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Dear Mom - Part 3

Religion is a very interesting dynamic here. Though Indonesia proclaims to be a secular state, muslims dominate government, politics and social discourse. Every evening at 6 p.m., every broadcast station stops to play the muslim call to prayer. The morning is punctuated with calls beginning at roughly 3:30 a.m., and continuing every few hours throughout the day. There is more or less a mosque every 100 meters, and every one of them has a poorly tuned public address system, which on a scale of 1 to 10, is turned up to 11. With the exception of Manado, and possibly Bali (I’ll let you know in January), there is no escape from the audio assault every 3 hours of every day of every week or every year. One of the appeals of my apartment, when I moved here, was that I had found a pocket of relative peace. However, about two months ago, someone discovered that my ears weren’t bleeding, and now there is a speaker seemingly aimed at my bedroom window.

There is a quasi-government agency called the MUI, whose task it is to set religious holidays and to guard the public from being Christianized. Its most important function is to calculate the feast of Idul Fitri, which is the end of Ramadan and of the month of fasting. The exact moment of the appearance of the New Moon is of keen interest to all hungry muslims. This year, there was some controversy, as the MUI set the date on a Sunday night, and other groups set it at Monday morning. The media spent an entire week covering the debate as to who was right. In the end if was determined that the individual should follow their conscience. In other words, most chose the earlier time. The MUI has recently called for a ban on the film “2012,” as only Allah knows the time of Doomsday. This has naturally led to huge crowds flocking to see the film.

If you get the sense that Indonesians are somewhat relaxed about religion, you would be right. Certainly, there are rabid voices of intolerance, not unlike the far Christian right in the US, but the rank and file really can’t be bothered too much. The vast majority of mosque-going muslims attend services on Friday afternoon, analogous to Sunday in the West. Just as in the States, there are those who loudly proclaim that it is an Islamic nation, founded on Islamic principles, virtual mirror images of the Christian right in the States. Equally, the unwashed masses ignore the whole thing, much as at home.

From what I see, the call to prayer is primarily heeded by working men and students who use the excuse to take a break.

The most obvious adherence to muslim practice is the use of the jilbab, or headscarf, worn by girls and women. There are shops in the malls devoted entirely to selling jilbab, and the myriad of designs and decorations are rather intriguing. Girls begin wearing the jilbab at about the age of 3, and continue the practice for life. In the big cities, many schoolgirls wear them at school, but generally pull them off once they are off school grounds. Given the sweltering heat here, especially in October, one can hardly blame them. Honestly, I believe that the long clothing and jilbab are used more to keep the skin from turning black than from any religious consideration. Bathing suits are another article of clothing that is a throw-back. The suits have long leggings and sleeves, and expose only the hands, face and feet. Curiously, I find the suits more alluring than the most revealing bikini, as the tight fabric gives more to the imagination, which is a powerful aphrodisiac.

One other sidebar here…marriage here is only a religious affair. The is no such thing as a court wedding. The marriage is registered in the mosque/church/temple, and from time to time, a government representative comes around and makes note of the registry. I mention this because a muslim marriage involves a contract in which the man promises to feed his wife at least one meal a day. If he ever fails to do that, she can leave him and is entitled to a sum of money that is negotiated into the contract. One that I kow of has the sum of $100,00. No one lives together here unless they are married, or unless they have a contract which states that the man will support any children that result from co-habitation. That includes female servants who live with male masters. I had to sign one with my maid before she could move in.

Time is another fascinating concept here. From the idea of “jam karet” or flexible time (analogous to manana in Mexico) to the dizzying number of words for time and unfamiliar ways of measuring time. Things like 6:30 is half-seven, Sunday night is on Saturday, an appointment is a theoretical thing, and the lack of tenses familiar to English speakers requires the use of a myriad of time statements to pin-point when something did or will happen. The word for yesterday, kemarin, can refer to anytime in the recent past. Ditto for tomorrow, besok. If something happened before now, one uses dulu up to a point, and then lalu further back in time. If you want to indicate something must be done before something else, you would use sebelum, which transliterates as “a not-yet.” If you want to indicate that you will never do something, you say “ga pernah.” If you want to say that you have not yet done something you say “belum pernah.” If you want to say you always do something you say “pernah,” as in “Saya pernah ke mol,” or I always go to the mall. To say you will/intend do something, you must use akan. If someone wants to meet you on Saturday night, you have to remember that they are referring to Friday night. If someone says they will meet you at 11 a.m., you can add anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on weather, traffic and excuses. They will never be early.

If Indonesian culture can be summed up in one word, it is FOOD. Everything here revolves around food and eating, and one has not eaten until the rice is finished. A very common greeting among familiars is, “Hey! Have you eaten?” I recently learned that Chinese culture has the same peculiarity. If you ask someone to do something, it is very common to hear, “Makan dulu ya.” I want to eat before doing that. Indonesians typically eat five times a day. Without a full-blown vocabulary lesson, it amounts to breakfast, brunch, lunch, tea, and dinner. Every meal, without exception, includes rice. If you go to McDonald’s your burger comes with rice. If you eat pizza, you have a ball of rice with it. There are food carts and restaurants nearly every step of every road in every square inch of the country, and I don’t exaggerate. You can find something to eat every hour of every day, even during Ramadan. Worst case scenario, you can pick a banana, hair fruit, coconut, or avocado nearly everywhere. The fact that you pay for those fruits in the market is basically paying labor and shipping for someone else to pick it.

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