Thursday, January 23, 2003

29. RAMADAN

Three days after I had taken ten-year-old Oman to the Menteng Hospital in Bogor there was an early evening phone call from a nurse at the hospital. She said that Oman was making good progress, but, the medicine had run out and I must come to the hospital immediately to buy some more. I explained to the nurse that I had already given Joko, the child’s father, more than enough money to pay for a further ten days typhoid medicine. The nurse said that the family claimed they had no money left to pay for the prescription.

Having had a quick supper, I got my driver to hurry me to the hospital in Bogor. Oman’s cheerful, chunky, poorly-dressed mother, accompanied by a bubbly-nosed toddler, was waiting at the boy’s bedside. Oman looked a little less grey and cadaverous.

"A few days ago I gave Joko the cash for the next lot of medicine," I said to the mother, trying to sound as stern as possible. "What’s happened to it?"

"I don’t know," she said, looking totally unflustered. "He hasn’t given me any."

"I gave him plenty," I growled.

"It would be better not to give him money," she said, in a matter-of-fact sort of way. It seemed that the lady did not necessarily have a high regard for her husband’s honesty.

I bought the required pills and handed them over to the nurse. After a quick visit to the women’s ward to see Nurul, whose septicaemia seemed to have made her flesh worryingly dark, I set off to Joko’s house. Joko, wearing a glittery shirt, was seated by his front door; he was playing chess with a shifty-looking friend.

"What happened to the money I gave you for Oman’s medicine?" I asked, with a combination of anger and nervousness.

"I haven’t got it," he said, keeping his eyes on the chess pieces.

"You know I gave you plenty."

"I had to pay for transport to the hospital," said Joko, giving me a quick glance with his untrustworthy eyes.

"I gave you enough for food, transport and loads of pills. The bus only costs a few cents. What happened to the cash?"

"It’s finished," he said, as he made his next chess move.

"It’s your son that’s sick," I said. At least I assumed it was his son. "What would have happened if I hadn’t come to the hospital this evening?"

There was no reply. He looked unmoved.

I glanced inside Joko’s house. Was that a new suite of furniture and were these new toys lying by the door?

I was going to have to get my poor driver to visit the hospital during the following days in order to buy the next lots of medicine for Oman.


A week and a half later I returned to the Menteng Hospital. A very young and pretty nurse told me that Oman had recovered from his typhoid and gone back home. But, Nurul, Oman’s aunt, had died as a result of her blood poisoning. I called in at Oman’s house to commiserate on the death of Nurul, and to remind the family that Oman would need to return to the hospital later in the week for a check up. Oman was painfully thin, but he was a normal colour and he was playing with a large plastic toy car.

When Oman’s father, Joko, emerged from a back courtyard, I prepared to launch into a verbal attack. But Joko presented me with a parcel, inside which was a black and gold batik shirt.
"Thank you, Mr Kent," said Joko, grinning.

We shook hands and I wondered if I had slightly misjudged the man.


"Lots of Indonesians getting ill recently," I said to Tom, as we sat down to a beer in the bar at the middle-range Marco Polo Hotel, "It’s amazing how many people get typhoid and TB."

"Too true," said Tom, who was looking vaguely in the direction of a long-legged young Indonesian girl seated on a black bar stool.

"I came across a kampung kid who nearly died of typhoid."

"They die of tetanus every week in the kampungs," said Tom, looking serious.

"And how are things with you ?" I asked, knowing that Tom had invited me out to talk about his girl problems rather than typhoid.

"Better. I’ve done a deal with Kuntil."

"What happened?"

"We had a long talk. I stayed quite calm about it all. I said she could have fifty million rupiahs and that was my final offer. She accepted and I got her to sign a piece of paper in which she promises to make no more trouble. We shook hands on that."

"That’s a lot of money."

"I wanted the thing settled. The lesson for me is that I’m not going to try any more long-lasting relationships with the locals."

"Long-lasting?"

"If I meet a girl in a bar, it’s for that night only."

"You don’t want to settle down?"

"The trouble with Kuntil was that, although she was nice to begin with, after a few weeks of living at my place there were problems. Things started to disappear. Money went missing. She asked for money for her relatives."

"Are you sure it was her that was taking things?"

"I found one of my watches in her handbag. Now, how could I marry a girl I couldn’t trust?"

"I see what you mean. But you did meet her in a karaoke bar."


We were into 1993 and the Moslem month of fasting, Ramadan, had come round again. I was seated with Carmen, my small, bubbly, middle-aged colleague, in the front room of my Moslem neighbour, Mr Samsu. A kindly, white haired, little polar-bear of a man, Samsu had not long retired from teaching science at a local university. His modest bungalow was full of books, many of them in English and many of them about Islam. Carmen and I liked to call in on Samsu because we could have a serious conversation with a Moslem who was traditional rather than orthodox. Traditional Moslems, the majority in Indonesia, tend to be more liberal than orthodox Moslems.

"Ramadan," said Carmen, beaming, "it’s a difficult time of year for me. My maid’s going off to East Java, to Surabaya, for the ten day Idul Fitri holiday. How am I going to survive? I’ve almost forgotten how to do housework."

"We have a maid," said Samsu, in a gentle voice, "but my wife has always got involved with the housework."

I looked at the spotless floor and at the cobwebs on the ceiling. In Indonesia, floors always seemed to have a higher priority than ceilings.

"Ramadan is supposed to remind Moslems what it feels like to be one of the poor," said Carmen, with a friendly giggle, "what it feels like to be hungry."

"Exactly," said Samsu, who was looking slightly grey, either because of the fasting or because of the room’s dull lighting. "As it says in Islam, unless you want for your neighbour what you want for yourself, you are not a faithful believer."

"How many Moslems and Christians remember that?" said Carmen, with a guffaw. "Think of all the religious leaders who have wanted to stone people to death. Would they have wanted themselves to be stoned to death?"

Samsu chose to ignore the remark. "Here’s another quote from Islam," said Samsu, gravely. "‘The man who goes to bed with his stomach full, while his neighbour is starving, is not a believer.’ Now think how many hungry people live around here, and think how many full-bellied Moslems and Christians there are in the rich neighbourhood of Pondok Indah."

"I heard of someone in the Ministry of Religious Affairs," said Carmen, "who allegedly owns four large houses and three large cars. Shouldn’t he be giving extra money to his maids?"

"What I’m worried about," I said, "is that my maid wants extra money, not because she’s hungry, but because she wants to buy posh clothes for the Idul Fitri holiday, and buy expensive travel tickets. I gather that ticket scalpers see this time of year as a chance to put up the price of bus tickets by three hundred per cent."

"It’s like Christmas," said Samsu, eyes twinkling. "Some people forget what Christmas is supposed to be about."

"More stories in the papers about Moslems and Christians in Bosnia," said Carmen, stirring things up. "Two years ago it was Iraq and the Gulf War."

"Always lots of problems," said Samsu.

"I saw some graffiti on a wall," continued Carmen. "It was graffiti supporting Saddam Hussein."

I decided to sit back and just listen to the two of them. They seemed to be enjoying themselves.

"Ignorant youth," said Samsu, grinning and shaking his head. "I don’t mean you. I mean the graffiti artist. Moslems are meant to support love, not war. ‘God does not love aggressors.’ That’s Chapter two, verse one hundred and ninety, from the Koran."

"So, is Saddam an aggressor?" asked Carmen.

"I was thinking the graffiti was perhaps aggressive," said Samsu, with a diplomat’s smile. "As for Saddam, let us consider some History. When the Turkish Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, the British created Iraq out of the Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basrah. Kuwait was part of Basrah, but the British decided to keep Kuwait for themselves. Some people might say that Saddam was taking back land that should rightly be part of Iraq."

"Why is Saddam popular with some Indonesians?" continued Carmen.

"Because another neighbour’s land has been invaded, and that invasion has been supported by the United States," said Samsu, looking hard at Carmen to see her reaction.

"Another invasion?" asked Carmen.

"Israel has taken lots of Arab land," said Samsu, without any trace of aggression, "and Saddam is seen as someone who can stand up to Israel. Don’t forget that the Americans created the Saddam problem. Saddam was almost certainly put into power by the CIA."

"You think it’s like the mid-1960s," said Carmen.

"The mid-1960s," said Samsu. "That was when the CIA put the military into power in Greece."

"I was thinking of a different military," said Carmen.

"Think of 1963," said Samsu. "The Iraqi Prime Minister, Qasim, was not doing what the Americans wanted. Saddam was one of the people who helped to topple Qasim in 1963. Saddam was useful to the Americans, just as the Ayatollahs in Iran were useful to the Americans. Saddam killed off left-wingers. The Ayatollahs killed off left-wingers. America probably helped to topple the Shah of Iran when he became too powerful and independent. Of course the Americas did not want either the Ayatollahs or Saddam to become too powerful, so they encouraged Iraq and Iran to go to war in 1980. The CIA gave help to both sides in the Iran-Iraq war. In 1990, the Americans achieved their aim of getting military bases in Saudi Arabia, thanks to Saddam’s adventure in Kuwait."

"The Americans are responsible for a lot of the world’s problems," said Carmen. "For a supposedly Christian-led nation, they can be very aggressive."

"Moslems are only allowed to fight back after there’s been continued injustice and oppression," said Samsu, smiling happily. "You remember when the Christian Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099? They killed every man, woman and child in the city. Saladin was merciful by comparison."

"I also saw some graffiti attacking Jesus," said Carmen.

I was definitely going to stay right out of this. Did Carmen want a war?

"Well that’s silly," said Samsu. "The graffiti, I mean. In the Koran, Jesus is described as a great prophet who cures people of sickness. Let me look it up in this book. Yes. ‘Jesus, son of Mary, highly distinguished in this world and in the next world, and one of those who is near to God. He is one of the righteous.’ That’s Chapter three, from verses forty five and forty six."

"But Moslems don’t see Jesus in quite the same way as Christians?" said Carmen

"Moslems worry about Jesus being seen as identical with God," explained Samsu. "To Moslems, Jesus and God are not exactly the same."

"But not all Christians see God and Jesus as identical in every way," said Carmen, a woman with a logical mind. "Jesus is a man who claims to have a special relationship with God. Jesus talks to God as his father. He’s presumably not talking to himself. He talks of himself as the Vine and his father as the Vinedresser, two separate things."

"John’s Gospel," said Samsu, knowledgeably.

"And Jesus is tempted in the wilderness," continued Carmen. "Surely God couldn’t be tempted?"

"You’d think not," said Samsu.

"I think," said Carmen, sounding serious for a change, "Jesus meant that in doing God’s will, in renouncing self, he is in some way linked up with God. Jesus talks about men becoming one with God."

"I see what you mean," said Samsu. "It’s about doing what God wants us to do."

"So there’s only one God," continued Carmen. "But Jesus, and all the rest of us, can become one with God if we give up being selfish individuals and follow God’s will."

"The problem is with words trying to describe something spiritual," said Samsu. "You know the Koran suggests that we Moslems should respect Jews and Christians, the People of the Book. Let me see. Chapter two, verse sixty two, of the Koran. ‘Jews and Christians, whoever believes in God and behaves well, there will be no fear among them.’"

"What part does forgiveness play in Islam?" Carmen asked, provocatively. "You hear of people in some countries getting their hands cut off for stealing."

Samsu was too clever for Carmen. "St. Matthew’s Gospel. ‘If your hand or foot leads you into evil, cut it off.’"

"I take that," said Carmen, "as Jesus’s colourful way of saying that we should each cut the bad things out of our own lives. Our own lives, not others’ lives."

Now I had a question for Samsu. "What about the Christian idea of ‘turning the other cheek’? Would you agree with that?"

"Those who repent," said Samsu, "God will forgive them. God is Forgiving, Merciful."

"But what about turning the other cheek?" I insisted.

"In the Koran," said Samsu, "We have the story of Adam’s sons, Kane and Abel. Chapter five, verse twenty eight. Abel says to Kane, ‘Even if you stretch out your hand to kill me, I will not stretch out my hand to kill you.’"

"But what about murder?" said Carmen. "Aren’t the punishments in some Islamic countries extremely strict?"

"America, China and Singapore carry out the great majority of the executions in this world," said Samsu. "It’s the non-Moslem countries that carry out the most executions. Remember that in the great majority of Moslem countries there is no Sharia law. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan are the countries with extreme punishments, but I would suggest that if the Americans stopped interfering in these three countries, then life might become more liberal. Let me tell you a story. In a country with fundamentalist law, a man called Ali murders a man called Amin. Now, Ali will be hanged, if that is what Amin’s family want. But if Amin’s family is forgiving, Ali will not be hanged. Well, Ali begs for forgiveness. Amin’s family forgive Ali and Ali’s life is spared. That is what God would have wanted, I’m sure."

"I agree," said Carmen.

"I like the words from Jesus," said Samsu, "‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive each person who sins against us.’ In other words, if Amin’s family are not forgiving, then their own sins will not be forgiven by God."

"Let him who is without sin throw the first stone," I added, trying to keep up with my intellectual companions.

"My own view," said Samsu sinking into his armchair, "is that seeking revenge, and killing people, is always wrong."

"Right," said Carmen.

"As it says in Islam," said Samsu, "Unless you want for your neighbour what you want for yourself, you don’t have faith.’"

"It’s a pity the Crusaders didn’t think about that," said Carmen.

Samsu had the last word. "Remember that not all Christians are fanatical fundamentalists who want an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."


With Min’s brother-in-law Gani, I took Min for a walk in the direction of leper Iwan’s house.

"How’s the vegetable cart?" I asked.

"Min’s dad was out selling vegetables when he got robbed," said Gani. "Someone suddenly grabbed the cash box and ran off."

"During Ramadan?"

"People need money for the Idul Fitri holiday," said Gani.

"Is Min’s dad OK?"

"He’s got over it."

"And how’s Min getting on?" I asked.

"Fine."

Min chose that moment to spit in the direction of my face and giggle wildly. It was one of his hyperactive days and he was being playful.

"Min, don’t do that," said Gani gently. As I had observed before, Indonesians usually try the gentle approach with children.

We reached the scavengers’ kampung and found Iwan limping around outside his hut.

"You got your leprosy pills from the hospital didn’t you?" I asked, after we had greeted each other.

"Yes," said Iwan. "But remember that time you took me out of the hospital? The doctor was very angry about that. They nearly refused to see me this time."

"Are you going to your kampung in Karawang at Idul Fitri?" I asked Iwan.

"Yes."

"Make sure you’re back in time for your next lot of medicine," I said.

Iwan nodded.

Back at Min’s house I spoke to Wati, Min’s mum, who was washing clothes in an old plastic bucket.

"When Min was living at Dr Bahari’s clinic," I said, "I had Min vaccinated against typhoid and tetanus. Have the rest of the family been vaccinated?"

"Vaccinated?" asked Wati.

Gani explained what I was getting at.

"No, not yet," said Wati.

"You should all be vaccinated," I said. "If I give you the money will you go to the clinic?"

"Yes," said Wati, as she accepted a little bundle of rupiahs.

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