SYNOPSIS:  About my new accommodations and the owner Linda Nurdin.  About Sharia Law and its peculiar practice in Aceh.  Sorry, the blog got kind of long…

It turns out that Auye, whom I had met last night and who met me at the Hotel Lobby of my dungeon hotel this morning, knew of a “homestay” as bed and breakfast options are called around here.  He had heard me complain bitterly about the noise at Hotel 61 and the lack of internet.  For $30 per night, he would fix that.  Without asking any further questions — I soon realized that that was a mistake — I packed up, ready to move.  To hell with this hotel.  At 5 AM the generator had started to grind, and despite my sleeping pill, I could not sleep a wink after that. 

I checked out.  As Auye kept going and going, further and further away from town, I recognized my error.  I should have asked where that place was…  I only had one choice now and that was to go with the flow I created.  About 10 km later, Auye turned into a small alley leading into an affluent neighborhood.  A few hundred yards on a bumpy road lead us to a big iron gate.  This was a mansion!  And so was every other house on this street; some older ones, some under construction.  Each had its own garden, a one or two car garage, and ceramic-glazed roof tiles; these things cost a fortune!  Well, this certainly was a change of scenery.

The owner Linda Nurdin, a well-known radio anchor and journalist had left the key under the mat.  We let ourselves in. Wowho!  There must be 4000 square feet or more on this one-level marbled home.  You can walk a full circle around a central room and the circle area really are full-sized rooms flowing into each other.  There are open areas, seating corners, dining rooms, and a parlor.  Off that roomy hall are the bedrooms, eight in all, of which Linda rents out five.  She lives in two of them and her youngest son is in the third.  But nobody was home.

I picked a room and went about the day’s business with Auyi.  He had mentioned $30 per night.  Well…  When I returned and met Linda, the story changed.  The room I had picked was $50.  But she did have a $35 room, a $40 and a $60 room.  The $40 once again (like Hotel 61) had no windows, but a beautiful Western-style tiled bath.  The $35 came with a squatter toilet and no shower, but the traditional setup of an indigenous bathrooms: a big tiled sunken square that gets filled up with water, and with it comes a small bucket you use to pour water over yourself.  But this room had a view of the garden.  I have always been a ‘form over function’ kind of a person and there was no question where I would live.  It’s time I get used to local customs anyhow.  And no matter which room you are in, even the $60 only has cold water and flimsy toast with margarine for breakfast…

I have to say in Hotel 61’s defense that it put out a beautiful breakfast spread with a variety of local foods, one of which I absolutely loved, called bubur: lentils cooked in coconut sauce, delicious and filling for the day.   My kind of breakfast. 

But obviously, I can’t have it all. 

At night I met Linda.  She was on her way to a wedding, and in her beautiful red silk dress looked absolutely stunning next to one of the huge bushels of fake roses displayed on every table in this house.  The house is an interesting mix of kitsch, ingenious design, lack of taste, and grandness. 

As contradictory as the style of the house, seemed the owner herself.  A warm, welcoming woman who is shrewd as can be.  No bargaining.  Even the drive to the airport she quoted me — her son driving their car — was double the going price compared to a taxi.  She is divorced, highly accomplished, obviously well to do and open minded, but still conservative in so many other ways. 

We talked about Sharia Law, obviously one of the reasons I came to Banda Aceh and of great interest to me as I am trying to understand Islam in its various forms and facets; not just as it is known as a doctrine but as it is lived on the ground.   Aceh province is one of three provinces with special status (Papua and the Sultanate of Java are the others).  Aceh’s special status has a long history you can look up online (click the highlighted words in this blog — thanks, Emily, for hot-linking!).  One of its most controversial features is the legal system, which differs from the secular law governing the rest of Indonesia.  Sharia law is Islamic, God-given law.  It is practiced in other countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran

I can’t speak about Saudi Arabia, but between the other three, each country has its own idea of what God really meant.  Same old story…  in Indonesia, God is very tolerant.  About 90 percent (I have also been quoted 95%) of the population in Aceh is Muslim.  But no sign, not even after a few days here, of extremists.  How can I tell?  Well, there are outward signs of strict (extreme) Islamic interpretations: the man with his four wives in niqabs at the airport was one of them.  Women here, however, dress in colorful robes and head-scarfs (hijabs).  They drive motor bikes, walk around alone, they are educated, own businesses and property, can divorce, make decisions, and seem to be — as far as I can tell from just looking around — happy, confident, and comfortable with themselves. 

Non-Muslims, including foreigners, do not have to cover.  They are not subject to Islamic law and do not have to pay the jizya (an extra tax required under strict Islamic law).  From colonial times there seems to be still one church in existence in which Christians can practice their religion.  Hindus have one Hindu Temple.  Neither of them are obvious or marked on any map; that’s why I have not yet found them.  I will keep looking. 

The three main offenses that get you in trouble with Sharia are gambling, sex before marriage, and alcohol.  For these, punishment is for now, public lashing.  Linda told me that these are public events and that people who are subjected to this, usually move away because the shame associated with this spectacle is just too hard to bear.  According to Linda, 80% of the population voted to implement Sharia Law.   She herself is in favor of it.  Crime rate is down substantially compared to anywhere else in Indonesia.   Even I can tell that this is an extremely safe place to be.  There may be the occasional quoting of inflated prices, but there is no cheating.  You do not have to recount your change — it will be correct.  You do not have to watch your bags constantly, they will not be stolen.

Some areas affected by Sharia law I could make out so far are: there are no movie theaters, young couples can date but not touch and cannot be alone anywhere.  Meeting and chatting in family settings or in public places is OK.  There is no dancing at weddings, for example.  But there is music everywhere, rock, rap and pop music, you name it.  That seems to be no problem.  In Afghanistan under the Taliban this would not fly for even a day.

Linda told me that the province has voted and approved the full implementation of the law for thievery and adultery:  cutting off of hands and stoning respectively.  It is currently hung up at the Indonesian government level that does not want to approve the move, pressured by the international community.  Non-Islamic Western countries deem this kind of treatment inhumane.  The Indonesian government is caught between a rock and a hard place.  But, as Linda pointed out, if you don’t get into trouble, there is no problem, right?

When I told her that in the West we take it for granted that you can criticize religion and your government in public, in blogs, in private, she seemed surprised.  Of course, nobody in Aceh would dream of saying anything negative about Islam or the government — but she seemed not to see a problem with that.  In fact, this is a phenomenon I have seen many times.  We in the West hold Freedom of Speech as one of the rights most dear to us.  Most people in other regions of the world don’t seem to even know what we are talking about.  Why could that possibly be so important?!

Respect for other religions seems ingrained in people around here.  Linda pointed to the Koran as the origin of this tolerance.  When I pointed out that the persecution of other religions is also part of the Koran, she resorted to more cultural values for the open-mindedness of the Aceh people: the Garuda Bird with five signs on its chest, symbolizing the philosophical doctrine of national unity of Indonesia known as Pancasila.  In (very) short:  this is a synthesis of Islam, Marxism and indigenous values put forth by Sukarno in 1945, now enshrined in the Indonesian constitution.  What is most important for the discussion here is that the star symbol represents the faith in God.  Nothing more, nothing less.  That faith can be expressed through Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, or any other native religion!  So here is a case in which a recent cultural philosophy trumps Sharia Law and/or the Koran.  Extremists may argue with this and rebel against this.  But the fact of the matter is that the Indonesians as I have seen them in Sharia-ruled Aceh have embraced this principle in full.  And if they can do it here, I expect nothing less in the other, more secular provinces. 

What an interesting discussion this was.  Worth the entire move, and worth all the extra money spent!

Let’s have a good night sleep.   

10 comments so far

Add Your Comment
  1. I know what you mean with the different view on the freedom of speech. I experienced the same whilst travelling Birma. And it’s hard to explain to my friends here who easily judge other countries because they think the way we live here (in Germany) is the best way. But the thing is, it’s just the only way THEY know. I think about this often.

    Loved how you went with the flow as you realized you’re homestay is far outside.

  2. What a fascinating discussion – hope you have more experiences like this to complete or just to add to the picture of what part religion plays in everyday life.

  3. Thank you for the explanations about their practice of Sharia law. Question: is it different in the big cities like Jakarta, Surabaja?

    • Cilla, Banda Aceh is a special province for the very reason that Sharia law is practiced there. It is the only province in Indonesia even though the entire country is predominantly Muslim. All other provinces have a secular government and follow secular law set down in a constitution.

  4. Your travel protectors seem to be there in force on this journey.

    Fascinating adventures already. Usually my first morning read

    Many thanks for this continued sharing,

  5. Liebe Tochter, ein Gruß am Geburtstag von Aaron – der aber in Wachau gefeiert wurde. Ich bin froh, dass du nun ein ruhiges Quartier hast. Ohne guten Schlaf ist das alles gar nicht durchzuhalten. Die Linda scheint ja sehr gut Englisch sprechen zu können, dass ihr solche anspruchsvollen Gespräche führen könnt. Super für dich! Alles verstehe ich natürlich in deinem Bericht nicht, aber es ist zu viel um die Worte alle nachzuschlagen. Ich denke, so grob verstehe ich es schon.
    Gute Nacht! Mutter

  6. For more on freedom of speech, see this latest comment:

  7. Interesting discussion, indeed! Thank you for relating this; and I look forward to more such observations.

    You wrote: :I am trying to understand Islam in its various forms and facets; not just as it is known as a doctrine but as it is lived on the ground.” In all of my presentations, I distinguish between Islam and the practice of Islam because, logically, they cannot be the same. In order to understand the Islamic world, we need to make that distinction. Islam is the body of doctrines from the Koran and Muhammad. The practice of Islam, as you have been observing in your travels, may or may not conform to the doctrines. To the extent that the practice does not conform to the doctrines, the practice can be tolerant to one degree or other. The problem is that the doctrines, starting with the Koran, will always be a force for hatred, intolerance and violence toward those Moslems and non-Moslems who do not stick closely to the doctrines.

    I would quibble with your conclusion that “each country has its own idea of what God really meant. Same old story… in Indonesia, God is very tolerant.” Those who promote tolerance must do so over the heads of the Islamic religious authorities and against what the Koran and Muhammad command. The county’s laws do not reflect what the country thinks about God; they rather reflect the particular balance of political and religious forces within the country. The balance can change as certain forces become more or less influential. Islamization is usually a slow process, but the tendency seems to be moving in that direction, even in Indonesia. It has been going on for eight hundred years, and we have not seen the end of it yet.

    You are right to note that their notion of freedom of speech is quite different from ours. Even Europe does not permit freedom of speech like we (still) do. Our constitutional right to freedom of speech includes what leftists and Moslems call “hate speech”. In Europe, it is illegal to insult or defame someone else’s religion. This means that criticism of Islam is illegal. This is exactly what the entire Moslem world has been striving for: the criminalization of criticism of Islam.

    You write that “Respect for other religions seems ingrained in people around here.” Be careful of jumping to conclusions. See if you can speak with local Christians and Hindus and get the details.

  8. So glad for your good fortune! What a beautiful “homestay.” And intelligent company from whom to learn about the local culture and traditions – a big plus. Sharia – the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. How does one recover from extreme disabling, disfiguring “shaming”?

  9. That homestay your found looks clean and comfortable…and with windows.
    Interesting stuff about Sharia.