A Canadian Muslim in Bandung (Day 16)

I am a bad tourist. My favourite way to spend my time when travelling is sitting in cafes, visiting cool art spaces, finding quirky bookstores, reading, soaking in the atmosphere, starting random conversations with strangers, journaling, and reflecting on what I’m seeing and observing. I’ve never had a huge urge to visit sites or monuments unless they are places I have heard a lot about before and/or are personally significant to see. (Which I suppose, is why I didn’t go to Yogya). And so yesterday (Day 16) was one of those perfect travel days that I love so much. I took a taxi mid morning up into the Dago mountains and visited the Selasar Sunaryo Art Space and Cafe, (one of Bandung’s most famous galleries) and spent the entire day eating wonderful food and drinking amazing tea at the cafe and doing all the things I described above: journalling, visiting the bookstore and the library, meeting people, and just soaking in the wonderful vibe of the space.

When I was leaving, the hotel staff was a bit nervous about my trip as it was quite far from our hotel and in a bit of a remote location, but thankfully all went well. I’m really enjoying this week as I’ve noticed there are differences to the way I’m read when I’m part of a group and when I’m on my own. When we go out as a group, we are often introduced as the group from Canada/Toronto/the University of Toronto, and then instantly someone will turn to me and ask so are you Moroccan/Malaysian/Iranian/Arab?/etc etc. This week though, it’s been nice being asked where I’m from once people hear my accent, and have Canada be an acceptable answer.

Though I admit, I am really tempted to visit Malaysia after Bandung because over the past year and particularly on this trip, I get asked whether I’m Malaysian on a consistent basis. (Sometimes I get Singaporean as well, but very rarely). Yesterday when I entered the cab for instance, the driver spoke English reasonably well, and so we chatted as we drove up the windy mountainous roads. He asked me where I was from, I said Canada, and he replied “I’m sorry miss, I really thought you were from Malaysia!” That broke the ice, and we chatted about my *very* Malaysian features, he told me about his family and some of his favourites spots in the city, and we talked about Islam in Canada, and the number of Muslims in Toronto. In between our conversation, I had my face pressed to the window of the car, because the drive to the gallery was breathtaking. We passed through parts of the city where it seems many people actually live, passed enormous mosques and small ones as well (sometimes mosques across the street from one another) gorgeous schools, including pesantrens (religious boarding schools for girls) and were treated to stunning views of the mountains dotted with little houses with red roofs. One moment in particular made my breath stick in my chest as we turned a corner and dozens (maybe 150?) young girls in huge white scarfs poured down the white steps of a gorgeous school. I didn’t take photos, but I kept repeating the words, “remember this moment heart!” and it worked, as the images have stayed with me.

Finally we arrived at the art gallery, and I sat down to a stunning meal at the cafe. While I was eating, my parents called, and so we Skyped with the cafe in the background. (I had headphones so we didn’t disturb other people too much). While we were speaking a large group of people entered speaking English, and so after the call as I enjoyed a bowlful of melted toberlone and vanilla ice-cream, from my table (while feeling nervous inside) I asked, “I hear English, are you all visiting from another place?”

And with that question, we all became instantly friends.  The gallery has an exhibit right now called “Still Building: Contemporary Art from Singapore”, and the group I met included the curator of the exhibit who has galleries in Malaysia and Singapore, the artists from Singapore who created the works of the exhibit, and then a Dutch fellow who has lived in Bandung since 2003. As we talked, we realized we had common friends in Bandung and that he knew my professor, and so we ended up having lunch together, and chatting at different points during the day. In Singapore I walked into a bookshop and ended up meeting people who knew friends and teachers in Toronto, and so it was strange to have something similar happen again. The world sometimes seems like a very small place.

We also laughed over my ethnic background/country of origin , because the group agreed that  their first guess would have been Malaysian, though one of the men from Singapore ( I think the gallery owner) said that he heard my accent when I was on Skype, and knew I wasn’t English, but couldn’t quite place the accent until I said Canadian.  I am invited tonight to the opening of the exhibition and to lunch/dinner on Friday, two events that I’m very excited about.

Eventually I made my way to the actual gallery, which is made up four different gallery spaces, a beautiful library, a cute bookshop, a stone garden, an amphitheatre, a workshop, and an artists residency. As you visit the different spaces, you’re treated to incredible views of the valley below and the mountains nearby. At the library I found a great book about Islamic Art, and poked around the different collections, and in the gift shop I found beautiful handmade notebooks, and some local Indonesian films among some very interesting looking books. I bought a couple of films and watched the first one yesterday. It was excellent, and it was delightful to see a film that had women in hijab as simply characters in the story, and not women who need saving. It is possible to create different media representations!

I ended the day at the gallery with what was possibly the best tea I’ve ever had..a homemade Longan Spiced Tea, that had actual longan fruit bobbing in the tea. It was so so spicy and wonderful, and was exactly what my throat needed. As I was drinking my tea, one of the things i was thinking about was Canadian Islam. For the past ten days I’ve been trying to better understand the relationship between Bandung and religion. On the one hand many people talk about it being “a cosmopolitan city that is not bogged down by religion” and bars and alcohol are easy to find, but on the other hand you hear the call to prayer everywhere, prayer spaces and Islamic banks are everywhere, the hijab is very very visible, there are signs with religious messages throughout the city, and though religion is less visible in the part of the city where I am staying, it was very visible in my drive to the gallery. And just in the last few days, Bandung was the site of a major summit on Islamic banking and investment.

Though all of this interesting to reflect over and process, and as much as I have grown to love this city, it isn’t my city. Canada, and Toronto/Vancouver are the sites of my interventions. People in Bandung are the experts on their city. In reality, any work I do here or observations I make here simply help me understand home better; I’m not going to make brilliant insights on life here.

When we went to the underground art space I mentioned briefly in my last post, we met a Japanese architect who has produced two extraordinary books of water-colour paintings and pencil explanations of Jakarta and Bandung, and is working on a third book (he showed us the original paintings) about Kyoto. His talk to us was super inspiring. He grew up in Bandung, he studied in Bandung, his family is based in Bandung, everything important about him is connected to this city, and this is the city he is seeking to improve. We met a journalist last week who is focused on water issues in the city and has written extensively about them at great cost to his own personal safety because the wellbeing of Bandung residents matters that much to him. Many of the people we’ve met are like that, and though many of the members of our travel group are committed to living lives as travellers and  I myself do love seeing and learning from different places, being in Bandung has made me appreciate the benefit of roots.

All of this relates to Bandung and my reflections on religion here, because with each passing day I realize how important it is to build and support indigenous institutions of Islamic learning and community development in Canada and the US. Projects like the Taleef Collective in the US, the MyCanada/Common Ground Project in Canada, the SeekersHub in Toronto, the Muslim Chaplaincy Project at U of T, all of these projects are attempting to create spaces for healthy self and community development that reflect local culture. In Bandung Islam definitely reflects local Javanese culture and it makes sense that similarly in Canada Islam is expressed within a cultural context that reflects the diversity of people that call Canada home. I’ve met more than a few people (not everyone) who have expressed surprise that I’m Muslim in Canada, and for me, it’s highlighted the importance of being a planner who is committed to building healthy social spaces, and being a more active participant in community development work, rather than simply a beneficiary of others struggles.

It’s strange how easily communities and connections form between people. When I came back to the hotel in the evening it was raining, and one of the hotel staff members came out with a giant umbrella and stood there as I got out of the taxi so I wouldn’t get wet in the 2 second walk to the hotel’s interior. They looked visibly relieved I had come back safe and sound, and we shared stories from our day. (Even this morning, I was up at 4:30, and then fell back asleep at 8 am. I got a call at 9 am from the hotel worried that I was going to miss breakfast and wondering where I had been). All in all, day 16 of the trip was wonderful, and ended with an Indonesian film, dinner with my professor at a beautiful Japanese restaurant, and excitement for what the next day will bring.