Curiosity #81: Attached at the Navel

Anthropology, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

Machu Picchu averages about 2000 visitors a day. It’s considered one of the seven wonders of the world, but a Peruvian will never tell you Machu Picchu is the greatest city ever built, nor will they tell you it’s the greatest triumph their ancestors ever accomplished.

The greatest masterpiece of the Incas was Cusco. Cusco was once considered the center or “navel” of the world. Incan chroniclers documented that the city was once 100% veneered in gold. The boundaries of the city were constructed in the shape of a puma, with the head serving as the fortress. The heart of the city held the temple, Koricanche, the most sacred of Inca sites, where the gods were worshipped and the bodies of Incan kings were preserved. Courtyard buildings, shrines, and plazas filled the metropolis, reflecting supremacy of artisanship that only took 100 years to perfect.

Chakana

These spaces have long been either emptied or laid flat, pillaged by Pizarro, afterwards emptied and burned by Franciscans, bricked over and stuffed with colonial rococo-style figurines imposing white supremacy. But not all is lost. Much is still preserved in the culture and language of the local people.

Living Remains

A four-day, three night tour to Machu Picchu lent the first hint at what remained of Quechua identity. My Machu Picchu tour was registered with a company called Lorenzo Expeditions. Our guide, Wilbur, was a middle-aged local from the Sacred Valley who claimed he had been hired by every tour company in the city. I could see why: he in many ways embodied the intelligence and identity standing since the days of Incan reign. He was as much a relic as the ancient walls.

The tour brought us to local villages, some tucked into the highland jungle. There was a varied pace of hiking and stopping, and in the latter stretches we would receive explanations of the significance of the spaces we passed. Wilbur brought us to coffee farms. He fanned out coca leaves in wild forest groves. He explained the critical connection between his people and their land and did not leave out details of injustice brought on by foreign misconceptions.

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You want to understand our culture, he said? First learn our language. Then you will know the ways of our people.

Naturally none of our 10 trekking members knew the local speech, but Wilbur did his best to explain the trials and collective identity of the Sacred Valley descendants.

Economy

The Incan empire was not soft on its people, but it paid mind to general needs. While the imperial and ceremonial center was foiled in gold, the currency lay in exchange of services. Civilians of the empire were required to perform tasks and labor (primarily in agriculture, mining, construction, and artisanship) and in return were delivered provisions by the State. The remainder of goods were exchanged through a bartering system.

The real measure of wealth was not measured in money or gold, but in textiles. Only the Incan kings and nobles could wear them, their elaborate designs woven through the toil of mit’a (the strenuous work quota appointed to commoners).

After the Europeans came, currency took precedence over craft. Pizarro pillaged for gold, and Atahualpa, the Incan king in today’s Ecuador, filled two rooms with the mineral to buy his freedom. He satisfied the ransom but was executed anyway after betraying his brother.

Peruvians know Pizarro as the man who claimed all the gold in Peru, including Cusco. He also brought a lesson: wealth in currency allowed one to wield horrifying power worldwide.

Five hundred years later, this lesson still holds true.

Today the people of the Sacred Valley hold similar occupations as they once did, primarily in agriculture, with others in construction, weaving, and mining. While the work restrictions are nowhere near as imposing as they were during the days of Incan rule, the payoff is nowhere near fair.

Tourism is Cusco’s leading industry. It’s hard to find a good tour to Machu Picchu without paying at least $300. A backpacker’s hostel can earn $10 from each laundry service, and a restaurant in the city center charges over $50 for a family meal of fried rice.

Meanwhile, farmers in the fields earn hardly enough to sustain themselves. They return to wooden shacks with no electricity and no plumbing. Delicious mangoes and avocados bring in $3-4 for every package of 100.

The coca leaf industry is a whole other ordeal.

US and European governments point at Peru, the world’s largest producer of coca leaves, for the impact the cocaine industry has had on their societies.

Holding out a handful of inconspicuous leaves he picked from the forest trail, Wilbur said, “The greatest problem in our country is not drug addiction, but diabetes. Here we drink too much soda. Do we blame the United States for the production of Coca Cola?”

Coca leaves have been used since the days of the Incas. They were not—are not—used by Andean locals for the production of the cocaine (most of cocaine industry is concentrated in the jungle regions). Coca leaves have long been perceived as medicinal and sacred. The ancients knew that chewing the leaves led not only to health benefits, but facilitated a connection between humanity and the gods.

Countries demand that Peru limit its coca production. These governments promise they will reward those who farm coffee beans in place of coca plants. This, the governments insist, will lend new opportunities for farmers’ profit through increased demand for a globally-cherished export. But coffee beans can be picked only 2 times a year (coca plants every 3 months). And since Peru can not compete with countries like Costa Rica for production of coffee beans, the farmers see little payoff.

Still, though, the Quechuans are a hard-working people. They farm to survive, take what they need, and give the rest to the neighbors.

Religion

In the ancient days Wirocacha created the sun, moon, stars, time, and civilization. The apus, or lesser gods (the storms, the mountains and the rivers) served as the hands of the creator. Pachamama, the goddess Mother Earth, ensured fluid relations between all things. 

At the height of the Incan Empire, the Incan Kings and the gods were worshipped in the temple of Koricanche in Cusco. It was said the 12 Incan Kings whose bodies rested in Koricanche were so well-preserved that they didn’t look dead. On notable occasions the royal mummies would rest on the shoulders of Cusco civilians and be paraded around the city so the strength of their spirits could bring stability to the empire.

When the Franciscans came, the bodies were burned. The vases used in place of the bodies were taken for an archaeological display by a Yale professor.

Today, the main spectacles in Cusco’s Plaza del Armas are its grand churches. Nearly everyone identifies as Catholic. Religious education is a required discipline in public schools, and the Catholic authorities hold great influence over the government.

When Wilbur, who never outwardly identified his spiritual orientation, tried to enroll his first child in public school, the very first question from the registrar was “Are you Catholic?” The second question was “Are you married?”

In spite of this, the locals still believe in the apus and in the great one, Wirocacha. And the Andes themselves: for the Quechua people it has always been, and still is, nature first.

Apart from the gods, the Quechua people maintain faith in their ancestors. Quechua funerals entail a large cross atop the coffin. Since this tradition’s inception, it appeased local Catholic officials who thought this a demonstration of obedience towards the Church. But truly it was a subversion towards syncretism. The cross atop the coffins do not commemorate Christ, but the living spirits of their loved ones.

Spiritual practice carried from the Incan empire is most prevalent in the fields. When planting new crops (beans, potatoes, carrots), farmers first pray to Pachamama with coca leaves. They thank her for providing nourishment and, once they eat their first meal, offer the first plate to Her.

Language

Quechua once united the Incan Empire. In the 18th century the language of Quechua was banned from use by religious authorities, who once used the language to infiltrate local spirit beliefs with their own.

The use of Quechua was only allowed use again after Peru gained its independence in the 19th century. But by then the language had been lost to feelings of local inferiority. Younger generations perceived Quechua speech as belonging to the static, rural class. The way of the future was Spanish.

Now Quechua is seeing a minor resurgence. It is spoken proudly in the rural highlands and sometimes in the cities. This is an improvement from when Wilbur was a child, when native Quechua speakers like himself struggled to integrate into public schools.

Now more families teach children the ancient tongue, and, amidst the inundation of foreign influence from the tourism industry, traditional forms of expression remain the primary way of preserving local identity.

The Nature of “Discovery” and Conquest

Wilbur and I walked along the railroad that led to Aguas Calientes, the tourist city that led to Machu Picchu. We both had taken off our jackets despite the altitude. The flaps of his open collared shirt tossed with the wind which passed over the neighboring river. We paced up the metal and rock.

Wilbur and I spoke of conquest. While I condemned the nature of conquest in the Americas, I brought up the reality that conquest has existed everywhere, including among the Incas, since the dawn of human existence.

Conquest is different from destruction, he explained. Surely the Incas conquered many people, leading them to be the greatest empire in South America. But conquest does not require obliteration or oppression. Wilbur said that in both Quechua and Spanish, the word “conquest” could be used to describe the trapping of a lover.

During Incan conquests, the armies brought gifts to weaker communities, lent respect to local rulers, and, despite insisting on adoption of the Quechua tongue and the Incan ways, allowed freedom of local beliefs and languages within micro-circles.

European Colonists did not engage in conquest; they dealt in destruction. They did not aim to adopt peoples, as the Incas did, but obliterate “inferior” identities from existence.

They did not completely succeed.

Looping the Cord

Machu Picchu is a masterpiece, but it’s only a hint of what stood at the Incan center. In Quechua, the name “Machu Picchu” means “this whole mountain,” signifying treasure in the greater picture.

Back in Cusco, the center of the world might be defaced and buried by Franciscan churches and foreign feet, but the most precious remains aren’t at the top of the mountain; they are at the core of the human being: how Quechua people today embrace left chest to left chest, heart to heart.

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Curiosity #78: Nymph of Ende

Anthropology, Indonesia, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

People in East Flores say that water comes from a sacred place. It streams through the hills into the soil of cacao plants and cabbage, to a little house at the crest of a ravine, where a village surrounds a small school. At the source lives a guardian spirit who ensures the purity and sustainability of the water. This spirit takes the form of an eel, but most who have seen it say the spirit is deceptive to the eye, and that sometimes it appears as a beautiful woman, ass gleaming in the still water.

Several generations ago an elderly man visited the sacred pool, curious about the spirit who swam inside. There is little knowledge of who was there to witness it, but legend says the man leaned over the crag beside the pool looking for the beauty. At last an energy pulled him toward the depths, swallowing him like a child.

There was no sign of the old man, although for months his fellow visitors waited for him by the shallows. It was assumed he had drowned in the water, allured and then overwhelmed by the guardian spirit whose body glistened like the scales of a fish, whose hair undulated like a woven cloth.

At last there was a set of villagers who went to the water source to see if they could retrieve something—anything—that would allude to the fate of the old man. They brought with them a fishing rod, and with a wide cast sent a hook plunging into the center of the pool. The villagers waited, taking care not to lean too far over lest they, too, fall into the grip of the guardian spirit.

Line deep, team stooped in a crouch. From inside the water, they felt a tug. A weight pulled at the tip of the fishing rod so that it bobbed beneath the surface of the pool. With a heave they lifted the rod above the surface of the pond, feeling the burden of the catch compound as the buoyancy slipped off. The water’s membrane parted to reveal the crown of a head, then came a face, a frame positioned erect, as if the body stood upon an elevator rising from a flight below. The hook of the fishing rod had caught on to the hole that strained in the earlobe of the old man, where, according to the fashion of East Flores, an earring once was gaged.

So it was by the ear that the old man returned to the reality he knew: fully alive, fully aware, and not a drop of dampness dripping from his skin. He told those who listened the story of his stay in the kingdom of the guardian spirit, whose castle stood over a dominion steeped in tradition, not so unlike his own.

Curiosity #72: Guilt Never Goes Dry

Anthropology, Indonesia, Religion, Travel

Rongkop3

Thank God the religious archipelago still prizes stories over science. Despite the fact that there are several geological factors that lead to water shortages in Gunung Kidul, nobody in Java gives a damn. Instead the locals cling to two old tales that pin the local people at fault, and God (with his handy saints) on high.

Back when trespassing wasn’t a concept, an old beggar stopped by a widow’s home to ask for water. He wished to rinse his soles, because even Muslims even who are uneducated and homeless know that God hates dirty feet. He knelt before the widow, who sat weaving on her porch, and asked for some water to cleanse himself. When Mbok Rondo (“Mrs. Widow”) ignored him, the beggar drew his breath, spurned. Was it too much to ask for a little acknowledgement?

Stooped to a reverent kneel, the beggar renewed his efforts to earn Mbok Rondo’s attention. He waved his hand (in the only abracadabra known to ancient South-East Asia), at last blurting aloud that a pond had magically appeared in the widow’s back yard. On the house. But the widow didn’t want to hear absurdities from a rag-of-a-man who made a living by whining his way from home to home, a lifestyle she imagined charred away whatever sense or use he might have otherwise tucked away inside those old bones. The widow mumbled a rebuff into the stitches of her weaving, something that might translate to “Stupid old kook. Full of crap!”

Too bad kooks can sometimes be saints. The old beggar, who was among the revered Javanese spiritual figures known as the “Wali Songo,” frothed at the woman’s appalling hospitality. Before disappearing like a Las Vegas magician, he cursed the region of Rongkop and sucked the already thirsty land dry.

In another tale, upon otherwise parched land there was an old pond of rainwater, in which people farmed fish and took their drinking rations from the same sordid hole (but hey, it was better than the chalk-loaded eau-de-fatale that came up from the wells). It’s said there was a spirit, or danyang, who guarded the lake to make sure it never evaporated.

Maybe it was because the resident spirit was an illusive, pretty thing. Or maybe it was because Indonesian Muslims were weathering nudges from the Middle East telling them to trash their local spirituality. But for whatever reason, some men in the region of Rongkop conspired to lure the danyang from the water. With the help of a shaman, they coaxed the spirit from the pond.

The shaman’s spells were overpowering. The danyang waded from the reservoir’s center like a Bond girl on an abandoned beach, swinging her hips over the waters as she neared the bank, sprinkles of contaminated water flinging off etherial thighs, and upon reaching the shore disappointed drooling onlookers by evaporating into thin air. She brought the pond with her, transforming the land into a bed of brown. The men at last realised their misdeed and fell to their knees, begging the danyang to return. Even had she heard them, her self-respect left them weeping, her knack for justice leaving their children susceptible to skin disease.

Thanks to modern pipelines, the people of Rongkop no longer rely solely on rainwater. The dry land reminds locals, in a way hard science might never manage, that lack of gratitude leads to lack of sustenance, and that blessings may come in filthy disguises.

Curiosity #70: Fixed in Palembang

Anthropology, Indonesia, Religion, Travel

Henna decorated my hand like icing. A six-year-old child held up a design on a smartphone so the henna artist could use it as a reference, but for whatever reason my face drew more attention. Foreigners didn’t come often to Lubuk Linggau. The henna artist was a delicate-featured girl of 16, not yet a woman: more like a solitary limb with a sumptuousness of its own. She knew nothing of her own beauty, only of curiosity betrayed by long glances at older members of her own sex, blue eyeshadow.

Reclining next to her on the bed was a woman I earlier saw floating around the house. She was an aunt of the bride-to-be, unveiled for the time being, hand propping up an unblemished face framed by luscious hair that—I knew—she had let down for me. I never asked her age. Fifty. Skin-tight jeans strained around thigh propped on thigh, and her sweater rippled along her torso so that she lay before me like a breast of meat upon a platter. Family woman. Stroking my right arm, on which the paint had begun to dry, she told me that adorning oneself with henna was an Arabian tradition. As a Muslim, to be of Arabian descent was considered a signifier of pure blood.

I told her I was neither Muslim nor Arabian. She told me I looked Turkish, which I was meant to take as a compliment. Combing her fingers through her hair, she reclined further on the bed. “You know there are some things we like about America, and there are some things we don’t like.” When I asked her to elaborate, she told me she had heard rumors about the West’s inclination toward moral chaos and free (premarital) sex. Without mention of my personal history I informed her that in fact most Americans were both moral and religious. She looked me over, and when I held her gaze she told me both her sons were single.

Later the same woman leashed out out sex jokes in the dressing room to the bride and groom, who blushed into the cushions of their marital bed. I had sat through a 36-hour bus to witness this. The bride was a friend of mine, my former-student of conservative upbringing whose passion flushed over everything she spoke. Now she was quiet. Three months ago this marriage had been arranged by her parents. One day as she napped on a dorm room floor she woke to an urgent call from her her father demanding that she get on a bus from Java to Southern Sumatra, where her soul mate had been selected from the hatch like a golden egg.

The egg was round enough, with chubby cheeks like parentheses framing a waxen smile. The morning had his fingertips dipped in henna so that now, on the evening before his wedding, his stains camouflaged with the fringe on the pillow he held in his lap. We asked him to tell us the story of his proposal.

Zie with her fiancé, Zacky

Zie with her fiancé, Zacky

“Our mothers met in town and started talking.” he said. “My mother told me about Zie’s accomplishments and showed me her picture, and it was then that I knew: ‘that’s my soul mate’”. Zie smiled. Her henna traveled up her arms like red and black lace. That morning I had witnessed the bride and groom joke and banter like old friends. When I asked Zie how she was feeling, she closed her eyes into bliss and said one word. “Happy.”

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I had heard of some wild phenomena in Indonesia, and had steeped long enough in this country’s superstitions to recognise I knew nothing of the inner-workings of nature, nor of God-sent revelation, but was it true a partner could be chosen out of obedience and a photograph?

“First, I resolved to marry,” said the groom. “Then I fell in love.”

The women in the room pursed their lips at the statement. Indonesia was, after all, a country in which “love” (in that ass-backwards sense, pretended or not) was the focal point of youth. But on my end, after thinking over the groom’s words, they began to make sense: when we resolve to move, we move; when we resolve to see the best in something, it shows itself. This no-nonsense approach to love seemed the same system Americans took to finding jobs, which might explain why 50% of Americans are more committed to their professions than their spouses. So what was backwards? One thing was clear: The groom spoke with his finger pointing up – to his parents, then to Allah, in who knows what order.

At dawn we had a breakfast of fried fish rolls. While the bride dressed for the initial ceremony, I and two other friends (also my former students) prepared in the guest room. It had taken a solid half hour of shuffling in someone else’s shoes beside a small parking-lot’s worth of caged sheep to get a cup of instant coffee, and I enjoyed it slowly as I watched my friends adjust and readjust their veils according to Muslim fashion.

Zie was the first friend my age to marry. My friends in the United States still hustled from partner to partner, experimenting with degrees of attraction and compatibility. In previous years Zie’s attempts at love were modest and partial, hinging on the oversight of her parents, so that now, 23 and in her prime, she would surrender all her curiosities into the hands of one man she was arranged to love.

Fixed into my memory will always be Zie in the opening procession, hiding in the dressing room as her fiancé’s family filed into her home. Outside the door, her father sat at a floor table across from her husband-to-be. Beyond her was a document devised by her Imam, the marriage papers illuminated by neon lights, soaking up the signatures of others. A sea of eyes waited for her. She sat beneath that weight like a knight or a saint, lips trembling but never sinking below parallel, body erect and draped like an Arabian chandelier. In a moment she would emerge, profess love to her parents, and sign herself over to a new life.

Ceremonial handshake between the father of the bride and the husband-to-be

Ceremonial handshake between the father of the bride and the husband-to-be

The Imam's prayer over the marital documents. The bride is still in the dressing room.

The Imam’s prayer over the marital documents. The bride is still in the dressing room.

Zie in the dressing room before emerging to sign her marriage contract

Zie in the dressing room before emerging to sign her marriage contract

My two former students, Ifa and Sisi (far left and middle) with Zie and her youngest sister (second farthest left)

My two former students, Ifa and Sisi (far left and middle) with Zie and her youngest sister (second farthest left)

Zie after emerging to sign the official documents.

Zie after emerging to sign the official documents.

The bride's poetic farewell; to her parents as a ceremonial transference into her husband's care

The bride’s poetic farewell to her parents as a ceremonial transference into her husband’s care

The husband's first gift to his wife

The husband’s first gift to his wife

Dawn to dusk would be filled with greetings between guests and forced servings of ice cream. Inside the marriage tent outside the bride’s home, my friend and her new spouse stood like dolls atop a floral cake, accepting serenades from veiled mommas in tight dresses, hips bigger than their husbands, evocative rhythms thumping to lyrics about adultery.

I could see why, in a culture where relationships meant everything, marriage was more dense than I had ever been asked to comprehend. In Indonesia, marriage was a demonstration of gratitude for fortunate upbringing, a commitment to one’s home, status, family, neighboring community, and the fusion of all under God; the spouse was the adhesive. And I could see why it was all too rich to jeopardise. During my short stay in the bride’s home, warmth permeated my Western-individualist shell, flooding from extended relatives tending the wedding stew out back with the sheep, neighbours stroking hair and linking arms, cousins confiding love and curiosities, Zie’s mother cooing us to sleep. Despite being foreigner and the only non-Muslim guest, I was welcomed into this nucleus as if I, too, belonged there.

When night fell and the newlyweds recovered from the day’s exhaustion, the groom drove us to the family-owned Pesantren (Muslim boarding school), where he and Zie would one day serve as teachers and headmasters. When we arrived it was already night, and a breeze swept through the grounds of the boarding school where in the daytime the children gathered to play. The groom’s brother held a prayer discussion inside a dwelling at the center of the lawn, where a small library partitioned off a lounge for communal study. Our bridal party stopped by to say hello. The students were of mixed gender, between the ages of 10 and 18 and not more than 30 in number. The groom’s brother sat cross-legged at the center, introducing the newly weds to the children. And I, the hastily-veiled woman with the alien face.

As I looked over the students, packed together like a nest of mice, I noticed they had the same receptive eyes as those of Zie, who, regardless of where she was or was required to be, possessed a spirited enthusiasm beyond what any human being could oppress. This spirit was grounded in her commitment to prayer five times a day, a sense of inner-identity and belonging that I would search for all my life. As we returned to shovel down the half-finished bridal cake, I released a sigh of happiness for Zie—without a doubt the most radiant bride I had ever seen—whose choices might by comparison always seem limited, but whose purpose would never be without.

Zie and her new husband seeking blessings

Zie and her new husband seeking blessings from the parents-in-law

Zie and her family beneath the Marriage Tent

Zie and her family beneath the Marriage Tent

Zie in her third wedding gown (she would change four times that day: one dress for each tradition)

Zie in her third wedding gown (she would change four times that day: one dress for each tradition)

Zie's parents on stage after being requested to sing at the reception

Zie’s parents on stage after being requested to sing before the guests at the reception

The happily-married couple with their legal documents

The happily-married couple with their legal documents

Curiosity #69: Vacation Themes

Anthropology, Religion, Travel

As an experiment I decided to document my month-long vacation with a marker instead of a camera. Each day brought new themes —  some witnessed, some felt, others inspired by advertisements or street postings, all of which I tried to capture with doodles and a little color. Of the 29 illustrations completed on my sweep from Malaysia to Japan, 18 are posted below.

Kuala Lumpur:

2. She Drinks

1. Cigarettes

3. Opportunities

4. Distance Taste

Ho Chi Minh:

5. Mop Up

6. Saigon Blues

7. Goodbye

Tokyo:

8. Convenience

11. Museum

10. Cat Cafe

18. Jimbocho

Hiroshima:

13. Hiroshima

12. Miyajima

14. Public Bath

Kyoto:

17. Octopus

15. Selfie

9. Feel


16. Artifacts

Curiosity #61: The Camel and the Veil

Indonesia, Religion, Uncategorized

Why wear the veil in Jogja? One reason is it’s the fashion, and that as a Muslim woman to go without one would be considered a “statement.” The other is that men cannot dominate their animal instincts around women with sex appeal (triggered by the hair and neck), and that the veil lessens distraction while heightening respect towards the “gentler” sex.

Nothing new. But what if our sexual instincts were as dull as a sleeping eunuch’s? Imagine if the desire for another’s flesh was a peckish interest rather than a voracious hunger, and lust could be swallowed like bad breath. Would the veil just slip off like a loose accessory, while the eyes tipped up from the waist to the heavens?

I might be exaggerating a bit here, but it seems this idea was implied when I prompted my graduate student to answer a question about religion in context. It was only the second day of English class at the university’s center for interreligious studies, and I had just learned that our most wide-eyed student was once a Muslim extremist. He looked much more goofy than extreme, with his eyes rolling around as if they were a mile apart and his chest occasionally heaving from an unprompted giggle.

He said, leaning over his desk, “In places where desire is not so strong, the standards for wearing the veil should not be so strict.” The students around him agreed and nodded their heads, urging him to go on.

“Men in Indonesia have lower levels of desire than Arab men. This is because in the Arab world men eat camels, and camels enhance one’s sexual appetite.” We all paused. I looked around to see if the other students were taking this in. One of the students self-defined as an “ascetic” turned his head to hide a smile.

The speaker waved his palm and shook it insistently. “Yes, Indonesian men do not eat camels. This is why women in Saudi Arabia wear the burqa and women in Indonesia are safe to dress freely in public.”

“Where did you get this information?” I asked.

“There are so many studies,” he said, sweeping an arm to demonstrate vastness, “that prove that what we eat is directly linked to our sexual appetite.” His eyes looked like they were about to pop out. They wobbled above above teeth that frayed from his upper lip.

I thought of the many relationships I knew in Jogja based only on instant message correspondences, the typical blouses hiding feminine curves and truncating the legs, store-front underwear that looked like parachutes, the young men heading out to the milk bar for pastel-colored shakes that put them to sleep. I had never lived in a city that seemed so asexual, and I wondered—in my own slip of logic—if what my student had suggested was true.

“Do you think it’s true that what we eat dictates our levels of desire and modesty?” I asked my other students. “Do you think it’s true that Arab men have more desire than Indonesian men, or that this should mean anything?”

The woman next to me smiled bashfully, as if admitting that her scarf was only the result of wishful thinking among limp men. More likely she had no experience from which to answer my question.

There was an awkward silence in the classroom. I could see the speaker’s bottom lip trembling between the spaces from tooth to tooth. Had he done anything wrong? Hadn’t he presented a proper argument by placing religion in context, and by moreover, by applying science?

There must be other ways to discuss the historical and cultural contexts of religious concepts like the veil than by painting one culture as more flaccid the other. And can we ever speculate on the inner-workings of a culture based on whether it munches on fried tempeh or sucks from the teat of a desert mammal?

Perhaps it will take us decades or even centuries to decide on the validity of religious arguments to the extent that we can move forward. In the mean time, what do you eat?

Curiosity #48: Feast of the Sacrifice

Indonesia, Religion, Uncategorized

Thousands of years ago, Abraham raised a knife over his first-born son. The boy, trembling before his impending sacrifice, was spared when God decided He had witnessed loyalty enough. As Abe’s blade hovered high before the plunge, the Divine Hand traded the innocent boy for a farm animal, and so sheep’s blood was spilled FOR THE LORD.

Muslims today celebrate Abraham’s sacrifice during the festival of Eid al-Adha, also known as “Feast of the Sacrifice” or “Kurban.” Eid al-Adha praises the solemnity with which Abraham bore his faith and his blade. Every October, communities everywhere join in demonstrations of prayer and slaughter.

For this year’s celebration of Eid al-Adha, I went to the Javanese village of Magelang, where a middle-aged Muslim couple welcomed me into a home overlooking hills of unpicked rice. After serving a cup of milk coffee, the couple asked me about my origins. I learned that for over countless generations the couple’s extended family lived and died within a few hundred kilometers of where we sat. I should feel at home, they said.

Out of hospitality, or perhaps unwillingness to host an unveiled woman near unmarried men, the couple offered a bed in their brother’s palatial home: unoccupied since that part of the family moved to Malaysia. The “villa” as they called it, towered around the corner beside the village mosque. Mid-evening, as I brushed my hair in front of an ornamented mirror, the electricity failed me. In the blackness alone, I was haunted by piety left behind by the absent home owners: a ghost of predatory, secular-related guilt that pursued me in the bedroom from the main hall, where I knew there was a film-noir-style portrait of the lady of the house staring out beneath a stark black veil. My reservoir of sin had been detected. I was convinced I would die.

The guest room in the palatial home where I was asked to spend the night alone

The guest room in the palatial home where I was asked to spend the night alone

Instead I woke up at 5:30 in the morning and, shortly thereafter, was taken to the local mosque. I was accompanied by the host-couple’s daughter: a charismatic law student of 23. She taught me how to wear a veil. Because she was menstruating, she was not permitted to attend the mosque service, so the two of us sat beside her grandparents’ grave in a courtyard next to the mosque and listened to the Imam’s voice chanting from the loudspeakers. Beneath the mosque’s outer dome, the non-menstruating women closed their eyes and swayed.

After the conclusion of the official service, my host-sister and I were allowed to enter the mosque. Removing my shoes, I knelt beside the women who lingered to worship. Over the speakers the Imam sang a hymn and the worshippers held up their hands in a cup-like gesture, as if to collect something precious. I closed my eyes and tried to join them. As usual, I couldn’t raise my thoughts above Earth. To my best ability I attempted to shove aside my skepticism and pride and, in doing so, was able to meditate to the chants of the surrounding women. They sang divine praise in soothing vibrations. It was enough.

Later, the villagers congregated behind the mosque to watch the “Kurban” or slaughter ceremony. Upon entering the village clearing, I saw that a white cow, about the size of a car, had been roped beside a sizeable dirt hole.

Four men were required to bring down the beast. The cow struggled. Young men of the village rushed in from all sides to grab the animal’s limbs and stop the writhing. Finally accepting defeat, the cow lay still for the knife. Next to the beast, the Imam stood with a long blade in his right hand. Lifting his head up to the sky, the Imam bellowed the name of God: “Allahu Akbar.” God is the greatest. The voices of the congregants rose to join the cry. Many of the women and children held hands, and soon the whole community sang to God and His unlucky cow.

Cow down in the village clearing

Cow down in the village clearing

Before the knife was laid upon the animal, I stepped close to bid a private farewell. Looking at the cow’s eyes, the cow to my surprise did not seem far from peace. I wondered if it knew anything of the pain it would endure, or if — like a baby in the warm arms of a stranger — the cow found comfort in the hands of many men cupping its body as it lay at mercy. Perhaps the sturdiness of the animal’s captive state was just gentle enough for it to surrender and let go. I wondered how many living things, humans or beasts, were given the privilege of dying under the touch of so many warm-blooded creatures.

The actual slaughter, of course, was difficult to watch. I had never witnessed the death of an animal so large, and especially (forgive me) with a neck so thick. I stood at a distance so the spray of blood wouldn’t reach my white skirt, and for comfort I clutched the arm of my host-sister who, upon the first spatters of blood, gently took my head and brought it to rest upon her shoulder. Gaze now pointed slightly below the gruesome scene, I looked at the animal’s legs, which were elegantly crossed and shuddering. As the cow’s movements slowed to a halt, the village men kept their palms firmly on the hide, waiting for the pain of their victim to slip into God’s more merciful hands.

Sheep were brought forth by families who could afford the expense. The animals were hung from a pole, where prayers were administered and knives swiped. The children gathered and waved goodbye to the sheep waiting to die. Some little boys approached the sheep that were already dead and, with a crude and morbid bravery, grabbed ahold of the horns. With innocence the little boys pretended to “steer” the fallen sheep like motorbikes, and — despite the disconcerting disregard for pools of blood beneath their feet — such play made it admittedly easy for me to forget about death, or at least quell the concept as an afterthought.

Standing beside two sheep before they were led into the clearing for slaughter

Standing beside two sheep before they were led into the clearing for slaughter

As the morning wore on, the Imam’s white t-shirt became increasingly red. Between each slaughter, the Imam descended a flight of steps into the mosque washroom to splash water on himself and to sharpen his knife. Upon each request to bless another sacrifice, the Imam ascended the steps like a gladiator.

The village Imam standing over the cow

The village Imam standing over the cow

After the death of all animal offerings, the cow and sheep were skinned. I watched the skinning process with reluctant fascination.

Men crowding around the cow during the skinning process

Men crowding around the cow during the skinning process

At last the meat was evenly distributed in plastic bags to the villagers without regard for financial status or religious affiliation. Beside me older men gossiped and smiled amongst themselves. Winking at my host mother, they suggested the prospect of marrying me off to a nice Muslim man from the village.

Standing at the side of the clearing with the older village men

Standing at the side of the clearing with the older village men

In the morning before leaving Magelang, my host father sat beside me at the coffee table. He encouraged me to bring my parents for a visit to his village. “We are not terrorists,” he said, smiling.

I assured my host-father that not all Americans associated Islam with either violence or terrorism. I also told him that perhaps the greatest hospitality I had ever received was from Muslims in Indonesia. My host father grinned broadly. “Bring your family here to my village and they will see we are a friendly people,” he said. “Bring them here and we will make them feel at home.”

I wondered what it meant to “feel at home” in a place where people unified under a common religion with which none of one’s loved ones identified. And I wondered at how a village so protective of its modesty might approach other members of my culture who found the greatest fulfillment in being — in every way — unveiled.

But then I observed my host-father’s earnest smile, which was in no way burdened by my partially exposed skin, bare head of hair, or even my lack of religious affiliation (which I had admitted upon my first night of arrival). His smile reflected an openness I envied: an openness to accept anyone outside his family as his own blood, to respect all individuals regardless of what spiritual plane they were bound for. It was this realization that made me wonder if I could ever bring myself to return to Magelang: not because I didn’t feel I could belong, but because I didn’t feel worthy of kindness suitable for someone far purer of heart.

The interior of the mosque after the conclusion of holiday services. Here, the the village men took their breakfast.

The interior of the mosque after the conclusion of holiday services. Here, the the village men took their breakfast.

Socializing in the mosque

Socializing in the mosque

My host-sister and I at the conclusion of the Kurban ceremony

My host-sister and I at the conclusion of the Kurban ceremony