Finding a Story Worth Retelling
Posted in: Words
In 2011, I traveled to Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara to attend an ASEAN ministerial meeting. In the middle of a boring session me and my friend Monique, a producer from Metro TV decided to sneak out and explore this beautiful island.
At one point I told her if we could go to Transito. It was a disused government complex which was re-purposed to host the Ahmadiyya refugees, a religious minority group which is constantly persecuted by hardline Sunni Muslims. These refugees were driven out of their homes and were kept in the complex while the government continued to deny their wishes to return home. Transito was supposed to be a temporary solution while they are resettled to somewhere safe. But with the hardliners, who accuse them of blasphemy, continue to push for their disbandment, the temporary solution became permanent. They have been there since 2006 and they are still there today, living in limbo.
I’ve been following the attacks on Ahmadiyya community elsewhere across Indonesia. I’ve heard about Transito and always wanted to go there and there was my chance. But I didn’t know what to expect. I know the living conditions there were bad, I just didn’t know how bad.
They endured all sorts of harassment. The government made all sorts of excuses not to give them ID cards, needed to apply for jobs, obtain healthcare, get drivers’ license and so on. Their children were bullied at school. In Transito they were living inside decrepit halls and rooms, partitioned for privacy using bamboos, salvaged card boards and unused cloth, used banners and so on. Some people had to convert bathrooms into living spaces because there was no place left.
I met Faizah. She was about my age. She had two sons. She had a sister who suffered muscular dystrophy which continued to degrade her conditions physically and mentally. She was sharing her tiny 3×4 meter space with her parents, her two sons, her sister and two brothers. Faizah was recently forced to move back to Transito. She tried to build her home in a place named Ketapang in 2010 before it was attacked and reduced to rubbles. It was her third attack. She spent all her savings on the house. With no money left her husband went to Malaysia to work as a construction worker, despite having no prior experience as a laborer.
When I decided in 2013 to write a book, I was drawn again and again to Faizah’s plight. I had to discover more about her. I was intrigued to learn how she ended up there. What made her endure, all this time living as a refugee? What’s her story.
I went to Transito the second time on August 17, 2013. They had an Independence Day celebration at Transito. They had flag raising ceremony. Their cleric made speeches about the irony of the nation celebrating independence while the Ahmadiyya is not really free.
I met up with Faizah that afternoon after all the ceremony was over. I didn’t expect her to remember me. We met very briefly two years back, and I must have been just one of the dozens of journalists she had talked to during her time in Transito. I just arrived in Lombok that morning. So I arranged to meet her again that afternoon after I found a hotel room to stay in.
When I went back, she was praying in a room which had been converted into a praying hall. I was waiting in front of her room when a man asked me who I was and what I was doing. It turned out to be Faizah’s brother Suhaidi. Ahmadiyya is quite conservative about a man and a woman in a room together alone. I was waiting for a male family member to grant me access into their lives and Suhaidi was the one who invited me to come inside.
In a way I was fortunate about the timing. Suhaidi was working in North Lombok and he just happened to be back in Transito for Idul Fitri. Suhaidi’s brother Malik who was studying in Jakarta was also there. The only one who was not was Masitah who was in Central Kalimantan.
I ended up talking to Suhaidi and Malik. From there I learned that Faizah had eight brothers and sisters and she was the third. It was overwhelming at first. Half of Transito was somehow their aunty, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. They had uncles who were younger than them. Their next door neighbors were somehow connected through marriage. There were so many names and so many faces I had to remember. I was having a hard time digesting it all.
Before I came to Transito I was only interested in Faizah’s story. But the more I talked to those around her, I discovered a lot of interesting subplots and twists. The main thing I discover was how different and unique each one of them are. The first born Khaerudin was timid and the attacks forced him to change into a man. The second, Nurul was a hardworking woman. She had been divorced once because she was without a child for two years and ended up marrying a man as old as her father.
The third child, Faizah, she married a very quiet man who just recently converted. In the beginning she was unsure how her husband might cope with the persecution. When their home was attacked, her in laws even tried to bribe him into leaving Ahmadiyya and her Ahmadiyya family. But unexpectedly he stayed by her side. The fourth, Suhaidi was smart, confident but reckless. He had two wives and rumors had it he had many more. He was more interested in hanging out with friends, buying trendy clothes, chasing girls instead of feeding his wife and kids.
I was lucky to talk to these people. They were amazingly friendly. They were very open. I found conflicts, togetherness, desperation, hope, hate and love.
So I shifted my focus from just being about Faizah to the whole family because their stories intertwined and they affect one another. I think at some point I even planned to interview everyone at Transito and see whose story I should retold.
Before I wasn’t so sure whether the book was going to be non-fiction or fiction that is loosely-based on Faizah, I was absolutely convinced it needs to be as faithful as possible to what really happened. It is important to stay faithful to understand why and how it happened as well as the decisions they made. And anyone who read my book can go to Transito and meet up with Faizah. They can go to the site of their former homes. Visit East Lombok and see what’s left of their childhood neighborhood.
And if I were to make a fiction I don’t think I would ever come up with such a fascinating plot. It would never occur to me that a brother-in-law would try to bribe someone into leaving Ahmadiyya. I would never write how Nurul had to work so hard in Jakarta to rebuild her lives, so hard that she had to lose her pregnancy. How the timid Khaerudin evolved into a man, one attack to the next. How Suhaidi became so desperate he tried going to Australia by boat.
Writing a non-fiction allows me to unmask all of people’s ideas about Ahmadiyya, away from the blasphemy accusations, away from the controversy of their teachings, from the different interpretations of the holy book, from religious debates about who’s right and who’s wrong and show that they are just people with hopes and fears and dreams and flaws and selfishness and sacrifices.