Aceh Anthropology Book Club Indonesia Reflexive

Book Club: A Certain Age

Book Cover for "A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta Through the Memories of Its Intellectuals" by Rudolf Mrázek
Book Cover for "A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta Through the Memories of Its Intellectuals" by Rudolf Mrázek

I have been struggling with the strange kind of fieldwork I did in Aceh for the past few years and how to both acknowledge that strangeness and write about it. Rudolf Mrázek’s new book, A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta Through the Memories of Its Intellectuals, doesn’t solve the problem, but it gives me a toolkit of methodological and theoretical possibilities for the task. “Speed and lightness over the mud and dust define the city and this observer of the city as well,” Mrázek writes in the book’s preface, and in the role of the observer he conjures up Walter Benjamin’s flaneur, but with a rushing twist. He is not just an idle passerby, doing a series of household interviews in Jakarta, sampling his informants like one might browse paintings in a gallery before moving on to the next. There is also an element of compulsive flight, as if Mrázek was never too comfortable getting into the lives of his informants (“keeping my distance from my subjects, my passing by, the burden of my method”); in fact one might find comfort in the moving on, and Mrázek quotes Sartre: “he knew that it was possible for him to make his escape at any moment with the flap of the wings.”

In spite of, or rather because of his methodological burdens (which inspired in me an awesome sense of déjà vu), Mrázek’s data still generates “cognitive sparks” all through the book. With their words, solicited by gentle prompts from Mrázek, his informants produce historical landscapes located in the noisy present of the interview. Fragments from the interview transcripts that recall memories of youth during the colonial and revolutionary era are recomposed, in vivid collage. Rescuing these fragments from the “dustbin of history” (these are, at heart, informants that the vast majority of Indonesians today have no knowledge of) is intended to disrupt the logics of modernity, nationalism, and progress. And it’s a delicate effort, because if you get into these fragments, if you touch them, the fragments either crumble apart or crumble you, leaving us with only a momentary rupture, just a fleeting glimpse, of what modernity looked and felt like in another age, exposing its illusory effects in the present.

But there are redemptions to be found in the refuse. The trick is to find the unexpected tangential points where your fragments meet your informant’s serendipitously. During my work in Aceh, I had several moments like these that resulted in productive and complicit engagements. (A-ha! I could write about this!) And here Mrázek introduced me to a French anthropologist I had never heard of before named Marc Augé, who writes about “non-places” and the anthropology of “supermodernity.” A non-place lends itself to generic memories at best; they are typically spaces of motion and travel, such as airports, stations, vehicles, hotels, mobile offices, and refugee camps. These are the spaces in which humanitarians work, and this resonates strongly with my experience working in Aceh. Like the flaneur, we are always passing by, checking in and then out of non-places. That makes the serendipitous and tangential touch with the Other much more difficult, but, when it does happen, so much more memorable too.

Mrázek likes those meetings even more when they are fraught with tone deaf misunderstandings: “Misunderstanding is another word for the rhythm with which the only true reality forces its way into the conversation. The more effectively a man is able to speak, the more successfully he is misunderstood.” In so many ways, I think my fieldwork was characterized by misunderstanding, sometimes willful, and other times, for lack of trying. A memorable encounter does not translate into an effective one. What would it be like if we thought of humanitarianism not as “supracolonial” but as “supramodern” or maybe just “supermodern”? That brings the industry down to earth without losing that awesome sense of mobility that so strongly characterizes humanitarians and their work. We could set aside debates on “mobile sovereignty” and focus instead on just the “mobile,” the blasé sense of just “passing through,” where perceptions are blunted to the point where we no longer see the “meaning and differing values of things…in the constantly moving stream of money.” In order to be noticed (Mrázek quoting Georg Simmel), “people have to exaggerate their personal element in order to remain audible, even to themselves.” We may be touched by our informants in unexpected ways, but the filters that mediate those encounters inevitably leave us “touched away” from them, and more than likely leave them misunderstood.

More than likely... a misunderstanding.
More than likely... a misunderstanding.

And so as I try to collate and make sense of my overwhelming piles of data, I have to figure out who and what remains audible through all that noise. I have to identify the tangential meeting points of productive engagement and misunderstanding. Upon retrieving a memorable voice, or recalling a tangential meeting point, I need to acknowledge the mediating distortions (exaggerations or otherwise) in my data that made retrieval and recall possible at all.  To bring this all to life and render it sensible, I have to describe ethnographically the “non-places” in Aceh where I spent the majority of my time that prevented me in specific ways from ever really getting to know Aceh as a memorable place.

Aceh Anthropology Book Club Conflict Indonesia Publications

Book Club: Contemporary States of Emergency

Book Cover for "Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions" edited by Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi
Book Cover for "Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions" edited by Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi

A few months ago, while I was still in Indonesia, Zone Books published Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions, co-edited by anthropologists Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi. I’m pleased because this is my first peer reviewed academic publication to appear in an edited book (albeit only as third author on my chapter). When I got home to the USA, my complimentary copy was there waiting in the piles of mail my parents had set aside for me while I was away.

The editors lay out the reasons for putting together this collection of essays in their introduction:

Disasters and conflicts are now embedded in the same global logic of intervention, which rests on two fundamental elements: the temporality of emergency, which is used to justify a state of exception, and the conflation of the political and moral registers manifested in the realization of operations which are at once military and humanitarian. This book is devoted to that dual reality of contemporary interventionism: the generalization, at the international but also at the national level, of states of emergency and the institution of a military and humanitarian government as a mode of response to situations of disorder.

The book is organized into three sections. The chapters in the first section, Foundations, lay out some of the historical and theoretical underpinnings that justify intervention as a mode of governance in which tropes of urgency and morality supersede the rule of law. The second section, Scenes, offers several case study chapters that provide the necessary ethnographic detail to support critical inquiry into the humanitarian encounter. The third section, Landscapes, plumbs down into the logics of intervention, juxtaposes field experience with the ethical imperatives that frame intervention, and nods reflexively at us, the social scientists who have entered into the fray with our own partisan commitments.

My chapter, co-authored with my academic advisors Mary-Jo Good and Byron Good (who are first and second author respectively) is in the second section. The title is “Complex Engagements: Responding to Violence in Postconflict Aceh,” and it tells the story of our collaborative work with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in the heady days of Aceh’s postconflict humanitarian encounter following the Helsinki MOU in August of 2005. In their introduction to the book, the editors describe our chapter as follows:

Mary-Jo DelVecchio-Good, Byron Good, and Jesse Grayman focus on the problems posed when humanitarian action takes place in a military context. The December 2004 tsunami, which resulted in an unprecedented natural disaster in Indonesia, affected populations that included some who were already subject to violence in the armed conflict between the government and resistance fighters. Aid operations, including the medical-psychological programs described by the authors, were thus embedded in a context of police monitoring by the government and compromises on the part of the NGO involved. Here, the conflict of sovereignty was played out between the government, the intervening organization, and the population concerned.

Our chapter lays out several ethnographic “scenes” that describe our collaboration with IOM and what we discovered while conducting our psychosocial needs assessment in conflict-affected communities.** My main contribution to this chapter is a description of when I presented the findings of our research to members of Aceh’s police force, which turned out to be one of the most memorable and gratifying moments in all my years of working in Aceh. The end of the chapter takes these various scenes and uses them to draw attention to some of the analytical issues that arose from our experience as social scientists conversant with the prevailing critiques of humanitarianism (and yet) “working from the inside” of a major intervention. First we highlight the facile assumptions that support taken-for-granted concepts such as “psychosocial” and “bearing witness” and without too much exegesis we at least acknowledge some of the deeper complexities. Then we describe how the NGO world plays by donor time, developing projects that must be fit into a highly compartmentalized portfolio of programs. For example, it was an administrative and fundraising challenge to develop a mental health program at IOM that involves both “medical” and “livelihood” components because those kinds of programs do not traditionally intersect. Then there are politics, sometimes ugly, within and between NGOs, donors, host governments, beneficiaries, and research consultants. We describe some examples in brief, not to assign blame, but rather to–again–acknowledge the complexity.

But when you have an opportunity to raise more than a million dollars for designing and then providing mental health outreach to conflict victims, the payoff is worth some of the compromises and frustrations. At least that’s how it was in our experience. Just as I reject the absolute moral arguments in favor of humanitarian intervention, I am equally uncomfortable with the strident and theoretical critiques of humanitarianism as a “supracolonial” endeavor because the facts on the ground are so much more complicated than that. That is the simple premise from which my dissertation will begin, and that’s what I take away from our chapter’s modest contribution to this book.

** The primary findings of this research were published by IOM here (in 2006) and here (in 2007). We used some of the data from this project to analyze conflict nightmares, published here and here. Treatment outcomes from the mental health and livelihood intervention have not been formally published yet, but early analyses are complete with publications forthcoming.

Aceh Book Club Indonesia

Book Club: Women in Acehnese Society

Today I had the pleasure of attending a luncheon launch for a book in which I was indirectly involved. In my previous post, I wrote about the ARTI (Aceh Research Training Institute) scholars who attended a seminar in Yogyakarta. This book is also an ARTI project, a compilation of recent research on women in Acehnese society titled Perempuan Dalam Masyarakat Aceh: Memahami Beberapa Persoalan Kekinian. Two out of the ten chapters were written by ARTI researchers that I advised, so the publication of this book is a moment of pride and celebration.

The title of the book in translation is simply Women in Acehnese Society: Understanding Some Contemporary Issues. In most academic environments it would be nearly impossible to publish a volume with such a broad and banal theme, but the desperate need for any research about women in Aceh based on real data allows the editors and publisher to get away with it this time. After a thorough review of the sparse social science literature on women in Aceh (less than seven pages!), name-checking the international heavyweights (Snouck Hurgronje, James T. Siegel, Jackie Siapno, Anthony Reid) and mentioning many others I have not read yet, the editors introduce the book with two basic and convincing premises that justify its publication:

  1. Women in Aceh are often cited for their strength and leadership, and this “social fact” tends to justify a light hand when it comes to investments in women’s empowerment or gender mainstreaming. The major problem with this, however, is that all the citations of women’s strength and leadership precede the consolidation of Dutch colonial power more than 100 years ago.  Yes, there were sultanas who ruled Aceh. Yes, there were high-ranking military women leading the charge against the Dutch during the war. But any post-colonial analysis of women’s strength and leadership in Aceh is wholly confined to the domestic sphere (home ownership and management… po rumoh, and so on).
  2. The obvious follow-up point to the first is that the roles and status of women in any society change over time. And Aceh, in particular, is undergoing one of the most amazing historical transformations right now! These years of post-tsunami and post-conflict recovery present women (and everyone else) with radically different risks and opportunities. So now more than ever is not the time to rely upon static truisms that glorify Acehnese women of the past and allow policy-makers to ignore their current needs; not when a recent history of war crimes systematically perpetrated against women goes without truth and reconciliation, and not when fervent advocates of Islamic law seize their opportunity to restrict women’s role in politics and pass laws forbidding women from wearing jeans.

That said, the research findings in this book have a modest agenda. This is hardly a feminist manifesto. These are small projects on a limited budget for young scholars without significant social science methods training. For example my two advisees, Cut Aja Fauziah and Dr. Sarah Firdausa, both studied topics of women’s reproductive health, but from two very different methodological perspectives. Aja studied local myths about women and pregnancy in a few villages in Aceh Barat, and in the style of an old-school ethnography she catalogues the taboos and other customs that pregnant women in Aceh typically follow and how they feel about it. (“Perempuan dan Mitos Kehamilan: Studi Kasus di Kecamatan Meureubo Aceh Barat” pp.53-76) Sarah did a questionnaire-based cross-sectional study about the sexual health knowledge, attitudes, and practices of middle-school girls who attend traditional and modern religious boarding schools in Aceh Besar. (“Kesehatan Reproduksi dalam Perspektif Santriwati Pesantren Modern dan Tradisional di Aceh” pp.77-100) Both finished their fieldwork with fascinating and occasionally shocking results, but neither translate their findings into a gender-based polemic (although both could have easily done that). Instead, they suggest mundane but imperative changes in health policy and health education.

Other topics covered in this book include domestic and sexual violence, marriage law, women’s leadership in higher education and in religious schools, gender roles in a rice-farming village, and (my favorite —>) the gendered spaces of post-tsunami reconstruction housing units. My friend Azwar from Logica ensured the funding was available to get this book published. Another friend Sehat (what a terrific name!) from IAIN Ar-Raniry copy-edited the book, and Aceh’s foremost gender scholar, Eka Srimulyani, also from IAIN, along with her colleague Inayatillah co-edited the book. Today they emphasized the celebratory aspect of this book’s publication, and they should be proud and gratified with the results, but I am looking ahead, and hoping that this kind of scholarship opens up the field and raises the standard for future research in Aceh not just about women, but also about men, from a gender perspective.

Aceh Indonesia

Perceptions of Aceh in Yogyakarta

For the past three years, the Aceh Research Training Institute (ARTI), has trained young scholars from academia, government, and the non-profit sector in social science research methods. After two selective short courses, ARTI awards small 6-month research grants to the most promising proposals. I have had the great pleasure of mentoring four women in the program. As ARTI concludes its program (for now), the Australian director of the program together with the Director of Gadjah Mada University’s (UGM) Graduate School (Sekolah Pascasarjana) decided to showcase this year’s ARTI researchers together with some UGM students at a day-long seminar at UGM’s grad school campus in Yogyakarta. The seminar preceded UGM’s first ever graduate student conference, and some of the ARTI researchers presented there as well. Altogether, it was three full days of Indonesian academic discourse for young and emerging scholars in the social sciences, with maximum attendance and plenty of interesting research content. ARTI supported eight researchers from Aceh to come to Yogya and take part in these events. Their research covered a range of topics such as:

  • Participation of Women Candidates in Provincial and District Level Legislative Elections in Aceh
  • The 2009 Legislative Elections in Post-Conflict Aceh
  • Child Abuse During and After the Conflict at an Orphanage in Aceh Utara District
  • Perceptions of Exclusive Breast Feeding Among First-time Mothers in a Suburban Village on the Outskirts of Lhokseumawe, Aceh
  • College Students in Banda Aceh and Their Efforts to Quit Smoking
  • The Politics Behind the Khalwat Legislation in Aceh
  • New Urban Sufism Practices and Institutions in Banda Aceh

Their presentations were great, as good if not better than the other researchers from Yogya and other parts of Indonesia. I advised three of the presenters and felt especially proud of their performance and the way they handled both positive feedback and constructive criticism during the Q&A.

The questions from the audience unwittingly revealed, one after another, the peculiar stereotypes and misperceptions that non-Acehnese Indonesians still hold about Acehnese society five years after the tsunami, and more than four years after the peace agreement that ended 30 years of separatist conflict against the Indonesian state. Here are three examples:

  1. Two presentations on the same panel covered aspects of GAM’s transformation from armed insurgency into a political machine that, following recent elections, now dominates the provincial government and many district governments. This prompted a woman in the audience to share her concern and ask whether GAM has a hidden agenda to resume their struggle for independence though internationalization. Indeed, the Acehnese diaspora did a terrific job of lobbying the international community, promoting GAM’s struggle, during the conflict. Furthermore, it was no small victory for GAM to hold the peace talks in Helsinki instead of in Indonesia. She worried that GAM still employs this strategy and her evidence was the provincial government’s international scholarship program for dozens (if not hundreds) of Acehnese to pursue graduate studies abroad. Never mind that the scholarship program began before Partai Aceh (GAM’s local political party) was even established let alone won any elections. Never mind that the program is a smart investment in Aceh’s future now that the provincial government finally enjoys access to revenue from its natural resources (thanks to the peace agreement). Never mind that such investments are necessary after the conflict kept Acehnese society closed to the world of ideas for at least a generation. And never mind that investing in education is all the more urgent after the tsunami killed thousands upon thousands of Aceh’s most productive and skilled citizens in Banda Aceh and other urban centers along the coast. Her question about the scholarship program had nothing to do with the elections, the main subject of the presentations. Concerned Indonesian nationalists do wonder if Partai Aceh will pursue independence for Aceh through the political process now that they run the provincial government, but that’s not what she asked. She thinks GAM is sending out Acehnese missionaries to schools around the world to promote Aceh’s independence and she told us this after two talks about the elections. What.
  2. After a fascinating and deeply concerning presentation about the stack of problems that first-time mothers face in exclusively breastfeeding their babies during the first six months after childbirth, a woman asked whether Arab influence (arabisasi) is responsible for the decrease in breastfeeding mothers. The presenter already covered the far more proximate and convincing roles played by midwives, nurses, families, Acehnese beliefs about women and childbirth, postpartum diet, the baby milk formula and advertising industries, and basic health education. This woman felt that the Arabisation of Aceh should be added to the list, because, well, she once heard that Arab culture is not supportive of women and childbirth. Ya Allahhh (read: OMG)… OK, to be fair, the Arabisation of Indonesian society at large has been a subject of contentious public debate for at least the past ten years. And Aceh, after all, is known as “Mecca’s Verandah” (Serambi Mekkah), and was Islam’s point of entry into the Malay archipelago so many centuries ago. More recently, the formal implementation of Islamic law in Aceh this decade is held up as one of Indonesia’s most troubling examples of Arabisation. The woman who asked the question is tapping into the widely accepted notion that Aceh is full of Islamic fanatics and therefore must be prone to Arab influence, paving the way for the rest of Indonesia to follow suit. Arabisasi in Indonesia is a debatable phenomenon to begin with, a catch-all term to name the rapid changes in Islamic practice in Indonesia that feel inconsistent with local practice, even more so in Java than in Sumatra. But even if we accept Arabisation at face value, I wonder if she would ask the same question if the case study on breastfeeding was conducted in a suburban village on the outskirts of Yogya instead of Lhokseumawe? Let’s be clear: Indonesians think Acehnese are fanatics because Snouck Hurgronje said they were, 100 years ago! Post-colonial Jakarta inherited and perfected Batavia’s convenient othering artifice that first justified Dutch and then Indonesian military oppression in Aceh. I could go on and on about this, but the point here is that young Acehnese mothers have so much more to worry about when trying to breastfeed their babies than the Arabs.
  3. In Aceh, the word qanun means regional laws (peraturan daerah or perda in other provinces). There are a few qanun in Aceh that define a provincial-wide criminal code based on Islamic law. One of the presentations told the history of the khalwat qanun and the political and religious interests that surrounded it. I’m no expert in Islamic law, but the khalwat law forbids various sexual and other kinds of vice, and defines the corporal punishments for breaking the law which include caning with a rattan whip. After this presentation, a man asked the presenter whether or not “qanun” in Aceh (by which I think he meant various Islamic laws ratified and implemented in Aceh and not qanun in general) can survive when ganja farming and ganja use are such a huge problem in Aceh. Huh what? I guess he was implying that Acehnese society would never by pious enough to live by Islamic law if everyone in Aceh smokes ganja. To my knowledge, there are qanun based on Islamic law that deal with alcohol consumption, but I’m not sure if they cover ganja use. Anyway, setting aside ganja for the moment, many Acehnese still drink alcohol, gamble, cheat on their spouses, and enjoy pre-marital sex… and these are all clear breaches of Islamic law codified in qanun. This guy thinks that real world vice practices are actually a threat to qanun on the books. He even thinks that real world practices possibly not even covered in qanun will also threaten the qanun’s existence. Or maybe he just wanted to remind the presenter and everyone in the seminar room that Aceh has a well established, but illegal, ganja production and trade industry, and that reflects poorly on the people of Aceh and puts a stain on Indonesia’s reputation. Ganja has been a cooking ingredient in Aceh for generations, and the seeds are often crushed and used as a kind of “natural MSG” as well. I don’t believe this actually makes anyone high, but people like to joke that it does. Since the crop has always been a part of the local agriculture, it was exploited, especially as a source of black market revenue during the conflict, and developed into a lucrative industry, supplying the demand for ganja throughout Indonesia and possibly throughout Southeast Asia (I’m no expert on this either). These are real issues, but to call ganja a threat to the very survival of qanun based on Islamic law is quite imaginary.

To the credit of the presenters, none of them even bothered to answer these three questions. The questions were so fantastically disconnected from the content of each presentation that the presenters probably didn’t even know how to begin a much more fundamental and complicated conversation that breaks down the assumptions and stereotypes that non-Acehnese Indonesians still hold against Aceh. Like the questions themselves, such a conversation is off-topic from the research findings they came to discuss. At a graduate conference, full of graduate students (and their professors), at least three people in this educated group couldn’t let go of their bias and fear, and sadly allowed themselves to ask foolish questions.

On the flip-side, an Acehnese graduate student (not from our ARTI group, thank goodness!) from Nagan Raya district stood up and embarrassed himself as well. Following a presentation about women’s participation in local politics in Aceh Utara and Lhokseumawe delivered by a very smart and articulate woman from Malikusaleh University, this guy from Nagan Raya told her that she really should have checked the election results from Nagan Raya in 2004, when he was on the elections oversight board (panwaslu) there, because a lot of women won in his district. He embodied the worst in Aceh gender dynamics, challenging the presenter more rudely than he would have if the presenter was a man. Again, he was off-topic, as she had clearly demarcated her research to the 2009 elections in Aceh Utara and Lhokseumawe, completely on the opposite coast of Aceh from Nagan Raya. The panel moderator had told the audience very strictly and clearly that each person could ask only one question, but this dude wanted to ask four! A friend of mine who was sitting next to where he was standing reached over and turned off the microphone because everyone in the auditorium was protesting the number and length of his questions. Our Aceh delegation from ARTI was pretty embarrassed, because as the above examples illustrate, Acehnese have enough negative perceptions stacked against them. This Acehnese guy from Nagan Raya spoke publicly at UGM in a way that confirms and diminishes other Indonesians’ image of Aceh.

Since I started working in Aceh in 2005 I have become familiar with many of the assumptions and stereotypes that people in Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia (in Java and Bali especially, where the majority of Indonesians live anyway) hold against Aceh, but this conference demonstrated many of them in concentrated and instructive form. Their assumptions interfered and prevented them from carefully listening to the young scholars from ARTI and understanding local dynamics in Aceh as they were reflected in the ARTI scholars’ presentations. Beyond this seminar, the ways that powerful people in Jakarta and in Indonesia’s most distinguished halls of academia like UGM misperceive Aceh has more sinister consequences. My advisor has had the surreal experience of presenting findings at UGM from our research about levels of violence and psychological disabilities in conflict-affected communities in Aceh. The numbers are powerful and scary, and there is an implicit message about Java’s complicity in the violence that occurred there. Reactions from the audience vary, but a common response is a somber “we never knew.” Such ignorance may be largely attributed to an orchestrated disinformation and obfuscation campaign by the government, but such an effort is so much easier when you can rely on century-old discourses about Aceh that always and already make sure that you never wanted to know in the first place.