And the Sufi Teacher Passed By…

1f81354245cc7f01aa007cfcb85b3ad3Seno Gumira Ajidarma

One ordinary sleepy day a sufi teacher landed in Jakarta on his magic carpet at the gates of the toll road leading from Jakarta to Cengkareng international airport. He hopped down and strolled into Jakarta as his magic carpet flew off again back up into the heavens.

It happened to be a Friday and at midday the sufi teacher went looking for the nearest place to perform his Friday prayers. He went into the office block he was passing and on the ground floor found a small prayer room. The usual plastic prayer mats were laid out ready for Friday prayers but the room was still empty. A man who seemed to be the prayer room attendant was getting ready to perform his prayers, so the sufi teacher asked, “Prayer room attendant, isn’t it Friday today and shouldn’t everyone be here performing their prayers?”

“True. Usually there are lots of people here on Fridays to pray. The office workers in this building prefer to pray here on the ground floor rather than go out and look for a mosque.”

“But prayer room attendant, why isn’t anyone at all here today even though it’s time for prayer?”

“Ah, they’re all praying on the ninth floor.”

“And why is that?”

“Because.., it’s air conditioned. They say the atmosphere there is more conducive to prayer, and it’s nice and cool on the ninth floor, while down here it’s hot and sticky.”

“Ah, I see,” replied the sufi teacher in English, nodding.

And so he and the attendant performed their prayers together by themselves with the attendant leading the devotions.

When they had finished, the sufi teacher continued on his way looking for Gus Dur, the director of the Islamic community organization called Nahdlatul Ulama. He wanted to ask whether Americans could use the English phrase ‘good morning’ instead of the Arabic greeting ‘Assalamu alaikum’.

A month later the sufi teacher was again going past the same building and as it happened to be right on time for midday prayer he once again entered the building.

It turned out that this time there were dozens of people preparing to pray in the small prayer room. There were so many in fact that they were spilling out of the prayer room into the lobby as the fiery sermon lambasted the spread of worldly greed.

The sufi teacher again asked the attendant, “Prayer room attendant, why are there now so many people praying here, so many that they are overflowing into the lobby? What has become of the air conditioned prayer room on the ninth floor?”

“Sojourner, the office workers have come back here to pray because the air conditioning is out of order, and the room which used to be so nice and cool is now unbearably hot. Because of the humidity on the ninth floor, they now want to pray here; if they are lucky they might catch a passing breeze.”

The sufi teacher again nodded, saying in English, “I see. I see.” Then he continued, “Well then, take note prayer room attendant. Reflect on this question: Is there any difference between those who pray in an air conditioned room and those who do not?”

The prayer room attendant was silent, and, after midday prayers were over, forever more followed the sufi teacher wherever he went.

One day on their travels they arrived at the edge of a river somewhere in Central Java where there was no bridge. To cross to the other side it was necessary to use a small bamboo raft. The raft landing on the other side was not directly opposite and had to be reached by using a punt some way along the bank before crossing over.

Punting along the edge of the river the sufi teacher noticed a man fishing at the edge of the river who didn’t seem to be using any bait. But even though the fisherman wasn’t using any bait, the fish were just jumping from the water by themselves and landing in the man’s basket, filling it to overflowing. As the basket filled, the local people emptied fish into their own baskets and carried them away to their homes. The villagers flocked to the fisherman’s basket.

Amazed at this sight, the sufi teacher asked the raft keeper, “Raft keeper, who is that man by the river fishing without any bait?”

“That’s Saint Jagakali.”

“Who’s he?”

And so the raft keeper told the sufi teacher the story of the fisherman. It was said that long ago in that village there had lived a fisherman who lived solely from the fish he caught. Every day he would take his catch, return home and cook and eat it. One day one of the fish he caught was flapping gasping on the ground near him when it had begun speaking to him.

“Fisherman, please let me go. Grant me a great blessing and throw me back into the river. What good can I be to you? The small amount of flesh on my tiny bones will hardly fill you.”

The fisherman was astonished, but replied, “Talking fish, why do you speak to me this way? Does a fisherman not have the right to eat a fish he catches? This is the way it has always been, and the way it always shall be.”

“But life is like a wheel,” replied the fish. “What would happen if you should die and be reborn as a fish?”

The fisherman laughed aloud and threw the speaking fish into his basket.

Finally after the fisherman had died he was indeed reborn as a fish. On the other hand, after passing away the talking fish was also reborn, but as a fisherman.

One day the fisherman who had once been a fish caught the fish who had at one time been a fisherman. The fish who had been a fisherman was also able to speak.

“Good fisherman, I beg you to let me go because I am just a small fish and life means so much to me. My small body will hardly provide you with enough. Please throw me back into the river and set me free.”

The fisherman who had once been a fish happened to recognize that the fish he had caught was the fisherman who had once caught him.

The fisherman said, “Talking fish, do you not remember that once you were a fisherman and that once you refused to grant the request of a small fish. I am that very fish, and now you must experience what I felt that day.”

“No! Please! Haven’t you thought that one day you might be reborn yet again as a fish and I as a fisherman who might catch you? Remember that life is like a wheel, spinning around and around and around.”

“I don’t care; I desire vengeance. Aha ha ha ha ha!” responded the fisherman as he threw the fish into his basket. The fish flip-flopped backwards and forwards with slowly weakening flicks until it was finished.

In its next life, the fish did return as a man and the fisherman too returned, this time as a fish. The man who had once been a fish who had once been a fisherman did indeed become a fisherman who loved fishing more than anything in the world. But he did not forget that once he had killed a fish and had finally as a fish himself been killed by a fisherman despite his pleas for mercy. Full of reverence, he resolved to return the fish he had caught to the river.

Hence forth the fisherman fished without using any bait. The strange thing was that ever since he had decided not to use bait the fish had just leaped from the water by themselves into his basket. Even then he couldn’t bring himself to eat the fish so he allowed the local villagers to take them. As there were more fish than a fish factory the local villagers took them gratefully.

The fisherman would sit by the river day and night fishing, refusing to use any bait. He did not want to eat any of the fish and he lived solely from the dew that formed on his lips in the morning, chanting the mantras of the poet Sutardji Calzoum Bachri:

How many centuries must pass,

How many watches must stop,

How many signs must appear,

How many steps must I take,

Before I am able to reach You?

Over time the fisherman had been given the name Saint Jagakali after the great Muslim mystic of Central Java, even though the fisherman himself had acknowledged no creed.

When the sufi teacher and the prayer room attendant arrived at the other side of the river, the sufi teacher thanked the raft keeper and together he and the prayer room attendant continued on their journey to East Java.

The sufi teacher wanted to meet the chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, Kiai Ahmad Shiddiq, to ask the venerable teacher what he would think if Michael Jackson and Jean-Michel Jarre were to record Arabic devotional songs.

After that, the sufi teacher wanted to summon his flying carpet and return to Isfahan. He was planning to drop into Qom and let Khomeini know that wisdom had spread to every corner of the earth. But then he remembered, the Great Teacher was already dead, so he changed his mind.

The sufi teacher next planned to fly from East Java to Japan, but first he wanted to take the prayer room attendant to the modern Islamic boarding school at Gontor in East Java so he could learn English. After all, a prayer room attendant in an office block in Jakarta’s ‘golden triangle’ central business district crowded with the offices of foreign investors needs to know English.

When he arrived in Japan the sufi teacher planned to go straight to Kyoto, find a Buddhist priest, and find out how he practiced Zen.

(Jakarta, February 1990)

(Guru Sufi Lewat… was published in Kompas Daily in May 1990.)

Haters by Kotak

Haters by Kotak

Hei, pembenci-ku, jangan benci aku
Hey, my hater, don’t hate me

Nanti kamu tersiksa
Later you’ll suffer

Hei, pembenci-ku, jangan mengintai-ku
Hey, my hater, don’t spy on me

Nanti kamu kecewa
Later you’ll be disappointed

Aku senang-senang, menikmati hidup-ku
I’m having a good time, enjoying my life

Kenapa kamu yang jadi-nya
Why are you the one who winds up

Tersiksa, terganggu
Suffering, disturbed

Karena aku?
Because of me?

Ngaku-ngaku-nya bahagia
(You) claim to be happy

Tapi, kenyataan-nya, kamu susah
But, in reality, you (have) problems

Susah melihat, melihat
Problems seeing, seeing

Kalau aku bahagia.. itu derita lu.
When I’m happy.. that’s your tough luck.

Hei, pembenci-ku, jangan benci aku
Hey, my hater, don’t hate me

Buang energi saja
(You’re) just wasting energy

Hei, pembenci-ku, semakin kau benci aku
Hey, my hater, the more you hate me

Semakin susah hidup-mu
The sadder you’re life (becomes)

Aku senang-senang, menikmati hidup-ku
I’m having a good time, enjoying my life

Kenapa kamu yang jadi-nya
Why are you the one who winds up

Tersiksa, terganggu
Suffering, disturbed

Karena aku?
Because of me?

Ngaku-ngaku-nya bahagia
(You) claim to be happy

Tapi kenyataan-nya, kamu susah
But the reality is, you (have) problems

Susah melihat melihat
Problems seeing seeing

Kalau aku bahagia..      itu derita lu.
When I’m happy..       that’s your tough luck.

*Kenapa, sih, lu mau hidup lu jadi susah
What’s wrong, see, you want your life to be difficult

*Selalu cari celah, untuk bisa mencela
Always finding fault, so (you) can criticize

*Sudah-lah, aduh, kawan lagian, buat apa?
I’m over it, wow, friends even, what’s the point?

*Yang ada, lu kecewa, kalau gue, sih, having fun
What there is, is you’re disappointed, when I’m having fun

*Kritik sini, kritik sana, semua lu nggak suka
Criticize here, criticize there, you don’t like anything

*Kasih makan juga nggak, tapi lu yang marah-marah
You don’t even provide, but you’re the one who gets mad

*Gue, sih, nggak masalah, tapi lu naik darah
Me, well, (I) don’t (have) a problem, but you get stressed out

*Selalu aja salah, mending aku pesta aja
Always wrong, better I just party

*Kau benci, tapi ku jadi termotivasi
You hate, but I get motivated

*Buat ku lebih baik, kau, malah, makin keki
For me (it’s) better, you, though, are getting angrier

*Sudah berhenti kawan, kita ’kan bukan lawan?
We’ve stopped being friends, we’re, right, not enemies?

*Bangkitkan-lah hidup-mu, jangan kau sia-siakan
Pull your life together, don’t you throw everything away

Ngaku-ngaku-nya bahagia
Claiming to be happy

Tapi, kenyataan-nya, kamu susah
But, the reality is, you (have) problems

Susah melihat, melihat
Problems seeing, seeing

Kalau aku bahagia, ohhh..
When I’m happy, ohhh..

Ngaku-ngaku-nya bahagia
Claiming to be happy

Tapi, kenyataan-nya, kamu susah
But, the reality is, you (have) problems

Susah melihat, melihat
problems seeing, seeing

Kalau aku bahagia, itu derita lu
When I’m happy, that’s your tough luck

Karyamin’s Smile By Ahmad Tohari

leftphotoKaryamin measured careful deliberate steps. The weight bearing down across his shoulders was a long supple bamboo pole with woven rattan baskets full of river rocks swinging pendulum like from each end. The steep dirt track leading up the river bank was wet from the sweat that had dripped from Karyamin and the other workers as they trudged up and down the bank hauling rocks from the river to the storage bay at the top.

        Long experience had taught Karyamin that he could make the climb to the top all right if he kept the centre of gravity for his body and the load either on the right, or on the left foot, and if he shifted it very carefully from one foot to the other. He had also learned that to maintain his balance he had to concentrate on each breath and every movement of his arms.

        Even so, Karyamin had slipped over twice that morning, collapsing in a heap and tumbling back down the trail followed by the rocks disgorging from his dishevelled baskets. Every time Karyamin’s fellow rock collectors had doubled up in fits of laughter, pleased for the amusement that could be extracted from laughing at one another. This time Karyamin crept up the bank more cautiously. Despite his trembling knees, he gripped the earth with his toes as he went, every ounce of attention focused on maintaining his balance. Tension was visible on his face, sweat covered his body and poured through his shorts. Ridged veins bulged from his neck under the strain of the weight bearing down on his back and shoulders.

        And maybe Karyamin would have made it to the top, if it hadn’t been for that blasted bird! A kingfisher dived from a branch dangling above the river, splashed into the water and emerged with a small fish in its beak. The bird then darted whisker-close across the front of Karyamin’s face.

        “Damn!” cried Karyamin, feeling his balance begin to slip. He tottered momentarily, and then, collapsed, onto the ground surrounded by the clatter of his two baskets of disgorging rocks. Beginning to slide backwards down the slope, Karyamin pulled himself to a halt by grasping handfuls of grass. Four or five of Karyamin’s friends laughed together; the rock collectors pleased they could find some happiness in laughing at themselves.

        “Haven’t you had enough, Min? Go home,” urged Sarji, quietly jealous of Karyamin’s fulsome young wife.  “Your heart isn’t in it, you’ve been daydreaming all morning.

        “And it’s dangerous leaving that wife of yours by herself at home, Min. Remember those young bank workers who call in to the village every day? They’re not just after loan repayments from your wife! Don’t trust those loan sharks. Go on, go home. They’re probably trying to chat her up right now.

        “And it’s not just those young bank workers who have their eyes on your wife! Don’t forget the door-to-door lottery ticket hawker. I hear he’s always hanging around your place when you’re away. He isn’t just selling lottery tickets either; he’s got to be pushing some other kind of business too!!”

        The sound of laughter intermingled with the clatter of rocks landing on the edge of the river and the splash of water as the rock collectors moved around through the river. One large teak tree leaf lept from a branch and sailed down to land on the surface of the river. Impelled by the breeze, it began to move upstream in opposition to the current. Further up the river, three women were preparing to cross on their way home again from market. The rock collectors fell silent, entertained by the sight of the women gathering up their sarongs.

        Karyamin sat on the ground, stunned, staring at his empty dishevelled baskets, the gentle breeze bringing goose bumps to his arms even though the sun was already starting to become hot. Then the same kingfisher again flew past just above his head. Karyamin was about to curse it but stars suddenly began to fill his eyes and a roar like the roar of swarming bees filled his ears, and he could hear his empty stomach rumbling full of nothing but wind. Everything in front of Karyamin turned yellow, bathed in bright dazzling light.

        Karyamin’s friends meanwhile had started guffawing about the women crossing the river. They had seen something wonderful, or something with the power to induce them to forget, even if just for a moment, the pain in their fingers made sore by scratching over the rocky riverbed; forget the rock trader who they had not seen for a fortnight after vanishing with a truckload of their rock, unpaid for; forget the woman selling packets of peanut-flavoured pecel salad and boiled rice wrapped in banana leaves who were going to arrive in the afternoon asking to be paid; forget the lottery tickets which, not for want of trying, they never won.

        “Min!” Sarji called out, “where’s your tongue? Take a look at those big white fish. They’re as big as thighs!”

        Everyone laughed again. The rock collectors really did find some joy in laughing at each other. But this time Karyamin didn’t join in the laughter; he settled on a smile. They could all laugh and smile together. That, all accepted, was their ultimate defence, a symbol of their victory over the traders, over the low price of rock, over the slipperiness of the steep climb up the river bank. That morning too, Karyamin’s smile was a sign of his victory; victory over his gnawing stomach and his blinding star-filled eyes.

        Karyamin had succeeded in creating an illusory paradise of victory by laughing and smiling in the face of his fate. The strange thing was, he felt so annoyed by the kingfisher flying back and forth over his head. For a moment he wanted to grab his bamboo pole and hit the bird, but suddenly he changed his mind. He realized that he would never be able to do that with all these stars swirling in front of his face.

        So Karyamin just smiled and got to his feet even though his head was still pounding, and the sky still seemed to be spinning. He picked up his baskets, then his pole, and then set to climb the bank again smiling wryly as he noticed he was stepping through the depression he had made in the earth where he had fallen a few moments earlier. At the top of the bank he stood for a moment, startled by the sight of the pile of rocks that didn’t yet amount to even a quarter of a cubic metre. Even so he had to head for home. Under a waru hibiscus Saidah had laid out her food for sale, rice and packets of pecel salad. Karyamin swallowed and felt a knot form in his stomach.

        “Going home so early, Min?” asked Saidah. “Not feeling well?”

        Karyamin shook his head, then smiled. Saidah noticed his lips were quite blue, that the palms of his hands were pale, and, as he drew slightly closer that his stomach seemed to be making a noise.

        “Have something to eat, Min.”

        “No. A drink will be fine. Just look at how little you have to sell, and, anyway, I already owe you enough as it is.”

        “Yes, yes, Min. But you’re hungry, aren’t you?” asked Saidah.

Karyamin just smiled, then took the glass of boiled water Saidah was holding out. A warm comforting feeling swept over his throat and down through his stomach.

        “Won’t you have something to eat, Min? I can’t stand to see someone hungry. I don’t mind waiting for the money. I can wait till the rock trader shows up. He hasn’t paid for your rock yet, has he?”

        The kingfisher once again flashed past singing. Realizing that it was probably only searching for food for its babies, tucked away in a nest somewhere, Karyamin no longer felt hatred for the bird. He pictured the bird’s chicks huddled weakly in a nest that the bird had built in some sheltered ledge in the side of a cliff. The breeze began to blow again and teak tree leaves started to swirl through the air. Several glided down to land on the surface of the water. Compelled by the wind, the leaves always struggled upstream against the current.

        “So you really won’t have anything to eat, Min?” asked Saidah, as Karyamin stood up.

        “No. If you can’t stand to see me hungry, well I can’t stand to watch all your stock disappear with me and the others not being able to pay,” he replied.

        “Yes, yes, Min. But… “

        Saidah didn’t finish because Karyamin was already walking away. But she did catch sight of him turn and glance back at her. She noticed him smile. Saidah smiled back and swallowed anxiously. Something had stuck in her throat and she couldn’t make it go away. She watched Karyamin as he made his way along the narrow path winding through the undergrowth along the river basin. Karyamin’s friends called out friendly obscenities but he only stopped once, turning and beaming back to them a large smile.

        Before climbing up out of the river basin, Karyamin caught sight of something moving on a small branch overhanging the water. Oh it was the kingfisher again. Bright blue back, clean white chest, and sago-red beak. Suddenly the bird dived down plunging into the water. Then with a victim in its beak it shot past the rock collectors, rose to avoid a clump of tall reeds and vanished behind a clump of pandanus grass. Karyamin felt a sense of jealousy towards the bird, but as he looked at his two empty baskets he could only smile.

        Karyamin did not have any idea why he was going home. There wasn’t anything there that was going to stop the gurgling in his stomach. There was also no point his wife worrying. Oh yes, Karyamin remembered. His wife was a good reason to go home. Last night his wife hadn’t been able to sleep because of a boil right on the top of her backside.

        “So what’s wrong if I go home to look after my sick wife,” he thought.

        Karyamin tried to walk a little faster although from time to time he suddenly felt a dizziness and a sea of stars swam before his eyes. As soon as he reached the other side of the bamboo bridge he noticed a crisp ripe water guava. He was about to pick it from the tree but changed his mind when he noticed bat bite marks. He also saw snakeskin fruit scattered on the ground below a snakeskin fruit tree. He picked one from the tree, took a bite, then threw it as far as he could. The dry-bitter sourness of the unripe snakeskin fruit tasted like poison on his tongue. Karyamin continued. His ears rang as he ascended a small slope but he didn’t worry; this was the hill leading up to his house.

        Before he reached the crest of the slope he suddenly came to a stop. Two bicycles were parked at the front of his house. The ringing in his ears seemed to be growing louder; he seemed to be feeling dizzier. So he stopped, completely still, and stared. He thought of his sick wife having to deal with the two debt collectors from the bank. He knew she didn’t have the money to make today’s payments, or tomorrow’s, or the next day’s, or whenever’s; just as he had no idea when the rock trader who a month ago had taken their rock would show up again.

        Stars still swam in front of his face. Karyamin started to wonder whether coming home was such a good idea. He knew there was nothing he would be able to do; nothing he could do to help his wife deal with the two debt collectors. He turned round slowly ready to head back down the hill but Karyamin noticed a man coming up behind him wearing a long-sleeved batik shirt. The worn out reddish fez on the man’s head convinced Karyamin that this was the Village secretary.

        “Now I’ve finally caught you, Min. I’ve been calling in all morning looking for you but you’ve been out. Then I looked at the river but you weren’t there. You’re not trying to avoid me now, are you?”

        “Avoid you?”

        “Yes, you are being very difficult, Min. In this area you’re the only person who hasn’t made a contribution yet. You’re the only one who hasn’t put anything into the African Relief Fund to help starving people in Africa. Now, today is the last day and I won’t put up with any more silly business.”

        Karyamin could hear the sound of his own breathing, quietly, and also the rhythmic throb of his own heartbeat, but he couldn’t see the smile that began to spread over his lips. He smiled widely, deeply aware of his own condition and the situation that was now staring him in the face. Sadly, however, the Village secretary took Karyamin’s smile the wrong way and started to grow angry.

        “Are you laughing at me, Min?”

        “No, sir. Definitely not.”

        “Then what’s that smirk all about? Come on, hurry up and hand over your contribution to the fund.”

        But this time Karyamin didn’t just smile; he began to laugh out loud. He laughed so hard in fact that it reignited the beehive hum roaring in his ears and the world slowly dissolved into a sea of swirling stars in front of him and his stomach began to heave throwing him off balance.

        Seeing Karyamin stumble and start to tumble down the embankment back towards the valley, the Village secretary tried to catch Karyamin. Unfortunately, he failed.

(1) Senyum Karyamin (Karyamin’s Smile) was published in Kompas daily in July 1987.

To the Gulf

Ke Teluk sudah, ke Siam sudah,

Ke Makkah sahaja sahaya yang belum,

Berpeluk sudah, bercium sudah,

Bernikah sahaja sahaya yang belum.

Emeis, M. G.  Bloemlezing Uit Het Klassiek Maleis Bunga Rampai Melaju Kuno Groningen-Batavia/Djakarta 1949: Wolters


I have been to the Gulf and to Siam too,

To Mecca alone I have not been yet;

I have embraced, I have kissed too,

Marry alone I have not yet.

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