It's still dark, 4.15am, when my close friend Eet, a class 6 student wakes me. I hear sleepy voices and splashing water coming from outside my bedroom window as the small community here at Darur Ridwan slowly comes to life. The microphone in the mosque is tested, a few coughs, and the morning call to prayer begins. In a few minutes everyone will be gathered in the small mosque behind the main house. Eet, a small but very confident and focused young woman who was assigned as my helper when I first arrived, urges me to get up or I'll be late again.
My pesantren, Darur Ridwan, is situated in a small village in the eastern most part of East Java, Banyuwangi. Most of the students, like Eet, come from neighbouring villages, although some have come from as far away as Bali, Surabaya and Sulawesi. They are the daughters of farmers, businessmen, teachers, office workers and house wives who work hard to pay considerably more than the fees at the local school so that their children receive a strong moral and religiously orientated education.
Gathering together to pray at dawn is a refreshing way to start the day here. The atmosphere is clear and cool as I join in the morning prayer with the 60 or so students and several women from neighbouring houses. I wear the all-white prayer clothes, wash my hands, face and feet before entering the mosque, recite the appropriate prayers in Arabic (which I have not fully memorised yet), and take part in the now familiar salat routine stand, bow, stand, kneel, and so on.
Beyond the stereotypes
So what is a non-Muslim, Australian university student doing living at an Islamic boarding school in East Java? I am here as part of the Australian student exchange program, Acicis, doing a field study project. I am here because I want to learn about Islam, and what better way to learn than to totally immerse myself in the subject?
Since the unearthing of the Jemaah Islamiah network in the aftermath of the Bali bomb, international media have depicted Indonesian Islamic boarding schools as 'hot beds' for Islamic extremists. Some people may think I am throwing myself in at the deep end by immersing myself in a community accused of fostering extremism. But I feel that these depictions have made my experiences at Darur Ridwan so much more meaningful, relevant and important. I have had the opportunity to see first hand the reaction of the community here at Darur Ridwan to the Bali bomb blast of 12 October and the ensuing investigation and arrests. I consider myself very privileged to have enjoyed such a unique experience that has been quite different to the image of the unfriendly, anti-Western pesantren portrayed in international media.
As news and footage of the horrific event in Bali came through, I sat on the floor, eyes glued to the small television screen in the main house for hours watching the live reports and becoming increasingly distressed as the number of confirmed victims grew. But I was not alone. Also sitting on the floor with me and in chairs behind me was Pak Kiai, members of his family, several senior students and several teachers. They comforted me and joined with me as we expressed our utter disbelief and extreme grief at seeing so many innocent lives lost and so many more injured.
I talked about the huge and devastating impact the bomb would have on Indonesia and in particular the Balinese community, and also the consequences for relations between Australia and Indonesia. They weren't particularly interested in discussing the political or economic impacts. They talked about the families of the victims and in particular the fact that so many were from Australia. 'There is nothing in the Al Qur'an that supports the murder of innocent people like those tourists in Kuta. These crazy terrorists are distorting true Islamic teaching to suit their own political agenda. Islam is a peaceful religion.'
It didn't take me long to feel at home here at Darur Ridwan when I first arrived. Any prior feelings of uncertainty and apprehension were immediately banished as I was warmly welcomed into the community, and in particular, into Pak Kiai Aslam's family.
Pak Kiai Aslam is a friendly, relaxed, family man who enjoys spending time with his young grandchildren and who willingly takes time out to answer my many questions. I appreciate his openness, generosity, enthusiasm, clear explanations and the freedom he has allowed me to wander around the pesantren and join in the everyday activities of the students.
Also an authoritative teacher and strict adherer to religious rules, Pak Kiai Aslam demands a high level of respect and discipline from his students. As the founder and leader of Darur Ridwan, he plays a pivotal role in all aspects of life at the pesantren. A previously active member in local politics (including serving as a member of local parliament representing Partai Persatuan Pembangunan (PPP) for over 10 years) and the large Indonesian Muslim organisation, Nahdlutul Ulama (NU), Pak Kiai Aslam established this modern girls pesantren with his wife in 1989.
An important aspect of pesantren Darur Ridwan is its modernity. The word modern here is used in reference to the school curriculum. In comparison to 'traditional' pesantrens where the curriculum is restricted to religious instruction, Darur Ridwan combines its religiously-oriented classes with general academic subjects such as chemistry, mathematics, psychology and English.
However the term 'modern' is limited to a description of the curriculum. Facilities at Darur Ridwan are very basic, and although simplicity in everyday life is encouraged, Pak Kiai Aslam and the students are very aware of the impact this has on the quality of life and education at the pesantren.
The living area allocated to the students consists of just three bedrooms which are shared between the 60 girls. One bedroom is shared by 40 of the junior students, and the other two have 10 senior students each. Each student sleeps on a thin mattress on the floor and has a small cupboard for their belongings. During the day the mattresses are stacked in the corner so the space can be used for other activities. There is not enough washing and bathroom facilities and no place for students who get sick. The classrooms are bare except for tables, chairs and a few home made posters; and the library consists of one bookshelf filled mainly with copies of old text books.
This very simple existence however does not dampen the students' enthusiasm for their studies, or my enthusiasm for what I have found to be a community of young people who are dedicated to strengthening their understanding about their religion and working together to create a peaceful and pleasant environment around them. The restricted facilities and strict rules here means that there is not much variety in everyday life for the students who rarely leave the grounds of the pesantren.
The students' daily activities at Darur Ridwan are dictated by the compulsory five daily prayers, beginning with the first prayer (subuh) at 4.30am. School starts at 7.00am (6 days a week) and classes take place in the class rooms until 12 noon. These classes are a mixture of religious instruction which includes a strong focus on Arabic (the language of the Al Qur'an) and general academic subjects. There are also other classes that take place twice a day in the mosque after prayer sessions. These classes are attended by all of the students and are led by Pak Kiai Aslam. At this time students learn to recite the Al Qur'an correctly and Pak Kiai Aslam offers his interpretations and explanations of stories and passages from different holy texts. Due to the intimacy of the environment at the pesantren classes are run in a very relaxed style, though discipline is never an issue.
As in most parts of Indonesia things slow down in the afternoon after 12 noon prayer (dhuhur) as the 4.00am start begins to take its toll and people nod off for an afternoon rest. However after taking a break students are kept busy through the afternoon and evening with extra classes, study, and extra-curricular activities such as scouts, sport, sewing, cooking, the running of the canteen and general maintenance duties. 'Lights out' is at 10.00pm (11.00pm during exam time).
I am very thankful for the hospitality and generosity I have received over the three months since I have been coming to and from Darur Ridwan. I have learnt more than I could have hoped for and have found a new family among my muslim friends here. As the newest member of the community I proudly wear my Darur Ridwan t-shirt and call this my pesantren.
Mayra Walsh (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a student of Indonesian Studies at Melbourne University and attended Darur Ridwan as part of her participation in the Acicis student exchange program.