May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Reformasi Killed the Poetry Superstars

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Marshall Clark and Giora Eliraz

It seems that the days of superstar poets - who bravely spoke up for the common people and criticised the Indonesian state, in front of large audiences in between being banned - have passed. When Rendra, who was Indonesia's leading poet throughout the New Order era, toured Yogyakarta several years ago, one writer in the letters page of Bernas suggested that Rendra had become like an old pillow - nostalgic and comfortable yes, useful and relevant no.

Since the fall of Suharto, Emha Ainun Nadjib, another of Indonesia's more oppositional cultural activists, has also kept out of the public spotlight. For several years, Emha hosted Gardu, a popular talk-show. However, TV audiences soon tired of the incredible over-abundance of talk shows following Suharto's resignation. When Emha himself grew tired of all the 'collusion' associated with organizing and rewarding guests, he pulled the plug.

Besides, Emha has never been able to shrug off his close association with Suharto. It is common knowledge that Emha, together with several other Muslim leaders, met with Suharto several times in the days before 20 May. It was at this point that Emha publicly transformed himself from an oppositional figure to something quite different. Some would say that his decline in popularity has mirrored Suharto's fall from grace. Long considered as one of Indonesia's foremost poets, these days Emha barely rates a mention.

It was as enjoyable as it was nostalgic, therefore, to see Emha reading poetry and dazzling audiences with his unique wit and political insight in Australia for several weeks in May and June. Invited by the Australia Indonesia Arts Alliance, and supported by the Australia Indonesia Institute and Garuda Indonesia, Emha gave lively poetry-readings in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. Like Rendra in the 1990s, Emha was able to draw enthusiastic audiences, consisting of as many Indonesians as Australians.

Accompanying Emha was another Indonesian poet, Fathyen Hamama Handry, also known as Fatin. Born in Padang in 1967, Fatin grew up in West Sumatra and has spent over a decade in Cairo, where she has studied theology at the Women's Faculty of al-Azhar University. Her poetry is not quite as sensational as Emha's, yet it contains its own fair share of social criticism. Fatin writes of riots and military violence in Semanggi and elsewhere in Jakarta, as well as the problems faced by Indonesian women, farmers fighting against poverty, women suffering in Aceh, and the struggles of the urban poor.

Like Emha, Fatin does not consider herself as one of Indonesia's more popular poets. In terms of literary figures, Fatin is no trendy Sitot Srengenge, nor a young and sensational Ayu Utami, or even a marketable 'woman poet' in the mould of Dorothea Rosa Herliany. Yet like Emha, in the midst of disappointment and frustration, Fatin continues to imagine a better Indonesia. It is for this reason that her poetry is worth examining, at the very least for the buffer it provides for the harsh coldness of Indonesia's post-New Order, and perhaps even post-reformasi, reality.

Fatin's latest collection, Papyrus (2002), exhibits the strong Islamic slant of her poetry. The opening poem, 'Al Fatihah', is the same name given to the opening sura or chapter of the Koran. Like the first chapter of the Koran, this poem is merely a few lines long: Segala puji bagi-Mu/ Tuhan/ lempangkan bagiku/ jalan/ amin [All praise to You/ God/ straighten out for me/ a path/ amen].

These poems - and their titles - are an indication of Fatin's position within a global Islamic historical consciousness. Her allusion to Islam is based on an effort to verbalise the thoughts and emotions arising from her deeply personal Islamic faith.

The distinctive Egyptian context of Fatin's poetry is also important. Many of the poems were written in Cairo, where Fatin leads the Cairo-based literary group, Komunitas Sastra Indonesia [Indonesian Literature Community]. Thus we see poems such as 'Samira dan Sariyem', a poignant tale of the sad life of an Eqyptian belly-dancer.

Fatin's poetry also includes many references to the pre-Islamic era of Egypt. The title of the collection Papyrus refers us back to another world, the world of ancient Egypt and the dawn of civilisation. Elsewhere, by arranging a set of poems under the title 'Cleopatra', Fatin alludes to a fascinating and defiant Egyptian woman and queen, who was, of course, from a non-Islamic context.

This engaging combination of the worlds of Indonesia, Egypt, Islam and pre-Islam makes Fatin's poetry fascinating and rich, speaking to us from both a global and local perspective. Besides placing Fatin's name on the map of Indonesian literary studies, Papyrus also suggests that Fatin's poetry can be seen as a representation of a deep pluralist view that has come to take hold amongst many contemporary Muslim intellectuals in Indonesia.

Marshall Clark ( is a lecturer at the Australian National University, on leave from University of Tasmania. Giora Eliraz ( is a Visiting Fellow at the Southeast Asia Centre, Australian National University.

Inside Indonesia 72: Oct - Dec 2002

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