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Binhad Nurrohmat in Cirebon

By Andy Fuller

This reading was filmed on the north-central coast of Java in the port city of Cirebon. The film shows Binhad Nurrohmat reading a poem he wrote on a previous visit to the city. The title of the poem is "Dermaga Cirebon": "dermaga" means "pier" or "jetty". The raw footage of the film was screened at a discussion on the literary works of Seno Gumira Ajidarma on November 29th, 2008, at the Cirebon Arts Council (Dewan Kesenian Cirebon). Although the discussion was held on a Saturday night, there were around sixty–eighty people in attendance: a relatively good turnout. The discussion was led by three presenters—Binhad Nurrohmat, Ahmad Syubbanuddin Alwy and myself. Two local actors read a story each by Seno: one was about a murdered son in East Timor, the other was about a soccer player who "dribbles" a ball from one country to the next. Part of the purpose of the discussion was to analyse the elements of urban life in the works of Seno. A second aim was to participate in a critical reading of a popular and established author. The third aspect was the reading itself. The critical analysis of a literary text is enriched by its being performed and "practiced." Performance and analysis were shown to be complementary discourses.

The idea for this film of Binhad reading his poem came from footage I took of him when we visited Sunda Kelapa harbour in northern Jakarta. Binhad and I had hired two bicycle ojeks. While sitting on the back of a bicycle, I recorded Binhad with my handheld camera as he talked about the scene before us. He did not know that I was recording him. While I was recording him, he told an anecdote about one of Indonesia's most famous poets: Chairil Anwar. Binhad said that after having his love rejected by a woman, Anwar visited Sunda Kelapa and wrote the poem—Senja di Pelabuhan Kecil, "Sunset at a Small Port" (1946). Anwar has cast a long shadow of influence over Indonesian poets. His way of living and the manner in which he died (not to mention his vivid and lyrical poems) have become a kind of prototype that is either criticised or taken up by contemporary poets. His call, "aku mau hidup seribu tahun lagi" ("I want to live for a thousand more years") from the poem, Aku (I), is a call to live life in an intense manner and to struggle against all that restricts an individual.

Binhad Nurrohmat is a poet who grew up in the city of Lampung, south Sumatra. Born to Javanese migrants, Binhad's education is mainly derived from his time at Krapyak Islamic school in the central Javanese city of Yogyakarta. One of his collections of poetry has been translated by a scholar of Indonesian literature and popular culture, Dr.Marshall Clark (of Deakin University, Australia). The book is a bilingual publication (The Bed Horse/Kuda Ranjang, Depok: Penerbit Koekoesan, 2008). Clark became interested in Binhad Nurrohmat after meeting him by coincidence at a famous second-hand literature bookshop in central Jakarta.

Binhad's poetry has been published in most of the major literary newspapers in Indonesia, including Kompas and Tempo. Due to the highly explicit imagery of the poems in his first two books of poetry—Kuda Ranjang (The Bed Horse) and Bau Betina (The Smell of a Bitch)—Binhad has attracted a lot of disparaging criticism. Some critics have been shocked that a poet with such strong Islamic learning can write so openly and brazenly about casual sexual relationships. Despite the relative furore surrounding his books, Binhad has remained unbowed. His most recent book of poetry, Demonstran Sexy, though, shows a different side of his understanding of contemporary Indonesia. Unlike The Bed Horse and The Smell of a Bitch, Binhad doesn't foreground the body as a privileged passage to meaning. Instead, Binhad makes fun of recent Indonesian political history and questions the legitimacy of some current debates about literature and what it means to be an authentic poet.

Binhad is one of many poets and writers who have moved from towns or cities outside of Java to the capital of Jakarta. Some might say that his poems, which deal with the sexual liberty of a metropolitan city and the anonymity it fosters, are part of Binhad's process of making sense of his relatively new locale. Nonetheless, Binhad has proven himself to be an adroit mover in his career as a poet. He makes his living only through his writing. He is also active as an organiser of literary discussions, made possible through his wide socialising and many contacts in different cities and towns in both Java and Sumatra.

Sometimes his fame, based on his controversial poems, is an aid to his career; at other times it has hindered his progress, typecasting him as a writer of a particular kind of poems. As such, the break he has made in Demonstran Sexy is a skilful manoeuvre as it forces critics to reconsider Binhad's poetic abilities and sensitivity. Binhad's education in traditional Islamic teaching has also provided him with the scope to participate in public discussions about Islam. What's more, he has the opportunity to negotiate both "Islam" and what it means to live in cosmopolitan and secular Jakarta from the perspective of a writer living on the margins of his society.

Binhad wrote this poem while at the quay at Cirebon. To have the author read the poem at the place where he wrote it was a rare opportunity for me, as someone from outside Indonesia who generally reads works of Indonesian literature amongst the silence of library walls. A reading of the poem at the place where it was written is not necessarily more "authentic" than one held on a stage at a swanky café in Jakarta with the audience sitting quietly and attentively beneath dimmed lights. The purpose of the film is to create a dialogue between what an author wrote and the setting or inspiration that give rise to it. Binhad's poem took me to a new place: Cirebon and its quay. His poem and his reading of it provided an opportunity for questions on the process of writing and performing. His poem extended my self-imposed borders.

Published Apr 22, 2009   Copyright 2009 Andy Fuller

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