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.
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.
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. 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.
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.