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.

Goodbye Tea, hello Indonesian Coffee

I’ve been sitting in the courtyard of our hotel for the past few hours with the intention of writing this blog post, but I’ve been caught up in conversations about quantitative research methodology, the beauty of Bandung, the ethics of international travel, and how Islam is manifested in Britain, and the richness of the discussions have taken me away from my computer. Rich discussions and learning have been the highlight of today, a day that has been full of beautiful new places, interesting reflections and trying to stretch my courage muscles to try new things.

Which is something I forgot to mention yesterday in my post about intentions. Yesterday I was feeling a bit overwhelmed about all the new unfamiliar things we’ve been observing and experiencing, and realised that in addition to the academic goals I mentioned in the last entry, there are personal intentions I have for the trip. In essence, because I’m not very good at dealing with change, I want to focus on reframing anxiety into adventure, and recognising that for the next month, I have the wonderful privilege of (as my roommate beautifully described it) of waking up each morning and having the sole job of learning about Indonesia, and soaking up as much knowledge and experiences as I can. To extend this learning, I want to focus on stretching my courage muscles, trying new things, and God willing, putting forth my best effort to make this a meaningful experience. (Our tour guides, our professors and so many other people are so keen on facilitating our learning, that it seems poor form to not put in my best effort too). I also want to focus on becoming more directionally savvy, because so far I still don’t have my bearings in  Bandung, and I want to be able to navigate the city with a bit of familiarity.

And so today, in an attempt to be a tiny bit more courageous, I started the day by experimenting with Indonesian coffee. I’m a tea-lover, but today tried my first cup of coffee after many months. And oh, I fell in love! I’ve had four cups so far today, which is more coffee than I’ve probably had in the last year, but Indonesian coffee is simply that good. The rest of the day passed in an equally exceptional fashion. We had an amazing walking tour of the city that started with a visit to the Governor’s house, which is the seat of  the governor of the West Java province and the local mayor’s office, and then walked all the way to the top of the building where we could see all of Bandung. From above, you can really see how green and beautiful the city is, and the mountains are breathtaking.

From there we continued our walking tour and saw different areas of the city, took the local para-transit system of shuttles called Ankut Kotor, which was an adventure in and of itself (it’s not clear which shuttle goes where, and the passengers are really packed in tightly in the van) , went to the Asian-African Museum, which details the Bandung conference of 1955 (where the term third world emerged), went to the Grand Mosque of Bandung, went to an amazing lunch at a local restaurant, and finally ended our day at ITB, the Bandung Institute of Technology, where we learnt more about the school and got feedback on our research projects.  I was impressed by the depth of knowledge of our hosts- all of us have such different research interests, and yet regardless of topic, they were able to suggest wonderful resources to help us get started. Our hosts also are speaking to us in English, which is not their first language, but are doing so well that I feel silly about my own hesitancy in practising languages I’m not comfortable with (such as Urdu) and am committed on being more courageous on that front once we return. By the time we left ITB it was Maghrib (the evening prayer) time, and so I went back with some of the students from our program to the hotel.

But even with the early evening end, it was an incredible day where at each stage, there was so much to take in and explore. On one street called Jalan Brago ( I think) we learnt that though things look unplanned, there is informal housing intended to support the formal work in the area.We learnt that the street is connected to Pasir Baru (the old market) and that there is a logic to the structure of the street. When we went to the Grand Mosque it was time for Dhuhr (the midday prayer) and so as we approached the mosque we could hear the adhaan, or the call to prayer. I was surprised how emotional I felt hearing it, but it’s been so long since I’ve heard the call to prayer from the street, and hearing it made it real in a visceral tangible way where we’re in a place where it’s ok to be Muslim. Where being Muslim isn’t immediately connected to assumptions of patriarchy or exaggerated media representations. I wouldn’t say I’m experienced discrimination really in the past, but it surprises me how good it feels to see so many Muslims, and to really feel like you belong. I felt this most strongly in Singapore, where many locals asked me if I was Singaporean or Malay, and I would look around the MRT car and realise that I really did physically resemble many of the people on the train. I felt more at home there than I have when I visited Karachi, but as of yet, I’m not sure what one does with that realization, since I identify most with Canada and that is home. Oh for a world with the comfort and invisibility of South East Asia, combined with the loveliness of Toronto and Vancouver!  In any case, while it lasts it’s a joy not being a visible minority, and not being asked why i wear a headscarf and I’ll miss that when I return home.

Back to the call of prayer though, it wasn’t simply hearing it that was beautiful, it was also the sight of people rushing to prayer, and seeing the exterior design of the mosque, as the minarets were unlike any I’ve seen before. Part of the words of the call to prayer are rush to success, rush to prayer, and as we witnessed that today, it was good to reflect on the fact that those words are not simply the thing that happens before the prayer, its a call that one is meant to respond to. More pertinent to planning, I’m  curious to learn more about the story about this particular mosque. There was a courtyard that was bustling with people even during the prayer, and it is clearly an active public space that functions for more than prayer.

Being in Indonesia has made me hungry for information about Islam in this particular country, and though it’s a planning course, I have so many questions about how Islam has informed the region, and social and cultural identity. During our time at ITB I mentioned my interest in mosque development, and learnt that mosques typically were built with a courtyard, with the south side having a palace, and the west side having the mosque. I also learnt that even in Indonesia, given the colonial presence, mosque development has been contested territory.

At the same time, I’m curious about Muslim fashion in Indonesia, and how Muslim women are clearly targeted through advertising. In the supermarket yesterday I saw a cosmetics brand called Wardah featuring women in headscarves, there are shops that have ads for trendy Muslim clothing, and the women in Bandung are incredibly fashionable, with hijabs unlike ones I’ve seen in Toronto. Those two topics, Muslim women fashion and mosque development fascinate me at present, and I’m not sure what direction my research will take me.

I’m also trying to figure out how to negotiate prayer times within our course. The schedule is quite full, and  prayer rooms are not easily identifiable (at least so far, apparently there is a campus mosque at ITB) and so today we heard the Dhuhr call to prayer while we were at the mosque, but we didn’t really have the time to stop and I prayed later on. Then when the call to prayer for Asr (the afternoon prayer) came in, we were in a seminar, and I wasn’t sure what to do. So God willing in the days to come, I’m going to pack a prayer mat, and just pray in the hallway if needed once a prayer time comes in. There’s no point wanting to study Islam in the city  if I’m not diligent enough to pray at an appropriate time, and the prayer times are so close, that delaying will likely mean missing them.

So much more to share, but my battery is nearly gone, and it’s another full day tomorow. Till next time.