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

Uncategorized

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.