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    Til next time, Indonesia

    Til next time, Indonesia

  2. Earlier this week, I was on a little island just off the coast of Jakarta with my co-workers. The place we were staying had karaoke rooms for rent, and my karaoke-loving colleagues went to town, singing until after midnight. I’ve done a lot of karaoke with them, and at first this time seemed no different. There were familiar dangdut favorites, full of double entendres and sung by gyrating women whose voices drip with longing, and classics like “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But my co-workers, many of whom were in college in the late ’90s and took part in student protests against dictator Suharto, also sang a series of songs that I hadn’t heard before. Many were by Iwan Fals, a beloved Indonesian folk singer and social critic. The songs contained the same double meanings as the dangdut songs, though this time the songs were not about sex, but about politics and corruption. Suharto is only referred to as “old man” in one of Fals’s songs: “There’s a big wind blowing outside,” Fals sings, a reference to calls for social change as Suharto clung to power. “Isn’t it time you had a rest, old man?” My co-workers sang these songs with a raw passion I haven’t seen in them before, and to hear these former activists singing with such gusto was very poignant. I recently read an article about the Russian art collective Pussy Riot, in which the author emphasizes the central role music has played in American social movements, ponders the lack of music’s centrality in Occupy Wall Street, and ultimately finds solace in the fact that Pussy Riot seems to be keeping the “revolutionary potential” of music alive. At karaoke the other night, it was easy to feel that same potential, and to be reminded that I’ve been living in a society that went through seismic social change less than 20 years ago.

  3. One week left in Jakarta and I’m starting to get nostalgic for its charming, old-school rumah makan (“eating houses”) and bakeries.

  4. Kota Tua, Jakarta

  5. Semi-abandoned building in Kota Tua, Jakarta’s old town

  6. Prison visit

    I spent Friday observing a training in a prison about an hour from Jakarta. The prison complex itself was compact and tidy, a circle of buildings arranged around a manicured lawn and cheerful, flowering plantings. It houses just over 1,000 inmates convicted of crimes ranging from corruption to murder to terrorism; a large number have been convicted of drug-related crimes. Most of the men who attended my organization’s training looked like they couldn’t be much older than twenty. Some of them had riotous tattoos cascading down their upper bodies, which on first glance made them look tough, until I noticed their delicate, near-hairless wrists and forearms. 

    While inmates have the option to work in the prison’s several small businesses—which range from growing mushrooms to farming catfish to sewing mattresses to painting cars—religious activity seems to one of the primary ways to pass time while incarcerated. In a nod to Indonesia’s six officially recognized religions, the prison complex houses a large mosque, a Confucian/Buddhist temple and a church; in a relatively small complex, these houses of worship take up a surprisingly large amount of space. A former inmate who was invited to speak to the training participants yesterday emphasized that he spent much of his time in prison studying Islam and praying, and seemed to credit his successful transition post-release (he now owns several food carts) to his devotion.

    There’s been growing concern over the past decade that religious radicalization is on the rise in Indonesian prisons, especially as more and more religious radicals convicted of terrorism are incarcerated; some guards have even been radicalized by inmates they have regular contact with. While the spread of radical ideology is tied to many complex factors here, and while I am almost certain radical ideas are not preached in prison-based houses of worship, the idea of religious transformations—whether conversion or a deepening of commitment to an already-held belief system—occurring during incarceration here seemed perfectly logical after seeing the layout of a prison.

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    I love that bright blue tomb on the hilltop. 

    I love that bright blue tomb on the hilltop. 

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    Danau Toba, North Sumatra

    Danau Toba, North Sumatra

  9. My sister, a radio producer, made this beautiful collage of sounds from our trip around Java and Bali in 2012: Wooden wind chimes, Indonesian men laughing and shooting the shit, surf, ethereal music at a Balinese temple perched above the Indian ocean, rain, and motorbike engines.

  10. Uje

    In late April, Jeffry Al Bukhori, a popular Muslim preacher, was killed in a motorcycle accident in Jakarta. I had never heard of Ustadz Jeffry—or “Uje,” as he is affectionately called—while he was living, but lately his face has been splashed across newspapers and TV broadcasts; just this morning, my housekeeper was watching footage of tearful supporters at his funeral. The more I learn about Uje, the more fascinating I find him. He was raised in Jakarta, and apparently spent much of his youth drinking, gambling, doing drugs and cavorting with unsavory characters. Even after he became a preacher, he lived with a certain flair: He was an Islamic fashion trendsetter, a recording artist (see one of his music videos, which features him swaying in an Indonesian market, here) and a soap opera actor. He was married to a former model. Uje was also a motorcycle enthusiast, and much of the footage that has aired since his death features him zooming around on a shiny black hog, his eyes obscured by sunglasses. I often see him referred to as the ustadz gaul (gaul roughly translates to “hip”). Some friends have told me that Uje is also beloved for his tolerant, inclusive teachings, especially at a time when intolerant hardliners are increasingly in the public eye.

    The more I learned about Uje, the more familiar he seemed to me. I just remembered this article, which I posted back in 2011, about Aa Gym, a charismatic Indonesia televangelist: Like Uje, he has a soft spot for motorcycles and wears his wealth like a badge. Re-reading that article, this struck me:

    "[Gym] is concerned about advancing Muslims economically through modern-day practices of business and religion," [said a member of Indonesia’s Council of Ulemas].

    Indeed, Aa Gym preaches prosperity to his followers. “You must remember, the Prophet Muhammad, blessed be his name, was a businessman himself,” he says, “and a very good one, too.”

    To me, this recalls the prosperity gospel, a Christian idea that God wants you to be wealthy and that wealth is a sign of God’s favor, which became prominent in mid-century America; I wonder the extent to which similar “gospels” are circulating among Indonesian Muslims.

    I find religious leaders in the vein of Uje and Aa Gym troubling, especially in the context of Indonesia. In a country where so many people are crushingly poor, it seems strange that these men—with their flashy motorcycles and fancy, embroidered clothes—are the “peoples’ ” preachers. Yet they seem to command such huge followings, and I wonder if their wealth is one reason they are so widely respected. I assumed such wealth would alienate those who have less, but perhaps Aa Gym and Uje serve more as aspirational figures instead.