Patrick Gilfether '15: Where Are You Coming From?
Patrick Gilfether was the 2015-2017 Shansi Fellow at Syiah Kuala University. This is his second year narrative.
“Dari mana?” As much as a request for information, it is a greeting. When a stranger enters your shop: “Dari mana?” When a neighbour returns home: “Dari mana?” When you enter the office after lunch: “Dari Mana?” When you stop to fill up your bike at the gas station: “Dari mana?”
Where are you coming from?
The question can be answered spatio-temporally, as in “I am coming from the beach” or with regards to origin, as in, “I am from America Serikat, the USA.” “I am from Ohio” I explain, stretching out my left hand. “New York?” I suggest, circling the tip of my left index finger, “is here.” “Los Angeles, Hollywood, California...” I stroke base of my palm “are here.” “Ohio” I circle the creases in the second joint of my left index finger, “is up North. Close to Canada.” “Dingin” I say, crossing my arms and gripping tight.
Acehnese people like to greet strangers. It’s important for reasons I don’t fully understand, but when a stranger passes by, one asks where they are going. Coming from America, this was very strange to me. In my small town of Oberlin, in the nearby city of Cleveland, in the metropolis of New York, it would be odd for me to bump into a stranger on the street and ask this person “Where are you going?” In the Eastern Sector of Darussalam, my small kampung or village, on campus where I teach at Syiah Kuala University, all across the city of Banda Aceh and in every little Acehnese town I’ve ever stopped in, it is almost always the first question.
“Where are you coming from”
How to answer? I often react by answering where I last came from. Wearing gym shorts, a sweat soaked t-shirt, stopping at a road-side kios selling cold drinks, “dari fitness,” I’m coming from the gym. “No, brother,” the seller may insist, “where are you originally from?” No matter how much a part of my neighbourhood I may feel, regardless of the fact that I have lived two years in this place, the question inevitably seems to shift to my origin, my purpose, and the looming question of what it is that I am doing in Banda Aceh, Indonesia.
Other questions follow in a flurry of curiosity. Usually, they take the same form and set of topics.
“How old are you?”
“Where do you work?, “ or more often, when on campus a simple guess: “student?”
“No” I explain, “I teach English.” And the logistics of my work have now become the object of interrogation. How much money do I make? Who pays me? What currency am I paid in? U.S. Dollars or Indonesian Rupiah? The dollar, I am reminded, is strong. The Rupiah, I am told, is weak.
Another common area of interest is travel to and from Aceh. If I am from America, I must have gotten to Indonesia and Aceh somehow. So how long does the plane take? I will have to take four flights when I go home I explain, and the journey will take more than forty hours. How much does it cost? The better part of a thousand dollars, or fifteen-to-twenty million rupiah, I explain. That’s a lot, I am reminded. With that sort of money, a man could make his Hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca.
And so my religion also is opened for questioning. In Indonesia, all citizens must legally have one of six religions: Muslim, Christian (protestant), Catholic, Buddhist, Confucianist, or Hindu. Until just recently, all Indonesian citizens were required by law to state their faith on their Identity card. Name, place and date of birth, gender, blood type, address, and religion. So which of the six am I?
“Christian?” or “Catholic?” it is often assumed, based on my white skin, or “muslim?” I may be asked, usually with a hopeful smile. Most foreigners I’ve met living in Indonesia have an answer worked out for this one. Often I used to just smile and lie, accepting “Catholic” if it was offered, or explaining honestly, that I was “raised Catholic.” Seldom do I offer more honesty: that I was raised Catholic, was confirmed around the age of eight, stopped, attending church when both of my parents did, shortly after they divorced. That because of what rational and empiricist philosophy refers to as “the problem of God,” an inability or unwillingness to attribute uniquely unpleasant, but also shockingly common experiences of suffering to the determinist will of some God, I don’t believe in a God, per se, and would not consider myself what is referred to by theologians as a “deist.” That I am interested in Buddhism, particularly Mahayana and Zen teachings, though I am highly sceptical of most institutions and believe that coupling faith with hierarchy is a recipe for power and power abused reaps violence. This would, in most cases, be impolite. This would, in most cases, end the conversation.
“Atheist” while a highly salient moniker, is also paraded as the paragon of moral collapse within Aceh. Along with “LGBT” (short for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender), atheism is frequently denounced in Dakwa, or Islamic preachings by Ulamas, Islamic scholars, and Imam’s, the officiates and leaders of prayer in a mosque. Secularity, in many institutions, is seen to invite moral disintegration. The university mosque, closest to my home, has more than once amplified Dakwa across the neighbourhood through their sound system, audible for nearly a kilometre around, inciting the listeners, mostly twenty something students, older professors and faculty, to chant in unison: “We refuse LGBT. We refuse drugs. We refuse Atheism.”
A month ago, just ten minutes from my home, a group of men turned on their cell phone video cameras and kicked the door in to a boarding house room where they knew two men to be engaged in homosexual activity. The video, which shows the vigilantes breaking into the room, slapping and berating the naked couple, has been shared widely across WhatsApp, Line, Path and other social media platforms. Within days it had been viewed hundreds of thousands of times and within weeks written about in the Jakarta Post and The BBC. The men have been sentenced under Shari’a law to 100 lashes by public caning. Human Rights Watch has demanded the immediate release of these men, deeming the public caning a form of torture.
Usually one of the last questions a stranger asks me before we part: “Tinggal di mana?” Where do you live? I live on Jalan Meulu, D17, in the apartment attached to the international house, just behind the mosque. The Azan issues loud and clear 5 times a day. Subhu, the dawn prayer comes just after the roosters and just before the light. With three mosques in a kilometre, the Azan grows from all around, one mosque echoing through the next, the words of each phasing through the other:
“Allahu Akbar” Allah, the greatest.
“Ashhadu an la ilaha illallah” I testify that there is no God but Allah.
“Ash hadu anna Muhammadan rasul allah” I testify Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
“Hayya 'ala al-salah” Come to prayer.
“Hayya 'ala al-falah” Come to felicity.
These prayers intone the pre-dawn quiet of the kampung. Across the plum of the sky and the plane of the village, through palm fronds and between walls and windows, rasping high and sharp, swooping low and sonorous, each wave of sound coincident to those around it, each line punctuated by the sharp, deep in-breath of the muezzin at his microphone. Some mornings I find myself awakened, in the half-stunned emptiness of the recently conscious, the sky glowing dark through my window, the prayer ringing through me.
And then, I drift back to sleep.