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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?

Categories
Anthropology Book Club Indonesia Reflexive

Book Club: A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java

Less than a few chapters into Andrew Beatty’s ethnographic travel memoir A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java the two Big Bads in the book emerge:  The State & Reformist Islam. Through efficient descriptive vignettes about the people in a mountainside village just outside of Banyuwangi in East Java where Beatty and his family lived for several years, these twin threats to village harmony are quickly boiled down to singular referents. To evoke state violence, Beatty needs only to mention the haunting specter of “1965,” while the ultimate symbol of intrusive Islamic orthodoxy is the blaring “megaphone” on village mosques and prayer houses.  It’s a tidy and effective narrative strategy, but troubling in its over-simplification.

In the mid-1990s when Beatty did his fieldwork, the memories of 1965 have sedimented, leaving its mark on village social organization, and ensuring at least a superficial stability. State violence has receded to an implicit threat, but remains no less effective as the primary instrument of governance at the height of Soeharto’s “benevolent” military dictatorship. All political ideologies were banned beneath the state ideology of Pancasila, and that included political Islam. Some historians and political scientists argue that the Soeharto regime’s increasing accommodation of Islam within the state apparatus signaled one of the first stages of its disintegration. Beatty doesn’t get into the national level macro-politics that preceded Soeharto’s fall, but that may partially explain the (authorized) emergence of a more strident and pious brand of Islam in “Bayu,” the pseudonymously named village where he did his research.

Book Cover for "A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java" by Andrew Beatty
Book Cover for "A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java" by Andrew Beatty

I’ve been living and working in Indonesia since 1989, so I know how this story ends, and it’s ugly. I cringed and winced as insults and threats accumulate against well-intentioned leaders and ordinary villagers in Bayu because I know that the climax here is the horrific so-called “ninja killings” of hundreds of suspected “sorcerers” throughout East Java in the late 1990s. In many ways, the twin figures of State Violence and Islamic Orthodoxy richly deserve Beatty’s partisan critique. (A fair criticism of Beatty’s bias against religious orthodoxy in this book can be found in Nicholas Herriman’s review, so I won’t dwell on this any further.) He unabashedly favors Bayu’s intensely local and tolerant continuum of religious practices so richly and warmly described in the book. Quite frankly, so do I. The stories from Bayu echo the experiences I had during my first year in Yogyakarta in 1989-1990, which have brought me back to Indonesia again and again.

I pursue anthropology and stand by its methods because the practice and writing of ethnography and the social theories that come out of it are capable of helping us better understand how and why these things happen. After reading Beatty’s book, I was reminded of two excellent examples. The first is Clifford Geertz’s A Social History of an Indonesian Town, which takes the more abstract and encyclopedic descriptions from his Religion of Java and shows how they play out socially and politically in an actual time and place: a small Javanese market town during Indonesia’s first experiment in representative party politics during the 1950s. Geertz identified internal rifts within loosely delineated social groups (the now overly-reified abangan, santri, and priyayi categories) driven by the post-colonial forces of nationalism, political organization, bureaucratization, and so on. Modernizing factions within each of these communities appeared increasingly organized along ideological platforms rather than the more traditional geographic and social bonds that typically served to smooth over political and religious differences. Formerly “simple indexes of received practice” became “emblems of consciously adopted and vigorously defended ideological positions.” Custom became doctrine, the concrete became abstract, the specific became general, and the unquestioned grew apologetic. The experiment was short-lived; Soekarno’s “Guided Democracy” and then Soeharto’s “New Order” governments justified their dictatorships on the premise that the masses couldn’t handle democracy and politics. Post-1965 Java submitted to the New Order’s version of Pancasila Democracy, and for 32 years that was the end of openly expressed political differences based on ideology.

The second example from anthropology comes from John Pemberton’s On the Subject of “Java.” If Geertz argued that an understanding of local culture is necessary to make sense of the seemingly chaotic events (such as a local election) unfolding in Java, then Pemberton’s book, in careful historiographic and ethnographic detail, reverses this assumption and instead discerns a “culture effect” wrought by history upon the Javanese people that goes back to Dutch colonialism but remains alive and well in Soeharto’s New Order Indonesia. European concepts such as “ritual,” “culture” and “tradition” have a discursive effect that royalty, bureaucrats, and villagers in Java internalize and reproduce eagerly to an extent that everyday practice assumes a customary reality. But New Order cultural discourse, in its relentless effort to recuperate and preserve traditional “Java,” is always and necessarily left with a residual trace or a fleeting sense of absence. Part of Pemberton’s description of the “culture effect” entails the abstraction of specific religious practices into an overarching set of Javanese traditions and rituals. When a village guardian spirit named Tangled Whiskers may once have been satisfied with an offering of gin and cigars, the cultural discourse on “Java” effaces intensely local idiosyncrasies. Villagers make general offerings in the name of “tradition” but remain uncertain of any outcome. It’s never enough, never quite satisfies.

Fast-forward now to mid-late 1990s when Beatty is doing his fieldwork. He laments the rise of Islamic orthodoxy and the majority of moderate villagers in Bayu who don’t like it but do nothing to stop it. Bayu’s own idiosyncratic guardian spirit is a were-tiger named Buyut that resides in the wild forests to the south. But as Beatty documents in the chapter titled “The Sanctuary,” a consultation with Buyut leaves one of the villagers with doubt, more questions than answers. At the moment when political Islam was authorized in the late New Order regime, suddenly there was an ideological alternative to the ossified Pancasila and its empty generic discourse on culture. Say what you like about political Islam, but if modern Islamic orthodoxy offers anything at all it’s certainty in an uncertain world. Relativistic and tolerant varieties of Javanese religion, drained of the local and idiosyncratic details that gave its practice meaning and its own kind of certainty, surrender in the face of such unwavering faith, firstly in the name of compromise and local harmony, and then perhaps secondly due to lack of any convincing alternatives. But make no mistake: when dogma trumps custom, the effects are disruptive… and deadly.

The book ends with a brief description of the ninja killings in East Java, and a mere suggestion of how state actors and radical Islamists may have come together to perpetrate riots, church burnings, and the massacre of hundreds of supposed “sorcerers” (many of whom were known to be mentally disabled village idiots). We learn that the religious fanatics in Bayu steal away at night to a distant location and study magic-inflected martial arts with a mysterious trainer. The village head has survived an attempted administrative coup against his leadership perpetrated by these same fanatics, but the once affable secular nationalist ends up a depressed and broken man after bearing witness to the changes in Bayu. It’s thoroughly depressing.

The other day I had a chat with another American friend of mine based here in Aceh (so far from Java!). He was feeling down about Indonesia and asked me why we keep coming back. What did we fall in love with in this country that brings us back to work here again and again? Bearing this book in mind, I recalled all those special things about my first few years coming to Indonesia. Most of that is gone; Indonesia has changed irrevocably (and to be fair, so have I). I think this book was so painful for me to read because it reminds me of all that is lost, yang sudah hilang. But that doesn’t mean I think Indonesia is worse off now than it was twenty years ago. Far from it. The undeniably horrific spasms of violence that wracked Indonesia in the years immediately after the fall of the New Order have subsided, and the Indonesia that emerged from the wreckage is now a semi-competent democracy with a resurgent economy. In retrospect, all those magical days and enchanting nights of my late teens and early twenties in places like Yogyakarta, Klaten, and Parangtritis now seem like rich mystifications, seductive “culture effects” encouraged and reinforced in broad strokes by an insufferably repressive regime.