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Indonesian Journal: Buying Flowers, Burning The Koran

Like other Americans living in Indonesia, I was annoyingly aware of plans by a bigoted Florida blowhard to burn a bunch of Korans. I'd read about Pastor Terry Jones, the aggressively mustachioed eBay furniture salesman turned internationally renowned Islamophobe, and his promised score-settling with the Muslim holy book. Then late last week, the U.S. embassy in Jakarta sent an alert urging ex-pats to avoid local demonstrations against Jones' promised conflagration. "Americans are advised that there may be anti-American, possibly disruptive, demonstrations," the embassy warned, "to mark an announced Koran burning on September 11 in Florida." Hmm. You don't say.

As I understood his plan from afar, Jones intended to put the Muslim world on notice: The Koran and its teachings were responsible for 9/11. I didn't exactly follow the details - had the Koran actually financed and organized the 9/11 attacks, or was that still al-Qaeda? - but Jones' intent was clear enough. By torching a couple hundred paperback copies of the Koran - or even just talking about burning the books - he meant to stick his thumb in the eyes of Muslims everywhere. He meant to insult them, and maybe to provoke them. He meant to denigrate Muslims and their faith, to incinerate it in a pyre of angry evangelical righteousness. Up. Yours. Muslims. That was the message, and it was received loud and clear. From Baghdad to Kabul, Peshawar to Jakarta, they understood perfectly well.

This is ugly and it's fake and it's several kinds of morally and ethically wrong. But I'll spare you the sermon.

What I want to say, as someone who came here to teach high school English in the world's largest Muslim democracy, is that Jones' provocations couldn't have come at a more incongruous time in Indonesia. All across the giant archipelago this weekend, Muslims and non-Muslims alike are celebrating Lebaran, or Idil Fitri, the end of the Ramadan fasting month. It's like Thanksgiving and Christmas wrapped in one, a hugely important holiday - elsewhere known as Eid - that unites Muslims as believers and Indonesians as countrymen, and reunites families all over these islands with something like the entire nation headed back home for a long weekend.

The mosques are overflowing, the stores are shuttered, and the homes are full of friends, families, and neighbors. Kids and food, food and kids, presents and holiday finery. It's a big deal, a touchstone celebration, and it's been beautiful to witness. What would Terry Jones know about that? What would he care to know about that? I'm guessing nothing.

"Why would he bring this up now?" an Indonesian friend asked about the Koran-burning threats. "It's Lebaran. It's a time for family."

The festivities start the day before. At sundown Thursday, the sounds of calls to prayer go out from minaret loudspeakers across the north side of Bandung, a West Java city of about 7 million. The songs overlap and arrive from near and far, more and less amplified, a Doppler-ed wash of sound-on-sound. High-pitched singing and lower-pitched, shrill and sonorous, pleasing and less-so. Evening calls to prayer are an everyday thing here but tonight is different. The songs don't stop, or they don't seem to. All night and into the early morning, men and boys take turns at the microphones singing. They work in shifts; the sound is constant, trebly. I don't understand them but at points, especially late in the night; they seem to be winging it. They fill the air with song, with amplitude. It goes on and on.

And the fireworks. All seemingly ad hoc. Neighborhood displays, backyard pyrotechnics. The air is full of color and smoke, sizzles and bangs and booms. Crackling, and fizzles. Pops and whizzes. It's all night, past 4 a.m. It's the Fourth of July on the North Side of Chicago for hours and hours, a house dog's quivering nightmare and everyone else's jubilant display. Pffffth . . . Bam! And again. And again. Arcs of red, constellations of gold and silver. A purple burst. A green streak against the black sky. Ahhh! Nobody's sleeping.

In a cab on the way home from dinner, the streets are crowded and the sidewalks, as always, are impassable for the vendor carts. But tonight they aren't hawking chicken satay and friend rice. Instead, they're selling flowers. A hundred different sellers, maybe, along a mile-long stretch of road. Buckets jammed with orchids, lilies, flowers I've never seen. And everyone on foot with a bunch in their hands. Everyone buying flowers! People double-parked and out of their cars, people off their motorcycles and stocking up. A riot of color and softness. Everyone all smiles. Flowers literally littering the streets. It's fantastic.

The next morning, the morning of Lebaran, the mosques are all mobbed. People worship on the ground outside, on playing fields, on sidewalks, roads, wherever the can find space. Seas of white. Kneeling in unison. An enormous communal huddle. And when they're done, they break their fast. A day of eating and of visiting, Lebaran is the Indonesian equivalent of the Passover seder or the Thanksgiving dinner - only imagine cooking for the entire neighborhood. Visitors are the norm, for an hour or the day, the front door revolving, people in and out in a procession of humble greeting: Mohon maaf lahir bathin. Roughly translated it means, I beg forgiveness for my mistakes, and it's offered freely. A day of atonement and apology, of anti-egotism. Kind of nice.

During an afternoon visit to a home shared by our Indonesian language teachers, a group of Americans offered their own mohon maafs as our hosts, and later their neighbors, offered theirs in return. Terry Jones didn't come up, and we wouldn't have spoken for him in any event. He can beg his own forgiveness, but I don't think I'll hold my breath. No, Jones and his bilious intolerance were a long, long way off. In my teachers' living room, on a hill in West Java, surrounded by friends and comfortably stuffed with rice and fish and fruit, we were thinking mostly how happy we were to enjoy the generosity of others.


Brett McNeil is a former Chicago Tribune reporter, Chicago Journal editor, and Fulbright English teacher living in Indonesia. He blogs at The Year of Living Volcanically and is also the Beachwood's new Southeast Asia correspondent.


Comments welcome.


Posted on September 13, 2010

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