Mazes and Labyrinths – the Myth of Direction

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labyrinth9

He leaned over the coffee table, batik revealing just a little belly above his waist. The fried horderves and avocado had been cleared, and on a doily-like cloth sat a plate of papaya smelling of soiled legs. Into my glass he poured a few shots of margarita mix, channelling the living room light like a bulb of emerald candy.

His face had grown less owlish since he tried to kiss me in his car. This was when he took me out for barbeque fish and candelabra-lit juice, and I used every back muscle to lever myself out of a hug that hadn’t known breasts in years (I wasn’t surrendering anything), beneath the shade of my church tree.

I still wanted to find in him my grandfather, who I otherwise envisioned as a leaf somewhere, crumpled and brown, but actually dead, really dead, haunting me with memories of goodbye kisses in front of Danish boat paintings.

As I took my first sip from the margarita glass I watched him stand from his armchair, emitting a little grunt as he rose. He shuffled in slippers toward his wife, who had fallen asleep in the chair to my left. Barely sixty, she suffered a stroke that laid her fragile. He often, sometimetimes endearingly, called her “crazy”, delegated her need for bathing-assistance to his children. Now he dutifully supported her weight beneath her elbows and escorted her across the living room, at last lowering her onto the mattress in front of the television, where protagonists from “The Mahabharata” jingled.

When he returned to the coffee table, he put his paw on my knee. Now where were we? The wisdom of the Kancil folktales? The tiers of propriety leading from here to the heavens?

Was he my grandpa in his rocking chair, telling me The New Yorker wasn’t for dummies?

I had gotten used to the grey parameters of his teeth. They, too, matched my late grandfather’s, only my grandfather’s were yellow. They had the same way of twinkling when they lent a sip of something forbidden, or when they let gleam a hint of youth.

Absorbing the heat of the early afternoon, I let the margharita cradle my idleness. I confessed my urge—coming from my American drive—to leave company in order to create.

He said, there is a saying in Java that reminds us to “follow the flow of the river.” We believe here that if something is meant to happen, it will come to fruition in due time. We don’t have to be the log and the current.

From the mattress, his wife guffawed at the television, and my eyes fixated on the framed shadow puppet pegged on the wall: the wise Semar, crafted—regardless of modern deviations in the chosen epic—with his finger pointing forward.

labyrinth2

Curiosity #75: Fossils

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Fabric bunched around her waist, obscuring whatever curve might have been hidden there. She had age marks that looked like chicken tracks across cement, austere cheekbones, a gaze that dove out every time she turned her head — landing, revealing something between judgment and waiting. Her lips stood alone, as if they had been rolled up and pinned, preserving a sensual vitality that betrayed itself only at the corners of her mouth where her creases dipped in exhaustion.

She was the keeper of the home and a mother of two. From the way visitors overlooked her labors, the way her elephant-bodied husband bypassed her on the way to the kitchen, it was obvious that no one recognized how beautiful she was.

I had come here, to this small village in the center of Bali, to celebrate the festival of Galungan. Galungan was a Hindu festival in which young men and women took the places of departed souls; they lay open-mouthed under the hands of Hindu priests who tamed their inner demons by filing away at the bottoms of their teeth; and so children became adults, establishing holy unions through marriage, bridging families and shifting loyalties. Over the course of several days and on numerous occasions I rode side-saddled on Bu Ayu’s motorbike, propping baskets of food and flowers on my head, bowing into family compounds and offering congratulations to newlyweds who supplied pork in exchange for our blessings.

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My original intention was to inquire about Bali’s resident spirits, but in the end what I learned, quite accidentally, was that reality is what we leave behind.

There used to be a beloved matriarch in the house. Bu Ketut, who had grown up in the family compound (but now lived with her children in Denpasar), told me of her mother, whose spirit sometimes slept beside her in her husband’s place, and whose voice followed her like a recording, singing. The “mother” she mourned was in fact her aunt, never married, an ordinary midwife. Word was that this woman’s selfless love was so effulgent that she made everyone feel they were borne of her own womb.

There were stories of Her guiding lonely children through hospitals, tending new mothers, taking visitors on walks through rice fields and taking dips in the river, pushing mattresses together in the living room and laughing late into the night. Bu Ayu said that when this woman died the condolences came like a sea.

Yet it seemed all she had to do was make time for people. And care.

Now that I’m back in the United States and I’m bound to my computer, I feel a new reality creeping in, one I hope won’t permeate. It’s a reality that says I don’t have time for anything apart from finding a path, reaching a ladder and climbing it.

At my first stage of reverse-culture shock, this has me scrambling in a void.

So for sanity’s sake I retreat to the rice fields in the Balinese village where I stayed, where stairs of grass are laid out like a bowl, and beside it runs a stream where Shiva is known to bathe. Grandma — Bu Ayu’s mother-in-law, the only elder living in the compound — waits for me there. She looks as bird-like as ever, perched by the steps with a stern, pretty set of features and slightly bulging belly. Like a sculpted Madonna, her face allows no expression and lets out little speech.

The scene unfolds as it did then. I look down at the stream and observe it flowing cleanly along its gutter of concrete. Step in. The water comes up almost to my waist. I lift up my nightgown so only my hem gets wet. Against the current of the stream my legs wobble like loose pegs and my torso stands exposed to the late-morning air. I’m cold. Down the river are children splashing in their underwear, older men soaping bare bodies. Sometimes they turn to look at me.

Self-consciously I bring each leg to the surface to rub each thigh clean, trying to maintain a grip on my nightgown, which I clutch to my chest using a free arm. Grandma stands nearby, watching me.

“Take off your clothes” she says firmly.

At the moment I’m still fumbling with my wet cotton, and pause to look up. I want to tell her I’m plucked enough. “Take off your clothes,” she says again. The children nearby are still playing, and the villagers who just entered the clearing pause beside Grandma, letting their eyes linger on me. My body bleats like a sheet. A woman as old as Grandma moves off by herself and squats at a place by the riverside, removes her blouse in one motion, undoes her bra, and splashes water over a tumor that protrudes from her neck out to her chin. She motions at me to Grandma and says something in Balinese. The two old women laugh.

I exit the water and walk to where Grandma stands. I remove my dress. Grandma takes it and drapes it over her crossed arms. Not a word, not a blink. “Thank you” I say and look down at my clothes, but I’m really referring to something else. Grandma observes me in my minimal underwear, waiting for me to hide myself, but I don’t. I feel my skin move beneath her eyes like parcels of a used temple offering. But then I see her blink and nod, and this is how she accepts me. Perhaps she recognizes her own youth in my shapes, or perhaps my act of self-exposure has suspended my origins so that, without grace but with humility, they could come to rest within her traditions.

Now, I am neither here nor there.

I am in the United States, sitting beside my mother at our kitchen table. I am half-way around the world, passing a dormant temple on the back of a little boy’s motorbike.

I can teleport myself to where I’m haunted by the love of an immortal midwife, where I watch Bu Ayu inspect my grandmother’s locket, wrap her arms around her children and look out at nothing. I can try to establish a nest in a country that raised me, simultaneously cling to Indonesia, where I can reveal the most volatile part of myself to a strange old woman and no one looks away.

These memories and sensations have their own agency and are tethered to me, more real than whatever it might mean to reintegrate into my own country —

or to be a citizen of anywhere.

"Potong Gigi" or Teeth Filing Ceremony, mandatory in the adult initiation process among Balinese Hindus

“Potong Gigi” or Teeth Filing Ceremony, mandatory when becoming initiated as an adult in Balinese Hindu society

Six children of the same family before the "potong gigi" ceremony

Six children of the same family before the “potong gigi” ceremony

Gates of the local temple, Pura Dalem. The two figures on the door represent the polar forces of Hindu cosmology.

Gates of the local temple, Pura Dalem. The two figures on the door represent the polar forces of Hindu cosmology.

Bu Ayu (sitting far right) in front of the family compound during the Galungan parade

Bu Ayu (sitting far right) in front of the family compound during the Galungan parade

Steps down to the river, unused by locals because of its status as the reserved path for the spirit of Shiva.

Shady route to the river, unused by locals because of its status as the path for the spirit of Shiva.

Curiosity #73: Tree Magic

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Javanese myths are full of ordinary folks who acquire magical powers under trees. Men and women practice asceticisms in the forest, acquiring heirlooms, encountering long-dead princesses, discovering immortality. Accumulating sperm. Sitting under a tree might seem a dull path to sorcery, but the complexity of seated meditation – or perhaps the very process of purging the self of complex materialism – is beyond Western comprehension, especially now that the ubiquitous, perhaps mis-led correlation between sophistication and chairs have ruled out cross-legged sitting. Not to mention trees (see Curiosity #71).

In a village called Bandungan, Central Java, there lived an Islamic spiritual teacher (called a Kyai) who, instead of sleeping, meditated under trees to acquire spiritual blessings. As a hermit he cooped up inside a simple dwelling at the center of the village’s neighboring forest, beside a river and field of rice plants he cultivated himself.

One night on a full moon, a scream was heard from the depths of the forest. No Javanese civilian in her or his right mind would venture into a forest at night, and so the villagers waited until morning to investigate. First they inspected the Kyai’s home. They were devastated by the scene. Surrounding the dwelling, they found a spattering of blood like a bed of strawberries splashed beneath an ogre’s foot. The village leader told the people to gather the bloody dirt and bury it, resigning to the fact that, despite the absence of a body, there was no way their Kyai could have survived such a spill.

Forty nights later, second cry was heard from the forest. In the morning, a village widow was found dead in her bedroom. It was clear that whoever conducted these killings sought more than power, and the villagers panicked. Some of them fled the village, fearing they would be pulped like guava. The braver ones resolved to stay, seeking a shaman to get down to business.

Shamans in Java are of various specialties: some of dark magic, others of love, many employed for the trolling of businesses (we hope forever outside the hands of American capitalists), others for the control of rain, the provision of prophecy, restoring relations with the patronizing dead. The shaman of Bandungan could see beyond material reality and into the soul of the present, peering into truth like a jeweler unzipping a purse of diamonds. The shaman pronounced to the villagers that the killer did not come from outside but rather lived among them, and that only a confession from the offender would save future generations from an irrevocable curse.

One hundred days after the first disappearance, on the day the villagers planned to commemorate the Kyai’s death, the chief elder of the village was found dead. He had stabbed himself with a bamboo rod uprooted from the Kyai’s grave. Like a film noir, this shadowy mystery came to a twisted but conclusive end. The villagers perceived the suicide as evidence that the village leader was in fact the murderer. It seemed the village leader’s act of skewering himself served as sufficient “confession”, since after the village leader was kicked to the dirt, Bandungan suffered no more mysterious killings. The villagers lived in peace.

The grave of the Kyai, known as “Oncak Ancik” (“the act of standing on one’s leg”, referring to the late Kyai’s state of unbalance), is a haunted space. Locals say there was once a visitor to the village who, upon nearing the grave out of curiosity, was possessed by a spirit that forced him to roar like a tiger. It is believed that this beastly spirit belongs to the Kyai, who is still ravenous for a human form.

Those who take the tiniest twig of bamboo from the site suffer disastrous consequences: degrading illness, combusted homes. Infertility. The grave occasionally attracts power seekers who aim to one-up the Kyai’s wisdom by spending a night in the forest, but before their meditation is complete they—without fail—are chased out by forest demons, attacked by animals, or consumed by a mysterious force that causes them to disappear before the morning dew rises off the canopies.

OncakAncik2

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 #71: A Spiritual Strain of Environmentalism

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There are some forests in the world where genies still exist. They hover in the shadows, heads grazing the canopies, on the look-out for fools keen on chopping down trees for profit. The genies, despite being hump-backed and saber-toothed, are just like you and I, and wish to dally away their lives free of fascist scumbags who think they know what’s what.

Central Java is one region where genies, and trees for that matter, have managed to hold their ground. In Wonosadi Forest, it’s known that whoever chops down trees for economic purposes will wake up a vegetable. Naughty teenagers who dare copulate in the bushes are mysteriously transported to public spaces where their sins might be exposed and ridiculed. For this reason people don’t mess with the beasts of nature, and it all traces back to an agreement maintained since the Middle Ages.

Back when the Majapahit Kingdom swept its authoritarian sovereignty over Indonesia (we’re talking between 1293 and 1500), there was a royal concubine named Roro Resmi who ran away with her two illigitimate children, seeking freedom from the royal bedroom and the confines of servitude. After a long time traveling West, she found haven in the womb of a formidable forest.

Roro Resmi was not alone in running. Together she and others escaping the Majapahit collaborated in building an outpost beside a stream in the center of the forest. But like with all new settlements, the land was already occupied; and like all other settlers, Roro Resmi and her followers had every intention of oppressing the natives in efforts to further their agenda of freedom.

But these natives weren’t human. They were genies the size of the trees themselves, governed under a king who took the form of a white tiger (with the strength of five elephants and the mercy of a B-52). Good thing Roro Resmi’s children had the magical powers to defeat the giants in a valiant display of underdog ferocity. Finally subdued, the genies entered into a civil negotiation. They agreed to subject themselves to coexistence with humans in exchange for health guarantees on behalf of the forest, which, since the humans’ cave-dwelling age, seemed to attract the attention of axe-carrying buffoons (to say nothing of future tractors).

And so the people of the forest raised ninjas. The genies built houses. And the humans and genies lived together happily ever after. At least until now.

Whoever says environmentalism doesn’t yet exist in Indonesia knows squat about this country, but the foundations of this environmentalism might not impress the pragmatists sitting at the UN round table, itself made of wood chopped down from only genies know where.

Wonosadi

Curiosity #57: Satan as the Third Wheel

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In the United States, I rarely think of Satan. When I do, I think of Him as a representation of everything human: of hunger, lust. Jealousy, passion, greed. These animal energies might not WOW the heavens with their beauty, but even the most pious ascetics might admit that these filthy instincts feed us homo-sapiens with our fair share of excitement and color, without which some of us might not care to wake up in the morning.

Satan holds my hand in Indonesia. For this I admit I’m grateful, since — when I step away from co-workers who seem to enjoy my company well-enough, but who, being several decades my senior, spend their spare moments with their families; and also of my students who share my age but, even if their desire for friendship did extend beyond curiosity, have no idea how to befriend a professor whose attempts at language acquisition and cultural assimilation tend to be desperate and clumsy — Satan is my most steadfast companion. That demonic presence, whatever or whoever it may be, helps me smile through cigarette smoke, watch male cross-dressers rolling their hips in the streets next to veiled old women and thank the universe that there are some people in this country who still choose joy over shame.

Now shift gears to an Islamic boarding school outside Yogyakarta. I was escorted here by one of my graduate students who offered to help in my religious explorations throughout Java. Today’s religious conservatism is largely centralized in Islamic boarding schools, or Pondok Pesantrens. As the Muslim population grows, so the Pondok Pesantrens also increase in prominence throughout the cities and villages. These schools promote independence and solidarity, and, under the guidance of revered spiritual teachers, the education of Islam as a perspective and lifestyle rather than a tentative implementation of beliefs.

The Pesantren I visited was particularly friendly to those dedicated equally to Islam and Javanese culture. Not only was it a sanctuary where Muslims could learn the “stiffness” of religion, but also a school where people of all ages could further their education in Islamic law and the practical sciences. Like at all Islamic boarding schools, this living space enforced a separation between males and females, endeavoring to uphold purity by protecting both genders against the undulations of Satan and LUST. This effort seemed almost endearing, only perhaps because it seemed as possible as curing hunger with starvation. But, as I often ask myself in this country, what do I know?

Upon entering the grounds of the boarding house, I was invited to remove my veil. As a non-Muslim, I was not asked to conform to a set of standards to which I didn’t belong. Two residents of the boarding house led me through a door into the courtyard. When I reached the interior, I was surprised to find that the boarding house looked like an ordinary Javanese residential compound, apart from the air of studiousness that weighed on the expressions of wandering residents and filled the area with reverential quiet. I could see into open-aired classrooms, which contained books and simple desks, and — across from an an administrative building — an estate-sized concrete building with doors propped open into the communal worship space. Around the corner were narrow corridors where the women slept, and from where a few of them emerged half-veiled. Upon seeing the male graduate student who accompanied me, these women clasped their scarves beneath their chins as if they had been caught in their underwear.

I found myself in a large discussion room. Shelves of books towered from floor to ceiling, many of them with Arabic titles. The chairs around the discussion table were faded antiques, clearly passed down over generations. Circulating the air was the familiar scent of old bookshops and of things well used and rotting.

A woman entered the room to greet me. She was long-skirted and slim, and had a face of smooth and dignified features. I was surprised to find her so young, perhaps in her mid-forties, since I had learned that she had been recently widowed. My host was known as a “Rumah Putri”, or “daughter’s house”, and was in charge of directing all the managerial affairs in the women’s Pondok Pesantren. In her heavy-palmed rejection of all things uncensored, this woman embodied everything I couldn’t understand.

The Rumah Putri’s family had served as representatives of the high Islamic clergy for generations. Her uncle, husband, father, and grandfather were all Kyais of Islamic boarding schools and religious communities. Kyais are Islamic gurus here in Java and are regarded on a higher spiritual plane than typical Imams. Their status equates to that of Ayatollahs from the Arab world: powerful in their influence, gifted in their wisdom. Women of Kyai families, while perhaps not visibly at the forefront of gender-integrated efforts, play powerful roles in guiding affairs in religious communities.

Attempting to place my own feminist ideas to the side, I asked the Rumah Putri about her perceptions of gender. The Rumah Putri placed her hands in her lap and responded with composure. She informed me that men and women are no different under God. In fact, Islam wants men and women to be the same, but the fact remains that there are material differences between genders. It is because of these gender discrepancies that Islamic boarding schools and Indonesian society firmly reject integrated living spaces outside of marriage. Even in casual social situations outside the workplace, men and women run the risk of falling prey to sexual impulses and so must avoid these “immodest” interactions entirely. Sexiness is not allowed. Desire is not indulged. And so it is for the residents of the Pondok Pesantren: pre-marital religious life is a gender-isolated one.

I thought momentarily of confiding to the Rumah Putri memories from my recent college experience, in which gender-neutral students stripped off their shirts on hot days, and where every semester between fifty and one hundred students ran naked through the public library to liberate their fellow-students from the stress of final exams. Would my hostess still speak gently with me, as she did now? Should I tell her that my alma mater was one of the first United States colleges to integrate genders in shower rooms?

Perhaps not. Besides, this woman was a feminist in her own right: a firm advocate of women’s equity in the workplace and in the public sphere: a leader in the push for higher education for men and women on both a spiritual and practical level. She believed in respect and demanded it for all people, and felt it should have nothing to do with sexuality due to its tendency to distract people from the more substantial qualities that made genders equal.

In the United States the “separate but equal” thing doesn’t really fly, but here there seems to be cultural richness and balance dependent on the differences between men and women. It extends well beyond religion into historical tradition and communal belonging: two things of which I am wholly ignorant. So despite my full support of liberation pertaining to gender identity, I am beginning to learn (with the help of traditionalists like the Rumah Putri) that standards of fulfillment change with shifting social constraints and freedoms. In all cases we win some, we lose some.

What was harder for me to understand was the interpretation of all exciting energies as “Satan.” The Rumah Putri explained Satan as an energy that hovered over every human weakness, waiting to possess the body whenever discipline wilted under animal instinct. Satan was present in traditional markets among the dirt, among peddlers and their usury, and most especially in situations when when men and women found themselves alone.

Satan took the form of desire, stated the Rumah Putri matter-of-factly. To describe the word desire, she used the word “nafusu,” which literally translates to “appetite” and could apply to anything related to craving. So if we were to think of Satan as any emotion that takes us beyond our realm of self-control and into that ugly space of want and gratification, think of what a loyal audience Satan has been in our daily lives. And then think, if you were in fact able to go about life without Him, you would actually do anything interesting.

William Blake states, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,

“Dip him in the river who loves water.”

What’s wrong with a swim as long as we’re the only ones at risk of drowning? If Satan is in fact watching every time I show weakness to human appetite, then to me He is a polite spectator rather than a poisoned influence; or perhaps at His very worst, The Ache for beauty to which I’m lucky enough to have access, even if it’s a little bit dirty. “Evil”, as far as I’m concerned, comes with stress and lack of sleep.

Where would we be if Robert Johnson never sold his soul? If the romantic poets never gave way to ecstasy? Yes, from Satan comes appetite. But from appetite also comes energy, from energy comes art, and from art comes intimacy that — especially when I’m coping here on my own — I’d rather not do without.

Women preparing for their ritual/dance performance. This dance genre is known as "angguk" and is most often performed by women.    This dance ritual is rejected by most of the conservative religious powers in Java.

Women preparing for their ritual/dance performance. This dance genre is known as “angguk” and is most often performed by women. Due to its provocative nature and connection to trance, this dance form is rejected by most of the conservative religious powers in Java.

Curiosity #49: Eager Communicators

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Harry Burger sat across from me, grinning with a sandaled foot crossed over a skinny leg dressed in pleather. This would be one of the most pure-hearted people I would ever meet.

On either side of Harry Burger and I were six male college students gathered in this café and soccer bar just to practice their English conversation skills. This late in the night, I was one of the few women left in the gymnasium-sized venue, and certainly the only female accompanied exclusively by men. As I sat exhaustedly on the cafe bench, I reminded myself that I had been invited here to communicate about my culture to anyone who was curious, and since I had taken residency in Indonesia to teach and be grateful, I felt I had no business saying “no” to an innocent night of coffee and grammar.

Harry Burger was the first to lean across the table. “I love American English,” he said, although it was clear he spoke little of it. The men sitting around him were quiet, but Harry lunged at every silence to share the few phrases he knew in my language. He began reciting a rhyme he learned from a former American acquaintance: “Five little monkeys sitting on the bed. One jumped off and broke his head!” Then, like a cowboy from an old Western, he stood up from his chair and reached forward to shake my hand. Somewhat startled, I took it.

“My name is Harry Burger,” he said fiercely. “Congratulations to your family!”

Harry’s phone began to ring, and its tune was unmistakable: it was “Jingle Bells”. As I began to explain how his ring-tone referenced a specific Christian holiday, Harry burst out with song-like exclamation. “Congratulations! Merry Christmas!” he said, then sat down in the October night like a champ who had won a battle of wits.

I laughed, but hardly knew how else to respond. The young man sitting next to me explained that Harry Burger was older than he looked (perhaps in his thirties) and had come to this city on a whim. In Indonesian, I asked Harry where he came from.

“I’m from Sunda, West Java,” he said. “I came to Yogyakarta because I wanted the experience of living in a city.” It was clear Harry had no wife or family, and so had no qualms moving to a new metropolis without a plan, even if it meant relying on a low-wage job that required minimal creative-power.

“I found a job at a burger stand,” he said. “It’s called Mr. Burger. That is why I am now called Harry Burger.” And that was that. In my life I had never met a person with a less appetizing name, nor with a more buoyant smile.

The night wore on. Harry asked me if “I have to pee” had the same meaning as “I have to wash my hands”. He pronounced “p” like “f”, then ran off to the toilet to “fee”. He asked me the different variations of the word “mother”. Then he told me of the female giant of Java, and how — like in America — there was a place in Java for women who were strong. He delivered a 10 minute recitation of an Islamic prayer in English (all memorized) about how God designed men and women differently, yet did not hope to limit one gender or the other. Oh Allah, the most merciful.

Harry Burger’s greatest dream was to generate the largest family possible. He made friends from all over the world, including Europe, Brazil, and Kansas, and kept in touch with every new “sibling” via Facebook. He cared about all humans because regardless of religion or geographical origins, people were all the same.

An exotic cross-dresser sang and danced beside our table. Harry gave the dancer a tip and shook the dancer’s hand in greeting.

I was driven home on a motorbike by a wild man with static hair who suggested that some time we go swimming together in a hotel pool. But all I could think of was Harry Burger flipping meat at a mediocre burger stand, grinning because he had a colossal network of friends founded in a limitless capacity for unconditional love. Furthermore Harry had no one to hate, and infinite confidence that his international “family” — be it in spirit, person, or Facebook — would keep him company until the day he died.

Before I went to sleep that night, I received a text from Harry Burger telling me that, at that very moment, he was studying English in his bedroom. “Congratulations and Merry Christmas,” the text read. “Have a nice dream.”

This is a typical Mr. Burger stand, found on almost every major street, where many locals in Yogyakarta stop to find gourmet street-meat

This is a typical Mr. Burger stand, found on almost every major street, where many locals in Yogyakarta stop to find gourmet street-meat

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

Curiosity #47: Plant Envy

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In hills of Imogiri, in the fields beyond Yogyakarta’s borders, is a small farm at the forefront of Indonesian permaculture. The farm’s owner—once a hippie wasting away on shrooms and LSD, later a businessman cashing in on capitalism—traded his long hair for a Muslim cap, his Balinese mansion for a farm cottage, and his fast-track success in international business for the slow-blooming movement of self-sustainable farming. This has since become his Jihad.

I visited the permaculture farm on a Saturday with a professor of Sufism who wanted to investigate the mystical potential of agriculture. After driving down a secluded road, the farm’s owner greeted us in the driveway. He was a towering 6’2’’, about 60 years old, and—with facial features lent by half-English blood—looked like the child of Cary Grant and a dark-skinned countess. No ordinary man; certainly no ordinary farmer: he collected the feces of farm animals in neat bins beneath a row of rabbit cages, harvested vegetables with fertilizer enriched by decomposing horns of cows, met his wife—now a craftswoman of homemade mulberry jam and organic “men’s enhancement capsules”—in the jungle while he was searching for his soul.

The interior of the farmer’s cottage looked not unlike a open-air cabin from the American West. On the floor were Muslim prayer mats laid beside glassless windows. The walls were polished and decorated with Indonesian art. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, I sipped a fermented beverage thickened with goat’s milk and munched on multi-grain bread. Eager to know more about how a man once freed by wealth and narcotics could possibly choose a life of field labor and spiritual rigor, I asked the farmer about his path. Smoothing out his Sufi beard in that wise-mentor-sort-of-way (or perhaps this was just my imagination), my host told me all about his initiation into the world of plants and the intimate channel between God and humble forms of life.

Islam, he said, was the religion that placed the most emphasis on the relationship between God and the earth. To him Islam was the only religious path that adequately emphasized the importance of man’s coexistence with nature. He quoted a well-referenced Islamic Hadith:

“The Earth is green and beautiful, and Allah has appointed you his stewards over it. The whole earth has been created a place of worship, pure and clean. Whoever plants a tree and diligently looks after it until it matures and bears fruit is rewarded. If a Muslim plants a tree or sows a field and humans and beasts and birds eat from it, all of it is love on his part.”

A significant population of modern Muslims follow the environmentalist effort. Some believe that Global Warming is the result of humankind’s cruelty against God’s creations, and the best way to solve the globe’s environmental crisis is by abandoning plans for new supermarkets and tree-chopping and instead give the land some hands-on love. The universe “gives back” what its inhabitants deliver, so humans gain nothing by distributing more trash than growth.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the farmer’s philosophy came from his mystical, almost envious, approach to plant-life.

God made virtuous things smell sweet, said the farmer. Plants have no pig-headedness or pride preventing them from living symbiotically with God’s other creations or from absorbing divine power. Plants bend appreciatively towards the sunlight, enrich the soil, and filter ambient air so other forms of life can prosper alongside their roots. In return, God blesses plants with the sweetest of smells, (in some cases) hundreds of sex organs, longevity, and an almost super-natural sensitivity to the world’s phenomena.

“Think about the kind of pleasure a plant experiences over the course of a lifetime,” said the farmer, “and about what humankind can learn from them.”

Perhaps I am too congested with pride to funnel supernatural energy like a plant, and perhaps I am too dependent on the expressions of humanity to accept the sympathy of a drooping flower. But there is logic in the benefits of putting out more growth than harm, and there is a sort of spiritual impasse to pushing forward with human-centric aspirations for high reputation and “personal growth.”

Perhaps the old farmer was right; perhaps the real graveyards are in the carpentry sheds among shelves of fallen wood. Perhaps our bottle-wasting, paper-crumpling, meaning-searching lives will actually limit our potential for spiritual fulfillment.

Maybe if I had the opportunity to trade my human-centric ego for other-worldly happiness, I would do it. But I can’t help the excitement I feel at witnessing art inspired by grapplings for the “self”, and I can’t help but plunge with gratification into earthly experiences that would not exist without human agency, pride, and—from time to time—the willingness to waste.

Perhaps this latter approach to life will bear me no fruit. Or perhaps it will give birth to something more temporary; just as tasteful for the soul.