor exceptions “here and there.”
  3. The leadership agrees there has not been a significant advance in Aceh’s development in light of the available resources.
  4. In advance of the 2011 executive elections, KPA is evaluating possible candidates, especially those associated with Partai Aceh, but looking for coalition opportunities with other political parties.
  5. For the governor’s race, Partai Aceh will not join in coalition with other parties, whereas for a number of districts and municipalities, Partai Aceh remains wide open for coalition opportunities.
  6. KPA nominates Dr. Zaini Abdullah and Muzakir Manaf as Partai Aceh’s candidates for governor and vice governor respectively for the 2012-2017 period.

Muzakir Manaf

Muzakir Manaf

There had long been speculation that the nomination would go to Dr. Zaini Abdullah, the Foreign Minister for GAM’s government in exile in Sweden and the older brother of Hasbi Abdullah, current speaker of Aceh’s parliament. The surprise was in choosing Muzakir Manaf, who never professed an interest in running for office and preferred to focus on his lucrative post-conflict business opportunities in Lhokseumawe. Earlier rumors suggested that PA/KPA would choose Aminullah Usman, a former banker, reminiscent of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s choice of Boediono for his Vice-President.

The loser here, it would seem, is Aceh’s current governor, Irwandi Yusuf, who was hoping for Partai Aceh’s nomination, but will definitely run for reelection nevertheless. Adding insult to injury, during the press conference Muzakir Manaf called on Irwandi not to run, so that the GAM conglomerate will speak with “one voice” in the next election. That’s extremely unlikely, since Irwandi still leads most polls in a race that for the moment unofficially also includes the current Vice Governor Muhammad Nazar, the rector of Syiah Kuala University Professor Darni Daud, sociologist and human rights activist Otto Syamsuddin Ishak, and the former bupati of Aceh Utara Tarmizi Karim. The Zaini-Muzakir ticket might be a game changer if PA/KPA can get their rank and file—and their effective field operation—to fall in line and get out the vote.

Within hours of the KPA/PA announcement, the supposed spokesperson for Partai Aceh, Tgk. Ir. Linggadinsyah, issued a fierce rejection of the Zaini-Muzakir nomination. Linggadinsyah accused the senior KPA/PA leadership of nepotism and rejected their anti-democratic approach to the nomination, claiming that 20 out 23 district level KPA/PA leaders do not support the Zaini-Muzakir ticket, and vowing their continued support for Irwandi. Linggadinsyah’s statement should be taken with a grain of salt, however, and not just because he has been mentioned as a possible running mate for Irwandi. The next day Muzakir Manaf called Linggadinsyah an illegitimate spokesperson for PA using the loaded religious term haram (meaning not just “illegitimate” but also “forbidden”), because he was relieved of the job three months ago! Beside Muzakir Manaf stood Darwis Jeunib, the KPA district commander from Bireuen, who was supposedly one of Linggadinsyah’s 20 local commanders opposed to the Zaini-Muzakir nomination but said he had no foreknowledge of Linggadinsyah’s protest and would never disobey KPA’s commander, apparently throwing his loyalty to Zaini and Muzakir. Welcome to the latest chapter of the GAM conglomerate’s long history of internal rifts.

Aceh Governor Irwandi Yusuf

Governor Irwandi Yusuf

For his part, on Monday (7 Feb 2011) Irwandi told journalists that Muzakir Manaf must have been joking when he asked Irwandi not to run, because just two days prior Manaf told Irwandi privately that he should run for re-election, adding that “Muzakir Manaf is one of my fans.” Then with a backhanded rhetorical fluorish, Irwandi indirectly cast aspersions upon the KPA/PA leadership by suggesting that if Muzakir Manaf really said Irwandi shouldn’t run for reelection, he hopes that the public doesn’t interpret the statement as a lack of confidence or an inferiority complex on their part when they have to run against him. Then, by SMS to Serambi and other newspapers in Aceh, Irwandi responded to KPA/PA’s statement that there hasn’t been any significant development in Aceh:

“Regarding Aceh’s development, even the blind can feel the difference. Orphans can rejoice, their misery has been reduced. The sick can laugh, Aceh’s prestige has gone up in the eyes of Jakarta and the world. Moreover the terrorists in Aceh are grieving, and there’s so much more that can be asked to the ex-combatants: Who is easier to meet? Me or ‘them’?” — Aceh’s Governor Irwandi Yusuf, by SMS to journalists in Aceh

Partai Aceh Terbelah

Partai Aceh Terbelah

Irwandi doesn’t have to explain who “they” are because everyone knows about the longstanding fault lines within the GAM conglomerate. KPA/GAM held their press conference at the home of Meuntroe Malek Mahmud, who heads “old GAM” ever since Hasan Tiro became too infirm to continue his movement for independence. Since the peace agreement, Malek Mahmud has moved back to Aceh, and is most likely the inheritor of the title of wali nanggroe since Tiro passed away last year. Together with Zaini, these are the Sweden guys who have come home to take (what they assume is) their rightful place at the highest levels of power in post-conflict Aceh. They do not get along with Irwandi, who in 2006 won the governor’s race because he was quite frankly closer to the young generation of rank and file combatants during the conflict. They mobilized for Irwandi and defied all observer expectations at the time when he won. For all his shortcomings, Irwandi is correct when he states that he has been more accessible than the detached leadership in Sweden, who by all accounts make imperious decisions and do not feel the need to answer for them.

This is why KPA/PA’s strategic decision to recruit Muzakir Manaf as the candidate for vice governor could be a game changer. As the former commander for all of GAM’s ex-combatants, Muzakir Manaf is one of a small handful of leaders within the GAM conglomerate who could bring the younger foot soldiers in the movement together with the old GAM leaders to speak with “one voice.” Even if Linggadinsyah was correct when he said that KPA/PA leaders out in the districts are unhappy with the central leadership in Banda Aceh, Irwandi loyalists will have to think twice if it means they have to campaign and vote against their former commander.

This is only one week’s snapshot in an early phase of the election cycle. Maybe KPA/PA are only testing public reaction. We can expect many twists and turns in the coming months, particularly as the other candidates start to formally campaign. Both the 2006 executive elections and the 2009 legislative elections were preceded by dozens of violent events, rampant money politics, and massive voter intimidation. It will be interesting to see how much this pattern repeats itself in 2011 as post-conflict Aceh slowly gets comfortable with its transition to peace and democracy.

** I have seen no articles in English covering these latest developments in the campaign for Aceh’s 2011 executive elections. This post summarizes information I found on several websites. The following articles were particularly helpful, and I thank Taufik Al Mubarak in particular for giving me his permission to summarize the news and analysis I found on his blog:

Edit 19 June 2011:  For an update on these issues, please see the excellent International Crisis Group report titled “Indonesia: GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections” published on 15 June 2011, plus my notes on the ICG report posted HERE.

Reflections on the Recent Religious Violence in Indonesia

February 8, 2011

On Sunday (6 February 2011), a mob attacked the home of a local leader of the minority Islamic sect Ahmadiyah in the remote area of Cikeusik in Banten province. There is terrific coverage in The Jakarta Globe, the New York Times reported on it as well, and there are gruesome videos on youtube documenting the violence. The outrage on the Indonesian Twittersphere and facebook was pretty amazing and there was a protest by civil society groups at Bundaran HI yesterday, because this is just the latest in a long string of attacks against religious minorities in Indonesia over the last couple of years. But Indonesian leaders responded with sadly typical and embarrassing statements. The Indonesian president “regrets” what happened and ordered an “inquiry”, the Indonesian Minister of Religion blamed the victims, saying that Ahmadis were proselytizing and brought it upon themselves, and Banten’s governor said she hoped the incident would encourage Ahmadis to realize (insaf) their heresy and return to the rightful path of Islam. She even said that her government is sending religious outreach to the Ahmadi community in Banten to help them achieve insaf.

Now, even as I’m typing, in the district of Temanggung in Central Java province, Front Pembela Islam (FPI, or the Islamic Defenders Front) is attacking and burning down churches, at least three of them. For preliminary coverage in English, click here and here. On Twitter right now, there is good coverage if you follow hashtags like #Temanggung or #TMG

The protests and critiques have been eloquent, and I have very little to add but my support. Instead I’d like to quote in its entirety a kultwit (kuliah twitter), or a set of serial tweets, that my friend Daniel Ziv (@DanielZiv on Twitter) posted mid-day yesterday. His Twitter timeline is often full of biting sarcasm directed at Indonesian politics, celebrity, and society, but yesterday’s meditation on religion in reaction to the violence in Cikeusik, was serious and clearly from the heart. Before it gets buried away in the ephemeral Twitter timeline, I thought I would reproduce it as a complete text, with abbreviations removed. Each line was a separate tweet from Daniel:

Some reflections on yesterday’s [6 February 2011] awful attack on Ahmadiyah sect and what it reminds us about religion.

A passive government bears plenty of blame for the attacks on Ahmadiyah, but we allow far too many excuses for religion itself.

The tragic Ahmadiyah attack is a textbook case of religion’s dog-eat-dog nature; a primitive, medieval pissing contest.

Senseless, irrational things done in the name of something ‘sacred’ are immune to criticism, even by government.

If bicycle riding, atheism or jazz music caused this much evil and injustice, those activities would be immediately banned.

But religion’s inherent self-righteousness and claime to ‘absolute truth’ allows it to get away with anything.

From India and Iran to Ireland and Israel and Indonesia, violence is committed by religious groups. Those are just the countries starting with ‘I’.

“But REAL religion doesn’t tolerate violence,” we’re reminded. Must be a lot of ‘unreal’, deviant religion out there.

Far too often, asserting one’s religious identity involves not inward-looking faith, but one group’s singling out “the other.”

It’s time we recognized religion for what it is: a human social construct, a mix of folklore, culture, myth, heritage, history.

Religion is not the word of God, because there are too many Gods and too many religions for this to be possible.

If we were content with religion as culture/heritage, it could be beautiful. When it’s peddle as “absolute truth” it is dangerous.

One’s religion is entirely random, as accidental as one’s language, communal history and place of birth.

Met a young woman who’d just converted from Islam to Christianity. “So you decided that for 25 years you followed the wrong book?” Her: “Yes.”

Christopher Hitchens famously said: “Religion poisons everything.” Far to often, the faithful prove him right.

Tons of well-meaning believers don’t use religion to impose evil. Tragically, they are a far-too-silent majority.

Religion is too often driven not by faith but by blind faith; not by human morality but by herd mentality.

Faith can and should be deeply personal and introspective, but religion everywhere is externalized, arrogant, coercive.

Religion is mostly a reflection of society’s insecurities. We outsource our anxieties to a “higher entity” when we don’t know how to deal.

Religion is a lazy solution to identity: it sidesteps human complexity and independent thinking, offering rules and structure instead.

Religion co-opts self-evident human morality, re-brands it and makes it exclusive. The ultimate marketing scam.

Here in Indonesia, religious attitudes of “pasrah” and “Tuhan yang menentukan” are the greatest obstacles to our development.

Thanks for listening, Next week (if anyone is still following me) I shall tweet about atheism, which is not a religion. 🙂

People complain about the silent Muslim majority that allows this violence to continue. That is part of the problem, and I notice it daily, but I think it’s appropriate to note that Daniel’s kultwit was retweeted by hundreds of his friends and Twitter followers; he received lots of positive and very little negative feedback. I chose Daniel’s tweets because they were in English, and they go out on a limb beyond Indonesian politics, but there are plenty of well-informed and respected Indonesian public intellectuals that are speaking out too. I think it’s more than just a silent majority of Indonesians failing to speak out against this latest trend in religious violence. In addition to religion’s sacred and dangerous potency that Daniel identified above, there are those who leverage it as a tool for their own ends. It’s a chess game of power politics playing out systematically across the archipelago, using brutal zealots and religious minorities as pawns. It’s the potent combination of religion and power that explains why milquetoast President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his ministers, the police, and the legislators in parliament do not act to protect victims of violence, why public servants like Minister of Religion Suryadharma Ali and Minister of Information Tifatul Sembiring are able get away with statements that blame the victims, and why the majority of Indonesians remain silent in the face of so much outrageous inhumanity.

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