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‘Discovering Indonesian Islam’ Summer Placement Programme. Day #23

I smiled as I received the orange sachets in my hand. Almost everything comes in a sachet in Indonesia – coffee, soap, orange juice, milk, herbal medicine to treat ‘entering wind’ – yet the bite-size mosquito lotion wasn’t quite marketed for me. I’m fussy when it comes to mosquito repellent. I did smile, but – not wanting to be a burden – made secret plans to find some natural minyak telon baby oil, made from fennel seed, coconut oil and eucalyptus, at a local pharmacy.
I was found out. He sat me down in the front room. His wife sat to one periphery: “Don’t go too deep,” she pleaded to him with an anxious smile. With his hands resting across on his cross-legged knees, knobbles tucked neatly under his sarong, he began, “Jos, when a guest comes to our house, it’s as if God has given us a responsibility. A responsibility to make that person feel at home.”
Rather than reducing the burden I was putting on his family, I’d increased it by making them feel they weren’t doing good enough.
It was the final days of Ramadan, 2016, and I was staying with my close friend Pungky’s family. There were guests infiltrating the house from all sides; chickens were being slaughtered and spiced up with tamarind and starfruit in giant pans; over-stuffed neighbours would turn up after midnight to consult Pungky’s father, a doctor – and yet still the itching of a waylaid Christian was a serious issue. “There is a verse in the Quran, which says that God created many different races and peoples, and we must get along well,” he justified.
The former president of Indonesia Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid – Gus Dur, for short – made a request before he died. “I would like to have these words on my grave: here lies the body of a pluralist.” The grandson of the founder of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia claiming some 90 million members, Gus Dur was also chairman of the NU from 1984 to 1999. He is a much loved figure, the so-called ‘Father of Pluralism’; I once sat in an inter-faith discussion in Kediri, East Java, surrounded by the portraits of Martin Luther, Mahatma Gandhi, and a smiling, blind, Gus Dur.
"The road we ride on is pot-holed from the domestic Armageddon"
As it happens, I’m riding up the thick, varicose veins of Mount Kelud in East Java. It erupted in 2014, spewing ash all the way to West Java – as if to remind the other 45 volcanoes on the island that Kelud was still around. The road we ride on is pot-holed from the domestic Armageddon, and the area where the road used to snake into the crater has been blown up. It is closed off to the public, for safety reasons.
As we arrive at the metal gate separating us from the solid lava trail to the crater, a guard suddenly appears and opens up. A small contingency has arrived to pray to the mountain, obviously with more important safety reasons.
“Would you like to join?” ask our motorbike taxis, eager to capitalise on the rare opportunity. “Just 20.000 rupiah extra.” We whizz down over the black sand. Shrubs flee the landscape. Giant, unstable rock faces, like a giant’s half-finished experiment, dominate the landscape, until on the edge of a yellow-green sulphurous lake we come to a mat laid out with food and offerings of flowers and eggs – delicately placed on the barren blackness. Luckily, we haven’t quite left Indonesia yet; soon someone asks for a photograph, I crack a joke, and secure us a crater-side view.
"a flower of melody in a silent amphitheatre of rock"
The sesepuh bashes twice on the ground. The ceremony begins. Prayers in high Javanese intertwine with incense smoke – a flower of melody in a silent amphitheatre of rock. Unimaginably long words flow from his mouth, then repeat themselves just in case, people meditate, or take more pictures. Dun dun dun, the sesepuh bashes on the black sand again. The ceremony is over.
“Come, the village headman’s wife has roasted a chicken. Come, eat!” It turns out we just witnessed the village headman asking the volcano for its blessing as he runs for a second term. No time to raise concerns, we share food from the same plate, and jokes from the same plate too – everyone’s in stitches because they’ve taught me the Javanese for, ahem, intergluteal cleft, as I tuck into a chicken’s behind.
Kejawen is the oldest religion in Java,” says Ipang, a teacher of religion at the Islamic boarding school where I’m staying – Al-Mahrusiyah Lirboyo – in the car on the way home. “They were praying to Eyang Kumitir, the spirit king of Mount Kelud.” I wonder why he is not denouncing their actions as non-Muslim, or animist, or something juicy. “Maybe you cannot accept this, but we can,” he offers.
The following day, still itching with questions, another teacher of religion at Al-Mahrusiyah Lirboyo explains pluralism to me. With peanuts. If a peanut (read: passenger) is already on the book (read: bus) then a rival bus company has no right to jump on and drag the peanut (passenger) off. If the peanut (passenger) steps out of the bus by their own will, only then can rival bus companies make a pitch for their book (bus).
Though the peanuts did make sense, they were resting upon NU school textbooks for ages 16 to 17. I snuck them home for a peak, in such a rush that I forgot to take some peanuts.
"The story begins with the ‘nine guardians’: the wali songo"
The story begins with the ‘nine guardians’: the wali songo. Legend has it that these ‘nine guardians’ were the founders of Islam in Java during the late 15th to early 16th centuries. One of the most infamous of the nine, Sunan Kalijogo, brought villages and kingdoms to Islam. Not by the sword, but by the shadow puppet.
“Many methods and approaches were used to attract the local population so that they would want to convert voluntarily and with full awareness,” reads one of the opening paragraphs. One of the methods the wali songo used to bridge cultures is shown in the contemporary Indonesian term for prayer: bersembahyang – crafted from the words sembah (worship) and Hyang (god, or ancestral spirit, related to Eyang, meaning grandparent or ancestor). “The [wali songo] always strove to protect ancient values that were good, and then sought to make them better.”
The textbook moves swiftly into a sections titled Inclusivism and Pluralism: “We must always respect or value differences of understanding within the faith, and without the faith, because the existence of differences is an absolute law of nature.” The next paragraph reads, “Based on this understanding, in applying these teachings [...] in the current global era, religious understanding has to to be grounded in inclusivism, that we may hope to establish peace, equality, unity, harmony and justice in our social lives.”
Suddenly, my arms itch with the memory of yesterday, as my eyes glance over the verse mentioned by my friend’s dad. I think I realise both why my fellow teachers at Al-Mahrusiyah Lirboyo were reluctant to denounce what I had seen – it would go against the understanding of their faith.
"East Indies Islam as an Expression of Divine Grace"
In 2015 the NU released a video called East Indies Islam as an Expression of Divine Grace. The narrative contrasts videos of ISIS bombing mosques with Javanese gamelan and ancient songs, broadcasting a distinctly Indonesian Islam to the world.
I couldn’t say if it’s the true way; I have my own religious beliefs. Certainly not all of Indonesia would accept it. And yet, through the lens of my three weeks here amongst the NU of Kediri, where I’ve slipped into a family across the road, have been roped into helping single-parent families at the local mosque – and all this time inside a religion so mistrusted in my country – I’ve felt something working.
The head of the single-parent family organisation, Yayasan Al-Hidayah Kediri, addresses the children gathered together that I’m leaving, and his voice starts to break. “I was born with a cleft lip, and it was a Christian NGO that paid for my surgery. They knew nothing about me. Truly we are one family beneath the eyes of God,” he quivers through slanted lips.
The love I’ve been shown will draw me back here again.
Whether or not what I’ve seen is true, sharing that crater-side chicken was quite divine.
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‘Discovering Indonesian Islam’ Summer Placement Programme. Day #11.

“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.
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‘Discovering Indonesian Islam’ Summer Placement Programme. Day #8.

Anywhere you go in Indonesia, if you are European looking, you will be called ‘Mister’. No amount of persuasion that this form of address is rarely used, perhaps never, can dislodge enthusiasm for the term. It feels mocking. But it’s not. Indonesian is a language with no tenses nor grammar, but there are 20-plus ways of saying ‘you’.
Something happens in a foreign culture where there are 20-plus ways of saying ‘you’. It’s like a tool belt for any social situation: meet a young kid, call him Adik (younger sibling) and he will sit in your lap and steal your phone; call an older person Mbah (grandpa/grandma) and they will put their arm around and tell you stories; call them Gusti (Lord) and, well, you’ll make them laugh at least. In a secular country like Indonesia, where familial language cuts across religious divides, the correct ‘you’ can determine the difference between culture shock, and changing your life.
I first came to Indonesia in 2015. My parents were living in Malaysia, and I was intrigued to learn the language in case I visited. There was no Malay class, but, at my university, the Indonesian lecturer assured me that Indonesian was maybe what American is to the English: similar enough to understand, but distinct enough to make fun of. I took it up in a flash. I felt that, if you live a new country, but remain in a cultural bubble, what is the point? Your understanding of the world will not change, your culture will not be enriched. Looking back though, this probably said more of the issues I wrestled with, than my family did.
I first learnt the word Om when travelling during Ramadan with an Indonesian I had befriended. Rather than calling older male strangers the common Mas – for an unmarried, or youngish looking man – or Bapak – literally ‘dad’, for an older man – my friend called them Om. Calling someone Kamu – ‘you’ – is extremely rude if said to an older person, and using a first name is out of bounds. Encoded into these terms of reference are precise rules that govern relationships. Whereas in English, the first person ‘I’ is capitalised, in Indonesian, all forms of ‘you’ inherit this reverence. On occasion, you must do as a Bapak says, or everything falls apart.
Om was different though. Om is what you’d call the youngish uncle you had. The one who’d take you out for a spin, or who knew how to box, and would steal you out of the room you’d been grounded in to play in the garden. If you say Om right, something changes in the person you are addressing – suddenly there is generosity where before there was nonchalance, there is connection where once there was estrangement. You can get discounts, or a fixed motorbike, or just a nice chat.
But you have to say it right. If you want to be treated a certain way, you must act accordingly. If you want an Adik you have to be prepared for sword-fights; if you want an Om you need to play the inquisitive nephew.
I then met a man who I was brave enough to call Om. Everything changed. We still had half the world’s cultures between us, ‘I’ a Christian and ‘you’ a Muslim, but somehow aku and Om meant something else. I lived with his family for months as we worked together, me the foreign intern, him the driver. We spent long journeys in the car speaking of bad experiences with girlfriends, we took care of his lovebirds, and he let me be his special bird-handler at the songbird competitions so ubiquitous in Java. We shared long motorbike rides, and his clove cigarette smoke drifted over views of fireflies in the rice fields at night.
When I left Indonesia to go back to England, he began to cry. It threw me off guard. It wasn’t until take off that I too began to weep. I bawled! It was weird, my family have never cried when I say bye (except for my grandma, but she’d cry if you just say “Hello” politely). It was a two-letter word, but it was the philosopher’s stone to a foreign culture. Om broke down all the walls. Perhaps, I realise, an aku and Om style relationship is what I’ve wanted with my own father, but until I find the keys to my own culture, we are stuck in ‘I’ and ‘you’ – each too proud and too close to give way.
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‘Discovering Indonesian Islam’ Blog Post. Day #2.

The man who owns my boarding house doesn’t have a guard dog. He doesn’t really have a boarding house either. It’s a single-story cluster of rooms, laid out in a shape something between an L and a V, but is an instantly recognisable job in many Indonesian cities. Living at one end of the L/V the Bapak kost (boarding house dad) watches over his rooms, largely rented to students, and takes care of his geese. Oh, yes, he has guard geese. And they’re so effective I’m up at 2 a.m. listening to their door-creaking quack.
It was a strange way to experience culture shock, but I can’t help being amused by the novelty of guard geese. Well, it’s funny until a chicken somewhere trips over or sees the light and decides it’s morning already. His mistake pricks the ears of hundreds of other local chickens, and an epidemic of an acutely avian strain of FOMO breaks out across the night.
Many things aren’t really where they should be. The encouraging affirmation “Don’t quit” is superimposed on a billboard of a man puffing on the latest Surya Pro Mild. A fuss is made over which helmet I should take, and my assigned buddy then offers to hold it as we ride the motorbike to the shop. I couldn’t find a towel at the local convenience store, which I suppose makes sense. But when we do skilfully find a shop selling towels close to midnight, I can only get one with “Harley Davidson” written on it, in red or blue. I chose blue.
Anyway, the chickens have succeeded in waking me up now. They do take their work seriously, if somewhat misguidedly, so I can’t be fully angry. Not when my underslept and overstimulated body is still held together by the undeserved pleasure of Indonesian hospitality. When I arrived at midnight yesterday, I would’ve settled for a mat in a poultry farm. Instead I was given more instant friendship than my awkward, proper English heart could handle.
Without knowing me, let allowing my license, I am gifted a motorbike. Two members of staff need no stern words to make sure I have everything I need plus extra snacks, and they fight with such dignity over who will take my bags so I can ride solo through the crisp, night air. I probably should’ve savoured that ride, for later one of them will tell me: “There’s no need for you to ride the bike you know, just call if you need anything and I’ll pick you up, OK?” My jetlagged, sweaty heart again swells with enough gratitude that I don’t care about the irony until maybe never.
I think Indonesia has uncovered the secret to enforcing tolerance. It’s done through overpowering someone with kindness. It is unspeakably rude to refuse food or drink, and as a selective vegetarian I find myself in a peculiar conundrum when specially delivered a three-tiered tiffin tin for breakfast from a smiling face. Accept the kindness and side-line certain principles for collective harmony, or reject and stand by certain principles for personal achievement. I accept the fried rice with duck, though I did say I’m a selective vegetarian.
Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority nation in the world. With a population of 261 million, 87.2% of whom identify as Muslim, it also qualifies as the world’s third largest democracy. I should’ve written these things at the beginning, since this is what I’m here to write about, but I’m trying to start this like many of the conversations I’ve enjoyed here. One of my favourite phrases in Indonesian is nanti dulu. It roughly translates as ‘later first’, and is sort of used to stress the utmost importance of putting something off.
I am here though to teach English at a boarding school, known as a pondok pesantren. I’m also here to learn about Islam in Indonesia, and my boarding school is one of many Islamic boarding schools patronised by the Muslim organisation Nadhlatul Ulama (NU). With over 93 million members in Indonesia, it is the largest Muslim organisation in the world, and is often praised for its liberal, tolerant and counter-extremist stance. The organisation was born in 1926 as a reaction to the rise of Wahabbism, and reflects a traditional, syncretic and distinctly Indonesian Islam.
It strikes me as somewhat scandalous that an entire religion could be characterised by some of its smallest and most controversial forms in my country. I remember one day at church in my hometown of Stamford, in Lincolnshire, an adorable old lady decided to pounce on me as probably the youngest person around for decades. “You lived in Indonesia?” she inquired, “but, isn’t that a Muslim country?” When I told her of certain experiences, like how Allah is the word for God in many Indonesian churches, or how I was quite savagely adopted by more than one family, she was shocked.
“Indonesia is a country with a moderate majority,” says Huda, one of the members of staff who took me, and my helmet earlier, under his wing. The NU played a large role in both the overthrow of colonial rule in 1945, and the more recent fall of Suharto and subsequent return to democracy. Traditionally populated with highly educated liberal members, it patronises 6830 pondok pesantren in Indonesia, and at first seems to be everything the Daily Mail thinks it shouldn’t be.
Before I get a chance to ask Huda about all of this, he’s moved onto the speaking about how certain individuals could sink ships and pull planes out of the sky using spiritual power during the revolution. Anything with a mystical element seems to be juicy gossip in Indonesia. The discussion of magic is discouraged by different forms of religion in the country, Huda tells me, yet with the NU – who promote the tolerant ‘Archipelago Islam’ brand – many things seem to treat the place like home. Even guard geese. And, for one month, perhaps I will too.
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