Wednesday, October 11, 2006

It's a Kind of Magic

Another week, another natural disaster for the poor old Republic of Indonesia to mop up. This time, Pangandaran's olde worlde coastal charms were engulfed by a not-so-mini tsunami as the tectonic fault lines around the country continue to grow and creak ominously. I'm sure many of you have spent relaxing holidays in Pangandaran or Yogyakarta and have been saddened by the recent battering that both towns have taken.

Science tells us that the south coasts of Sumatra and Java lie on the boundary between intercontinental plates and are thus dotted with volcanoes and are susceptible to earthquakes. However, in this country, religious and superstitious interpretations of natural disasters often hold sway over the men in white coats and their seismographs. After the Aceh tsunami, many of the province's population came to the conclusion that God was punishing them for their sins. This would perhaps represent a strange choice by the Almighty as Aceh has long been the most devoutly Islamic part of the country. Why would God choose to victimize his (or her) Loyalist supporters? The lord does indeed move in mysterious ways.

Further natural disasters, such as the Yogya earthquake, have also been interpreted by fundamentalists as a sign of cosmic retribution and used by them as a fear inducing catalyst in the pursuance of their ultimate goal of Sharia law. For anyone of a rational bent, there is obviously no causal link between women wearing skimpy clothing and a10m high wall of water battering the coast (unless anyone is seriously suggesting that shorter skirts are playing havoc with air currents and coastal weather systems).

However, even for the devout, the symbolic link between a tidal wave and perceived female immorality seems rather tenuous and requires a bit of a leap of faith. In fact, the amorphous womb of the sea, in literature and poetry, has through the ages been used to symbolize the feminine side of life. This being the case, a more reasonable interpretation of a tsunami would be that it's a manifestation of female rage and thus a command from God for more, rather than less, female emancipation and equality. Alternatively, natural disasters could also be more coherently interpreted by those of faith as a sign of God's anger with his children for making such a mess of nature in the first place and destroying the planet that nurtures us. If God exists, he is a member of Greenpeace, I'm convinced of that. Natural disasters are possibly Allah's way of telling us to pay more attention to the environment.

Unfortunately though, interpretations such as these don't fit in with the plans of those who would turn Indonesia into a religious state. Presumably it's easier (and more enjoyable) to hassle a defenseless girl in revealing clothes than it is to get all righteous on a burly, illegal logger wielding a chainsaw.

Beyond Islam though, many Indonesians also hold animist beliefs and superstitions that predate their religion's arrival in the country. The superstition most relevant to a tidal wave crashing onto the south coast of Java would undoubtedly be the alleged existence of Ni Loro Kidul, the mermaid goddess of the South Seas who lures swimmers and sailors to their death in the broiling ocean. Apparently, if you wear the color green (a green swimming costume for example), you're a goner. I don't know how this fits in with the Pangandaran disaster though. Perhaps there was a party of Celtic supporters on the beach at the time.

Out in the provinces, witch doctors (dukun) practice traditional white or black magic (duhun santet) and many seemingly sensible people will pay them good money in the belief that they will be healed or become richer or more attractive. Strange rituals such as rubbing excrement or semen on patients or chanting incantations over glasses of water still occur and show that Javanese mysticism is very much alive and kicking. I think I'd prefer the water myself. Many (all?) of these mystics are charlatans of course and there have been several stories in the Jakarta Post over the years of gullible women who have been told by witch doctors that they will become more beautiful if they will first undergo the ancient and mystic ritual of sleeping with the magic men and giving them all their money.

Mysticism and magic even reach the level of government here. Earlier this year, rain men were hired by the city administration to conjure up a few showers to water the parched city. Even ex-president Gus Dur, formally such an oasis of sensibleness in this desert of political lunacy, believes that he has seen rocking chairs which have rocked by themselves - could it have been a draft Gus? He also had the presidential palace purified in a mystic ritual before moving in. Give me a man in a white coat and glasses with a clipboard any day.... Far less scary.

Simon Pitchforth