Homecoming and Homeleaving
By Farish A. Noor
A month can either be a long time or a short time, depending on how one
spends it. The past month was spent by yours truly doing fieldwork and
research across Central Java, skirting between the grand old cities of
Jogjakarta and Surakarta. Four weeks of madrasah-hopping does wear you out
in the end, even if the highlights included meeting and interviewing such
prominent (some might even say notorious) religious figureheads like Ustaz
Abu Bakar Bashir and Ustaz Ja’far Umar Thalib.
Being an ardent fieldworker myself, there is nothing I relish more than
going back to the field to get first hand information for my research work
back in Berlin. Nothing excites like movement; the grueling labour of
seeking knowledge wherever one can find it entails the sacrifice of the
ordinary and mundane. Sleeping in cheap hotels, driving up and down country
roads on a motorbike, negotiating all the time with touts and hagglers,
typing down the interview at the first internet cafe one finds by the
street, even if it means that it happens to be a den of rats and rent-boys.
But what differentiates fieldwork in Indonesia from any other country in the
world for me is the fact that this is the land I consider my real, true
home. Its not just the familiarity of voices, language, manners and customs
that quickly dispel any notion of difference. It is some innate, primordial
sensibility that defeats the Cartesian logic I had digested along the road
to being a social scientist. The rationalist in me tells me again and again
that I am poised on the brink of a dangerous reductivist nostalgia, replete
with ham-fisted platitudes and counterfeit nuggets of essentialism. I should
not feel this way towards a place that is in fact part of my work. Yet I do.
“You cannot deny your past, Kangmas Farish”, my friend Toha reminded me.
“You may be Indo, you may be Peranakan, you may even be a Malaysian citizen;
but you are deep down Jawi - Javanese - like us and we can all see that.
This, this place, this land, this is your real home. There is no escaping
Fate plays tricks on you, and the happy - or sometimes unhappy -
circumstances of geography decide where we belong. Since my childhood I have
known of my Javanese-Dutch origins, and yet torn between two continents and
two poles, I have drifted back and forth endlessly. Yet the one thing about
being a hybrid of mixed origins is that if prevents the narrowing of
identity; and rather opens up the way for new modes of being and existence.
I, like many of the people of Southeast Asia, happen to be the product of
generations of inter-racial marriages that began at a time when the concepts
of ‘Race’ and ‘nationhood’ were still novel ideas in their infancy.
Southeast Asia is a region with mixed, intertwined and overlapping memories
and histories that cannot be denied. Prior to the advent of colonialism this
was a part of the world where globalisation was doing its work in earnest,
in terms of the transfer of peoples, culture, ideas and capital. This was
the Asia prior to the age of Europe, as celebrated by scholars like Chauduri
For Southeast Asia to develop into anything remotely resembling the European
Union, a new understanding and internalisation of a sense of shared
histories, shared identities and a shared future must emerge from the
peoples of the region. Yet today how many Indonesians know anything much
about the history of Malaysia, their closest neighbour with whom they share
a common border (in Kalimantan)? And the same question can be asked of
Malaysians who know just as little about Indonesia next door. That is why
academic research into the common histories of regions like Southeast, South
and Central Asia is so important. If Europeans today feel that they belong
to a common European continent, it is thanks in part to five decades of
educational emphasis on a shared history. ASEAN will never be able to reach
the standing of the EU unless and until its citizens think of themselves not
only as Indonesians, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Filipinos and Thais, but also
as ASEAN citizens, emerging from a region with a common shared history.
So perhaps I am not guilty of essentialist romanticism after all. Hybridity
does have its virtues, at least in the sense that it prevents the
foreclosure of identity. To that future generation of ASEAN citizens, I wish
them well and can only hope that they will be able to live with difference
and pluralism as something natural and part of who and what they are.
Prof. Farish A. Noor is currently visiting professor at UIN Sunan Kalijaga,
Jogjakarta and is one of the founders of the http://www.othermalaysia.org website.