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Maybe I am also a thief
'PF Journey' is a new Webdiary columnist who writes about Asia.
It’s a cry from an Indonesian’s heart. It expresses the frustration and exasperation of the Indonesians about corruption in their own country. They are helpless to do anything about it because it has become the norm. No one is clean anymore. Corruption has become us.
It’s a poem by the well known Indonesian poet, writer and journalist Taufiq Ismail. It has been circulating on the Web since December 2004. I first came across it after the Tsunami. I cannot find out where it was first published. I saw a reference that it was published on a literature supplement of the paper Media Indonesia but no date was given. I'd like to hear from anyone who can throw light to its origin.
The Indonesian title is Mungkin Sekali Saya Sendiri Juga Maling; literal translation is "It is very likely that I myself is also a thief".
Maybe, I am also a thief, by Taufiq Ismail
We are a nation on the brink of a complete mess,
40 million unemployed,
On our shoulder we carry the debt of 1600 trillion rupiah like a burden, (About A$300 billion)
We have become a nation of coolies and servants,
We are no longer an independent nation,
The more we borrow money,
In our country,
Especially in our country,
When we move to the left we run into the pickpockets,
Just staying sane in Indonesia is already a good fortune,
So systematic and procedural, it is impossible for you to sabotage,
Look at them, their number has increased over the years,
This community is inter religions,
How do you fight the thieves who steal under the guise of community,
How can this be?
The left hand of the community signs the disposition for the MOU and MUO (mark up operation),
How do you fight the thieves who steal like a community?
How do you process the punishment for hundred of thousands of thieves,
How do you do it?
To investigate and examine based the Laws?
Even with 100 years of court sessions, everyday with 8 hours of court time,
So, my friend, what is the way?
What is the way so that they can be persuaded, coaxed to return
willingly the things they have plundered and amassed for many years and
We cajole them with gentleness and we pray for them,
Unfortunately, some of thieves of the community are also from our Party,
These thieves are just like the real termites and white-ants,
The Indonesian house is only waiting for the right moment to collapse.
As I stand in the courtyard, watching with amazement,
I could not find a translation of this poem, so I decided to do it myself and share it with fellow webdiarists. I am not a professional translator and stand to be corrected by those who are more qualified. The Indonesian language is one of the most dynamic in the world. The vocabulary changes virtually everyday, with new words and applications. This makes the job of a translator doubly hard. I have tried to capture the spirit of the poem rather than literary side.
One of the key words I had problems translating was “jemaah” as in “Jemaah Islamiah (JI)”. The word means “assembly; religious congregation or flock; community”. The word is normally used in the religious context. Jemaah is in Islamic context. Jemaat is in Christian context. I decided to use the word “community” to denote a wider and more neutral context.
Taufiq Ismail was a student activist in the 60s. At one time he was banned by the Sukarno regime, had his scholarship to the USA cancelled, and was sacked from his Government job.
Taufiq Ismail was asked once about the role of poetry in political struggle. He likes to cite "the case of the mid-19th century Achinese poet Chik Pantee Kulu, who wrote a 2000-line epic entitled Hikayat Prang Sabi which became hugely popular and inspired the Achinese struggle against Dutch colonial rule".
"Parts of it were actually read to Achinese fighters before they went into battle. Forty years on, the poem’s appeal was still strong enough to hearten the Achinese in their next struggle, against the Japanese invaders."
"Chik Pantee Kulu did not write his epic for the express purpose of stirring up anticolonial sentiment. He finished it many years before it came to serve that purpose."
In the context of the current Aceh conflict, it would be interesting to find out if the current GAM fighters read the poem before they go into battle.
Taufiq Ismail gave a speech in April 2004 where he said that the root cause of the many problems faced by the Indonesian nation is that it has become too materialistic. He said the Indonesian nation is trapped in a situation where material possessions, assets and money have become an end to itself. Along the way it has destroyed the Indonesian values systems into pieces. Corruption has become the easiest and quickest way to accumulate these material gains. It is my belief that this has led him to write this poem.
Taufiq Ismail is a contemporary of Arief Budiman, a Professor at the University of Melbourne's Institute of Asian Languages and Societies and a well known Indonesian commentator in Australia, and of Mochtar Lubis, the well known journalist who passed away in July 2004. "My friend Mochtar Lubis was always on the front line when it came to press freedom," Taufiq Ismail said in a tribute for Mochtar held at the Taman Ismail Marzuki Art Center, Central Jakarta. (Jakarta Post, 4/7/04)
The lives of writers in the regimes of Sukarno and Suharto have not been easy. If you disagree with the regime’s policies and politics you either shut-up, go into exile or be locked up. The most famous is Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who turned 80 this year. Pramoedya is a much decorated writer and a regular Nobel Prize candidate. He was imprisoned for 14 years by the Suharto regime without trial. He was accused on being a Communist. Released in 1979 but was still under virtual house arrest until the fall of Suharto in 1998. his books and writings are now freely available in Indonesia but still technically banned.
Pramoedya was also accused by his fellow writers and intellectuals for his role in the communist backed cultural organisation LEKRA in the early 60s. They accused him of “intellectual plurality betrayal” in Indonesia during the last few years of Sukarno regime. Pramoedya has categorically denied this accusation. In 1995 this led to a famous literary event in Indonesia, when the Magsaysay Foundation in Manila had granted Pramoedya that year’s literature award – the Asian Nobel Prize.
This caused an uproar in the Indonesian literary world. Twenty six prominent writers and intellectuals, including Taufiq Ismail, sent a protest statement to the Magsaysay Foundation. “The statement tries to enlighten the Magsaysay Foundation on the role of Pramoedya in suppressing the freedom of creativity during the 'guided democracy' years,” wrote Taufiq Ismail to the Jakarta Post on 5/8/95.
On his literary outputs alone Pramoedya deserves the Nobel Prize. However, this controversy is probably causing him the Nobel Prize. Only time will tell. Pramoedya’s life and times deserve an article on its own in the future. It is interesting to note that Arief Budiman refused to sign the statement.
Taufiq Ismail has expressed his love for books and libraries since a very young age. Funding for libraries in Indonesia is very poor and librarianship as a profession does not enjoy high status. He has been active in encouraging Indonesian primary and secondary students to appreciate and value books and libraries and has often lamented that literature and writing have been largely forgotten in the Indonesian school system.
On February 11 this year Ismail and other poets and writers conducted a prayer session for the victims of the tsunami in the Grand Mosque of Banda Aceh, where he recited 4 of his famous poems.
A short biography of Taufiq Ismail I compiled from various sources
Renowned Indonesian poet and writer Taufiq Ismail was born Bukittingi, West Sumatra, Indonesia in 1937 and grew up in Pekalongan, Central Java. In the 1950s, with a scholarship from American Field Service (AFS) International, he completed his high school at Whitefish Bay, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. He came to know and love the writing of Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman and in particular, Ernest Hemingway. The Old Man and The Sea is his favourite novel.
After returning to Indonesia, Ismail graduated as a doctor in veterinary medicine from the University of Indonesia in 1963 and practiced briefly. But he followed his heart and his soul and became a poet.
It was a turbulent times in Indonesia under Sukarno. He became a student activist in 1966, the same year his poetry collection Benteng,
about the awakening of students against oppression, was published. He
received the National Art Award for the best works in Indonesian
literature in 1970. The following year he participated in the
International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He was a
contributor to the International Poetry Festival in Rotterdam in 1971.
He was the representative for Indonesia in poetry reading events held
in 25 countries around the world covering USA, Europe, Australia, Asia
In 1994, he was awarded the South East Asia Writers Award under the patronage of the King of Thailand. He married his wife, Esiyati, in 1971 and they have one son. He lives in Jakarta.