It is more developed, but has the same slightly dilapidated (sorry) air that Dhaka also has, and despite the stretches of prosperity and a general air of sufficiency, we passed by a number of pretty down-at-heel shanty-towns, clusters of tin-sheet huts under fly-overs and alongside railroad tracks.
Even the hotel overlooked a small huddle of tenements and so one sees that poverty is really never far away. A useful reminder, probably better than hiding it behind high walls or keeping it tucked away in inconspicuous corners where we do not have to come face to face with it. The more poverty is in the face of the comfortable, the more we might be inclined to do something to alleviate it.
My taxi driver, Nasrallah, is from western Sumatra and has come to the city to seek his fortune. Indonesia’s outlying islands, especially the smaller ones, are stunningly beautiful, but there are few jobs and the ambitious all seem to flock to the big, bad city, Jakarta, which is today one of the world’s mega-cities, at 15 million people, more populated even than Dhaka.
Nasrallah had hoped for a job in tourism/hospitality and has ended up driving a cab, which is more or less part of his target industry, but pretty far down the food chain. Does he ever dream of returning home? No, he says, with a laugh, the convention is that he can only return home once he has made it big and that hasn’t happened yet.
The only event my first night is dinner with my hosts, KBR 68H, a network of more than 400 community radio stations that operate even in the most remote corners of the archipelago, and, specifically, Asia Calling, one of KBR 68H’s weekly radio shows that is broadcast in 12 other Asian countries as well, and will be coming to Bangladesh next month. It is Asia Calling that has invited me to participate in a special two-day program on Islam and Democracy in South Asia.
The next day starts with the radio show in front of a live audience of perhaps 50 or 60. I am on stage with Safia Siddiky, member of the Afghanistan parliament and a very impressive woman. She was, in fact, deputy chairperson and chief speaker for the historic Loya Jirga, is also attached to the ministry of women’s affairs, and has, among other things, survived three assassination attempts, in one of which her would-be assailant blew himself up to avoid capture.
The discussion centres on Islam’s compatibility with democracy, and both of us are vocal in our belief that there is no incompatibility between the two, but that religion and politics should occupy distinct, separate spheres.
In Indonesia there is a debate raging as to whether Islam and democracy are compatible, with a small but vocal minority believing that the two are incompatible and that Indonesia should be an Islamic state and not a secular republic.
After the show, we go to the offices of the Jakarta Post. I am immediately stricken with envy at seeing their luxurious state-of-the-art premises and equipment. The paper has a circulation of 70,000 and is backed by a conglomerate of vernacular papers, which allows it to enjoy economies of scale and to piggy-back on the others’ distribution networks.
Interestingly enough, most of the sub-editors are foreigners, and I note, similar to other south-east Asian countries, that not too many people speak English very well, hence perhaps the need for the foreign sub-editors.
But more interesting is the fact that Jakarta is filled with foreigners, some of whom have been there for decades, and they all seem to speak Indonesian fluently, as far as I can tell. It is rare to meet a foreigner who has lived in Bangladesh for more than a few years, as most are doing tours of duty with an embassy or donor organisation, and rarer still to meet a foreigner who can speak Bangla to save his or her life.
Next up is a trip to Madinah magazine to meet with the editor. I am not sure what to make of this. The magazine bills itself as “a truly Islamic magazine” and occupies a small beat-up office in a run-down strip-mall. The editor tells me that the circulation is 5,000, which actually isn’t bad for something like that.
The purpose of the magazine is to create space and a platform for progressive Islamic voices. I am impressed. I don’t know of any comparable publications in Bangladesh that take on issues such as homosexuality and women’s rights and the rights of minorities and Ahmadias from a perspective that is self-consciously both Islamic and progressive in its outlook
The next day starts with the second part of the radio show. This time it is the turn of Beena Sarwar from Pakistan and Asghar Ali Engineer from India. Again, the discussion is both provocative and thought-provoking, helped by the fact that Mr. Engineer is a legitimate Islamic scholar who can readily cite the Quran and Islamic history to make his points. Progressive Islam is in safe hands with him on stage.
The next day and half bring a number of further visits to an Islamic social organisation, an Islamic university, and a pesantran (Islamic boarding school), as well as a visit to the premises of Tempo magazine, Indonesia’s premier weekly publication.
In between, are superb meals, one at humble but spotless road-side restaurant, where we sit cross-legged on reed mats and drink out of young green coconuts (dab) and eat off banana leaves, and one at the sensational Lara Jjonggran restaurant in the heart of the city, where we eat in an atmosphere of traditional old-world charm surrounded by stunning art and sculpture that show-cases Indonesia’s rich and proud pre-Islamic heritage.
Our last night takes in a photo exhibit on Afghan women at Utan Kayu, an artists’ collective. The photos are unbelievable in their depictions of courage and determination in the face of incredible odds and in the question and answer session that follows, Ms. Siddiky once again mesmerises the locals with her stories of quiet heroism.
The Utan Kayu space is very nice. In addition to KBR 68H’s radio station, there is also a theatre/auditorium, canteen, and open space for artists, writers, philosophers to exchange ideas. Every Saturday morning one can find Abdurrahman Wahid, revered religious leader and ex-president, sipping a cup of coffee and chatting to anyone who stops by to say hello.
We end the night with a trip to the old city, coffee and ice cream at the Batavia Hotel. There is a torch singer being accompanied by a piano and double bass and with the high ceilings, dark furniture, and liveried waiters we could have stepped through time into 100 years ago.
Right outside this relic of colonialism is a reminder of traditional Indonesia, thousands are gathered quietly in a city square to watch an epic shadow puppet show in the Javanese vernacular, in anticipation of Indonesia’s independence day, which is only a few days away.
Jakarta is a lovely city. It is a bit crowded and overwhelming, but for a Dhaka resident this is nothing. In fact, the hustle and bustle and occasional pocket of squalor made me feel quite at home.
As a non-Arab, Muslim majority country, with our own long tradition of syncretic Islam and progressive Islamic thought that is today under attack from non-indigenous, conservative, and intolerant interpretations of Islam, we have a lot in common with Indonesia, and I think much to learn from Indonesia in terms of creating a space for progressive Islamic voices. More next week.