Seven years have passed since I first set foot in Indonesia, embarking on a book project entitled "40 Days and 1001 Nights".
At that time, what seems like several lives ago- fall, 2005, I wanted to explore the realities ot life in the Muslim world (20percent of the world's population). This quest took me to Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country on earth.
This archipelago of thousands of islands, hundreds of languages, and ethnic groups was daunting. My original destination had been neighboring Malaysia, which I already knew and had contacts. At the last minute, I changed my mind and began my book in Indonesia.
A guy I met on the boat from Singapore named Arief took an interest in my project, brought me to visit his family, and introduced me to people all over Indonesia.
The boat went from Singapore to an industrial island called Batam. It was a tax free zone with little of cultural interest. Arief insisted "You must begin your journey in Aceh." I had vowed to stay out of war zones and disaster areas. Aceh qualified as both. I hesitated. He insisted.
Until three weeks before, a thirty year civil war had been raging. Many locals believed that the recent tsunami had beed sent by God to end the war. The tsunami, which wiped away entire villages in Aceh ten months earlier, had killed over 200,000 people.
Soon, we were at a travel agency where Arief looked on as I bought a flight to Aceh.
He told me I would have to cover up. "Aceh is the most religious place in Indonesia."
In Aceh, I saw that the tsunami reduced entire neighborhoods and villages to rubble. High profile aid groups rented out the largest un damaged homes. Jobs as local drivers of their shiny new SUV's were well paying and coveted, in a society where most had lost their livelihoods.
One man, Azwar Hassan, was Acehnise but lived a middle class life in Jakarta, Indonesia's modern capital city. He came to Aceh right after the tsunami in search of family members. Instead, he found bodies piled up along the roads. He spent time with survivors who needed basics to continue surviving in tents and plywood huts. Some received rice, but could find no pan to cook ii. Others got $9 per survivor, but lost everything, including under clothes, and could not find a place to buy them.
Azwar could communicate with survivors, whereas the aid organizations who came en masse could only guess what people needed, and could only distribute what higher ups in offices halfway around the globe decided that people needed.
Azwar contacted his friends in Jakarta and got people to donate basic necessities. He soon rented a small house, giving 12 local men, who had lost their families a place to stay. They became part of his new organization "Forum Bangun Aceh" (FBA). As time went by, Azwar started a micro loan program for people who had lost their businesses. Around Aceh, one could find road side food stalls with the FBA logo. "Becak,s" a local style of taxi consisting of motorbike with a little wagon attached, were purchased by drivers who had lost theirs. Fish drying, auto detailing, and more bore the FBA logo. People kept their dignity by paying back the money they had borrowed as they could afford to do so. That money was then recycled to others who needed micro loans.
Now, 7 years later, I was teaching a weekend dance workshop for Bellydance Jakarta, in a posh suburb of spacious homes and shining shopping malls. The owner and director, Christine Yaven had also been in my book "40 Days and 1001 Nights", as a foreign educated Chinese- Indonesian woman with a love for Middle Eastern dance. Since that time, she has pioneered the popularity of belly dance in Indonesia, with four locations of "Bellydance Jakarta" classes. I was teaching a workshop, then performing at the year end recital of her students- featuring 60 dancers onstage.
Christine told me "I want you to meet my friend Sandra. He works a lot in Aceh and can tell you what is going on there now." The three of us met at a coffee shop in a six story shopping mall. He told me how Aceh has recovered and is now prospering…That I might not recognize it now. He asked where I lived in Aceh.
When I told him about the FBA house, he said "Azwar is a friend of mine. He lives in Jakarta now".
We called Azwar, who said "Meet me at Starbucks, Grand Indonesia (another mall)." He was waiting, with a young man from Aceh named Fawzan. Recently, Azwar had been been bestowed with a "Community development award" from the United Nations.
Now, he focuses much of his time on a "youth leadership" project, in which young people from Aceh compete with their achievements and community work. The winner goes to Australia. Azwar feels that living among other cultures changes lives and changes people's perspectives about one another. Fawzan had been the most recent awardee. He had recently returned from Australia and was on his way back to Aceh.
Azwar said "I want the people from this program to contribute to their communities, like a ripple effect. Their benefit from the Youth Leadership Program inspires them to help their community."
Christine met us at Starbucks. During the conversation, we found out that her top dancer, Mia Badib often went to Aceh as a translator and knew Azwar. What a small world! Azwar and Fawzan promised to attend Bellydance Jakarta's end of the year dance recital, where I would be the guest artist.
A few days later, I taught a workshop at the Bellydance Jakarta studio. In addition to Christine's students, some dancers came from as far away as Kalimantan and Sumatra (10 hours by bus.) The first woman to enter was named Yanti. She removed her Islamic head scarf, but kept a long sleeved top over her work out pants. She explained that she was a physics professor at the local university. She had been studying online with the famous dancer, Suhaila Salimpour. Often, each dancer forms her own teaching style and techniques that help students achieve the best results. As teachers, our styles can differ greatly. For example, Suhaila teaches achieving the movements with bent knees and using the glute muscles to shimmy. My style keeps the legs long, but knees relaxed, like sponges. To achieve the movements, we change weight through the feet, allowing the hips to follow the feet. both Suhaila's and my style work well, but our techniques are different. The first day, Yanti had a lot of difficulty, but after sleeping on the idea of using her feet, she did well the second day.
The following Friday was show time at the "Manhattan Club" in Jakarta's Bobudor Hotel. It was a luxurious and lavish show place with a two tiered stage and professional lighting, reminiscent of a 1930's movie set.
One may wonder how, in a country that is over 90% Muslim, do women choose to become belly dancers.
There is a large Chinese minority, as well as many from East Indian heritage and Yemeni Arab heritage, in addition to Indonesian.
Christine is of Chinese descent, and was raised Christian. She began studying belly dance in New York and continued in Australia. When we met, in 2005, she had returned to Indonesia. There was no place for her to study, but she wanted to continue dancing. I was the first overseas teacher that she hosted, introduced by Sherlyn Koh, who had organized workshops for me in Malaysia. At that time, Christine organized my workshops in a ballroom in Jakarta's Chinatown. All of her students were Chinese, with the exception of one Italian woman.
An interesting phenomenon is that in most areas of South East Asia, the majority of belly dancers are Chinese.
I returned to Indonesia in 2007, and taught in the newly opened "Bellydance Jakarta Studio". She then organized a 4 day teachers training retreat for me to teach in a Javanese spa in the jungle (in 2008). Dancers from Malaysia, China, Norway, and Indonesia took part. In 2009, I taught again, and now in 2012. Christine is an excellent, classic Egyptian style dancer with a professional dance company. Bellydance Jakarta has expanded to four locations around Jakarta.
Now, although she has many students of Chinese descent, some of Indian and some foreigners, there are also Muslim women taking belly dancing. Her longest and very accomplished student, Mia Badib is of Yemeni descent, with an earthy Arabic style. Another, who was in the show, performed with a black head scarf that matched the black hair of the other dancers, and she wore a flesh colored lycra turtleneck top under her sparkling bellydance bra and belt. Others perform in student showcases when there is a folkloric dance where the costume covers their stomaches.
Above the Manhattan Club were several luxurious karaoke rooms that we could use as dressing rooms, complete with balconies from which to watch the show from above. I could see Azwar and Fawzan in the crowd. After my first performance, during intermission, Christine, Mia and I went to greet them. It was like a seven year circle had been joined, after "40 Days and 1001 Nights" beginnings in Indonesia. In a country with ---islands and a population of----, finally, my community organizing friends from Aceh and bellydance friends from Jakarta were joined together.
Check out my new studio website; www.ZamaniCulture.com