Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Conversations on an Indonesian train

By Francis Palmos

Back in 1961, I learned my Indonesian from student friends and listening to the Imam in a small mosque in Kampung Bali, a part of historic Tanah Abang in old Djakarta, as it was known then.  The second mosque of high value for me was the bigger one in Bandung, not far from where I stayed during university terms, in a small house on a laneway called a Gang, where I slept between two brothers on a raised broad, wooden platform, covered with a thin kapok mattress. My Siswa Lokantara Fellowship provided an allowance of around $5 a month.

I had expected the first Imam in the Kampung Bali mosque – now long replaced by a much larger showpiece in the welter of rebuilding in modern Jakarta – to start lecturing our Friday gatherings about the importance of Islam, or launch into a political tirade, but this did not happen.

I was the only foreigner in the regular audience, seated on the floor in a crowd of around one hundred men on one side of the main hall, while on the other side sat the ladies, separated by a diaphanous curtain strung down the middle to separate us. I was not asked to bend in prayer, but I was a respectful audience. There was subdued whispering between flirtatious boys and girls, through the curtain, and even a bit of murmuring, if the Imam’s lecture fell flat. It never fell flat, as far as I was concerned. He simply presented the continuing story of local life in Indonesia.

On my first visit, the elderly Imam announced me and welcomed my attendance, thereafter accepting me as a sort of permanent guest. I was boarding with a family that included my first student friends, whenever I was not in my ‘distant’ Kebayoran asrama the Fellowship had provided. Kebayoran Baru was in those days a rather barren area, an hour’s bike ride from the busy town center.

The Imam gave lessons in hygiene to young mothers, instructed the men and women to use a nail brush to clean under their nails at all times, especially when preparing food, which is how I knew the word gosok was to brush. His audience was urged repeatedly to be polite and kind and attend to the education of their children, now that schools were provided. They were to look after their own affairs, except when they perhaps noticed a neighbour had not appeared for some time. In that case, they should knock on the door to see if help was needed. The price of rice was a disaster, he said, so mothers were to try alternative foods like cheaper corn, ground fine. Not a jihad to be heard, in those days.

Even in Bandung, where they took religion a little more seriously, I got lectures on hygiene, education and heard helpful hints to young mothers who should remember oranges from nearby Garut was cheap and plentiful and should be in every family kitchen for better nutrition.

I travelled widely, sitting on unbending wooden seats on very slow moving buses and even slower moving trains that stopped for no apparent reason between stations, giving me more time to learn colloquial Bahasa. I answered questions about myself, my family, my house, my schools, and if I perhaps knew an Australian nurse or teacher named Nyonya ‘Smit’ or another who was very nice and friendly. I was Australian, therefore must know her.

By the end of 1992 I had logged around 200 days of conversations on cheap public transport. In late April, a few weeks back, I logged more hours. Déjà vu. The seats were a little softer, but the atmosphere much the same as 1961-1962, as my wife and I rode the train from beautiful Malang in East Java, back to Surabaya, where I have stayed in the historic Majahpahit Hotel on most of my research days into the history of the first days of the Republic. This time I was returning to complete arrangements for my work to be published in Indonesian, so I wanted Alison to see the old Majahpahit, where the first fatalities of the 1945-1950 revolution took place, in the hotel entrance, in September 1945.

The Malang stay and the train ride were reminiscent of the travelling that is the dream situation for young foreigners trying to improve their Indonesian, so for me it was like old times. The big news in the capitals had been about the group of foreign drug smugglers, including two Australians, who were on death row, so I tried to gently open an inquiry into Capital Punishment while in a rural setting. Several passengers, men and boys who had been strangers to each other before boarding the train, were not interested in the story. They were talking excitedly about a split in the football community in East Java, and especially some teams in Surabaya. A dozen elderly ladies and young mothers with infants around us discussed baby health, cost of living, and how bad the traffic was these days. One said she paid R.3,000 to ride pillion on a motorcycle to do her shopping because she was afraid of the busy traffic in Malang. They asked me, in turn, how many children my mother hand, where my father was born, did we have snow in Perth, what Indonesian foods I liked, was schooling expensive as it was in Indonesia, and commented on how lovely my wife was, as she sat alongside me, smiling, but not understanding the conversation.

I was trying for a comment on the upcoming executions, but they had no interest in them. One man, also a stranger to them when he boarded at Bangli, asked me if, being Australian, I knew a Mister Will-i-son (Wilson) who lived in Melbourne. He was a very friendly teacher who looked a lot like me and laughed a lot and was very friendly, so I must know him. I said I was sure I knew him and when next in Melbourne I would pass on the message that “Benny from Bangli sends his fond regards.” The others nodded approval.

The conversation went over the Lapindo hot mud environmental disaster in Sidoarjo which had entombed several villages, the dreadful cost of fuel since the last price rises, and we learned the unusual fact that not one of twenty or more in my conversation group had ever been on an aeroplane flight. One young boy astonished me by asking if Real Madrid would do well this year! I bought a Railway magazine that said a new train to run at 200 kph would soon be on the Jakarta-Surabaya run, but not when it would start. Meanwhile, we chugged along sedately at 50 kph, stopping between stations for no obvious reason. In the Bluebird metered taxi from Gubeng station to the Majahpahit, the Madurese driver punished my ear with yet another version of the football split debacle. Nothing about the executions.

In the scores of conversations, just one person mentioned the jailed drug smugglers. An old friend from my student days, who was discussing the front-page news of how many would be in the firing squad, and how bad the ice epidemic was, remarked that the two persons to be shot were “not really Australians”, being Chinese and Indian, which was a comment I heard often, and had been published often, it seemed. The TV channels droned on and on about the executions, with bizarre sketches and diagrams of firing squads and photos of the condemned, interviews with even minor jail officials, and side-by-side stories of how damaging drugs had become in recent years within Indonesian society, and yet more arrests and more drug hauls. Ice from China this time.  But in daily conversations, the hot topics were the cost of schooling, the new fuel costs, the traffic jams, buying an apartment, family health and of course, debates on soccer.

The day I left Surabaya, the Jawa Pos, which publishes in scores of cities, carried a photo of me with Alison in the reporters’ room being interviewed about my return to have Surabaya 1945: Sacred Territory translated into Indonesian. The young reporter was astounded that a foreigner would put so much time into a book on the foundation of the Republic and have so much praise or interest in Indonesian history. I was saddened by the lack of knowledge in their early history, but not surprised. It is the same in Vietnam, where the youth know almost nothing of their history, the war or even the Japanese occupation, and seem more concerned with their mobile phones, games, videos and learning English and taking their pathways to success via various modern institutions.
One reporter spoke of the anguish, now that she was 28 years old, of holding off parental pressure to marry. That was on her mind, not dreary old history.

On November 10 later this year my book will be formally presented publicly on what is more easily described as Indonesia’s equivalent to Anzac Day – Heroes Day in Surabaya. This is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Republic and the Battle for Surabaya, which paved the way for independence by putting up fierce resistance to British and Dutch forces. Answering the young reporters’ questions, which indicated they were surprised I would consider Indonesia so special, I pointed out that since the 1945 August 17 Proclamation, the once powerful USSR, has fallen apart, lasting just 74 years whereas Indonesia is already 70 years old. Captive European states such as Poland, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, East Germany, the Baltic States, were now all independent. Even the Czech Republic has split from Slovakia.

In Jakarta, though, they were trying hard to revive the spirit of the 1955 Bandung Conference, for the 60th anniversary, so I continued the answer: Of the 43 states attending the Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung in 1955, whose leaders paraded their new independence so proudly, very few have survived. The darling of the newly emerging states in those days was Yugoslavia, which has already split up into its numerous original ethnic and geographic entities of Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Middle Eastern states of Syria, Iraq, the Lebanon and Yemen are failed states in constant turmoil or civil war, the Sudan has split north and south, Jordan has a million displaced persons within its borders, Pakistan long ago split from India over religious issues and Bangladesh then split from Pakistan, also over religious issues. Sunni and Shia are at each other’s throats in Saudi Arabia and Iran, with Iraq a sort of middle ground, and more than half the former AA African states have failed economies and are run by murderous despots, whose people are so desperate they travel over deserts and dangerous lands to try getting into Europe, usually via Italy, where this year alone, more than 50,000 have arrived in leaky boats, after paying people smugglers.

Indonesia, though, has remained territorially intact, despite the extraordinary geographically splintered islands, scores of ethnic groups and languages, customs, religions and population densities ranging from intense to sparse, and a climate ranging from equatorially stifling to chillingly cold.

Think positive, I tell them. I do. The evidence is there for confidence. The Islamist threat today is not nearly as pervasive as it was when I first came. The Darul Islam leaders, Kahar Muzakar in Sulawesi and Kartosuwiryo in West Java were declaring themselves “Prime Ministers of the Islamic State of Indonesia” and conducting pillage and murder that easily equalled the modern Middle Eastern funded Islamists of today.

The Middle East sets a very poor example for modern Indonesians and in my opinion will have far less appeal to the youth than the region and religion had to their parent and grandparents. Two hundred and fifty million people are still under one state umbrella, using an improving and more flexible Bahasa Indonesia than the stiff Malay of my student days. There are elections, where parties more or less follow rules, and although the lunatic religious fringe groups pop up in the capital, trying to take society back into the Dark Ages, the truth is the youth of new Indonesia is educated, vibrant, and will not tolerate the sort of thuggery the Communists introduced during the Cold War years. Worried about the rise of the use of the headscarf? Don’t bother. That phrase will pass at the same rate as it was introduced, perhaps turned into a fashion item.

Thus far they have avoided the recent Western horrors of tattooing, nose and other body piercing and the barbarous drunken behaviour seen frequently in Bali. But they have not evaded the Ice epidemic – it comes in from Malaysia and China in cartloads – and that is why the entire region will face another round Capital Punishment discussions rather soon, and subsequent executions. Whether the drug mules are Australian, Indonesian, Nigerian or Chinese, they will surely be unable to resist the easy money, and surely be caught.

Dr Francis Palmos, historian and former foreign correspondent, opened the first newspaper bureau in the new Republic of Indonesia in December 1964, the era of Guided Democracy. His Indonesian history interest began in Surabaya when a translator for the original Java Post in 1961. His book Surabaya 1945: Sacred Territory, a comprehensive history based on Indonesian documents of the first days of the Republic, was formally presented to the East Java government in 2011. In 2012 Frank was awarded the symbolic Keys to Surabaya City for this work, which is being translated in time for this year’s 10 November ceremonies.

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