I can feel sorrow in the air.

Can you feel it? It was a gloomy feeling, surrounding you and your environment. I tried to called it a ‘melancholy feeling’, for the words might be easier to us to comprehend. Although, it might be more than that. You’re not melancholic all the time. It was a state that come and go, depends on what is happening with you. Huzun, on the other hand, is something that you and other people feeling about a place, space or anything. Huzun is special because it is communal.

The word Huzun is Turkish. Derived from an Arabic word: Huzn, – which has a similar meaning: sorrow – it had been used by Orhan Pamuk to describe his beloved city Istanbul. Istanbul, Pamuk said, was once a center of the earth, the brightest star in Europe, the most beautiful ‘crescent’ of all, the most sophisticated city with a stunning civilization.

The Ottoman Empire used to rule Turkey and its colony, after they took it from their fellow Greece empire, Byzantium. Istanbul is Ottoman’s, and so do the entire Turkey. The Ottoman times is the days when Istanbul reached its supremacy, economically and culturally.

500 years since Sultan Mehmed II, whom they called the Conqueror, established Bosphorus as a place for Turkey, the empire was converted into republic. Everything had changed, from the intricate and beautiful form of calligraphy (changed into latin alphabet), to other things like the prohibition of harem and Darvishes.

According to Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul had lost its beauty and uniqueness ever since the republic era comes. It was still ‘unique’ for foreigners, of course. But there’s something missing. Something had been taken, and it changed everything. Can you imagine yourself, walking in a city full of an ancient buildings, grandeur architecture. You’re walking in the work of art. Yet, they reflect sadness and poor. Istanbul in Pamuk’s childhood time (c. 1970) is a city that is confused with its own identity. The era of Ottoman Empire has gone, now they’re living their modern times. Too bad, the so called ‘modern’ turned out to be another hard challenge.

So that’s it, the Huzun. The communal sadness everyone felt in Istanbul. Huzun formed a sorrow everywhere, anywhere. A constant melancholy every people feel in a ruined ancient city.

Weirdly, I feel it too.

I’m not an Istanbul citizen. I live in Jakarta, the city I used to call ‘a bloody town’. If you are familiar with Jakarta, physically and spiritually, there might not be any chance that you would address this city as ‘beautiful’, or ‘once was beautiful’. Jakarta is, well, Jakarta.

But it was something unusually beautiful about this city. So many little things that make you smile, laugh, think, or wonder. A beautiful sunset, a clear blue sky on an unexpected season, a breeze of summer wind between humidity, a children smiling and laughing when they flew their kites, a very bright afternoon sunlight that fallen through a train’s window. We can easily find a poetic moment in the middle of polluted air.

Maybe, just maybe, I love Jakarta so much it hurts me to see this city fallen apart. Maybe, unlike Pamuk’s huzun to Istanbul, my sorrow and sadness is not communal. But I believe that it can’t be only me, and so it isn’t melancholy. There’s a hidden huzun in this bloody town.


His Darkest Hour

Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006)
Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006)

Every Indonesian must read these books.

You  must have known Pramoedya Ananta Toer. He was, in my opinion, one of the best writer in the world. I’m not exaggerating here, and I do think everyone should read his works. Well, I think everyone should try to.

This is why I think the guy is a genius.

When I was a little kid, I already know that my country – Indonesia – is a country that had been colonized by the Dutch about three and a half centuries. I knew it from the history school books, and I have a sympathetic feeling for my beloved Indonesia. But that is it. It just a sympathy. Not that I say that being sympathetic is wrong, but it’s not enough. We are living in a country that already free from colonization. Some of us are never experiencing how is it feel to be a slave in your own land (and thanks to God that we didn’t experience it), but do you think that we still care?

The last question lead us to the reason why I think Pramoedya is a genius.

It was him who made me realized how the world blinded us all, how the so called democracy and freedom made us to be ignorant and careless. Please do not take it wrong, for I do think that democracy and freedom are everything that people needs in this modern times. But it turned out that I – and the majority of generation who were born in 1970-2000 – are forgetting the fact that our nation used to live in a very, very, difficult times and it is part of our job to fix it.

Pramoedya made it simple with his books, Kuartet Pulau Buru (The Pulau Buru Quartet).

The Pulau Buru Quartet are a Tetralogy, a work that made up four distinct books. The Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and Glass House. They are recognized as the most powerful works of literature in the 20th century.

The Pulau Buru Quartet told us about a boy whose name is Minke (Raden Mas Tirto Adi Suryo), who struggled in the time when the Dutch still grabs her unlimited power over Indonesia (whose name was The Dutch Indies at that time) circa 19th century. Minke is a Javanese boy, a descendant of Javanese aristocrat, thus make him an aristocrat as well. This aristocrat status that Minke held, make him familiar with the Dutch education and lifestyle. Familiar he is with the Dutch education, makes him depressed and confused whenever he faces his own people, the Javanese.

Pramoedya describes Minke’s journey and thinking in the most beautiful way possible. Minke is the Javanese who must face the bitter and cruel form of colonialism, while he still see and experience the Javanese culture (which in Pramoedya’s mind, already loses almost everything). The Javanese were already meet their dusk when the modern ideas finally reached Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). It was their dark ages, their darkest hour. It is surprising – well, maybe shocking – when we read the Tetralogy and realize how deep our civilization had fallen.

Pramoedya wake us up in his simple, humble way. His books, including Pulau Buru Quartet, were banned in the New Order Era (1968-1998). Some people had an argument that his books are very provocative and Left. Therefore his books should not be read with Indonesian. Well, such argument is nonsense, since his books are very enlighten and will boost your nationalism to its highest peak. I don’t know the reason why his books should be banned. It’s a relieve that the Reformation Era were allowing the publisher to distribute his works, and we could read and discuss his ideas again.

Pramoedya wrote Pulau Buru Quartet when the New Order Government were sending him to Buru Island. He was imprisoned without trial process, thus made him an exile for 10 years (1969-1979). It was in these darkest hour that Pramodeya tried to write Pulau Buru Quartet. Although the government forbid him to write, he chose the oral way to tell his stories, memorize it, and then write it later secretly.  His effort and dedication is amazing, and it is him who opened my eyes to see what actually happened with my people, what went wrong.

Every Indonesian should read his books, and we will fix and build together what had been broken and scattered all over places.

How To Communicate It

Nandi Temple, Prambanan
Nandi Temple, Prambanan
Borobudur Temple

When I told my teacher at University of Indonesia, Bu Dotti, that I want to visit Borobudur and Prambanan, she looked excited. I told her that I want to take some photos and presented them the way it would suffice and to communicate the architecture itself. It actually related with the way I’m gonna present the photos in the exhibition that is going to be held next year (which sadly has got cancelled, but I think I still gonna try it.)

“I’m going to shoot some photographs, and I’m going to present it in a different way. Well, it might be not that different. I mean, it won’t be just some temple pictures. The picture would represents how we see the temple, and in the way communicate the architecture.” It was raining when I told her my plan. We were in her cubicle, in the teacher lounge at UI. She stood still. Her eyes wandered. It used to be one of a soothing moments when we (the assistant) used to think or simply chat in her cubicle.

I was slurping my hot coffee when she gave me papers. “You might want to read this.” She said.

It was a photocopied papers, about 30 pages. I read the title in front of it. The title said, “Chambers For A Memory Palace“. The authors are Donlyn Lyndon and Charles W. Moore. When I opened it, I noticed that it contains only one chapter.

“Hey, this is the book everybody talks about.” I said that to her while my eyes moving from one page to another.

She smiled, and then she took the book from my hand. She opened it, and pointed at some page which she already marked by a pencil.

“You can start from here.” she touch the pencil mark by her finger, and keep opening the book until we meet the other pencil’s mark. “till here. Just tell me if you already finished it. I just want to show you something later.” She was smiling mysteriously after she said that.

It was already late, and I have to go home. So I decided to brought the papers with me instead, and talk to her tomorrow. As soon as I go home, I opened the book. The marked part were telling me about the sequences and things that we would noticed and felt when we visit the architectural works. Charles Moore try to give Taj Mahal as an example;

“...Take, for instance, the axis that connects the entry portal of the Taj Mahal gardens in Agra, India, with the domed tomb itself. There the actual path plays back and forth along the axis in three dimensions. Within the geometrically simple walled apparition of a paradise garden,  the path takes the observer through a measured set of experiences. When you first approach the great red sandstone gatehouse, you are funneled to its center by flanking walls and a tall arch. As you enter this canopied space your attention is drawn to a glimmering vision that fills the space of the arch on the other side, a white dome whose profile matches that of the arch and whose base and entrance are directly ahead on the same level, but hundreds of paces away.

It was confusing at first, simply because I don’t get what the writer means by all of that. I mean, what is the big deal about describing the Taj Mahal?

But I decided to give my eyes a rest and discuss it with Bu Dotti on the next day.


“So, how is it?” she asked me when I was coming to her cubicle. I was smiling, and I know that I must look stupid because I told her that; “I didn’t really get it. Is it about how we see something not as it is, but more like to as it feels or looked like?”

She didn’t respond to my answer directly. – or maybe my question? – Instead, she took a bunch of photographs, and placed it on her table one by one. It was a photo of Taj Mahal.

“Bu Laksmi gave it to me after she visits Taj Mahal. Actually I asked her to take some photographs for me.” She explained where the photographs came from.

I was examining the images carefully when she picked one of them, and facing it to me so I can see it properly. It was the image of Taj Mahal’s facade. On the image I can see the dome, the white marble, the door, and also the minaret. I also noticed the pool that lead my eyes straight into the grand building.

“What do you see, beside the building?” she asked me.

I was still thinking when she spoke to me again “Can you imagine yourself seeing this building?”

“Hmm… Yes, I guess.” I answered with hesitation. Bu Dotti used to make me confused a lot, simply because she has a different method and approach of seeing things.

She seemed to noticed my confusion. “Where do you think this photographs was taken?”

“In the Taj Mahal?”

Well, I didn’t said that. That was what I’m thinking. I might be stupid and desperate but I knew that it’s not the right answer.

“Examine it again.” she said.

It was like a lighting bolt. The answer came to me. And the answer is not about what place it is, but more to why we use that spot to take the picture.

“I think it was in the mini tunnel, or arch, or something like that, that lead us to the Taj Mahal.”

I think my answer was right. But with Bu Dotti, you won’t get the answer very soon. She will challenge you again. Bu Dotti grab the book that she gave to me, and started to read the lines.

When you first approach the great red sandstone gatehouse, you are funneled to its center by flanking walls and a tall arch. As you enter this canopied space your attention is drawn to a glimmering vision that fills the space of the arch on the other side, a white dome whose profile matches that of the arch and whose base and entrance are directly ahead on the same level, but hundreds of paces away…”

She stopped for a second, placing the picture directly so it was upright to my face, and than she said to me: “This is what we actually see when we enter the gatehouse, isn’t it? This picture represents what the architecture feels like. How it forms the image in our head, how we understand Taj Mahal. And, this picture tries to communicate it.”

I get it now. The photographs shouldn’t be just a bunch of beautiful pictures that fill the aesthetic and technique requirements, but it should be communicate my experience through Borobudur and Prambanan. The way I see it, and the way I feel it, are important alongside with the way I communicate the temples as a building and an architecture.


I made to Yogyakarta a week after that conversation. The photographs you are about to see  are some of the result. It was not perfect, of course. And you might find no differences with the other architecture photographs. But this is the time that I actually try to used Bu Dotti’s method on seeing something, seeing building, seeing phenomenon, seeing architecture, and at the end; communicating it.

Note : You can click the picture to enlarge it.

A View From The West

The Snake Charmer by Jean-Leon Gerome
The Snake Charmer by Jean-Leon Gerome

There’s a blue room, with an Arabic on every side of the wall. The sheik and mercenaries sit comfortably, looking at the nude little girl whose body wrapped by a purple snake. Beside the little girl, an old man are playing some enchanting song from his flute. The little girl grab the python, she tries to make it dance with her. Her naked body made an erotic image for the sheiks, who are longing to touch her body. Her pale, white skin made a soft contact with the purple reptile, dancing and moving slowly as the song is playing.

“It’s not a girl. It’s a boy.” Ega Nindita, my fellow scholar, told me.

“What? A boy? It’s a girl!” I recalled the image on my head. A naked girl, with her purple snake.

“How do you know that it’s a girl? You can search the painting in the internet. It said that it’s a boy.” Ega smiling.

Jean-Leon Gerome created The Snake Charmer circa 1870. The painting is used for the cover of Orientalism, the book written by Edward W. Said. Orientalism give us the perspective about how Western world see the Arab world ( The Orient ) at the end of 19th century. Judgment and prejudice are very common at that time, and that is one of the main paradigm that Said criticize.

If we look at the painting again, we could understand what kind of interpretation and judgment that the Westerners used to have when it comes to the Arab people. The naked boy holding python on his hand, in a room that looks like a mosque. I don’t want to speculate here, but what is your impression when you see that painting? The inaccuracy of the painting show us how European see Arabs only from their point of view. The idea about the West and the East is a concept that Westerners build themselves. Edward Said said, that the Westerners were identifying the East so they could identify themselves. By make the other, they found their own. They are nothing like The East, because they are The West.

The false judgment are actually a common thing. We could find hundreds of stereotypes of people or races. But the European used to use their judgment unconsciously to build their own identity. Later, the Oriental is not only Arabs, but also Chinese, Malay, and anything but West.

“The painting symbolize what the Westerners used to had in their mind about us, the Orient. And that is what Edward Said try to criticize on his book.” Ega tries to summarize the book by it’s unique yet provocative cover.

With the boy replaces the girl, the image is getting weirder while also disturbing. Is it any true, the fact that the Arab world used to live side by side by prostitution? But isn’t prostitution are find almost everywhere in the world? So if the East supposed to be different than the West, and the West are having the prostitution as well, what are the differences between them?

I guess we’re not that different from each other. Sometimes, the differences are made by ourselves.

The Turkish Knight

Orhan Pamuk
Orhan Pamuk

Just a couple hours ago, my friend Dila asked me about any good books that I might introduced to her.  I always think that Pramoedya Ananta Toer is one of the best writer in the world, and she might be interested on his work.  Pramoedya is very good, and he should receive his long lost Nobel – which sadly – he never get.

But then I realized that I have another favorite writer, the one who introduce me to the kingdom far far away (well, it’s not kingdom anymore, actually). The kingdom whose conquered half of the modern Europe, the one who changed its church into mosque, the one who stands between two continents, the descendant of Greeks and Mongols: Turkey.

His name is Orhan Pamuk (57). I knew his work when I bought his book, My Name Is Red, or with the Indonesian translation: Namaku Merah Kirmizi. I won’t say anything about the story here, for it’s better for you to experience it by yourself. Pamuk’s work are struggling in the realm of ancient yet modern problem of Turkeys, i.e their identity.  It is interesting how Pamuk always state implicitly, about how the country face the modern world with its problems. How they look at themselves as a Muslim yet Europe.

Like Pramoedya, Pamuk always tell the truth. He was banned by Turkey Government in 2006 because he speaks about the Armenian Genocide, a tragedy that actually happened but always kept shut by the Turkey government. Every Turks might find that his books are disturbing to read. Not disturbing as disgusting or gory, but more like controversial. It makes you think. And that is a skill every good writer should have.

I myself never went to Turkey, yet it still fascinates me. It’s always in my head. The castle, the mosque, the people, all of them are forming an image that I always dreamed of. It’s funny how you always want to be a part of something that doesn’t related to you.

About the book, I still don’t know if I would recommended Orhan Pamuk to my friend, Dila. I’m not sure if she would like it or not. But it’s worth to read, actually. Maybe I would tell her later, after she come home to Jakarta for good. Meanwhile, if you have a time please read My Name Is Red, and feel free to add any comment or discussion on my blog. Do you have any suggestion? What book should I give to Dila?

My Name Is Red
My Name Is Red