Me, Islam and Literature by Linda Christanty

He was astonished when he discovered I was a Muslim. He was a member of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong, an Englishman whose name I’ve forgotten. I was contributing to a discussion at the club on Islam and the modern world. He asked my paternal family name, and when I replied, ‘Abdul Malik,’ he opened his mouth to exclaim, ‘Aaah!’

My name often causes misunderstanding among people who think that Muslims must have Arabic names. Some forget that Islam spread beyond the peninsula where the religion was founded and that most Muslims are not Arabs. Nevertheless, I didn’t protest when my younger sister named her first son Muhammad Faturrahman, or when my younger brother named his youngest son Muhammad Habiburrasul.

In our family tree, my father was the thirty-eighth descendant of the Prophet Muhammad from the line of his grandson Husayn ibn Ali, who was killed by Mu’wiyah ibn Yaz’d’s soldiers in the 680 Battle of Karbala, near Najaf, southern Iraq. Our relatives are spread all over the world; some live in India. One of them was Sayyid Jamaluddin bin Sayyid Ahmad Syah Jala­luddin Azmat Khan bin Sayyid Amir Abdullah bin Sayyid Abdul Malik Azmat Khan, a prince from Nasrbad, Northern India. He left Nasrbad for two reasons: political conflict and to propagate the religion. He was not alone; he was with about fifty other people. From the port of Malabar, he and his entourage sailed to the Bay of Bengal (Bangladesh and Myanmar), and then travelled overland to China. From China they continued to sail to Indo­china, arrived in Vietnam and sailed to our archipelago. He arrived in East Java in 1392, during the reign of King Wikramawardhana of the Majapahit Kingdom. My other grandfather, Prince Purbaya bin Sultan Agung Tirtayasa of Banten, was banished to Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, Southern India, because he stood against Dutch colonialism. He was in exile for fourteen years (1716–1730) before he was sent back to Batavia, but he died two years later.

Many people think that I am a Catholic or a Protestant because I have ‘Christ’ in my name. They assume this refers to Jesus Christ, the saviour from Nazareth, or as Muslims call him, Prophet Isa, the messenger before Muhammad. Physically, I look more Chinese or Japanese than Arab, despite the dozens of Arabic names listed in our family tree.

My name and appearance sometimes triggers amusing events.

While attending high school in Bandung, West Java, I chose Islamic studies because all of my Muslim friends also chose them. But the teacher never asked me to read the Qur’an. When it was my turn to read, the teacher immediately appointed another student to read. Our religious teacher, a middle-aged woman who always covered her head with a scarf and wore a tunic, maybe thought that I was a muallaf, a new convert, so she chose not to torture me in reciting sentences in a language that we don’t use in our daily lives. However, as she had to give me a grade in my report card, she needed to know the extent of my capability. Once she knew that I was a Muslim, she asked, ‘But why is your name Christanty?’ It was because my father admired Chris Evert, the world-class female tennis player. The addi­tional ‘tanty’ was just complementary. Moreover, my first name was taken from American president Lyndon B. Johnson’s daughter, whom he thought to be a smart, persistent and admirable person. However, as far as I know, the brand of the sewing machine in our house was ‘Linda’ too.

My father once jokingly said that he would add ‘Siti’ in front of my name because someone told him that my defiance and stubbornness were attributed to my un-Islamic name. I of course refused this. I love my name and find it quite chic. My father relented. Yuk Mimi, our neighbor who has a son who often got sick, was asked by an imam to change his name from Dezky to Safruddin. He said that the non-Arabic name was too much of a burden to her son. I do not know what he meant. But Dezky-turned-Safruddin continued to be sick.

When I was a kid, I considered Islam as a force to counter black magic. Some people believe that verses from the Qur’an can be used to ward off evil spirits. My aunt, my mother’s cousin, the only daughter of my grandmother’s brother whom we call ‘Mak Unggal’, was often possessed. Verses from the Quran were often recited in her ears as a result. When Mak Unggal was possessed she was no longer the Mak Unggal we knew. She would laugh, become angry, and her familiar voice turned into a scary old lady’s voice. I really liked Mak Unggal because she was a good cook, especially of empek-empek, a snack made from fish and sago either fried or boiled. She was also friendly and liked to talk.

One Sunday, I persuaded my parents to visit Mak Unggal, an hour’s drive from our town. Dad drove, mom sat beside him, my younger siblings and I sat in the back seat imagining Mak Unggal’s homemade empek-empek. My siblings and I sang merrily along the way, English pop songs that our father played on the car tape player, among other songs by Bobby Vinton, an American singer. I love how you love me, whenever you kiss me, I love the way you always treats me tenderly .... yuuu ... lyyyyyyy ... lop, lop miiiiiiiii ....

Before starting the engine, my father would pray for about ten minutes. He would read various verses from the Qur’an. He said that the prayers were to ask for God’s protection and to ask Him to make our trip smooth. When we got to Mak Unggal’s house, we saw many people going in and out. Out of curiosity, I ran to enter. Mak Unggal was lying down in the living room, slurring her speech and occasionally yelling. She’d been possessed again. Pak Unggal, her husband, sat beside her and recited verses from theQuran. I was greatly disappointed because Mak Unggal would not cook empek-empek that day. As soon as Mak Unggal started to scream and laugh hard in between screaming, my siblings and I ran to one of the bedrooms and hid under the iron bed. We all coughed because it turned out that they never cleaned under the bed and there was a lot of dust.

Pak Unggal and people who sat around Mak Unggal were shocked when suddenly she rose and ran to the guava tree in their yard. Her movement was so swift. They were not ready to stop her. Everyone panicked while Mak Unggal climbed the tree with lightning speed and then she perched on the highest branch. People ran to the guava tree and yelled at Mak Unggal to climb back down, but she did not care. Finally one of the neighbours called a well-known imam to ward off the spirit of an old lady from our beloved Mak Unggal. The Imam’s name was Abang Suhaili bin Abang Aziz, who was none other than my father’s brother-in-law. Su Abot, that’s his nickname, was imam of a mosque in his village. Su Abot said prayers. And hours later Mak Unggal got tired and the village people took her down from the guava tree.

Mak Unggal still often gets possessed. She is almost 70 years old. When she disappears from home, her children and grandchildren check the trees in their or the neighbours’ yards. Mak Unggal will definitely be there. She’s like an aircraft, and her airport is the tree. She is able to climb up as fast as a monkey, but unfortunately she cannot climb down by herself. Her children or grandchildren help her back to earth.

My sister Indira (her nickname is Tata) suffered from a strange illness when she was little. Her legs had scales like a grouper fish. Our parents took her to the doctor many times, but she didn’t improve. My father’s driver, Mang Tan, took the initiative to treat her. He thought that she’d caught basak ular nasi, a sickness caused by a swish from a rice snake. Mang Tan recited certain verses from the Qur'an and also some mantras. Tata was healed instantly.

Mang Tan was a big guy. He was dark and hairy, and his eyes were always red. But he spoke politely and gently. He had several wives, which in our house was considered a bad thing. His youngest wife, the rumour had it, was a granddaughter of the king of crocodile demons, Akek Rukam. When he thought that his time in this world was approaching the end, Akek Rukam in his human form slipped into the River Perimping, which flows into the Gulf of Klabat, and turned into a crocodile.

The formidable Mang Tan was scared of his wife. She once threw him out of the window when they had a fight. Mang Tan named his first daughter from this vicious wife Cahaya Neraka or ‘Light of Hell’.

My maternal grandfather was very pious. He inherited many amulets from his family. When my parents married, my grandfather gave all of the amulets to my father. The total weight of these amulets was about three kilograms. My father wore only one of them, a ring with an orange stone. He wore it until he died two years ago.

My father dumped the other amulets, some into a river and some into the sea. When my grandfather learned about this, he was not angry, as he did not use these amulets anymore. He later joined Muhammadiyah, the Indonesian Islamic movement established in 1912. He did not, however, support an Islamic state, although he often criticized the authoritarian and corrupt New Order government. He chose Muhammadiyah because it prohibits its members from holding prayers and providing food and drink to those who visit a house to offer condolences.  The cost of providing food and drink to visitors often becomes a burden to the family. The bereaved family has to bear two burdens at the same time: economic and emotional. My grandfather opposed customs and traditions that complicate human lives.

Muhammadiyah rejects bid’ah, khurafat and polytheism. Bid’ah is innovation in worship; khurafat is superstition, and polytheism is worshiping beings other than God.

However, many followers of Muhammadiyah are inconsistent in practicing what they preach. Muhammadiyah’s followers in Yogyakarta, Central Java, for example, let the Muslim Sultans declare themselves as supreme religious leaders and representatives of God (sayiddin Panatagama kalifatullah), and let their neighbours in Kauman worship Nyai Roro Kidul, who was regarded as the supernatural wife of all Yogya Sultans. They forbid people visiting graves in Pagaruyung, West Sumatra, criticise the Dayak people in Kalimantan who worship logs, and stood against hereditary monarchy in Sulawesi, but they do not fight the practice of polytheism in their own backyards. These double standards are embroiled with political interests and are a survival technique for those who practice them.

My grandfather never missed his five daily prayers, and every Friday he went to the mosque. For some reason, every time I hear people refer to ‘Friday’ I seem to smell my grandfather’s perfume. Do not imagine that my grandfather’s perfume was Salvatore Ferragamo or Hermes. He bought his perfume in a traditional market near his house. One of his perfumes was called Malaikat Subuh (Angel of Dawn).

On Fridays, my grandfather always put on his flagship perfume, as well as his shirt, sarong and jacket. I have never seen him wearing a turban or growing his beard like the sterotype of an Arab. His daily appearance was more like a Westerner with a suit and a shirt, or a T-shirt and shorts.

During prayer times, our house was always filled with the wonderful sound of Qur’an recitals. My grandfather, my father and my mother recited the Qur’an every day; my grandmother couldn’t, as she could no longer see clearly and was unable to read.

Before my grandfather died, he asked me to love my parents and never say rude things to them. He showed me verses about children’s attitudes toward their parents. He told me to always do good to others and not to discriminate according to people’s religion or nation. He believed that good and bad deeds will be rewarded in this world, and that heaven and hell is God’s secret.

Islam became intimidating to me when one day I found a flyer about doomsday or the Day of Judgment. I was in fifth grade at that time. Suddenly, there were flyers all over the schoolyard. Other students also picked them up. I remember that the flyer quoted a story about a caretaker of the tomb of Prophet Muhammad who claimed that if anyone saw an object resembling a large egg in the sky, then that would be a sign of doomsday. I was terrified. When I got home, I showed my mother the flyer and she calmed me down and said, ‘Do not trust the contents of a flyer like this one. Only Allah knows.’

Apparently, the flyer was designed by people who make a living from religion. Not long afterwards, we started to see some men selling religious books door to door and suddenly there were so many traveling preachers. Some people referred to them as Ustaz, religious teachers. Then they started gatherings of people to recite the Qur’an, to invite clerics to speak, collect money for alms, organize crying events, and to unite desperate and lonely people in Divine love.

One of my father’s nephews suddenly became a leader of a congregation. My family could not believe it. Bang Aton was not previously a religious person, but now he has a congregation with quite a number of fanatical followers across the island of Bangka, the island where I was born. It was said that those who become followers of this congregation would meet the spirits of the Prophets and could have dialogues with them, of course with Bang Aton as their intermediary. On particular evenings, Bang Aton and his followers would enter a room and turn off all the lights and sit in the dark in order to be able to converse spiritually with the spirits of the prophets.

In our family, interpretations of the teachings of Islam do not belong only to a certain group of people. Mak Sol, my other aunt, turned my siblings into cold-blooded killers in their childhood. Mak Sol told them what her Qur’an recital teacher at her village had told her about characteristics of kafir animals and god-fearing animals. According to her teacher, it was mandatory to kill geckos. The reason, so he told Mak Sol, was that when Prophet Muhammad and his friend Abu Bakr were hiding from the Quraysh in a cave, a gecko suddenly made a sound that nearly gave them away. Hesaid that it was a sign of betrayal, whereas the Prophet and his friend were protected by the spiders that continued to make nests and the pigeons that laid eggs as if no human being had disturbed them. It thought geckos’ actions cannot be judged right or wrong. Geckos are animals, so they are not religious and do not need religion, so they cannot be classified as kafir or non-believers. But Mak Sol’s teacher said that killing geckos in the month of Ramadan would be doubly rewarded. Not surprisingly, I saw my brothers killing all the geckos on the walls and on the ceilings of our house. The result was that there were mosquitoes all over the house because the geckos that preyed on them had gone to the afterlife.

I have enjoyed reading books since I was small. For me, finishing a book was very easy compared to reciting the Qur’an, especially because there was no tutor able to explain the meaning of what I was reciting. Moreover, I felt that the stories told in the Qur’an were distant from the situations that I had experienced. My tutor Mr. We Zakaria often told me that unbelievers would eat from the zarkum tree in hell. I asked him, ‘What is a zarkum tree?’ He answered my questions with annoyance, ‘Zarkum tree is zarkum tree. They are found only in hell!’ Well, neither of us had been there – yet!

I loved reading my mother’s collections of classic Indonesian novels. They were mostly tragic love stories. A girl and a boy are in love but her parents do not approve of the relationship because he comes from a poor family. Or the opposite, the girl is poor so she is not worthy of the love of the boy who comes from a wealthy family. At the end of these stories usually one of these disappointed lovers dies or commits suicide.

After reading Salah Asuhan (Misguided), a novel written by Abdul Muis about Corrie who was left heartbroken by her lover Hanafi, I followed Corrie’s action. In the novel, she etched her lover’s name on a garden bench, so I also carved my school friend’s name on a tree in the yard.

I read world literature, for example novels written by Victor Hugo such as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Miserables. I also read John Steinbeck’s novels. My parents bought them at a local bookstore. They were all in Indonesian translation. Stories of Old Shatterhand and his Indian best friend Winnetou written by Karl May were our favourites. Among the prophets’ stories, there was one that I really loved, a story about Prophet Moses and his horn of light. That light could kill anyone who dared to look at him. When he led his disciples away from the cruelty of the Pharaoh, the Red Sea was split open to provide safe passage for them. From this story I learned of a responsible leader and an inexplicable miracle.

My mother also gave us subscriptions to magazines for children and teenagers. HAI magazine was one of them. It contained a story about the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, which inspired my junior high school friends and I to form a secret society. My secret name was Sevilla Ranekov. I found out later that Russian girls’ names do not end with ‘kov’ but ‘kovskaya’, and that ‘Sevilla’ was not a common name in Russia. Somehow we were not interested in stories about the CIA, the United States Intelligence Agency. I think it was perhaps because we were impressed by the views of the writers in HAI magazine about the KGB. At that time, Communism was described as a scary ideology and the KGB was a spine chilling, cold and stiff institution. It turned out that we liked spooky things. It was cool. Propaganda can provide unexpected results. Our secret organization was dissolved when we parted to continue at high schools in different cities. I moved to the island of Java, a 45-minute flight from the island where I was born, Bangka Island.

Bangka Island is located close to the Strait of Malacca. One day, wooden boats bearing Vietnamese refugees landed on the beach in front of my house. My mother and her neighbours gave them food and clothing before they were transferred to a shelter in Galang Island. They communicated with us using sign language. That was the first time I saw real victims of the wars in Indochina. Cambodian refugees also landed on our island before sailing to I don’t know where. For centuries Bangka Island has been open for trading and mining, and was the largest tin producer in the world. It is perfectly normal for us to interact with people from different nations.

I was close to my grandfather. From the windows of his pavilion, we could see only the sea and the horizon. I often stood there imagining the world beyond. My grandfather was a good example of a fusion of tradition and religion, of unconditional belief and rationalism. When Muslims in his village said that drinking beer was haram, my grandfather just drank his beer and explained that what is haram is becoming drunk and performing actions that harm ourselves and others. My grandfather knew that I did not like learning about religion and did not like to recite the Qur’an, but he still thought it was important. When I reached puberty, my grandfather gave me a book about love from an Islamic perspective. I loved reading the word ‘love’ on the cover. But my excitement disappeared when I read the first paragraph that says true love is love for Allah. I wanted more explanations about love in my own life, human love. My grandfather didn’t say a word when I criticized the book.

It was my grandfather who first hooked me up to world politics. When I was in elementary school, he was very annoyed when the British government let Bobby Sands, an Irish Republican Army or IRA activist, die on hunger strike in the Maze Prison, Northern Ireland. I became restless too. Every time I got home from school, I asked, ‘Is Bobby Sands still on hunger strike?’ When Grandfather nodded, I was so sad. Wars and political tensions between the Palestinians and Israel were other topics of conversation. According to my grandfather, the US and a number of other countries supported Israel, so Israel continued to colonize Palestine. Israel is only a small country and without the support of powerful countries it would not be able to survive. My grandfather died when I was thirteen years old.

But before he died, he has instilled in me an admiration for Sukarno. My grandfather was a Sukarnoist. In the military coup of 1965, the army officer Suharto brought Sukarno down and then ordered massacres of approximately half a million people: nationalists, communists, and those accused of being communists. The United States and the United Kingdom helped Suharto’s coup. I often heard my grandfather talking to his friends about him. They met to discuss the politics of Indonesia and the world.

I used Grandfather’s large desk for writing. My first text was a poem for Sukarno, written when Suharto was still president. My father sent my poem to Si Kuncung, a children’s magazine. I was eight years old. The magazine did not publish my poem. My father said, ‘Maybe it’s because of politics.’

My interest in the political world continues. Sometimes I express it in essay form, sometimes through fiction. The themes of my stories are diverse, but many are political. Media Indonesia, a local newspaper, published my short story Rumput Liar or ‘Wild Grass’ in 1993 when Suharto was still in power. ‘Wild Grass’ described relationships in a family where the mother does not approve of her son fighting against the government. This story was a metaphor for the realities of most Indonesian families in the Suharto era, when our parents’ generation were traumatised by politics, and unwittingly participated in preserving the dictatorship by pressuring their children and other family members to be apolitical.

In 1997 my short story ‘Betrayal’ was also published by Media Indonesia. It tells about the political differences between older and younger brothers; one of them works for the state intelligence agency. I think the newspaper published it because of its open ending.

In addition to writing, I participated in the movement against Suharto. I worked as a union organizer that was the onderbouw (substructure) of the People’s Democratic Party, a political party founded by my friends and I when we were in our twenties. I then served in the underground structures. When I wrote for newspapers or magazines, I used my real name, Linda Christanty. However, when organizing labour movements, I used the pseudonym Mirna. Four of our comrades were abducted by the government and never returned.

After Suharto fell, many people considered that the people of Indonesia had obtained their freedom. Under Suharto independent political parties were banned; everybody had to join the government parties. Now anyone can form a party, but Communism is still banned, and it can be used as a stigma, depending on the interests of those in power.

Two writers have been most influential in contemporary Indonesia. The first was Pramoedya Ananta Toer. The second was WS Rendra. Pramoedya was sent to prisons and Buru concentration camp for 14 years because he was a communist. The government confiscated his house and manuscripts. He is the only Indonesian writer who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature three times in a row. He never reconciled with the government until he died six years ago. The government never gave him literary awards and officially his books are still banned. Although his quartet ‘This Earth of Mankind’ can be purchased at bookstores in Indonesia, no one can guarantee that this will remain the case. The government under Suharto banned his works because they considered them communist propaganda. After reading them, I didn’t get that impression. The characters in his book come from various backgrounds, some educated, some young villagers. Minke, the main character in This Earth of Mankind, resisted Dutch colonialism and studied modern resistance in many nations.The novel described the relationship between a colonized country and the outside world and encouraged people to break free from colonialism. Such a perspective is surely the essence of nationalism. His other novel Gadis Pantai (‘Girl from the Beach’) criticized feudalist practices which make women’s lives miserable in Javanese communities.

Unlike Pramoedya, Rendra was a flamboyant poet and playwright. He was a handsome man and had several wives. His theater was banned during the Suharto era because it satirized government policies. He was very brave for some time before finally reconciling with the military. His poems expressed the social life of grassroots people, and of course romance. As well as his own plays, his theater performed adaptations from Shakespeare or Eugene Ionesco.

I read Pramoedya’s works when I was still in high school. As Suharto was still in power, I had to read them secretly. Two students were arrested and imprisoned for circulating his novels.

My favourite Indonesian writer is Muhammad Diponegoro. He wrote short stories which are no longer recognized by young Indonesians, in contrast to Pramoedya whose works continue to be discussed endlessly. The first time I learned about the work of Diponegoro was from a short story reading on Radio Australia or ABC. His stories are very touching but also full of surprises.

Towards the end of Suharto’s rule, Indonesian literature was suddenly flooded with novels about sex and eroticism written by women. They bore a very strong message of liberalism, but were only about ‘free sex’. Assuch, theydo not represent political bravery or reveal a critical attitude towards authority.In the post-Suharto era, we lost the spirit of communal resitance and people just think about their own individual and  private matters such as sex.

Last year, I wrote a story about Afghanistan, Seekor Anjing Mati di Bala Murghab (‘A Dog Dies in Bala Murghab’). The story begins with a scene of a soldier shooting a dog that belongs to a boy named Aref. The dog is playing in the street when he is shot, a creature with no connection whatsoever to the war, not unlike the civilians there. A NATO soldier wrote a commentary on my blog. ‘There was no soldier who shot a dog and no dog died in Bala Murghab,’ he wrote. He then explained that a dog that carries a bomb is very dangerous enemy. Well, my story is fiction.

I still miss Mak Unggal’s empek-empek and Bangka Island. Recently, my mother told me that Mak Unggal had called her. They hadn’t met each other for a long time. Mak Unggal said that my mother had some rights to the sale of their aunt’s land. Mak Unggal had kept my mother’s money and she would send it by courier. At the end of the phone conversation, Mak Unggal told my mother in English, ‘I love you.’ My mother replied, ‘I love you too.’ After that they exchanged greetings in Arabic: Assalamualaikum.

Sometimes my mother calls me and suggests that I perform five daily prayers to ask for God’s protection. My brother, Budhi, says, ‘I know that you don’t believe easily. But performing prayers is a tribute to our ancestors.’ To me, this sounds more like Confucianism, the Chinese philosophy promoting respect for the ancestors.

(translated from Indonesian by Rossie Indira)


CM07: Muslim Archipelago (Hurst, London, 2013)

Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s famous ‘Buru Quartet’ is available in Penguin paperbacks:

This Earth of Mankind (1980), Child of All Nations (1980), Footsteps (1985) and House of Glass (1988). Linda Christanty’s collections of short stories, include Maria Pinto's Flying Horse (Katakita publishing, Jakarta, 2004), Selma's Secret (Gramedia Pustaka Utama, Jakarta, 2010) and A Dog Dies in Bala Murghab (Gramedia Pustaka Utama, Jakarta, 2012). See also her anthology of essays: Do not Write Us Down as Terrorists (Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, Jakarta, 2010) and Linda's Notes (Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, Jakarta, 2012)