Translated by George Mitrowijoyo
Following the alleged abortive communist coup in Indonesia in 1965, more commonly known as the September 30 Movement or G-30-S, the Indonesian military embarked on a systematic effort to purge the nation of all socialist and leftist leaning organizations, chiefly among them the Indonesian Communist Party. This purge led to the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians and the imprisonment of tens of thousands more.
Another impact of these cataclysmic events, one rarely recognized (or possibly even known about) by the general Indonesian populace, was the forced exile of thousands of Indonesian citizens who, for fear of death or imprisonment by the Indonesian military authorities, were unable to return to their homeland. Today, in Europe alone there are an estimated 600 Indonesian exiles (excluding their children and grandchildren), most of whom, having been stripped of their Indonesian citizenship by former President Suharto’s New Order government, now carry European passports or green cards. Among them are essayists, novelists and poets known as ‘penulis satsra eksil’ who through their work present part of the Indonesian exile experience, a segment of Indonesia’s social history that has been ignored for far too long.
I AM REMINDED OF A STORY by Turgenev. Earlier, without even thinking, it seems, I avoided saying hello to a friend I had seen. Luckily, the person didn’t seem to notice me. And so what Turgenev said in one of his stories about people from his country travelling abroad is in true. Travellers don’t like or, at the very least, seem reluctant to greet the fellow countrymen they accidentally meet on their travels.
Perhaps it was coincidence that it was I who avoided greeting my friend but it’s not impossible that he was also avoiding me. Thus, the word “friend” to describe that person might no longer apply. It was, after all, a long time ago when we were friends. The fact is, we weren’t even very close friends. We used to study at the same university, is all, which was a long way from both our hometowns. And Amsterdam, where we live today, is not that large a city either, so it does happen that one occasionally bumps into old friends or acquaintances. I suspect this reluctance to greet ones fellow countryman is, indeed, quite common among people travelling abroad, the exception being, of course, when one is travelling in a small group. Then, it seems as if everyone wants to talk and there’s always someone complaining that this person or that is no longer as friendly as he or she used to be. It seems like everyone shares at least that grievance. What is odd, though, is that the very same people who want to stay close and who hunger for this past friendship, don’t want to acknowledge this fact or show too friendly a face. They don’t want to share their secrets or thoughts or even their meals.
The person I am going to meet now is not a member of that sort of crowd. And anyway, I don’t belong to that crowd; there’s no one I know here with whom I can talk to in my own language. I am waiting for a woman named Halimah. We have an appointment. I can’t talk to her in my own language either. She can’t speak English and I can’t speak any Arabic, even though I’ve read the Koran from start to finish a total of thirty times. Halimah does speak French but I can’t remember the French that I once learnt and have no intention of trying to relearn it by practising with Halimah. This is why we usually speak in Dutch when we’re together although neither of us speaks the language that well. What we know we both learnt at a Dutch course here in Holland.
So what’s Halimah like? Because she’s a woman, I must try to tell you what she looks like but this creates a problem for me. If I say she is beautiful, I’m afraid that people will think I am boasting of having a beautiful friend. If I say that she is curvaceous, I’m worried that people will think I am interested in her only for sex. And if I say that she cares for me, this will make things even more difficult. You see, in the past, I often battled against subjectivism (so please forgive me for using that term in this non-political story).
But the simple fact is that we often meet. Halimah and I make frequent appointments to meet at different places in Amsterdam. We have met in restaurants, at V&D, MacDonald’s, and De Bijenkorf but most often we meet at C&A, a large and well-known department store whose motto is “C&A is toch voordeliger,” which, roughly translated, means that shopping there is always beneficial. Regardless, it certainly has not been beneficial to me but I will explain more about this later on in my story.
LIKE MANY OTHER WOMEN, Halimah likes clothes, especially beautiful and expensive ones. In the past, I would frequently offer to buy her something that she had seen and liked but, in the beginning of our relationship, she always refused.
“If you like it, take it. It will look good on you and you will look even more beautiful in it.” This, I said with complete confidence, despite the fact that my wallet would have a problem if she accepted my offer to buy the item for her.
“Why do you think I would look better in this dress?”
“I can just picture you wearing it, is all. Try it on.”
And so we went to a fitting room. She asked me to come inside the room with her. And then she took off her clothes to try on the new dress. (Earlier, when I said that Halimah was curvaceous, I was speaking theoretically but now, I must admit, that what I saw of her in the fitting room that day would verify that opinion. I’m just embarrassed to say how very wonderful she was.)
Ever since that time, I’ve been the one to always suggest that we go clothes shopping—at shops and boutiques that have numerous fitting rooms, to be sure—hoping, of course, that Halimah will ask me to come into the fitting room with her and that I will once again experience the joy of looking at her. But I still have not succeeded in getting her to agree to let me buy something for her. At times, this has irritated me, as I really would like to buy something for her. It seems however that she hasn’t yet found what she’s really looking for. Maybe she wants something that’s more beautiful and more expensive. Or maybe she’s worried about me spending too much. She knows that I am on social security, which is my only source of income. (Some people call it “being on the dole,” meaning that I am being paid by the state not to work, which might be fine for people who don’t want to work but is a system that I and numerous others exiles have long cursed.)
One day, Halimah and I went to the clothes store again. This time she was looking at swimwear. Once again, she asked to come into the fitting room with her to give my opinion about an item she was trying on. She told me that in the summer she would be going on holiday to Casablanca, where she was born. She would swim in the sea and sunbathe on the beach. This time she permitted me to buy her the swimming outfit. What was I saw in the fitting room that day was the true Halimah, in the flesh, as naked as the day when she was born. My knowledge of Halimah had just taken one step forward. What was still the same was the way I felt, which was wonderful. And for the first time ever, I got to spend my money on covering up Halimah’s body, one that I will never see in Casablanca.
I AM STANDING in one of the glass tram shelters outside Amsterdam’s central station, thinking of the number of times I have bought clothes for Halimah. I don’t mean to suggest that I am counting pennies; it makes me feel happy and satisfied to be able to buy her the clothes that she wants. That said, I don’t feel that we are closer than before. When we make an appointment to meet, it’s always at a clothes store or boutique. Even when we’re walking, it’s as if she sets the time and pace—and she walks fast. Sometimes I want to slow down and hold her hand when we are walking together but she always refuses. Perhaps she does not like to be touched but she says that she is afraid that people from her country might see us. Even when we find ourselves in some uncrowded place and there is no one else around, she still refuses to let me hold her hand. I would never force her, but I am beginning to get annoyed. Why does she let me see her naked but then refuse to let me hold her hand?
That aside, there are aspects of her character that continue to entertain me. For instance, she refuses to go out with men from her own country, even ones that look to me to be far younger and much more handsome than me. No matter how sympathetic they might appear, she turns them away to go out with me. In a sense then, I have the right to feel victorious, but I am beginning to get jealous. I have started to notice just who her friends are. They’re of various nationalities, even non-white Africans. I’d like to think they are just acquaintances but one time, when the two of us were together, we meet a group of her friends and one of the men was so friendly with her that he even dared to touch her bottom. This didn’t just make me feel jealous; it also made me wonder what it would be like to be the boyfriend of a girl like Halimah.
When I was a teenager, I was a bit of a scoundrel with the audacity to try to feel the bodies of the girls I was with. Rarely, it was satisfaction’s I found for my endeavors; I usually ended up being taught a hard lesson. In a way, I was proud to find that the girls in my country were not cheap but what I most remember now was the shame I felt when I was slapped and scolded. Now, years later, I see that my desire to hold Halimah’s hand is simply because I want to be close to her.
Halimah arrives at the agreed time, wearing a black leather jacket which contrasts nicely with her pale skin. She’s has on the blue jeans I bought her a couple of weeks ago. She always wears the clothes I bought her on one date the next time we meet. This makes me happy and I think she does it to please me. But things are as usual on the tram to Kalverstraat; she doesn’t sit next to me, even when there are lots of unoccupied seats. And so, like the times before, I end up sitting alone. On the tram, we usually don’t talk either and then, when we disembark, we walk quickly away from the station towards the chosen clothes store.
I begin to think. Is she too shy to sit next to me? I am already nearly half a century old while she’s not yet twenty-five. She’s very young but I don’t feel all that old. She has never refused to go out with me. In fact, sometimes she’s the one who asks me out. But now, I must admit, I am beginning to get bored with going to yet another clothes store. I have to wait patiently recently while she tries on various different kinds of clothes in the fitting room. And now she never asks me to come into the fitting room with her and she ends up going straight from the fitting room to the cashier where I pay for the clothes that she chose. Then we go home, me to my place and she to hers.
Once, a couple weeks after the government had given me housing accommodations, I invited Halimah to come to see my new place. When she refused, I was disappointed but then I began to think what a good girl Halimah was, though she was certainly mature enough to make her own decisions. She didn’t have her own place. She was living with one of her mother’s relatives. Actually, she’s living here without a visa and now her passport has expired.
Halimah wants to live to marry a Dutchman so that she can get a passport, become a citizen and live in the country legally. She told me that she had a boyfriend in Casablanca and that he is trying to find her. He would like to kill her because she won’t accept an arranged marriage with him. She hired a lawyer who worked pro bono in order to get a permit to stay in Holland.
I’ve never discussed my own status with Halimah who has such complicated problems of her own. Perhaps I like her because she likes me. But she also loves clothes and this is making me jealous. Sometimes I think about forgetting her and refusing to go along with her when she goes shopping. But she is too beautiful for me to forget.
I often feel sorry for Halimah. I can see that she is not happy, that she has problems of her own. She is young, she wants to live, and she wants to be free. She wants to avoid an arranged marriage and be free from the death-threats of her former boyfriend and, even if it means marrying someone here in order to get a new passport. She often looks tired. She has no appetite and appears to be eating less and less. At her aunt’s house, she says, she works hard and her aunt tries to stop her from going out.
I truly can see that Halimah need her freedom. Unfortunately, this is something I can not give her. All I can do is to buy clothes for her, even though I would like to do so very much more.
Maybe our fates are similar. We both want to be free from entanglements, from fear, from being hunted. The only difference is in the details of our respective situations. And then I start to think again about why, when Halimah is asked out by men from her own country who are handsome, and sympathetic, and probably have a great deal more money than I do, why doesn’t she go out with them. Why does she choose to go out with me, even if it is only to clothes shops?
One day, I made up my mind that I would not go out with her again even if she asked me. What was in fact motivated this decision was the state of my wallet. Suddenly I found myself feeling guilty, spending what little money I had to make Halimah happy. I really couldn’t afford to go on. And so, for months, we do not meet. I had to stop seeing her. I didn’t have the money. Let her find another man to buy her clothes and make her happy. She wouldn’t have trouble doing that. She’s young and beautiful. But I had to stop buying her presents; I was all but bankrupt.
But then I began to feel lonely. I began to feel sorry for her. Every time I though of her, my passions flared. I had her phone number. Anytime I wanted to, I could call her and make a date. But that would mean going to clothes shops again. Where would I get the money from? And what kind of meaning did this relationship have anyway.
Deep in my heart, I suspect, I had expected to receive from her a reward that she was not willing to give. She wouldn’t even sit beside me. I could only admire her beauty from a distance. And she is beautiful, there is no doubt. But now I have to face the truth. And truly, I must admit, I am beginning to feel that she has taken advantage of me. Who is to blame for that except myself. I’m ashamed to tell the reason. But I have been doing a bit of self-evaluation and now I am punishing myself. But is right for me to punish Halimah? She’s not happy either. I know that for sure. That is the problem. I feel sorry of her. Maybe I have fallen in love with her….
ONE DAY I RECEIVED A LETTER from her. She said she wanted to see me. Right, I thought, at another clothes shop. But she also wrote, “I want to see your face, my darling! Why do you work so hard at avoiding me. I saw you at C&A. You were looking at socks and I was standing right in front of you. You must have gone there because you were thinking of me. Don’t you want to see me to look beautiful anymore in clothes that you chose for me? I am waiting for your call. Bye, love...”
And I wasn’t proven wrong. Nothing happened that was different to before. Once again I bought her the clothes that she liked. We even went to V&D on Kalverstraat where I bought her a hat. At my suggestion, she tried on all the hats that were there. She looks so beautiful in a hat.
Being with Halimah, meant not have to fantasize being with a beautiful queen. When I was a boy, five or six years of age, my father asked me what I wanted to be when I was grown up. Spontaneously I answered that I wanted to be an Arab! This made the whole family laugh really loudly. I didn’t not feel there was anything funny about my answer. I thought, at the time, that being an Arab was an ambition all Muslims shared because all Arabs, I thought, went to heaven. Now I’m no longer very young but being with a person like Halimah makes me dare to feel that even without being Arab I can find heaven, even if it is on earth.
After having visited so many shops with Halimah, I had begun to feel tired. I don’t need to tell you how tired a man, a man of any age, can get while waiting for a woman to chose clothes in a shop. But this time around, Halimah didn’t want to let me go home alone. I wasn’t going to invite her to my house. I still felt offended that she would never come to my house which was far out of town but one hundred percent safe from having people disturb us if I were successful in disturbing her.
This time around, Halimah invited me to her home. At first, I refused. I did not want to meet her family but she said that we would be alone. Her uncle and aunt had gone back to their home country on holiday.
And so that is how it turned out; the two of us went to her aunt’s house. We watched television until eleven p.m. Then, Halimah prepared a bed for me in the bedroom that she said was hers. She would sleep in the living room. The bedroom smelled fragrant, but I didn’t sleep there. Instead, we kept watching TV. Halimah changed into a thin nightgown and sat next to me. Her legs touched my thighs. Slowly, I started rubbing her legs and she did not stop me. The sound of the television was loud but I didn’t turn it down or off because I was too busy running both my hands over Halimah’s naked skin. And maybe I spent too long doing this because when the most important moment arrived and we were both very passionate, I was unable to perform. Why? Perhaps because it was so long since I had last had sex.
So it was I was unable to enjoy the heaven that was offered to me by Halimah that night. Was this a punishment from God? This had never happened to me before. It wasn’t until early morning that Halimah put her clothes back on. I went to the bathroom and washed like I had never washed before. I accepted my failure but put no blame on Halimah. I apologised to her. Halimah just smiled. I felt I had to lie to her. But I didn’t know what to say, as I had never had anything like happen to me before.
I told Halimah that I had drunk too much black coffee. I don’t know the relationship between too much black coffee and a male organ that doesn’t want to work but Halimah still kissed me when I left the house. Not having found heaven with her that night, I wondered if there would ever be a second chance.
When I got home, there was a telegram waiting for me with the news that my wife and children would be arriving that afternoon from Hanoi. I had to leave for Schipol airport almost immediately in order to be in time to pick them up.
At last, after such a long struggle, my wife had agreed to leave her home country so that she and our children could be with me. I would never have to live alone again. She left her country to be with me.
That night, after almost three years of being apart, we satisfied all our desires. My self-confidence returned. I was able to carry out my marital duties as a husband. I was sure that we would be happy.
One month later, I received a letter from Halimah. She wanted to meet with me. Several months afterwards, I read in the newspaper that she had been deported. The authorities had uncovered her plans and had sent her back to her own country. It was as I thought. She wasn’t happy even though she was young and beautiful, and she wasn’t happy with me. Every one who visits Amsterdam will meet many foreigners and not just the Dutch. My wife, my children and I are foreigners here. And when Halimah was still here, before she was deported, she was a foreigner too, just like the other foreigners and me. But everyone has their own fate, just the same as they have their own story and background.
Hopefully, Halimah’s boyfriend didn’t kill her. Being killed means only one thing, death. And it’s the same, whether it’s actually carried out by a dictator or a boyfriend. Before a human being dies, the soul is its most valuable asset, but freedom is also extremely important.
Asahan Alham, also known as Asahan Aidit, was born in Belitung, South Sumatra, in 1938. After receiving his Masters Degree in philology in Moscow in 1965, he then moved to Vietnam were he obtained his PhD in Vietnamese language and literature. Most of his stories and poems were published in the exile journals, Arah, Arena and Kreasi but, in 1998 a collection of his poems (23 Sajak Menangisi Viet Tri) was published by Pustaka Jaya in Jakarta. That same year the same published released his first novel, Perang dan Kembang.
George Mitrowijoyo is a full-time editor, translator, and writer who lives with his family in Jakarta.
The translation provided courtesy of the Lontar Foundation, appeared in Menagerie 6 (Jakarta: Lontar, 2004). Published here with the permission of the author.