My first North American spring

The trees were full of flowers all over the ends of their branches – as if they were blooming. Each flower had soft petals. The trees that lined up next the to garden’s path had petals that formed layers of soft fuchsia. I thought they were cherry blossoms, but they were prunes. Some had four white petals for each flower. These had a funny name: dogwood.

The leaves of the Ginkgo Biloba trees were light green and had tiny dangling curls, also the same colour. I thought ginkgo was a root like ginger, because people market it as herbal remedy for stamina and memory enhancer. But it was a tall wood tree, like an oak.

There was the occasional red Japanese maple tree. The leaves had red triangles, like the Canadian flag. It was the colour of an arid ground just after a shower. When the light falls on it, the leaves becomes almost translucent.

I took the subway from Chelsea to the Bronx to visit the New York Botanical Garden. I read that New Yorkers complain about the subway. Coming from Jakarta, I find them convenient, and also cooling. The air inside the subway is cold. Taking the subway is romantic – for me, a quintessential New York experience.

I arrived in New York from Jakarta, via Houston and Boston. Before Houston, I had to stop in Tokyo and Dallas. I was stopped in Dallas and had to go a special security screening. Before leaving for the US, I had been worried that something like this will happen.

I had been racially profiled in the US when I was there four years ago. I found out that I had been profiled months after, when I was already back in Jakarta. I read an article about racial profiling at department stores in a feature article (either in the New Yorker or New York Times) and what happened to the people in the story was similar to what happened to me. I was oblivious at the time when it happened. Finding out that you had been racially profiles a couple of months after the event is still unsettling. My ignorance saved the rest of my stay that winter.

But this knowledge now made me worry that something bad like that might happen again. Perhaps I worry myself to much that it came true. The airport security officers at Dallas airport placed me in a corner, fenced with elastic bands, like a cow in a coop. A South Korean guy was placed in my coop too and we waited twenty minutes before they took us to the next security gate. Two women did a full body search on me by patting me on the legs, stomach, chest and arms. Then two old white men began taking out the contents of my bag. My laptop, my bag of cables, my toiletries. Lucky, I packed neat. They ignored me and talked to each other most of the time. They discussed about how best to swab the contents of my bag. They had a small paper that they swiped in every thing on my bag and put the paper into a machine which reads the chemical contents that are picked up by the paper. They looked for explosive materials. They took their time. And one by one the paper didn’t detect anything, until they swiped my toiletry bag. The paper beeped. I had to wait for another 15 mins, because these guys, didn’t know what to do. The guy who came later cleared me and let me go. But it was too late. My flight had left and I had to wait two more hours to take the next flight.

There was a conference about journalism in Asia in Houston. Historian and journalist Janet Steele gave the keynote speech. I loved that I was in a panel with the co-founders of the feminist online magazine Magdalene, and that my panel was all women. Another panelist is a reporter based in Washington for a Chinese TV station. We spoke about how culture affected reporting in Asia. The convenor, Moniza Waheed is a lovely Malaysian who did a really good job as moderator for both my panel and the one with academics, which talked about how the changes in journalism has affected the curriculum and teaching process in the class.

I stayed in a nice hotel across the Museum of Fine Arts that has a free shuttle. When I hear shuttle I think about a van. But at Zaza hotel, it was a black shiny SUV with two long horns on the front hood of the car.

I visited a butterfly garden at the Museum of Natural History in Houston. The air was warm and humid like a nice day in Bogor. Ferns, orchids, ephyphetes, palm, different kinds of strangling leaves were in the green house. And gossamer wings, red, black, white, blue fly above and around you.

I went to other museums too in Houston. My favorite was the museum of fine arts. I saw a 3,000-year-old Aztec carpet that had embroidery of 90 deities eating the head of humans. There was a large section of Indonesian gold that showed jewelry from everywhere from Nias, Java, Bali, Sulawesi, Flores. The European masters Mattise, Soutine, Braque, Picasso. But down in the lower ground, the photography of Raghubir Singh took me away. He took colorful pictures of India, capturing the daily lives of the people in South Asia. Five mustachiod men sat on the sandy ground with pink popsicles in their mouths. Masculine and fragile at the same time. My heart hurt for them. I googled Singh after my museum trip and while there were rave reviews of his exhibition that I saw, I found an article that a group of artists staged a #MeToo protest at his exhibition in New York. An artist said he assaulted her.

After Houston, I flew to Boston. Mikey picked me up with his girlfriend’s car. I slept in their guest bedroom. I didn’t want to be alone in a shitty hotel room in Boston. I was happy to be around friends. Katie is a speech therapist and Mikey now works full time as a teacher. They lived in a nice cosy house with a small backyard with rabbits as pests.

I did a lot of things in Boston: watched a documentary about native Americans trying to deal with the truth about their kids being taken away from their families and weren’t allowed to speak their language. Had drinks and dinners. Met with John Tirman and Ethan Zuckerman. Hung out and worked at TC Boston office.

But New York was my favorite place to be. In Boston, I felt a tinge of homesickness. I missed Jakarta. I felt this when walking from Harvard Square to Magoon Square at Somerville to catch up with Damian. The streets were empty and rows of New England style houses – wooden planks as walls, pointy rooftops – were standing next to New England style trees. The type that turns golden and red in the fall. It was idyllic. Yet, I was uncomfortable with that contrast to Jakarta.

New York is alive and pulsing. The brick colors of the zigurat style buildings with the light green leaf buds of spring, and the array of people walking on the streets were energising. It has tall buildings and lots of people like Jakarta. But better weather and better foot paths to walk on. And a subway, which people in NY complain about, but for me it’s luxury.

I hear a lot of bad stuff about New York. The way people interact socially and use status as currency is sickening. I perhaps wouldn’t love it if I was lonely and without friends or anything to do. But last weekend, it was my paradise.

Bag 1: Errol Morris, Robert McNamara dan Donald Rumsfeld

Yang lekat dalam ingatan saya mengenai film “The Unknown Known” adalah senyum Rumsfeld dan gaya bercandanya yang jenaka. Ia tampak seperti seorang manusia yang tak memiliki masalah dalam hidup. Morris bercanda menyebut Rumsfeld sebagai seorang Yahudi yang paling tidak Yahudi. “Tidak ada rasa muak pada diri sendiri. Tidak ada kebencian pada diri sendiri. Tidak ada keraguan akan diri sendiri Ia sangat berbeda dari saya.” Ia juga menyebut Rumsfeld sebagai seseorang dengan Sindrom Kekurangan Ironi (Irony Deficit Disorder).


Good news from home

A lot of authority figures in Madura, Indonesia painted a picture of an angry intolerant populace of the people. When I asked then Sampang regent Noer Tjahja last year whether he would guarantee the Shiites families, displaced after a mob attack of their homes in Karang Gayam and Blu’uran villages, to be able to return to their land. He said that it was not an option. Noel was adamant that there was strong rejection from the community and that unless the Shiites ‘repent’ and convert to Sunni, “lives are at stake”.

For a year, the Shiites lived in a tennis indoor court turned refugee camp, until just before the Eid celebrations, a mob again harassed the Shiites, and the authorities trucked the refugees into a low-cost apartment complex in Sidoarjo, a city in East Java, outside of the island of Madura. Some 200 people who live from the field as tobacco farmers are forced to move to small flats far from their home town.

But the people proved those who campaign for relocation and segregation wrong, shattering the perception of ingrained intolerance between groups. Even though I am far away from home, I’m so happy to read reports in The Jakarta Post and The Jakarta Globe of reconciliation between the Sunnis and Shiites. The Jakarta Post reported that 50 Sunnis people, including those who participated in the attack, visited their Shiite neighbors and reconciled by signing a peace agreement.

The Jakarta Globe gave a thorough report of the peace process, showing the picture of the peace accord, which states “we have been tired with the animosity and we’re ready to live side by side, respect and love each other as taught by our esteemed Prophet Muhammad.”

The Globe quoted Hertasning Ichlas, lawyer of the Shia community that the Sunni people ” admitted that they had been tired of being provoked every week”.“They finally came to realize that this is only a political game, not a religious issue. They realize that reconciliation is the right Islamic way to solve it.” It seems now the authorities should not have any excuse for letting the Shiites to return to their homes, not when those they claim to speak on behalf of have embraced their neighbors back.

Admittedly, Shia leader Tajuk Muluk is still imprisoned for blasphemy and not one person has been held accountable for last years attack that killed two people. The one person who was arrested, Roisul Hukamah, Tajul’s brother who has personal vendetta against the former was set free of all charges. But just the fact that the two groups are willing to live side by side in peace is a cause for celebrations. Congratulations Sampang!

First Impressions

It’s been three weeks since I left the smog filled Jakarta. I am staying in the quaint New England city of Cambridge, but I first landed in Washington, D.C.

As I step into America’s capital, at once felt a sense of gravity in the city. As a journalist, I try to not be easily swayed by prominence. Famous people are nothing more than human beings; famous things are nothing more than objects, I often say to myself. I take pictures of people I interview, but very rarely — I think I can count only two or three occasions — where I take pictures with them, however famous they are. But, as I walked past the White House, with the American flag flapping on a pole on the roof, a sign that Barack Obama is in the house, I have to admit, I felt excited to be in the same city as he was. I couldn’t resist; I took a picture of myself in front of the White House.

It must be the foreign factor. The White House and the American president are more exotic for me than the Presidential Palace in Indonesia and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Though Indonesians love to believe that Obama is one of us (he likes sate and bakso) given his three-years of living in a Jakarta neighborhood in the late 60s and his mother’s Stanley Ann Dunham’s work there, in the end he is still the president of a superpower that often believes that international law need not apply. The sheer amount of power the U.S. President holds in the international arena is beyond any other head of States in the world. I would be dead-inside if I was not a bit affected by the fact I am in the capital city of United States of America.

Now I am in Cambridge, just next door to Boston, the old historical city where the American Revolution started. I sit in classes in MIT and Harvard, trying to get my head around politics of religion and finding the best method for my research. A writing class with star writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has felt like an indulgence. Reading and analyzing essays in class is like being in one of my favorite podcast, The New Yorker fiction podcast. Although the subject matter is non-fiction rather than fiction, the way Ta-Nehisi helps the class dissect the essays feel similar to what Deborah Treisman and whoever writer is on the show that month.

But the most eye-opening is walking down the streets, exploring the neighborhood and seeing the difference of one street to another. There is a change in style and color of people walking down Main Street that leads to MIT and Windsor Street that leads to the housing projects. Massachusetts Avenue is more “cosmopolitan” with people dressing nicely to go to the pub called Middle East walking side by side with people asking for small change.

Once in a Saturday mid September, a Caribbean Carnival was in full force. The thumping of percussion, accompanies girls dancing in skimpy glittery costumes. The smell of barbecue in the air enticed those who are not even hungry. I hear a foreign language here and there, and an accent, probably Caribbean, among the crowd. Far in the corner are heavy set police officers who seem oblivious to the joy of the carnival. Arms folded, legs spread. The disconnect between people of one city can be seen on the long faces on the pale white cops watching over the joy and laughter of black Americans.

Here and there

I am in The United States of America. I’ve never been here before, but things are familiar. The way people talk. I’ve heard of those sounds before. The way the trees line up in front of the houses. I’ve seen this before. America’s reach in their cultural products is so deep. I felt like I’ve known America before I even set foot on it.

But being here still surprises me. It was not the extreme difference from Indonesia that amazed me. The wide pedestrian paths and the comfort of walking in the comfort of a city in a developed world are pleasant, but expected. I felt a bit giddy walking past the White House and saw the flag which means Obama was in the house. And sitting in an office in MIT, home of the world’s superb minds I never imagined I ever would have a chance to be part of is quite a lot to take in. But, there is something else that has blown my mind in my first week in America so far.

It is the diversity of the people in America and that in that wide spectrum I found something similar to home. The first person I met here was a religious fundamentalist.

“Indonesia has a lot of Muslims, don’t they?”

“Yes, we do”

“Are you a Muslim”

“I was born and raised as one”

“Oh, me too!”

As he spoke of the absurdity of the Trinity, how offensive the push for gay-marriage was for religious people here, I started to find the strangeness of my situation. I flew more than 10,000 miles. I sat on a plane for nearly 2 days and something very similar to home greets me. Every argument he proposed to show how great the religion is are very familiar to me. It’s a small world after all.

I came to MIT courtesy of the International Women’s Media Foundation to find out what turns people’s fear into violence. This is in relation to the growing incidents of religious intolerance and violence in Indonesia. Islamic militancy is growing in Indonesia. An interesting research done by an Indonesian Islamic scholar Achmad Munjid notes that a new generation of educated Indonesian are anxious to be better Muslims than their parents, who were nominal Muslims and practice syncretism.

The man, he too, wanted to be a better Muslim than his parents. For that he actively looked for sources, imams and mosques and formed his way of thinking of this world.

I guess, in the end, I really shouldn’t be surprised by it. America has a growing Muslim community and surely some children of Muslim parents search for an identity that defines them.

Everyone is looking for some kind of salvation and it’s the same from Indonesia to America. The problem is some people strongly believe that their values are superior to others and that’s also similar from Indonesia to America.

A note of thanks to The Jakarta Post newsroom

I remember the first day I stepped into The Jakarta Post. 23. Fresh from my undergrad. I was not the person I am now. For starters, I was somewhat religious. There was a panel – then Chief Editor Endy Bayuni, then managing editor Ati Nurbaiti, senior editor Harry Bhaskara – interviewing me for a position as cub reporter. They wanted to know whether or not I could fit in the hectic newsroom atmosphere. “How do you deal with pressure?” Pak Harry asked. I told him that the funny thing about pressure and hardship is that it makes one become more religious than usual. “I usually just pray a lot,” I said.

The question was repeated again.  Were they looking for another answer? I added that I control my breathing and I pray. I guess, I answered the other questions better than this one because I got the job.

On Friday, I sat in Riyadi Suparno’s office to say good-bye as I resign from The Post, the newspaper that have become my “second home” for the last eight years. Riyadi is now CEO of The Post. When I entered eight years ago, he was still managing editor. “Nobody comes out of The Post the same person,” he said. “True, I rarely pray these days,” I said.

The Post didn’t turn me into a heathen. Don’t get me wrong. But, it did – with its liberal and open atmosphere – given me the courage to question things I dared not to before.  How could you not? You were lumped in a newsroom filled with a wide spectrum of people, from devout religious reporters and editors, former priests-to-be, nominal Muslims, and non-believing editors and sub-editors, working to produce a newspaper whose vision was to promote a civil and humane society. Whatever values one brought to that newsroom would be exposed to different ones. The journey to self-discovery is a never-ending one as long as it has begun. The Post made it possible for me to start.

Working for The Post has also made me a better reporter and writer. At the same time, several years writing for the newspaper humbled me of the enormity of the task. On my first year at The Post, chief editor Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, then still managing editor, told me that I would get the hang of writing five years along the line. “That’s an awful lot of time” I thought. But now, having passed the five-year mark, I still struggle and have a lot of work to do, and I’m thinking Dymas, the chief’s nickname, might have been going easy on me.

Admittedly, the newspaper is not without flaws. I have my share of faults in contributing to the “correction” box. Annoying typo can be seen once in awhile. And I have met readers who complain about our reporting. But all in all, in terms of the newspaper’s commitment to its vision, I think the stories it publishes speak for itself.

I entered The Jakarta Post bright-eyed and nervous, slogged through my initial years stressed out, found the topic I’m most interested in and started to enjoy the day-to-day of reporting and writing.

I go with a heavy heart.

I am leaving not because of any conflict or a better offer. I am starting The Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship this September, making me relocate to the U.S. for more than half a year. But, the fellowship is more of a momentum rather than a reason to leave. Along the years, The Post has not only become a home to me but a comfort zone.

I am bright-eyed and nervous once more. Scared, really. But, if there’s one thing working with The Post taught me is to have courage. Thank you. Wish me luck.