Leiden, the Dutch city
of poems

By Ida Indawati Khouw

LEIDEN, The Netherlands (JP): Only two people in Leiden are believed to be able to read a poem written on the wall of the Koninklijk Instituut voor Tal-Land-en-Volkenkunde (KITLV, the Royal Institute of Linguistics and Anthropology).

For most passers-by the poem, which is written in the Buginese language, appears to be merely graffiti on the building, nothing more. Maybe not many Buginese, natives of South Sulawesi, would be able to understand the poem either.

The work of the anonymous 19th century poet was inaugurated by the institute's chief librarian, Roger Tol, on June 23, 2001, as part of the celebrations of the institutes 150th anniversary.

The blue ""curves and dots"" of the characters, called lontarak, read: I have wandered everywhere,/but never has my eye lit on/greater wisdom than here.

The lines contain deep meaning but only Tol and the editor of the KITLV Press, Sirtjo Koolhof, can read them. Another person, painter Jan Willem Bruins, claims he can understand the poem ""by intuition"".

Unlike Buginese poems in general, which are narrative, this particular poem is in the form of long (song), said Tol.

""long usually consists of three lines each with eight, seven and six syllables per line. It's good for KITLV because it has a totality in its meaning,"" he added.

Tol explained that the poem had a Sufic message that in the end, wisdom (God) is in the inner self and one does not need to go outside themselves for it.

""The poem was chosen because it has uniqueness in every aspect: there is almost no one who is able to read the characters now, whereas Buginese literature is very important because, for instance, there is almost nobody that knows that the Buginese La Galigo is the biggest epoch in the world. It is even bigger than the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. If it was fully published, it would fill 36 volumes and about 20,000 pages,"" said the scholar who is active in the association of oral tradition in Indonesia.

The Sufic message of the long seems to echo along with the movement of the water in the Witte Singel moat, just in front of the KITLV office where the poem is found. One who can hear the ""echo"" is the painter Bruins.

""The long was the 81st poem I painted on Leiden's walls and one of the poems written in a language that I don't understand. But I do feel the message of every poem I paint,"" claimed Bruins.

That is why when he was given a printed copy of the long he immediately knew that one character was missing. ""I felt that the poem was not flowing.""

Bruins draws Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew and Russian characters with no problem.

""I usually read the poems so many times that I can just visualize the texts in my mind. So when I start painting the words are just flowing,"" said the man who, with Ben Walenkamp, established the Stichting Tegen-Beeld (Contrastive Images Foundation) 10 years ago, with a focus on the mural poetry project.

The foundation, which has published the book Dicht op de Muur (Poem on the Wall), began the project in October 1992. It originally set a target of painting 100 poems by 2000, but the project will not be completed by the end of this year.

Another of the foundation's projects is holding annual poetry reading contests.

In 30 languages

Walking around the small town of Leiden, you can enjoy beautiful canals, parks, windmills and the great Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde (the National Museum of Anthropology). And besides these wonderful attractions, the mural poems written in 30 different languages are a must-see.

They are painted on public buildings as well as on private houses, sometimes in orderly lines, but also in a circle, curve or wave.

The poems are accompanied by their English and Dutch translations on transparent plaques.

""We want to show something from different cultures. We hope that the paintings will arouse a feeling of respect for other cultures,"" Bruins said.

The poems are concentrated primarily near the center of town, painted along the building fronts.

The place to begin a tour of the mural poems is the Grand Cafe Stadthouder in the city center, where Bruins has painted a map showing the location of all the poems.

Besides the long, you can also find poems by Chairil Anwar, Aku (I) on Kernstraat 17a, and by Ranggawarsita on Kraalerstraat 34.

Not just the world's great poets are represented. ""We base our choice on content. To find the poems we collect poetry books from all over the world,"" said Bruins.

He chooses the lettering for the poem on the spot, using different types and styles of letters for each poem.

""For instance, I chose letters that looked like bird beaks when I painted a poem about the voice of birds,"" said Bruins, ""Indeed, the letters have to explain the poems.""

The mural poetry is a private project of the foundation and it wants to keep it that way. ""For instance, I never make money from the project. I make a living through my job painting buildings,"" added Bruins, in his 60s.

The city administration provides a subsidy of 1,000 guilders per painting, which cost about 6,000 guilders. Despite the financial aid, the foundation retains its independence.

""We are never willing to paint poems at the instruction of certain people or parties. Once we refused an order to paint a poem to greet the queen (Beatrix) when she visited Leiden last year. No one can tell us what to do,"" said Bruins .

Local residents generally like the poems in their neighborhoods, though some have wondered when the project will end because there are too many poems.

But Bruins will continue to paint Leiden's walls until he reaches 100 poems. ""We have decided that the 100th poem will be the work of Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet.

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