Sunday, October 31, 2010

Introducing MJA Nashir

I have posted links to the chapters of MJA Nashir’s serial publication of the Back to the Villages project on this blog spot. After the project concluded on the last day of June 2010, his role as photographer also concluded and he decided to pick up, of his own accord, the role of chronicler to document and share his experience of the project. This came as a complete surprise to me, but it is a terribly welcome and gratifying surprise adding a layer that serves the central goal of the project, viz. to make the presentation of Legacy to the Batak as effective as possible. MJA Nashir’s elegant and accurate account is reaching a broad Indonesian and especially Batak public; he is writing for his public as only a fellow Indonesian could do. Back to the Villages touched his life and he, in turn, is touching the lives of others with his memories and reflections on it. Many people crowded around to bear witness to each presentation of Legacy in North Sumatra, but through MJA Nashir’s accounts, many more people will be able to bear witness and for much longer.

I approached my own blog more or less thematically, keeping in mind my English-speaking readers, most of whom have never visited Indonesia, let alone the Batak area of North Sumatra. MJA’s writings document our path day by day, book presentation by book presentation in a very detailed step-by-step fashion. We both indulge in our own reflections on what occurred, how people reacted and the significance of it all. In his writings, these reflections fill the empty hours and empty stretches of road, as it were, while in mine they are the central focus. Our writings are like different layers of a many-layered event. It is now my pleasure to add a layer about the photographer-chronicler (soon to be filmer and film-producer) of the Back to the Villages project.

MJA Nashir sent me a text message this morning from his home in Pekalongan, North Java, to let me know that he had just posted Chapter VII of his chronicles on Facebook. I can barely contain my curiosity. This chapter is about Muara, one of the highlights of our journey, and the weavers depicted in the opening double page spread in Legacy. But I have to swallow my impatience because I am on the road to Oxford and have no access to internet. Of course I know better than anyone else what happened on our journeys, but through his writings I am gradually discovering who that photographer is, that fellow who joined me quite serendipitously on my journey.

The filmers who had initially agreed to work with me withdrew at the eleventh hour, leaving me high and dry and wondering what to do. I started to look for a photographer, having given up on the idea of a film, but still needing to meet my obligation of giving donors to the project a photographic record of the presentation of “their” book. I wanted a female photographer, presuming that weavers would be more at ease with a female photographer, and the atmosphere more “female” and relaxed. Weaving is a female activity, I am a female researcher, the book designer was female and the person who had guided the printing process was also female. It appealed to me to have a project for, by and about women. But I had no luck finding this female photographer. Finally, when I had begun to despair and felt quite despondent, I received, out of the blue, one of my first text messages from MJA Nashir asking me how things were going. Having heard, from our mutual friend, Nia Fliam, a batik artist in Java, that I needed a photographer, he had already offered his services, but I had responded in a non-committal way for the reasons given above. This time, however, I immediately invited him to join me; it felt destined. He accepted with alacrity. The invitation was driven by necessity and it was a leap of faith. I didn’t know anything about this person. I only knew Nia’s estimation that he was “very special.” My expectations, by then, had been reduced to the bare minimum: as long as there were the required pictures to give to the project donors, I would be satisfied.

MJA turned out to be quiet, undemanding and easy-going. I had difficulty understanding his Javanese accent and my Indonesian had grown so rusty in the years since my fieldwork that there were few fluent exchanges between us. We relied, more or less out of necessity, on observation. It wasn’t difficult to become aware that I was with someone who not only understood the principle and intentions of the project, but was technically so skilled that I didn’t have to worry about his work. I didn’t even have to give guidance. He was an expert in making photo and film documentations. Conveniently, we both had the same make of camera. His had a different lens and mine had a filming capacity, so he used whatever the occasion demanded. Trusting in his expertise, I just focused on my own role in the project.

With time I noticed that I was increasingly taking account of his reactions to situations, asking his counsel, and relying on his judgment. I had not only a filmer and a photographer who turned out to be a professional of high calibre and standards, but someone who was quietly but actively supporting the project and “thinking with”, never imposing his wishes, but ever-ready to offer his opinion and advice when asked. It began to feel, increasingly, like “our” project.

Words had also begun to replace the muteness that had characterized the beginning of our journey. This visual person turned out to be a wordsmith, too. He sat in the front of the vehicle beside the driver. Charmed by the beauty of Lake Toba he was a fully engaged passenger and occasionally turned around to make a pronouncement. More often than not, it was in the form of an aphorism or a poetic couplet. Sometimes, he expressed anger over the environmental degradation that we came across and then his usually gentle black eyes gleamed so brightly with fury that I would have to turn away.  “Alam” (nature) was an important theme, to him. At one point, he asked whether I would mind if he took some photographs for himself and he indulged his urges to shoot both the beauty and the decline in the landscape. Of course he had my blessing.

He turned out to be quite open and delighted in telling stories about his life, and was patient with me as I did my best to grasp what he was saying, contributing new wear marks to my Indonesian-English dictionary in the process. He told me about the importance of the poet Rendra in his life, and the words hadir (being present in a full and creative way) and mengalir (to flow, adapting oneself to circumstances) that had become axioms for him. He spoke much about a Batak, the late Donald Hutabarat, who had lived in Toraja and had impressed him deeply for his moral fibre. My adoption into the Hutabarat clan had apparently been a factor in his decision to join the project.

When the project came to an end, it was as sudden as it began. We gave away some books in Kaban Jahe in the morning and then drove to Medan. I was in a rush to catch a flight to Aceh, and dropped MJA Nashir off en route. That was that, it seemed. But it felt strange. There had been no debriefing and I missed some quiet moments at the end of the trip to just talk with him as a fellow human being rather than “the project photographer”. While he had shared much and generously, he had only succeeding in generating more questions than he had answered.

Luckily this is the age of internet and MJA Nashir is a writer. As he types chapter upon chapter of his chronicles about the delivery of Legacy to the Batak villagers and posts them on Facebook, my sense of satisfaction grows richer and richer. I am one of his addicted readers waiting for the next installment. Obviously I am different from the other readers because I know “what happens next” and I even help out by providing photographs, my own memories, and names of people.  I have different questions and longings, though, than other readers. MJA Nashir is giving me the privilege of finally discovering who sat in front of me in the vehicle all that time, this person of unusual grace, artistic talent and intelligence, who bestowed a special magic on the journey.

Links to MJA Nashir's Menyusuri Ulos Batak, Berkelana dengan Sandra
Map of Back to the Villages and Menyusuri Ulos Batak, Berkelana dengan Sandra