In Social Studies, SEX and GENDER are like kismet and choice.

Modern Couple

Sex regards the inarguable genetics we’re born with. Sex is about the XY and XX chromosomes, and whether we are born with a one hole or two. And we don’t argue with genetics after birth, okay?

Gender, in the meantime, is a more fluid idea, and more confusing to stick to. Gender describes the roles and behaviors that society expects us -- either voluntarily or fearfully or begrudgingly -- to stick with.

Of course, if everything were peachy perfect, gender roles and identities would not be controversial. If every father and husband in the world brings the bread home and every woman and mother in the world is satisfied with that bread, then traditional gender roles are perfectly AWESOME.

But, since society is a flexible and moody bitch (depending on the time and place and economy), problems with gender spark when society can't afford imposing her ideas on the individual. Gender identity blurs when society fails to fulfill the basic physical, psychological or emotional needs of the individual.

Not every man is a cowboy, and not every woman is a domestic goddess, you see?

What we, as part of the judgmental society often forget, is that traditional gender roles can be adhered to only when we can afford it. Because there are times when the patriarch falls ill, and times when women have better chances at keeping their jobs, and times when balance is tipped that society cannot afford batting a judgmental eye on untraditional gender roles.

And because the world is not a perfectly peachy place, to those heroic men and women who are both mothers and fathers, who bear singlehandedly the roles that are meant to be shared between two or an entire village, out of love and obligation, and in spite to what society dictates -- to them, we offer the most solemn respect.

"It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But...it is better to be good than to be ugly." ~ Oscar Wilde

gettyimages.com

My friends have been too polite to remark on the absence of my fashion taste. A very pretty girl once called it “practical” – because she didn’t want to call it downright ugly.

I want to excuse myself. I can’t help trusting my underdressedness. For no embarrassment in the world could break down the cold wall of resentment that dressing too well have fallen upon my family.

۩۞۩

There was a time when money was really tight. At nine, five and two years old, Gramma’s looked at me and my brothers respectively and said with disgusted pity, “Children, you look godawful poor.”

When Gramma said this – and right before she drove us into the first children’s apparel shop - my brothers were wearing my downhanded smaller shirts and pants. I was wearing a brand new shirt, just three sizes too big, so that it’d fit for another three years.

Because wherever money is tight, you would wish everything to last forever. Even secondhand shirts and shorts. Even faded colors and bug-eaten socks.

After a while, when the money started coming, we got to afford private education. Unfortunately, looking poor kind of stuck. All the money in the world can’t buy taste, you see? It gets even harder to fit into “privately educated community” if your community privately cared too much about your sense of fashion than, say, your sense of education.

And, damminit, the money kept coming!! We had so much money that everything we owned became worthless. In three years, everything was replaced; the car, the house, the furniture and eventually the wife.

۩۞۩

And it’s not all that bad, really, because my brothers wear their money comfortably. Because, nowadays, they dress with better and more expensive taste. Because on date nights, I’d be wearing Anggi’s Levi’s and Ade’s Nautica and manage to keep a straight face until dinner is done.

Because, heck, I’m stuck, man. I’m stuck at a time when we were little, and looking poor and handing down each other’s clothes just because we’re siblings and siblings are supposed to keep each other within decency’s limits. No matter how much money is bitterly wedged between us.

And it’s those unspoken pledges of loyalty between loving siblings, that one can never look too poor or too rich to wear.

[PS: If the way I dress bothers you so much, why don’t you be my stylist for grace’s sake? I’ll buy and wear everything you call pretty, and I’ll even PAY you for it by the hour. Sadly, that I can afford.]

I'm waiting to be picked up for a date. I’m uneasy because my date said that he’s coming in a  car.

Panoramic shot of car in forest

A car complicates everything. If it were a taxicab or a motorbike, then my assumptions would’ve been simpler. I look at passing sedans, SUVs, trucks and bajaj's and I wonder which one he's gonna  pop out from.

The moment I see his car, I’ll know how he’ll finish his salutary “Hey, honey…”

  1. …wanna watch a movie and have dinner?

    …or…

  2. …roll up your pants, let's haunt for a clean gutter to skylark.

If it were fancy car, I’d wonder how he managed to legally afford it. IF it’d been his own car  at all, not his daddy's. I’d also wonder about the legality of their business. I don’t mind boys who have rich parents and aren’t abashed to show it off. I just don’t want to be deported over a scandalous date, you see?

On the other hand, if it were not an overly fancy car, and we had to roll down the windows to keep it running, I might've teased him about it, and respected him all the better. Being single in our thirties and managing to afford a car in Jakarta (no matter how beat that car is), implies that something's either really wrong or really right about him is going on.

But this is our THIRD date, so I shouldn’t worry too much about that, right?

More importantly, it’s not the type or make or price of a car, really, that makes the actual difference. It’s the owner’s personal imprints that tells all the important stories.

A car is like a traveling bedroom; plucked from either a hotel, or a home. The knickknacks and smells and layers of dust, disclose volumes of unspoken details that would’ve been too impolite or boring to tell.

Of course, there are times when it could've been both; that it was his daddy's down payment, and it’s his money that kept the car in their possession.

And those make the most interesting stories, you know? Stories about parents who've done well in raising grateful children. Stories about children who came back home and to keep their retiring folks company.

The kind of stories you’d want a car to tell, with her windows down and the morning light streaming and your sweetheart driving.


UPDATE: Added a link on the Third Date phrase, in case there's a confusion to what it means, courtesy to some of my faithful readers.

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you're capable."  ~ John Wooden

Gold, silver & bronze figures

My brother and I stood at the front porch; waiting for Ibu to come down. The three of us were going somewhere shiny and Ibu was applying her final touches in looking extra pretty.

"Isn't that a sad dude," started my brother, looking at the middle-aged driver hired for the trip. "He’s so old and poor. In five, ten years' time, he'd probably still be a driver, with no hopes of becoming rich or even retire comfortably."

"Are those your standards of sadness?"

"Don't you think that he envies us? Don't you think that he wishes he could have the same opportunities as we have?"

"Perhaps. But even as a driver, he can still have more joy and satisfaction than all the money in the world can buy."

"How so?"

"By showering and smelling nice every morning. By being polite and honest. By taking pride in what he's doing. That kind of thing can bring more joy and dignity than entering the Ivy League or writing bestsellers or winning Nobel Prizes."

"Even if he’s just a driver?"

"Especially because he’s a driver and is easier to learn from. Remember Udi, Simbok and Pak Jalal? They might have been servants, but they didn't just take us as parts of the job. They left legacies in the way they loved and prayed for and helped our parents raise us. Remember what The Coach said about barometers of success?" - I paused, seeing Ibu approach, - "He's just a driver if he's there just for the money. That’s why pride and joy and success are hidden in our hearts; so that we'd be the only ones who can judge our sincerity, in serving the Lord."

Various shoes in a row

When a head of state was assassinated, it set an example to ruling governments in the neighboring countries to step aside and allow the Ashkenazim to run the entire region according to their whims.

The good news is that, throughout last quarter of the 20th century, relative calm and stability was maintained in the Middle East. Well, okay, not really. Iran had its revolution. Two Gulf Wars erupted. Lebanon and Syria muffled with internal conflicts, and the majority of Arabs in the entire region – said my Jordanian university lecturer – earn an income that is lower than Italy (which, he bitterly emphasized, is a region with the lowest income compared to other EU states).

But, I repeat myself, as far as the Ashkenazim were concerned, the Middle Eastern countries never dared to vote unanimously about anything, ever again.

Not Having the Right to Vote is GOOD

The anecdote explains to me why Saudis are okay with gender inequality. Why the government does not allow voting for legal amendments, or public representation in king’s courts. And why women don’t drive. Some folks just aren’t smart or ready enough to cast intelligent votes, or decide for themselves where their taking their lives and the lives of their fellow citizens.

The only snag is that, trusting others to control our lives and laws infuriates the more intelligent and unsatisfied flock. Not everybody is happy to have the boundaries of their personal freedoms be decided by others. After all, voting for legal amendments requires that exact kind kind of intelligence that (at worst) might cause the assassination of another king, or a revolution of some sort.

Is a revolution in Saudi possible?

In 1989, half a million Czechs and Slovaks gently asked the government in Prague to switch from being communist to non-communist. And the government bowed to that democracy. And the Velvet Revolution sets a rare example, because in most cases, when the masses are too desperate to think straight, dramatic change comes at a dear and almost random cost of human sacrifice.

Is change necessary?

Do Saudis really need gender equality? Do the women of Saudi really want to “gain custody of children, travel, work, study, drive cars and live on an equal footing with men”?

If yes, then how many of those women are willing to have all of that at the price of their current comforts?

In Saudi, women don’t desperately need to drive. Women don’t desperately need to work outside of home if they don’t want to. They don’t even need to go to school, and if they do, they can go as far and as highly educated as they want.

If the majority of women in Saudi are not starving and homeless and uneducated…I’ll rephrase, if the women in Saudi have their basic and security needs provided for them, doesn’t annul the need for a revolution? Doesn’t that mean that the Saudi economy is stable enough to afford engaging just one half of her working force?

Doesn’t that mean that the Saudi government has been generous and protective with her citizens, both male and female?

Saudis are stupid and that’s okay

Yes, comfort dulls survival instinct and motivation to achieve. No writer or impressive body of art could ever be created from excessive indulgence. As a group, stupidest of my classmates in Jordan were Saudis. (And I wonder how the Saudi students in other countries are academically doing). And that’s okay too; because in Saudi, people are still being fed and clothed and have roofs over their heads whatever their academic results may show.

In fact, it’s okay that Saudis are the stupidest of all the Arabs in the Middle East, because we know that, when the time comes, Saudis can always rely on the amazingly stubborn human ability to adapt in the cruelest desert draught, since the days of Abraham.

This isn’t an actual post. I’ll be very brief.

I’m on to something hot. This article made me think in all the wrong directions about how to start, run and pass a suffragette campaign in Saudi.

Let’s be clear about one thing: Trying to run a ANY social reformation campaign in Saudi is stupid.

Women in Saudi cannot have equal rights as men. At least until the oil runs out. And let’s hope that it doesn’t run out soon, because the population of Saudi Arabia is…

Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Hang on a bit while I try to make it look right and understandable (to me first - haha).

While I’m at it, chew on this. In the 80s, most of the countries in the world accepted female votes in their elections – save for some Muslim countries. Since 2005, only TWO countries in the whole wide world do not allow women voting by law: the Vatican City (for papal conclaves) and Saudi Arabia. My question then, why is Saudi culture so comfortable with the profound power imbalance? Why is this particular country so stuck in the late 19th century?

Your feedback would be awesome. Thanks, and have a lovely day.

CAUTION: Use at your own risk and discretion.

Examples:

  • Commercial Art: Britney Spears, Advertisement, Pepsi
  • Niche: Star Trek, BDSM, Rage Against the Machine
  • Bestsellers: Avatar, Dan Brown, Will Smith

What is it that made them write like that? What is it that writers have?

man on floor

1. War

e.g. Seno Gumira Adjidarma, Ernest Hemingway, JD Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, Naguib Mahfouz.

Whether they were there as reporters, bystander or serving in the military, being at war can fuel a writer for a lifetime. One would be lucky to survive war without losing sanity after witnessing humanity at its lowest, most brutal and meaningless. Going back to it, and reframing it in literary art is either suicidal or desperate call for survival.

2. Sexuality

e.g. Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, Erica Jong.

The Timekeeper used to say that man is concerned with only two things: What’s inside the belly, and what's below it.

Sex, when done correctly, is never underrated or outdated. The trick is in figuring out how to channel that energy away from the pelvic regions, to the pen. Writing about an instinctive behavior is easy. Writing it with taste and reason, no matter how offensive, makes “Lolita” and “Fear of Flying” august.

3. Exile

e.g. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Isabel Alende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Khalil Gibran.

Someone once said, “We write from the most quintessential landscapes within us.” Whether voluntary or forced, exile seems to make everything about “homeland” so romantic. A lot of writers, including those mentioned above, seem to write better about the places they’ve left behind; because memory has the power to ferment facts into seductive spells.

4. Cultural Identity Issues

e.g. Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Abdul Rahman Munief, Monica Ali.

People who are confused of their cultural identities tend to do extreme things. Second generation immigrants inherit memories of far distant places from not very distant ancestors, while affronted everyday with questions surrounding their origins. In Salman Rushdie’s words:

"It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt."

5. Oppression

e.g. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, John Steinbeck, Thomas Mann, Milan Kundera.

A pissed off writer, if he can get away with it, has a lot to say. ‘Nuff said.

6. (Urban/Social) Alienation

e.g. Arundhati Roy, Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Franz Kafka.

I actually wanted to call this category: “Boredom for having a too predictable life.”

I’m just saying, just because your life is boring and bland, and just because you have everything, doesn’t mean that you can’t be a good writer. My muse told me that, even though all the stories have been told, “the difference is in the details”. It’s in the details, after all, that glimpses of God can be caught.

7. Mental Illness

e.g. All of the above. Haha.

Not really kidding, though.

Not that normal folks cannot be writers, but it’s usually somebody with something off that made it to the timeless list of Classic Literature.

Creative folks, when they are that good, are wired differently. If you envy their success – or even consider being a writer yourself, think that a lot of good writers spend most of their lives being the rejected, sociopathic weirdoes.

Where do you write from?

Imagine entering a bookstore in Saudi or Indonesia. What are the chances that you might find English books being translated into Arabic/Indonesian? Compared that to the number of books by Saudi/Indonesian authors translated into English, or any other language?

In terms of volume, there maybe plenty of books by Indonesian and Saudi authors being published every month in their respective countries. But these books do not cross borders. Books written by Saudi and Indonesian writers do not travel as far as novels written by American, English or - heck – Desis (Indian, Pakistani, Bengali, Afghani) have.

In fact, you’d see more Japanese than Indonesian comic books in Indonesia, just as much as you’d see translated novel English novels than Saudi - again, in Saudi.

When it comes to international acclaim, Indonesian and Saudi authors brutally compete with each other at being stagnate and obscure.

As diverse as both cultures are, they're both as equally non-existent in the international book market. Correct me if I'm wrong, but when was the last time we heard of an Indonesian or Saudi writer selling books like cupcakes? Fact is, we haven't heard of a modern Saudi or Indonesian writer winning much literary acknowledgment - or merit - from the book industry in the past ten twenty years.

What’s up with that?

Is there a common issue that brought the Indonesian and Saudi authorship into its trodden state in days where books are as obtainable as broadband internet?

pencil erasers in lineWhat the causes are NOT

If the problem is in language barriers, that Arabic and Indonesian are not the lingua franca of the world, then why do we find so much of the Japanese culture embedded in ours? We know more about Geisha, Anime, sake and Samurais than tribal hierarchy in Central Arabia or Kejawen religion in Java.

If the problem is the convolution of the publishing industry, then there should not be so many books being published everyday in the International market and I should not be seeing translated books by Seth Godin in Indonesia.

If the problem is poverty, that Indonesians do not have enough food to sustain them while writing, then books like Harry Potter and Carrie should not have been born; because their writers were broke when writing them.

If the problem is resource curse, that Indonesia and Saudi are countries that suffer from culture shock by the sudden wealth gained from its natural resources, then that is supposed to dismiss both intellectual and material poverty excuse, which is not the case that we find in Saudi and Indonesia.

No, reader, those were NOT the problems, nor excuses that brought the Saudi and Indonesian literature into obscurity on the global stage.

What the causes ARE

A. Genetics.

For one thing, it’s not in our genes to read and write beautifully. In cultures where writing and reading are common behavior for the past century, we see more internationally acclaimed writers in them. There are more writers from the US, China, Japan and Europe because having children who can read is a steady barometer of successful parenting for the past CENTURY.

In Saudi and Indonesian heritage, the barometer of successful parenting is whether or not your child can recite the Qur’an. Writing and reading, for the past hundred years, are uncommon behavior amongst the bedus in the desert or the farmers in the rice fields.

B. Oral Tradition

And before there was religion in these countries, knowledge and wisdom were passed on through generations by oral means. Again, Quran recitations, wayang and diwaniyyat.

Which is probably why, as Indonesians and Saudis, we make great poster children for potential terrorists. Haha.

C. Resource Curse

The other reason is that, while both Saudi and Indonesian societies are patriarchal and socially unequal, these societies are also resource cursed. Had it only been patriarchal and collectivistic, then the same modern intellectual poverty would occur in Japan. If it had only been caused by religion, then the awesome writers Desi from India or the Persians, or the Egyptians would not be so successful in the international book market.

D. E. F.…How to stall the intellectual growth of three generations in a row

I couldn’t separate these three symptoms from each other. They seem to work together like ingredients to a creatively stuck society:

  • First, bring a regime. Put a tyrannical king, president, or even a god of some sort, as head of state. That will limit the thinking process and threaten every mental inclination to misbehave.
  • Next, have a miniature of that king or president or god in every room in the house, dictating to the core of every individual what to do and think and have for dinner.
  • Finally, practice social inequality generously. PS: Girls don't need to go to school.

Conclusion

Writing and reading and book publishing are complex behavior that DEMANDS a lot of HIGHER mental processing. And the combination of the above, oral tradition, religion, patriarchy, social inequality, and dependence on natural resources have been injecting us, Indonesian and Saudis, with frustrating invisibility on the international book market.

The question that remains, then, what are we going to do about that, huh?

 

PS: If you think this had been a great example of an AWFUL writing, then you have to pardon me; it's just ain't in my genes. Ha.

PPS: Found an article by Richard Oh on the same subject, WHY AREN’T MORE INDONESIAN LITERARY WORKS PUBLISHED ABROAD?

"Man's 'progress' is but a gradual discovery that his questions have no meaning." ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The library at the Santo Domingo museum, Oaxaca, MexicoIn my collection of loved-and-lost books, there’s the rare “The Liar’s Club” by Mary Karr, “The Bag of Bones” and “The Green Mile” by Stephen King, and “The Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The books were read seven to twelve years ago, but I can still remember the environment each one of those books gave me.

I remember the times I exploded laughing with Karr’s crystalline childhood recollections. I remember the heat from the window in my chaotic room when I survived imprisonment and storms in King’s South. I remember the sad loneliness that made me finish Marquez’ surrealism in a single five-hour sitting.

The books, if I may rephrase, have been sitting on my body like scars and tattoos, ever so clear and weightless. Every time someone mentions Karr or King or Marquez, I roll up my sleeves to flaunt them. “See? This is how I carry around my books, how I never lose them.”

------

One day, succumbing to an irrepressible longing for a house that I could no longer visit, I repurchased and then TRIED rereading “The Hundred Years of Solitude”.

That second book stunk. It was flavorless. It didn’t even feel very solitary anymore.

So I gave it away to someone. Someone beloved.

------

Now the memory of both books, the one read in Amman and the one I gave away, sit with us in this (so far, self-centered) article about things we’ve lost. About things that improve in value and meaning, because they’ve been lost or surrendered to others. About things and people and places we love have better a chance to remain with us, in meaning and memory.

Because sometimes, the things that are most real, are the least obvious to the senses.

 
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