I was in Surabaya just two days before the start of Ramadan and Indonesia was on the move. The flights were full. Juanda Airport was overflowing with people returning home to “sambut puasa” — or to welcome the fasting month.
Darting out of the airport, I headed straight into a Jakarta-style traffic jam along the vital Jalan Ahmad Yani artery.
I was in the City of Heroes to receive an award from Ibu Risma, the feisty lady mayor, for helping to promote the city of Surabaya internationally. I was flattered and a little embarrassed. Journalists and writers are classic “connectors.” What we do is introduce people to other people and places. So, in truth, all I’d done to deserve my award was introduce a few fellow writers and friends to the East Java city and its denizens.
I have a deep and enduring affection for Surabaya. I like its robust and earthy character. This is the “pesisir” — the baking hot northern coast of Java — at its best.
At the same time, I’ve been intrigued by the city’s wonderfully contradictory nature: both intensely religious (East Java is the home of Nahdlatul Ulama) and openly hedonistic (witness the legalized prostitution zones, called “lokalisasi,” of Dolly and Jarak, albeit shuttered during the fasting month).
I will forever treasure my first memories of Surabaya; of arriving in this rambunctious and chaotic city 10 years ago. Along with Rama Surya, the photographer, I plunged headlong into Dolly. We spent many days and nights wandering the lanes, interviewing the girls. They came from all over the province — Kediri, Blitar and Pasuruan.
We were also to meet an amazing kyai, Ustadz Khoiron, whose tiny musholla in the middle of Bangunsari was surrounded by lounges and karaoke bars. Despite living on what appeared to be the “moral” front line, he was never puritanical. Instead, he and his lovely wife reached out to the girls. They gave Koran classes and hosted them. His generosity of spirit and openness was to have an enduring impact on me.
But that was all long ago.
Last week, I pitched up at the Majapahit Hotel, checking into a room that overlooked one of the exquisitely maintained garden courtyards. The Majapahit is the height of colonial-era elegance and one of the best preserved of Southeast Asia’s great early 20th century inns.
Late that evening, I’d arranged to meet a friend for dinner at the nearby Hotel Elmi. If the Majapahit is all Dutch-era colonial grandeur, the Elmi is a time capsule from the ’70s — a place that would have been torn down and rebuilt in Jakarta.
The Elmi has a groovy ’70s vibe worthy of Starsky and Hutch, Titiek Puspa, Kojak and James Bond, with a sunken seating area in the lobby, velour sofas and low-hanging ceilings, not to mention its regulars, many of whom look as if they’d been hanging out there since the Disco Era.
Having enjoyed the time warp, I headed to the Makam Sunan Ampel to “sambut puasa.”
I’m not Javanese nor a member of Nahdlatul Ulama, but somehow I’ve begun to feel the need to acknowledge the arrival of Ramadan by going to graves and offering prayers for friends and family. Sunan Ampel’s grave lies to the north of Surabaya, in the Arab district. It’s a warren of little lanes, lined with stalls selling dates, skull-caps, Korans and hijabs.
Sitting down in front of the grave itself, along with thousands of locals, I recited the Surah Yasin from the Koran and then stopped to ponder a world that still venerated a Champa-born Muslim leader, one of the nine Wali Songo who first brought Islam to Indonesia.
After a few minutes reflecting on the skein of history, culture and faith that linked us all to Sunan Ampel, who died in the 1480s, I stood, stretched my legs and wandered back through the lanes, refreshed and at peace. Only in Surabaya.
Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.