Friday, 8 May 2009

Scholar Emha Speaks out at Melbourne Fest

The Jakarta Post
Sunday, September 24, 2006

Ian L. Betts, Contributor, Melbourne

Muslim intellectual and artist Emha Ainun Nadjib is a prolific and powerful writer of poems, essays, plays and lyrics. He is also the leader of renowned gamelan-fusion ensemble Kiai Kanjeng, which has toured a number of countries including the UK and Australia.

In May 2006 he received an invitation to attend the Melbourne Writers' Festival held annually at the end of August. Festival director Rosemary Cameron noted in her invitation that supporters of Emha's work had brought him to her attention and that the festival would like to invite him as one of its principal guests.

Cameron wrote that the Melbourne audience would be very interested to engage with Emha's work and that Emha himself would find an appreciative audience, keen to hear his thoughts and ideas.

Over 200 writers were expected to participate, and visitor attendance in 2005 reached almost 40,000 over the 10-day event.

Emha agreed, and would attend the festival for its second weekend, arriving Aug. 31 and returning to Indonesia on Sept. 4.

Islamic scholar

Since the early 1980s Emha has participated in a number of international literary festivals and writing programs in Holland, Australia and the United States. These have often been long-term engagements in association with teaching posts at universities. He is therefore no stranger to the world of books, and his own work has attracted a small army of devoted fans.

Those who can read Bahasa Indonesia devour his work voraciously wherever they can, while those who cannot are forced to rely on opportunities such as these festivals, where they can engage with him in a meet-the-author dialogue.

We took many books and other materials to Melbourne for the trip, and a number of Kiai Kanjeng's CDs and VCDs, which were all to be given out during the trip.

One of Emha's principal short-term aims is to release more of his work in the English language, and efforts to achieve this are seriously under way.

In addition to international literary festivals, Emha has also toured with Kiai Kanjeng to the UK and Europe in 2004 and 2005.

During the second tour of the UK in March 2005, Emha was awarded the Islamic Award of Excellence by the Muslim News in London, at a ceremony presided over
by Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Emha's wife, Novia Kolopaking, an artist in her own right and then seven months pregnant with their fourth child, recited a number of poems at the occasion, which highlighted the spiritual and devotional aspects of Islam.

Ironically, though doubtless well-known in his native Indonesia, Emha has gone largely unrecognized for his contribution to literature and Islamic thought. He often finds more appreciative audiences abroad, where his Sufi-style poetry and provocative prose find avid readers.

It is ironic because for thousands upon thousands of Indonesians, Emha is considered a spiritual giant, a devotional guru, to some a modern saint of Islam, or wali.

For over a decade, he and his family have facilitated the Padang Bulan ("full moon") gathering at his hometown of Jombang, East Java. Similar monthly gatherings are held in Yogyakarta, Jakarta, Semarang and Surabaya. Emha also frequently travels to Makassar, South Sulawesi, and other regions of Indonesia, not to mention Malaysia.

In Jakarta, the Kenduri Cinta ("feast of love") gathering attracts thousands of urban dwellers, student and workers, eager to hear Emha's poetry and to listen to the guest speakers on politics, the arts and social issues. In Yogyakarta, a more homogeneous audience engages in dikir (repeated chant as confession of faith), prayer and music.

In Surabaya, the Bangbang Wetan ("light from the east") gathering has only recently started, aiming to galvanize a Surabaya audience in arts and discourse.

The guest speakers at these events tell a story of their own, and their presence serves to press home the irony of the lack of recognition afforded to Emha by the mainstream. They include speakers as diverse as former president and Islamic scholar Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid, Gen. (ret.) Wiranto, politician Amien Rais, former minister Adi Sasono, legislator Permadi, expert commentators such as Faisal Basri and Eep Saefullah Fatah., transsexual entertainer Dorce, Hindu guru Anand Krishna and pop stars Ari Lasso and Achmad Dani.

Also appearing with Emha have been poets Taufik Ismail and W.S. Rendra, legislator Effendi Choiri, former minister Agum Gumelar, businessman Franky Welirang, former legislator Ichsanurdin Noorsy, conductor Idris Sardi, physician Jose Rizal Manua and literally hundreds more.

On the passing a year ago of Muslim intellectual and Paramadina University founder Prof. Dr. Nurcholish Madjid, Emha led the ritual prayer ceremonies for his friend.

If Madjid was known as the great theoretical architect of pluralism and tolerance among religions in Indonesia, then Emha Ainun Nadjib is its greatest living practitioner; and it is this that shines through his monthly gatherings and all his writings.

Since then, Emha and Kiai Kanjeng have collaborated with Paramadina in a tri-monthly event known as Paramasuara, during which a diverse range of speakers and artists join a primarily campus audience for an evening of discourse and music.

To Melbourne

It is something of this that was transmitted to Rosemary Cameron and which prompted her invitation. Arriving on Aug. 31, we spent the afternoon speaking with Indonesians working in the radio and other media in Melbourne, arranging for interviews to be held over the weekend. That evening, we attended the writers' dinner at Melbourne's North Fitzroy Star restaurant, where we sat with writers from all over the world engaged in discussing and promoting their work.

It was clear that little, if anything, was known of Indonesia. All were interested in Emha's work and we handed out short texts in English.

The following day, we were due to appear on our first panel at the Merlyn Theatre in the Malthouse. It was entitled "Neighbours", and a festival description introduced: "...all the shades of Islam, from fundamentalist to secularist, appear in the culture of Indonesia. John Martinkus, Emha Ainun Nadjib and Ian L. Betts discuss the internal struggle for the soul of the archipelago and the political implications for the nation and Australia."

The session was chaired by Ph.D. candidate Kirsten Steiner, while veteran journalist John Martinkus brought his wealth of experience reporting in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam to bear on the discussion, and it was an effective debate.

Emha painted a picture of the truly diverse range of Islamic cultures and attitudes in Indonesia, working to emphasize the nature of the threat posed by fundamentalists -- which he characterized as one essentially driven by a very tiny minority.

That evening we had arranged to take part in an interfaith dialog with Melbourne's Indonesian Catholic Families Association (Keluarga Katolik Indonesia, as part of its anniversary in August.

We took the opportunity to show films of Emha's work in the provinces and Kiai Kanjeng performances that reflected his commitment to pluralism and interfaith tolerance.

In one film, Anand Krishna was shown describing Emha as a living Islamic saint, or wali; in another, Pastor Nathan Setybudi, a former head of the Protestant church in Indonesia, was shown addressing a predominantly Muslim crowd and leading prayers. Along with our hosts, who included an expatriate British priest with over 30 years' experience in Indonesia, Father John Prior, we enjoyed a lively discussion and a good late-night Chinese meal to finish off.

On the morning of Sept. 2 we expected to address a panel at the Beckett Theatre to be chaired by Ivor Indyk. We were enthusiastic, as it was on the theme of "New Puritans". According to the introduction, "the rise of fundamentalism and conservatism is an aspect of most major religions today. Ivor Indyk leads a discussion with Muriel Porter and Emha Ainun Nadjib on the fierce battle for the hearts and minds of the faithful".

Unfortunately, writer Muriel Porter, who recently published a book called The New Puritans focusing on the church, was ill and unable to attend. The session was canceled.

With little time to waste, we requested permission to use the vacant slot for a session in which I would lead an exposition of Emha's life and work through film clips, a screened presentation and discussion on my forthcoming book in English, The Silent Pilgrimage: Emha Ainun Nadjib and His Lifelong Journey of Faith, and a chance for a dialogue with Emha himself.

As a result, a small but dedicated audience enjoyed an hour of music and discourse. More importantly, as we mingled outside afterwards, we made many new contacts with new readers and interested participants.

Speaking out

That evening, we were due to participate in our last formal festival panel. Again, it was the Merlyn Theatre, and it was to be chaired by writer Arnold Zable. The session was entitled "Speaking out, shutting up" and focused on the moves to stifle debate and limit free speech that seemed to be increasingly popular with democratic governments playing the "terrorist threat" card.

Worldwide writers association PEN would present a forum about public discourse and freedom of expression from an international panel: Emha Ainun Nadjib and George Szirtes, an English writer of Hungarian heritage.

Zable was a fitting chair, with his writings on his family's experience of the Holocaust, described ironically by readers as ultimately uplifting.

As exciting as the dialogue would prove to be, just as exciting in my view was the hour or so we spent beforehand getting to know each other and each other's work and position on issues. He was able to give an admirable introduction to Emha based on what we could tell him and show him in the time we had.

Szirtes told the story of post-World War Two Hungary through uprising, reprisals and repression, and recited a range of evocative, emotive poems.

My role on the panel was as interpreter for Emha, who, faced with the seriousness of the subject, preferred to use Bahasa Indonesia.

What the audience -- and Zable and Szirtes -- did not know was that Emha had decided to depart wholly from the comments we had discussed beforehand and to go on an entirely new tack. (I myself knew only when he whispered it to me during Szirtes' recitation.)

I have been in this situation before with Emha, when a flash of inspiration -- or outrage -- has caused him to veer away from a prepared script, but this was an international audience, and there was little room for error on my part.

When it came to Emha's turn to speak he remained at his chair, rather than take the microphone and lectern used by Zable and Szirtes.

He then proceeded to tell the story of his upbringing in Jombang, East Java -- which is also the hometown of Abdurrahman Wahid, Nurcholish Madjid and the leader of the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI) and alleged spiritual guru of Jamaah Islamiyah, Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, the man thought to have been behind the Bali bombings and the co-founder of the Ngruki Islamic boarding school near Solo.

Emha noticed Mr. Wahid, Indonesia's consul to Melbourne in the second row of the audience. Playfully, provocatively, he cajoled Wahid, asking him whether traders in the rural market two kilometers from Jombang would know the name of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir if asked.

Unable to answer, the consul was asked whether the same market-goers would recognize the name Emha Ainun Nadjib. This, he admitted readily, they would.

Emha proceeded to define how the Australian media had focused over-heavily on figures with an extreme -- and minority -- view, and had failed to pay attention to artists and writers who represented a far more moderate perspective on Islam.

By concentrating only on names associated with Islamic terror, however traumatized Australia was as a nation by its violence and loss of life, he said, Australians were prevented from recognizing those who were engaged in the cause of pluralism, and from supporting them and working with them to encourage yet greater tolerance between the followers of different faiths, beliefs and nations.

Emha also made the point that the media had more of a role to play in censorship than the government did in Indonesia.

The country's media, including television, he explained, was now freer than any other in Asia, yet it continued to insist on producing poor-quality drama and focused on only the most sensationally lurid news stories.

Often, "real" news stories appear to be reported little differently from the scandalous contents of the myriad gossip and infotainment shows that are broadcast throughout the day in Indonesia.

Emha noted that mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) had recently issued an edict forbidding school-aged children from appearing in sinetron, or soap operas. He questioned what real value this would have in face of the media's successful process of "dumbing down".

Emha's comments were received very well and there were some well-thought responses from the packed audience.

Wrapping up

Our final event, on Sunday evening, was to be our second interfaith dialogue. On this occasion it was with the Victorian Council of Churches.

We met with representatives of Melbourne's Interfaith Centre and the Centre for Social Inquiry, Religion & Interfaith Dialogue.

It was a very useful discussion over dinner and there is much to build on, particularly if Melbourne is selected as the venue for the Parliament of the World's Religion, for which we were led to believe it is a candidate.

We left Melbourne on Sept. 4, confident that we had done as much as we could in the time available to discuss pluralism in Indonesia and Emha's contribution to it through his writings and work with Kiai Kanjeng.

November will see Emha and Kiai Kanjeng on the other side of the world, where they will participate in the International Cultural Forum at Espoo, near Helsinki, Finland.

A constant traveler, Emha has a great deal to offer to those attracted to Indonesian culture and literary themes, as well as its music, poetry and religious thought.

The writer is author of Jalan Sunyi Emha, a study of the life and work of Emha Ainun Nadjib published by Kompas Gramedia and soon to be published in English as The Silent Pilgrimage: Emha Ainun Nadjib and His Lifelong Journey of Faith. He frequently collaborates with Emha and accompanied him to the Melbourne Writers' Festival 2006.

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