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JP/Sevira WirawanJeffrey Hadler is an associate professor and chair of the Center for Southeast Asia Studies at University of Carolina, Berkeley.
The man is also author of the Benda Prize-awarded Muslims and Matriarchs: Cultural Resilience in Indonesia through Jihad and Colonialism, which was later translated and published in Indonesian as Sengketa Tiada Putus in 2010.
“I’m going to tell you a story about my journey in writing the book. Ini lebih baik saya berbicara dengan Bahasa Indonesia atau English? Mana yang lebih baik untuk kalian?” Hadler said in a mix of English and fluent Indonesian at a discussion on Saturday at @america in Jakarta.
Hadler’s interest in Indonesia was ignited in 1985, he told The Jakarta Post in an interview. “I was a regular high school student from North Carolina, a small city, really, nothing compared to cities like New York or Los Angeles.
“I remember signing up for the AFS [American Field Service], which is basically a student exchange program, and I got a letter that told me that I’m going to Jakarta, Indonesia. The very first thing I immediately did was open the map and figure out what and where was Indonesia. I mean I’d never heard of the country before, but I was so excited because it was going to be far away from my homeland country.
“The memory is still crystal clear in my head, I can easily recall the moment when I first met my host family in Jakarta. My foster mother came from Mandai, where according to their cultural practice their wealth [should be inherited by] their sons. And her husband was born in Minangkabau, where their tradition was the other way around. At that time I didn’t acknowledge nor comprehend the custom difficulties that they had. I was still naïve, and lacked the knowledge to grasp the concept. When they finally unfolded the story to me, I was really fascinated with the complexity of a mixed culture. That was the first thing that sparked my interest in the culture of Minangkabau.”
When he got back to the States, he deliberately researched universities that offered Asian or Indonesian studies, saying, “It was a pretty rare major at that time, and not all universities had this program.”
Hadler was admitted to Yale to study Southeast Asian Studies, and got his master’s at Cornell. “It was at this time I saw how their topics were very concentrated around Java rather than any other cultures. So I decided to write a thesis to explore more of Minangkabau culture.”
He also reads Indonesian literature, particularly literature written by Minangkabau writers or stories that reflect the cultural heritage such as works by Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Buya Hamkah, a famous Muslim theologian. “I found that many Indonesian thinkers, or great people, came from Minangkabau. This attracted me to explore deeper into the roots of the cultural uncertainty that shocked the society there, and how it shaped them into the way they are right now.”
When asked about his experience trying to understand Minangkabau culture and his obstacles in finishing the book, he said, “Coming from America and trying to figure out all this culture is already one. I was also investigating my research in the New Order era, where everything related to SARA was forbidden to be discussed. I was inquiring into topics of ethnicity, role of gender, deep cultural practices so it was really hard for me to find information, or even converse about this because it was against the law.
“That’s why when I see the new trends of these scientists who claimed that they apprehend Indonesian culture, I don’t think it’s right. They may understand the full picture, but they don’t fully get the perspective. For one to decipher and fully grasp the concept of the culture, you must do field work, you must experience what those Minangkabau nomads were feeling. I myself went on an adventure to be able to put myself in the eyes of those men. How can you say you understand Indonesian culture if you don’t even speak Indonesian?”
Hadler taught at local Indonesian universities such as Universitas Islam Negeri before arriving at Berkeley, and lectured at Andalas University and Universitas Islam Imam Bonjol in Padang.
The man is also currently doing research on the contemporary history of Indonesia as part of his Minangkabau analysis. “I feel like I’m only starting to understand it [Minangkabau] now, so why would I want to throw away something I’ve worked on for 25 years. But I do spend a lot of time in Central Java, looking at their contemporary culture, and I’ve got a lot of interest in looking at more of the level of a national history. I have also written articles about Jews in Indonesia, and Tuanku Imam Bondjol. I am also currently reading and looking at works from Nashar, an Indonesian philosopher, abstract painter plus philosopher.”
When it comes to future travel for his research, Hadler said, “I wish I could hop on a four-hour flight to Indonesia, or I would love to just stay here, but I have my wife and kids. That’s why I try to get back every single year to investigate. I have pretty much traveled around Indonesia, to Sulawesi, Nusa Tenggara, Java. I give lectures and discussions around Indonesia, I actually just lectured in Solo last week. I am also starting a Southeast Asian
center that would include Indonesian cultures such as festivals, performances, seminars in Berkeley.”