Encounters With Islam: Conclusion: 2000 – 9/11/2015

National Mosque, Jakarta

National Mosque, Jakarta

(To read  the series from the beginning go here )

 

I began this months ago. Readers of earlier segments will see the inevitable conclusion. Nothing that has occurred across the world since I began series has done anything but reinforced my sense that Islam is fatally flawed. So it’s time to finish, and fitting that I do so on another 9/11, as the reports of  the Islamic invasion of Europe come in, towards the end of another year of escalating Islamic violence in nearly all quarters of the globe.

September 11, 2001

I had grabbed my coffee and turned on the computer. The start page was Yahoo. I took in the top headlines.

“Hey,” I called out to my older daughter,” somebody’s hacked Yahoo!”

No.

The older girl and I were now in Bandung, where she was in her junior year of high school. Suffice it to say that the radical move from the States had not produced much in the way of favorable outcome. Her mother and younger sister remained in Bali for a time, then returned to the U.S. Eventually we divorced. I had gone back to work, as an English instructor.

Stupefied, I went off to work, riding the public minibus. Indonesians are a gregarious lot, and regular commuters and and even one off riders will quickly strike up conversations. Today they were silent.

I was the only American at the school, and the British lady who ran the place, on learning I had family in New York and DC, let me call Stateside on the company dime. I was unable to get through anywhere (It’s parenthetical, but I cannot resist the near miss stories that so many of of us have. My sister worked in Midtown, but had a regular downtown meeting canceled that day; brother in the Pentagon had taken the day off to go to a daughter’s soccer game; and at the same time, most fortunate, but saddest, my NYFD cousin, a company commander, was off that day, and both towers had fallen by the time he got there.)

The minute I knew those headlines were real, I knew what kind of people had done it. There was no point hoping it wouldn’t be Muslims. This was after the East Africa embassies, the Khobar towers, the U.S.S. Cole, and others.

Al Qaeda wasn’t until that day a household name, but it was no secret.

Yet, aside from the school head, if you listened to the to other foreign staff that day, you’d have thought that America did it to itself. This was my first exposure up front and personal to the familiar litany: Israel, imperialism and oh yeah, Israel. Worse than their perfunctory and patently insincere expressions of sympathy that prefaced these diatribes was their manifest cowardice.

What would America do, they wailed, and how would it effect them there in Bandung? There was talk of sewing British and Australian flag patches on their clothes. This cravenness in the face of Islamic violence is drearily familiar now, but it was new to me then.

As the names of the hijackers came out, I was for putting some hurt to Saudi Arabia, but in the end we invaded Afghanistan, missed Bin Laden and later, invaded Iraq as well.

Shortly after the Bush ultimatum to the Taliban and the countdown to the invasion when they failed to produce Bin Laden, an army unit, with some APCs and light crew served weapons, showed up in my neighborhood, home to many foreigners and my daughter’s international school. The commander came to my door and assured me that he, his men, and the nation guaranteed my safety. This was quite refreshing after the reaction from my colleagues.

For many years, it’s been common for those in opposition to Islam, radical Islam, or jihad to say “I learned everything I needed to know abut Islam on 9/11. This was not the case for me.

Signs and Portents

Perhaps I had simply not looked around me until Islam was in the worldwide news, but the Increasing Islamization in Indonesia that I had noted over previous decades seemed to have accelerated.

Bandung remains the most Dutch of Indonesian cities.

Bandung remains the most Dutch of Indonesian cities.

Right away, there were Bin laden T-shirts for sale . A small boy wore one to my class and I sent him home. His parents complained and I found myself in a sit down with the mother – hijab – and father, dressed normally in Western clothes but with what looked like a fairly recent scraggle of chin beard.

I got an earful of how evil America was, but held my tongue, and explained that this had hurt people I knew, and nearly killed some of them.

We smiled, shook hands – well not the mother – and I went away with hate in my heart.

Which, in time, subsided.

I taught there for two years. Religion, I found, played a huge role in the young students’ lives. Ask “What’s the best book you’ve read” and the answers were the Bible, or the Koran, according to confession. I found such discussions mind-numbingly dull. However, Christians and Muslims seemed to get along well, and while many girls wore the hijab, they were not a majority.

The kids loved to hang out with their teachers, and one day during Ramadan, we went out for pizza. After a text message telling them the fast had lifted, we dug in. I’m not sure when I first heard the word Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, but in my childhood I have no memory of it being used, but instead the Malay, ”bulan puasa,” fasting month. Now it was ubiquitous, with special sales in the malls, deals on iftar(fast breaking) buffets, and Arabic music.

Bandung prides itself on being a university city, a place for the young, artistic and hip, and so it is. It was early oughts and “gap” was in style, with hip hugging jeans and bare tummies. Around the universities, one might even see coeds wearing a hijab but showing belly button.

Outside town, things changed quickly.

Early one morning, on the first day of Eid ul Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, we drove out of town early., bound for Bali. The roads were jammed with people making their way to the mosques, torrents of them pouring in from the small villages up in the hills, thousands, all in Muslim dress. My daughter remarked that she didn’t remember this from previous years, and her boy friend, a life long resident, said he too thought that the crowds were far larger than before.

Dieng, Central Java, 2002.  There was no mosque there when I visited in 1975.

Dieng, Central Java, 2002. There was no mosque there when I visited in 1975.

I had occasion in the next couple of years to take other trips across Java, and it was apparent that Islamic observance was far more strict than it had been when I had first traveled the island as a young man. Women working in the fields still wore the conical “coolie hats” that reflected an ancient migration from southern China, but now wore head scarves underneath, surely adding to the heat and discomfort.

Islamic schools and other institutions, with their Arabic signs, were in the smallest villages. One day, not far from the great Buddhist monument Borobudur, on a country road winding through the rice terraces, I came upon a sight I will never forget.

An open truck full of young men lumbered a long in front of me. They were waving banners, which said, “Front Anti-Yahudi,” the “Anti-Jewish front.” They wore once piece black costumes, painted with white skeletons, as if for Halloween. Waving, and cheering as I overtook, some then donned skull masks.

There, in the green valleys of Java, with the volcanoes rising to clear blue sky, scenery that had long inspired postcards and landscape painters, was raw hatred from the desert lands

This wall in the former Sultan's compund  shows both Hindu-Javanese and Chinese decorative styles

This wall in the former Sultan’s compound shows both Hindu-Javanese and Chinese decorative styles.  Java has absorbed one culture after another, but will it survive Whaabbism?

I had left so many years before.

My daughter graduated and went back to the States; I moved to Jakarta,where there was better pay and considerably more fun. The old regime under Soeharto had kept Islamists under tight control, imprisoning, or outright snuffing any who looked to be a problem.

Now, the new president, not directly elected but voted in by a legislature that was put in place by clean elections, was all for letting people express themselves. While a Muslim himself and a cleric, he was a of a liberal cast of mind. Physically frail, and nearly blind, his “why can’t we all be friends” outlook(He spoke for a while of recognizing Israel) led him to myopia towards the forces being unleashed.

I taught at a school in a shopping office complex in Central Jakarta. There were plenty of nice restaurants and nightclubs nearby. Many of my classes were off site, at major businesses, and my students were well educated and well dressed. It was rare to see woman in a hijab.

Yet even in this milieu, I would at times catch a whiff of something going on. I remember our personnel manager, a married woman, very good looking, always in well fitted suits and heels, remarking that Bin Laden was “hebat,” an Indonesian word that in that context would be best translated as “bad ass.” There was considerable admiration for Saddam as well, but as in this was often in the context of tirades about American hegemony and regurgitated Chomsky, so chose not to see it in as related to religion.

On the streets, beyond the highrises, deeper trouble was brewing. An organization called

View from my terrace, Jakarta, 2002.

View from my terrace, Jakarta, 2002.

Front Pembela Islam(Islamic Defenders Front) took upon itself the role of a civil auxiliary in suppressing vice. They attacked night clubs and bars, starting out in the seamy dance clubs and semi-brothels of North Jakarta, where eventually the largely Chinese owners came to a modus vivendi in a protection racket that would be familiar to the Mafia, but then striking Kemang, home to diplomats, multinational executives, fine dining establishments and quite legitimate music clubs.

Nothing at all was done to stop them.

It was then that I saw a trend that has only continued. Radical Islamic elements push, engaging in mob action, while the civil apparatus of an ostensibly non-confessional state, not only does not punish offenders, but accommodates them.

Ramadan came, and for the first time, the City government decreed that late night venues must close early, and the sale of alcohol in such places was suspended during the fasting month. That this meant a month without paychecks for tens of thousands was of no import. Nor did anyone point to the underlying absurdity that alcohol and fornication are forbidden to Muslims at all times, not just one month in a year.

This attempt to put the city’s residents in a pious state of mind appropriate to the season lead to some quite absurd accommodations. The hot tub at my health club was drained, as apparently being in the water with ladies was an affront during Ramadan.

A popular hangout with a classical theme, put pasties on its faux-Greco-roman statuary. There, as at other places, the bar was cleared of bottles, but you could get some beer in a coffee mug. We grumbled that no good Muslim would be in such places anyway, so why couldn’t they just leave us alone.

As I was learn in the coming years, that wasn’t the point. Islamic behaviors, even practiced by unbelievers is an affront to Islam, as are the unbelievers themselves.

In late 2003, I went back to the States for a while, to work with my younger daughter on her college applications. I had left just after the Iraq War began, and I saw its effects when I was substitute teaching in Phoenix. Many kids were enlisting after graduation. They seemed to be disproportionately Hispanic, Black and Native American. Another war in the Middle East, anther conflict among Muslims, yet it still wasn’t something that would direct to me to examine Islam closely.

I was offered a job in Surabaya, East Java, where I stayed for seven years, where I again taught English, living with my partner, an Indonesian Chinese, and an atheist as I was. And am.

becakoldhousel

Dutch era buildings, Surabaya, 2003

Surabaya is and has long been a center of industry and commerce, known as the “City of Work,” because largely that is what there is to do there. I had first seen it n 1970, when it remained a somewhat cobwebbed display of faded grandeur from the Dutch East Indies. Later in the decade, when I was working in Kalimantan, I often had occasion to come down to Surabaya to procure goods and services, and the place had clearly picked up. I dealt largely with Chinese businesses, and the Chinese are today still quite prominent in the city.

Yet, while it is in some ways fairly cosmopolitan, it fronts on a vast agrarian hinterland, and it is in these small towns an villages that the struggle between traditional syncretic Javanese religion, a meld of Islam and older beliefs, against Orthodox Islam, continues, after a very bloody start in 1965.

Synagogue, Surabaya, 2003.  Long disused, but maintained with a grant from overseas,  it was the site of demonstrations when anyone was angry at Israel.    It has since been demolished.

Synagogue, Surabaya, 2003. Long disused, but maintained with a grant from overseas, it was the site of demonstrations when anyone was angry at Israel. It has since been demolished.

This is a long stretch of time, and I could here provide a string of anecdotes to buttress my case, but I’ll instead provide a general outline of those years.

After 9/11, it was the consensus among Western governments that much of the problem was due to misunderstanding between cultures. Thus, a concerted effort was made to reach out, identify and select young Muslims for education in Western nations. Indonesia, bastion of “moderate” Islam was key to the program, and the school where I worked, was involved in many programs financed with American,British,Australian and New Zealand money

One day, we were warned to keep a low profile. Hizbut Tharir, a world wide organization( banned in UK, legal in the US) was demonstrating in favor a of a universal Caliphate. Completely covered women in black held up signs condemning the US and Israel, and demanding global Islamic rule.

In 2005,many of my students were in an uproar about Israel’s “Cast Lead” operation in Gaza. The world, I thought, has many examples of pain and oppression. Why was it that these young people, so far from the Middle East, were so concerned? And as I read more about Islam, and Islamic history, I came at last to the conclusion that the Arab Israel conflict was, in fact, the Islam-Israel conflict. Territory once Islamic, simply cannot be given over to non-believers, and that the Jews, reviled in the Koran and other foundational texts, had taken Muslim land was an affront past bearing.

I said nothing about these things, and if anything, were pleased with my knowledge of Islamic belief and practice. I wanted to be liked, and as my doubts grew, I still dissembled.

Yet the atrocities and violence across continents continued, never relenting.

Beslan.

The spin was “Chechen Nationalists,” nationalists who called, “Allahu akbar!”

Soccer Field, Darussalam University, Aceh 2006.  Since I was there, sharia has sitigtnd and unrelated men and women may not ride together, or be alone anywhere

Soccer Field, Darussalam University, Aceh 2006. Since I was there, sharia has tightened, and unrelated men and women may not ride together, or be alone anywhere

For some years we had a large contingent of Achenese students, beneficiaries of study abroad programs established in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami. They were fine students, hard workers, but fun-loving, coming from a linguistic tradition that valued poetry and oration. It was, and still is a source of great pleasure for me to see how well they have done.

Still, all the women wore the hijab. The rebels let a few errant locks peep out. One fellow, a secret free thinker, was reduced to hiding when drinking coffee and having a smoke during Ramadan. At one point the program took me to Aceh to do some preparatory work with students before they came to Surabaya.

It wasn’t so bad. There was a lively coffee house scene, and it was common to see couples double dating. Of course, around ten, the boys would take their girl friends home, then come back and watch the footie. Rather charming, perhaps like small towns in America in bygone days

Outside town was a newly constructed governmental complex, and one large building was devoted to the administration of sharia law. It was not yet in force, but notices said it was coming. One would not need to be a forensic accountant to state that the building was at least in part paid for by the charitable citizens of the West who donated to tsunami relief.

Now, in Aceh, offenders are whipped publicly. Amputations and beheading have yet to arrive, but one wonders. A number of my students asked me to return to Aceh to attend weddings, but I am never going back.

With some of my Aceh students, Surabaya, 2006.  My late mother was astonished at this picture, as she had never herself seen Indonesia women so dressed.

With some of my Aceh students, Surabaya, 2006. My late mother was astonished at this picture, as she had never herself seen Indonesia women so dressed.

Looking back, I can find no road to Damascus moment. I read the Koran, I various translations,learned about the hadith and the sira, delved deeply into the history of Islamic expansion, so that around2009, when I first started hearing of Boko Haram, I spoke of these matters one evening to my partner.

She asked, seriously, “are you an Islamophobe?”

I spoke of somewhat to what I have written here,and she began her own journey of discovery.

And my distaste only deepened.  Sometimes people refused to sit next to me on the minibus I took to work everyday. Indonesians generally assume that foreigners don’t speak their language, but I understood the word, “najis,” unclean, as are all unbelievers. This did get me shotgun all by myself, where normally two passengers were crammed in.

I simply couldn’t take it anymore, so retired earlier than I had thought I would.

It’s been a little more than four years since I retired to Hindu Bali. I conceived of the project that became this “Encounters” series before I even got here. Yet I have tarried, and I tarry now,

My father-in-law, the late Haji Kamal, 2005, Bandung.  Dutch educated, civli servant in both the conolnial and independe regimes, Natioalist Party actvist, at teh endof his life, besides his beloved coffee and cigarettes, there was only Islam.

My father-in-law, the late Haji Kamal, 2005, Bandung. Dutch educated, civil servant in both the colonial and independent regimes, Nationalist Party activist, at the end of his life, besides his beloved coffee and cigarettes, there was only Islam.

Because in the end, I know the conclusion, and even after all these many years,it’s hard to just spit it out.

I’m done.

With Islam and with Muslims.

I’ll continue my study of the issues, and of course will be civil when meeting Muslims. I enjoy hearing from some of my former students. But as for all the efforts and blather at outreach, understanding, bridging the divide, and on, and on.

It’s useless.

This is to use a Marxist term, a world historical process. Islam is what it is. The Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS, this is Islamic reform.

Those who await some kind of Islamic Episcopalianism are fools. A millennial conflict will not be resolved by church suppers.

This is my stand. I have come to it through long experience and study. Others will make their own journeys of understanding, in their own way, in their own time.

Mine has ended.

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Encounters with Islam, Part 3: 1975-80

Al Khobar 2

Old town, al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, 1978

Dead_Iranian_generals

Executed Iranian generals, 1979

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Old City, Lahore, Pakistan, 1978

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Shalimar gardens, Lahore Pakistan, 1978

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Mughal fort, Lahore, Pakistan 1978

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Plains Indians Ghost Dancers, 1880s

(Read part One here, and Part 2 here)

It was late 1978. I pulled my truck up on an embankment to watch the spectacle. For three days, white C-130s with the Iranian tricolor had been roaring in to the American airbase at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Every fifteen minutes, one came in, and another took off, heading back north. The Shah was tottering, and this was a sure sign of the end. Scuttlebutt was that these planes were clearing out technical assets from CIA listening stations in Iran. Iran had been a bulwark in CENTO (Central Treaty Organization), an arc extending from Turkey to Pakistan. A few months before, on the recommendation of a coworker, I and some buddies had bought tickets for Shiraz in Iran. They had Israeli beer, a few discos, the ruins of Persepolis, beautiful ancient mosques and gardens. Iran Air went on strike and Saudia was full, so we didn’t go. I got my money back, and given a last-minute choice between Oktoberfest in Munich, and Pakistan.  I’d been to Munich as a child, so I went to Lahore on  the recommendation of my Pakistani travel agent.  There, one could – with a police permit – have a drink, and explore a city that combined a jumble of slums, markets, the British cantonment, and some of the finest examples of Islamic architecture anywhere.  It beat Saudi all hollow. The change in Iran was spectacularly swift. And yet, although the old regime fell to the Ayotollah, the events were still couched in the familiar vocabulary of nationalism and Cold War alignments. Pundits ascribed the anti –Americanism to memories of the coup against Mossadegh, hence the prominent role of the Tudeh(Iranian Communists) in supporting the Revolution, and some geo-strategists saw it as a wash. While Iranian leftists were celebrating the end of American influence, it was unlikely the Ayatollah would align with the godless Soviets. The Tudeh, of course, are long gone, mostly murdered by the regime. At the time, I did see a little beyond this, thinking and writing that this was in a sense, “Ghost Dancing,” in that just as the Plains Indians on the verge of defeat and near extinction had put their faith in spirits, so here was Islam, lashing back at Modernism, in a violent death throe. I still think I was right, but at the time I would never have thought such issues would still be foremost in discourse today.

POster

Indonesian movie poster from the 70s

My road to Saudi Arabia had led through Indonesia. In 1975, the San Francisco based construction company for which I worked won a contract for an LNG project on the east Coast of Kalimantan(Borneo) My background put me up on the shortlist of candidates for an open position in logistics, and May of that year found me back In Indonesia after an absence of five years. Soekarno was gone, a general ruled, and for our reposes here, I could almost elide these years, as Islam, while present, was not ascendant. It was the 70s, and bell bottoms, short skirts, and big hair were as popular in here as anywhere else. There was still only one television station, state-owned, black and white, and it broadcast a prayer call in the evenings, but the local cinema ground out comedies that were thinly plotted efforts on which to hang chicks in short skirts and showcase local rock bands.

Jalan Thamrin, Jakarta 1974.  Photo: Thomas J. Strei

Jalan Thamrin, Jakarta 1974. Photo: Thomas J. Strei

Jakarta was a roaring town. Oil and gas ruled. There were slot machines in the bars, and there were a lot of bars. Along the new thoroughfares, high rises went up, but from the roof top lounges, one still looked out over a vast, poorly lit sea of shanty towns. There was far more going on than I imagined. (V.S.Naipaul describes repressed Islamist sentiment in 1970s Indonesia in his “Among the Believers.”) Indonesia then, as now, was a supremely religious country. Nor were questions we would find cultural offensive of the table. “How old are you” “What is your religion?” I had long since taken up agnosticism, but I knew better than to answer that I had no religion. After 1965, Communism, and the entire left, by extension had been discredited and were beyond the pale, but this was not due to matters of economic policy or political organization, but rather the atheism considered fundamental to Marxism. So I answered, simply, Catholic, as I had been raised, and of which there were quite a few in the country, with the national Cathedral in Jakarta just across from the National Mosque. With the Indonesians with whom I associated, religion was hardly an issue. I was young, and so were they. Mostly we talked about the job, and of course, girls. A group might meet in a Chinese restaurant, where the westerners and Chinese Indonesians had pork, the Muslims chicken, and we all drank the excellent local beer ( now sadly diminished as successive hikes in the excise tax have forced the brewers to lower the alcohol content.)

Me with local staff, Balikpapan, 1977. One of these ladies was Muslim, the other Christian.  Which was which wasn't obvious back then.

Me with local staff, Balikpapan, 1977. One of these ladies was Muslim, the other Christian. Which was which wasn’t obvious back then.

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Big hair and bell bottoms, Palu, Central Sulawesi, 1977. For the last twenty years this area has been a hotbed of Islamist violence, with may gruesome murders, inter communal mayhem, and volunteers going off to fight jihad abroad.

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Muslim Malay villagers, Sengatta, East Kalimantan, 1977.

After some months, the project build took off and I moved up to Balikpapan, an oil town not far from the job site, and later, towards the end of the project to the site itself. In all this time, working with local staff, no one ever broke off from his duties saying he had to go and pray. No doubt many managed to meet their devotional obligations, but it was never an issue. At evening one heard the call for prayer from the old town below the oil company compound, but as it had been in Sumatra for me, years before, it was a pleasant reminder that I had gotten out in the world and was someplace different, and exciting. At the site, the mess hall provided both Western and Indonesian food. There were separate lines, but all came from the same kitchen. The chef was German, and there was pork. And I was utterly delighted when as the operational team formed for the plant start-up but who should show up but Abu Bakar, from Sungai Gerong, famous for his wild boar barbecues. He was soon off in the forest banging away and put on a great pig roast for all, and as before, while not eating the porker, happily swigged on the bourbon that was his secret barbecue sauce ingredient. We had Sundays off, access to speed boats and free fuel, so we ranged up and down the coast, exploring the rivers and estuaries, stopping at small towns little changed from Conrad’s time( he had mucked about these parts)

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Bugis settlers, from across the strait of Makassar. Renowned as sailors and traders, the Bugis have been Muslim for many centuries, but here, in 1978, no head scarves.

These were Muslim settlements, each with its tin-domed mosque, but there were no head covers on the women and if we had run out, it was easy to find more warm beer to throw in the igloo coolers. There were thousands of Muslim workers on site, but no prayer times, and work continued through the fasting month, with no acknowledgment. When the work was done, and the plant dedicated, oil industry grandees, along with the President of the Republic, General Suharto showed up . It was quite a party. Two major headliners from Jakarta, stars of stage and screen. The late Benyamin S. the still revered Muslim son of West Sumatra, and Grace Simon, a Christian from North Sulawesi (Celebes) put on a show, singing duets half way to dawn, at a well lubricated party.

CyberViewX v5.11.00 Model Code=58 F/W Version=1.12When it was time to go a couple of months later, I joined a buddy and I embarked on a long-planned trip across the interior of Kalimantan and into Malaysia. This was an epic in itself, but has little bearing on this narrative other than that we were surprised at how far up the river the reach of Islam extended. It was week and more before we came ashore at a long house settlement of the native Dayak people, and finally a town, without a mosque. Months later, we stumbled across the border into Malaysia and made our way to Singapore. So,I left Southeast Asia, and returned to California, where I stayed only briefly. I had left a girlfriend in Jakarta. It was far too early to make a commitment, but I needed time and money to go back and forth to Indonesia.

Dayak longhouse, Long Pahangnai, East Kalimantan, 1977.  Dayaks are largely Christian, but many remain animist.  Those that enter Islam must perforce leave all their traditions behind.

Dayak longhouse, Long Pahangnai, East Kalimantan, 1977. Dayaks are largely Christian, but many remain animist. Those that enter Islam must perforce leave all their traditions behind.

Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia 1978

Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia 1978

There was work in Saudi Arabia. So it was that in May 1978, from 25,000 feet, I looked out into the night and saw as far as the eye could see, the gas flares of the Saudi fields. It was as a small cog in the vast Aramco effort to capture those flared resources that I was employed. Saudi Arabia. No women, no whiskey, but so what, I thought. I had known Muslims the better part of my life. No problem. I bought Lawrence’s “Seen Pillars of Wisdom,” Douty’s “Arabia Deserta,” and “Thesigers “Arabian Sands.” These famous men had found adventure and fulfillment there; so might I. Arabia!! Like China and India, one of those fanciful lands from childhood tales.

In the event, Saudi was, as you might expect, awful. The visible population was overwhelmingly male. The Aramco television station showed “Love Boat” Reruns, which we watched assiduously, just for the pool scenes. There were some echoes of the sleepy kingdom in those slides my father’s friend had shown us back in the 50’s In downtown Al_Khobar , where the old whitewashed houses had jalousies in the upper stores, from which women might look out. Down the road was the town of Qatif, with winding alleys, a mud-walled Ottoman fort, and dhows at the quayside.

Qatif, Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia,1978

Qatif, Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia,1978

The strange and anti-human segregation of the sexes was difficult, indeed, for me, impossible to adjust to. Friends of mine in Riyadh told me of getting random phone calls from women, who passed around expatriate telephone numbers among themselves. They would talk yearningly, for hours, but never meet.

A Safeway opened in Dhahran, and it was soon thronged by veiled women who made a great show of examining produce and reading ingredients on cans. For this they had to throw back the veil over their faces, and one saw, as they glanced away from the lettuce, towards you, great dark eyes, perfectly made up, deep pools in which hid shadowed souls. It was here that I saw what remains the single most erotic vision in my life. Late one day driving along a road crowded on both sides with mid-rise apartments, the street empty, and the sun sinking in the east filled the corridor with orange light. Then a woman, all in black, but clearly young, for the light pierced her dark cloak and illuminated the full curves of her body, as if she were naked., She was faceless, and magnificent.

There was a train line from Dammam to Riyadh, and once I rode with some friends as a lark. Sitting opposite us was a jolly fellow, in his thobe and dishdasha.  He was a trader of some sort, had traveled extensively, and spoke his own variety of expressive and quite amusing English. As he regaled us with stories of his travels, he continuously cracked a variety of nuts, and passed the meats s around. A stand up guy. Next to him was , I presume, his wife, all in black and with a leather mask, something one saw among the Bedouin. She might as well have been a piece of uninteresting luggage. Yet, while I knew this was a consequence of Islam, I saw it as Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. I was not at all ready to write off Muslims in general, or even Saudis, although I learned they weren’t all that popular among Arabs.

There were still those touching human interactions that are part, or even the main reason, that some people seek out time in other cultures. The kind of contact that says, yes, we are, in the end all just people, and such differences as we have,are worthwhile in themselves. Shortly after I arrived in Kingdom, I realized I was going the wrong way while out working one day, pulled off a very a narrow road and got bogged down on a deceivingly solid shoulder. A Caprice slowed down and stopped. The locals loved these behemoths: they were hardy and up to all the crap the desert could throw at them. A portly fellow in Arab dress got out, smiled, pointed to the tow hitch on the back of his car, hitched me up and pulled me back to the road. Then he gave me a cake. An enormous chocolate wonder in one of those pink cardboard boxes. His card said he was a baker, from Kuwait. We shook hands and he took off.

Then there were the middle-aged and elderly merchants who dealt from their stores in the old towns, while their MBA sons ran huge warehouses on the outskirts. It was a pleasure to sit with them, exchange intricate pleasantries, and sip tea and coffee, before getting down to business. One of these guys was a cat fancier. Islam prohibits dogs

Old commercial district, Al-Khobar, Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia, 1978

Old commercial district, Al-Khobar, Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia, 1978

but the human love of companion animals will out. He would had me a cup of cardamon infused coffee and – a cat. While exchanging praises to god for he good weather and our fine health we would sip our drinks and pet our purring friends.

And this I shall never forget.

Salim was the proprietor of a busy machine shop.  Black, he had been born into slavery, and when slavery ended in the kingdom, he had gotten work in the oilfields and eventually set up on his own. His crew was also black, from similar backgrounds One day, I was dropping off some drawings, when a commotion broke out.  A worker had been injured – I don’t remember how exactly –  but as his crew gathered around anxiously around for the ambulance to come, Salim cradled the moaning man cooing to him,  and kissing his shaven skull.  Salim was an excellent and reliable supplier, and he was also a good man.

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Bahrein, 1979

Saudi Arabia was full of foreigners, from high paid executives to laborers, and many of them were Muslims .. I hung out with French-speaking Tunisians who made their own wine, and Pakistani guys who cooked up amazing curries and biryanis in their quarters. While I spent most of my leaves in Jakarta, I did see a little of the Middle East. Bahrain had alcohol, old British hotels, and souks filled with Arabs, Europeans and Indians. Syria, while under the thumb of Assad Pere,

Palmyra, Syyria, 1979

Palmyra, , 1979

was nevertheless a wonderful place to visit, Damascus a jumble of classical ruins, stunning mosques from the first Caliphate and an Oktoberfest at the Hilton. Jordan was a friendly, open place, with television in Arabic, English, French and Hebrew. Like Saudi Arabia, these were Muslim lands, but there the similarity ended.

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Damascus, 1980. This engine was part of the order to Krupp for the Baghdad-Berlin railway. Lawrence blew some of them up in the Hijaz.

Looking back, it’s bemusing – and discouraging -to see forerunners of today’s strife in the area. The Grand Mosque in Mecca was seized by rebels who thought the royal family corrupt and un-Islamic, and there were uprisings in the majority Shia Eastern Province where I was. The Press was tightly controlled and we learned the truth of such things via letters from abroad, although rumors and unease abounded in 1979.

One night I was driving home after a day visiting friends up north. Suddenly the light traffic piled up. The Army was checking everyone. Some vehicles were waved though after brief conversations, others searched. I had a load of homemade wine stashed behind the seat, and I thought I was in big trouble. Fortunately, my night class in Arabic paid off, as I was able to understand a demand for my license, and produce it with the usual polite pleasantries.

Old city center, Homs, Syria. Now almost completely destroyed.

Old city center, Homs, Syria. Now almost completely destroyed.

As the soldier and I talked, I heard distant fire, and looking back as I drove on, saw flashes of light to the East. Months later, I learned that gunships had been putting down a revolt in Qatif.

Plus ca change.

Jerash, Jordan, 1980

Jerash, Jordan, 1980

I was in the Kingdom for a little over two years( Well, two years, there months and six days. If you took extra days off to travel, without pay, it was added to your sentence, erhm, contract) I often took extra time, because I was going back and forth to Jakarta. The girlfriend and I decided to marry. She was a secretary at one of the UN affiliated international organizations in town, had friends among the embassies and foundations, and also knew quite a few people in music and film. Jakarta was in a certain way, a small town back them. In short, she was quite sophisticated for the time and place. We had never at all discussed religion. I had met her sister who was married to a hotel manager in a nearby city, but her father was a distant figure. She had always said they didn’t get along. My fiance’s mother had been his first wife, and had died young. He had had quite a few since then.

One day he showed up in Jakarta, on a mission. If we were to marry, I must become Muslim. So this man, in his floppy trousers and Muslim skull-cap, was the father of my fiancée, who had excellent English, some French and Dutch, and was an accomplished stenographer. He was from West Java,and his native language was Sundanese, but of course he spoke Indonesian. Nevertheless, I had great difficulty understanding him, at least in regards to the matter at hand, since a good deal of what he was saying was Arabic. This was a bombshell. I had not attachment to the religion I had been raised in, and had gleefully stopped going to church as soon as nobody made me do so. Nevertheless, I didn’t like anyone telling me what to do, and Islam, the religion of those difficult raghead over in the Sand Box, was not at all something I wanted to take up. I said no, and there was an enormous scene. I called the movers to pack up my stuff, Then, I backed down. I had sent out the invitations, liked the idea of being married, and well love and all that stuff. I went back to Dhahran with an Indonesian language booklet on Islam that told me how to pronounce the Shahada(the Islamic profession of faith), how to pray and so on. I chanted the payers until I knew them, and in the end not so resentfully. Just anther cultural exploration, I thought. So it was, on my next leave from Saudi, I went down to the mosque and recited the Shahada. First I had had to go tot a doctor, drop trou, and show that my junk was regulation. Wen I was born, circumcision was seen nearly universally as a hygienic necessity. ‘Nice work.” said the doc. The imam congratulated me,and we all exchanged a lot of “Alhamdullah,” Arabic for Praise the Lord. I was then able to marry in the Islamic rite. Then I shredded the conversion certificate, and no doubt the mice have since eaten the carbons. Some months after the religious wedding, we married at the civil registry and had a big reception with enormous amounts of booze: I returned to Saudi to finish out my contract. At the Jakarta airport,there were a large number of young Indonesians, dressed in a manner I had never seen before, the boys in skull caps and thobes, and tho women in white, faces visible,  hair covered. They were boarding a Saudi flight, and they told me they were on the way to the Kingdom for religious education. I thought then, what kind of ideas will they bring back?

(To continue to Part 4, go here )

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

Encounters With Islam: Half a Century of Connection, and a Final Separation (Part 1: 1949-1961)

SaracenCastleThe Crusaders in their heavy mail at first paid little attention to the arrows that struck and wounded them lightly. The Arabs stood a good ways off and their shafts were half spent when they struck.

The Europeans dismounted and formed a shield wall, waiting for the Arab onslaught.

Which never came. Just the unending flights of arrows. Of so many, some did strike vital areas, and heat and cumulative bleeding brought other men down. Maddened, some charged, and then the Arabs came and struck some down, wheeled and stood off again.

The sally was over, and the siege would not end today. As the Franks retreated to their castle they were followed by the ululating war cry La illalah ilahi”

There is no god but Allah.

Then my mother called me for dinner.

UrbanII-220x300I put the solders and castle away. After dinner there would be homework, but I didn’t mind. In Catholic school we were studying the Crusades. We had just received our first issue of a Catholic magazine for juveniles, called “Crusade” and on its cover was Pope Urban, blessing kneeling knights as they took the cross.

We were to learn and celebrate the achievements of these warriors of Christ, but I had a secret. I was drawn to the bearded men in white robes, with their curved swords and exotic war cry. I was nine, and all I knew of Islam is that it had been at war with the Church, my church, the one I had been born into. The history book showed their sweep across the Near East and Africa and up into Spain and even beyond in the name of their god Allah, and their Prophet Mohammed.

In Geography there were pictures of some famous Islamic structures, the Taj Mahal, and the Hagia Sophia, which we learned had first been a great Church with minarets added later. Camels, goats, and women covered from head to foot. In school,the followers of Islam were called Mohammedans, and I cannot now remember when I first encountered the terms “Islam” and “Muslim.” I was a great reader and much interested in knights and armor. Old books with rotogravure illustrations taught me about Richard Coeur d’Lion, but also Saladdin and the just Caliph, Haroun al-Rashid, walking his city incognito in the night.Henty

At the movies there was “the Seven Voyages of Sinbad,” with a cute princess, a roc,and a caliph, and on the black and white television. “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” and old Sabu movies, all with men in robes and turbans, and sometimes,not very well veiled women with excitingly bare midriffs and transparent harem pants,  but I don’t remember anyone mentioning Allah. 220px-Seventh_voyage_of_sinbad

An old ship mate of my father’s had worked in Saudi Arabia for a while, and he showed us slides of the dusty streets and veiled women, and close ups of comically grinning camels. I had no idea why their women were veiled ,but I do remember one excellent shot of a crowd at an Aramaco(Arabian American Oil Company, now wholly Saudi government owned) night ball game. Women in the back, all in black, boys in checkered headdresses in front, drinking Pepsi.

HalliburtonArabia

Richard Halliburton with Abdul Aziz, first king of Saudi Arabia.

This then was what I knew of Islam, which we knew as Mohammedanism, as I played at Crusaders versus Saracens: it was sort of a heresy, its warriors had conquered great swathes of the wold, starting from Arabia, and the lands of Islam looked quite exotic, the kinds of places I’d like to explore, like Richard Halliburton, celebrity explorer and writer of the 20s and and 30s, who swam the Hellespont with the minarets of Constantinople behind him, and met the King of Arabia. Islam seemed largely for and of Arabs, although I knew the Turks were in there somewhere.

Then, in 1961, my father was transferred to Sumatra along with all of us. I read up in the library.  Islam was the religion of the great majority of Indonesians, I found, and took up some basics: they had no Trinity.  Muslims prayed five times a day,( and I found that particularly awful, as I hated church and did not enjoy good night prayers. My mother’s occasional spurts of piety sometime resulted in family rosaries that seemed interminable), and revered Jesus as only a prophet, didn’t eat pork, or drink alcohol, and went on pilgrimage to Mecca, that forbidden city Halliburton had tried to visit.Halliburtonturban

In May 1961, we boarded a plane, then a ship, then more planes, and one bright, equatorial day, my encounter with Islam began.

(Read Part Two here)

Merry Christmas and Eid Mubarrak

Chistmas mid 1950s

I’m not much for religion, and never have been, pretty much telling the Supreme Being to bite me in first grade.  I thought being Lord of the Universe was a pretty good job, and I wondered how he got in.  Seemed unfair, fixed, to me . Raised Catholic, I dreaded Sunday mass with the droning Latin and boring sermons, and the feeling that I had to “act holy” when basically, I didn’t give a shit.

Christmas was different. Of course, the presents under the tree were the highlight as we woke near dawn and squirmed in our beds waiting for our parents to rise.  But  on that day church too was enjoyable.  The choir gave its all to those beautiful old carols. I found myself singing and meaning it,   not in a devotional sense, but fully embracing the communal sense of good will, and the the world was a beautiful place, and we fortunate to be in it together.  It might have rained or sleeted on some Christmas days, but my memories of Natal mornings are always sunny,  snow on the ground in New York, or warm with a light breeze in southern California.

And there was  the food.  Not just turkey and  trimmings, but the nuts, cookies, and sweets, that for this one day we could eat with out limit and no fear of  adult admonitions. A chance to play and show off our new toys to neighbor kids.

When my family lived a few years in New York, Jewish friends had me over for Hannukkah celebrations and passover seders, and I saw that while these gatherings were about religion, and a different one than that I had been told was mine, they were also about family and community, and just plain fun.

Having spent a lot of time in the Islamic  world, I found that the Muslims have their feasts too, and in their own way celebrate family and community just as the Christians and Jews do.  During the fasting month in some places there are dazzling night markets where families eat seasonal treats and greet their neighbors after breaking the fast.  Once on the island of Morotai, in the far north  Moluccas of Indonesia, I attended a celebration of Eid Ul Adha, the feast of Sacrifices, where local Christians joined as well.  There was even a dance – no touching- as young men and women did simple steps, circling each other and flirting.There was an enormous buffet of sizzling meets, savory curries and fresh fruit.  Christians in the Moluccas will tell you the Muslims are far better cooks, and it’s true,

Some years after that, the Moluccas erupted in religious violence, jihadis poured in from Java, and the different religious communities remain separated to this day.

A predictable sign of the holiday season these days is  postings on YouTube of varius imams and mullahs urging Muslims not to give the heathenish greeting: “Merry Christmas.  In Indonesia, it was years ago common for Muslims and Christians  to extend cordial greetings on their respective holidays.  This is no longer the case, and sadly, it is largely the majority Muslims  who have withdrawn from these neighborly rituals.

A former student of mine,an Indonesian engineer  who spent many years working in Saudi Arabia,  an official in a local Islamic charity and who has a large zabiba (prayer bump), startled me some years ago by mailing a Christmas wish,  and he has done so every year since.

That means  a lot.  I’m an atheist, but I acknowledge that religion is hardly going to disappear any time soon.  Thus, my Christmas wish is to see the hatred taken out of religion. But let’s keep the holidays.  And the food.