Encounters With Islam: Half a Century of Connection, and a Final Separation (Part 2: 1961-65)

(Read Part One here)

We landed in Talang Betutu Airport, Palembang, South Sumatra, on a fine day. Scatter ranks of towering cumulo-nimbus at the edge of a cobalt sky promised rain later on. A company van took us to the ferry where we would cross the Musi River to Sungai Gerong, the refinery site. We made our way along a barely macadam-ed road, threading our way through pedestrians, bicyclists and bullock carts. Rice fields stretched out the horizon either side. In the small ramshackle villages now and then, the onion dome of a mosque, fabricated from sheet metal, blazed reflected sunlight. I noted to myself that just has I had seen other exotic sights on the way out – The Buddha of Kamakura, a water buffalo, the fantastic entwined idols at a Hindu temple in Singapore –  now I was seeing mosques. It gave me a small glow of satisfaction to add one more sight to my globetrotter resume.

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Supri, our housekeeper. Her dress is typical of Indonesian Muslim women at the time. Photo: Thomas J. Strei

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Wayang Golek, ca 1965. The performers are Muslim, the puppets and stories, Hindu. Photo: Thomas J. Strei

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Traditional Malay wedding, Palembang, ca. 1964. The groom may be dressed up as Ibn Saud, but the floral tributes come from Hindu tradition. Photo: Thomas J. Strei

My father worked there for more than five years. Islam was present, but barely more than background noise. I went to seventh and eighth grade there, and returned for two summers while away at boarding school. Looking back, admittedly from a post 9/11 vantage, it is astonishing how little Islam, in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, touched our lives. When it did, it was simply one more exotic attribute of our surroundings, and could at times be amusing.  I remember one cook, terrified of coming in contact with pork, attempting to open a can of Spam holding it with a pair of pliers, and working the key with another. She herself wore her hair uncovered,and dressed in a kebaya, a lacy blouse with a fair amount of cleavage, and a sarong, which while concealing flesh, emphasized curves. . The household staff came from Central Java, and while nominally Muslim, were really adherents of traditional Javanese beliefs, a mixture of vestigial Hinduism and mystical practices. Most seemed to pray only in the evening.  If they performed all the five daily prayers, they did so discreetly. Never was one absent for religious observance. I can remember the butler taking his leave, saying he wished to “sembhayang,” an Indonesian word derived from the Sanskrit for meditation, but meaning any one of the five mandatory prayers. Today, Indonesian Muslims use the Arabicc, salaat.

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1965. At the time only haji wore these caps, but many non haji do now as a sign of piety. Photo: Thomas J. Strei

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Pilgrim ship, Musi River, ca. 1964. Photo: Thomas J. Strei

The exoticism was there. My father had pictures of a wedding where the groom rides in an open car dressed as a Hijazi prince, and older men, hajis, with skull caps. He took those shots because even there in that land of Islam, at that time those people stood out. President Obama famously said that there is nothing so lovely as the evening Muslim call to prayer. There was no mosque our compound, but on evenings, people gathered along the riverside at sunset, and from across the river from the village on the other bank, came that cal, and it was indeed lovely. Every year, around a month before the annual haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, a fleet of passenger ships would arrive and stand off for days as they waited for the faithful from the hinterlands to board.  Then they sailed, and may weeks later returned.  The markets filled with dates and Arab spices for a while. Muslim boys are circumcised around age thirteen, and the expatriate employers of Javanese domestic workers customarily would pay for the ceremony. The imam flashed his his blade, and Koranic recital was very brief. Then all night long, shadow puppet plays, the Javanese Wayang Kulit, based on ancient Hindu epics, enthralled the crowd.

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Fully veiled women, Aden 1963. Photo: Thomas J. Strei

After two years in Indonesia it was time for home leave, and we went to Europe by sea. The ship touched at Aden, still a British crown colony, albeit tottering as rebels attacked the outskirts of town, but we were assured it was safe in the center city. This was a heat unlike any  I had felt since living in the Mojave as a small boy. The streets were bustling with British soldiers, Indians, Arabs, and Europeans. And then I started to notice them: Women completely draped in black, even their eyes covered by dark gauzy stuff. Wow! I didn’t think of Islam, or misogyny, but only that once again I was thrilled at seeing something I had only known from geography books.

Two years later, while at school, in 1965, and shortly before my parents left Sungai Gerong in 1965,  I read with great interest my mother’s account of how the events that overthrew Indonesian strong man Sukarno reverberated in our oil town. There were rumors of death lists drawn up by the communists, and pits in the waste ground beyond the perimeter fence, ready for the Reds’ victims. In the event it was the communists who lost, and the whole series of events is still debated. What my mother did see with her own eyes, out walking the dog, was groups of Indonesian men, prominent in the company, dressed as if going to the mosque – checkered sarongs and the black felt caps called songkok, converging at the home of one high level company official, on a number of nights, some weeks before the coup/counter coup. Among them were men who had privately expressed their anti-communist and pro-American views to her and my father, even as they denounced them in public. She speculated that they were organizing resistance. Mom was convinced of the Communists’ guilt. The Army “martyrs,” (generals and a lieutenant who were first kidnapped, and then killed, it was said by the women’s cadre – had according to the official account, their genitals hacked off and placed in their mouths. “Muslims don’t do such things,” she wrote. I do not know on what she based this belief, but it did reflect her generally good opinion of Muslims, one that I shared for many years.

My mother died in 2008, some years before jihadi beheading and torture videos were so widely available on the Internet. Our geopolitical view -that Muslims would be valuable allies in the struggle with communism – was something that had long had a place in diplomatic and intelligence circles in Washington, and would see its fullest implementation in Afghanistan.

End Part Two

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