“Are you a Muslim?” the old man asks me. We are sitting on the floor outside the musholla. The old man is wearing a forest green batik shirt, handmade patterns of blue dance up to the collar, and up to where a white songkok almost shelters his greying hair. He wears a sarong, and sits upright with the ease of a statue. “No,” I reply, “I’m a Christian.” His friend, sitting cross-legged beside him, leans over with a leathery hand and flicks the old man playfully under the chin – though the startling does not shake either’s smile. “It doesn’t matter what religion his is, remember?” he gently scolds, “we pray for everyone’s happiness just the same.”
For 11 days I’ve been staying at the Pondok Pesantren Al-Mahrusiyah (Al-Mahrusiyah Islamic boarding school) in Kediri, nestled in the lap of the green volcanoes of East Java. I am teaching English to 16-year-olds – just a handful of the 2,000 residential students under the care of Reza Ahmad Zahid, affectionately known as Gus Reza. Though I’m also supposed to be learning about the phenomenon Islam Nusantara (Archipelago Islam), I haven’t yet been able to pin him down to a serious conversation.
“Indonesia is a religious country,” he begins one evening, as a rare, contemplative air overcomes him. “Not just one religion,” he continues thoughtfully, “we’re a country where different religions can live in peace.” We both gaze out the window of the car. I’m anxiously considering how to hold on to this space, when we drive past a man on the roadside with his back to us, very close up against wall. The Indonesian pronunciation of ‘peace’ suddenly takes on a new meaning, he looks at me with a smirk on his face, and our giggling shatters the discussion.
This is not to say that Gus Reza is a loafer. At only 36 years of age, he already owns his own pondok pesantren, a school, and is vice-rector of the Tribakti Institute of Islamic Studies; he manages some 7,000 pondok pesantren in East Java under the care of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation Nadhlatul Ulama; he has three fish ponds; he created the Kediri branch of the Forum for Religious Harmony (FKUB); he has 10 geese; he just had his first baby last week. He’s got his hands full. Yet he’s mysteriously always available to hang out.
This is a problem I see in many Indonesians. They look my age, they joke like they’re not my age, and then it turns out they’re already in their thirties and have two kids. When the head of Nahdlatul Ulama in Kediri – Gus Ab – picks me up to eat mangoes at his house, I ask him what the secret is. “You have to make life chill,” he replies, as he narrowly swerves past the rickshaw drivers, battered trucks, and families-on-motorbikes that share the Indonesian roadways. “If you’re hungry, eat; if you’re tired, sleep; if you want to hang out, hang out. When you’re stressed, you can’t enjoy these simple pleasures. So start there.”
Sometimes I find cynicism wrinkling my frown, and I want to point out all that isn’t quite perfect – the way plastic bags are so lovingly handed out while rubbish breeds on the roadside. But laughter is the blossom of peace, and in a culture without alcohol and pubs, it’s the social lubricant that keeps everything as smooth as a middle-aged forehead.
It is, unfortunately, easier to trust in cynicism than in kindness. I’ve been hearing these stories of acceptance, tolerance, and so I’ve reluctantly been testing it out on the family over the road. I’ve gone round looking for nail scissors, I’ve brought mangoes – which I ended up eating myself, after being presented with a knife – and I even brought some Dutch cheese (which was put in the fridge and maybe never eaten). Once when I came round the lady, Ibu (‘mother’) Har, was wearing prayer robes and reciting the Qu’ran in a voice as if her breath were a bow sliding over the cellos of emotion. I ask her husband Bapak (‘father’) Winardi what she was reciting, and she abruptly stopped and looked over.
As I’ve gotten to know them though, I don’t think I even needed to try. Behind the moon-shaped bags around Ibu Har’s dark eyes, behind her distant disposition, is actually a relaxed attitude so deep it’s as if she’s insulated by some cushion of peace – unconcerned by even the most awkward of my apologies. “Jos,” says Bapak Winardi, when I apologise for troubling him, “You don’t need to apologise. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, if you come to our house, you will be helped. It doesn’t matter if you’re Buddhist, if you’re Jewish, whatever.”
“It’s like that Jos,” chimes in Ibu Har, a smile appearing at the corner of her mouth, “if we’re mean to you, when you reach the afterlife you might protest to the Good Lord.” She laughs, I laugh, and I too find myself easing into that cushion of peace.
Gus Ab makes a quick detour to Kediri Ministry of Religion. The head of the department is outside on the steps, about to go home. I walk up to him, shake his hand, he asks me, “Are you a Muslim?” “No, Bapak,” I reply, “I’m a Christian.” He avoids my gaze, and I take it as a shunning. We gather with colleagues for a photograph, but I cannot hide my disappointment. It was a small act, but the more beautiful a story, the easier to tear it apart.
I remove myself from the group and slink back to the car with Gus Ab. “Hey, Josua, where are you going?” the head of the department shouts to me. I turn around. “Don’t you want to come back with me to my house?” The afternoon sun shines across his smooth, smiling face.