I wrote parts of this after Idul Adha on the 5th of October. Now we are in Buntau, Toraja, on Sulawesi. Didn’t want to get anyone confused 🙂 I’ll write about our current experience this coming weekend.
Last night the celebration for Idul Adha began. The first signs were sounds – fireworks over the city, a parade of jumping and beaming children twirling to the beats of drums and bellls, passing through the neighborhood singing “Allahu Akbar”: God is good. As our friend, coordinator, and resident Islam expert Zaki explained, this holiday commemorates the day God gave Abraham a sheep to slaughter instead of his son. Today the city comes alive, and we get to witness one of the largest holidays of the season. It started me thinking about Islam, our minds, and our world.
One of the most beautiful things about Jogja is the way religion, community, family, and kindness become inseperable. Indonesia as a whole approaches religion very differently than we are used to in the western world. For example, every citizen must identify as one of seven official religions and that faith of choice will appear on every ID card. This creates, among many things, a govenrnment that is purposefully intertwined with religion; The opposite of our efforts at seperating church and state.
That being said, the vast majority of Indonesia does identify as Muslim, and this is very visible in a city like Jogja. For example, there are few neighborhoods without a Mosque and it is difficult to wander the streets for more than 10 minutes without seeing one. Many women wear headscarves and they are made in every kind of fabric with different patterns and colors. If you want to find pork, you’re going to have to look really really hard, and every morning at 4:30 AM you will be woken up by the sound of people singing.
This early morning call was immediately foreign to me, and I automatically dismissed it as something that would only disturb my sleep. I accepted that praying 5 times a day was a keystone of Islam, but I never fully realized what that meant. It comes at first as the scratchy sound of loudspeakers coming on all over the city. Then these voices start singing, and I mean a kind of singing that makes me question the line between intonation and prayer. Every day, five times a day, the city rings with the voices men and women calling out, calling to God, calling to their friends, comrades, and enemies, calling on themselves to go deeper, to go within, to pray.
One morning, when we visited the Buddhist temple at Borobudur, I started on my usual path from my home stay to the Dragon house around 4:25. That early, I was completely unconscious of time. My feet naturally found rhythm on the familiar walkways of concrete and stone that lead through neighborhoods and, at one point, pass by a group of rice paddies in the center of the city. I found this road with Bubby one of the first days in Jogja and came to rely on it as a sort of daily meditation, building up to the day’s work and letting it go when it was time to go home. I was walking through the rice fields when I heard the first voices. I kept walking, tired and accostomed to the arabic melody. Then I heard another voice begin. And another. And what felt like tenfold more. I was near the center of the city, in an open space, at a time of the day when the only other noises were birds and geckos croaking and chirping their own kind of song. I felt like I could hear all the way across the city. There were too many voices to count, chorusing into the pre dawn light. Calling in that beautiful, emotional, higher way. I was struck to the heart by the humanity in it.
My language teacher wears a headscarf. She is also one of the strongest, most empowered women I have ever met. The same goes for the mother of three who took time from her usual teaching schedule to take us to a domestic abuse shelter, the school Stephanie wrote about, and an Islamic transgender community. There’s something subtle in the empowerment, like it is completely natural, and it occurred to me as something that is much to rare in the US. They were comfortable and confident as leaders and friends. And it wasn’t only them, I began to notice it in many of the women I would meet during the day. Then one of our speakers came to tell us about Islam and mentioned that in the Koran it is emphasized that women should be highly respected. They should be looked to as leaders and teachers on top of being mothers, home keepers, and those with the ability to unite a community. We asked our speaker about this and voiced the conception in our country that women in Islam are frequently disrespected and oppressed. He replied that this is much more related to culture outside of Islam and stems from much older ways of living. He told us that many women wear headscarves even though they were not raised doing so and their mothers didn’t, it is their way of taking pride in their religion. They get to choose who sees their hair and the rest of their face. At least here in Indonesia, covering their head is part of their relationship with God, not something inflicted upon them by culture. Our last night in Jogja, at the gratitude party for all of our families, teachers, and friends, my language teacher didn’t wear a headscarf for the first time since we met her. She was so excited to see us. I felt deeply honored.
This morning I woke up at 5:00 to go with my host mother and sister as they went to pray in celebration of Idul Adha. We walked down the already bustling street to a high school, stepped by rows of men and boys sitting and talking on prayer rugs and found a place with the women. Though the crowd was big enough that we couldn’t see him, a man sang ‘Alahu Ackbar’ the whole time. People filed in, dressed in the most beautiful praying clothes. There were silks of all colors, pure white cotton laced with embroidery, skirts and head shawls that flowed through the air, swishing. We came rather early, and as women entered the space I received more than the usual amount of attention. Being tall and white makes it hard to hide in a city like Jogja, and as a distinct foreigner it is impossible to walk down the street without being waved at and greeted by all kinds of people. This was a little different. I was in their sacred space. My head wasn’t covered. But this is also key: they were in no way unfriendly. In fact it was quite the opposite. At the most people were just surprised! I kept looking up, smiling at everyone I could, and the responding smile was not only immediate but vivacious. They were so welcoming! I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm, and the love of people who didn’t know my name or where I came from or anything about me but would open their hearts to me just because I was there and was smiling. My favorites were the school girls who burst into fits of giggles every time I turned and saw them. We laughed together and shared in the natural humor of the fact that I was there and they were there and we were both laughing. A woman in front if me turned and offered me her batik silk headscarf. Another asked my name in tentative English, and where I came from. Then she said “Are you Muslim?”. “Tidak, belajar aja” I replied – No, just learning. “You come to learn?” she said, “Then welcome. Thank you for learning.” “Thank you,” I replied, though in that moment I felt incapable of expressing how touched I really was. They didn’t have to accept me into their sacred space. But they did so with love.
I almost feel a need to explain in what ever way I can the extent of kindness and love in this community. It had just struck my as strange that I would have to prove their integrity. Well, maybe not strange. Maybe more unjust. I knew, when I lived in the US, that the media was influencing my perspective. I had no idea of its power to instill prejudice, or fear, simply by neglecting to tell the rest of the story. I wish I didn’t have to travel so far to realize that the world is so much more than we see.
After he explained Iduhl Adha, Zaki faced us all directly, making eye contact with everyone. “As a practicing Muslim,” he said, “I want you all to know something very important to me. You may have heard of a group called ISIS. I want you to know I do not consider them Muslim. They kill other Muslims every day. They are insane people who go against our religion. To me, Islam is peace. I want you to know that, and to go back to America and tell your friends what Islam can really be like. The kindness and respect that it brings. Please do that. For me, and for all your Islamic friends here in Indonesia. Please do this.”