Thursday, November 23, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, November 24, 2006


Alpha Amirrachman
, Contributor, Jakarta

Talk with Azerbaijan linguist Habib Zarbaliyev, and you will be astonished at his fluent Bahasa Indonesia.

This is despite the fact that he has visited Indonesia only twice, and never stayed in the country for long.

The first visit was in February 2002 for seven days, the second in July 2006 for a month.
So how does he practice his Indonesian?

"Using a mirror. I practice it in front of my mirror," he told The Jakarta Post during a conference titled Teaching Bahasa Indonesia to Speakers of Other Languages organized by Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa University in Anyer, Banten, in July.

Many of the current generation in Azerbaijan may not know Indonesia well; because of this Zarbaliyev has been working industriously via radio and TV programs to promote the archipelagic nation in his country, he said in a further recent interview via e-mail.

He said that people in his generation would associate Indonesia with Sukarno and still remember when the flamboyant president visited Muslim-populated Azerbaijan, which was still part of the former giant communist Soviet Union at the time.

Historically, Indonesia and the Soviet Union cemented strong relations, particularly at the peak of Sukarno's maneuver to flirt with the former communist superpower to counterbalance that of the West.

In the Soviet Union, Bahasa Indonesia was taught at Moscow University and St. Petersburg University. In 1965 after the alleged Communist coup, relations between the Soviet Union and Indonesia were scrapped, but Bahasa Indonesia was still taught at universities, Zarbaliyev said.

"There was even a course on Sukarno at the Indonesian history and philology programs of St. Petersburg University, which studied the speech and rhetoric of the first Indonesian president.

The lecturer was the late Prof. Pawel Movcanyuk. Sukarno generated a lot of respect from people here," he said.

"Sukarno's books Sarinah and Indonesia Menggugat (Indonesia Accuses) were also well known."

Zarbaliyev has been promoting Indonesia since 1976 through seminars, radio and TV programs. And when Azerbaijan, with its 8.5 million population, reestablished its independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he promoted Indonesia more extensively.

As the only expert in Indonesian language and culture in the country, he took part in regular TV programs, held traditional Indonesian music and dance events, featured Indonesia's day-to-day lifestyle and culture and disseminated the works of Indonesian artists and cultural figures.

In 1994, he opened Indonesian program at Baku University, where he is currently a professor in Bahasa Indonesia.

The students learn not only Bahasa Indonesia and all its grammatical and semantic aspects, but also the country's literature, geography, history, ethnography, politics and state administration.

Zarbaliyev translated the work of many contemporary Indonesian writers into the Azerbaijan language "in order to sow the seeds of love for Indonesian culture."

"Even Indonesian pantun has a similarity to that of Azerbaijan's in terms of their structure and genre," he said.

"Just like Indonesia's pantun, (traditional poetry) bayati (Azerbaijan's version of pantun) also contains philosophical thoughts, ethics and morality. Both bayati and pantun consist of four lines; the first two provide the reasoning for the last two," Zarbaliyev explained.

And since Azerebaijan is 93.4 percent Muslim, many Arabic expressions were absorbed into its language, he said.

Consequently, many similarities can be found in both Bahasa Indonesia and Azerbaijan language. They include legal terms, Islamic discourse, indications of time and many other matters.

"Students are therefore familiar with many of the terms," he said. In Azerbaijan language Arabic terms are somehow changed, phonetically, grammatically and semantically."

Full of admiration for Pramoedya Ananta Toer, whom he praised as the greatest literary icon Indonesia has ever had, Zarbaliyev said even Indonesian foreign minister Hassan Wirayudi was astonished at the fact there is an expert in Bahasa Indonesia in a country as far away as Azerbaijan.

Zarbaliyev met the minister during the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Azerbaijan last year.

Born September 1954 in Azerbaijan, after graduating from Azerbaijan State University, Zarbaliyev received a scholarship to study at the school of oriental studies at St Petersburg University in what was then the Soviet Union.

"Initially I studied Arabic, but I switched to Indonesian language and literature after reading many short stories. I imagined a beautiful and exotic tropical country with a lot of islands," he recalled.

In 1985 he defended his PhD at the university with its thesis that compared Bahasa Indonesia with other languages. In 1994 he defended his second PhD in linguistics at the Institute of Language and Knowledge of Azerbaijan Academy and in 1998 was awarded a full professorship in the same subject area from the Institute of Social and Political Administration.

Zarbaliyev has written numerous scholarly works. These include Bahasa Mingkabau (monograph, 1987), Typology of the Construction of Word-Numbers (monograph, 1997), Anthology of Modern Indonesian Literature (book, 1997), and hundreds of scholarly and popular articles and reviews of Indonesian literature, culture, arts and tradition.

He has also translated a number of Indonesian short stories into Azerbaijan.

From 1982 to 2006 he participated in a number of international conferences in Bahasa Indonesia and other Austronesia languages, including research in Malaysia.

Since 2004 he has been working as a translator for international library Aliyev Heritage (

Currently, his largest project is to write a 500-page book on Indonesia, which contains comprehensive information on Indonesian history, geography, literature, language, ethnography, culture, arts, economy and politics, he said.

Zarbaliyev, whose favorite Indonesian food is nasi goreng (fried rice), is married to Esmira Zarbaliyeva, an expert in Russian language. They have four children: Laura Zarbaliyeva, Rimal Zarbaliyev, Nihal Zarbaliyev and Nabiyee Zarbaliyeva.

Zarbaliyev said he started to introduce the beauty of the Indonesian language to his eldest daughter Laura while still young, so at the age of 13 she already aspired to become an expert in it.

Laura is currently in her last semester at Universitas Negeri Yogyakarta, taking a Masters in Indonesian.

"I am thankful that my daughter received a scholarship from the Indonesian government," he said, adding that there are around 30 international students benefiting from scholarships, including his daughter in Yogyakarta.

Laura is the only student from Azerbaijan who has received a scholarship.

This means Indonesia still needs to work harder to promote Bahasa Indonesia, he said. He added that given its current strategic position, Indonesia has the potential to promote Bahasa Indonesia to become a prominent language in the region.

He said he and his daughter planned to establish a Bahasa Indonesia program at Azerbajian Language University as soon as she completes her studies.

"Padang State University has already declared its willingness to help us with books and the curriculum," said Zarbaliyev, who already has 400 books written in Bahasa Indonesia and 500 other books on Indonesia written in Russian, English, Dutch and German in his private library. The oldest was published in 1882.

Azerbaijan Central University has 500 books on Indonesia, all written in Russian.

Asked what he does when he has a longing for Indonesia, Zarbaliyev replied, "I listen to the songs of Broery Marantika and Hetty Koes Endang, or read the work of Pramoedya."

No comments: