By: Astari M. Daenuwy
ON A PARTICULAR Wednesday last February, I was asked the following question: “Tar, what’s wrong with your forehead? It’s dirty.” It was an innocent question, asked out of concern, curiosity and unawareness.
I found myself explaining to my friends repeatedly that I had ash on my forehead because it was Ash Wednesday, a day that marked the beginning of Lent season for Christians. It also marked forty days of fasting before the Easter Triduum. Naturally the next questions that followed were: “What’s Lent?” and “isn’t Easter a one-day celebration?”
On that day I was slightly amused to entertain these questions of the Christian faith. Then I realized that I too am guilty with the lack of understanding of the religions of my friends. I must admit that I don’t know much about Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. I don’t know the difference between the Muslim sacred holidays of Isra Mi’raj and Maulid Nabi. I’m not sure what the days of Galungan, Kuningan and Nyepi are all about. And don’t even ask me about Waisak.
Perhaps when I was younger it’s okay to not know these things. But now that I am about to become a diplomat, I think it’s time for me to have a basic knowledge of the major religions of Indonesia. It would be an embarrassment if I don’t know the answer to the question, “why does the embassy take longer lunch breaks on Friday?” Or “why won’t your Muslim friend eat pork?”
Of course, I am not aiming to become a theologian by diving into the doctrines behind every ritual and faith. There are already dedicated professionals in each of the faiths. It is also not my mission to question the beliefs and faiths of my friends. Just as I don’t like people telling me what religion I should pursue, I am sure that the feeling is mutual. Religion is a very personal thing and it is a spiritual choice that a person makes based on their freewill.
Now that I have said the disclaimer, my purpose is simple. I want to maximize my understanding of the different religions and cultures so I can minimize mistakes when I’m posted abroad. Being an Indonesian diplomat overseas requires me not only to represent my country properly but also to cater to the needs of the Indonesian citizens living abroad. I must be prepared for everything, even for the smallest things like knowing who to contact to give final rites to an Indonesian Hindu. Did you know that the Hindu religion in Indonesia is different than the one in India?
So how does one begin to understand? Personally, I’m going to start with my friends in Sekdilu 35.
I’m going to ask them my questions, like “why do some Muslim men have marks on their forehead?”, “why do some Muslim women decide to wear the hijab?”, “why does life in Bali come to a complete stop during Nyepi?”, “what does one do when one goes to a klenteng?”, and so on.
People may laugh at me for my silly questions, but I’d rather be laughed at by my friends than looked down upon by foreign officials. I’d rather have someone say, “why does she ask silly questions” than “I don’t think she’s an Indonesian diplomat, she doesn’t even know the customs of her country.”
Sekdilu 35 is a great place to start because the diversity of the country is well-represented. The batch is not only religiously diverse but also ethnically and culturally diverse. It is also a good place to learn together with your friends because it facilitates casual conversation that is free from any suspicion and hidden agenda.
So, next time you see me around, I hope you won’t mind me asking questions about your beliefs. I truly believe that by increasing our understanding of each other’s faiths and cultures it also increases respect and tolerance, which ultimately strengthens solidarity.