Sun, 27 Feb 2000

Elegy for Anwar Saeedy

By Martin Aleida

Anwar Saeedy left the office of social affairs with an indescribable feeling of disgust. He turned back, looked briefly at the imposing building, and then shook his head and spit a few meters away of the guard post. "I never imagined how rotten the mentality of the civil servants of this country whose birth I helped fight for," his heart cried.

Long ago, his stomach turned when he heard that an independence pioneer certificate could be bought. Imagine, a traitor could easily turn himself into a hero just by bribing a civil servant. And now he felt trampled down when the chief of the social affairs office refused to accord him the recognition as an independence pioneer.

He had shown the official the evidence: clippings from newspapers in English and also a number of people who were ready to testify on his behalf. He also mentioned a number of books about the country's proclamation of independence. In the pages of these books his name was clearly seen as someone who had mobilized the workers to go on strike in New York harbor to support Indonesia's independence. What hurt him even more was that these insolent employees made fun of him, saying he was just a clippings hero.

His heart was wounded, deeply wounded indeed. As a matter of fact, once he had vowed never to seek recognition for what he had done when he was young. His fond memory of his homeland, Aceh, and his pride as an Indonesian conspired to push him to persuade his fellow workers in a foreign land to lend support to the birth of a new republic, one that would be perched on the head of Australia. If what I did some day is recognized, let that recognition come by itself, he once had said to himself. One of his teachers once said struggle without hope for reward was like defecating. Once completed, we never look back, not even once.

The bitterness of life, however, eventually shattered his unassailable firmness. He knew he had been born to be a worker. Returning home after being abroad for so many years, he tried to become a businessman. Unfortunately, that was not destined to be his fate. His fields in his home village, inherited from his parents, had all been sold while his business profits were slowly used up feeding him and his adopted son, who was actually one of his nephews. Anwar was tall and big. His skin was dark brown. Unfortunately, he was destined only to be a worker. He just did not have the smarts to be a trader. And at his age, who would give him a job, seeing that his muscles were no longer firm.

That morning he actually was reluctant to go to the social affairs office. It was as if he was betraying himself. The problem now, however, was that he had to be realistic. He had only this simple thought: if he got an independence pioneer certificate -- so he had often heard -- he would receive an allowance from the government and could use this to see to his and adopted son's needs. Indeed, he was also tempted by the promise of the certificate that if he were to die, in whatever manner, he would be entitled to a place in a heroes cemetery.

"Honestly, a dead man does not want to be discriminated against. And the measure of somebody's good deeds in the world is not related to the location of his grave," were Anwar's thoughts about death.

Walking home he swore about the behavior of the employees he had just met.

"Bad luck, Saeedy," he said to himself, condemning his fate while spitting. "You have demeaned the dignity of the Acehnese. Don't you know that history shows the Acehnese never begged like you did. Acehnese blood is fighters' blood. You do not know what shame is ... ," he curled his lips and spat again.

Upon arriving at home, he took out the newspaper clippings, neatly arranged in plastic, from his bag. He put them on the floor and arranged them in a row. He looked at them and loudly read the headlines. These clippings suddenly welled in his subconscious. His chest swelled. How proud he was seeing the newspaper reports he had collected several decades ago. Anwar Saeedy grew prouder seeing his own photograph. He was standing akimbo and erect on a wharf in New York harbor, together with scores of his friends, refusing to lift the cargo as a sign of resistance against the lion, the Dutch.

He was elated when he saw the newspaper clippings, which had turned a dull yellow. He suddenly received inspiration from the clippings lying at his feet.

"There is no mistaking -- the Acehnese must return to Aceh," he said smiling and adjusting the angle of his velvet cap, which covered the baldness of his head.

It was as if Anwar Saeedy had just received a brilliant plan. He shouted into the next room in a rather hoarse voice, "Murad ... ! I want to go to the market. You stay and guard the house. Tomorrow I am going to start a new business in Jatinegara."

An unexcited reply came from the room.

Anwar Saeedy left for the market, not far from his house. He bought pandanus leaves, stalks of wild lily and some stems of red ginger.

His adopted son helped Saeedy distill the plants and spices. Saeedy said a few prayers before he poured his product slowly into small bottles. "Bismillahittoriqi (In the name of God) ...," he said to accompany his action. He also said Torsi Soifi.

It was, he thought, the most effective prayer, one he had inherited from his grandfather. The prayer had softened the policemen who rushed into New York harbor to quell the strike he was leading. They did not arrest him and his friends, instead they expressed their sympathy. Because the workers fought for freedom -- a highly cherished value in the U.S. -- disturbing public order, not excessive in itself, could be tolerated. Besides, the spirit of freedom was not a sin.

After afternoon prayers the next day and with cotton-light steps, Anwar Saeedy walked to Jatinegara. He carried a basketful of goods he planned to trade. The sidewalk traders had begun work. Pulling himself together he said his strength-giving prayers once again while looking left and right. No one seemed to notice him.

He unrolled a plastic sheet. On it he neatly arranged the small bottles containing the concoction he hoped would induce passers-by. Up front he laid all his newspaper clippings about his struggles in the country on the other side of the globe. At the back he unfurled an unbleached cotton banner, upon which written in black letters was, "Acehnese medicine for broken bones and sprained limbs." On the side, the banner confidently read, "Anwar Saeedy, fighter-adventurer in the U.S. for 20 years."

A promising wind was blowing in front of him. A number of people stopped right in front of his merchandise. With a smile they read the newspaper clippings and banner.

"Gentlemen," Anwar Saeedy said in a kind voice welcoming his prospective clients.

"Yes, 20 years. I spent a generation adventuring. But finally I realized there was nothing to beat the fragrance of pandanus and the lily flower and the warmth of ginger roots," he said.

The crowd was apparently attracted by his words. They closed ranks.

"Yes gentlemen, honestly, the medicine is made of pandanus, lily and ginger. All of these ingredients can easily be found in the market. What I expect from you, gentlemen, is some compensation for the trouble my nephew and I went through to process this mixture. This is medicine from Aceh that has been recognized for its effectiveness from generation to generation. You do not need to go and see a doctor when you have a broken bone or a sprained ankle. You just rub this mixture on the trouble are like this ... ," he said, rubbing the medicine on his shin and ankle.

What could a person who prides himself as a fighter from Aceh do as one by one the crowd dispersed. No one was left. Anwar Saeedy was left by himself. He was standing erect, dazed. He had not sold one single bottle. For a long time he squatted, rubbing his hands, feeling the emptiness of life as evening fell.

He returned home with a sad and pitiful feeling. The hopes he had placed in the bottles turned out to be empty. The fatigue of one day spent distilling the mixture was not compensated. He carried with him his failure, and it disturbed the tranquility of his sleep.

The next afternoon he again went to Jatinegara to try his luck. No one could write the course of their life. And Anwar Saeedy, the man who once went on an adventure to the other side of the world was no exception. His second day on the sidewalk was equally unlucky, if not worse. No one stopped in front of his display. There were no eyes attracted to his clippings nor to the cloth banner with the words shouting so fiercely.

"Pak." a young man addressed him from behind. The young man came close to his shoulder. "This is Jatinegara, Pak. It is not Aceh Pidie, your native land. This is not New York either."

"What do you want to say then," Anwar Saeedy asked, looking the young man in the eye.

"I do not mean to hurt your feelings. To tell you the truth, honesty has no place here." The young man whispered in his ear while pointing to a trader a few steps away from where they were talking. "You see how his merchandise sells like hotcakes. Do you think his medicine for growing a mustache is really effective? You can rub the medicine on your lip a thousand times, and not one single bristle will grow. I swear to it on my life. But because the vendor has a huge, bushy mustache, people believe him," the young man said, then fell silent. Anwar Saeedy was crestfallen.

"Do not be misled by the man with the mustache on the photograph with (pop singer) Grace Simon by his side. It is fake, but people like to be tricked. Yes, that is life ... ," said the young man curling his lip.

"Just look ... ," said the young man again, raising his chin to indicate a man selling skin cleansers. "He is a migrant. He is sly. God has given him smooth, whitish skin. Somebody with a dark complexion can use his cleanser until his skin peels off, but he will see that his black and dirty skin will not change."

The young man went on. "Do you see that man over there selling tonics? He just capitalizes on people's ignorance. He shows them photographs of alluring women, and then he tells young men that masturbation is dangerous. He says his product balances the sex drive, and they sell like peanuts."

Anwar Saeedy coughed slightly, clearing his throat. The young man said goodbye and disappeared from sight.

"It has come this far apparently ... ," the rest of his sentence stayed in his heart, adding to his disappointment. "Does honesty not have a place anymore in my country?" His heart was aroused, and he remembered his stay in Paris on his way home from New York decades ago.

He went to a cafe in Paris, in front of which was an inscription. Although his knowledge of French was limited, he could catch the meaning. In the past, great people like statesmen, generals, artists and men of literature often came to this cafe. Napoleon, before leaving for the battlefields in Russia, dropped in to have a few drinks. Or at least there was some cafe where he went and which sold the past in this way. And people were attracted. He wanted to relate his experience to the young man. It did not matter, he thought, another nation, another culture.

That night, like the previous night, he went home empty- handed.

With an inner determination that was further strengthened by the demands of life's needs, Anwar Saeedy returned to the sidewalk in Jatinegara the next day. He took his position on the corner as in previous days.

The call to evening prayer from the mosque in the densely populated neighborhood behind the sidewalk vendors had just sounded. Suddenly from the end of the street the traders were shaken as if by an earthquake. They wrapped up their goods in plastic sheets and ran helter-skelter into the nearby alleys. But Anwar Saeedy stood erect, defying the storm. A security unit approached like lightning and scooped up his merchandise lying under the plastic sheet.

"Do not touch the clippings. You can plunder my merchandise, but not the clippings. They are this republic's history!" Never before was he that furious. Never before was his voice that high- pitched.

"Hey, old man, if you want your things back you can come to the office. Watch your mouth; don't be insolent," snapped the commander leading the raid.

Anwar Saeedy shook his head in disbelief at seeing these men savagely seize the merchandise in which he had vested so much of his hope. It hurt his heart seeing his clippings, banner and merchandise thrown casually into a truck.

"You are lucky we do not take you away," the commander's words were still buzzing in his ears when his heartache had subsided and he decided to go home.

The next day the Jatinegara market returned to normal. But the corner where Anwar Saeedy displayed his merchandise remained empty. His neighbors left the place unoccupied for a few days, then they saw the short article in the newspaper about an old man who had hung himself.

"I can't believe he did it," somebody on the sidewalk in Jatinegara said.

"I don't know, but according to the description in the newspaper it must have been Pak Saeedy," said another.

"I don't think it was him. Pak Saeedy is a strong follower of Islam. Remember, he is a worldly adventurer. Moreover, an Acehnese would not take his own life in this cowardly manner. I think he has returned to Aceh, to Pidie," said still another.

"I have no idea ... ," said another.

Translated by The Jakarta Post