Friday, May 11, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, May 11, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

In 2003 Dutch historian and anthropologist Henk Schulte Nordholt made a film about a community near Ciliwung River in Kampung Melayu, East Jakarta, that had been devastated by floods.

Four years later, Nordholt went back to the same place to film and was astonished to find that the community was completely back on its feet.

"I admire how Indonesian people manage to survive during difficult times and cope with such disasters. I have a deep sense of respect for Indonesians," Nordholt told The Jakarta Post last week, days after he visited the Kampung Melayu community for the second time.

Nordholt, younger brother of noted scholar Nico Schulte Nordholt, is working on a project called Don't Forget to Remember Me: An Audiovisual Archive of Everyday Life in Indonesia in the 21st Century. The project is sponsored by Leiden-based Royal Institute of Linguistics and Anthropology (KITLV), where Nordholt is head of the research department.

KITLV and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) signed a formal agreement to jointly create an innovative archive of the everyday lives of people in eight locations around the country. The locations are Jakarta; Delanggu, in Central Java; Payakumbuh, in West Sumatra; Kawal village, on Bintan island; Sintang, in West Kalimantan; Bittuang, in Sulawesi; Ternate; and Surabaya.

"Discussions, feedback and evaluations for the archive were conducted by LIPI staff, and the first four years of recording -- 235 hours of footage -- has been handed over to LIPI," he said.

"We focus on the history of certain places, and every four years return to them to record what transpired while we were gone."

Nordholt and his crew filmed people shopping in Pasar Baru in Jakarta; at an intersection in Payakumbuh, West Sumatra; a street in the village of Kawal, on the island of Bintan; a market in Bintuang, in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi; a train station and bus terminal in Surabaya; early morning gymnastics classes in Bittuang; a flag-raising ceremony at a primary school in Sintang, West Kalimantan; a jumatan (Friday prayer) in Kawal; the production of kitchen utensils in Delanggu, Central Java; as well as interviews with a local politician in Payakumbuh, a sweeper in Jakarta, a traditional architect in Bintuang and a schoolgirl in Sintang.

"People are always willing to cooperate. They like the fact that we don't film famous figures, because they say that they -- the ordinary people -- are also important. Researchers and film-makers will get a lot of use out of the archive," said Nordholt, adding he hoped the project would last for at least 100 years.

The project is a work of visual anthropology, focusing on history, but using anthropological methodology.

Nordholt believes that exploration of the history of everyday life and challenges in setting up new sources and analytical approaches is important for Indonesian historians. In the past, official historiography generally followed government procedure and was either an account of the events under Indonesia's first president Sukarno, or a developmental narrative observing the accomplishments of the New Order regime.

Such approaches hinder advanced explorations of social history and leave "ordinary" Indonesians devoid of any significant role in their own history.

Born on June 13, 1953, in De Bilt, the Netherlands, Nordholt's love for Indonesia can be traced back to his own family's history.

His father, H. G. Schulte Nordholt, served as a civil servant in Kefanmenanu, West Timor, during the colonial period in the 1930s. During the Japanese occupation, his family went through a turbulent period and was forced to return to the Netherlands.

"My father started a new career teaching history at a high school in the Netherlands. He later taught at a university and became an anthropologist," recalled Nordholt. "He never pushed me to study Indonesia, but I always knew that he wanted me to."

His father gave him a ticket to Indonesia as a high school graduation gift. Nordholt came to Indonesia for the first time in 1972, with Bali as his destination.

"There was no electricity there, but it was so beautiful and romantic. I was really in love (with Bali) at first sight. So, I decided to conduct research there. The 1965 killings in Bali intrigued me: How could so much violence and cruelty occur on such a beautiful island?"

Nordholt said his father was thrilled when he told him of his plan to enroll in Indonesian studies. He completed his MA degree in history (with honors) at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in 1980 and PhD (with honors) at the same university in 1988.

"After Bali, I focused on rural crime, the system of jago (strongmen) in rural Java and how the jago became kaki tangan (proxy hit men); a remnant of the colonial system. You might say that preman (hooligans) are the grandchildren of the jago," Nordholt said.

"Beauty is something that you see at first glance, but behind that beauty you may find violence, tension and conflict. I was very intrigued as to whether or not there was a certain system to this violence, as is it not part of the culture, but is inherited from the colonial experience," Nordholt said, adding that many in the Netherlands refuted his argument.

"Decentralization was a top-down operation lacking any fundamental discussion. Neo-liberal ideology (argues that) less control from the state means more democracy, less centralization means good governance and less state control means a stronger civil society. But this is only in theory. International funding agencies such as the World Bank ignore the fact that the big winners are actually the local elites, seasoned bureaucrats, new businessmen and aristocrats."

He said he was optimistic about the vitality of electoral democracy in Indonesia. "But there needs to be a more substantial, institutional democracy implemented. Indonesia still has a long way to go."

He is convinced that Indonesia will remain united.

"Although they have many differences, Indonesians also have a lot in common. If you look closely at the ways in which they express themselves, such as in seminars -- in the opening speeches, at snack-time or during discussions -- it still convinces me that Indonesians really do have much more in common than they are ready to admit..."

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