How Boarding School Helped Influence a Literary Career
When Ahmad Fuadi attended the Singapore Writers Festival earlier this month, he had not been home for weeks.
The Indonesian author, who wrote the best-selling novel “Negeri Lima Menara” (“The Land of Five Towers”),and his wife, Danya “Yayi” Dewanti, had recently returned from a safari trip in South Africa, after spending a month in a villa near Lake Como in northern Italy, as a Rockefeller Foundation resident literary artist.
“I was there to write my fourth novel,” he said. “It’s about the lives of children in West Sumatra.”
Ahmad’s fourth novel is a prequel to the “Lima Menara” trilogy. The first book of the trilogy, “Negeri Lima Menara,” was published in 2009, followed by “Ranah Tiga Warna” (“The Land of Three Colors”) in 2011.
“Negeri Lima Menara,” which was recently adapted into a movie, is largely inspired by the author’s teenage years. It tells the story of Alif, a young Muslim boy who reluctantly attends a modern Islamic boarding school to fulfill his mother’s wish.
The trilogy continues to follow Alif through major milestones in his life. The third and final book, which will be released this December, takes place in Jakarta and Washington DC, and deals with Alif’s life after he graduates from college.
“He is in search of many things, a job, a wife, and a life mission,” Ahmad said.
Ahmad added that it was natural to write Alif’s story as a trilogy.
“I was going to write seven books like Harry Potter, because Potter’s story also takes place in boarding school,” he said. “But I wanted to cover the three biggest moments in life, the coming of age, the university years and life after graduation.”
Ahmad did not plan to be a writer. He did not even know that he harbored a passion for writing.
It all started during his schooling years at Gontor Islamic boarding school in East Java in 1988 to 1991.
Students were obliged to write and were trained to express their own interpretation towards the education. This is why Gontor is famous as the school that brought forth various Muslim figures, such as liberal Muslim scholar Nurcholis Majid, head of Muhammadiyah Din Syamsuddin, former leader of Prosperous Justice Party (PKS); as well as chief of the Jemaah Islamiyah terror group, Abu Bakar Bashir.
If you have read his first novel or seen the movie, you will know that Ahmad did not go to boarding school voluntarily. He was merely fulfilling his mother’s wish, which was for her son to become a good kiyai (cleric).
“I am a Muslim and we believe that heaven lies below our mother’s feet,” he said, meaning that children who listen to their mothers will be blessed.
But it was not only his religious views that motivated Ahmad to obey his mother and attend the school. He was born in West Sumatra, a province famous for the Malin Kundang rock formation at Air Manis beach near the capital city of Padang. According to legend, Malin Kundang was an ungrateful son who dismissed his mother after he achieved success. As punishment, he was turned into a statue. Ahmad grew up with this story, which no doubt helped influence the young author’s choice to follow his mother’s wishes.
“West Sumatra is also known for its matriarchal system, which considers a mother’s wish to be everything,” Ahmad said.
And so, he traveled for three days and three nights by bus to get to Gontor, as an airplane was still an unaffordable luxury in 1988.
However, even in his third year at Gontor, Ahmad said he still regretted his decision.
It was only later in his life, when he studied at George Washington University in the United States, that he began to see his boarding school experience in a different light.
After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Islamic boarding schools were hugely misunderstood in the Western world, and even in Asia to some extent. Ahmad experienced this during his Literary Meal session at the Singapore Writers Festival, where his readers said they were reluctant to take field trips to Indonesia’s Islamic boarding schools due to their fear of terrorist networks.
“I want to tell a story about an Islamic boarding school based on my own real life experience,” he said.
His books, he explained, were written for this purpose.
“Gontor is a very famous Islamic boarding school, if not the most famous [in Indonesia],” Ahmad said. “My classmates came from all over the world.”
Contrary to what most people believe about Islamic boarding schools, Gontor has a very modern way of teaching. Students at the school are required to speak in three languages — Indonesian, English and Arabic.
Muslim clerics who teach at the school are not paid with money, but can live at the school and use the school’s facilities for free. They also wear Muslim attire, but appear in class in a formal shirt and tie with a pair of trousers. Students are taught public speaking three times a week, as well as drama, music and writing. Ahmad would often write between four and 10 essays in just a couple of days, which had to be written in Arabic and English. And the rules to speak in foreign languages were so strict that the author admitted he sometimes even dreams in Arabic.
“Bahasa Indonesia could only be used during boy scout time,” he said.
Ahmad admitted that there is a type of brainwashing that goes on in the boarding school, “… but in a good way,” he explained. On his first day of school, he was introduced to an Islamic phrase, “Man jadda wajadda,” which means, “He who gives his all, will surely succeed.”
“This easily becomes the centerpiece of the movie,” he said.
Ahmad began writing “Negeri” in 2008, after he realized that his four years at the Islamic boarding school had actually become the most influential years of his life. When he felt compelled to write a novel, he started digging into his past. His mother gave him a pile of letters that he sent during his years in Gontor.
“Novel writing has been a process of self-discovery, as well as a change to share with readers,” he said.
Like the protagonist in his first novel, Ahmad enjoys being a globetrotter and experiencing a lot of new things. He realized that his books have opened a lot of doors. He gets to travel from one literary festival to another to spread his story. He said he was honored to have been a resident literary artist for Rockefeller, which also boasts “The English Patient” author Michael Ondaatje among its recipients. He is even more grateful to have had the chance to spend a month in Italy.
“I didn’t know that I would be writing a story about childhood near Minangkabau lake at a villa near another beautiful lake in Italy,” he said.