The plan was to walk seven kilometres through the streets of Sumenep, leaving my hotel room in the mid afternoon and returning at nightfall as I had done two weeks earlier in Jogjakarta (see “A twenty-first century walk along Jogjakarta’s ancient axis”). It was a very modest target, or so I thought. But when I stepped into Trunojoyo Street the plan unravelled immediately. In the end I managed just three kilometres in three hours.
Before I tell you why, let me step back a little and paint some context. If you squint and look hard at a map of Indonesia you might see Sumenep (pronounced /SOO.m’n’p/) at the eastern end of Madura, the flat, dry island that stretches out snoozing in the tropical sun off the north coast of east Java. Indonesia’s economic boom has been looking in another direction and hasn’t noticed Sumenep yet. Its economy still relies mostly on fishing, the production of sea salt, some cattle farming and small orchards. Pilgrims visiting the royal burial ground of Asta Tinggi on the outskirts of town, and the nearby holy tomb of Sayyid Yusuf, also contribute. A bit of revenue comes from support operations for oil drilling in the Kangean islands further east.
There are a few new cars and motorbikes in the streets, of course, but unemployment – or more accurately, gross under-employment – remains endemic. Consumer goods that are everyday items elsewhere in Indonesia may be luxuries in Sumenep. I went into a supermarket looking for chocolate (my weakness). I couldn’t find any on the shelves but staff led me to a locked, glass-panelled cabinet. Behind the glass there were KitKat bars, and Indonesia’s Silver Queen chocolate bars, even a lone packet of Australian TimTams. But no-one could locate the key so I had to peer longingly, swallow hard, and move on.
I stayed at the Wijaya I Hotel, which was once Sumenep’s premiere hotel. It may still be. (You’ll find it mentioned in Lonely Planet guides). My VIP room cost Rp.135,000 a night, around $10.00 US. The hotel was a fairly typical small town hotel, but even by small-town standards the label “VIP” was way over-the-top for the quality of the room I was given. It had no towel or soap. It had no hot water or toilet paper. Its Formica-topped table was covered in black welts from cigarette butts that had burned out along its edge over many years. But I don’t want to sound sour, so let me be even-handed. It did have an air-conditioner (with the reassuring buzz of a diesel tractor), a small table-top fridge (that kept my drinks nice and warm), and a tiny TV set (with exotically snowy pictures from its three channels). And when I moved in I was given an enthusiastic welcome by a family of mosquitoes.
I have to confess that despite these comforts I was quite pleased to leave the room and stride out into the mid afternoon heat. But in the hard streets of Sumenep I was tripped up by a problem that sabotaged my grand walking plan. The people were much too friendly… in fact so spontaneously hospitable and curious that my progress slowed to a crawl. Again and again I was waylaid and invited to chat, and the chat always included the compulsory ceremony of group photographs using mobile phones.
My first stop was about a hundred metres from the hotel. I walked past a street side workshop where an artisan was squatting on the footpath trimming coloured stones (akik) with a small circular saw. Beside him a display counter was loaded with opal-stone rings. Customers could choose a raw stone and have it shaped, polished and fitted to their preference, or they could choose a ready-made ring. There is something of a mania for akik rings in Indonesia at the moment. They are especially popular with men who believe they confer protection and special powers on the wearer.
Surprisingly, the young akik salesman, Dayat, didn’t want to sell me a ring. He wanted to talk religion. Madura is one of the most strongly Islamic regions of Indonesia. Its brand of Islam is conservative and closely bound up with the power of traditional religious leaders called kyai who rule with iron authority over mosques, religious schools and social life. On the two nights of my stay in Sumenep I was blasted out of bed at 3.30 in the morning by an hour of high-decibel dzikr chants and sholawat songs hammering on the doors and windows of the neighbourhood from loudspeakers in the local mosque. As far as I could tell the neighbourhood slept sweetly through the half-musical cacophony, but being unused to it, I couldn’t. Nevertheless, as my head cleared and I relaxed into the rhythms of the incantations, I felt – as I always do – a powerful affection for the music of Islam. It is an ambience as public, as comforting and as beautiful (yes… beautiful, even when distorted by screeching, tinny, pre-dawn loudspeakers) as Islamic architecture, dress, food, etiquette, calligraphy, decoration etc.
Dayat, the youthful akik salesman, turned out to be an amateur sociologist and theologian. He stumbled into an apology for the tarnished reputation of Islam.
“Some people say the Bali bombers and other Muslim terrorists are not real Muslims, because they act contrary to the peaceful tenets of our religion. But Islam is a community and extremists have come from that community, so they are Muslims.”
He looked at me with agonised earnestness.
“As a Muslim I am ashamed of the reputation my faith has acquired for indiscriminate violence (kekerasan membabibuta was the phrase he used). I’m truly sorry.”
Inwardly I thought Dayat was being much too tough on himself and his religious community. Much (not all… but much) of the “indiscriminate violence” he was apologising for was frustrated, blind retaliation for innumerable instances of equally indiscriminate violence visited on Muslims in many parts of the globe by the ruthless forces of Euro-American power. This doesn’t excuse indiscriminate, violent retaliation, of course, but it helps us to understand it without having to put up with the gormless rhetoric of moral outrage and cultural superiority that marks so much discussion of “terrorism” in Europe, America and Australia. Unfortunately Dayat had adopted some of the premises of this rhetoric.
I took my leave and walked on towards Sumenep’s Grand Mosque in the centre of town. Built in the late eighteenth century with the tiered, pyramid-shaped roof characteristic of Indonesia’s pre-modern mosques it is fronted by a massive, multi-level gateway painted in an attractive combination of white and bright yellow. In front of the gate I fell into conversation with two young women, visitors from Pamekasan about 50 kilometres away in central Madura. Rennie, aged around 25, was wearing a full length black shift with her head swathed in a close-fitting, black hijab scarf. She radiated a forbidding aura of nun-like severity. Her younger friend Ita was also dressed in irreproachable Islamic style but her clothes were more colourful, even a bit trendy. Both were under the watchful guardianship of Ita’s older brother.
They wanted to take a photograph of the tall, grey-haired foreigner doggedly plodding the streets of Sumenep with a rucksack on his back. They used their mobile phones, of course. When I suggested a reciprocal photo on my camera, Rennie glanced around nervously and declined, presumably out of religiously inspired modesty. But Ita had no such scruples. She handed my camera to her brother and simply commanded him to take a photograph of her and me. When Rennie saw the image her resistance evaporated and she solemnly but very willingly joined us. Moments later, looking at the images, she even let out a delighted laugh, although her chaperone was frowning.
Religious bigots take note. If you allow smart-phone technology and social media into the fortress of your ideology, sooner or later they will escape your control and bite you where it hurts. Eventually (though not always immediately) new media will subvert your messages. As Marshall McLuhan – the Canadian pioneer of media studies – famously said “The medium is the message.” Mobile phones, their cameras, their photos and Facebook are not the ultimate as tools of female emancipation, but for many women they are an unstoppable beginning.
I was feeling thirsty and noticed a drinks stand in a side street beside the mosque. I sat down behind it on a rough bamboo bench. Pak Saniman, the proprietor, picked up a dessert bowl and with a few deft flourishes of a ladle lifted diced pineapple, mango, avocado, water melon and jackfruit from a colourful row of fat jars. This was followed by some squares of sweet bread and a psychedelic landslide of green rice-flour noodles. Cloudy sweet syrup was poured in and diluted with a bit of coconut milk. To complete the concoction pebbles of ice were added. All this cost Rp.5,000, about 30 US cents. Pak Saniman had been at his stand since nine o’clock in the morning. It was now around 5.00 pm. As I slurped up the refreshment he told me he had almost emptied his jars of fruit and was about to go home. He had Rp.150,000 (about $12.00 US) in his pocket. The early weeks of Muharram (the first month in the Islamic calendar) are usually very profitable, he said, but when the rainy season begins in November business would drop off. With a gleam of pride he told me his fruit drink stall had put a daughter through nursing school and was paying the bills for another daughter to complete secondary school in distant, trendy Surabaya.
Looking warily left and right I crossed Sumenep’s main street in front of the mosque and headed into the town’s park-like central plaza. I sat down on a concrete bench to watch children driving battery-powered mini cars and motorbikes around a circular pathway in the park. I was joined by Lisa, Layla and four friends, secondary school girls from Sumenep. They demanded (with perfect politeness, of course) that I pose with them for photographs. Smoothing down her blouse and pulling at her headscarf Lisa asked a question that her friends had been whispering to her.
“Which are prettier, the girls of Australia or the girls of Madura?”
My answer produced a dazzling row of smiles and demands for more photos.
I walked a little further and stopped in front of the Labang Mesem, the Gate of Smiles. This is the entrance to Sumenep’s royal palace. Night was now approaching with its usual tropical swiftness, but a young man emerged from the gate and invited me in. He was neatly dressed in a batik shirt, immaculately creased trousers and polished black shoes. His name was Inong and he worked for Sumenep’s tourism service. Inside, the front reception hall of the palace was already brilliant with light from the many bulbous colonial-style lamps that hung from the airy ceiling among carved, gold-embossed wooden posts. A group of university students were rehearsing a ceremony to be held there the next day. I tried to sneak around the edge of the hall, but I was spotted.
“Photos!” someone cried.
The rehearsal came to a sudden halt and a more immediate, more urgent ceremony got under way. Smart phones appeared. I estimate that in the good-natured ten minutes that followed at least 30 photographs were taken, each one accompanied by laughter and calls for more.
It was hard to get away but eventually I arrived back in the street to find that night had fallen. I circled around through some back streets and went down a grimy alley behind the Grand Mosque.
“Good evening, sir!” a voice called in English from the streetside shadows. “Please come and talk with me.”
I was in front of a motorbike servicing workshop. Engine parts lay scattered on the oil-blackened floor. To one side, on a bamboo bench, sat Pak Romadon waiting for his bike to be fixed. He had once worked in Bali where he used his English every day, but in Sumenep very few people knew English, he told me, so he grabbed any chance he could to practise with foreign visitors.
Our conversation roved far and wide and eventually settled on the Suramadu Bridge, the 5.4 kilometre bridge finished in 2009 that spans the Strait of Madura and connects the island with the city of Surabaya. I asked Pak Romadon whether the bridge had brought changes to the previously stagnant economy of Madura.
“Yes, it has transformed the city of Bangkalan,” he said.
Bangkalan is at the other end of Madura near Surabaya. It was once as quiet and as isolated as Sumenep is now, but the bridge has transformed it into Madura’s biggest and most commercially dynamic city.
“But the bridge has not yet touched us here in the east of the island,” Pak Romadon said. He paused, then added “…except negatively.”
“What do you mean?”
“The bridge has made it easier for Surabaya’s drug dealers to access the young men of Sumenep,” he said. “Sabu-sabu (crystal methamphetamine) has become a real problem since the bridge opened.”
He looked up and down the dark alley only metres from the city’s grand mosque.
“It’s even here,” he murmured. “That’s all the bridge has done for us. So far.”
It was now completely dark. Reluctantly I left Pak Romadon and headed to the Wijaya I Hotel. I had fallen far short of my walking target, but somehow it didn’t matter. Sumenep had spoken, and it had a story worth hearing. Plus… I had taken quite a few photos.