Two geese greet us. They are more like guard dogs. We make our way to one of the bamboo huts where water and snacks are set up on the carpet for us. Frogs are going for it. This is rural as it gets . Next to the bungalow are fish ponds. That’s explains the frog’s presence. I’m feeling sleepy. Then the coffee is served. I’m feeling slightly better.
We are paying a visit to an imam in Serang, about a one hour drive west of Jakarta. Actually we are in village, a good forty minute drive from Serang. I have no idea why we are here, except that the contractors who have come with us to see a new housing project, want to visit their family before Ramadan begins in a few days.
I’ve come with seven Indonesians, all devout Muslims. And this is the first time I’ve ever visited a pesantren, an Islamic boarding school. I’m quite excited. I don’t hide that fact, when the Imam eventually comes. In the meantime, we are served fish, chicken, delicious steamed rice dishes. The chatting gets animated. We are refreshed after a long day driving from Jakarta, and caught in a two hour grid local.
The imam comes after we have finished dinner.
I’m told that highest thing you can do in Islam, next to making a pilgrimage to Mecca, is to set up a Muslim school. The group agrees. It’s a brief meeting, but the Imam leaves a lasting impression. Muhadeen is on the verge of crying. He’s sincerely touched that I’m showing interest in Islam culture. I tell the Imam that’s its my mission to spread the good word about aspects of Islam. “There’s so much bad press about your religion. But I’ve never seen a story on a Muslim school before.”
Then Muhadeen, who is the brother of the governor of Serang, asks me why I’m attracted to Islam.
A good question and a pause while I collect my thoughts. I said that praying, in a Christian manner, is bad for my knees. “But when I pray at a Mosque, I get to stretch my back and exercise.” Everyone laughs. Then I go into a experience I had in a mosque in Thailand a few years ago:
“I was in a Mosque, in Thailand, during Ramadan. It was a Friday, and someone was being buried. The mosque was situated on the klong (canal, in Rumkamhang. I was at one of the many lowest points in my life. During prayer, I was sitting with my legs crossed. I couldn’t pray, so I just focused. Then all the prayers joined as chorus. Then there was a heavenly element added to the chorus.. The prayer was so sweet and unearthly. I was high. Not on drugs. But high on the prayers which were penetrating every cell of my existence.”
The imam says it was a miracle . I told them, “I’ve been seeking that union with God ever since.”
The small group seemed to believe what I said. I told them that when I recalled my feeling to the Algerian and Saudi Arabian, who attended prayers at that time, they just dismissed me. And later, the Algerian would chase me out of the area and two apartment, and harass me at my work place, causing me to lose two jobs. He didn’t want me any where near Islam. He tried his best, but it just wasn’t meant to be!
I take photos of the imam. He can’t speak English, and my Bahasa isn’t’ so hot. I’m playing around with the settings. It’s dark. He takes a look at my pictures. He’s pleased. There’s an easy going rap all going on between us. He’s humble. “If you stay here, you’ll have to cook your own rice.”
He shows me where I will stay. It’s a simple room, with a carpet on the floor, a few pillows, and a prayer rug. “Can you fish?” he asks. All the students here must catch their own fish, and cook up their rice. “We teach the children how to self sufficient. And twice a day, they will learn about the Koran and how to read and write Arabic.”
He currently is teaching and caring for 100 impoverished children from across the Achipelilgo, including Sumatra, Sialwessi, Borneo and Flores. He says if I attend this school, I’ll need to wear sarong and a hat. I say no problem. Then he adds, “You will need an XXL sarong.”
“Can I borrow yours,” I ask the stocky Imam. He laughs. Then the guests laugh.
In Indonesia, Muslim schools are considered the stepping stone for many poor children to get an education. They learn Arabic, and the basic Indonesian curriculum. The smart students will get a sponsor and move up the education ladder from high school to University.
This is how the Imam started out. “I went to a Muslim school in West Java, where I was given a good education and Islam grounding,” says the Imam, who is 41-years o ld and doesn’t have an ounce of self importance about him. ” I’m just continuing the tradition of giving the poor the chance to learn and hopefully be better citizens.”
Surprisingly this school which he started in 1992, two years before he got married, isn’t widely known in the main stream press. “Its usually through word of mouth, that I get students. The press have never come here to see what we are doing. ” He’s not concerned. I ask him how does he fund this enterprise. “It’s Allah’s secret,” he replies. But the self sufficiency motive of the commune enables money to come in, as produce goes out to the market, including fish, rice, coconuts and chicken and ducks.
Ramadan is nearing. Tomorrow the fasting begins. It’s time say good buy. The geese are quiet then send their greetings. Their guttural communications are less aggressive.
The next three hours we are talking about Islam and the role it plays in Indonesian society. But first it’s a stop to the Alfa Mart to top up on Red Bulls and cigarettes. Anto is singing to stay awake. He has a good voice. I’m not singing. But I have a Credence song humming in my head, “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” And I’m not sharing it!
Anto, who acted as translator today, asks me what I think of the Iman. ” I believe he was very pure. The fact that he doesn’t really want any press for his Ashram says it all!”
Conversations led to Australian policy under John Howard, and Islam schools that bread terrorism . The word Abu Bakar Bashir cropped up. He is a Muslim cleric who started a similar Muslim school. But this one lead to the birth of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah There’s no connection here with this school. But it’s an interesting idea of how good teachings can be nurtured in a rural setting, or bad teachings.
I told Anto that in Australia, when the media talks about JI , there’s always the same footage, which has been used for years, of recruits carrying AK47′s and crawling under barriers. Old news and old footage. Just sensational stuff to create a bad image of Islam and Indonesia, I told him.
We arrive to Jakarta at 3 am in the morning. I’m dog tired. Anto is even more tired. Ramadan is tomorrow. Paying respect to an Imam before the month of fasting is considered auspicious, explains Anto. A good start, I say, “but how are you going to stop smoking during the day light hours.” Anto smiles. “You’d be surprised about faith. I can stop just like that.” He lights up another local cigarette, a slow burning clove cigarette. I want to believe him.
“I’ll check up on you in a few days.”
“Alhamdulillah‘,” (praise to God) he replies.