09 July 2004

Circumcision: A Sensitive Etymology

So Linus [a Javanese Christian] lived with the idea of decay, a precious world in dissolution. His recent trouble with the young Muslims of Yogyakarta was like part of the new uncertainty.

"I write a short cultural essay for the local paper. I was in charge this year of the Javanese and Indonesian literature section of the Yogya art festival. In one of my columns I tried to present the Javanese music that still lives in our society but is not popular today. In the gamelan there is an instrument called the sitar, and a group called sitaran. As far as I know, people use this sitaran group at weddings and circumcision ceremonies. I tried to understand the custom of circumcision. I know from the Old Testament that the prophet Musa introduced this custom, and Musa is Jewish. Jewish in Indonesian is jahudi [= Yahudi] and circumcision is jahudi-sasi [see below]. I wanted to make a historical-cultural point. To make for a better festival. I wasn't touching the Muslim custom only, because Christians here also practice circumcision. Today it's not only a religious thing, but a health precaution.

"I went to the paper, the office, on Thursday afternoon, two days after, to get my money for the article. Seventy-five thousand rupiah." About thirty-five dollars. "And the journalists told me that some young Muslims had just brought some leaflets to the newspaper. The leaflet said, 'Hang Linus. Linus mocks Muslims.' They were trying to stir up the students."

I said, "Weren't you expecting something like that?"

"I was surprised. I thought that if someone doesn't agree he would write in the newspaper against what I had written. Maybe they have a crisis of identity as a young generation. They are young people who have not finished in the university.

"I came home, and in the morning some soldiers came here with a captain and said, 'Linus, what did you do? Did you mock the Muslims?' I said, 'No.' The captain had a copy of the article. He said he didn't see any reference to Muslims. Then he said, 'And now we will all go to Yogya. And follow me, please.' We went, to the fourth level of the local command."

It was Linus's way of expressing the seriousness with which the army took the affair.
SOURCE: Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (Vintage, 1998), pp. 82-83

Hmm. Something's not right. My Kamus Inggris-Indonesia (Cornell, 1975) lists only two base forms for circumcision: sunatan (> penyunatan) and khitanan, and doesn't list anything like sasi at all (except sasis 'chassis'). The root khitan, like most kh- words, is probably from Arabic, but sunat has an interesting alternate definition: "2. skim money off the top of a budget so that the grantee gets only a portion. Anggaran y[an]g lima belas juta itu di-[sunat] lima Five million were taken from the budgeted 15 (so that the department received only 10 million of the amount allotted)." The second practice ('skimming') seems far more universal than the first ('skinning').

I wonder if "jahudi-sasi" is Javanese (not Indonesian) for 'Jewish rite'. Compare Javanese sasi Muharram (Muharram being the first month of the Muslim year). But, in that case, the order should be sasi Jahudi because modifiers generally come after nouns in Indonesian and Javanese, as in French or Spanish.

Moreover, there is a sasi meaning 'taboo' that seems to be more common in Maluku and eastern Indonesia, far from Java. Could Naipaul's Linus, the Javanese Christian, have been a Christian of Moluccan ancestry?
Sasi: a varied family of customary practices and laws (or rules) which establish limitation of access to individually or collectively controlled territory and/or resources. To place sasi on an area means to put into effect a time-limited prohibition on entry and behavior within that area. Individual trees, as well as entire regions of orchard lands or "wild forest", might be placed under sasi (ZERNER, 1994:1118)

In the Moluccas of eastern Indonesia, customary practices to control access to resources are generally known as sasi in which harvest of selected coastal and land resources are subject to particular regulation. The function and history of sasi are diverse. For instance, sasi lola (trochus shell) spread extensively throughout the Moluccas in the mid 1970s when economic demand for the shell neccesitated control over its harvest while sasi lompa (sardine-like fish) is found only on Haruku Island and its origin may be traced back several hundred years. [Note that the modifying noun that identifies what the taboo applies to always follows sasi.]

Land and marine resource ownership in Irian Jaya is historically clan-based. But when Indonesia took over Irian Jaya in the late 60's, the Jakarta government declared that all land belonged to the state by law. The traditional community-based system of marine resource management called sasi forbids the use of specific resources for a designated period of time in order to allow them to recover.

No comments: