SYNOPSIS:  About a graveyard.  About foreigners in Indonesia.  About meeting Katrin and Tempest from the USA (sort of).   About a rock concert, and some more thoughts on Sharia law.

Once there were 40 such cemeteries in Banda Aceh or did that refer to Aceh Province? I was not clear from the context in which I read that. Over time, they fell victim to urban developments, were lost, forgotten, destroyed, or overgrown.  But this one remained.  And without knowing anything else about it, I will use what is in front of me to tell a story.

And for those of you new to this blog this is how it works:  I usually can’t do much research on these trips.  It is too time-consuming and often technically impossible.  I do that when I come home and you can do it on the spot as you read along, but I am here to tell the story on the ground.  Sometimes, I am off, sometimes right on.  This is one of those times, when I will have to conjecture based on the material remains in front of me.

The Kherkhof is located right behind the Tsunami Museum.  The Dutch word Kherkhof is very close to the German Kirchhof, and means church yard, referring to a cemetery.  Over 2200 people are buried here.  Before the Tsunami, there was more than one tombstone on every square meter.  Now, the graves are spread out much more sparsely.  But a sign pointed to 50 crosses without names that had been placed on an area of open lawn in honor of all the graves that were lost in 2004. 

This is known as a military graveyard and I expected something like Arlington in Washington, D.C., unified graves of fallen soldiers, but this one was different.

For starters, it is amazing that there is any cemetery honoring the dead soldiers of an enemy army.  Bloody battles happened in this region.  For the Dutch, these battles were among the most devastating they ever fought.  Thousands of lives, if not tens of thousands of lives were lost on both sides.  For the Acehnese, these battles were fought for national pride and against colonialization.

A caretaker couple lives on the ground whose job it is to open up and close, to keep the guestbook going, and to keep the graves and the grounds clean.  The couple’s laundry graced the shrubs in front of their living quarters and made for a nice still life.  Laundry with Graves.  🙂  The man spoke no English, the woman very little.  I asked her what the date of the most recent grave was, but she could not answer that.  She was very kind, but of not much help.  She had a guidebook of the cemetery in Indonesian, Dutch and English which seemed to be quite detailed, but was way too big to carry around for the next 60 days.  Many graves were marked with numbers and these were the ones whose individual history was known and preserved to some extent.

My first surprise was to find a large number of graves of women.  The inscriptions, some of them readable, others faded, or lost altogether or in parts — referred to mothers, grandmothers, even children. 

Not only the Dutch, but the Chinese, Arabs, Indians and all others who came to Indonesia for the wealth of its resources, came originally as traders, and they were men.  When they settled, they married local women, who were then considered foreigners.  Their children, too, became foreigners and most of them lived in designated ethnic quarters outside of the Indonesian towns.  They needed the permission of the local king or sultan to settle and they often had quite specific functions assigned to them.  For example, the settled Chinese might became tax collectors; the settled Dutch might specialize in ship building and so on.  By no means did the Dutch originally come as colonizers.  They were among several groups of Europeans and many others.   But over time, things changed.  I hope to visit one of those “Arab towns” and “Chinese towns” in one of the future cities on this trip. 

Islam came to Indonesia not through war but through trade.  Banda Aceh is considered the entry point of Islam.  Arab traders had a big and established network of trade routes.    Early conversions are often attributed to the advantages it brought to local kings as they could join these networks only after their conversion to Islam.  Once a ruler converted, the population was required to follow.  That is not to judge the appeal the religion itself might have had.  But it certainly was a factor.

But back to the graveyard:

Another surprise were graves with names clearly not Dutch.  There was an area with Indonesian, perhaps Malaysian names.  It is known that the colonial powers conscripted locals to fight at their side.  Perhaps, once you were part of the Dutch army and died in battle you would be buried with the Dutch.  Was that an honor?

Most likely not.  The son of one of the local Sultans, Iskandar-Muda, is buried here, too! (The son’s name is Meurah Pupok.)  He was known as a troublemaker, sentenced to death by his own father!  I am sure there are some juicy stories out there about him…  He is buried here.  This, clearly was a burial of shame and a sign of outcasting.  His grave today stands out as the one beneath the largest tree, surrounded by an iron fence.  His tombstone along with a handful others, is clearly indigenous, resembling the ones I had seen at the historical museum.  Curiously, the carved end posts were wrapped in clothes.  I asked the caretakers about this and even they did not know, why.  That was strange, indeed.  Who did the wrapping if not they?  Was that for conservation purposes?  So many questions.  Perhaps, you back home can find out?

But the most surprising section of the cemetery was an area filled with graves with clearly Jewish names.  1/2 of the tombstones were written in Dutch, the other half in Hebrew.  From a glimpse at the book, I gathered that not only military personnel were buried here, but also merchants, the Jewish and Chinese graves most likely among them.  Only about a dozen of the Jewish graves were left from what seemed to have been a sizable number. 

There have been many days of heavy wind and rain in this region.  The ferries going between Banda Aceh and Pulau Weh Island had been suspended for several days due to 4- and 5-meter high waves, leaving people stranded at both sides.   The caretaker couple obviously had not been keeping up with all the fallen tree branches.  But many graves clearly had been given a fresh coat of white paint and a touch-up of the lettering in black.  The brick pavement of the cemetery, which I had seen in older photographs, must have been damaged during the Tsunami and had been replaced with much less attractive concrete.  A few of the tombstones were broken and had fallen over.  But the main avenue was lined with flowering pots and there was no trash anywhere.  It is one thing to leave a cemetery like this to its fate, it is another, to actually take care of it and honor it.  I would not have expected anything like this.  I was impressed.

At the cemetery I ran into two women, Katrin and Tempest.  Both are from Wesley College in the US.  Katrin is a professor of geology from Germany and Tempest a graduate student in geology from Hawaii.  And there was I.  Three “American” women. 

Katrin has been in this area many times, studying the effects of the tsunami on the region.  For Tempest, like for myself, this was our first visit here.

We decided to have lunch together at an open restaurant that had been set up as part of a T-shirt fair.  A number of stalls lined an avenue of the city park adjacent from the cemetery and a rock concert (in fact rap and rock), performed by a band of young Acehnese, was in full swing.  I recorded a few minutes of it, or so I thought…  I could not believe my ears!  A rock concert in sharia-ruled Aceh?!   And then it turned out that I pushed the wrong button and I have no proof of this, not even a single photo.  Darn!

When I asked Linda about the rock concert, she confirmed that live music of any and all stripes was no problem in Aceh.  But …   dancing at a wedding is not OK, but a live rock concert is OK, I asked?  Yes, the live music is OK, but at night, when the fair will come to its peak, the audience will sit separated by gender and just listen.  No dancing.

I see.  At least I think, I see.  To be honest, I am rather confused.  This seems to be a quite random application of sharia law picking one thing and ignoring another.  Who is making the decisions on what is and what is not OK?  It must be the local Walli Nangroe.  I hope I got that title right…  I have seen his pictures on billboards and I have driven by his mansion.  According to Linda, he is the religious authority of Aceh province.  In conjunction with the government he makes decision.  In fact, authority lies with him in all religious and cultural matters.  This system seems to be similar to Iran where there is a division between the “secular” government (in a theocracy nothing is entirely secular) and the chief imam. 

You just can’t judge a book by its cover.  Stereotyping obviously does not work.  There may be a doctrine out there, somewhere, and sharia as it may be understood by scholars or professors is one thing.  But the variations on the ground as sharia is practiced are remarkable.  From all the countries I have seen so far that practice one or another form of sharia (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran), I have to say the Indonesian variation is the nicest one yet.     

Good night.