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Everyday Islam: Abidah El Khalieqy’s Mataraisa

‘But what has happened in our era? If just one vocal daring woman steps forth and speaks of the inequalities of the age and criticizes the establishment, especially those who hold authority, then she is immediately muzzled!’

By Abidah El Khalieqy

This is the third in a six-part series on literature in translation from Indonesia. Read the first, an interview with translator and founder of the Lontar Foundation, John McGlynn, here, and the second, an excerpt from Leila S. Chudori’s novel Home and an essay on why Leila S. Chudori chose to write about Indonesian political exiles post-1965. Look out for more on The Margins in the coming months.



Series Introduction

Last month, Indonesia was the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the first time a Southeast Asian nation has been chosen to showcase its culture at the world’s largest and most important publishing event. Indonesia’s slogan for this event, “17,000 Islands of Imagination,” evokes the commonplace of Indonesia as “an imagined nation,” and perhaps indicates that even the national organizing committee doesn’t know what keeps this country together. Inspired by Frankfurt, AAWW decided it was a perfect occasion to introduce a series on Indonesian literature in The Margins.

Our occasional series, spread out over six months, is designed to showcase some of Indonesia’s most gifted writers and give readers a flavor of an expansive literary tradition that weaves together cultures, histories, religions, languages, and myths.

In this third installment, we feature a writer, Abidah El Khalieqy, whose novels and stories delve into the often clashing—sometimes violently—versions of what it means to be a Muslim in Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. Indonesia’s Islam is so often described as moderate and tolerant that it has become a cliché; the landscape is actually much more complicated and contested. (Indonesia’s population is 87% Muslim, overwhelmingly Sunni, though there are 2.5 million Shi’a, and a sizeable minority of Hindus and Christians.) Last month, five churches in Aceh were forced to close, and Shi’as and Christians across the archipelago have faced threats and violence from Islamist militant groups. National and local politicians, in a bid to win conservative Muslim support, advocate regulations forcing women to wear headscarves or prohibiting them from straddling a motorcycle. There are a lot of progressive Muslims, too, who push back against these conservative campaigns, and in Indonesia’s struggling but vibrant democracy defining Islam is a central theme. This is also true in the nation’s literary landscape.

Abidah El Khalieqy, who was born in East Java in 1965, offers a distinctive and vital voice in these debates because she writes as a Muslim woman critical of many ideas and practices of everyday Islam. Since the fall of the New Order regime in 1998, an Islamic revival has taken place, especially among the aspiring, urban middle class, and a whole genre of writing that idealizes Islam is popular. Many of these novels have been turned into blockbuster movies, including one called Ayat, Ayat Cinta or Verses of Love, that paints a rosy picture of polygamy. El Khalieqy challenges idealized Islam, telling stories of pious women taking on the patriarchy of religious ideologues. Her novel Perempuan Berkalung Sorban, or Woman with a Turban, also became a film hit, but it tells of a woman who rejects the limits placed on her by an Islamic teacher, known as a kyai, and goes on to create a school that treats women equally. In El Khalieqy’s fiction, Muslim women fight to find their way in a male-dominated world where polygamy and domestic violence is too easily accepted.

The following is an excerpt from El Khalieqy’s 2012 novel, Mataraisa, or Eye of Raisa, translated by Joan Suyenaga which revolves around a young Muslim writer named Raisa Fairuza who longs to be taken seriously. Raisa has become well known enough to be invited to launch her book at an Islamic school, where she is attacked by the kyai, Kopiah Miring, for writing secular, liberal, even communist words. The story below describes the encounter.

—Margaret Scott and Jyothi Natarajan


The novelist Abidah El Khalieqy
The novelist Abidah El Khalieqy



From Abidah El Khalieqy’s Mataraisa
Translated by Joan Suyenaga


Raisa Fairuza, a gracious woman, a tireless traveller, walked without hesitating through crowds of blasphemers. She looked straight ahead, never once glancing to the left or right, because she felt that the ideal life was ummatan-wasathan, the middle path of the just.

It was very unusual for her to be forced to step down from a podium for any reason, whether by the ashabul yamin, the group of the right or the ashabul syimal, the group of the left. Life is a beautiful rainbow. And, as with a rainbow, differences should be appreciated and enjoyed, not debated and argued. The more colors there are in the rainbow, the richer life’s treasury is. And so much the richer are the hearts of the aficionados and adventurers. Such is the earth’s journey.

However, as people sniff the fragrance of Karun perfume, it seems that they are more willing to be spiritually poor than financially poor. And they are especially unwilling to be poor in matters of appearance. Witness the grandiose performance of Kopiah Miring, commonly known as Ko-Mir.

Pointing straight at Raisa, Kopiah Miring began the prologue to his accusations. “Since she dares to enter the tiger’s cage, I will skin her completely! Then she’ll leave, possessing nothing but her name!”

A heavy silence descended on the vast campus auditorium. Six hundred santri and university students were shocked at the vitriole expressed by this man whom they had respected and feared all this time. How could they not be shocked? He had spoken in such terms in front of hundreds of young intellectuals and the mass media, casually borrowing the language of tigers. Raisa’s heart fluttered, terrified. Everyone held their breath as they waited for Kopiah Miring to continue.

“I am a mufassir, a commentator on the holy Quran! I study the verses that came from the sky! The thing I hate the most in this world is this, what all of you call a n-o-v-e-l!”


He threw the book on to the table. It hit a glass of water, splashing him with water. He shook it off as the moderator hurriedly called for someone to clean it up. Kopiah Miring’s rheumatism flared up, causing sudden cramps in his hand and arm, but he did not retreat. He dismissed the person who was going to clean up the spilled water and returned to his accusations, chanting syllogisms.

“This novel was published by FF, so it must be Liberal. Now, L means Marxism and M means Communism. In this country, C means P-K-I, the banned communist party! So this is a Confucius novel! It’s Beijing! It’s Karl Marx!”


He threw the book back on to the table, striking the replacement drinking glass. It spilled and the glass shattered. His eyes bulged. Again the moderator called for someone to clean it up, this time in a panic because Kopiah Miring’s eyes were bulging as if he had a meatball stuck in his throat. A splinter of broken glass had cut his foot. The moderator was flustered and didn’t know what to do. Raisa felt sorry for him, so she quickly got up from her seat, approached Kopiah Miring and bandaged his wound. Kopiah Miring wanted to refuse her help, but his joints had cramped again. Silently, he watched Raisa who, though her heart was pounding, remained calm. But when she saw his reddened wild eyes, her fear returned.

The archangel Gabriel had apparently not yet arrived to discipline the arrogant ones. Little pharoahs wandered about everywhere, safe and comfortable, because the sound of the trumpet of the archangel Israfil, who was going to destroy the mortal universe, had yet to be heard. Raisa patiently returned to her seat to the right of the moderator. She took two gulps of water, to quell her fear and anger.

Raisa felt alone and friendless, surrounded by critical eyes that condemned her mercilessly. She felt as if she actually was in a tiger’s den about to be clawed to shreds, as Kopiah Miring had threatened. Rabbi isy-rahli shadri wa yassirli amri wahlul uqdatan min al-lisani yafqahu al-qauli. She silently uttered her personal devotional prayers, sending them to the sky, to the lap of the One who Resolves All Problems.

Meanwhile, Kopiah Miring relaxed and resumed his assault. As a young man he had been trained in the language of reasoning and rhetoric.

“Students! Do not believe one letter in this cursed book! From A to Z, it is just a string of heresies! I am afraid that anyone who reads this book will become a heretic like the infidels in it!”

Unexpectedly, the audience responded in unison, “Huuu! Huuu!”

Momentarily stunned, Kopiah Miring sat down briefly, but then got to his feet again to continue his attack on the ‘infidel book’ that he held in his hand. As if he were some sort of expert literary critic, he ranted on without rhyme or reason.

“Just look at the title, ‘Sapphire Woman’. If you look at the contents, the title should be ‘Hammer and Sickle Woman’.”

Another spontaneous response arose from the audience, “Huu! Huu!”

The students pounded their fists on the tables. The santris were also angry. They were disappointed with Kopiah Miring who, until that day, they had always looked up to and respected. If Socrates drank the pill of death willingly, then Kopiah Miring was now spitting that pill out in the presence of his santris and students. If Hallaj headed towards the gallows with a smile, then Kopiah Miring was now taking delight in hanging his own santris and students.

The local paparazzi were busy taking close-up photos of his teeth. It was extraordinary. Kopiah Miring posed for them like some sort of celebrity. Raisa glanced in his direction and could not help laughing. Oh, weary world! She sighed. As high as a person may fly, if he is fated to fall, in the end he will plunge into a black ravine.

Reacting to the hu hu response of the students, Kopiah Miring quickly toned down his rhetoric.

“Just a minute! I’ve only reached the comma, I haven’t reached the real point. Be patient! You seem to have forgotten, Innallaha ma’ashshabirin, Allah is with those who are patient.”

Oddly, his change in tone did not influence the wounded feelings of the audience, who replied with another choral huuu. Kopiah Miring was distressed. When he advanced, he got hit; when he retreated, he also got hit. It just made his stubborn will harden to stone and steel. I’ve been half-hearted, he thought. Now he would attack more aggressively.

“This supposedly famous author seems to have forgotten about God. With the movements of her agile fingers in writing this book, she has shamed God and insulted the Prophet, shallallahu ‘alaihi wa alihi wa sallam, the blessings of Allah and peace be upon him!”

Hearing the word ‘Prophet’, the audience shouted ‘shallallahu ‘alaih, the blessings of Allah!’ Kopiah Miring glanced in Raisa’s direction, searching for proof of his accusation. He was thrilled with what he noticed and he shouted, “Look! Look at her! Upon hearing the Prophet named, she is silent. There’s the proof! She’s a hammer and sickle, isn’t she?” His accusation rang through the hall as he pounded the table.

The moderator and Raisa were both taken aback. The other commentator, a literary critic, could barely contain his rage. The paparazzi zoomed in on close-up shots of the two faces: the furious Kopiah Miring and the anxious Raisa. She was alone and friendless in the nest of a python the size of a mature coconut palm. She prayed silently, Rabbi la tadzarni fardan! God, do not forsake me alone!

Rabbi ishrahli shadri! Lord, give me fortitude! Raisa continued to utter the prayer of the prophet Moses as he faced the mighty Pharoah, who seemed to own the entire world and everything in it. He even claimed to know what was in the hearts of men so that he could easily judge them. A was an infidel, B was stupid, C was crazy, and D was straight as an arrow. He didn’t care that he himself would be categorized as neo zaraf, new craziness, symbolized by the casual graffiti that creative young people left on street corners.

“I am your god! Your god!” shouted the Pharoah, puffing out his chest. Who would have thought that he would end up drowning in the Red Sea, gasping for breath. A god that was out of breath and scared half to death, watching Israel floating above his head. Then it perched on his back, extracting his soul inch by inch, pulling it out, pushing it back again, pulling and pushing over and over again as if pouring tea, until everything was writhing. A tsunami suddenly arising out of the sea.

A tsunami of body and soul, razing everything down to hell!

And Moses was being served bread and quail.

The moderator, whose bias had been evident from the start, and who clearly did not understand the role of ‘moderator’, was flustered and did not know what to do. Finally he invited Raisa to speak. However, because she was daydreaming about the bread and quail that the prophet Moses was dining on, Raisa was startled to hear her name called. She tried her best to take hold of the microphone.

Rabbi isyrahli shadri wayassirli amri wahlul uqdatan min al lisani yafqahu al qauli. Raisa greeted her audience, opening with the word ‘bismillah’, in the name of Allah. Her voice was rough, a bit guarded, but assured. She greeted everyone warmly, especially Kopiah Miring who had done his best to demolish her—like a bulldozer razing homes in the slums to make way for a new plaza.

“We live in a society that does not tolerate criticism,” began Raisa. “If we are praised, we are pleased. If we are granted our wishes, we want more. But if we are criticized just once, then we get angry as if our beards are on fire. Even though criticism is a sign of love.”

The entire audience immediately applauded. Raisa wanted to steal a glance at Kopiah Miring, to look at his eyes and see what was written behind the window to his heart, but her position between the moderator and Kopiah Miring did not allow her to do that. She resumed speaking.

“In his time, the Prophet was also once defamed by a woman of the Madinah community. She criticized the Prophet very harshly, to the point where the Prophet could not reply. We know that it was Allah who answered her with a flash of divine radiance. The Surah Al Ahzab, verse 35, is the first egalitarian verse to descend from the sky. It has become a source of pride for us because it is indicates that the emancipation of women was broadcast centuries ago—not from the West, but from the Arabian peninsula, from Madinah, a modern city with amazing women who are smart, critical and dominant in their families.”

Applause rang throughout the room again. Several santris whistled, possibly in approval, but also possibly mocking those on the panel who had expressed different opinions on the topic of discussion. Journalists, local and national, who had been sitting at the back of the auditorium, stood up to search for a good camera shot. The university students smiled, glancing at Kopiah Miring, and returning to look at Raisa who was as calm as Toba Lake.

“But what has happened in our era? If just one vocal daring woman steps forth and speaks of the inequalities of the age and criticizes the establishment, especially those who hold authority, then she is immediately muzzled!”

Enthusiastic applause filled the room again.

“That is the difference between the eras. They still use the term ‘ittiba’ Nabi, ‘ittiba’ Prophet, follower of the Prophet. In what ways are they followers of the Prophet?”

Even though it was not his time or place to speak, Kopiah Miring suddenly interrupted her by grabbing the microphone, as if this was a session of the legislature in parliament. It was in fact an intellectual forum, a book launch held in order to further knowledge, and there were rules that the moderator should have maintained.

“Just a minute! Listen to me for a moment! This woman is dangerous!” Kopiah Miring pointed to Raisa. “She is misleading you. She cites the story of the Prophet, but she actually wants to deceive all of us. I don’t know whether she actually understands religion or not. She may understand a little, enough to take us down the wrong path. So I warn you, be careful!”

He replaced the microphone roughly. The audience was silent, holding their breath to see what the moderator and Raisa would do. Maybe a magical figure would suddenly appear and lighten the atmosphere. Raisa was unsure whether to continue speaking or wait for the moderator to give her a sign. She looked at the moderator, who was equally confused. Irritated, Raisa took over the role of moderator.

“Have you finished interrupting me, Pak Kyai?”

There was a brief pause in proceedings. Evil spirits passed through the room and the walls seemed to close in. There were coughs, ahems and an uneasy shifting of bodies—maybe they were constipated.

Despite her annoyance at Kopiah Miring’s lack of response, Raisa did her best to contain her anger. Clearing her mind, she felt that the the test of human strength was to endure an attack in the name of passion. Such endurance required her to contain her fury, so she resumed speaking and decided that she would not let herself be bothered by any further interruptions from Ko-Mir. She would simply ignore them.

“This book is nothing other than an expression of my deepest love to the flowers of the future, to all of you.”

There were whistles and rousing waves of applause. The word ‘love’—any form of love—often inspired positive and beautiful associations amongst the young.

“It’s true that sometimes the gift of love does not receive the response that is hoped for. It can be misunderstood, which may be what has just occurred. My love is unrequited!”

Amused, the audience laughed. Everyone looked around in search of that sorrowful look of someone who shared the same fate, someone whose love for their heart’s desire had been refused. The students smiled shyly, recalling memories of thwarted love. One of the santri students suddenly called out, to noone in particulat: “Poor thing …!”

“Such is my fate,” Raisa answered and everyone laughed. “The reality of our lives does not always match our prayers. Our lives are also filled with ‘upside-down days’. We hope for love, but only get insults. We dream of embracing the moon, but instead we get chased by the devil.”

Hahaha! This was a “gimme” moment for the journalists. The hall resounded with cheers; eyes lit up. There was just one person whose behavior was out of sync with everyone else, one person who was restraining himself from looking at the joyfulness in the crowd. To do so would degrade his image of his own perfection. The ineffectual moderator just kept nodding his head as if he was the wisest person present and fully understood the situation.

Upon closing her speech by uttering “wassalam”, may peace be with you, Raisa received warm applause from the audience. It was completely beyond her expectations. Although the room did not have air conditioning—it had only six fans—Raisa was refreshed by the wonderful reception. As the snacks were distributed, the audience listened quietly to another speaker, a literary critic, discuss Raisa’s book.

It was the hottest part of the day. The discussion, scheduled for two hours, had stretched easily to three. As soon as the moderator closed the program by uttering “wassalam” and the speakers stood up, the audience crowded around Raisa to ask for her autograph. Surrounded by students, like ants around sugar, Raisa was overwhelmed by the heat. She asked for two fans to be positioned on either side of her, and for a recording of Solomon singers.

Her books were arranged in piles of ten. There were several stacks of them lined up. The manager arrived to organize the autograph session and suggested that she use a stamp with her name on it, but everyone protested and asked for the author’s authentic autograph, since she was here in person. Although she was soothed by the smooth singing voice of Fairuz, Raisa almost fainted, but she told herself that she could endure the booksigning session and, in the name of love, she focused all her energy onto her beloved fans.

“So it seems that my love might not be unrequited after all?” She attempted a joke as she finished signing the 600 books. They responded cheerfully by asking for so many group photos that Raisa’s lips were frozen into a stiff smile.

“Sweet, pretty Mbak Raisa, thank you for coming to our campus. This has truly been an honor. We hope that you will not forget us and that you will forgive the rudeness of Pak Kyai,” said one of the students—apparently the president of the student senate—at the end of the meeting.

“It will all become knowledge, for you and for me. Be devoted in your commitment as Muslims. Always remember the courage of Fatima Zahra, the heroism of Hindun binti Rabah, the piousness of Maryam al Bathul and Rabiah Adawiyah. My regards to Pak Kyai who refused to accept an offering of pure love.”

“I will deliver your regards, Mbak.”

“Good. I’m serious!” Raisa could not restrain a cheeky smile.

Outside the auditorium, Kopiah Miring was amazed to see the enthusiasm of the santris and students wanting to speak to Raisa. He was very curious to know what they were talking about, what they were up to. Unable to restrain himself, he asked a member of the organizing committee.

“What are those students doing inside?”

“Well, since the author herself is here, they’re asking for her autograph, Pak Kyai.”

“Her autograph on a sheet of paper?”

“No. In the books that they bought.”

“Some of them bought her book?”

“All of them, Pak Kyai. Six hundred copies were sold!”

“Damn! Masyaallah! God forbid! Did I not declare that every letter in that book is misleading?”

In a relaxed tone, unbothered by the sour expression on Kopiah Miring’s face, and with a simpering smile, the committee member answered, “Why, even I bought one, Pak Kyai. In fact, I bought three, one as a gift for my cousin who is getting married soon and one for my fiancee, hahaha. I also asked for her autograph. Wow, she signed it in Arabic, it looks like Kufic calligraphy, Pak Kyai.”

“Damn it! You’re all deaf!”

Kopiah Miring left in a rage without farewells. He was furious. The world was coming to an end, he thought. His own book, Honorable Woman, published five years ago had sold less than five hundred copies. How could a heretical book like hers be sold out—six hundred copies—in just a few hours? What kind of magic did this deviant author possess?

This is my second most hated thing, he thought to himself: having to talk about a heretical book only to see it make the sales of the book soar. Damn that devious spider’s web of writers, publishers, distributors, managers, and students. Even my own santri students! Just by inviting that heretical writer here, were they not automatically participating in the book’s socialization?

Kopiah Miring was in a spin, trawling through this chain of the deviants and arriving at a conclusion that he found unfathomable. How was it possible that his own students, some of whom had memorized the Quran, could be tempted to purchase a work of heresy? There must be some kind of black magic in that damned book. In the cursed author as well. Weren’t writers like her followers of the devil? Roaming about, lost in a jungle of words. Smiling self-indulgently, they became absorbed in the pleasure of a single letter in the valley of words and proclaimed their findings as valuable pearls of wisdom. What kind of empty talk was that if it was not the speech of a devil of the primeval forest and the oration of a crazy person?

Heaven forbid that my own mind has been contaminated after being in contact with them! This is serious! I must keep my distance from them. To hell with the literature that they say imitates the language of the Quran. It’s clear and simple: the Quran is the sacred revelation that descended from the highest sky, Lauhil Mahfudz. It is not poetry or a literary creation of the Prophet. Even more so, it is not the creation of a poet who is lost in a forest of words. The soothsayers also like to make mantras. They say that a mantra is also literature. I blame that Arabian poet Umrul Qays, creator of the Mu’allaqat poems!

Umrul Qays was the most famous poet from the pre-Islamic era. Although he was the son of of a king, he preferred to travel, camp near desert springs, get drunk and roast prey for wild parties. And what about Nizami, the legendary writer who wrote a book that is said to be an important and major work about a crazy person, Layla Majnun.

Crazy people write about crazy people.

Those who are misled and lost are easily impressed by lost souls.

Kopiah Miring continued cataloguing historical figures in history who reminded him of Raisa. He thought about Omar Khayyam, the drunkard who wrote poems in praise of wine, even though the other drinkers said that the wine was bitter.

Kopiah Miring allowed himself a wry smile as he recalled that the song was a favorite of Farhan, his oldest son. In fact, he himself had unintentionally memorized the lyrics because his son played the song every morning instead of the wonderfully melodious murattal, the sung Koranic verse of Syekh Abdullah Al Matrud. Kopiah Miring began to make a mental inventory of such instances; surely there was a factor of sorcery at play. Yes. Sorcery.

Sorcerers performed sorcery and poets wrote poems. Although there were differences between them, they shared a similar essence—same path, same rhythm—he concluded. The only difference was that sorcery was older than poetry, dating back to when the angels Harut and Marut descended to earth in Iraq thousands of centuries ago. Poetry, on the other hand, could be traced back only to, perhaps, the birth of Homer in Greece, said to be in the seventh century before Christ. Homer may have been suffering from a serious case of stress, so he wrote a serious book with the title, if I remember correctly, The Odyssey. A friend just back from university in the land of the Sphinx told me the story.

And I’ve heard that my old friend went a bit crazy after studying those poems. It astounds me that there are still followers and devotees of crazy heretics, for whom life is only games and laughter. But luckily there still are the serious-minded who continue to remind people of the hereafter, who remain consistent on a straight path. Again, Kopiah Miring shook his head.

“It’s very strange, Mi,” he complained to his wife whom he called Ummi Farhan, meaning Farhan’s mother.

“What’s strange, Pa? Why is your forehead so furrowed upon your return from campus?”

“These are strange times! Everything is just crazy!”

“What’s that? Strange and crazy? Hasn’t it ever been thus?” Ummi Farhan answered casually.

“Not really, Mi. There were many good things in the past, but now everyone is racing to get to hell!”

“If it’s about heading for hell, hasn’t it been that way since Cain killed Abel, his own brother?”

Kopiah Miring stopped to think. Ummi Farhan, his clever, critical and beautiful wife, was right. Although past the prime of her youth, Ummi Farhan was still attractive with an inner beauty that she nurtured every day. The popular but tempermental Kopiah Miring always conceded to her. People said that Ummi Farhan had the power. Her strength was a decisive factor in their marriage.

“That’s right. But I don’t understand how the lies written by that stupid woman can be so captivating to the youngsters, including our own santri? Even my own students!”

“Ah, is that true? I don’t believe it!”

“It’s true, Mi. That stupid woman writes lies!”

“Writes about lies or composes lies?”

“What’s the difference? She has given birth to lies and our young people have been enticed to read them. They bought that book of hers—it’s nothing but lies and heresy!”

“You mean the novelist?”

“Yes, who else? They’re the only ones in this world who enjoy selling lies and deviance. No one else is as crazy as that!”

“You do know that novels are works of fiction. Of course they are about a made-up world of lies. But their meanings and missions are noble; they are for teaching, for enlightenment. That’s why the experts say that a work of fiction is a noble lie. You’re so behind the times!”

Kopiah Miring gasped. Behind the times? Was it not Ummi Farhan, who spent twenty-four hours a day sitting around the house, at the most going to the prayer house at the girls’ dormitory, who was behind-the-times and old-fashioned? How could she call him ‘behind-the-times’? Kopiah Miring was bewildered. He wanted to see what her response would be if he refuted her opinion.

“Noble lie? That’s the first time I’ve heard that, Mi. It’s a paradox.”

“That’s why you should open your windows wide to the world, then you’ll see that life is full of such paradoxes.” Ummi Farhan’s tone was becoming more strident. Kopiah Miring, Farhan’s father, was at a loss for words.

“How could that be?”

“I’ve been reading that Muslim philosopher al Ghazali. Here’s what he said: ‘Marriage liberates the hearts and minds of men from the burden of managing the household and from the need to cook, sweep, clean, and manage the necessities of life. If a person does not possess the desire to live with someone at his side, it will be difficult for him to own his own home because he must do all of the household tasks. He will waste time and will not be able to focus on his work and knowledge.’ My question, Pa, is: what about the wife? How can she devote herself to a religious life and the search for knowledge? Did al Ghazali, whose knowledge was so broad, ever think about that? Why is it that women don’t seem to have anything to do with religion and knowledge?” said Ummi Farhan, smoldering. Kopiah Miring was bewildered.

“W-w-what? Nothing to do with religion and knowledge? Yes, of course women are concerned about these things. Al Ghazali probably just forgot to mention it, Ma.”

“A great thinker, an Islamic scholar, forget about the fate of more than half the Muslim population? Is this not an example of an absurd paradox? To give one’s all to one half of the society while forgetting about the other half?

“But what’s the connection between al Ghazali and that heretical writer?”

“There’s no connection, but the clear context is life’s paradoxes. Fiction is indeed a ‘noble lie’. That’s what it is. If you don’t believe it, then you wash the dishes and I’ll go to a religious discussion to search for knowledge. If you want to know about the law, then ask al Ghazali. Wassalam, peace be with you!”

Ummi Farhan strode out of the door and headed towards the prayer house. Kopiah Miring wanted to be angry with his wife, but he was powerless in her presence. He could never be angry with or debate her. No matter where he was, no matter when, he never forgot how difficult and exhausting it was to be married to a woman who was smart, critical and beautiful, the daughter of an important religious teacher to boot. When he was speaking with his wife, Kopiah Miring would have to be prepared to be left, alone and adrift, having to return the bride price, which only comprised a complete set of prayer robes that Ummi Farhan had never once worn. She owned ten fashionable prayer robes from various Middle East countries.

Ummi Farhan was well travelled; she had visited the Middle East for seminars and lectures and she had been to a conference in Beijing. Kopiah Miring allowed her to go because Ummi Farhan would always say uthlubul ilma walaw bissiin, one must search for knowledge even as far as Chinese interpretations of the hadith. What do have to say about that, Ko-Mir? That was Ummi Farhan’s nickname for Farhan’s father, the man who liked to wear his fez at a slant, Kopiah Miring, Ko-Mir.

Salamualaikum, peace be with you, Nyai. How are you?” A young woman wearing prayer robes greeted her at the prayer house. Ummi Farhan gazed at her for a long time, trying to remember who on earth she was, and coming to the conclusion that she’d never actually met her before.

Ummi Farhan knew almost all of the santris, at least she knew the kinds of clothes they wore. This woman was different. The look in her eyes was sharp, assured, self-confident. She was still young, but knowledgeable and mature. They gazed at each other, then the unknown woman introduced herself first.

“Let me introduce myself, Nyai. I am Raisa. Raisa Fairuza.”

“Raisa is the one who spoke at the discussion in the auditorium, with Pak Kyai,” said one of the santris standing next to Raisa, ignoring Ummi Farhan’s surprise. Ummi Farhan greeted Raisa warmly.

“So you’re Raisa?” Ummi Farhan was still puzzled, recalling those deeply etched furrows in her husband’s face. So this was the woman who had upset her husband so. Ummi Farhan laughed. Raisa was confused, thinking that Ummi Farhan was laughing at her name.

“Yes, Nyai. Raisa. It’s a funny name, isn’t it? Or perhaps a bad name?”

“Oh, no. Raisa is a very good name. Doesn’t it mean ‘woman leader’? What’s more, Raisa Fairuza, which means ‘woman leader who shines beautifully like a pearl’. Your mother must have been a skilled linguist to have composed your name; she must have had a feeling for language and high aspirations for her daughter.”

Insyaallah, God willing, Nyai. My mother was indeed a linguist, but only in her mother tongue, ha ha. I hope that all is well with you.”

“Thank you, it is. Later, after prayers, please stop by our house if you have time. I would like to have a chat with you and share our experiences.”

Raisa was taken aback for a moment, imagining meeting Kopiah Mirina again if she went to Ummi Farhan’s house. He might skin her alive. However, if she did not honor this invitation, then she might be considered arrogant, disrespectful of a respected ustadzah, female religious teacher. Unsure of what to do, Raisa replied by saying bismillah, in the name of God.

Insyaallah, God willing, Nyai, I’ll drop by.”

When the public prayer was finished but before she was finished with her private devotional prayers, Raisa’s cell phone rang. She quickly turned it off but it rang again. She left the prayer house so as not to bother the other people who were still praying. The caller was her manager, Fozan Ibadi. He was waiting to whisk her off to another city; her schedule that day was very full.

“Give me just thirty minutes to visit Bu Nyai’s house.”

“We’re already an hour and a half late, Raisa. Come on, get your act together! Or do you want to disappoint the other guests?” asked her manager. He was being rather manipulative because the talkshow appointment in the next city was in fact still six hours away, and the journey there was only two hours.

The manager knew about Kopiah Miring’s discussion with the committee about how Raisa’s book had sold 600 copies, and how everything about Raisa annoyed Ko-Mir. He thought there was no reason for Raisa to visit Ko-Mir’s house and risk being treated brutally by him.

Given her manager’s keenness for her to leave immediately, Raisa took her leave from Ummi Farhan and begged her forgiveness.

“That’s alright. Perhaps Allah will give us another opportunity some other time, Raisa. Have a safe journey and keep up the good work. Write about your future and the dreams of your generation. I support you!”

Raisa’s eyes almost popped out of her head; she wasn’t sure that she had heard correctly. Ummi Farhan nodded her head slowly, reassuring Raisa that she had indeed understood her correctly. Spontaneously, Raisa embraced Ummi Farhan, thanking her several times. She was very touched and her eyes glistened with happy tears. It truly was an astonishing moment.

Who would have thought it: Kopiah Miring was surreptitiously watching this scene from behind his front door. He punched his fists into the empty air, challenging the sun, which had forgotten to send warmth for his soul. There were only ashes left; Ko-Mir was scorched, languishing.

Good morning, world!



The Lontar Foundation        New York Southeast Asian Network

This series has been made possible by the Lontar Foundation and the New York Southeast Asia Network