In search of a name...
I found myself, and my place
By Sarina Dahlan-Dann
It’s not everyday that I get to sit in a bus full of my Thai relatives driving down a tight Indonesian road while being serenaded in a language I can’t understand. All twenty of us were on a journey to get to know our roots and to learn about a man whose shadow we all live under. The song being sung by an Indonesian relative was the anthem of Muhammadiyah, the second largest Islamic organization in Indonesia. This trip was the first for many of my Bangkok relatives. It was my second.
Fourteen years ago I was here on a similar search for a man whom I had never known. I ended up with a story I was unable to fully articulate. The reason was because I was afraid of getting the story that scholars had devoted years studying wrong, or just as bad, making it boring. What was left to say that had not already been said better by someone else? What could I have contributed that was unique? The fear was entirely internal and self created but felt very real.
It started in college when an uncle gave me an old Indonesian stamp bearing the name and image of K. H. Ahmad Dahlan. The man with my last name was a national hero in Indonesia and my great-grandfather. It’s not often that I say that out loud. The words don’t roll off my tongue easily and get caught in the back of my throat like a secret. The man is a legend to Indonesians and became larger than life to me. For me, he seemed more of a figure from a myth or an old folktale than a great-grandpa whom I could envision sitting with as a little girl listening to his stories. Besides his long nose with a pointy end, what I call a Javanese nose which I also see a resemblance of in my father and brother, I had a hard time picturing him as a relative. I felt that he did not belong to me, but to Indonesia.
In addition to his own stamp he has a flag at his grave to designate his national hero status, a major street with his name in Yogyakarta, and a set of large encyclopedias that launched April 2013. There is even a beautifully photographed feature film, Sang Pencerah, or “The Enlightener” that sold over a million tickets in 2010. What Kyai Haji Ahmad Dahlan did to deserve all the honor bestowed on him was to modernize and reform Islam in Indonesia. He started an educational organization called Muhammadiyah in 1912. By the time of his death in 1923, it had 4,000 members. Today it has close to 30 million. It played a vital role, via its members who were often engaged in politics, to drive out the Dutch colonial power that governed Indonesia for over 340 years. The organization currently runs thousands of hospitals, schools, universities, mosques, orphanages, and clinics. It’s been dubbed the largest socio-religious movement in the world. I often wonder if Kyai had any idea while he was alive that the spark of his vision would grow to be a self sustaining machine that helps propel Indonesia forward.
Back when he first started Muhammadiyah, Islam in Indonesia was deeply entrenched with mysticism, animism, and the belief that you need a leader to connect with your religion. Kyai, a son of the Imam of the Sultan’s Great Mosque in Yogyakarta, having been educated in Mecca wanted to reform and modernize Islam. He wanted his countrymen to know an Islam that adheres to the pure Qur’anic scripture. He wanted to create a better society with structural support in areas that matter most - education, health, and religion.
His vision was to empower Muslims to fully engage in their own faith and to not blindly follow the teachings of religious experts. Before him, Indonesians prayed straight East toward Africa. He pointed them toward Mecca with a series of slanted lines etched on the floor of his mosque. Despite having received death threats for what was perceived as radical ideas during the time, he continued on his path. This was the man who, in spite of or because of where he was in history, figuratively and literally shifted the perspective of Indonesians toward the right direction. He was like those slanted lines for the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. So it was the curiosity about this man that led me to Indonesia the first time during my gap year between college and the real world. There, I met my large extended family. Some members were from the same great-grandmother, Nyai Walidah, who was also a heroine in her own right for starting the sister organization to Muhammadiyah, Aisyiyah. I also met relatives from the other wives of Kyai whom he married in the tradition of Islam. Needless to say, Kyai had several children. One of whom was my grandfather, Irfan Dahlan. He ended up in Thailand as a Muslim missionary in 1930 and eventually married the daughter of an Imam from an Indonesian community in the middle of Bangkok called Kampong Java. They had ten children together. That was how a line of K. H. Ahmad Dahlan came to be in Thailand.
Growing up, my Thai cousins and I had no idea about our famous forbear. Our parents never told us anything because their father never told them anything about how significant his father was. My grandfather Irfan passed away in 1967, years before I was born. I was often told that he was a simple man in the best sense of the word. He was well educated, spoke seven languages, and was very artistic. He had an easy demeanor and a wicked sense of humor, but there was never a story from him about Muhamaddiyah or of his father being a larger than life figure in Indonesia. I can never be sure why my grandfather had a reservation about talking of his father’s accomplishments. Speaking only for myself, I’ve always felt that what Kyai did was his achievements and not mine. Maybe my grandfather felt the same.
Nonetheless, we were all raised by my grandmother, Yupa, with a strong sense of pride in our close knit family.
After my grandfather died suddenly at about the age of sixty his family brought my grandma to Indonesia for a visit. It was then when she found out her dead husband came from an important family, and she cried. She and my grandfather had lived with meager means raising ten children on the small income he earned working at
Batik is an old art form dating back as far as the ancient Egyptians and has a long and significant history in Indonesia, especially on the island of Java. Batik was customarily made with just three colors: indigo, dark brown, and white, representing Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, the three main Hindu gods. There were patterns reserved for royalty and patterns people only wear on special occasions like weddings and funerals. Just as any art form of long lineage, batik also absorbed the different cultures it came into contact with such as those of India, Japan, and Arabia. As Islam increased its influence in Indonesia, the human figures were replaced by leaves, flowers, and geometric designs. Not long after Indonesia gained its independence from the Dutch in 1945, batik was used to make shirts as an answer to non-western formal wear. There are collectors of batik worldwide and museums dedicated to it. But it was ebbing in popularity until UNESCO designated Javanese batik as a world heritage in 2009. Now, many people in Indonesia wear batik on a regular basis. Instead of “casual Fridays”, they have “batik Fridays”. Indonesian clothing designers even built their entire collections around this textile. Fine artists are also playing with this medium to express their ideas in more modern styles beyond batik’s wearable function.
So as the artist held up two batiks, both beautiful and breathtaking (to me) in their own ways, I struggled between the two modern takes on this long revered textile. Should I go with the black on white figure that was a complete departure from the old-fashioned batik art or should I go with the colorful abstract that maintained hints of traditional batik designs and a nod to aboriginal art? Then my husband whispered that there was no way he’d be living in the same house with the freaky black and white man. Decision made.
I got a discount for the colorful piece since it was a work by the artist. After we shook hands, he mentioned a friend who builds guitars whose store was nearby. He asked if we wanted to go there seeing that my husband is a guitar maker. So we descended the narrow stairs with my prize tucked in my purse and followed another stranger around dark mazes of side streets in the Malioboro shopping district searching for another artist. There’s no shortage of artists in Jogja - they’re always just around the corner hidden behind the tourist traps.