Friday, August 31, 2012

Under the Protection of Gentle Women

The cachophonous noise of firecrackers, drums and shouting, as well as incessant prayers or incantations blasting through bad quality loudspeakers like drunken karaoke, kept me up all night. 
At around 3.30 am on the morning of Idul Fitri (the festival for breaking the month-long fast of Ramadan), I decided to stop trying to sleep, got up, opened a packet of crisps-that-turned-out-not-to-be-crisps from the holiday hamper I had been given and checked my emails.  There were two emails from NZ, one from my cousin, Siane, and one from my Aunt.  I opened the first and downloaded the image attached. I was looking at a kind of identification paper or card, next to its leather holder.  On it was the name, date of birth and parents’ details of Aunty Hendy (Henny).   It seems that the card was created in Billiton (the island between Sumatra and Borneo where the family had lived prior to the internment of my Grandfather) and provided possibly by the KNIL (Dutch army) as it stated my Grandfather’s position in the military.  I immediately recognised this object, having seen one exactly the same, just with my Mother’s name and date of birth on it, 20 years previously when rummaging through old boxes during a house move.  Hers had had a leather strap attached to it and these, my mother had explained, had hung around their necks, from the outset of the war when they were 5 and 7 years old.  The fact that both girls, more than 70 years later, still had these pouches in their possession meant that to someone, either Tikus (their mother) or to themselves,  these pouches held meaning and memories that they could not bring themselves to part with.   Aunty Hendy’s email explained more about the contents of these little pouches:  in them, my Grandmother had hidden 50 guilders (quite a sum in those days) for the girls to use only if they were to get lost.  Imagining Tikus kneeling down, tucking the money neatly between the folds of paper, her girls’ heads tilted down to look at what she was doing and then their trusting eyes looking up at hers from underneath quizzical brows, I understood completely the significance.

As my new friends in the electronics market had suggested, I decided to indeed set off early for the Mosque to get a decent position from which to observe. As I exited the building, a camel in the lobby looked as out of place in lush Java as a snowman in Australia at Christmas.                                 
Honestly speaking, I have never before looked at Islam from the vantage point of someone wanting to observe and understand it.
When I heard the 4am calls to prayer near my apartment the first time, they seemed eery to me, like the whistling sound of wind pushing painfully through the trees, or of a group of mourners wailing in grief.  I joked to my friends that Bloody Bandung was driving me mad:    “4 o’clock in the morning? …….  Really?!”
At other times, it sounded like my brother when he was young, always singing made-up tunes with made-up words and melodies that never seemed to go anywhere or repeat themselves.  We were all convinced he was tone deaf, which gave him all the more reason to continue unabated.
But on the morning of Idul Fitri, the sounds emitted from the mosque on Jalan Cipaganti (it felt appropriate to choose this mosque on the former Nylandweg), were more lively and accompanied by drums.  I could identify a definite rhythm which seemed to be carrying the people, drawing them nearer in a steady stream for the EID prayer.  As per the tradition of Idul Fitri (and contrary to any normal day in the city), they came on foot, dressed in their finest sarungs and baju koko (traditional collarless shirts), carrying small rugs or sheets of newspaper to place on the ground underneath them.   As the sunlight was breaking through the trees, it chose to illuminate figures intermittently, guiding my attention to a woman putting on her white Abaya (full body garment worn during prayer), another arranging her high heeled shoes behind her, another encouraging her children to sit quietly.    
It is tradition, where space allows, that the EID prayer is conducted outside.  This mosque has a special license to carry out the prayer in the road due to lack of outside space elsewhere.  Men are allocated space inside the mosque and under the colonnade which surrounds the building whilst the women spread out into the street which is cordoned off by police cars. 

Bottoms up - men in the background and ladies in the foreground

A small boy of 2-3 years old in a bright orange baju koko, matching trousers  and peci hat, wanders up and down behind the line of women, all dressed in similar white Abayas.  From behind, he can’t tell where his mother is.  “Mama” he calls out, not too loud and with little panic in his voice.  He knows he is safe. 

The little boy passes from one woman and friend to another, women who very gently point him in the right direction where finally he rejoins his mother.   As I watch him plod lightly along the same road that Hennie and Lottie might have walked on, I think about those pouches, about a mother’s endearing gesture and about the women, the friends who offered my family protection as they passed from home to home.  When finally the time came for Tikus to be captured by the Japanese and interned, it was to one of these women, Moesje - an Indonesian who would therefore remain free throughout the duration of the war - that she turned.  Together they had to decide quickly whether the children would go to the camp with their mother or stay on the outside under the protection of Moesje.

When I asked Luki whether he was Muslim, I think back now that the answer should have been obvious, it was just that he didn’t fit the stereotype I had in my mind.  When he asked if that would be a problem, I said honestly “no”.  But I didn’t know why.  I knew (and still know) very little about Islam.  But I know that some of the external manifestations of Islam that once made me feel uncomfortable, wary, such as the jilbab (headscarf), the prayers and the ritual washing, no longer do.  In the West, it is an undeniable fact that there is a certain mistrust of Islam amongst the population in general.  We are scared by the things we don’t understand, and tend to box those things up together with the things that we are right to fear.
Indonesia seems, at least to the outsider, to be a very tolerant and inclusive society, despite being 75-80% of one faith.   Throughout its history it has had various foreign influences, not only the Dutch but also the Chinese who migrated to Indonesia at various points in time and now make up almost 4% of the population (almost 9 million).  Each brought their own traditions, faiths and values which seem to sit quietly alongside each other, at least from where I observe as I go about my daily life.  There is relatively little intermarriage between Chinese and Muslims but I presume that this is a matter of tradition and a common bond rather than imposed rules or taboos.  
As I walked back, through unusually quiet streets, neighbours passing each other would stop, stoop slightly, touch hands together and to those of the other person as a form of respectful handshake.
Each and every person I passed smiled at me and said “Halo” or “Selamat Idul Fitri” or “Hello Mister!” or of course the obligatory “Ke mana? “  “Where are you going?”.  
I would reply “ Tidak tahu”  “I don’t know…” “Jalan jalan”… 
”Oh Jalan jalan!” they would say in recognition…. “Just walking around”.
Muslims believe that Ramadan is a time when all sins can be erased through repentance.    It is a time where they control their desires, emotions and their needs to focus on their faith and bring them closer to Allah.   On the day of Idul Fitri, the culmination of this period of repentance, it is tradition to visit one’s relatives and neighbours to apologize for mistakes that might have been made in the past year, to show respect and also to repair any relationships that might have been broken.   To forgive and forget.
Coming back to work after the long holiday, I greeted my colleagues with the usual “How are you?  Did you have a nice holiday?”  My questions were met with a surprising:   “I’m sorry for my mistakes” whilst two hands were held out to touch mine lightly.   I wasn’t sure what to say at first or how to take this in a work context, so in typical fashion, I went over the top in an attempt at sincerity:  “Oh, yes me too, me too. God yeah! I will try to do better”,  whilst I clasped their hands a little too emphatically.  I’m not sure how literal it was all supposed to be, but the looks I received indicated that it was kind of like asking someone how they were, only to get all the gory details of some horrendous ailment or other. 
I have heard some westerners, those who have been here far longer than I have, comment unfavourably on this tradition.  They highlight a hypocrisy associated with the ability to simply “wipe the slate clean” or “square it with the man upstairs so that they can go ahead to make the same mistakes again”.  I, on the other hand, perhaps naively, prefer to recognise that human nature is human nature, but if you go through life without self forgiveness, through whatever means you choose or know, then doesn’t that hinder our ability to forgive others too? 
So Mum, everyone, I wish I could reach out and touch your hands.  Instead I will simply tell you that I’m sorry for any mistakes that I have made ……….I will try my best not to repeat them!

Two little girls nestled between mothers and friends on Jalan Cipaganti (the former Nylandweg)



  1. I love the photos of the boy in orange - and his story - beautiful writing

  2. sensational photos, especially the boy in orange..!!laurence

  3. very lovely writing..and the dv300f is a very reliable device..the bottoms up photo is good, and the boy in orange outstanding.

  4. Definitely some good advice to get that camera Laurence! thanks for that!