27 March 2006

Giving peace a chance in Banda Aceh, Indonesia

Giving peace a chance in Banda Aceh, Indonesia

The Post and Courier

For a little while there, I thought I was going to die. My interpreter in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, had invited me out for coffee Nov. 3. It was the night before Idul Fitri, the most important Muslim holiday of the year and the first one since the tsunami tore through town and left so many dead.

I'd never been in a Muslim country before and had never experienced a night before Idul Fitri in Indonesia, so a night outside of my hotel room sounded like a good idea.

Oki Rahmatan Tiba, my interpreter, usually drove a motor scooter, like most people who drive in Banda Aceh. When we'd go to interviews, I'd sit behind him. This night, Oki drove a Jeep. Three of his friends were in the back seat. I'd never met any of them before. They all were laughing and carrying on. When I got into the passengers seat, they immediately started trying their English out on me. A lot of curses.

Pretty soon, they had me laughing.

Cars packed the streets on the night before Idul Fitri. Lorries brimming with people boasted loudspeakers and imams preaching over them in Arabic. Kids lit off fireworks. Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, was nearly over, and people were happy that they'd no longer have to adjust their sleeping around their eating so much.

At some point, as we drove around Banda Aceh, the men in the car started asking me about Sept. 11. Was it true that the Jews didn't go to work at the World Trade Center that day? Wasn't it really President Bush who orchestrated the attacks?

It was at this point that I started feeling a bit uncomfortable. Terrorism is very touchy subject in Indonesia. Many people there think Americans see them all as terrorists, and the men in the car were probing to see what prejudices I brought with me from back home.

I answered them, but kept it short. Oki kept driving, and we came to a part of town I'd never been to before. I tried to muster the most nonaccusatory tone I could muster.

"Where are we going anyway?" I asked.

For a while no one spoke. Oki stared at the unlit rode we were driving down.

"We're kidnapping you," he said. "We're terrorists."

No one else said anything. And I let out a weak little chuckle.

Before leaving for Indonesia, I underwent a course of training that many foreign correspondents take when heading to dangerous parts of the world. The instructors warned us that when in someone else's car to always be aware of our orientation, of where you are in relation to where you might need to escape to.

At this point, I had no idea where I was and started thinking about my parents and my uncle's twisted sense of humor. Before I left the U.S. in mid-October, I visited Uncle Paul in Brooklyn. We met at an American Legion bar near his house.

It was early afternoon, a baseball game was on and my niece and her mother stopped by to see me not long after I got there. My uncle summoned my niece over before she could get to me and whispered in her ear.

A big smile spread over her 6-year-old face and she ran to me.

"Michael," she said. "They're gonna send your head home in a box." Then she ran away.

Sitting in that Jeep the night before Idul Fitri, I remembered that. I figured that Oki and the gang were having a little fun at the expense of the honky, but then again, it didn't seem too far-fetched that my limp body would be dumped on the side of the road by sunlight.

Eventually though, Oki found the noodle shop he was looking for. We ate. Oki dropped me back home. The next day, he and I woke up early for the Idul Fitri at Banda Aceh's grand mosque.

Fear is a strange thing. In another context, I quickly would have realized that the joke about kidnapping was just a joke. But not here.

Here, I jumped to the conclusion that these guys might actually hurt me. It was a bad joke and a pretty fair conclusion to arrive at, I think. But still, it also made me wonder what it feels like to be Muslim, to have Westerners worry about whether or not you're a terrorist.

Another interpreter, Al Chaidar, would joke about it, too. Chaidar is an expert on terrorism in Southeast Asia.

He's a professor at the Universitas Malikussaleh in Banda Aceh, but spends most of his time doing research based in Jakarta.

One evening in October during Ramadan, he took me and two friends of his out to dinner. Afterward, his friend drove me back to my hotel in Jakarta. His friend first played a George Harrison tape and then a John Lennon tape.

Chaidar then told me that many of the terrorists he'd interviewed in the past loved John Lennon and The Beatles. He didn't understand it, but by the way he spoke about it, it seemed as if he saw it as both sad and endearing.

As he spoke to me, Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" came on. Chaidar and I started humming it. His friend who was driving sang the words, and Chaidar looked at me, and in the softest tone spoke to me.

"Mike, I would really like to hear you sing this song," he said.

For the first time in Indonesia, I felt like crying.

Contact Michael Gartland at mgartland@postandcourier.com.

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