Sunday, October 19, 2008


Emha Ainun Najib
(Photo by Alpha Amirrachman/JP)
First published in The Jakarta Post, October 18, 2008


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Deventer, the Netherlands | Sat, 10/18/2008 11:16 AM | People

When a group of priests from the Dutch Protestant Church approached renowned Indonesian poet and Muslim scholar Emha Ainun Najib to ask him to stage a performance of his musical band Kiai Kanjeng in the Netherlands, Emha did not think twice about accepting.

The offer was made not long after the release of Geert Wilder's controversial movie Fitna.

"They wanted us to help reduce the tension and enhance understanding among religious communities," Emha told The Jakarta Post on the sidelines of Kiai Kanjeng's performance at the Islamic Cultural Center in Deventer, the Netherlands.

He acknowledged there was a section of the Muslim community that spoke the language of intolerance and that was committed to acts of violence against those whose religions or opinions differed from theirs.

"The world has seen tension among religious communities. I have never seen such a growing hostility in my life ... When I was a child, things like this never happened," said Emha, also known as the "renaissance figure of Indonesian culture".

Emha is unlike other Muslim leaders, who are often in a state of denial regarding the gap between the normative and the practice of Islam.

"We have laws that should anticipate this and deal with (those who commit violence)," he said between puffs of a kretek (Indonesian clove cigarette) during a stroll in downtown Deventer.

"However, there are also other groups who advocate peace and tolerance among us, and we should give them more chances so their voices can be heard by people all over the world," he said, giving the example of the Dutch Muslim and Protestant Women's Association in Deventer, which aims to foster understanding among religious communities.

Emha's musical group, Kiai Kanjeng, is currently embarking on a tour in several cities in the Netherlands: Rotterdam, The Hague, Amsterdam, Zwolle, Leeuwarden, Deventer, Nijmegen and Etten-Leur from Oct. 8 to Oct. 19.

Emha has also held dialogues with various religious communities during his cultural tour here.

"The spirit is to recognize humanity everywhere in every nation, group and religion, and to respect and love all humanity, wherever it exists.

"The East is in the West, and the West is in the East," said Emha, whose wife and singer Novia Kolopaking is also a member of Kiai Kanjeng's 15-strong entourage.

Muhammad (Emha) Ainun Nadjib was born in Jombang, East Java, on May 27, 1953, the fourth of 15 children.

He was expelled from Gontor Ponorogo Islamic boarding school near Surakarta for leading a demonstration against the school's security department during his third year of study.

He later graduated from Muhammadiyah senior high school but later only managed to study for one semester at the Faculty of Economics at Gadjah Mada University.

Emha's first anthology of poetry titled "M" Frustasi (the Frustration of "M") was published in 1975. With his colleagues, he set up theater group Teater Dinasti. It did not take long for him to establish himself as a foremost figure on Yogyakarta's poetry scene.

Living for five years on Yogyakarta's downtown Jl. Malioboro, Emha studied literature with his most revered Sufi-teacher Umbu Landu Paranggi, who is believed to have led a mystical life.

Umbu greatly influenced Emha's work, which is often described as deeply religious and philosophical but esthetic.

He was later involved in various literary debates over ideas he introduced, which included "contextual literature" and "literature of liberation". The former rejects elitism in the arts and the latter campaigns for more freedom in the arts.

Between the 1970s and 1980s, Emha was most productive in producing poetry. Some of his works from this period include Sajak-sajak Sepanjang Jalan (Poems Along the Road, 1977), Tak Mati-Mati (The Immortal, 1978) and Tidur Yang Panjang (Long Sleep, undated).

Some of his essays, poems and play performances satirized the repressive Soeharto regime. As a result, Emha earned a certain measure of "notoriety" and often was in the company of a security entourage.

While he was threatened with defamation against the regime, Emha was persistent in pursuing dialogue. He was once involved in a heated debate with the then chief of social and political department of the Indonesian military Syarwan Hamid in the media on the course of the nation.

From 1984 to 1986, Emha lived in Amsterdam and The Hague, the Netherlands. In The Hague, he assisted Prof. C. Brower of the Institute of Social Studies in conducting workshops on religion, culture and development.

"The themes were mostly political messages against authoritarian regimes," he recalled, adding that it was during the heyday of Soeharto in Indonesia, and Pinochet in Chile.

He said his stay in the Netherlands was a critical juncture in his life, "It contributed to my personal transformation".

Back in Indonesia, the father of Letto band's vocalist Noe set up a monthly gathering known as Padhang Bulan (Full Moon) in 1989 in Jombang, East Java, which attracted thousands of supporters who were enthusiastic about music, poetry and religious and socio-political debating.

Ironically, this is when he produced Santri-Santri Khidir (Students of Khidir) with the Salahudin Theatre in 1990, staged on the field of Islamic boarding school Gontor, which had expelled him many years before.

Emha was engaged in the reform movement that led to the downfall of Soeharto's regime in 1998. He was among nine prominent Muslim leaders invited to meet then president Soeharto minutes before he resigned. However, his role in ensuring the smooth exit of Soeharto has always been misunderstood and controversial.

He set up another monthly gathering called Kenduri Cinta (Feast of Love) in 2000 to stimulate love among people affected by displacement and poverty.

In recent years, Emha has traveled abroad extensively, including to Australia, the U.S., the UK and Europe, either participating in literary festivals or embarking on cultural tours with Kiai Kanjeng.

However, according to Ian L. Betts, author of Jalan Sunyi Emha (Emha's Silent Pilgrimage), despite Emha's popularity and his massive influence on Indonesia's social discourse, his work is not really part of the Indonesian literary mainstream.

Still, in 2005 he received The Muslim News Award of Islamic Excellence in London. A year later, at a series of keynote panels at the Melbourne Writer's Festival, Emha spoke on Islam and relations between Indonesia and Australia post-Bali terrorist bombing.

When asked why there is still religious tension among communities nowadays, Emha said, "there has been misinterpretation of the holy book".

Emha argued that most of the Koran could be re-interpreted. He metaphorically compared the belief system to rice grains, which he said must be well cooked before becoming "edible" for all people.

He said there were some terminologies in Islam that had been misunderstood, even by Muslims. He cited as examples tafsir and jihad.

"Tafsir denotes attention, evaluation, assessment, in-depth analysis, drawing conclusions and making choices about a thing or situation," he said.

"Jihad means struggle or effort. A man or woman who works to support a family is performing jihad, anyone who works in the social interest can be said to be a mujahid, or one who conducts jihad."

Lastly, Emha said, the religious tension was also due to the social, political and economic interests of certain sections of society that were benefiting from such tensions.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Photo by Alpha Amirrachmman/JP
First published in The Jakarta Post, Thursday, June 12, 2008

Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Delft, the Netherlands | Thu, 06/12/2008 10:18 AM | Potpourri

In a time when competition is high and a hedonistic way of life sometimes pervasive, a training program recently tried to inject new spirit into people's lives at an Indonesian Diaspora meeting in the Netherlands.

The Emotional and Spiritual Quotient (ESQ), founded by Ary Ginandjar, is a multi-media training program to encourage personal growth in leadership, well-being and Islamic spiritual values.

The three-day course is conducted in a theatrical manner, sometimes directly engaging -- and challenging -- participants.

"Do you love your children or God?" yelled trainer Syamsul Rahman against the backdrop of a movie of the Prophet Ibrahim, who was instructed by God to slaughter his son Ismail.

Syamsul said that after the training, participants would not be bogged down with despair over the loss of loved ones or when they fail to reach their targets in work.

"There is always a blessing in disguise," he said on the sidelines of the presentation, adding that participants were gently encouraged to reflect on many aspects of their life, both the successes and failures.

Syamsul was flown in from Indonesia to deliver the recent training in a huge sport gym in the city of Delft, between Rotterdam and the Hague.

Creative leadership exercises and games were also presented to pump up the intellectual, social and entrepreneurial aspects of the participants.

William Satriaputra de Weerd, an Indonesian living in the Netherlands who organized the training, said there had been 350 ESQ alumni in the country since it was first conducted in 2006.

"Thirty-six participants today are from around Europe such as the Netherlands, France and the UK," said William, who has lived in the Netherlands since 1974.

Couple Mujilah and Hans Ham from Amsterdam said the training had given them time to reflect on their everyday lives.

"It releases us from our regular stress," said Mujilah.

"The training is a breakthrough in examining the human mind; it goes beyond contemporary approaches," said surgeon Hisham from London.

His wife, IT consultant Azlin, said they had promising careers and money but something had been missing. "We have found it here," she said.

Ahmad Fathan Aniq from Leiden had a slightly different perspective.

"While I don't really agree with using scientific explanations for the Koran, because it restricts the holy book into time-space bounds, the leadership and emotional development in the training is really mentally refreshing."

"I feel that I have been able to revitalize all the positive values that are already embedded but underdeveloped deep in our psyches," he said.

The first day of the training fell under the theme Inner Journey, where participants joined interactive dialogues filled with philosophical stories, exercises and games to enable them to identify their personal potential.

The second day was Outer Journey, introducing participants to the vastness of the universe and the unlimited potential it offers our lives.

The last day focused on Building Creativity, exploring possible action, missions in life, character building and self-control.

While a majority of the participants were Muslims, anyone was welcome in the course, William said.
"Now there are around 500,000 alumni in Indonesia and 3,000 of them are non-Muslims," Syamsul added.

Syamsul said due to the increasing demand, founder Ary was now in the process of designing "ESQ Universal" to reach wider audiences including non-Muslims "so that everyone can fully benefit from this program".

Sunday, May 18, 2008


First published in The Jakarta Post, Sunday, May 18, 2008


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Lisse, the Netherlands

The world-famous spring garden Keukenhof, also known as the Garden of Europe, offers the visitors more than 4.5 million tulips just an hour outside of Amsterdam.

It takes about an hour to get there from the city, and with a Combi-ticket I switched from one bus to the Keukenhof shuttle bus at Schipol. Even early in the morning, flocks of young and old queued to get on the bus, evidence that Keukenhof's gorgeousness was surely arresting.

Located outside the town of Lisse in southern Haarlem, Keukenhof (which literally means "kitchen garden" and historically belonged to Joba van Beieren, the 15th century countess of Holland) features beds of tulips, daffodils, crocuses and other beautiful flowers. Some 15 kilometers of footpaths let you walk amid them all.

The huge garden, whose landscape was designed by architect Zocher in 1857, covers an area of 32 hectares with 100 varieties of tulips and some 7 million bulbs planted by hand. The matchless garden also has 2,500 trees comprising 87 species.

While Dutch politicians were still debating China's human rights violations in Tibet this year, Keukenhof defiantly opted for the theme of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, variously expressed in colorful gardens and shows.

More than 90 participants exhibited flower bulbs and the garden had utilized layered planting to ensure a permanent flow of color throughout the season.

Approximately 6,500 kilos of grass seeds are also sown annually to plow an unsullied green turf in addition to the multicolor finery of flowers.

The walking didn't tire me, as the fresh fragrance of the bulbs splashed onto my body everywhere I went. Thousands of flowers burst in bloom just before my eyes.

The park is only open during spring (March 20 to May 18 this year) since the bulbs bloom only during this season; other months are used for park maintenance and bulb planting.

Back in the 17th century the rich used to spend a lot of money on tulips. For this reason, tulip mania came into fashion everywhere. One record cites that traders could reap roughly 30,000 euros a month from this business.

The idea to utilize the park came from then mayor of Lisse Mr. Lambooy in 1949 in an effort to bolster the country's position as the world's largest flower exporter. Exhibitions were conducted with the participation of growers from throughout the Netherlands and neighboring countries.

The garden became a centerpiece for the bulb trade. Nowadays the most beautiful bulb flowers are ensured by around 90 Royal Warrant Holders to be on annual display.

A contest among planters is held within various pavilions, with the Vaste Keurings Comissie judges rating the best specimens from tulips to chrysanthemums for the Keukenhof Award.

Various garden styles, from English to the nature garden with a mix of bulbs, bushes and perennials, characterize this large estate. In particular, the Flower Forest which has a blend of bulb flowers and veranda planting in fashionable color schemes has brought about the charm of aged trees but with imposing scenery.

Exotic flowers such as orchids are also found. The 1,000-meter-square Beatirx Pavilion houses various species of flowers and plants.

The Prince Willem Alexander pavilion with an area of 6,000 meters runs an exhibition of approximately 35,000 lilies from May 8th to 18th.

However, Keukenhof is not only about flowers; it also exhibits aesthetic sculptures from some 50 artists.

There is also a 116-year-old mill on the far side of the garden, which was brought from the province of Groningen 51 years ago. And for chess enthusiasts, the garden provides a giant chess game for you to play.

Kids will love the park's vast playground with a labyrinth and an educational animal enclosure. Children could be guided through the Bollebozen treasure hunt, showing them the finest spots of the garden.

Having a meal at the garden's restaurant, I watched how people endlessly admired the beauty of the bulbs.

I reflected to myself why people are so fervent in cultivating the beauty of nature, realizing it is this beauty that should add to the quality of our lives -- not the "beauty" of superficiality that we often encounter in our modern everyday life.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


First published in The Jakarta Post, Saturday, April 19, 2008


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, the Netherlands

Tati Wirahadiraksa could not hide her excitement upon hearing her documentary film had been chosen to be screened at the Amsterdam CinemAsia Film Festival recently.

The festival, which screens more than 50 films from countries all over the world, showcases flourishing talent that crosses both geographical and cultural borders.

"I think they (Asian films) are underrepresented (here). That is why I like to make my contribution," Tati told The Jakarta Post during a recent interview at Rialto cinema in southern Amsterdam.

Her documentary film, Images from Another World, is about a Chinese-Indonesian woman who migrated from Indonesia to the Netherlands. The woman, Anita Lim, struggled to discover her own identity as an Asian-Dutch woman.

The story depicts how Lim, amid her own personal struggles in reshaping her own cultural identity, created choreography through the improvisation of Chinese calligraphy.

Two other Dutch filmmakers with an affinity for Asian communities, Hesdy Lonwijk and Vivian Wenli Lin, also participated in the festival. Their pieces were expected to help shore up Asian-Dutch representation in the Dutch film and television industry.

Successful Asian-Dutch film directors -- like Yan Ting Yuen, Fow Pyng Hu and In-Soo Radstake -- do exist in the country, but their numbers are dwindling.

Some believe this is not only due to prejudices still lingering among film industry executives, but also because many Asian-Dutch youths prefer careers that are deemed to have "better" job prospects, such economics or computer science, over film.

"The festival had a lot of publicity and visitors ... it represented our statement of 'making films in the context of the Asian diaspora'," Tati said.

She said it was not easy to make it in the film industry here.

"There are many who want their product shown and there is only limited space, but I am sure that if a film or documentary is good, it will find its way to (reach) an audience.

"I am focusing on making something good, something worthwhile, something with my whole heart," she said.

Tati's interest in multicultural theater and film is inseparable from the fact that she grew up in a mixed family. Half-Dutch, half-Indonesian, Tati has been a multicultural theater enthusiast since she was young.

Born on Sept. 22, 1967 in Amsterdam, Tati studied psychology at Amsterdam University. However, after one year she just could not resist her passion and decided to switch to theater studies at the same university, where she graduated in 1994.

She immersed herself in the study of multicultural theater and her passion was manifested in her thesis, which was an exploration of the government subsidy on multicultural theaters in the Netherlands.

"After the 1980s, the government began to provide earmarked subsidies to non-Dutch theater," said Tati, whose father hails from Bandung, West Java.

Tati said "non-Dutch" people were those living in the Netherlands who were mostly Moroccan, Turk and Surinamese descendants whose cultures and traditions were overshadowed by liberal European-Dutch culture.

She said their history in the Netherlands -- a multicultural society -- can be traced back to the 1950-60s when the country was experiencing a shortage of cheap laborers.

"The Netherlands attracted people from countries like Morocco and Turkey. We also have people from former colonies living here, like Indonesia and Suriname, and we have economic and politic refugees from all over the world. So there are many people living here for many reasons," Tati said.

Tati said she had worked for several theater groups, including Diagonaal, Monsterverbond, Toneelgroep Ceremonia and Untold (1992-2005).

When asked about the current state of the Netherlands as a multicultural society, which many deem as a failure here, Tati said: "That is a very complex matter. Unfortunately (now) there are many people thinking differently who see (other) people a threat to their lives. There is the huge problem of misunderstanding and not knowing each other well, which creates a climate of racism. I am not happy with that.”

"On the other hand, I see a lot of good things happening. We are living in a global world and people have to get used to the idea that boundaries and borders are not so restricted anymore as they were before," she said, adding film could become a medium by which to promote understanding among people.

After studying theater at the Mime-School of the Arts for a year, Tati continued her studies at the Open Studio and Media Academy where she learned more about film editing in 2003.

She completed an editing apprenticeship at the Dutch television station Nederlandse Christelijke Radio Vereniging.

She later edited for documentaries such as Undocumented (about a Ghanaian pastor who works with illegal people, shown in the internationally respected de Balie theater), Urban Lifestyle (about an urban youth program, shown on The Box television station) and Memento Mori (a documentary from Saskia Vredeveld about the work of photographer Roger Ballen).

Tati also worked for Noord Holland radio and TV, editing news and various programs.

Moving from theater to filmmaking was a challenging undertaking, but she said there were some constructive overlaps.

Asked about her upcoming projects, the mother of one said she aimed to produce a documentary on Indonesian people from a different angle, "telling about their loss and struggle during colonialism and how they managed to win their independence".

"Because such a story is seldom told here ... many times the stories are (merely) about people who moved to the Netherlands after Indonesia's independence," Tati said.

Other stories, she said, are even trapped in the stereotypical portrayal of the "alien and exotic" depiction of Indonesian people and their islands.

Tati, whose favorite genre of music is soul, indie and reggae, believes film can serve as a mode by which to appreciate more of what is evolving now in both countries, in the area of arts, religion, politics, youth culture and other contemporary aspects of society.

"Holland and Indonesia have a partially shared history, but we don't hear much of Indonesia in the media here nowadays. I think film can be one of the means by which to get to know each other better."


First published in The Jakarta Post, Saturday, April 19, 2008


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Amsterdam

It was timely for the "CinemAsia" film festival to screen Asian movies in the Netherlands (April 2-13) -- a country where multiculturalism has recently faced a deep crisis due to Geert Wilders' anti-Islam movie.

With Indonesian Joko Anwar's thriller Kala and Dimas Djayadiningrat's jesting comedy Quickie Express participating in the festival, it was hopefully an eye-opener for Dutch society to see the Southeast Asian country with the largest Muslim population in the world bring the once taboo topics of sex and homosexuality to the big screen.

The festival, which screened more than 50 films from countries spanning the globe, offered rare evidence of booming talent which is crossing cultural and geographic borders.

"Asian cinema used to be so ethnocentric -- Japanese films were made with Japanese actors in Japan," festival director Doris Yeung told The Jakarta Post.

Now, beside films produced in home countries, the Asian diaspora are working industriously to depict a cultural intersection of dilemma and stereotypes, as insightful stories to be told to the world.

This is not to reinforce the Asian stereotypes such as Chinese cooks or martial arts practitioners, but rather to contribute to a more nuanced, less stereotypical depiction of Asian communities living outside Asia.

"Because of this, CinemAsia FilmLab offered three young talented Dutch filmmakers with Asian backgrounds an opportunity to present their work at the festival," CinemAsia board member Reza Kartose said.

He referred to Tati Wirahadiraksa, Hesdy Lonwijk and Vivian Wenli Lin.

Tati Wirahadiraksa, who is half-Indonesian and half-Dutch, directed a documentary titled Images from Another World. The film is about a Chinese-Indonesian woman who migrated to the Netherlands from Indonesia, struggling to reshape her own Asian-Dutch identity.

Efforts to deconstruct the stereotypes were even evident on the very first day, with the screening of slapstick comedy Finishing the Game by Justin Lin (U.S.). Lin directed a mockumentary of the making of The Game of Death, Bruce Lee's final film.

Set in the 1970s, he satirizes the typecasting of Asians in film by humorously showcasing the troubles encountered in the making of the film. Everybody -- tall, short, even Caucasian -- has an equal opportunity to become "Bruce Lee".

"I was happy to take part in it because I didn't need to master kung fu," main actor Roger Fan said (followed by audience laughter) during a Q&A session after the screening.

The second day presented Dark Matter (Chen Shi-zheng, U.S./China), The Most Distant Course (Iin jin jie, Taiwan) and The Drummer (Kenneth, Hong Kong/Taiwan).

Dark Matter is about sharp Chinese physics student Xing's research -- which leads him to a snare of academic resentment at an American university. The Most Distant Course tells a story of a young Taiwanese man who sends his lover tapes of sounds he records on his journeys through stunning Taiwan scenery. The Drummer is about a man who takes up Chinese Zen drumming.

The third day screened a moving documentary, China's Stolen Children (Jezza Neumann (China/U.K.), comedy Getting Home (Zhang Yang, China), Hong Kong style action romance Blood Brothers (Alexie Tan, Hong Kong) and a Japanese night life tale The Great Happiness Space --Tale of an Osaka Love Thief (Jake Clennell, Japan).

The fourth day saw a Taiwanese interpretation of the classic French film Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge (Hou Hsiano Hsien, France/Taiwan) and a Japanese drama AYSL -- Park and Love Hotel (Izuru Kamasaka, Japan).

The fifth day presented CinemAsia Mix Shorts and CinemaAsiaFilmLab, which included the documentary, Images from Another World.

Indonesia's short 10-minute flick, The Matchmaker, directed by Cinzia Puspita Rini was also shown on the eleventh day.

And the closing day honored Indonesia's Kala and Quickie Express. Kala, which has been screened at 27 film festivals all over the world, is considered the country's first futuristic noir thriller.

"Kala is superb, and demonstrates that Indonesia's movies have the potential to compete with Western movies," movie enthusiast Matthias Fischer said.

Quickie Express, which is about a male escort service company, made audiences laugh at every turn.

"It would delight Dutch audiences here ... Quickie Express should be shown in commercial theaters," said Felicitas Speth von Schulzburg, from the International Performing Arts Institute.

Kala's director, Joko Anwar, said he would be pleased if his movie could penetrate the market here.

"But it would me more effective for Indonesian film makers to collect their energy together, rather than going to film festivals individually, which seems to be the case now," said Ekky Imanjaya from Amsterdam University's Department of Media and Culture.

Djauhari Oratmangun, from the Indonesian Embassy (which also supported the festival as part of the Visit Indonesia 2008 campaign) said the embassy was more than ready to facilitate a large Indonesian film festival in the Netherlands -- an opportunity which should be tapped by Indonesia's film industry.

Asked whether Asian movies can penetrate the Dutch mainstream film culture, Martin Egter from television outlet NOS Journaal said there is still a gap between Asian and Dutch movies.

"Only those who can feel the pulse of Asian cultures will enjoy their movies," he said.

"So, we need more rigorous promotion," said Hong Kong-born Dutch actor Aaron Wan, adding that the festival contributed to the endorsement of Asian movies within the Netherlands' increasingly multicultural society.

Friday, April 04, 2008


First published in The Jakarta Post, Saturday, April 05, 2008


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

When my colleagues invited me on a tour of the Van Gogh Museum, I immediately accepted the invitation. I have always wanted to see Vincent van Gogh's original masterpieces that symbolized the important junctures of his life -- from his artistic development, sorrowful romance and illness to his suicide.

The museum attracts around one million visitors annually from all over the world. It houses 200 paintings, almost 500 drawings, four sketchbooks and 800 letters.

With headphones, visitors can be guided on an audio tour that passes almost every painting in the museum and other art collections.

On the first floor, I was met with an assortment of Van Gogh's paintings displayed in a chronologic order. The second floor of the museum offers provisional educational presentations, including subjects on restitution research and works on paper. The third and ground floors display a 19th century art collection.

The museum also houses a restaurant and shop that sells memorabilia from books and replicas of paintings to cups featuring Van Gogh's image.

However, it was the journey to episodes of his life and his artistic development that deeply thrilled me.

Van Gogh was born March 30, 1853, in Groot Zundert, the Netherlands. He left school at the age of 15 and never returned.

No one thought he was gifted enough to become an artist at the age of 27. Yet, after ten years he had produced 800 paintings and more than 1,000 drawings, as well as sketches and watercolor pieces.

Unlike Indonesian painter Raden Saleh, who received lessons from several patrons in Europe, or Basuki Abdullah, who received formal training in The Hague, Van Gogh was mostly self-taught. He merely joined a number of lessons at art academies, read textbooks and received guidance from artist colleagues.

During a 19-month stormy relationship with Clasina Maria Hoornik -- a pregnant, unmarried woman with a young daughter -- his talent evolved quickly. His paintings during this time reflected a deep sense of anguish and personal emotion.

In Nuenen, he painted working farmers and weavers with their looms. In 1882 he started using oil paints, which he used mostly in the coming year. During the winter of 1884-1885, he captured farmers and their wives in more than 40 paintings, before producing his first large famous piece The Potato Eaters.

Upon the invitation of his brother and art dealer Theo, Vincent lived in Paris from 1886-1888. Unable to afford models, he used his own face to trial colors and painting techniques. His canvases were covered with small speckles and lines in light, dazzling colors, resulting in 27 self-portraits.

He moved to the southern French town of Arles in February 1888, searching for inspiration from the landscape and light. He rented a house (which he later painted as The Yellow House), aspiring to establish an artists' settlement with Paul Gauguin and other painters.

But in December 1888, a quarrel sparked and Van Gogh angrily cut off a piece of his own ear. It was later discovered that he suffered from epilepsy.

In April 1889, he was treated in a mental clinic in Saint-Remy. He painted everything there -- the rooms, other patients, the corridors and the garden. Sometimes he worked outdoors on landscapes characterized by cypress and olive trees.

He later lived in Auvers-sur-Oise, an artist's village near Paris, after leaving the clinic in May 1890. Van Gogh produced portraits of Paul Gachet, a doctor who was also an art collector, and his daughter as payment for the medical treatment he received.

From then on, Vincent continued to suffer from depression. This culminated with Theo opting to quit his job to establish his own business.

Vincent shot himself in the chest with a revolver on July 27, 1890. He died two days later with his brother by his side. He was refused burial in the cemetery of the Catholic Church of Auvers, but burial was eventually allowed in the nearby township of Méry with a funeral held on July 30.

Theo inherited a large art collection that Vincent had sent him as compensation for financial support. But Theo died six months later, so it was Theo's widow, Jo van Gogh-Bongar, who acquired the collection.

The pieces at the core of this museum make it a fine record of Van Gogh's brilliant works of art and his dramatic life story.

Some of the artist's paintings might also be found in Indonesia, given its colonial history. Nonetheless, so far only one of Van Gogh's pieces has reportedly been found in Indonesia -- The Crocus Flowers, which belongs to Mr. Rudy Mulyono (it was acquired by his art-loving father long ago).

Monday, March 31, 2008


First published in The Jakarta Post, Tuesday, April 1, 2008


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Leiden, the Netherlands

Making a switch from geology to Asian studies may not be the conventional path for an academic to take, but a fascination with Indonesian politics was enough for Gerry van Klinken.

Now a research fellow with the 157-year-old KITLV (Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies) in Leiden, van Klinken describes the move as "a big shift".

Over ten years of teaching physics at universities in Malaysia and Indonesia, his passion for Asian culture and politics, and particularly Indonesia where he spent his early childhood, grew.

So he decided to pursue a PhD in Indonesian history at Griffith University in Australia, which he completed in 1996. Since then he has taught and conducted research at universities in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Yogyakarta and now Leiden.

From 1998 he became a frequent media commentator on Indonesian current affairs.

Born in the eastern part of the Netherlands in 1952, van Klinken spent his early childhood in Doom, a small island of Sorong in what is now known as West Papua, after his family moved there in 1956.

His father was a police officer who trained would-be Papuan officers, though he accepted the role more for his enthusiasm to explore the then Dutch colony.

The family moved back to the Netherlands in 1962, three years before West Papua's integration into the newly independent Indonesia.

"But like any other Dutch family who had spent time in Indonesia, we found the Netherlands too small and too cold," the self-effacing scholar said.

His family decided to move to Australia where they found open space and nicer weather. To earn a living, his father became a businessman.

It was in Australia that van Klinken met Helene, who he married in 1976. The couple now have two grown up children, Ben and Rosie.

During the early years of their marriage, van Klinken and his wife talked about making a trip to Indonesia, the country that thrilled him with childhood memories.

So they departed for Indonesia, learnt Indonesian in Salatiga, Central Java, and made a trip through the archipelago as hippies in 1977.

After receiving MSc in geophysics from Macquarie University in Sydney in 1978, van Klinkan aspired to teach at universities in Indonesia.

However, since no jobs were available, he moved to Malaysia in 1979 and taught physics at universities for three years before moving back to Indonesia to teach physics at Satyawacana University, Central Java, in 1984 for seven years.

It was during this period van Klinken mingled with Indonesian intellectuals such as George Junus Aditjondoro, Arief Budiman, Ariel Heryanto and student activists like Stanley Adi Prasetya and Andreas Harsono, who gradually bolstered his passion for Indonesian politics.

Van Klinken witnessed and involved himself in a new generation of student activism at the time of the controversial development of a dam in Kedungombo, Central Java -- a New Order development disaster that became a research topic for George Junus Aditjondro's PhD dissertation.

"But it was the late Herbert Feith who really excited me about Indonesian study and influenced me seriously to switch to this area of study," van Klinken said.

Herbert Feith was an Australian academic whose work on Indonesia was greatly referred to by many scholars.

Van Klinken completed his PhD in Indonesian history from Griffith University with a dissertation on political biographies of three Indonesian Christian figures, Amir Syarifuddin, Kasimo and Sam Ratulangi.

He later became editor of the Australian quarterly magazine Inside Indonesia (1996-2002), publishing stories on the people of Indonesia, their culture, politics, economy and environment.

From 1999 to 2002 van Klinken became resident director in Yogyakarta for the Australian Consortium of In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS).

The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (CAVR) also recruited him as research advisor from 2002 to 2004.

"Basically since 1998, I have been working on contemporary Indonesia. Ethnic and religious conflicts are really a new chapter in Indonesian history," he said, referring to violence that engulfed some areas in Indonesia after the collapse of the New Order regime.

Van Klinken was especially disturbed by what he dubs "the silence in Jakarta" about ethnic cleansing in Central Kalimantan, where a sizable Madurese population was reportedly massacred and driven out of the territory during a terrible bloodbath with other ethnic groups in Central Kalimantan.

Madurese figures in Jakarta like Amir Santoso, Didik Rachbini and Atmonegoro tried hard to speak on behalf of the victims but to no avail, van Klinken said.

"So there was a crisis in the conception of Indonesian citizenship," he said.

The Education, Internalization, and Implementation of Pancasila (P4) program that had been enforced for decades was called into question after the collapse of the New Order.

Post-1998 also saw four streams of political changes, van Klinken said.

First was the cosmopolitan movement, where elite intellectuals like Garin Nugroho produced movies about being an Indonesian at the time of the crisis.

Second was the Islamist movement, which saw the mushrooming of Islamic-oriented political parties with narrow-minded conceptions of Indonesian citizenship.

Third was the putra daerah, or "local son", a revival of pride in local identity, which also neglected migrants that had also lived in an area for a long time, such as the Madurese in Central Kalimantan.

Fourth was the labor movement, with more worker unions established, along with a new generation of labor activists.

"Another interesting phenomenon is the revival of Indonesian-Chinese identity. Many of my Indonesian-Chinese friends began to write about their own social identities and Chinese cultural inheritance in Indonesia," van Klinken said.

He mentioned people like Ong Hok Ham, Liem Soei Liong, Andreas Susanto and Stanley Adi Prasetya.

"For example, I asked human rights activist Liem Soei Liong to present his paper on Indonesia's human rights situation for an upcoming conference on the Indonesian reformasi movement at Universiteit van Amsterdam this May, but he refused because he said he wanted to write specifically about the Chinese now," van Klinken said.

Liem Soei Liong is a co-founder and editor of the UK-based Tapol magazine, which regularly reports human rights abuses by Indonesian authorities.

Van Klinken's passion for Indonesia has also been passed on to his wife. Helene is now completing her PhD at Queensland University in Australia.

Her dissertation is about East Timorese children who were taken away to live in Indonesia.

"There were mixed motives, human and religious motives and thousands of East Timorese children (were involved)," he said.

There was also evidence that an emotional bond developed between Indonesian soldiers and Timorese youths during the Indonesian occupation.

Back then many East Timorese youths were employed by the Indonesian army as Tenaga Bantuan Operasi (TBO) or Operational Force Assistants.

Van Klinken said Alfredo Reinado, an East Timorese military renegade and rebels' leader who was killed during a recent failed coup in East Timor, was one such example.

In May 2006, Reinado led a revolt against the government after its controversial dismissal of 600 soldiers in the newly independent country.

Back then the young Reinado was a TBO and was taken to Indonesia by a soldier he had become close to.

"But the soldier's family mistreated him as they considered him to be a burden, as they already had children to raise," van Klinken said.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


First published in The Jakarta Post, Thursday, March 27, 2008


Alpha Amirrachman, Amsterdam

The debate on whether or not right-wing Dutch MP Geert Wilders should release the anti-Koran movie has taken a new twist recently, as a prominent Dutch Jewish figure, Harry de Winter, says Wilders' statements are on the same level as anti-Semitism.

Wilders had earlier suggested Muslims should "tear out half of the Koran if they wished to stay in the Netherlands" because it contained "terrible things".

But de Winter said, "If you read the Old Testament (the Jewish Thora) then you also find texts about hatred of homosexuals, hatred of women and the murdering of non-Jewish preachers."

Moroccan Muslims strongly felt there were double standards in Wilders' stand, Fouad Sidali of the Cooperative Organization of Moroccans in the Netherlands told Radio Netherlands Worldwide. Sidali also said he was relieved to hear de Winter's statement.

As many as 6,800 Dutch people have signed a petition to show the world that Wilders and his forthcoming film Fitna do not express the views of everyone in Holland (

The debate, which has enormously polarized Dutch society, provides us with some appealing lessons.

First, this is an issue of Dutch multiculturalism and is really a Dutch thing where local social, economic and political crises and subsequent intrigues were pulled beyond the boundary, becoming an unnecessary but inevitably international issue.

There is a popular perception that the large incursion of Muslim migrants, mostly from Morocco, have caused serious social and economic problems for the broader Dutch community.

The migrants are perceived to be unable to assimilate into Dutch society.

Some sections within indigenous Dutch society fear the presence of these one million

Muslims may endanger the very core of their liberal democratic tradition, particularly amid the rise of Islamic terrorism.

Second, this relates to the issue of freedom of expression. In Dutch history the freedom of expression extends back to the Dutch 'Golden Age' where after the Union of Utrecht in 1579, the freedom of conscience (a principle that no one can be persecuted for his reasons of religion) was officially assured by the United Provinces of Netherlands.

Some within Dutch society seem to have become so obsessed with the freedom of expression, and the always blurred limit of this freedom has been delicately tested. The recent brouhaha over the Wilders' movie-to-be proves this fragility.

In a multicultural society where norms vary, the limits of freedom become very subtle because the freedom is relatively limited by the freedom of others; shared wisdom, through an unremitting and civilized dialog are thus needed for the sake of the freedom itself.

Such dialog is required where one narrow-minded Dutch politician tries to internationalize a local crisis (which seems to be cracking the Dutch multicultural society) and plays the card that the Netherlands' long-cherished freedom is under threat from "uncivilized" Muslim immigrants.

For the Dutch multicultural society, the crisis seems to have spiraled out of control, with migrants suffering the entire blame. Some even say it has (even) gone beyond the issue of multiculturalism and has become an issue of "political correctness".

Wilders is just a politician of the day who wants others to fall into his short-lived political game.

So, if there is any violent verbal reaction from Indonesian Muslims as to whether the movie should be released, this would only strengthen Wilders' belief that Muslims are unable to articulate their cause in a cultured manner.

Freedom of expression (which Indonesia also values highly) would just be wasted if it is filled with mere empty condemnations and self-denial slogans or statement. It should be used in the way the Jewish Dutch leader de Winter did.

The fact that de Winter jumped into the crowd, criticizing Wilders by revealing the perceived weaknesses of his own holy book, shows that in a democracy even Jews can show solidarity in defense of Dutch Muslims.

It is, therefore, an opportunity and moral obligation for Indonesian Muslims to articulate to the world that the perceived intolerant elements of the Koran should be understood using a historical and contextual prism.

In a nutshell, the contextual interpretation of the Koran should be well expressed to the world and, equally importantly, the peaceful paradigm must be realized in Muslim deeds in tandem with inter-cultural and inter-religious dialog.

Only then will Muslims secure a place in this increasingly crowded world, without having to fall into the wild game of a local opportunistic politician in one particular country.

Friday, February 15, 2008


First published in The Jakarta Post, February 14, 2008


Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

It was during his university days at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, that young Muslim intellectual Zuhari Misrawi learned both the practical and philosophical essence of religious tolerance.

When he and his colleagues visited Egypt's Catholic Archbishop Youhanna Qaltah to interview him for the students' journal, Qaltah immediately halted the conversation when the azan (call to prayer) was heard.

"If you want to perform your wudhu (ablution before prayers), the place is located on the right side of the church. Please feel free to say your prayers ... this is the praying map with the kiblah direction," said Qaltah, gently indicating the map to his guests.

Zuhairi cannot hide his admiration.

"His understanding and respect are an acknowledgement of Muslims' very existence," Zuhari told The Jakarta Post during a recent interview on the sidelines of a discussion of his new book Al Qur'an Kitab Toleransi: Inklusivisme, Pluralisme dan Multikukturalisme (Koran, the Tolerant Holy Book: Inclusivism, Pluralism and Multiculturalism).

"This is in contrast to what I have always been taught that non-Muslims are unappreciative towards Muslims and are even willing to destroy Islam," he added.

Born Feb. 5, 1977, in Sumenep, Madura, Zuhairi studied at the Islamic boarding schools al-Amien and Jami'iyyah Tahfidzil Qur'an.

He was raised in the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) tradition; the country's biggest Muslim organization that claims to have 35 million members.

After studying at Islamic boarding schools for almost six years, Zuhairi continued his education at the Ushuluddin Faculty of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt (1995-2000).

He became an editor for Terobosan bulletin and Oase journal at the university, allowing him to interview several foremost intellectuals, including Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, Sayyed Yasin, Halah Musthafa, Youhanna Qaltah, 'Athif 'Iraqi, Muhammad 'Abdul Mu'thi Bayoumi, Adonis and Nawal Saadawi.

After completing his studies in 2000, he returned home to Indonesia and immediately joined the Department of Research and Human Resource Development of NU as coordinator for the study and research division from 2000-2002.

He delved further in activism with NU.

Zuhairi helped publish Tashwirul Afkar journal as its editor and was also active with the Indonesian Society for Pesantren and Community Development as a coordinator for the Islamic Emancipation Program.

Despite of his tight schedule as an activist, Zuhairi still manages to write prolifically. His writing mainly covers contemporary Islam, politics, religious tolerance and inter-faith dialogue.

Aside from writing for the national media, Zuhairi has also produced books, including Dari Syariat menuju Maqashid Syariat (From Sharia to Maqashid Sharia, 2003); Doktrin Islam Progresif (Doctrine of Islamic Progressive, 2004); Islam Melawan Terorisme (Islam against Terrorism, 2004); and Menggugat Tradisi: Pergulatan Pemikiran Anak Muda NU (Challenging Tradition: Struggle of Thoughts among NU Youth Members, 2004).

He also contributed chapters to several books, including Syariat Yes, Syariat No (Sharia Yes, Sharia No, 2003); Menjadi Indonesia; 13 Abad Eksistensi Islam di Bumi Nusantara (Becoming Indonesia; Thirteen Centuries of the Existence of Islam in the Archipelago, 2006); and Islam Mazhab Tengah: Persembahan 70 Tahun Tarmizi Taher (The Middle Mazhab of Islam: Dedicated for Tarmizi Taher on his 70th Birthday, (2007).

An adherent supporter of moderate-progressive Islam, Zuhairi showed his anxiety when asked about the increased Islamic radicalism in the country.

Zuhairi said many seemed unaware the power of love in Islam derives from bi-sm 'allaah ar-rah maan ar-rah em, which means "in the name of Allah Most Gracious Most Merciful".

He further cited his experience when he visited a mosque in Boston, U.S., where the Koranic verse al-Anbiya:107 is vividly displayed on its front wall: "And (thus, O Prophet,) We have sent thee as (an evidence of Our) grace towards all the worlds".

"This means God sent Prophet Muhammad as a blessing for all the worlds," said Zuhairi, who recently returned from a conference on democracy and pluralism in Brussels where he was a speaker.

He criticized the religious violence that has marked the country, which he said was an obvious diversion of the Prophet's teachings.

"Fortunately, what has saved our country from plunging into a situation like conflict-torn Pakistan is the role of NU and Muhammadiyah," Zuhairi said.

Muhammadiyah is the second biggest Muslim organization in the country, which claims to have 25 million members.

The two prominent Islam-oriented organizations are considered societal pillars in the country. They are not politically oriented; nonetheless, their leverage in Indonesia's political scene is undisputable, Zuhairi said.

The leaders of the two organizations have called on the government to take strong measures against Islamic hard-liners that campaign for the "elimination" of minority groups.

Young Islamic activists from the two organizations, including Zuhairi, unremittingly collaborate to promote a new Indonesia, which respects pluralism and democracy. He said pluralism, or al-ta'addudiyyah, is an inevitable fact due Indonesia's vast diversity.

He added sharia was a cultural product because it had been historically constructed.

"Sharia is attached to a specific territorial, geographical and socio-political culture. Hence, an idea has emerged to deconstruct the historicity of sharia to search for an inclusive dimension of Islam," said Zuhairi, who is married to Nurul Jazimah and has one daughter.

Zuhairi and his fellow activists from the two organizations work hand in hand to fight against corruption, which many say was further decentralized after the country embraced the era of regional autonomy.

When asked about the demand of some sections to establish an Islamic caliphate system of government, Zuhairi answered: "Historical evidence shows that the caliphate system was bankrupt since it was unable to overcome the problems of power sharing and distribution. They (the political elites) proved unable to detach themselves from authoritarianism.

"There is no obligation to implement a caliphate system, because all Muslims are automatically created by God to become caliphs. It means that every human being has to be responsible for all his deeds to God in the hereafter ... in the Koran, caliph is more a personal than collective calling," he said.

Zuhairi has participated in the activities of several other organizations, including Lingkar Muda Indonesia (Youth Indonesia Circle), Moderate Muslim Society and Lembaga Studi Islam Progresif (Islamic Progressive Study Institute).

And he shows no signs of slowing down.

In an apparent move to prepare himself to enter the world of politics, he became head of the Inter-Religious Division of the Executive Board of Baitul Muslimin of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle at the end of 2007. Last month he was officially inaugurated as a member of the political party.

Yet his activism goes beyond his country by showing his apprehension of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

"A holistic, not partial approach needs to be pursued," he said, adding the conflict could not be regarded as simply Israel versus Palestine or Israel versus Lebanon.

He added internal problems needed to be tackled first and that all Arab countries in the Middle East should put aside their respective interests and unite to boost their bargaining power with the U.S. and Israel in resolving the ongoing conflict.

In 2006, Zuhairi visited Israel on the invitation of the Israeli government under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, to provide a second opinion on Israel's policy towards Palestine.

"I said (to the Israeli government) that Israel should use 'soft' politics, not 'hard' politics with Palestinians because they (the latter) are already weak," he recalled his meeting with the Israeli officials.

He said he supported the establishment of relations between Indonesia and Israel.

He hinted that since Israel is the only superpower in the Middle East, establishing relations with the country could pave the way for Indonesia as the biggest Muslim country to capitalize on its leverage over the ongoing conflict, which has cost millions of innocent lives.