25 June 2004

Naipaul on the Pesantren Palimpsest

V. S. Naipaul has a keen sense of the palimpsest that is Indonesia.
In 1979 Mr. [Abdurrahman] Wahid and his pesantren [think madrassa], the Islamic boarding-school movement, had been thought to be at the forefront of the modern Muslim movement. The pesantren had the additional glory at that time of having been visited by the educationist Ivan Illich and pronounced good examples of the "deschooling" he favored. Deschooling wasn't perhaps the best idea to offer village people who had been barely schooled. But because of Illich's admiration the pesantren of Indonesia seemed to be yet another example of Asia providing an unexpected light, after the obfuscations of colonialism. And a young businessman of Jakarta, a supporter of Mr. Wahid's, arranged for me to visit pesantren near the city of Yogyakarta. One of the pesantren was Mr. Wahid's own; it had been established by his family.

There had followed two harrowing days: looking for the correct places first of all, moving along crowded country roads between crowded school compounds: usually quiet and sedate at the entrance, but then all at once--even in the evening--as jumping and thick with competitive life as a packed trout pond at feeding time: mobs of jeering boys and young men, some of them relaxed, in sarongs alone, breaking off from domestic chores to follow me, some of the mob shouting, "Illich! Illich!"

With that kind of distraction I wasn't sure what I was seeing, and I am sure I missed a lot. But deschooling didn't seem an inappropriate word for what I had seen. I didn't see the value of young villagers assembling in camps to learn village crafts and skills which they were going to pick up anyway. And I was worried by the religious side: the very simple texts, the very large classes, the learning by heart, and the pretense of private study afterwards. In the crowded yards at night I saw boys sitting in the darkness before open books and pretending to read....

Before Islam they would have been Buddhist monasteries, supported by the people of the villages and in return reminding them of the eternal verities. In the early days of Islam here they would have remained spiritual places, Sufi centers. In the Dutch time they would have become Islamic schools. Later they would in addition have tried to become a more modern kind of school. Here, as elsewhere in Indonesia, where Islam was comparatively recent, the various layers of history could still be easily perceived. But--this was my idea, not Mr. Wahid's--the pesantren ran all the separate ideas together and created the kind of mishmash I had seen.

While we talked there had been some chanting going on outside: an Arabic class. Mr. Wahid and I went out at last to have a look. The chanting was coming from the verandah of a very small house at the bottom of the garden. The light was very dim; I could just make out the teacher and his class. The teacher was one of the most learned men in the neighborhood, Mr. Wahid said. The pesantren had built the little house for him; the villagers fed him; and he had, in addition, a stipend of five hundred rupiah a month, at that time about eighty cents. So, Islamic though he was, chanting without pause through his lesson in Arabic law, he was descended--as wise man and spiritual lightning-conductor, living off the bounty of the people he served--from the monks of the Buddhist monasteries.
SOURCE: Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (Vintage, 1998), pp. 22-23

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