In the shadow of Aceh’s tsunami memorial museum sits a colonial, Dutch-era cemetery. Framed by overgrown grass and red flowers, graves lie disjoined, the result, I was told by writer Fozan Santa, of time and the tsunami’s raging water. At the back of the space, behind ornate statues to famed generals and soldiers, are four Jewish graves. Hebrew script and the Star of David run across the graves. These four Jews died in the 1800s and 1900s and remain in peace today in the heart of a devoutly Islamic society.

“Many Acehnese know about them,” Fozan said. “Holland sends funds to maintain the cemetery.”

It was not what I expected in a province ruled under sharia law. Although Jews are an abstraction and almost solely defined through brutal Israeli actions, I found no outright hatred of Judaism.

Fozan, with wavy shoulder-length hair, revealed that his definition of Islam was as contradictory and personal as could be. I asked whether he drank alcohol during a recent Ubud Writers and Readers Festival and he said he only asked for Coke. However, his friend, a Muslim from Jakarta, consumed wine and beer. “I’m Acehnese, not Muslim,” Fozan said. “I don’t drink alcohol but many Muslims do. We’re different.”

It was yet another sign that the Acehnese saw themselves as distinct from their Indonesian rulers. Jakarta may now control their lives but an independent streak still runs through the veins of the province.

Within minutes of arriving in Banda Aceh, my young hosts — three girls in the final year of school, two of whom wore colourful headscarves — were playfully asking me about girlfriends and life in the West. I was reticent to broach the subject of female circumcision but they were happy to take questions. One girl was mutilated at birth, “because it’s tradition and my mother said she had no choice”. She knew all about the reduced sexual feeling of the procedure but seemed resigned to the reality. They asked if I was circumcised.

That night I spent time at a cultural centre to watch rehearsals for a performance that will soon tour villages. It was aimed primarily at children as a way to teach Acehnese history before and after the 2004 tsunami. Resistance to the Dutch colonialists was a strong theme and the actors used bananas as ships as they stood inside a massively over-sized television set. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment was referenced (my host said that many locals knew the work.)

Although cinemas are banned, pirated DVDs were widely available, including the latest Hollywood blockbusters. Like I noticed in Iran, images of American women in various states of undress were ubiquitous on covers. The Desperate Housewives women seemed to be missing quite a few buttons on their blouses. Satellite television and the internet makes the imposition of strict bans on “unIslamic” entertainment futile. Most people I met were proud to call themselves Muslim but tapped into the connected world that included nudity, violence and sexual proclivities.

During a public forum on writing and culture at a Western-style café in Banda Aceh — featuring my talk about Palestine and two guitarists who played songs eerily reminiscent of Nirvana’s Something in the Way — a young blogger said it was inappropriate to look at female nudity and porn. “We must have a moral responsibility,” he said. But others, commenting on a young artist who had recently caused controversy by painting female nudes, argued it wasn’t the role of society to tell artists what to paint. “As long as you’re true to yourself,” a girl said. It was a civil discussion over various interpretations of Islam that fundamentalists deemed unnecessary, even blasphemous.

Challenging these allegedly acceptable forms of Islam is Violet Gray, a support group for homosexuals and transsexuals. Understanding HIV and sexual orientation is something the Indonesian web does brilliantly and allows Acehnese of a particular orientation to feel less alone. We see similar trends in countless other societies (such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and China) where persecuted minorities gather to share and grieve.

Writer, teacher and publisher Fozan acknowledged the major shifts in his society since 2004 but lamented the lack of readers for his work. “We have too many writers here,” he said. “Everybody is just changing Facebook status updates every few minutes. Aceh is like France years ago when people used to use coffee shops to write books.”

Antony Loewenstein is a journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution

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