The small sign in my bare hotel room in Banda Aceh was clear. “It is forbidden to bring a woman/man who are not husband or wife into the hotel.” I saw similar messages in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Gaza.
I was in Aceh as a guest of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival and conducted a number of satellite events with the local community. My translators were primarily girls in the final year of school, their proficiency of English and popular culture an example of the inherent contradictions between Muslim devotion and youthful curiosity.
This Indonesian province takes its Islam very seriously. The provincial parliament of Aceh recently passed a criminal bylaw that supported the death penalty, stoning and flogging for homosexual acts and adultery. They are draconian moves in a devoutly religious area.
But this is largely the only side of Aceh captured by the Western press when it considers mentioning the territory at all. After the devastating 2004 tsunami that killed over 220,000 Indonesians, Aceh was the worst affected area. It was year zero. Entire families were wiped out.
Writer Azhari – whose new book of translated poetry, Nutmeg Woman, is released this month – now lives in a shared apartment, with no living relatives to speak of. “I’m alone”, he told me, chain-smoking, “but my writing sustains me.”
Azhari’s work covers the period before the 2005 peace deal between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government. The majority of Acehnese I met said they would rather independence than integration – “we are really nine separate countries with distinct ethnic groups”, an editor at the local newspaper Harian Aceh argued – but peace always came with a price. The West Papuan struggle was warmly embraced. East Timorese freedom was praised. I sometimes sensed jealously at their relatively newfound independence. Indonesian nationalism in Aceh was hard to detect.
How to remember the tsunami is a hot subject of debate and most people I saw believed that a living memorial was essential?
“The Acehnese people are still grieving”, a journalist said, when I asked about the importance of Palestine in the province. “We care deeply about our brothers and sisters in Gaza” – one young man, under 20, said he wanted to fly to fight against the Israelis during their bombardment of the Strip in December and January and his views were not unique – but Palestine is a rallying cry, almost an abstract manifestation of the perceived injustices handed out by the West.
The Middle East is a key unifier across the Muslim world.
I was the first Jew most Acehnese had ever met or engaged. Nindy Silvie, a savvy 18-year-old in her final year of school who read Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens and loved South Park, texted me a few days ago: “People here could love Jews now because of you.”
During a radio interview with a Muslim talkback show, one girl called in to ask whether the Koran was correct when it allegedly said that, “Israel and Jews are the most cruel on the planet.” For many Muslims there, Jews are little more than occupiers and brutes in Palestine. The concept of anti-Zionism never entered their thinking or media.
Aside from countless political discussions, the landscape revealed a harsh reality. A number of large ships lie marooned in the middle of neighbourhoods, having been ruthlessly plucked from the ocean and unceremoniously dumped far from shore. They have become tourist attractions and memorials – for the handful of visitors to the island, aside from aid workers and international NGOs – and climbing them offered an expansive view of Banda Aceh and its surroundings. Misty mountains framed the skyline.
Poverty is ubiquitous, the only modern buildings and infrastructure provided by foreign donors, including the mosque-like airport, and religion has long been a central facet of life. But it’s a complex relationship. Women on the streets were mostly veiled but Britney Spears appeared on the front page of the daily newspaper with an uncovered head. Alcohol is only available underground. Men and women can’t embrace in public and often sat separately at public events, voluntarily, “because they do it every day”, a young woman said.
The legacy of occupation lingers. Wounds are not healed from decades of insurrection and Indonesia, like many powerful states, seems reluctant to investigate its brutal past. The East Timorese know what this means.
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