This past month brought about two major holidays. Idul Adha came first: a ritual sacrifice for a major day of the Islamic calendar. Next: Indonesia’s 74th anniversary of Independence from both 350 years of Dutch colonialism and Japanese occupation. We wrapped up the month with a visit to Ponorogo for the famous Reog festival. I only translated the first part of this post; to be honest, I can barely keep up with my own surroundings, let alone this blog. Terlalu malas! Mohon maaf.
First off, Let Me Just Say. If you’d have told my vegetarian self back in 2008 that after 11 years as a vegetarian, I’d move to Indonesia and willingly ride my bike across town to watch a bunch of men sacrifice goats and cute, nonchalant brown cows, I’d have said, Whaaaaaaaaat? eye-twitch and all. Yet here we are. It’s gonna be okay.
Sebelum saya pindah ke Indonesia, saya adalah seorang vegetarian selama 10 tahun. Jadi kalau di tahun 2008 ada orang yang memberitahu saya bahwa saya akan pindah ke indonesia dan bersepeda keliling kota untuk melihat penyembelihan hewan kurban, saya pasti akan merasa bingung.
Idul Adha (also spelled Eid al-Adha) is the sister holiday to Idul Fitri, which took place back in June, at the close of Ramadan. We celebrated Idul Adha on August 11, but the day changes each year according to the Islamic lunar calendar. Idul Adha is the day of sacrifice. It honors the story of Abraham (also spelled Ibrahim). You might know Abraham from the Old Testament. The main difference is that in the Old Testament, the story is about Isaac, whereas in the Quran, the story is about Ismael—different sons, similar plot line. In both versions, Abraham’s about to kill his son because he wants to sacrifice him to God. God is like, Thanks but no thanks. You can sacrifice a ram instead. Abraham’s like OH THANK GOD and does as he’s told. Did you know that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all traced back to this one original guy? Abraham really kicked things off.
Idul Adha adalah salah satu Hari Raya Umat Islam. Tahun ini, Idul Adha dirayakan pada tanggal 11 Agustus; tanggalnya berbeda setiap tahun, tergantung pada kalender Islam. Idul Adha memperingati cerita Ibrahim dan Isma’il. Mungkin orang kristen tahu cerita tentang “Abraham” dari Perjanjian Lama. Kekristenan, agama Yahudi, dan Islam mulai dengan Abraham/Ibrahim. Tetapi cerita di Perjanjian Lama adalah tentang Ishak (Isaac) dan cerita di Al-Quran adalah tentang Isma’il.
Fast forward to 2019, and my counterpart, Pak Agung, is dressed in a T shirt and basketball shorts. His goat is sitting under a tree beside his house. I say hello to the goat. Goat doesn’t have a name because it’s very clear that this one’s not a pet. But it’s still pretty darn cute. I call it Goat, which it doesn’t understand, because it doesn’t speak English. It looks at me like it’s bored, so I stop talking to it as if it’s a dog. I park my bike, and we’re off to the neighborhor’s house, Goat trailing beside us on a leash.
Sekarang, ini tahun 2019. Teman sekerja saya, Pak Agung, memakai kaos dan celana. Kambingnya ada di bawah pohon di samping rumah Pak Agung. Saya bilang hallo pada kambing. Kambing itu tidak punya nama karena dia bukan hewan peliharaan keluarga. Saya memarkir sepeda, dan kami langsung pergi ke rumah tetangga. Kami membawa Kambing pakai tali.
Another friend explained it like this: We have to keep the animal calm. We talk to it, tell it it’s a special goat, it’s the chosen goat. The area is clean and quiet, so they don’t get scared, and the other animals can’t watch.
Salah satu teman saya menjelaskan: bahwa kami harus menenangkan kambing. Kami berbicara pada kambing: “Kamu kambingnya luar biasa, kami memilihmu.” Tempat penyembelihan hewan kurban bersih dan sepi supaya kambing tidak takut, dan hewan lain tidak boleh melihat.
Pak Agung will slaughter the goat. It’s his goat—he saves up to buy one for his family each year, and they share what they can’t eat with their neighbors. Pak Agung slaughtered his first goat when he was in grade school. The third grader learned by watching other men in his family lead the show, where calm and cleanliness were emphasized.
Pak Agung akan mengorbankan kambing itu. Dia menghemat uang setiap tahun untuk membeli seekor kambing. Keluarganya memberi daging kambing ke tetangga-tetangga. Pertama kali Pak Agung mengorbankan kambing, dia masih siswa SD.
The neighbors volunteer their expansive patio space as the community’s slaughter grounds for the day. There’s a trap door in the concrete floor that lifts up with an iron handle. It reveals a deep pit that Pak Agung’s team of three lines with thick plastic tarp. This will catch the blood. Three men lift the goat and drape its neck across the edge of the pit. They pet it. They hold the feet down. There’s no stunning process, where the animal is knocked unconscious first; that wouldn’t follow the Halal practice. Death won’t be instant (no slaughtering method is), but it’s fast. The slaughter happens quicker than a deep, slow breath at the doctor’s office, stethoscope tapped to your back.
Tetangga-tetangga Pak Agung menawarkan halaman mereka untuk penyembelihan hewan kurban. Ada penutup diatas dari lubang. Teman-teman Pak Agung menempatkan plastik di dalam lubang untuk darah. Tiga laki-laki mengangkat kambing dan menempatkan leher kambing di tepi lubang. Mereka membelai kambing. Kambingnya mati dengan cepat.
Pak Agung turns to me as I watch with neighbor kids from behind. “There, it’s already done,” he says. “Let’s go get breakfast.” The goat is dead, although its tail still twitches, like someone anxiously tapping a pen on a desk. Although the tail still moves, the animal lost consciousness almost immediately; because as soon as the knife slits its neck, blood flow is cut off from the brain. Then it bleeds out.
Pak Agung bilang, “Sudah. Ayo sarapan.” Kambing sudah mati, tetapi ekornya masih bergerak. Sesegera pisau celah leher, aliran darah ke otak terputus. Kemudian darah ke luar.
This, paired with prayer, is what makes Halal food Halal. The slaughtering process for Halal meat and Kosher meat is the same, although the other rules within these food laws differ in more ways than one. Before this day, my impression of Halal was New York City food carts that stay open well into the early morning. It’s that hot, greasy food people crave on their way home from a party. But we’re not in Brooklyn anymore.
Proses ini, diwali berdoa, supaya halal. Meskipun metode penyembelihan halal hampir sama metode penyembelihan Kosher (pada agama Yahudi), tetapi aturan lain sangat berbeda. Sebelum saya pindah ke Indonesia, saya kira makanan Halal adalah makanan dari kaki lima di New York City. Tetapi ini di Indonesia, bukan di Brooklyn.
“It’s all written down, and there are many rules,” explains Pak Agung. Everything is intentional—from the quality and condition of the knife, to the banners and tarps curtaining other cattle from seeing, to the way a cow is calmed before brought to the ground, down to how the meat is sliced and portioned equally. An onlooker could easily mistake this gathering—complete with teenagers snapping photos—for something else entirely. But there’s a procedure. “We’re not professionals,” he explains, pointing to the crew of twenty-some men gathered to sacrifice the first cow—the largest, of course. “But we work hard, and we work together to make it efficient.”
“Semua sudah dituliskan dalam Al-Quran, dan ada sangat banyak aturan,” kata Pak Agung. “Kami bukan profesional. Tetapi kami sama-sama bekerja keras supaya prosesnya efisien.”
I would like to pen poetics about a long-held tradition that binds communities together, but…. mostly, watching a sacrifice is uncomfortable. At first, I thought that holding banana leaves across the cow’s face was an act of civility, to shield the view of onlookers and curious kids, which it does. But it also serves another more practical purpose: a windshield that keeps blood from splattering. Slaughtering a cow requires more steps than slaughtering a goat. It takes longer than the length of an inhale to make sure it’s dead. But even as the tongue lays limp between its lips and the eyes have glazed over, the legs still kick. The brain’s no longer in sync with its body, but the nervous system hasn’t given up—just as a chicken can run with its head cut off for a few seconds.
Saya ingin menulis cerita tentang tradisi yang menyatukan komunitas di seluruh dunia. Menurut saya, menonton penyembelihan hewan kurban sangat tidak nyaman. Pada awalnya, saya kira daun pisang itu untuk menyembunyikan wajah binatang dari anak-anak. Tapi sebenarnya, daun pisang digunakan untuk menahan cipratan darah hewan kurban.
A cow can cost upwards of 30 juta. That’s 30 million rupiah, or more than two thousand US dollars. I’m trying to stay calm, like Goat-level calm (Goat was so chill!!), but that is a lot of money. For comparison, my monthly living allowance is two thousand rupiah (about 140 US dollars), nearly half of which goes to my host family as a contribution. This community of about 50 families bought six cows. (Six! Cows!) Many families save up all year to buy a share. Then, all the meat gets portioned equally and distributed to each household. The men sacrifice the cattle and do the prep work. The women cook the meat into sate, rendang and rawon.
Satu sapi harganya kira-kira 30 juta. Itu banyak uang. Saya menerima 2 juta per bulan (dari Peace Corps), dan saya memberi setengah tunjangan itu ke keluarga (host family). Komunitas Pak Agung ada 50 keluarga, dan mereka membeli enam sapi untuk Idul Adha. Banyak keluarga menabung sepanjang tahun. Pria menyembelih binatang dan mempersiapkan daging; Para wanita masak sate, rendang, dan rawon.
All of this is to say, sacrifice is a religious tradition. It’s a tradition that I don’t practice, for a religion that’s not mine, but am here to understand. Watching a sacrifice wasn’t exactly on my bucket list. But Pak Agung was welcoming enough to invite me, walk me through the process, and try to help me figure out what exactly Idul Adha is all about.
Pengorbanan merupakan itu tradisi agama Islam. Meskipun saya tidak melakukan tradisi ini, dan saya bukan penganut agama ini, tetapi saya datang ke sini untuk belajar dan mengerti. Pak Agung mengundang saya. Dia menjelaskan dan menunjukkan pada saya bagaimana merayakan Idul Adha dengan komunitasnya.
Hari Kemerdekaan: 74th Independence Day
The week after Idul Adha, we found ourselves celebrating again. Every year, the city invites several high schools to attend a flag ceremony at the alun-alun, or town square, in honor of Independence Day. Our 10th grade students were invited to sing—as a choir of 200. The military marched in. We waited for the mayor to arrive. And right at 10am, at the exact hour that Sukarno read the Proclamation of Independence on August 17, 1945, the upacara began.
It began with gun shots to honor the lives lost in the nation’s long fight for Independence. Seventeen gun shots for the 17th of August. I had heart palpitations through each one. There’s a moment of silence, and then boom! I felt the air move around me. You know when you get an eye exam and and have to do the air puff test? It feels like that, except instead of your eye ball, your whole body is getting air-puffed. I stood there while all the Indonesians kept their cool and I rapidly lost mine, seventeen times over. Another teacher noticed. He said, “Gun shots usually mean something else in the US, right?” I said, DUUUH.
The people dressed in white are all high school students from various schools in Madiun. They form the paskibraka, which is the youth group that raises and lowers the flag. They’re selected each year by the regional government, and they prepare for two months straight—they don’t even have to attend school for those months! Their sole responsibility is to participate in the Independence Day upacara. They march in three formations: one group of 17, one group of 19, and the last of 45, to commemorate August 17, 1945. As one teacher explained, “This is a big moment for them. They will never have this opportunity again.”
One female student always receives the flag from the Mayor. She walks backwards down the stairs after he hands it to her. It’s quite procedural. The marching itself is exaggerated. I shared a video of it on Instagram, and more than a few people said it reminded them of the Third Reich. But please, don’t freak out. I haven’t met a nazi in Indonesia. However I know there are plenty back home in the US, where white boys take their daddies’ guns into schools and houses of worship on the reg. Meanwhile, Americans continue to think other countries are dangerous. HAAA.
So the female student hands off the flag to three boys, who work in tandem to raise it, as hundreds of people watch and cameras broadcast it on TV. I like the Indonesian flag for its simplicity. But it also has a great origin story. No one sat down in a grand hall to debate symbols, colors, and designs. Upon defeating the Dutch, the revolutionaries tore the Dutch flag, removing the blue panel and declaring the red and white their own.
Following the flag ceremony, our students sang. They did a great job! They stood outside in the sun for more than three hours. They incorporated dance moves into the Madiun Nasi Pecel song. They prepared for this performance all month.
Next, there was a reenactment of Independence Day. The show depicted the final fight for Independence. In reality, the Dutch wouldn’t acknowledge Indonesia’s independence until 1949, more than 5 years after the Proclamation of Independence. But that’s not what’s celebrated in-country.
People asked me how we recognize Independence Day in the US. I said, “We throw parties and have cook outs and go shopping,” which was the best summary I could offer. As an outsider, it’s easy to see all of this national fervor in Indonesia and think, oh, how nationalistic. Because there’s no party. No beer, no barbecue, no lazy afternoon at a swimming pool or picnic paired with fireworks. The upacara event is a serious three-hour ordeal in the late-morning heat. It’s also wildly organized and purposeful. A friend here explained it this way: “There are 17,000 islands included in this one country. Holding a traditional flag ceremony is one way that we feel united.”
Festival Reog Ponorogo
In late August, on a Tuesday evening after school, I joined my friend Bu Nafi at Ponorogo’s Reog Festival (sometimes spelled Reyog). Ponorogo is a city just outside of Madiun, and it’s the birthplace of traditional Reog dance. The Reog performances are held each year during Grebeg Suro, a cultural celebration in honor of the Javanese New Year. The Javanese calendar is organized by lunar months, and Satu Suro (also spelled sura) is the first day of the new year. It’s usually in September.
Ponorogo’s Reog dance is no ordinary ballet. There are enormous tiger masks called Singa Barong, and they are framed by hundreds of peacock feathers. The male dancers who wear these masks use their arms to move the feathers, like wings. There is a bar inside the mask that they have to clench with their teeth. It’s a lot of weight on their heads, necks, and shoulders, and their only window to the rest of the show is through the mesh that lines the lion’s mouth. The Singa Barong masks are known as the largest masks in the world.
Female dancers wear white and dance with paper horses. These characters are the soldiers, called Jathil. The male dancers are Bujang Anom, and they dress in black and wear fake beards to look extra manly. And then there are two acrobats who wear masks and dance alongside them, doing backflips across the stage.
Then we meet Klono Sewandono. He’s the king of Ponorogo in the play, and in the show that I saw, he wears a red mask, a gold headpiece, and colorful batik patterns. Klono Sewandono and his Bujang Anom army fight the Singa Barong and their Jathil army. Ya follow? Me neither. But it’s nothing short of a spectacle. Many of these dancers are high school students! They learn Reog in special dance schools in this one town in East Java. It was no ordinary Tuesday night.
If you made it this far, wow. Semangat. Sorry about the goat sacrifice earlier. August was a busy month. While I love sharing all of these new experiences with friends here, I’ve certainly missed a few things back home. Congrats to my parents on their big move this summer, to Ben and Amanda for tying the knot, to Markell and Teddy for getting engaged. And best of luck to Genna and Peter post-maternity leave ❤ Celebrating with you all from Madiun.