Sunday, June 27, 2010


Immediately upon arriving in Medan yesterday (June 26), I grabbed a flight to Banda Aceh to visit a dear friend whom I met and often stayed with in Medan in 1986. I would come back from the villages tired, often sick, worn out psychically. She would patch me up and when I was ready, I would go back again. Yesterday, she commented that I didn’t appear to be thin and worn out and indeed I am not, but she is definitely patching me up again.

In the evening, we spent hours at her home going though the photographs that Mas Nashir had taken during the past week and I shared many stories with her. This morning, I feel as though all the emotions stored up during the past month of intensive travels and meetings are pouring out.

My friend asked me yesterday if there was anyone with whom I could share the pain of the loss of Batak culture and weaving in particular. Her question stands out in my mind. It reminded me immediately of the need of environmentalists to accommodate the deep and very unique pain of loss of quality in the physical world. As usual, she has made an astute diagnosis. And I am intuitively convinced that environmental and cultural pain are close twins.

My journey back to the villages has been undertaken at a very special time. Many of the people whom I wanted to meet are still alive but most of them represent the end of the Batak weaving tradition. Either they have stopped weaving and dyeing, or they have nobody to continue their trade when they are gone. Throughout the past month, I have been trying to come to grips with this. What has changed? Why is this happening? Is a recovery possible or is it too late? What would a recovery look like? What are the avenues available? What will the future hold? Am I really seeing the end of it all?

I know that my journey back to the villages has been historically significant. I am grateful to Mas Nashir more than I can ever express for documenting the journey in images. That he understood. That I could share it with him. It feels too big. My distress would have been so much greater had I gone back to the villages alone; I would not have been able to share it with anyone.

I think of the anthropological reports and stories that I have read about the last representatives of Indian tribes. What did those singular, last members feel? How did they cope with their awareness?

I think of the weaver, Ompu Okta, Tihar Sitorus, that I met in Lumban Lombu. The fellow weavers in her village had already passed away. Her children did not learn her craft. She wove, all alone in her home. When she is gone, there will be nobody left there who weaves. She put her hand in mine while we walked to the exit of her village and we paused in front of the ancient Batak house on stilts, the only one in the village with gorga (painted, etched wood). Her parents had lived there and she had grown up there. We stood there and looked at the house and when I looked down at her, I saw that she was close to tears. How was she coping with the loss? “It is painful, isn’t it?”  I said to her. “Yes,” she said, “It hurts.” She is known for the excellence and beauty of her work.

 When we went back to visit her the next day, she asked me if I would like to sit in her loom. She showed me how she did putik, the counting out and division of the warp to make a throw of supplementary weft. My clumsiness was apparent to us all, but that wasn’t the essence of it. The essence was her longing to share her knowledge with someone. When we talked about the issue, I know that she hoped that I would be able to do something about reviving the art of Batak weaving.

The last weaver in the village
Ompu Okta making the end field of the Pinunsaan. The sticks in the warp are all shed-savers.

Before our departure to the villages, Mas Nashir had introduced me to his friends, Irwansyah Harahap and Ritha Hutajulu, ethnomusicologists who teach at the University of North Sumatra. Ritha told me of their struggle – because it is a struggle against time – to gather indigenous melodies and instruments, to record performances of indigenous Batak music. In far too many of the cases, they were speaking with the last performers, singular persons, most of them old, who represent the end of the tradition. I did not know, at the time, that my findings in the area of weaving would be so parallel (although it makes sense; clearly, denial was easier to cope with). I do know that this time, walking through the rice fields, and when I went to sleep at night, there was no throb of the gondang (Batak ritual percussion orchestra) to accompany me in that mysterious way that I had accepted just as a matter of course twenty years ago. There is only the sound of vehicular traffic, in its own way a kind of deafening stillness. In many respects, the regions I visited are materially better off, but I saw that they had become culturally deeply, perhaps irrevocable, impoverished.

Back to my friend’s question: with whom can the pain of all of this be shared? In a sense, I share it with everybody because we are all living this moment. In another sense, it can only be shared if it has been given a name and its dimensions have been sketched. I can share it with Irwansyah, Ritha, Nashir and my Batak weaver friends.

Uppermost for me have been other questions. The elderly weavers tell me that young people have no interest in learning to weave and that the youth claims to have no capacity to do so. The weaver in Lumban Lombu diagnosed it by saying that they had no depth of concentration, were only interested in communicating by telephone and rushing around from here to there. The quality of time and concentration is different. Weaving requires intense focus and long periods of relative quiet. It is difficult work and you have to keep your wits about you. It is almost meditative; it is rhythmic; it requires patience; it reforms the physical body. I think of advertisements on the television and how they encourage human capacities that are exactly the inverse of those needed to be able to weave. I wonder what an advertisement would look like that would encourage people to love and enact their culture, and weaving in particular?

I know that if I were to learn to weave now, at my grand old age of 55, I would never gain the physical skill of someone who had learned to work with yarn at the same time as they were learning to walk and talk. That physicality of weaving is lost within one generation. Batak weaving is at least 4,000 years old, but life today is demonstrating that it only takes the gap of one generation for it to disappear. It needs to be inculcated, integrated, woven together with daily life starting at an early age. This fact means that the Batak weaving tradition is dead. Henceforth, people interested and skilled in weaving will be able to manipulate Batak looms and make Batak textile patterns, but they will not be Batak weavers in the sense of continuing the tradition. They will be weavers who accommodate, in some ways, the Batak tradition.

 My weaver in Lumban Lombu repeatedly said that she was happy with our visit. She had a moment of optimism, proudly displaying the “diploma” that she had received acknowledging her expertise at a weaving demonstration in Medan. She pulled out the beautiful textiles that her mother had woven and was delighted to have them admired (she wanted me to put pictures of them in my book). It was a magical moment. How grateful I am to have experienced these moments. But the weight of them is heavy. I have been entrusted.

See Back to the Villages - the map!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Last Day of the Project

I made it back to the Karo dyers on the eleventh hour: the last day of the Back to the Villages project (June 26). Back to where the project had begun.
Nande Pulung was at home preparing to go to a pesta (ritual) so she and her husband were dressed in their finery. The large sitting room was empty except for a few chairs and several large sacks. During the course of our visit, someone came to bring Nande Pulung some ikat-tied yarn to dye and she stuffed it in one of the sacks. The other sacks, as it turned out, were filled with dyed yarn.

She explained that it was no longer possible to work with natural dyestuffs (i.e. indigo). The village that had provided the tajem (indigo plant) had decided to use the land to cultivate truck crops. (I often say that in the Karo area the onions are the reason for the decline in textiles.) Even when I asked if I could order indigo–dyed yarn and pay for it well, even if I supplied the indigo, she claimed that she would not be able to fill the order because “the materials were not available.” It was unclear which materials these might be.

She remembered me, my thank-you letter to her from 24 years ago and everything we did during my visit. She seemed happy and thankful for this follow-up visit and looked long and hard at the photograph of the giver, Tim Babcock (who encouraged her to pass on her skills; see blog Last Gasp).  Her husband read Tim’s message aloud in Indonesian and then explained it to her in Karo Batak.

She and her husband also closely examined the photograph that I had brought with me of a rare Karo textile in the Tom Murray collection, but she did not recognize it. She identified the ikat as bayubayu dua lapis and the stripes as kayuna, but could not assign a specific name to the cloth. She told me to visit the owner of the ATBM workshop (with semi-mechanical looms) close by as he wanted to revive old patterns. In addition to the weaving that he does, he dyes ikat patterns in yarn.

We went off to visit him immediately but he was not at home. We gave a copy of the book to one of his employees and his sister. Of course, I had mixed feelings about this presentation because my intent has always been to give the book to weavers (they referred to the backstrap loom technique using the word gedogan), but I gave the gift deliberately and with resolve, hoping that Helmy de Korver, the donor of the book, would support my choice. I assumed that the owner of this little factory was a textile enthusiast because of his reputation for trying to revive old patterns. The chances are good that he will value the catalogue portion of the book. He could well be someone who, if he has enough capital, will conduct textile experiments that can usher the craft into the future. (Oil companies, for instance, are at the forefront of research in solar energy. May that represent a parallel!) This is a time of planting experimental seeds. I hope to visit him again in the future to see if this seed has fallen on fertile ground. [I am now at home in The Netherlands before this blog has been posted. I came home to a gratifying thank you note from Mr. Tambun on my email!]

The presentation to the ATBM workshop owned by Ir. S. Tambun in Kaban Jahe. His sister is looking at the photos that I brought of Tom Murray's  unusual textile. Nobody had ever seen that textile before -- but they knew that they could replicate it!

From there we went to Nande Peringitten’s house. It had not changed at all and although Nande Peringitten died 15 years ago, two of the young people in the photograph with her were still living there (her grandson and daughter-in-law). Her daughter-in-law (Mamak Eka) had taken over the business -- except for the indigo dye component. Her explanation corroborated Nande Pulung’s and Nande Indra’s story: this dye technique was just not viable anymore. Moreover, Mamak Eka had to supplement her income by raising pigs, just as Nande Peringitten had done. I presented a book to her in the name of my friend, Heather Wilson, and asked her to show it to as many people as possible. Nande Peringitten’s descendants shared the general regret that indigo was no longer used, explaining that the natural dye yielded much more beautiful results than the synthetic dye.

Giving the book to Mama Eka, Nande Peringitten's daughter-in-law

From there, we returned to the market to meet up with Nande Indra to whom I had promised a book a few weeks earlier (see blog Last Gasp). Unfortunately, she had gone to the same pesta (ritual event) as Nande Pulung. Her granddaughter in her market stall explained that she had never received my telephone message that I would not be able to visit that evening a few weeks before and she had waited up for me until deep in the night. She was terribly disappointed when I didn’t show up. I was pleased to be able to alleviate that disappointment by handing over a copy of the book in the name of Pamela Cross – a textile lover who is very faithful and punctual and almost never disappoints anyone by failing to live up to her promises.

See Back to the Villages - the map!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Student Needs

Occasionally, I receive requests for my books by email from Indonesian students. I know that I have received at least one such request from someone at the Universitas Si Singamangaraja near Si Borongborong. I decided, therefore, to grab this opportunity to bestow a copy of Legacy in cloth on that University for their library.

On June 23, we stopped the car at a wing of offices and I transferred the book very quickly and unceremoniously (it was late and we were still far from our destination of Parapat) to a certain boru Si Aloha from Parbaba on Samosir Island who agreed to give it to the library – and also to send me a receipt by email. 

There is a tremendous hunger here for information and an equally tremendous lack of means to acquire it. This had been impressed on me strongly in Muara (on June 22) when my presentation to Ompu Josua (one of the weavers on the two-page spread in the front of Legacy; see blog The Muara weavers in the opening photo) had become engulfed by students from the Tourism School (SMK Negeri I Muara) next door.  

As soon as the little ceremony with Ompu Josua was completed, one of the teachers cornered me and asked for a book for the school. I could hardly refuse! What an opportunity to bring the importance of weaving to the attention of a large group of young people. Studying tourism, they could integrate the revival of the weaving arts with the potentials that tourism offers. I made the presentation in the name of the Indonesian Heritage Society. 

It all led to the delivery of a little speech to the school in the front yard, many photographs and requests for autographs (little wonder; the school principal had compared me to the authors of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter!)

Later, by chance, we had lunch in the same little restaurant where the principal, Mr. Silalahi, was eating. He impressed upon us, over and over again, the need for reading materials and support of all kinds, and if we would please help his students and his school. It culminated in a plan between him and Mas Nashir to make an exhibition of the photographs of the presentation to the school – and perhaps of the Back to the Villages project in general.

It is also resulting in this plea: if any readers of this blog would like to assist, one of the girls in the school, exceptionally bright and speaking the best English of them all, came up to me to say that her parents could not afford her school fees. The principal explained that she would only be able to continue if she received external assistance. She broke my heart. School fees, given the differentials in wealth and currency between North and South, represent a very small financial investment with gigantic potential returns.

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For a day...

For a day, Linda and I were together again. We sat in the back of my comfortable rental vehicle, the photographer and chauffeur in the front. Linda quietly and calmly gave directions: Left! Right! In this village!

We looked at each other and laughed. “We used to go everywhere on foot,” Linda said, “Or we took a local bus crowded with pigs, chickens and everything else.” In 1986, getting around was hot, time-consuming and arduous. “Look at us now! Middle-aged women!”

Linda is married, has five children, a restaurant and a clothing business; I am going grey and am just not as agile as I used to be. The vicinity of Tarutung has also changed: there are better roads going everywhere. We covered a lot of ground in just a few hours, visiting twiners in Sait ni Huta, three weavers in Hutagalung, descendants of Ompu Si Tohap in Parbubu and a stall proprietor in the market to deliver copies of Legacy. Linda knew all the places and the people; she had guided me there before.

Many of the recipients were members of Linda’s immediate or extended family. Just as she made our travels today efficient, focused and smooth, her influence is inscribed indirectly but profoundly on the pages of

But Linda has changed. When she assisted me in 1986, she was young and inexperienced; her world was small and close by. Our travels together introduced her to new regions and provided her with new insights into how the world works. After I left, she set up her own business, “Linda Ulos” and built extensive contacts throughout the Valley and in Medan, the capital city. One of them became her life’s partner and together they have built a strong wholesale business. Today, Linda was quiet, self-confident, poised and in possession of an enviable store of knowledge about Batak weaving.

It gave me such a delicious feeling. Doing the rounds with her today, I rediscovered how it was, 24 years ago, to be able to rely on her. The feeling has become so much richer through our friendship which has grown through the past decades.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Muara weavers in the opening photo

One of the opening photographs of Legacy is a two-page spread depicting a smiling group of weavers in the bay of Muara in the southwest corner of Lake Toba. One of my main goals on the 22nd of June was to find those women.

The spirits of Toba guided our search. Our chauffeur, Pak Jerry, decided spontaneously (after my search had been fruitless) to ask a young man walking down the road if he recognized any of the women in the photograph. The young man was inscrutable at first, pointing out that two of the women were deceased. It took him awhile to divulge that one of them was his mother and that she was working in the ladang (on the land). Later the young man repeatedly noted how lucky our meeting had been as he was generally working in the garden himself at the time that we met him.

The garden was far away and he agreed to climb into our vehicle to guide us to his mother. Her peels of laughter when we found her reminded me of that merry day, 24 years ago with my friend Erna Lohuis, when the photograph was taken.

We crouched on the side of the road and I explained the book and the Back to the Villages Project and presented her with a copy. Ompu Josua received it proudly. When the school next door requested a book for their library, we insisted that Ompu Josua be present for the group photograph to acknowledge the ancient weaving heritage that her skills represent. As Mas Nashir put it, she is a cultural hero. For me, this was an important and symbolic moment as I notice repeatedly how much culture is being lost in the struggle to make ends meet and to march to the drum of external cultural influences. The struggle – there is no better word for it – to survive and get ahead in the current social and economic climate entails the excruciating irony of disregarding and coring out that which is ancient, valuable and beautiful in the people’s own culture. We do not live in a time when school children are proud to say that their mother is a weaver and weaving is not a goal to which a school child aspires. It even felt somewhat subversive to make a Batak weaver a centerpiece in a photograph of a school, but it was time! I had given the book in the name of Wendela ter Horst, a dear
socially progressive friend in Oosterbeek who makes no bones about battling “the system” when she feels that injustices need to be corrected.

The young man who guided us to his mother, then took us to his neighbour, another of the women depicted: Mutiara, br. Pandiangan. She was covered in mud and working in the fields. She and her husband climbed into our vehicle and we joined them in their house for a cup of coffee. She showed us some of her old textiles and the harungguan that she was making. 

Pamela's weaver, Mutiara br. Paniangan, Ny. Siregar, making a harungguan

Near the end of our visit, the weaver’s husband asked if I couldn’t assist in some way to revive the Batak weaving arts. I told him that this was one of my long-term goals and that I would do my best to contact them again in the future. The weaver is a very talented and bright woman. She knows how to make indigo dye from the local salaon plant and longs for the opportunity to weave textiles of integrity rather than just to earn a pitiful few cents on the market.

I was pleased to have made this presentation of
Legacy courtesy of Pamela Cross. Pamela has been so terribly supportive of both Legacy and this project that she deserved a recipient in that wonderful opening photograph in the book. Furthermore, Muara has ancient ties with the Silindung Valley with which Pamela also has strong ties. And finally, the hint of a future for Batak weaving, through this talented weaver promises to give her gift longevity. I hope that she may one day meet the recipient of her generous gift.

Another of the women in the photograph lived close by, but was unavailable just then, so we gave her the book through her daughter-in-law, courtesy the Soroptimists of Arhem. 

Before leaving Muara, I wanted to give one more book to a group of active weavers. I found them by calling Torang Sitorus (see blog: Didn’t Pay? It was costing money!) who had expressed the hope that indigo-dyeing could be revived in that part of Toba. It also turned out to be a village that I had contacted in the past: Huta Simatalo II. Two women were weaving the very long surisuri textile and the whole village came out for the presentation – courtesy Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden.

I could not have hoped or imagined that more interest could have been expressed in the book.  Such a moment, sitting on a mat with the entire village, talking about the results of my 30 years of work…I must not dwell on this as it is too overwhelming.

See Back to the Villages - the map!

Monday, June 21, 2010

"When I am gone..."

Ompu Borsak’s son lived in a large, quiet house (if quiet exists at all in Pangururan). We were given a seat in the entrance of the house, especially designated for receiving guests, and I told him my story about Legacy, but especially about his mother, how she had taught me that Batak women tied their hair in a knot on the side of the head and not at the back, and about the kinds of earrings women used to wear. She lived facing the remarkable sopo or rice barn that somehow had escaped the raging fires that the Dutch kindled during Van Daalen's expeditions in 1906. She told me about the raja class and I recognized the truth in her words from my readings about Batak culture. “Your mother is very halus(a refined lady) I told her son and this touched him. He beamed. He was pleased to receive the book in the name of his mother and his sister and would take it to them. I explained that the book was intended to give the Batak an insight into their weaving tradition and that I hoped that they would show it to as many people as possible. I gave the book in the name of the Soroptimists in Arnhem.

The next stop was Simbolon in the Kacamatan Palipi on Samosir Island. I had been told that weaving there had ceased but I wanted to check whether there were still some weavers working with indigo dye.  We pulled up beside the white scar on the side of the road, where hot water bubbles out of the depths of the island and the smell of sulphur fills the air. One of the renters of the baths turned out to be a woman of highly advanced years. When I asked her if there were any weavers around, she answered in the affirmative and asked me what I wanted. She was prepared to make anything I wanted but she warned me that it would be expensive. She said that she had stopped cultivating salaon, the plant that yields the indigo dye, and that she hadn’t used her weaving equipment for a long time. This was the region that had specialized in making the three blue textiles central to Batak ritual and daily life: the sibolang, surisuri and bolean.

I suddenly remembered Boru Hite -- in Mogang, I believe, a place a little further down the road -- from whom in 1986, I had purchased a beautiful sibolang of the same quality as those made a century earlier. She sat beside a bag of indigo-dyed yarn. “This is the last of my yarn,” she had said. “When this is used up, I will stop weaving.” Now I was meeting another who had stopped weaving. The reason was the same: it didn’t make economic sense. She now invested her efforts in selling oil, gardening and renting the hot water baths. I write on a patio in a Muara Hotel, looking out over Lake Toba. I love the tranquillity, watching the paddlers guide their dug-out canoes across the surface of the water. It is idyllic and beautiful and why can’t it continue for ever, but the reality is that even the paddlers have to eat.

Several kilometers further, in Simbolon, Kec. Palipi, I stopped again to ask if there were weavers and was pointed in the direction of a village on the lake, and later to a house where another woman of highly advanced years was living: Ompu Nerda br. Marbun. In response to my question, she pulled out her loom, a bundle of sticks bound together and laced with dust and spider's webs. “This is my loom,” she said, “I don’t use it anymore.” Her textiles included an indigo-dyed bolean with brightly-coloured and gold supplementary-weft patterning. “This is for my family when I am gone,” she said.

I chose to present her with a copy of Legacy to honour her work. She was the first to see the irony in the gift. “I am 90 years old,” she said. And then to her daughter-in-law, “This will soon be yours.” There was nobody in her village who could weave and nobody who was carrying on the tradition. Her daughter-in-law pointed out that weaving was far too difficult and didn’t pay anyway. 

I gave the book away in the name of Ria Tobing in The Netherlands, someone who has supported the publication and marketing of Legacy in many ways and did translations for me for the Back to the Villages project.

See Back to the Villages - the map!

The longest day...

The plan was to head out from Pusuk Buhit to find Ompu Borsak’s son in Pangururan and gradually make our way south to Nainggolan at the southern tip of Samosir Island (across from Balige) and then to return to Pangururan and the land bridge to the mainland and head south to arrive in Muara, a bay west of Balige.

We accomplished that. However, the route was different than expected. From Nainggolan we drove back to Tomok (taking the long route over Pangururan because the road on the shorter trek is apparently bad) and from Tomok, taking the ferry back to Parapat and heading to Muara on the trans-Sumatra highway – again because the road from Pangururan to Muara is apparently bad. In both cases, we took the longer but apparently faster way. I am deeply sorry to not have been able to have seen all the landscapes. I promised myself to take a boat in the future. How much more pleasant the journey would have been in a boat!  Just as in the old days when the great dug-out canoes transported the Batak and their market wares criss cross over the lake. (Large  market boats still sail, but they are too slow for my current purposes.)

However, the spirits of Toba were once again guiding our day. In Balige, we had to make an unexpected stop at my old haunt, the nurse’s residence, which was my pied-a-terre in 1979-80. My photographer had developed such a severe toothache that he needed medical attention. Luckily we were in Balige when he announced that he needed care and the town played the same role as it had played for me in the past, offering care and guidance. My thoughts went back to Nuria Gultom, Ibu Hutabarat, in my day the heads of the residence and the nurses’s training; to Dr. Westerhausen, the kind Germany doctor then in residence. (As the fates have willed it, she phoned me unexpectedly just before my departure to Indonesia because she had purchased a copy of Legacy. The book keeps bringing me in touch with my past.)  My mind also went back to my attack of dysentery, and other medical issues that occasionally brought me back by boat from Harian Boho to Balige. My debt to the hospital in Balige is huge – and continues to grow! In no time, Mas Nashir had visited the hospital’s dentist and had a handful of medicine. We had dinner in Balige and pushed on in the dark to make our destination.

From the turn-off to Muara, the road has been immensely improved and although it was dark, the journey was not too harrowing. Our hotel is new and comfortable. I am hopeful that Mas Nashir will be recovered enough to be able to perform today with his regular spirit and energy.

(Ah! A text message from Mas Nashir. He is up and about, fresh from a good night’s sleep, taking photographs of the sunrise downstairs! Once again, our hotel is on the edge of the great lake.)

Yesterday, our day was long and successful, but I only disposed of 4 books and I would have liked to have had occasion to give more away. More about those gifts anon.

Today, we hope to find the women in the opening photograph in Legacy, the ones with the happy faces. Yesterday, we visited the market in Nainggolan and I saw several textiles there from Muara, so I know there is still active weaving here. Hopefully, we will be able to fill our goals here, if the spirits of Toba are willing.

Pages 10, 11 - fig. Acknowledgements 2 Weavers in Muara. 1986.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


On Samosir, the spirits are etched in the landscape. It is one of the most spectacular places in the world, a place of magic, myth, poetry and power. Waringin trees. Monoliths (the Batak have stories about them flying through the air to their destinations). Stone walls that defy physics. A spring with seven different flavours. Waterfalls. Scarred hills that tell of ancient cultivation. A lake so deep that it can only be described as bottomless, the highest and largest in all of Asia. 75,000 years ago, one of the biggest explosions in the history of the world occurred here. Lake Toba is the crater. The violence of the eruption has softened with time. Great, bald hills encircle the lake like gentle protective arms. The highest peak is Navel Mountain, the umbilical of Batak origins. The apical ancestress was a weaver who lowered herself from the realm of the gods on her handspun yarn. Weaving has traditionally occurred all around the shores of the lake.

I write, now, from the gash in Navel Mountain where hot water gushes and the air smells like sulphur. I feel that the spirits, today, have guided my journey. The meetings have all been precious. They have collapsed all time, from the first weaver, Si Boru Deak Parujar, to my first visit 30 years ago, to the realization of this Back to the Villages project.

Today I gave away five books. Each is a complete story in itself. Each was photographed extensively by MJA Nashir who, I could tell, feels in every fibre of his being exactly what this project is about. How wonderful to have him along and to have no concerns about this amazing journey being recorded.

The five books:

1. Simanindo Museum at the northern tip of Samosir Island. I gave this book in the name of the Volkenkunde Museum in Leiden to the daughter-in-law of the now long-deceased Sidauruk couple who so kindly helped me with my research. They allowed me to stay in their home and introduced me to Amang Adir, the village guru knowledgeable in esoteric Batak matters. I commissioned the spinning wheel (sorha), yarn pitter (pipisan) and bow (bosur) in my collection from him. The daughter-in-law, now widowed, looks after the vision created by her father-in-law whom she never met. She was pleased to receive the book and wanted to share it with the other family members (in Jakarta and Medan).

2. As we were leaving the village, we spoke to Lemar Sidauruk, a villager. He wanted to know what our business had been. When I described it, he said he badly needed a book because it would assist the village when it puts on dances and ritual re-enactments for tourists. Sensing that his interest was sincere, and realizing that if I gave him a book many more people would have the opportunity to see it (that, after all, being the goal of Back to the Villages project), I gave him one in the name of Andrew and Lily Wang whose message specifically thanks the recipient for perpetuating tradition. As we left, he had already been joined by a few men and they were thumbing their way through the tome.

3. Further along the road, approaching Pangururan, we stopped at the same village where I had been a few weeks earlier and had promised to return. One of the weavers was present. Her mother and neighbour were also weavers. 

We sat together on a mat in the mother’s house while she demonstrated how she winds yarn using a spinning wheel. 

I gave them the second donation from Andrew and Lily Wang. They were very enthusiastic about the book but decried current market circumstances. Weaving has become an almost worthless activity, they said. How could they keep the tradition alive?

4. After lunch at Navel Mountain, we continued over a very rough road to Harian Boho. My weaving teacher, Ompu Sihol, had lived there. She died many years ago but I hoped to find her descendants. It was as though her son was waiting for us. He was sitting in a make-shift coffee hut. He had gone blind. Fifteen years ago, he said.  My heart sank as this book was being given in the name of the book’s designer, Marie-Cécile Pulles. It was such a bitter moment because Cécile’s task had been to care for the appearance of the book. This bitter moment had a silver lining, however, because the blindness of the son meant that the grandson had to be sent for.  

He was 6 years old when I had taken my weaving lessons from Ompu Si Sihol and he still remembered me. Cécile had seen the children lurking in the background of my photos with Ompu Si Sihol and she had specifically asked for the book to be given to them, the future of the Batak tradition. From a bitter moment, it became a very emotional moment combining my memories of Ompu Sihol with the bond forged with Cécile as we made the book together. The recipient, Juni (from Juninto) Malau immediately recognized his grandmother in the photographs in the book and also her dye pots. He was a nice young man and his little daughter was with him. I asked him if she would learn to weave. He led me and his blind father to Ompu Sihol’s village which I had visited every day, walking along a babbling stream and through the rice fields.  

I visited the spot where she had cached her indigo pots.  It was close to where her grave is now. Much had changed and much had remained the same. I recalled my last meal in her son’s house. They had served me chicken wings to help me weave “in my country” (this was said with much flapping of arms and merriment). This time, I departed with a strong sense of a history that the future would bring.

 5. I left one book behind in SiHotang (valley and bay south of Harian Boho) with a family member of Ompu Borsak depicted on page 73 of Legacy. He was a farmer threshing his rice while we drove by. We stopped the car to ask him if he recognized the women in the picture and he responded without hesitation. They were family members. He said that the older one was still alive, but lived some 20 km. further down the tortuous road that we had managed only with the great skill, patience and willingness of our driver. The clouds were closing in over our heads and we knew the road would be impassable if the rains were heavy and it might be difficult to get back. I decided on the spot to request his help in giving the book to Ompu Borsak and her daughter.  We sat down in his lean-to shed amidst the threshed grains of rice and I explained the project. He listened attentively, periodically asking a question. When I was done, he said that he didn’t feel that he should receive the book, but that I should give it to Ompu Borsak’s son in Pangururan. Now, I liked this farmer a lot. His eyes were as bright as his occasional brilliant smile. He was clearly dependable, honest and sincere and was certainly in some awe of the gift. I told him that I would take a copy to Ompu Borsak’s son, but that I also wanted to, through him, give one to the valley of Si Hotang if he would be so good as to show the book to as many people as possible. He was pleased to assume this responsibility and the transfer was able to proceed.  I gave the book in the name of Jan Hofstede, a person who lives close to the earth, is a farmer at heart, and would have felt great affinity with this rice farmer.

As we left this remarkable valley, we caught a glimpse of the great stone walls depicted on page 106 of Legacy. I could not resist, despite the risks involved in further delay, clambering over the boulders marking the boundaries of the rice fields, and down to the gap in the fortress wall. I stepped once again, just as I had 30 years before, inside the great village of Simarmata. The magic was almost palpable.

fig. SR 1.1 Samosir village surrounded by a stone wall topped with thorny bamboo.  1986. Batak built walls around their villages to protect themselves from internecine warfare.

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Piercing the Bubble

It is 3:30 a.m. I am gearing up for our departure at 8 am. It was postponed for one day to accommodate the schedule of my photographer, Mas Nashir. I spent that extra day in luxury: a large, air-conditioned room in a delicious hotel. With pleasure, I joined the world that I describe as a bubble.

It is a fake world far from the heat and the grime of Medan streets, far from soil and plants, not a whiff of poverty in the filtered air. People transfer from their air-conditioned rooms to their air-conditioned vehicles to air-conditioned malls and back again. It reminds me of Edmonton, Canada, where people transfer in a comparable way without ever having to pull on a coat, even in the deadly cold of winter. It is a comfortable life: a bubble.

I flip back in my notebook to a blog entitled “The Poverty of Wealth” that I never got around to posting. I want to read my thoughts of 2 weeks ago. It was impossible not to be struck, in Jakarta and in Medan (Indonesia’s third-largest city), by the spectacular displays of luxurious wealth. Oscillating between these cities and the Batak villages, it was equally impossible not to be struck by the contrast between the easy expenditure on a first-class hotel room and the difficult earnings of a weaver: a weaver must toil diligently for several months, making one textile a week, to make close to the rental of one of these rooms for a single night. And the rooms, by European standards, are not even expensive.

Superficial “bubble life”, guided by passing fads, comes at the expense of the survival of indigenous culture. Bubble life is our monument to financial success. Everywhere, people scurry to “keep up” with financial demands and trends. Weavers weave ever more quickly, ever more loosely, with increasing division of labour, making ever-more standardized products using faster machinery – and end up not with more wealth (they cannot keep abreast with the rate of change) but with a hollowed-out art form that has lost its indigenous value, and has no allure in the bubble world. It becomes a lost art in every sense. Both integrity and desirability are gone: a huge price to pay for worse than “disappointing” results.

Yesterday, I enjoyed a conversation with Torang Sitorus and Henny Harsha over a cup of hot chocolate (the bill for three beverages came to half the price of a hand-woven cloth) about the future of Batak textiles. Current production is following in the footsteps of the industrial revolution. The old cloths are forgotten rarities. My fellow conversationalists talked about displaying the antique cloths in malls to awaken demand. These textiles can only become viable again if they register in the glamorous bubble world. Desire must be kindled.

The problem, then, will be at the supply side. No weaver can afford the cost of time and materials that it takes to produce a beautiful, old-style cloth of integrity. She will have to be supported.

But a seed has been planted. Henny Harsha is a member of the Indonesian Heritage Society and a textile-lover. Torang Sitorus has fallen in love with the traditional textiles of his own Batak culture and wants to promote them. The two of them want to combine forces to make a mall exhibit, thereby placing Batak textiles in the heart of bubble culture.

My own work right now focuses on the weavers, handing over to them the visual record of their own weaving tradition, something they could never afford to purchase on their own. Yes, I am distinctly aware that Legacy in cloth could be used to stimulate market demand for the beautiful old items, but I will leave that work, at least for the time being, to creative people like Torang Sitorus, Henny Harsha, Merdi Sihombing and Sebastian Hutabarat and I will continue to plant seeds. Today I head off in my air-conditioned car for the villages.

* Yesterday, I gave Henny Harsha a copy of Legacy in cloth to thank her for her assistance in importing and storing the book in Medan until my arrival. This book was donated with the generous assistance of Henk and Margot van Dalen who wanted to support the project in any undesignated way that would be helpful to me.

** I gave Torang Sitorus a copy last week on Samosir Island in the name of the Soroptimists of Arnhem (see blog “Didn’t pay? It was costing money!”). I think that book has turned out to be an important investment. Moreover, Torang fills high-end requests for Batak textiles and offers many weavers, thereby, a livelihood.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010


We are back in the third largest city in Indonesia: Medan and back in Hotel Tiara. If it’s not Viennese waltzes, it is the schmaltzie Bee Gees playing in the Lobby….Gotta get a message to you….! One more hour and… I have to be ready to visit the Sultan’s Palace to see if it is an appropriate activity for our weaver tour next year. Tomorrow, my traveling companion for the tour preparations, Jantine Koobs, will be on a plane heading home to The Netherlands. I will be turning around and heading back to the Batak villages.

My thoughts are not entirely with the end of our pre-tour journey, but with the preparations to leave again for the Batak Villages and the completion of my Back to the Villages project.

Laundry is already done. Possibly I should buy some peanut butter and crackers. It hasn’t been easy being vegetarian here. I have eaten altogether too much capcay and gadogado and ignored the occasional shrimp and chicken bouillon that has found its way into it all.

Negotiations are underway to see if Mas Nashir will join me to photograph the events. He is a Javanese photographer, a friend of my friends Nia and Ismoyo, batik artists in Yogyakarta, and of my new, very interesting and dynamic acquaintances, Irwansyah and his wife, Ritha. The latter professors at the University of North Sumatra are doing what they can to record and revive the tail end of the music traditions of Sumatra.

We have to find the right vehicle and driver to take us to the villages. I am terribly appreciative of our excellent Javanese driver of the past two weeks, Pak Saito (of Narasindo Tours), but I am concerned about bringing him too deeply into the villages where pigs and dogs are eaten; it will make him feel uncomfortable even though he will hide his feelings. Reluctantly, therefore, I am looking for a Batak driver who will enter differently into the spirit of it all. He will undoubtedly bring a new and interesting dynamic to it all. In addition, it will be good for him to learn what we will be learning about the Batak weaving arts.

I am behind on my blogs. I still want to share the happenings in the Silindung Valley where I was reunited, at long last, with my closest Batak families. First, however, the Sultan’s Palace is on the agenda.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Glimpse of a good future

I met Sebastian Hutabarat in 2003 at an event to call attention to the environmental destruction occurring around Lake Toba. He was a photographer and it quickly became clear that he was artistically very talented. According to the Batak kinship system, because I am an adopted member of the Hutabarat family, he is my nephew. His father, deceased since then, was my brother. His mother showed me her beautiful collection of textiles which she had inherited from her forebears.

In Balige, on our way to the Silindung Valley, yesterday, we dropped in to see Sebastian. He and his wife were building a new house overlooking the lake.  A dream was being realized. Sebastian had designed it himself. He wanted a place of beauty in Batak style to promote Batak art. We joked about the process of the construction of his dream: from Bali to Balige. The young papaya trees that he had planted (because they are expensive to buy in Balige, so why not plant them yourself and share the seeds with everybody around?) were doing well. His garden was organic. He had a solar water-heater on the roof and had cleverly re-used some of the wood that would normally be wasted when a house is built. He wanted a place of beauty and health with low environmental impact – and he wants it to be a showcase of possibilities.

His mother was ailing a little, he told me. She was on my list of people to receive a book and he advised me to give the book as soon as possible to cheer her up. He agreed to take the photographs of the event. So we piled back into the car and drove back down the hill to the centre of Balige where Sebastian’s mother, Mutiara br. Napitupulu lives. She is a woman of tremendous beauty and grace. She received us with shining eyes and Dutch words that she remembered from her past.

I handed over the book in the name of Dirk van Uitert and Sineke de Vries. Sometimes wearing the hat of alderman, Dirk has worked for years on environmental programs and social development. It seemed to me to be a good match, as I know that Sebastian will showcase the book in his studio and exhibition space.

During the course of my travels, I have come to accept, however reluctantly, that the traditional role of indigenous cloth in Batak culture is all but dead and has no future. If there is a future, it is because the designs inspire the artistic creations of current and future Batak artists. With Sebastian Hutabarat, the inheritor of his mother’s textile tradition, the book has found a good home.

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Friday, June 11, 2010


Today, for the first time, I gave away a copy of Legacy to active weavers. It was an invigorating and inspiring moment. My favourite photograph of the event is the one in which four different hands are all pointing to a pattern on the same page. The weavers in the village, particularly one white-haired woman, absolutely devoured the tome. 

It was not a village that I had been to before, so I had no personal tie with any of the weavers. “Sangkalan” was in the vicinity of Lumban Suhisuhi, north of Pangururan on Samosir Island. The weaver with white hair kept trying to convince us that the textiles that she had hung out for sale as soon as she saw our vehicle pull up had been woven in the village, while it was clear that they had been made elsewhere on a semi-mechanical loom. I thought it might be a useful strategy to give her a copy of Legacy so that she might begin to speak to me seriously. Moreover, this was a village that our weaver tour could visit next year and it seemed to be a wonderful opportunity to test the reception of the book after a year had lapsed.

First I asked the white-haired weaver to sit with me in the shade. We took our places on the bright blue tarpaulin that she unfurled and I placed the book in front of her, inviting her to look through it. From that point onward, she was totally engrossed. I recognized that, purely by chance, I’d given absolutely the very best person a copy of my life’s work. Nobody could have appreciated its contents more; it was immensely satisfying to see how deeply it moved her.

The other weavers in the village deserted their looms and joined us. Villagers emerged from their houses and gathered around. Finally, I asked if I could interrupt their inspection of the book to tell them something. When I had their attention, I told them about the project, read the inscriptions aloud and told them about the work of the donors, the Soroptimists of Arnhem, for the good of women. I asked them to pass on their knowledge to the youth.

I continue to try to determine the most efficacious way of distributing Legacy in the Batak community. I heard, today, of the death of two more weavers in the region to whom I had wanted to present a book. I think that it would be most meaningful to present their copies to young weavers in their villages. They might be inspired to continue to weave and do inventive things. One of them might be the Picasso of Batak weaving!

I loved being in the villages today, loved watching the weavers at work. I know how difficult their work is and they make it look so easy. Their strokes are clean and efficient, like music in movement. I know that it will only take one generation of not weaving for the tradition to completely disappear. That kind of beauty in motion can only be learned when generations of practice gets passed down from mother to daughter, from aunt to niece, from friend to friend. Their legacy is inscribed in their motor skills.

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Didn’t pay? It was costing money!

In the fertile Purba region of Simalungun, yesterday, in the village of Negori Tongah, we found Roslina br. Purba’s husband by showing her laminated picture to some men on the road. 

One of them turned out to be her husband and he led us to her. She had a large cloth on her head to protect her from the sun, a huge rake in her hand and a red wad of tobacco and betel nut in her mouth; she was returning from the ladang. I didn’t recognize her, but the driver of my car saw immediately that she was the same person as the younger version in the photographs.

When she saw the pictures, she shook her head and said, yes, they were taken when she was performing the technique of warp substitution (tingki manuloki). I’ve stopped weaving, she said. It didn’t make sense, any more. It was better to work the land.

Roslina br. Purba (then known as 'Mamak Si Dirita', mother of Dirita) substitutes the warp in the Bulang textile. Naga Panei, Simalungun. 1986. Legacy, Page 495, Fig. Tech 6.19.

I opened the back of the car and prepared to give her a book, a donation from my dear high school friend-for-life, Colleen Flood. It was the usual story, children gathering around, people jostling each other to get a look at the pages. The former weaver’s eyes sparkled. 

Roslina br. Purba holding her copy of the book with fellow villagers, June 2010

During the course of conversation, I mentioned that it apparently didn’t pay enough to weave. Her husband corrected me. It was not that it didn’t pay enough, it was costing money!

Later in the day, I had a happy reunion with my former assistant, Linda, in Parapat (and gave her a book privately in my own name). Her brother Jonny also came by. He had been a marketing co-ordinator for weavers in the Silindung Valley and nobody understands better than he the financial circumstances of textile production. He explained that the Batak people had become too poor to purchase their own weavings. That is why they purchased cloth commercially produced on a semi-mechanical loom when they needed one for ritual purposes. The consequence of this was that money was leaving the community and going into the pockets of the (relatively richer) directors of the commercial workshops – to say nothing of those on Java who are producing printed textiles resembling hand-woven Batak textiles.

I then understood the decline and death of weaving in the Batak area more clearly. It has always been the local market that has supported textile production. The foreign market, including the tourist market, though welcome, has just been incidental. If the Batak are not able to support their own production through their local markets, and the external markets are too weak, weaving is precisely as Nai Ati’s husband explained: an economic liability and no longer a way to supplement farming income.

We searched in the Simalungun region and found only one maker of the bulang textile type. She was old. She will not continue much longer.

Later in the evening, a young Batak man, Torang Sitorus caught up with me in my hotel on Samosir Island. He wanted a copy of my book. He had fallen in love with Batak ulos, he said. Prosperous in business, he was making a collection of ancient pieces. I could tell by the way he approached me that he had the skills to find and acquire the very last heritage pieces that people might still have stored in their closets. 

He had plans to set up a museum and to work with designers to inspire the continuation of Batak motifs.

I pointed out there were probably just a few possibilities for the future of Batak textiles. One would be their incorporation in fashion and the other would be their recognition as an art form. In both cases, their survival would depend on wealthy external markets and the highest quality of production.

This is a sad time for me. I am beginning to understand that by giving away my book to weavers, I can thank them and return their heritage to them, but I can’t do much for the future of Batak weaving. I feel angry at the banks (and all other structures for which banks have recently become a symbol) who milk the poor to support their own wealth. The gigantic, luxurious, superficial, meaningless wealth in this world has developed at the cost of indigenous culture, among many other things. The weavings of great integrity of which Batak women are still technically capable can no longer be made. I mourn for the Batak weavers who have the creative talent to produce amazing things, but no social avenues available to express their talent. What a waste of lives, of creativity, of knowledge built up through millennia of experimentation and carefully selected influences.

The idealistic young man sitting in front of me at the table last night talked about reviving indigo and showed me pictures of the attempts by a weaver in Muara. He invited me to come to inspect his collection. He talked about his future museum. He talked about setting designers in Jakarta loose to work on clothing inspired by Batak designs. And he wanted one of my books very badly.

In the end I gave him one. It felt like a capitulation, an admission. He is not a weaver, and I had intended the books for weavers. But he may represent a future for Batak textiles. I did not say, as I say to the weavers when I hand them a book, “Thank you”.  I let him know that the book that I gave to him was an investment and that the gift came with expectations attached to it. I still feel sad and torn about this donation. I hope that his initiatives will represent a phoenix that rises from the ashes.

The day has sent me into a tailspin. We left Nai Ati in the Simalungun area after giving her a book and when we returned ten minutes later to ask a question we found a huddle of people, mostly school children, around the book. My Back to the Villages project is just an experiment. It is an expression of hope and of thanks. It may have practical consequences and it may not. A school child might become inspired. It is a seed. I am planting it here and there. Even in the garden of a wealthy business man. May it bear fruit. 

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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Other priorities

I knocked on the door and entered the dark house. One shutter was open casting a shaft of light across the floor where Nai Ati had her loom. She was sitting in it with her back against the wallweaving a simangkatangkat, the textile type that she was weaving when I first met her in 1986. 

I greeted her: “Horas, Ompung!” Greetings Grandmother! Do you remember me? She peered up at me. “Si Sandy?” she asked without hesitation. It had been 24 years and nobody had warned her of my visit.

She untied her backstrap and stood up to greet me. She had shrunk considerably with age but was still beautiful. “Where are you coming from? When did you arrive? My husband died 13 years ago. I am alone. My children have all left home.”

We sat down together on a mat and I pulled out a copy of Legacy for her. We looked through it together and I gave it to her in the name of the Soroptimists of Arnhem. She stood up and performed a song and dance of happiness, the kind that I have read about but never seen, swinging her arms, turning her head and taking short steps on the spot. It was infectious. I wanted to join her.

Then she asked me for money in that challenging way that I am familiar with as a Batak style. She asked me to buy two of her textiles, perhaps the last of their type that will ever be made. Her youngest child was marrying in Jakarta and she needed money for her visit. This was uppermost on her mind. She had already forgotten the book. Her poverty was screaming and I had not been able to alleviate it. She was disappointed in my visit.

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Market day in Merek

Wednesday is market day in Merek. En route to Si Tolu Huta, we briefly got out of our vehicle to determine which textiles were for sale. The findings were disappointing and nothing to write home about (a few sarongs from Balige, one from Madras, India and some Batak textiles woven on semi-mechanical looms). My attention was drawn by a woman quivering in anger and screaming at some men across the street. Her disheveled hair had fallen out of its knot and she looked quite wild. A bit of a crowd had formed. At first I thought she may have been mentally deranged but then I saw her shopping bag lying in a muddy hole in the road. She began to gather her chilly peppers and cabbages but gave up in fury, stood up and resumed her litany of insults and accusations. I saw that she was very close to tears and this moved me deeply. Batak women are toughened by life and don’t cry over spilt milk. Sizing up the situation, I assumed that she had been jostled by a careless driver and lost her week’s groceries. Having probably used up all of her money, she was facing a difficult week.

I had a bill in my pocket; with the differential in currencies between North and South, it represented little to me but much to her. I walked over to her and placed it in her balled-up hand. At first she turned her anger on me, screaming that she didn’t want it. Then she looked down and saw it. The screaming stopped and there was a moment of confusion. Then suddenly there was a smile on her face. She looked over at the men again with a touch of smugness and victory. We waved goodbye to each other.

Of course I empathized with her, not only in her state of loss, but also in her state of relief. I have had many kindnesses shown to me, many of them in Indonesia. They have won my undying loyalty to my Batak “family”.

It is so easy, where poverty bears down from close quarters, to represent a miracle for someone.

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