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Indonesia's city of soul in mourning

By Irfan Yusuf - posted Friday, 2 June 2006


If you wish to discover the real spirit of Indonesia, you need to look beyond the beaches and nightclubs of Bali. You also have to look beyond the traffic jams of Jakarta or the art deco conference halls of Bandung. Indonesia’s real cultural and spiritual heart is Yogya.

Like their Aussie neighbours in the global village, Indonesians love to abbreviate names. “Yogya” is the shortened name for Yogyakarta, the historical capital of an old Javanese Sultanate and the hub of ancient and modern Indonesian culture.

But as a result of the recent earthquake, large parts of Yogya and surrounding villages have been transformed into hills of rubble. At the time of writing, the death toll has climbed well over 5,000.

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In January I was part of a delegation of five young Australians on a leadership exchange program sponsored by the Australia Indonesia Institute (AII). We spent almost a week of our 14-day tour in Yogya.

During our pre-trip briefing by AII officials, we were told we’d probably find Yogya more laid-back compared to the rush of the capital Jakarta. Yogya is a university town, with over 50 institutions of higher education. It is also a place of fine arts, culture and music.

By day, the streets outside the universities and in the heart of town are filled with food stalls. By night, the food stalls become tent cities where locals and tourists sit on the ground to savour the local culinary delights.

Our delegation dined in one of these tents one night. We were entertained by a small group of buskers consisting of a guitarist as lead singer and two backing vocalists, playing and singing everything from the Beatles to Bon Jovi.

We also visited a number of universities including the famous Gadjah Mada State University, ranked one of the top 100 universities in the world. There, we visited a special research centre devoted to inter-faith studies. We also visited a women’s research institute devoted to improving the status of Indonesian women and run wholly by Muslim women.

Yogya is a progressive and open-minded town. Transsexual musicians openly walk the streets even during the day. Our delegation visited a private university managed by Protestant Christians and catering for Yogya’s large Christian community.

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A large number of non-government organisations operate in Yogya. Among them is Interfidei, an organisation managed by people of all faiths devoted to promoting religious tolerance. An Interfidei T-shirt shows a young child asking the question, “Mummy, what is God’s religion?” One Muslim Interfidei activist told us of her project to have Indonesia’s tiny Jewish community receive official recognition by the government of this, the world’s largest Muslim country.

We also visited an NGO managed by Muslim women’s activists. Called the Rifka Annisa, the organisation runs a crisis centre and refuge for women and children who are victims of domestic and other violence.

The workers of Rifka Annisa educate and lobby governments, judges, religious organisations and community leaders on issues relating to violence against women. Their crisis centre provides counselling and support services to women of all faiths and from all sectors of Yogya society.

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First published on Madhab al-Irfy on May 30, 2006.



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About the Author

Irfan Yusuf is a New South Wales-based lawyer with a practice focusing on workplace relations and commercial dispute resolution. Irfan is also a regular media commentator on a variety of social, political, human rights, media and cultural issues. Irfan Yusuf's book, Once Were Radicals: My Years As A Teenage Islamo-Fascist, was published in May 2009 by Allen & Unwin.

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