by Andy Fuller
The bus was slow to leave Surabaya. We passed through a traffic jam before reaching the Suramadu bridge over the strait to Madura. I was with Binhad Nurrohmat, a poet, and we were going to visit a friend of his, Kyai Faizi, in Pesantren Annuqayah. Binhad — introduced to me by Marshall Clark — had invited me to come with him as part of his tour to launch and discuss his new book, NUhammadiyah bicara nasionalisme (Ar-Ruzz Media, 2011). I was in Surabaya after participating in a discussion on freedom of religion and the introduction of some of the laws that were limiting the practices of Ahmadis. I had been in Jakarta at the Freedom Institute for a couple of months, reading up on the debates on Ahmadiyah, attending discussions held by academics and intellectuals who are contributing much to the re-thinking and contextualisation of Islamic practices and traditions within Indonesia. My visit to UIN Sunan Ampel in Surabaya, facilitated by Masdar Hilmy, and equally to the Pesantren Annuqayah, would show up some of the limitations and specific cultural contexts of the kinds of discourses that are being developed and promoted in Indonesia’s capital.
Pesantren Annuqayah is in the eastern region of Madura in a village called Guluk-Guluk. The road through Madura from the Suramadu bridge is narrow and winding. Throughout the journey, the bus brakes frequently as a means to avoid a collision between an oncoming bus, car, motorcycle, bicycle or pedestrian. The road is crowded, with many kinds of users who use it for their many different everyday activities. The narrow bitumen road is a text that users can stick to, or diverge off to one side to avoid oncoming traffic. There is no white line down the middle that determines who should be on the left and who should be on the right. The road is a shared space for people coming and going in different directions. Moreover, some who don’t like the crowdedness of the road, its hard and flat bitumen surface, or the pollution and noise coming from the speeding vehicles, can take narrower and unpaved roads which form more intricate networks behind this main road. It is the main road that is used for travelling east to west on the southern half of Madura. Generally, this is a road that all can agree on as it is shared by so many people. It is the mainstream of southern Madura, where its users share a commonality, even if it is only passing by one another as they go in opposite directions, or overtake one another.
A verse of Kyai Faizi’s poetry describes Madura in the following manner:
Ribs of the sky reflect —
scattered across dry land,
where water and life
is almost of the same value.
Then those crows
arrive, announcing anxiety.
Flying from all corners of the wind
our fear becomes frozen to wish.
They dim our eyes,
in order to be strong inhaling the air.
From the poem, ‘Ribs launching into the sky’
At Annuqayah, a pesantren that is part of the broad network of the Nadhlatul Ulama traditionalist organisation, there are some seven thousand students who attend classes both at the pesantren and at their regular school or university. This pesantren was founded in 1887 by Kyai Syarqawi from Kudus in Central Java. Kyai Faizi, one of the kyai at Annuqayah, is a fourth generation kyai at the pesantren. Many other teachers are second generation. He is a graduate of Universitas Gadjah Mada. At Annuqayah he also maintains his enthusiasm for mini-buses. He has several mini-buses which he drives around the pesantren, picking up friends and taking them to or from their various activities: whether teaching, studying, or taking part in discussions. Faizi’s most used bus is equipped with a microphone, which he talks into to communicate with friends and passers-by. He says it is a better alternative to using the car horn to alert someone that he has already arrived to pick him or her up. He makes jokes with the pedestrians as he passes by slowly, often simply just mentioning their name, recognising their presence. The microphone breaks down the separateness of car-user from pedestrian.
Kyai Faizi spends much of his time travelling throughout Madura and through East Java. He is widely respected as someone who can give advice on religious matters and to lead particular prayers. A touring kyai. This duty of silaturrahmi, roughly, meeting and greeting and chitchatting, is a strong characteristic of NU tradition. The late Gus Dur, former president and former leader of the NU, was famous for his meeting and greeting of all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. His openness and pluralist efforts were, perhaps, founded on this readiness to engage in a dialogue with members of different communities. Kyai Faizi continues this tradition. This chitchat, however, is sometimes diminished as being basa-basi (small talk) by those who see little value in it. For some it is directionless and produces little direct outcomes. Silahturrahmi, though, plays an important role in diffusing tensions, humanising ‘the other’ and in broadening networks at a face-to-face level. Spending time, sharing coffee, eating fried snacks, smoking, it is a means to honour guests who have come a long distance or have questions to ask.
Kyai Faizi keeps a diary regarding his adventures with his minibus. He says he writes about the suka dan duka (good and bad times) with the mini-bus. And then, that there have been more bad times than good. It is a problematic ‘relationship’ but one that he enjoys maintaining. He is also known and respected as a poet. As such, he frequently invites poets such as Afrizal Malna and Binhad Nurrohmat to give discussions of their literary works at the pesantren. These are events that provide students with an opportunity to test their knowledge, to show their enthusiasm for learning and to engage in polemics with widely-read authors. It is an important element of the students’ education; Guluk-Guluk is relatively remote and some activities such as listening to the radio are not permitted. The discussions also facilitate a relatively informal learning environment, where students can engage in lively debates about literature and or interpretations of Islamic texts.
Binhad has published two books of poetry, Kuda Ranjang (The Bed Horse, translated by Marshall Clark) and Bau Betina (Smell of a Bitch) and has recently completed a third, Cemoreng (The Graffiti). His first two books of poetry met with mixed reviews, and were definitely controversial. A prominent translator of Indonesian literature has called his poetry some of the worst poetry going around, even if he still views Binhad as someone who is likeable, intelligent and engaging. Binhad’s personality and poetry are indeed polarising. I like him for his gumption, his laughter and his irreverence. This sometimes appears as arrogance and self-importance, but, at the same time, it speaks of a desire to break some conventions and to rub some authorities up the wrong way. But Binhad’s background in NU circles provides him with another audience. Perhaps feeling rejected by certain literary cliques, he has edited a collection of essays on contemporary religious thought, the above mentioned NUhammadiyah bicara nasionalisme (edited with Mohamad Shofan). Binhad enjoys his ambivalent position between literary and religious circles. He enjoys his acts of producing books and following them up with sometimes humorous and sometimes provocative debates. The discussion at Annuqayah was typical of a Binhad-led event: condemnation by the righteous, a humorous anecdote and laughter in response.
Annuqayah’s rural location remains distant from the urban intensities of cities such as Surabaya or Jakarta, but the pesantren is becoming increasingly open to external developments. Students can easily access the internet. They also play music in the evenings, an activity that for much of its history was banned. Students are not allowed to listen to the radio. but this has not stopped them from enjoying much popular music, such as Rihanna’s Umbrella. The slowly-shifting attitudes towards openness are part of a means to stay up-todate and to be relevant to the student’s needs. Students feel, for example, a strong compulsion to be able to speak English. Teachers tell of their desire to introduce French and Mandarin. These languages are in addition to that learning that is already done in Indonesian, Arabic and Madurese. This diversity in languages presents students with a plurality of ways of developing their understandings of history, religion, and philosophy.
The crowdedness and many users of the road that runs along the southern part of Madura reminds me of the multiplicity of Islams in Indonesia. There are many interpretations of how to use the road. Some users assert their interpretation on others, driving aggressively and not wanting to give way. Others weave in and out, crossing the imagined divisions of left and right. They variously give way and at other times move off the road to let others pass. Through their persistent and relentless acts of silahturrahmi Kyai Faizi and others at Annuqayah maintain a practice of Islam that emphasises cordiality, hospitality, openness and engagement with the other. Detailed and intricate discussions of doctrine and orthodoxy can take place later and only on the basis of a strong mutual respect and knowing.
Andy Fuller is a post-doctoral fellow at IIAS, Leiden, The Netherlands. His research includes writing practices and urban cultures. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs, vol. 45, nos 1 & 2 (2011), pp. 225-9.