Curiosity #57: Satan as the Third Wheel

Uncategorized

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 #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.