DeMISTYfied in Djogja

Malam Panjang: Long Nights in Djogja

On arriving in the esteemed royal city of Yogyakarta (Daera Istemawa di Yogyakarta) in Indonesia, my first impression was that of ‘coming home’ to barely remembered past hovering among the ghostly cobwebs of childhood memory. Yogya’s  Jalan Kaliurang (Jakal), a modern thoroughfare transecting the city from north to south runs straight along three almost perfectly aligned mystical nodal points: the active volcanic beauty of Mt. Merapi as prominent landmark to the north; the Kraton palatial domain of power of reigning Sultan Hamengkubawana X comprising the midpoint; and, southward, leading to the open seas, is Parangtritis beach where Nya’i Ratu Kidul, Yogya’s mythical godmother and goddess of the South seas, is believed to dwell.

Heightened by the nostalgic appeal of its mystical nature, experiencing Yogyakarta and taking part in its social milieu has seemed like a home-coming to sounds, smell and ambience that are at once warm and familiar that somehow tells me my homeland and homesea in Sulu (south-western Mindanao) must have been distantly related, or perhaps metaphysically interconnected, with this dominantly Javanese abode in the ‘land below the winds’. And as I would soon happily discover, glimpses of this long-ago connection were still extant in a vanishing language and fast transforming culture.

Spanning at least a kilometer down the length of the highway of Jakal is a vast block of buildings housing various faculties of the famous Gajah Madah University where in its Pascasarjana (Graduate School) I attend a post-graduate program in Inter-religious studies. In the evening, the university belt blooms into life with a motley assortments of ‘toko-toko’ and ‘waroeng-waroeng’- shops and stalls – that offer all sorts of foods, light snacks on short order, fresh fruit juices, coffee and tea – mentionable among which, that I am sure my Filipino compatriots would be curious to try, is ‘teh botol’, bottled uncarbonated jasmine tea. All these can be had inside the make-shift structures that are instantly erected there ‘just for the night’ which is every night. Diners – mostly young professionals and students – sit squatting on reed or plastic straw mats and enjoy their ‘makanan malam’, the evening fare, eating with bare-hands while ever watchful of the early evening traffic of mostly single motorbikes and recent models of SUVs building up. Incredibly, this happens daily, rain or star-shine.

Along Jakal kilometer 5, mercilessly pushing nervous pedestrians to gingerly navigate the ‘devil and deep blue sea’ as forced to choose between muddy canal and the deadly highway where motorbikes roar and refuse to give way, these tarpaulin-canopied shops precariously balanced along the narrow sidewalk occupying every available parking space, and there, squeezed in-between HP (pronounced as ‘Ha-Pe’ for ‘hand-phone’) ‘pulsa’ (Filipinos simply say “load”) reloading and benzene fuel refilling stations, they cheerfully competed for attention mingling with laundry shops, electronic and IT stores, videos and movie compact disk sales and rentals, motor-parts supply and repairs, jilbab and hand-gloves boutiques, ‘juwal murah’ thrift shops of surplus items and used-clothings, and various other retailers of fancy goods of sweets and spicy snacks peddled in ambulant stalls and carts: martabak, rujak, bakso, krepes, gudeg, sate, boiled corn and bananas, steamed peanuts and green beans, and yes, toasted bread (roti bakar), hamburgers, hotdogs, and bak pao that sometimes opened onto the wee hours.

It would be in these ‘waroeng makanan’ (foodshops) and ‘toko’ thriftshops that I mostly learned and acquired my crude and functional bahasa. Although much regretfully, a year after to this day, my bahasa has remained ‘sirikit sadja’ (very little) and ‘tidak bagus’ (not refined). My passport and convenient opening spiels would, of course, be always an unembarrassed script of: ‘Maaf, ibuh/bapak, saya tidak bihasa bicara…dari Filipin’ (my apologies, madam/sir, I do not speak much [bahasa]…I am from the Philippines)  that almost always got the friendly ‘Oh…ya!’ sympathetic nod of understanding and a welcome that was followed by typical ‘how’s-the-weather’ questions such as where I lived in Manila, and requests that would I please say some Tagalog (that is musically said as to sound like “Taga Log”) that sometimes turn me slightly irate to curtly declare that I am from Mindanao and a  Moro. On really interesting occasions, that sometimes almost got their interest that “Oh…Ya!” would then be followed by less impersonal and more eager questions about Mindanao and how the Muslims there behaved or what they ate. On lucky days, I would encounter a more engaged audience that would indulge me with interesting gushes: hushed question about Abu Sayaf; Imelda Marcos and her fabulous collection of shoes; the infamous Philippine typhoons; and, yes, popular among the youngsters, Christian Bautista (young Filipino singer presently doing a movie in Jakarta). Otherwise, for the shopkeepers – old ‘ibuh’ or ‘bapak’, or young ‘mas’ or blushing ‘mbak’, I generally was just one of those mundane uninteresting ‘bule’ who was made even less interesting because I looked ‘just like us’ with my dark eyes, brown skin, turong and long loose blouse. At best, they might find in me a useful opportunity to test their proficiency in English. Notwithstanding those, the sure supply of kindly encouragement and gentle coaching from my friends and kost (boardinghouse)-mates from Sulawesi: mbak Ria, mbak Lia, mbak Tetenk and mbak Ani – constantly boosted my confidence that I could finish a generous bowl of richly spiced (or should I say, ‘spiked’, and I’d seriously translate this as ‘really hot’) soto – another famed socializing food here – and could still as cheerfully accept another serving, and make myself at home for the rest of the school term.

The bits and pieces of words and phrases I barely made-out and picked are those that clicked into what I meant to be that interconnection through sound and smell with home. Along Jalan Kaliurang, one of the more abundant snack-stalls would be the ‘gorengan’. The chunky fritters are famous street-food of vegetables, rootcrops and fruits generously spiced and fried deep in coconut oil as gorengan pisang (banana), singkong (cassava), ube (sweet potato), and, Indonesians’ chief source of protein, soya (i.e. gorengan tempe or tahu). A yummy special is an all-veggie recipe called gorengan sayur,  a potpourri of crunchy leaves (usually cabbage and spinach) mixed, salad-style, with thin stripped carrots and jalapenos. Peppered with fragrant spices and smeared in sticky flour and rolled into patties or neatly wrapped in thin dough, these are dropped into the sizzling oil and fished out as soon as one side turns a golden blush. This particular last piece reminds me of our Filipino ‘lumpia’ (with or without the wraps) and ‘ukoy’ and is especially taken with a bite of ‘pedas’, fresh chilli pepper, that Indonesians must be proudly notorious about.

The infinitive ‘menggoreng’ (to fry with oil) sounds near to our ‘ag-guling’, noting that the Sinama (language of ethnic Sama of Sulu) usually replaces r’s for l’s. Interestingly, these fritters for the Sama people are called ‘juwalan’ which then brings another connection between sinama and bahasa in ‘juwal’, meaning to sell, and of ‘juwalan’, goods, a place of goods or simply “store”. Incidentally, as in bahasa, the Sama also say ‘barang-barang’ (assorted things), ‘bungkus’ ( cover or wrap the food ’to go’ or take home), ‘halgah’ (cost or costly) and generally count the way Indonesians do: issa (satu), duwa (duwa), t’llu (tiga), m’pat (mpat), lima (lima), n’nom (nam), hatus (ratus), ibu (ribu). We also have the same words for house (rumah/lumah), sea (laut), land (tanah), village (kampong), fire (api), dance (joget), read (batcha/baca), hand (tangan), out (luwah/luwar), leader (penghulo/panglima),and so on. Although, I sometimes find myself ‘hang’ (as it means in computer-lingo) confused in connecting some words, like ‘rambut’ for hair since we say ‘buun’ in Sinama or ‘buhok’ in Filipino, except perhaps if I visualize ‘rambutan’, that hairy fruit that Davao city is famous for, or, subliminally connect this to silky soft hair that we say, ‘buhok na malambot’ (Fil.) which makes sense anyway since I usually encounter the word in television shampoo commercials! Of course, there are more of these words that must have become confused in the process of translation: pisang for banana (bahasa) is pineapple (sinama); bunga for flower (bahasa) is fruit (sinama), etcetera.

There are yet many other words and terms that Bahasa and Sinama share in common. For instance, ‘malam’ is evening in bahasa and usually said in Sinama to modify Friday as in ‘malam jumaat’, that,  in lunar calendar, is the eve of Friday and in Gregorian calendar is Thursday evening – is held to be most spiritually auspicious night of the week, such that where Indonesians say ‘malam panjang’ literally as “long night” to mean chronologically that ‘time’ spanning from magrib (sundown) and lasting until fajar (sunrise) the Sama take this to be “deep” formal and orthodox term mostly referring to psychological time, or the ‘space of experience’ of special nights associated with traditional and socio-religious observances.

Today, there is still considerable number of my clan, mostly of senior members, (and in fact, I could say generally, of the Sama people of Sulu) remaining traditional and continually maintaining what modern Muslims sometimes pejoratively call ‘folk’ Islam, which is a synthesis of indigenous monistic and Islamic theistic beliefs that the first sufi teachers must have brought to our shores in the 10th century CE (common era). While concretely manifest in their observance of universal pillars of Muslim faith (i.e. oral declaration of the One-ness of God, five-times-prayer, ritual cleansing of wealth through sharing and offering  of the ‘poor’s due’, performing pilgrimage to Makkah, fasting during Ramadhan, and the system of beliefs including belief in Allah, the Holy books and the prophets, belief in the angels and jinns, and in the last day of judgment), this so-called religion of ‘folk’, alongside, also has elaborated islamically-harmonized rituals of ancestral reverence. Whereas ancestral reverence was generally a form of myth and rituals of our forebears long before history, in contemporary times, these rituals have in time accreted and accommodated into Islamic beliefs that many Sama communities would observe this in its synthesized form  as commemoration of the silsilah/salsila where one’s clan and progeny is constantly reminded to link back to the house of the quranic/historic prophets, to the local saints and the holy progenitors of Muslims and to Islamic teachers.

In ritual observances called ag-maulud, these are celebrated coinciding with Muslim maulid/eid and are beheld as ’long nights’ such as the nights of the month of puasa (Ramadhan), the eves of eid where offertory and commemorative festivities are held i.e. amon jaded, birth of the prophet, nisfu shaban, isra wal mi’raj, feast of shura, eidul fitri, eidul adha, among others. More traditional and indigenous Sama Dilaut of Sulu (ethnically akin to orang bajo in Indonesia), have these Muslim calendrical observances integrated into traditional auspicious days such as the premier days of harvest of grains, corn, banana or major food-crop; the waning and waxing of the moon; the full moon; and ‘musim’ (monsoon). Interestingly, secular yet social matters such as ‘ag-hinang’ (lit. ‘event’ or prayer) for the dear departed (janazah), ‘ag-jaga’ or vigils accompanying labor of an expectant mother or awaiting the birth of a new baby,  and ‘ag-libuhan’ pre-nuptial and post-wedding rituals  are conducted into the long nights, also beheld as malam panjang.

Indeed, much of bahasa-derivative words may already be lost or else considered ‘old’ by today’s modern standards and no longer colloquial as to be comfortable for use in ordinary conversations. Besides, most of us of the younger generation would have already been ‘born to’ to modern and purist Muslim religion hence preferring to be called mainstream Muslims that looks upon the Arabist rather than Melayu cultural expressions as manifest forms of our faith. Many of us believe that to be true Muslim is to have conveniently rid ourselves of ancestral reverence and its attendant ‘fancy rituals’ that many would now denounce as ‘shirk’ (idolatry) or regard social celebrations such as ag-hinang and ag-maulud as frivolities, if not islamically censured as ‘bid’a’ or innovations. Consequentially, on the other extreme, many among the young ones would not be familiar anymore as it has long replaced with the Filipino or western counterpart such traditional concepts as ‘malam panjang’ that in modern consumerist capitalistic contexts would now translate to this generation’s notion of long nights as ‘Sabado nights’ (from Spanish-Tagalog ‘Sabado’ or Saturday) or to its more west-oriented version of TGIF (“Thank God It’s Friday”) nights  which many yuppies (young professionals) would look forward to in long fun-filled evenings of ‘gimmick’, of “bottomless” fun and of “seamless” good-time, promenading and dancing, shopping and socializing, that commercially-driven new generation paradoxically consider a form of rest- and-recreation and a respite from a week’s hard work.

Mucha Quiling Arquiza

11 November 2010, Jakal 4.5, Yogyakarta

*This and other articles on my life in Yogyakarta are also found in Mindanawon Abroad section of


About Mucha Q. Arquiza
Supports the preservation and promotion of indigenous knowledge systems

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