In Sabri’s House
Sabri, my old student and I rode on the backs of two motorcycles, surfing over waves of stone. I sit in the sitting room, 6 or 7 little boys sit on the floor watching a 70s slapstick comedy with two guys fighting a crocodile in a river. Some boys are totally naked, others are wrapped desultorily in a sarong. A snake enters the picture, and a kid shouts “Olar!” (snake). The father, dressed in batik shirt, blue and green plaid sarong and black peci, pulls out another clove cigarette and asks,
“In your language how do you say ‘olar’?”
“Snake,” I say.
“Sss-nake,” he repeats with a smile. The kids giggle and say it too.
Apparently yesterday was the Big Day (Idul Fitri) here. On the table in front of me are several plastic jars full of sandwich crème cookies. The homemade Madurese cookies are amazingly arid, dry enough to turn to sweet powder textured like granular snow. .. but these store bought ones show there is extra money in the house. Sabri is
the only person in this area to have attended college – albeit dirt cheap, studying Islamic Education at nearby An-Nuqayah. His passion, confessed last night, is to “become very rich.”
On the TV, the movie turns to dialogue, which blurs in and out, and the kids remember the novel word, and there arises a chorus:
“Se-nake” (ha ha).
“chunek” (hee hee hee).
“ssnake” (hu hu huuu).
When I first got here, most of these antsy kids were buck naked. Now, after my amused attention, embarrassed parents seem to have ordered them into sarongs, which they wrap variously around themselves, the way we fiddle with a piece of paper or a pen when we have nothing to do. Over their heads, around their knees, etc.
I turn to them and tell them the word “Nose.” They stare at me saying nothing. It is their second word of English and the first time they have been addressed by a foreigner (not to mention a Javanese). I repeat the word a few times and one finally remembers his voice. On the TV, Benjamin, a goofy big guy, tries to cut a steak Western style with knife and fork, causing the steak to fly into the face of a Westerner sitting nearby who, enraged, calls Benjamin a “monkey” and dumps gravy over his head. The kids laugh as Benjamin licks his lips.
Now there is a scene of people in a nightclub dancing to Dangdut music, that of sinuous women’s voices and fluttering flute which creates moving and twisting and swaying surprising to a friend of mine who said, “How weird! This is a Muslim country – how can they get away with that?”
Outside a few newcomers gather and exclaim “tourist!” and look at me through the glass. A conversation of sorts ensues, with them repeating laughingly the words I have learned, or remembered today (from my time in Madura years before), while asking Sabri about me, or about religion in the USA. A curious man comes in and exclaims,
“Outsiders are so big, and Madurese are tiny tiny. We just nyornit at you when you come here.”
“What’s that?” I say to Sabri. He goes behind a curtain and looks out at me. “Ah, peer out,” I say. The man turns to the kids watching and says,
“So if I am sleeping and I catch you sneaking a look at me, you’ll say, ‘I was nyornit you,’ and I will say No, you peew at me,” and we all laugh.
Minibus to Guluk Guluk
The windows of the taxi van fog up, and rain runs in rivulets and sheets over them. Bumping softly from Sumenep to Ganding I feel the van is going through a cloudy sky. Village people in their finery are squeezed together, chatting. Just now we stopped to let people out. The gaunt old man in sarong, jeans jacket and black songkok hat sitting next to the door could not open it, so the driver had to get out and run around to do so. The handle not working, he struggled to pull open the window while rain streamed down his face.
Finally, the door opened and the first man put his black velveteen hat right under the river funneling off the roof. Everyone accepted the squeezing and contorting needed to get out as calmly as village people usually do. The rain soaked them as they, helpless sheep, struggled to extricate a foot from the bunched up passengers, without losing a sandal. They sometimes joke or jibe at themselves, “ohh I better run!” but rarely do they complain about proximity to other people’s bodies, nor to the elements.
Ferry from Kalianget, Madura, to Jongkar, Java
A silver fish leaps out ahead of the ferry and flipping its tail dances far in front. The ferry passes fishing boats. Some are gaily painted, with names. One has tassels on the rigging and mirrors hung on the bow. Oddly contrasting are the waifs pulling in the nets, wrapped in skirts of plastic, heads like flowers of straw in floppy hats; fabric covers their faces. So when they turn to wave, or jeer the pilot who has steered too close, or wave us away, they are more like apparitions or children than men.
We feel a cloud cover the sun, thankfully. People are sprawled about all over the bow; peanut shells litter the deck; boys in pecis, smoking, cluster at the tip, looking down at the water.
I entered Madura as I entered it 5 and a half years ago in Tanjung Perak, Surabaya: the women selling salak and rice in newspaper, faded tops and bright sarongs and strong brown faces crowding onto the bus were my first sight. This time I walked out to the bow and crouched down amidst the people there, in front of the new motorcycles. As usual they said nothing to me but their eyes were always on me, a quiet crowd: twentyish men near the splashing water speculating with some cynicism but no unfriendliness; older people with mere uneradicable wondering; children more like the old. As I crouched on a wooden block a large woman in green head scarf asked me gruffly, in polite wording, if I could make a place for her. To my left squatted a man like the Madurese men of old, dressed in black – his sarong was a plaid with purple mixed into the black.
His face was that peculiar meeting of force and gentleness, or perhaps surrender, weariness, that I have come to know in men over 35 here: the cheekbones, brows and chin accentuated by the hollowing years of work does to the soft parts of the face, a browning and a tautening. That effect, that masculinity American men revere in advertising, combines with weakness in the eyes that is left out of the Marlboro man, a sense of inevitability and knowledge of eventual surrender that only comes, I suppose, with an intimate daily sense of the body’s limits and energy’s decline. It is not that he has surrendered but that he is surrendering every day, and knows it: whereas we blessed with offices can ignore it, run from it, feel threatened by it.
The man crouched, rough bare arms and thick brown fingers around a little girl who was as fresh as her father was weathered. She stood next to him so I saw their faces close, in profile, as the father raised his arm and pointed at some of the ships at anchor and spoke low to her. I saw her smile, lips move responding, and his slight smile. Her dress was a bright yellow. The Madurese easily accommodate such extremes as this old black and new yellow, knowing perhaps more realistically the range of sea we humans can sweep.
And now I leave Madura as I left it last then, by this Eastern tip, letting it slip away amongst the boats and the bogans, bamboo fishing platforms seeming to skid above the water like huge water bugs. Shade is scarce. The tiny rim along this left bulwark narrows, and sun creeps over my knees and toes. Some men unroll a small tarp and let it down. Many people just lie in the sun, a handkerchief over their faces, and sleep. One boy up on the little platform on the tip is still awake, he has no room to lie down, his arms hang over the railing bars, his bare feet resting atop the lip of the bulwark. He wears a striped sarong, peach shirt and white and blue trimmed cap.
Yesterday I found Zaini’s house, asking people at the warung to be sure, staring hard at the shape and distance of the roofs over the fields of corn and measuring it with my memory, or what remains in it. A new house had sprung up next to the path, confusing me. But as I entered the fields I knew it was right, saw the little graveyard, stones newly painted, and the curve of the path around it.
My entrance caused no shock. But swiftly people gathered, smiling at me smiling at them. I remembered the faces of the children, saw others I did not know, like their older brothers and sisters, some with dull reddish hair, skin rashes, slack looks. We exchanged questions, simple ones.
Where’ve you been?
Are you healthy?
Has Zaini sent you money?
Are you married?
How many kids do you have now?
What’s in that box you have there?
Oh, I can’t tell you. I can only give it to Zaini’s dad. But I can tell you there are three types of gift in it: one is from Dasuk Village, one is from Japan, one is from America. They smile and look at the box wondering. One by one the menfolk appear and I rise and bow to shake their hands.
“Who is that?” I ask, remembering the little girl’s truculent sweet face.
“I’is,” says Zaini’s older sister. I’is is the family prize I can see, healthy and strong and pretty even as her mother’s beauty and strength begins to go. She buttons her shirt from nursing another baby and brushes back her hair.
Rain starts coming down and tea is placed in front of me. “Where is the old man who always did this?” I ask, putting my arm straight out in front of me, then letting it droop. The vulgar old man always made me laugh with his exhortations to virility, as hard a dick as possible in the face of women folks’ challenges. I think he is dead.
“Oh, he is still here,” they say, laughing. He appears, only three teeth in his grin now, and pretty soon he is back at it to the delight and embarrassment of all. Zaini’s mom is not here from the fields yet to chastise him.
“Kerra!” he says, arm out stiff. I remember the word, repeat it laughing. He continues his lesson. “If you are not stiff (kerra), then women will kick you around (elanchot)!” The English word “kick” really fails before the crudity and force of the word he uses, “Elanchot,” as he lifts his sandaled foot and demonstrates a hard kick. He used to come up with as many violent words as possible, “elbow in the crotch!” “twist the ears!” words I immediately grasped the essence of just from the sounds – or imagined I did. His voice too is gruff and slightly slurred. When describing the curses of limpness his voice too is tender and wheedling.
“Lemas, maslemas,” he says, hand drooping and wagging side to side. We all laugh.
Zaini’s father comes in and I greet him. His arms are covered with rash apparently from corn leaves. He is weaker now, but still lights up a smoke. He has few words. His wife is the real mover, the wise one I suspect. The rain starts to let up and I say, I must go, I am going to Java; I repeat it through their expected chorus of dismay and exhortations to stay the night. The old man points and my box and points at his crotch.
“You want this?” I say, pulling off a piece of tape and offering it to him. He makes a face. “It is comfortable, feels great,” I say. Then I rise and give the box to Zaini’s father. “Don’t open this until I reach the road. Promise?” I say.
“Promise,” he says. I step off the porch and say Salam and wish them health and get one last glimpse of all their faces before turning, sandals in hand, into the rain. I try to run along the trails but it is incredibly slick. My bare feet feel wonderful in the mud, the air is cool, I am running and in the car toward Guluk Guluk I imagine them opening the box, exclaiming to find: a Sony Walkman under the glittery tinsel; a bunch of half-ripe Kadungdung fruit from Dasuk, and at the bottom, when they think I have mocked them, an envelope with a million and a half rupiah, the equivalent of a factory worker’s wages for at least 16 months. It is good to get rid of the money. I have been carrying it for nine days.
I wonder now what they have done with it, push away the worry they will throw it away on TVs and shirts, remember that if I ever see them again they will be just as poor. I suppose if they have fun for two weeks and buy new sarongs made in Bali and a bed carved with birds and eat beef every day that is good too. Anyway Zaini’s mom won’t let it all go. They will all get a piece, but she will hold onto some of it. Maybe they will pour a cement floor in the little house where grandmother sleeps when she is not sucking siri, or betel nut: that grandmother, toothless grin still remembering my name, the one I photographed in the graveyard four years ago cutting grass, the one I thought would be dead now, looking the same age, still alive and cackling at my presence.
When I get out at Kamisan market I walk still barefoot, still happy up the road to An-Nuqayah school, my home and place of work for two years.
Silo, East Java
“There is a Dutchman in there,” says a voice from a neighboring house.
“What’s he doing in there?”
“I don’t know.”
The host bowed low and patted my hands in his two hands when I came in, speaking softly and deferentially. Only when I asked him to not inform Muqiet of my coming did he look at me and smile. The tables are littered with cigarette boxes and teacups. Now, again, do I remember what separates Java from Madura: rain, and rich soil. In Madura, the poor red soil keeps people poor. In Java, the rich black soil keeps people poor as well, by encouraging dense population for labor.
The host slips in and removes coffee cups onto a tray – gracefully, noiseless, deferentially. I should be the same way. I sit forward a bit, put down my pen, and when he gestures at my tea I only tug the saucer closer to me but do not pick it up. Usually only several urgings will bring a polite guest to sip.
Oh, it is cool here, thank god. I look at my arms, burned red on the crossing. Situbondo was hellish bright, and with that ugly feeling I crossed the terminal, that edge under the word hissed my way: “rist! Tourist!” On the way from Jangkar I had watched for signs of the burnings that took place in Octobor: 25 churches and several stores, but I see none. Situbondo, “city of santri”! (santri is an Islamic student).
The rain started pouring down on the bus south. The man sitting next to me said, “I am the sixth of eight children.”
I dropped my reserve and said, “I am number five of nine.” He turned out to be a civil servant, and I asked him – gently – about the “disturbances” that had taken place in East Java since the fall. He confidently asserted that no one “educated” would do that.
--- January, 1998
Postscript: my student Zaini, who at the time of my visit to his home in Madura was away in Malaysia working as a construction laborer, is now in Australia studying for a BA at Flinders University. His family used the money, it turned out, to repay a debt the father owed, which allowed Zaini to return home. Some years later, after the Bali bombings which killed several hundred people (and many Australians), the American organization which had posted me to teach at An-Nuqayah from 1992 to 1994 sharply reduced its number of volunteer teachers. There was no way the progressive leadership of An-Nuqayah could get a new teacher from VIA. At the same time, the war against Iraq was beginning. Soon after, the Australian government decided to begin posting English teachers to Islamic schools, and An-Nuqayah received one. The new teacher nominated Zaini for a full scholarship to an Australian university. The scholarship is paid for by the Australian government, on the assumption that increasing cultural and educational ties can only increase Australia’s security. The sensibility of their strategy only highlights the failing of the American policy of fighting Islamic radicalism: pulling back into fortress America and sending out the army to kill as many as possible.