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Book Club Indonesia

Book Club: Kedai 1001 Mimpi by Valiant Budi

I stumbled upon Valiant Budi’s Twitter feed (@vabyo) thanks to a recommendation from another Indonesian writer who mentioned that his stories from Saudi Arabia were the funniest serial tweets she had ever read. Too many Indonesians abuse Twitter to give lectures (so called kultwit, or kuliah twitter) to their followers, but when he was working abroad @vabyo mastered the form to tell wildly hilarious stories under the banner of Arabia Underkampret (a pun—plesetan—of Arabia Undercover), about Indonesians living and working in the Kingdom. Every two days or so, another installment of @vabyo’s Arabian Underkampret would unfold in a series of 140 character length “chapters” over the course of about an hour. In real life, Valiant Budi was working as a barista at an international coffeeshop in the city of Dammam. With self-effacing humor and linguistic wit, @vabyo’s stories on Twitter described Saudi society as seen through the eyes of foreign workers from Indonesia.

Book cover for Valiant Budi's "Kedai 1001 Mimpi" (front and back)
Book cover for Valiant Budi's "Kedai 1001 Mimpi" (front and back)
my copy... signed, kissed, delivered!
my copy... signed, kissed, delivered!

Upon his return to Indonesia last year, Valiant wrote a travel memoir based in large part on the stories he already told on Twitter, his personal blog, or facebook. My signed (and kissed!) copy of Kedai 1001 Mimpi: Kisah Nyata Seorang Penulis yang Menjadi TKI arrived in the mail at the beginning of May. I haven’t settled on a fair translation of the title, but for now I’m going with the utilitarian but decidedly less catchy “Shop of 1001 Dreams: The True Story of an Indonesian Writer who Worked Abroad.” Each chapter recounts a series of short vignettes, partly reflecting its Twitter origins, making the book easy to pick up at a free moment and read quickly. I don’t think I could do Valiant any justice by recounting his experiences in detail, but there is plenty of shock and outrage, leavened with enough wordplay and humor to highlight Valiant’s absurd circumstances in the Saudi Kingdom

The parts of the book that I consistently enjoyed were Valiant’s “translation” moments. Throughout the book, Valiant interacts with Saudis (of course), Filipinos, Indians, Americans, and several fellow Indonesians. Among non-Indonesians, Valiant is probably speaking English as he mentions several times that he only learned how to say a few work-related coffeeshop words and curse words in Arabic. He must always translate these interactions for his Indonesian readers, or translate Indonesian for his foreign interlocutors in Dammam. Here is what Walter Benjamin says about how signifiers relate to the signified in translation:

“While content and language form a certain unity in the original, like a fruit and its skin, the language of the translation envelops its content like a royal robe with ample folds. For it signifies a more exalted lan­guage than its own and thus remains unsuited to its content, overpowering and alien. This disjunction prevents translation and at the same time makes it superfluous.” [from “Task of the Translator.” Emphasis mine on those awesome metaphors.]

The “ample folds,” the yawning gaps between language and content, “overpowering and alien,” that prevent translation are the source of Valiant’s humor. He starts by noting the common challenge that speakers of Tagalog and Sundanese face when distinguishing between the consonants “p” “f” and “v,” further complicated by Arabic mispronunciation of the consonant “b.” For the rest of the book, the voice of Valiant’s Filipino supervisor Albert, who speaks to Valiant in English, is written in Indonesian, sometimes in English (as below), with this particular Tagalog speech impediment that Sundanese Indonesians from Valiant’s hometown of Bandung frequently experience themselves. Every speech act by Albert turns into sitcom-style slapstick:

Excerpt from Valiant Budi's "Kedai 1001 Mimpi" (p.377)
* Albert is trying to say “finance” but says “binans” instead. Binan is Indonesian slang for “gay.”
** Valiant has slipped the speech impediment into his narrative voice.
*** Note that the first two lines combined, and the third line, are each less than 140 characters.

In another scene, Valiant awakes from a nightmare in which he explains it was the first dream he had in the Arabic language, but with English subtitles: “Yes, I saw English text on the screen of my dream!” (p.371, my translation) Valiant wrote all of the dialogue and description of the dream in Indonesian, so the reader is receiving the complete transcript of Valiant’s dream, translated twice (first into English then into Indonesian) from a language (Arabic) that Valiant himself does not understand!

In my favorite “translation” sequence on pages 307-309, a customer walks into the coffeeshop and asks Valiant to translate several text messages written in Indonesian. They were sent by an Indonesian woman working as a domestic laborer in Saudi Arabia, and apparently in a romantic relationship with the customer because Valiant realizes that she has been sending him lyrics from her favorite popular Indonesian dangdut love songs. The customer shows Valiant four different text messages, and with embarrassment and exasperation, Valiant provides the translations in awkward English:

Okelah kalo begitu Okay if you said so
Eh eh, kok gitu, sih? Eh-eh why is that, though?
Lelaki buaya darat, BUSET! Aku tertipu lagi!    Land crocodile man! Damn! I was fooled again!
Gantengnya pacarku, Auw! Such a handsome my boyfriend… Auw!

Valiant lies when he is asked to translate an Indonesian text message for another customer:

Dasar lo tukang berzinah! Moga-moga buntung penis lo! You’re such a good man. May you and your family always be blessed.

I haven’t even touched the “overpowering and alien” scenes (from an Indonesian perspective) of Arabian sexuality, alternating between deep repression on the one hand and hyper-perversion on the other. Then there are scenes of conspicuous Arabian wealth wielded by people with unparalleled combinations of stupidity and arrogance. The realities of extreme discrimination faced by foreign labor in Saudi Arabia, particularly by women working as housemaids, are touched upon as well. Finally, there are many scenes of religious hypocrisy, the likes of which are sadly becoming more common here in Indonesia. Valiant recounts all of these scenes based on either his personal experience or the experiences of the Indonesian friends he met there. Apart from the hundreds of laugh-out-loud moments (the LOLZ or wkwkwkwkwkz depending on your slang preference), these stories reveal some of what lies beneath the Kingdom’s carefully managed public image as the Muslim world’s pious caretaker of Mecca and Medina and global supplier of oil. For Indonesians, Valiant’s book surely makes them proud and grateful of their home country and then think twice about the so-called “arabization” of Indonesian Islam. (Hundreds of appreciative Indonesian reader reactions can be found on Twitter by searching the hashtag #kedai1001mimpi)

My critique: Valiant’s book presents dozens of short vignettes, loosely tied together by the chronological arc (arrival, culture shock, acclimation, outrage, revenge, escape) of his time spent in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. I recognized quite a few of the stories from his Arabian Underkampret series on Twitter. Here is what I learned: it’s not easy to jump genre from serial tweets (or even blog posts) to long form narrative. Serial tweets impose a strict rhythm (140 characters or less) on internet communications. The #hashtag, which @vabyo uses as much more than just a topic or category marker in his tweets, is an important part of that rhythm. @Vabyo uses hashtags as a reflexive counterpoint to his stories, moments when the narrator comments upon his own storytelling, with brilliant comedic effect. Furthermore, each episode was an event with dozens if not hundreds of @vabyo’s followers reading along in real time, anticipating and savoring the arrival of the story’s next sentence every few minutes. Readers could reply in real time, sometimes asking for more details and receiving @vabyo’s answers. The temporal and prosodic qualities of Arabian Underkampret are not easily transposed into prose. First, the hashtag method of reflexive self-comment disappears, losing some of the delightful cognitive dissonance that they offer. Second, @vabyo’s efficiently descriptive, alliterative, rhyming tweets become oddly overwhelming after Valiant links and revises them as sentences on the page. Third, Valiant loses track here and there of certain promising narrative threads introduced in one or two vignettes, but without follow-up. For example, we never found out why coffeeshop customers from Riyadh are extra-arrogant compared to average-arrogant Saudi customers in Dammam. We also never find out if Valiant ever took up Eldo’s offer to try private pole dancing for paying Saudi customers. I wonder if @vabyo would answer that question if I asked him on Twitter?

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Anthropology Book Club Conflict Indonesia Reflexive

Book Club: Conflict, Violence, and Displacement in Indonesia

Any book might have been a compelling jolt out of the academic ambivalence that precedes (and prevents) my dissertation, but it happened to be Conflict, Violence, and Displacement in Indonesia, published last year by the Cornell Southeast Asia Program, and edited by Eva-Lotta E. Hedman. I was surprised to find it at Aksara on my last trip to Jakarta so I picked it up, not least because I had dinner once with Eva-Lotta here in Banda Aceh a few years ago and should familiarize myself with her work. The cover has a terrific photograph that for me perfectly captures the inherent tension between structure and agency that animates so much anthropological debate. This woman IDP returning home to Halmahera from her displacement in Ternate in 2002 is decidedly *not* interested in the policeman’s direction, but she probably doesn’t have much choice or where else to go.

The back cover states the book’s mission: “This volume foregrounds the dynamics of displacement and the experiences of internal refugees uprooted by conflict and violence in Indonesia.” In doing so, Hedman hopes to achieve a threefold intervention, described in the last paragraph of the Introduction (p.27):

  1. Instead of a focus on explaining violence and conflict in Indonesia, which has the unfortunate–some might say unavoidable–byproduct of displacement, this book highlights displacement itself as an actual mode of governmentality. She invokes Agamben’s “state of exception” theory here.
  2. Instead of reducing Indonesia to one case study in a global comparative analysis of sectarian or communal violence, terrorism, or failed states, this book allows for a deeper and multi-layered analysis within Indonesia’s borders, which has more diverse comparative material on “conflict, violence, and displacement” than most other nation-states could claim.
  3. Instead of situating this book within discourses of the emergent and well-funded transnational humanitarian industry, concerned with describing the distribution of conflict and violence and prescribing solutions for it, an industry that arguably reflects and reproduces “a more pervasive/violence discourse, … this volume serves as a reminder that the very processes involved in the production of knowledge about displacement cannot, by definition, remain somehow outside or above politics.” (p.27)

Each “intervention” grips and excites me, but each in their own particular way. I’ll start with the second one, because that poses no disagreement. I’ve accepted that in some elite institutions regional studies may be unfashionable second tier academia, but I think of myself as an Indonesianist, so I enthusiastically support Hedman’s claim that a more fine-grained analysis of Indonesia at the nation-state and regional levels precedes, and supersedes, global comparison. Anthropologists, at least in a Boasian tradition, have the least problem with getting “intensely local,” multi-sited theoretical developments aside, so at least in my discipline I don’t have to apologize for putting regional and thematic issues on an equal footing. I love this book already because it’s all about Indonesia! It even has two chapters about Aceh!

The first “intervention” drags me back, kicking and screaming, to my anthropological training. I think I was assigned Agamben in at least two courses, and the “state of exception” (also a highlight in Walter Benjamin’s work) is a powerful analytic deployed frequently in contemporary ethnography. It’s not that I think it’s wrong; rather, my day-to-day work in Aceh over the years has not encouraged, broadly speaking, a discursive analytical framework. Foucault & friends do not come easy to begin with, and I have to flex the brain a few times to “get it.” When I first read Hedman’s Introduction, I thought her writing was strange, excessive, and strident… even as I found myself agreeing with her. Writing about late Soekarno-era military adventures along the nation’s borders, here is an excerpt that stands out:

The West New Guinea and Konfrontasi campaigns served, in distinct ways, to shape the social (re)production of state borders and national space in Indonesia through militarized conflict, violence, and displacement. In the case of the West New Guinea campaign… it prompted a creeping militarization of the long border with Papua New Guinea and the emergence of a growing and, eventual, so-called ‘protracted refugee situation’ across this border, thus anchoring Jakarta’s claims to the last remnants of the (former) Dutch East Indies colonial territory in new lived experiences of political boundaries and violent geographies on Indonesia’s easternmost frontier. … The undeclared border war known as Konfrontasi prompted a new consciousness of the border between Indonesia and Malaysia and the wider social and economic effects thereof, as ‘people from across the border came to be viewed as outsiders rather than relatives.’ (p.12)

Violence and displacement not only consolidate national boundaries but are also productive of national consciousness among displaced populations at Indonesia’s most distant frontiers. I get it. I’ve even written papers like this. It’s just been awhile. Like I said, any decent ethnography may have (re)oriented me (natch!) back to my discipline’s theoretical for-granteds, but I am grateful that this one did the job.

I take issue with the third “intervention,” and only partly because it kicks me where it counts. She writes: “The mobilization of a massive transnational ‘humanitarian’ machinery, with its own considerable complex of national and international, governmental and non-governmental, resources, networks, and discourses, has propelled an entire industry focused on ‘conflict and violence in Indonesia,’ including the so-called mapping of conflict and violence, the search for conflict intervention mechanisms, and the design of peace and conflict resolution programs.” Such efforts, she says, arguably reflect and reproduce “a more pervasive conflict/violence discourse ‘grounded in a set of institutions that promotes its persistence.'” (p.27) At the end of the line there she is quoting from a book I haven’t heard of before, by Paul Brass, titled Theft of an Idol: Text and Context in the Representation of Collective Violence, published in 1997 by Princeton University Press. After a quick browse online, here is how the publisher describes the book, which is an ethnography of communal violence in northern India:  

Brass shows how, out of many possible interpretations applicable to these incidents, government and the media select those that support existing relations of power in state and society…some incidents remain localized while others are fit into broader frameworks of meaning, thereby becoming useful for upholders of dominant ideologies. Incessant talk about violence and its implications in these circumstances contributes to its persistence rather than its reduction. Such treatment serves in fact to mask the causes of violence, displace the victims from the center of attention, and divert society’s gaze from those responsible for its endemic character.

OK now let’s compare Hedman’s words and her reference point with my current job. I work for World Bank Indonesia’s Conflict and Development team (read: massive transnational ‘humanitarian’ machinery…focused on ‘conflict and violence in Indonesia,’). My job is to support The Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies at Syiah Kuala University, which receives much of its funding from the World Bank (read: the search for conflict intervention mechanisms, and the design of peace and conflict resolution programs). Our signature product is the Aceh Peace Monitoring Update, which relies on a newspaper monitoring methodology to map conflict and violence in Aceh since early 2005 (read: including the so-called mapping of conflict and violence). In Hedman’s own chapter, “Back to the Barracks: Relokasi Pengungsi in Post-Tsunami Aceh,” she cites one of these monitoring updates (when it was still called the Aceh Conflict Monitoring Update, and still produced directly by the World Bank). It’s not unlikely that the critique in her Introduction is directed squarely at my employer and its publications. In a word: Ouch!

It’s not like she is the only one to make this critique. There is a blooming critical literature in the social sciences about humanitarianism, Mariella Pandolfi’s “mobile sovereign” and all that, wherein the state of exception figures heavily as well. The problem with this critique though is that it sets up a straw man figure of the (faceless) Humanitarian, and if that is your image, then The Bank is such an easy and obvious target. In that conversation, structure beats agency every time, with a knockout punch, except it’s rigged! I prefer the more productive tension illustrated on the book cover.

So in an effort to balance Hedman’s third intervention, I just want to say two things. The first is that these conversations and critiques also take place within the humanitarian industry itself. Humanitarians might possibly be the most reflexive professionals around, after anthropologists of course. The second is that humanitarians are not (only) cylon machinery. One could argue perhaps that some are more “interpellated by structures of power and domination” than, say, some critical anthropologists think that they’re not, but they’ve got agency in there somewhere (In Jakarta, for example, I choose Starbucks over Oh-La-La). Humanitarians also have lives, and frustrations, and lovers, and even moral commitments, and well, experience, that are ethnographically rich, and that is something still missing from this critical literature.

I should add, now that I’ve got that off my chest, that Hedman is partially right. My office does not have total neutrality and autonomy when it writes a peace monitoring update, but I think most of us are aware of that. There are subtle and blunt forces that shape the content, style, and language of those reports. The details of such forces are indeed ethnographically rich; I savor them actually (because the process is so fascinating), even as they frustrate and compel me/us to self-censor. The net effect favors, though hardly explicitly and certainly not intentionally, an assemblage of powerful interests. This is what draws me to the Paul Brass book, in due time; I don’t think I’ll find that one at Aksara.

There is so much more to write, to fill in the details of the previous two paragraphs just for example, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. Regarding this wonderful new book that got my head ticking again, I’ve only really addressed the Introduction, but there is a great collection of chapters, and so far I’ve read the two excellent Aceh chapters (Hedman wrote one about the early and decisive days for managing the tsunami IDPs, Ed Aspinall wrote the other one about three major waves of conflict IDPs between 1998 and 2005). I am really looking forward to the last chapter which is about ghosts with trauma and a haunting drakula in post-conflict North Maluku. But for now, I’ve got my own chapter to write, for another book, and I’m hoping this conversation here serves as an inspiration.

Categories
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.