This week Kill Your Darlings, in partnership with the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF) presents a showcase of emerging Indonesian writers, who are all previous UWRF artists. The 14th UWRF runs from 25–29 October in beautiful Ubud, Bali. The first lineup has been revealed, and early bird tickets are on sale until the full program is announced on 16 August.
Of God and Dog
I was never afraid of the dark. As a toddler I lay awake in bed watching tree branches outside my window, conjuring tales of witches with twisted claws reaching through the glass.
When afraid, think of God, my parents said.
The Indonesian word for God is Tuhan. The Indonesian word for demon is Hantu.
God is watching you, always, although you can’t see Him.
Like a demon, I thought.
On the tree I saw a blue-furred owl with horns and glowing eyes watching over me. The Indonesian term for owl is Burung Hantu, demon bird.
Pelangi Pelangi Ciptaan Tuhan, other children sang. Pretty Rainbow God’s Creation.
Pelangi Pelangi Ciptaan Tuhantu, I sang.
‘TUHAN!’ said my mother.
‘TUHANTU!’ I insisted.
Whenever I thought of God, I saw my blue-furred guardian blinking its golden eyes.
All night angels rain curses on a woman who refuses her husband’s advances, my Islamic teacher at elementary school said.
Did your wife refuse your advances last night? I wanted to ask – but good girls don’t challenge their teachers. Good girls do as they’re told. Good girls pray five times a day and read the Quran.
Eliza is such a good girl, she’s our favourite grandchild. She’s our favourite niece.
Growing up, my role model was Aunt T. She was the only woman among ten siblings who earned a university degree, drove her own car, and she achieved her dreams of becoming an ambassador. Moreover, whereas my father raised hell whenever we were stuck in traffic, Aunt T. told jokes, played games, and made the best of the gridlock. I wanted to grow up just like her.
After she’d returned from Paris, I stayed over at her house. In her bedroom I saw on the wall a painting of a naked woman on a pink sofa.
Nude paintings are a sin, I’d often heard.
I didn’t know how to tell her. I didn’t want her to go to hell.
If you pray using someone else’s rug, you are giving that person this much pahala – the points you need to get into heaven.
Eleven-year-old me did the math – how often I needed to pray using her rug to offset her having the painting. From then on I’d spend my weekends at her place. I’d read from her Quran. I’d pray behind her as often as possible, multiplying her pahala by 27 each time.
As I lay down to sleep, the naked woman’s eyes gleamed like my blue-furred owl’s.
I asked my mother why another of my aunts wore hijab.
‘She believes that hair is a private part,’ she said.
‘And we don’t?’
I asked her why an uncle kept having children after four daughters.
‘He believes birth control brings more harm than good,’ she said.
‘And we don’t?’
‘Birth control has brought our family much good.’
Even within our family, there are different ways to practice Islam and still get along fine.
From her, I learned that even within our family, there are different ways to practice Islam and still get along fine; that it’s all right to have a Christian best friend; that you can’t judge someone based on their religion or their clothes. I learned these values before I understood my prayers or the Quran. It’s funny how we habitually credit religion for everything that’s good in us.
My teacher told us the story of Moses and the pharaoh.
The Red Sea closed in on him, the pharaoh was drowning, and he saw the truth of Moses’ God and struggled to utter the words that would get him into heaven: La ila ha illallah. There is no God but Allah. But God wouldn’t let him off that easily. He sent waves over the pharaoh each time he tried to say the sentence, so that he could only let out, La ila. There is no God. He drowned and his soul is condemned to hell.
How petty, I thought, but perhaps God knows that the pharaoh did not really repent, but only wanted to save himself. And what about us who performed good deeds not for the sake of doing what’s right, but because we want to go to heaven?
Don’t you think God knows?
Unity in Diversity
With the blessings of Allah the All Powerful, we the Indonesian people declare our independence.
Each Monday, during the flag-raising ceremony, students take turns reciting the preamble of the Constitution in front of the entire school. When the task fell on a Muslim or Christian student, there was no problem. When the task fell on a Hindu student, however, there was always a pause. Some barely whispered the name and moved on. One kid changed the word ‘Allah’ into the neutral ‘Tuhan’.
He was the bravest kid I knew.
Before leaving for the US on an undergraduate scholarship, I went to the mosque and recorded the call to prayer. It turned out I didn’t need to – my university was very progressive, there was a Muslim student association and an imam on campus.
I went to Eid celebration on campus, but was disappointed that women and men had to take turns eating. I lost my virginity to a Pakistani student who did oral sex but refused to have intercourse, then I broke to pieces when I saw him pray. I felt dirty and sinful.
In Indonesia, your religion is your tribe. I was frequently told to side with ‘our Muslim brethren’ – no matter what the roots or nuances of a conflict, always sympathise with ‘our brethren’.
In Indonesia, your religion is your tribe…no matter the roots or nuances of a conflict, always sympathise with ‘our brethren’.
At this time, the person who understood me most, whom I considered a member of my brethren above everyone else, was singer-songwriter Tori Amos. I finally found someone who spoke the rage I felt inside – I too thought my Good Book was missing some pages, I too felt I had been everybody else’s girl but my own. It turned out the repression I felt, the yearning to burst through, wasn’t solely the product of my Indonesian environment or Muslim upbringing. Tori was raised in an American, Christian household, yet our hearts sang similar songs.
I imagined she and I punching out of our boxes and holding each other’s hands.
In a French village I attended a wedding, and some people took issues with my saying no to pork but yes to wine. ‘Isn’t it a little hypocritical?’ they asked.
‘You have children outside marriage, but you still go to church. Isn’t it a little hypocritical?’ I wish I’d said.
If they’d replied, ‘We’re not devout, we only go to church for weddings’, I’d say, ‘and Muslims are not allowed to not be devout?’
If they’d said, ‘That’s very common in France’, I’d say, ‘You don’t meet many Muslims, do you?’
‘Lucky we were born in Indonesia, not in the Middle East,’ my sister once said. ‘We’re blessed with Islam, but we can wear whatever we want, go anywhere without a male relative.’
Ten years later – after the rise of extremist groups and Saudi-funded study programs in Indonesia, after a flurry of Islamophobia in the US and Europe, after she married a man whose religious practice is based on obedience rather than common sense – my sister’s hair is like tangled vines. She believes it’s a sin to show her hair, and can’t risk going to a hair salon. She doesn’t work anymore. She says it was all right to ban Muslims from pubs, because ‘it’s for their own good’.
Before she married, she asked if she could come live with me. Our father had become verbally abusive and she couldn’t live with him anymore. I’d just graduated from college and was renting a room of my own, immersing myself in sex and drugs – I didn’t want the responsibility of caring for my teenage sister.
I should’ve been there for her the way my mother was for me.
It’s the biggest regret of my life.
I should’ve been there for her the way my mother was for me.
It pains me to write this, but I must. I know I broke your heart. I know you pray to God every night to bring me back into His light. I know our relatives accused you of being a bad mother, letting your daughter go astray. Please forgive me.
You may think I stopped believing because you let me study in the States, or because I was lazy or too weak to resist temptations, such as sex and alcohol. I need you to know my reasons.
There was a time I needed to examine everything I was taught. I needed to do it if I was to save my life, if I wanted to be a writer. I was told that eventually God would forgive all sins, except the sin of doubting Him. For weeks I walked around dreading that I’d see nothing but hellfire the moment I took off the glasses I’d viewed the world through for as long as I could remember.
But I needed to look beyond doctrines to figure out how I should live, and I needed to free myself from the fear of sinning when doing so.
After I stopped seeing the world through religion’s lens, I revisited the story of Moses and thought it was understandable that the pharaoh considered himself a god. He, and his fathers before him, were raised to think he was. Never once had an Islamic class tried to make us understand why God’s antagonists became that way. We were told simply that the pharaoh was the enemy because he didn’t believe in Allah. Little was mentioned that he enslaved people because they were of a different race. When it was mentioned, it was framed as originating from the primary evil of not believing in our God.
It’s little surprise to me that today in Indonesia so many Muslims view others based on their God, not their actions; why so many believe that one’s good deeds don’t matter if they don’t believe in Allah.
Do you really think I’m lost?
Faith is like a mirror, and mine is cracked into a thousand pieces.
When my plane takes off I still whisper Bismillahir rahmanir rahim. But faith is like a mirror, and mine is cracked into a thousand pieces.
My memories of Ramadan and Eid have always been happy. As a child I couldn’t wait to practice fasting. The first time, I fasted until 10 am. The next year I fasted until noon. I was proud whenever I could complete a full day of fasting. Nearing Eid, my parents took me shopping for a new dress, we cooked rice cakes and curry.
This year during Ramadan I read Taqwacore by Michael Muhammad Knight – a novel about Muslim punks. I thought, If I’d been exposed to this earlier, perhaps I wouldn’t have left Islam.
The book shows conversations and innovations that I need to see happen in Islam: women leading communal prayers, Ayesha standing up to the prophet, people reciting Quran to rock music. And they proudly proclaim themselves Muslims.
I’ve known people like the novel’s characters, but we felt inferior to our more pious friends. We promised to reform when we get older. We deferred to conservative ulamas for guidance. Now I’ve met bold, outspoken Muslims who present inclusive and empowering religious views – yet how many are recognized as leaders in Islamic communities?
There’s much resistance to religious innovations, but we don’t help things if we feel we are less worthy, less fit to be leaders than our more conservative peers.
When will we get over this inferiority complex and rise to lead?
To Say or Not to Say
After my grandmother died, I thought of death a lot.
In my final moments, as the waves loom over me, will I succumb to the fear of the unknown and whisper La ila ha illallah, just to be safe?
Perhaps God will choke me before I could finish the sentence, the way He did Moses’ pharaoh. Perhaps He’d know I was only saying it as an insurance policy and He’d gather my ashes from the dolphin sanctuary where they’ve been spread, and torture me anyway.
In my final moments, as the waves loom over me, will I succumb to the fear of the unknown?
He’d discount all the points I’d collected by living as well as I believed, for losing faith at the last minute in how I’d decided to live my life, for thinking that God could be manipulated so easily.
I could say a thousand La ila ha illallah and it wouldn’t matter.
Or, will God understand the weakness of His creation and forgive me?
Either civilizations become advanced enough to create lifelike simulations, or they perish, say some scientists. One advanced civilization can create billions of simulations, therefore the odds are overwhelmingly on the side that we are living inside a simulation – a game in an alien kid’s computer.
A kid with blue furs and golden eyes.
Perhaps, after he simulates the end of the world, he would revive us, line us up and judge us. When my turn comes, he’d say, You didn’t obey me.
I’d look at him and it would all make sense. Why many of his rules seemed arbitrary or egocentric, why sometimes I felt the universe was watching over me and other times I felt completely alone. He is, after all, just a child.
He’d toss me into another simulation – a red world with spiky red hills awash with red clouds. Standing tall as flames soar before her, the resurrected woman remembers that she used to be me on earth, but I wonder, in that new simulation, do I go on as she?