Sunday, December 31, 2006

Language is a Land

Every time I see this wall at Jalan Taman Sari in Bandung I stand in awe. I try to understand it. But I don’t. Graffiti is a different language. Graffiti is a different life form.

Is this why I have difficulties learning a new language? Because it entails getting familiar with a new form of life? I have difficulties bringing life in the language I am learning: Indonesian.

Indonesians claim that their national vernacular is easy to learn. Because, as they claim, it has no rules. That’s rubbish. Of course Indonesian has rules. And the discrepancy between the formal form and the spoken forms is not due to a lack of rules. Indonesian is a chameleon, its use changes per context. Learning a new language requires then sensitivity for the multitude of contexts. It also requires sensitivity to the nonverbal part of language: the gestures and facial expressions, and the ‘meaningless’ words and sounds.

Learning a new language is to learn a new life form. Even English, which I started to learn at the age of twelve, still feels like a borrowed tongue (one day, I imagine, I will have to pay all those fines for the mumbling, for the tumbling; but in pounds or in dollars?). If language is a land then I feel homesick to my native tongue – when I babble in my dreams it is still in Dutch.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

It's my phone...

Once in a while I have strangers on the phone, with them strange conversations unfold.
─ Salam aleikum.
─ Hello?
─ Is mister Djoko there?
─ And who is this?
─ Mister Hassan. Is mister Djoko there?
─ No, I don’t think he is here.
─ Do you know where he is then?
─ No, I do not know where he is.
─ Do you know when I can contact him then?
─ No, I don’t.
─ Oh…
─ Because I don’t know mister Djoko.
─ So you do not know where he is?
─ No.
─ Or when I can call him again?
─ No, because I don’t know him.
─ Oh…
─ And this is my phone number.
─ Oh…
─ And not mister Djoko’s.
Without further ado the conversation ends at this point, again and again. It humors me. It startles me. A confusing landscape indeed.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Internet quake

Nearby Taiwan an earthquake occurred a few days ago – 7.1 on the scale of Richter – which damaged a submarine cable, and this in turn disrupted data traffic on the World Wide Web roughly between India and Japan. There is no alternative available to this one cable, except private owned foreign satellites, but Indonesian law prohibits the use of these. And reparation is expected to take two up to four weeks. Now I live even more on an island – with no or limited access to the outer, wider world. And I also realized that the virtual world is less virtual as I thought it was, it depends on the hardware of the real world. Perhaps we call the web virtual because we cannot comprehend its reach. (And virtual nonsense is still plain, good old-fashioned nonsense – finite infinity is such nonsense.)

Monday, December 25, 2006

One day we'll float

But one day

We'll float
Take life as it comes
We'll float
Take life as it comes

But one day
We'll float
Take life as it comes

P.J.Harvey – We float

(This song is from the album ‘Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea’, which was released more than six years ago. Did that particular day come for Polly Jean Harvey? And is she now floating? Or is her hope shattered? Anyway, I hope she will release some new music any time soon.)

Friday, December 22, 2006

The waiting game

– In the meantime let us try and converse calmly, since we are incapable of keeping silent.
– You’re right.
– It’s so we won’t think.
– We have that excuse.
– It’s so we won’t hear.
– All the dead voices.
– They make a noise like wings
– Like leaves.
– Like sand.
– Like leaves.
– They all speak at once.
– Each one to itself
– Rather they whisper.
– They rustle.
– They murmur.
– They rustle.
– What do they say?
– They talk about their lives.
– To have lived is not enough for them.
– They have to talk about it.
– To be dead is not enough for them.
– It is not sufficient.
– They make a noise like feathers.
– Like leaves.
– Like ashes.
– Like leaves.
Long silence.
– Say something!
– I’m trying.
Long silence.
– Say anything at all!
– What do we do now?
– Wait […].

Samuel Beckett – Waiting for Godot

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Teh Botol or Coca Cola

Benjamin R. Barber writes in Jihad vs. McWorld, Terrorism’s Challenge to Democracy (first published in 1995, thus way before 9/11) that “[g]etting people off water is a matter of economics (water is free), but getting them off tea entails a cultural campaign. […] If only every Indonesian could switch from tea to Coke – and from sandals to Nikes and from rice to Chicken McNuggets and from saris to Laura Ashley and from indigenously produced movies to Arnold Schwarzenegger videos and from Buddhism to consumerism – imagine what ‘worlds of opportunity’ would be thrown open to McWorld’s bold corporate adventurers […].” Only in paradise water is for free. Or does mister Barber talk about those indigenous people who still live the Adam and Eve life somewhere in the jungle? Anyway, most Indonesians live the sedimentary life and for them water is not for free. And tap water isn’t potable. So water needs to be boiled. And boiled water is nicer with tea and sugar – Indonesians love the sweet life. The logical next step isn’t then to Coke but to bottled tea: Teh Botol by Sosro. Sosro is founded in 1940 by the Sosrodjojo family in the Central Java village Slawi. And today Sosro is the leader in the market of soda drinks in Indonesia (see: A similar remark can be made on McDonald’s. When McDonald’s entered the Indonesian market it came with its hamburgers and French fries. But Indonesians don’t have so much taste for hamburgers and French fries, so they merely ignored McDonald’s. It was only after it started serving Indonesians’ favorite fast food dish – rice, chicken wings and chili sauce – that Indonesians accepted McD. A McDonald’s in Bandung even has a musholla (a prayer room). The same can be said concerning MTV. While the Indonesian movie industry has indeed withered, it is the Indonesian music industry that is thriving. And a greater majority of the bands sing in a local vernacular – from speed rock to easy jazz, from boy band to sexy dangdut (with its Indian influences). Indonesian cultures are full of energy: very much alive and kicking!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A couple of fellows

I took this picture in Bandung two days ago. Actually I was photographing something else when I noticed this couple – the poor are easily overlooked. Here the poor are called the little people(wong cilik, rakyat or massa), which is not a comment on their physical appearance, but a moral condemnation of their apparently lack of awareness of their own socio-political interests and therefore they are seen as not capable of making prudent decisions. This couple wanted to pose – the man, though, was more eager that the woman. And afterwards I showed them the picture. Two weeks ago I was in Surabaya and after I took some photos at a traditional market a woman expected that she could not only see the picture on the screen of my camera, but also would be able to receive instantly a print of the photo I took of her. (And I don’t know where to mail the photo to. The sans papiers have no address.)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Love is not Cinta is not Liefde

Ask me not to write on love
Cause love is you, which I cannot name
unless as a heartbeat
– Sitok Srengenge

I’m going to say
that I love you
and feel unkissed kisses
– Rutger Kopland

(Both texts are translated by me. The first text is also translated by Nukila Amal, an Indonesian novelist. The photo was taken yesterday, on a walk between tropical showers from Paramadina University at Jalan Gatot Subroto, where I joined a conference, to Erasmushuis at Jalan Rasuna Said.)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


In 1983 (sic!) Goenawan Mohamed writes that “we are afraid. And censorship is an institutionalization of that fear. [P]eople who think that as there is one accepted Truth, it follows that all potential diversity must be whipped out. Pluralism is not important, it is a nuisance, brings problems, frustrates, and so on. It is the one Truth with a capital ‘T’ that must be promulgated.”
According to Mill “there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.” He writes this in On Liberty – and when he writes ‘the fullest’ he means ‘the fullest’: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person that he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” Coercing a minority results in prejudice and intolerance, and, according to Mill, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Uniformity – as we can call censorship – can be imposed by legal means, but also by social pressures.
And Indonesia is not doing well concerning freedom of expression – far from it.
In 2004 the teen movie ‘Buruan Cium Gue!’ (Hurry, kiss me!) was criticized by the popular ulema Abdullah Gymnasiar (better known as Aa Gym; Aa is Sundanese for brother). Aa Gym called this film – an Indonesian-style American Pie – pornographic, because, he claimed, it promotes premarital sex. Later he admitted he had not seen the movie, but the damage was done: the government banned the movie. Is a kiss porn? And does a kiss lead to sex? And not only AA Gym did not see the movie; it was easy for him to avoid seeing this harmless movie. (AA Gym finds himself now in the eye of a storm, because he decided to marry a second woman.)
Another example is Front for the Defense of Islam’s (‘Front Pembela Islam – FPI’; Van Bruinessen calls the FPI “more like a racket of mobs for hire than a genuine Islamic movement”, see critique of artist Agus Suwage and photographer Davy Linggar’s work at the 2005 CP-Biennale in Jakarta. The artwork ‘Pink Swing Park’ depicts celebrities Anjasmara and Isabel Yahya in the nude, displaying them as Adam and Eve. FPI claims that portraying Adam and Eve in the nude insults Islam (if you google ‘adam eve’ you can find many nudes). Chief curator Jim Supangkat decided to meet the demands of FPI by making the artwork less visible, other artists responded by removing their work and the Biennale came to a halt. And Anjasmara, accompanied by FPI-members, aired his apologies on television. Art critic Carla Bianpoen says that all this is the consequence of confusing art with religion. Can art be pornographic? Is it wise to use criminal law to codify a taboo?
And the most recent example comes from this year’s Jakarta International Film Festival (JiFFest, see Yesterday I planned to see the new documentary by Leonard Retel Helmrich: Promised Paradise. This documentary tries to trace the roots of the Bali bomb of 2002. It was screened last Saturday and then it suffered a ban. No reason was given. (Dutch TV will screen this documentary December 18). Years ago Leonard Retel Helmrich spent short time in jail for filming a demonstration, and after release he was made persona non grata. And now his film is banned. Why? Are the Indonesian authorities afraid? Afraid that people will realize that these terrorists are Indonesians with no connection to global networks?
Liberty is not something absolute. When freedom is restricted it ought to be done in the name of freedom and not at the whim of this or that person. Liberty is a value which should not be treated in a trivial manner.

(The picture is from:

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Mister Mister

On sunny days I am Van Nistelrooij. On gloomy days I am the West. They call me mister mister. They call me white – and therefore rich. They care for my skin. They see my blue eyes. They call me mister handsome. And I – I disappear behind smiles.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Prometheus' Perspective

Franz Kafka, notorious for leaving his absurdist novels unfinished, said once that the parable tries to express the incomprehensible while the incomprehensible remains at the end of the story incomprehensible, which we knew already from the outset (see: Or as Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked: “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists (see 6.44). There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical (see 6.522, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus).” That does not mean, though, that Kafka or Wittgenstein are proposing silence – a poem just with blank lines is no longer poetry – but they claim, on the other hand, that our narratives are just that: stories, and these stories, of course, can influence the way we perceive our world, the way we value the world we inhibit – but have no logical valid connection to it.

“Prometheus” by Franz Kafka

There are four legends concerning Prometheus:

According to the first he was clamped to a rock in the Caucasus for
betraying the secrets of the gods to men, and the gods sent eagles to
feed on his liver, which was perpetually renewed.

According to the second, Prometheus, goarded by the pain of the
tearing beaks, pressed himself deeper and deeper into the rock until
he became one with it.

According to the third his treachery was forgotten in the course of
thousands of years, forgotten by the gods, the eagles, forgotten by

According to the fourth everyone grew weary of the meaningless affair.
The gods grew weary, the wound closed wearily.

There remained the inexplicable mass of rock. The legend tried to
explain the inexplicable. As it came out of a substratum of truth it
had in turn to end in the inexplicable.


Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Post Babylon

The city-state's streets are clean and safe. Even at night. It is a prosperous state. And well organized, its institutions work well. Singapore is multicultural, but that is not an issue. So, do Singaporeans need democracy? Do they need to be democratic? I ask myself these questions when I gaze around. The women are sexy mini-skirted, buying Gucci and a scent of Picasso. The men go around in Armani and smell like Boss. The sidewals are crowded. No one to attend my questions to. My shadow is growing. TV-sreens scream of a war in Babylon. And I - I long for Indonesia.
(The photo was taken at the National Museum of Singapore in 2006 and this short text has been written in 2003 and has earlier been published as a quadrant on Ferrie Veen's website

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Indonesia in miniature

Pluralism and rational disagreement about ‘the truth’ are common features in practically all contemporary societies. Indonesia with its multiplicity of peoples, languages, religions, traditions, and cultures is an extreme example. Pluralism is an empirical given, but often it is not positively valued. And even if diversity is not positively valued the question arises how to create a civilized society. There is no point in denying the question, there is no easy answer. The Republic of Indonesia is an archipelago of approximately 18,100 islands; from west to east it is almost 5000km, and from north to south it is 1770km. And Indonesia is populated with around 235 million people – and the island of Java is overpopulated with plus minus 130 million (while the island is less than 7% of the total of land mass). Indonesia is multiplicity. This is, though, already a simplification. The ‘is’ cannot function as a mirror. It is done anyway. In 1975, for example, ‘Taman Mini Indonesia Indah’ was opened by the wife of then president Soeharto. ‘Taman Mini’ is a whole country in a single park; each province is represented by a traditional house (see: As if a complex history can be reduced to a costume, ready-made to be printed on a calendar and sold as a souvenir. The slogan ‘bhinneka tunggal ika’ (unity in diversity), another example, has the danger of denying diversity and thus the freedom of individual citizens and therefore differences between individuals and groups. The emphasis on the oneness is a matter of establishing a unity where diversity is and where potential social unrest lingers. Thus while diversity is an empirical fact in Indonesia, these diverse phenomena are only seen as representations of the one and only. The ‘grand design’ becomes then more important than particular lives of individual citizens, as Stewart writes (in: ‘On Longing: Narratives of the miniature, the gigantic, the souvenir, the collection’): “In diversity is unity; all phenomena are miniaturizations of the essential features of the universe.” This is a different way of saying that one person is all persons, but that is, to speak with Jorge Luis Borges, “a tedious way of saying that I do not exist.” As if a meta-national essence is needed to keep the polity from disintegrating, from a Balkanization, even if this is at the expense of citizens’ individual dignity and the right not to be patronized.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Philosophy in Bandung

Every Thursday I pack my rucksack and head for Bandung, the capital of West Java province. In this young and booming city I teach on Friday mornings philosophy at Parahyangan Catholic University. And this semester I teach a class on the history of modern philosophy – I take my students on a journey from Socrates to Ludwig Wittgenstein. My students are in a way no regular students, beside philosophy they study theology and ten out of eleven students live in a monastery. One day they will become priests. Maybe that is why, I don’t know for sure, that they are very diligent students. But sometimes they seem a bit weltfremd – then they seem not to be aware what is going on in the world (unaware of Said's Orientalism and Huntington's Clash of Civilizations). But perhaps that is a characteristic they share with kids of their age around the globe. There are other things they share: they love soccer (Ronaldinho! Van Persie!); they eat too much sweet stuff; they listen to awful pop music (Britney Spears, Aerosmith); they prefer philosophy over theology (some of them are even skeptic whether god really exists…!); they dress to the latest fashion; and the boys think about girls (they took the vow of chastity though). And with Indonesians they share rasa malu – a sense of shame or shyness; before they are able to ask a question they seem to need to get first this burden of their shoulders, afraid of appearing in public as a fool. It is a great joy to teach them and I hope they learn as much as I do.
In the picture form left to right: Nugi; Djoko (the class captain); Doddy; Dewo; Agus (we call him Smiley, when you talk to him he gives the greatest smile ever); Adelia (the only girl in the class, the boys treat her, of course, as a princess; her parents own a coffee factory in Bandung, which produces delicious coffee); Kwanto; Pandu; Nover; Hendrik; and Gandhi (strange name for a Catholic).