Somewhere out there, words like these are set in titanium and diamonds and stars:
Human child No. So-and-So will be born to So-and-So parents, on the So-and-So time and place, and will expire on the So-and-So time and place. During her life, she will go through This-Much of experience that will feed That-Many of her stories and tweets, based on So-Many-Number of Drafts and Rewrites.
She will not expire until she has written her entire allotment. She will write her entire allotment and not a word more. She will reach This-Exact-Number of readers and not a reader more or less. How her stories will reach each and every one of her readers are enlisted in the attached documents and is available for the thoughtful.
How she feels about her allotment on these Preserved Tablets will fluctuate between Doubtful nights and Caffeinated mornings. Regardless, what's maktoub will be true. Thus it is revealed, this we shall believe and to the Truth we shall all return. Amen.


They weren't ready for her, so they ignored her. She showed up uninvited, unannounced. And she followed their bikes in the simple calm that biking had always offered them. None of them were ready to address her as they maneuvered their bikes on the long and wide roads. Health might be expensive, but it’s there for anyone who dares pay for it.

At first, she lagged far behind. On the first week, long after they had arrived and were chatting around the finish line, she finally caught up with them. She didn't stop or even look at them. She swished past their spot, to where a car was waiting for her. She packed her gear and got into the car. They thought it was just a one time thing. But she showed up again the next week. And the weeks after that. Sometimes she even arrived on the meeting spot before any of them did, ready in gear and warmed up. She might have biked there from where she lived, they guessed. Alone. Her cycling outfit was like a hiked-up thobe. When she got off the bike, the hem slid down into a modest baltu, or ladies' coat. She wore long leggings underneath, reaching to the edges of her shoes. She never met their eyes, and never spoke. All they heard was the steady sound of their breaths and the swishing zift.

 

Naturally, the road had always been theirs. Men drove and walked in that country by default, as the women had no access to such mobility lest under some generous allowance by one of the men. So when they saw her doing exactly what they publicly promoted while at the same time demanding what was unnaturally hers, they couldn't make up their minds.

They thought if they kept ignoring her, the silent embarrassment will eventually force her to quit. Heck, the force of their routine was enough to edge some of the men out. Week by week, they kept up their masculine speed. Week by week, she gained on them. Until she came to a steady pace averaging theirs and began to take some advantage of their drafting. Still keeping their distance, and she unimposing, they cycled in a smooth paceline.

One day one of them was driving to work and saw her cycling alone. On her back was a huge backpack, clearly loaded to increase weight and add resistance. The mountain bike's gears were set at the heaviest. That's how, he understood, she had finally learned to catch speed with them. It was stupid but it worked. She trained even when they weren't around.

They didn’t talk about her until it was too late and comfortably safe to talk. And when they did, it was in uncertain whispers. The ice did not break until their chivalry was tested. But when the ice broke it broke in huge blocks.

 

They were cycling along their usual route. They knew that she was behind them but within the last cyclist's hindsight. Out of habit, the last cyclist looked back and saw that there was a car paralleling her stride. Its window rolled down, the man beside the driver reaching out a hand to touch her. He alarmed the one ahead of him. And they both slowed down to her side, creating a double barrier between her and the troublesome car. The cyclists slowly enlarged the space between them until the car was pushed to the farthest lane of the road, the male cyclists in the second and third, and she on the lane by the sidewalk.

Eventually the car left off. The two cyclists stayed near her in paceline until they reached the finish line. When they reached the end of the route, she packed her gears and left. But the ice broke behind her. The two cyclists were questioned. The first time is always the loudest. Some blamed her for the trouble she might cause them. The others remembered that she was there for the same reasons as they.

 

Sometimes, when things were good, it got awesome. But even when things weren’t so good, they biked anyway. As far as the bike took them, as long as the weather and their bodies allowed them. Between their legs was the saddle. Under their legs the black zift. Above them, the indifferent endlessness.

 

I won't tell you what people thought and said. That’s all going to pass and it’s been repeated many times over. I’m just going to say that someone mentioned something somewhere. The whispers rustled across the medias. How society reacted you might as well imagine.

The pressure of attention on them increased. Of course it caused ripples of discussions. And ripples turned into waves. And waves into tsunamis. And nobody would argue when the force becomes that huge. Not when things are still too physically comfortable to necessitate counter change.

And publicity backfired on their cause. They were hashtagged. More women bought bicycles and cycled around town. And the authorities became more and more attentive. Like the driving thing, the women were arrested and were given the choice to either sign pledges for public misdemeanor or stay in jail.

 

One of the good things about change is that it doesn’t happen so often, because when it does it’s irrevocable. One day the conservative member stopped his bike in front of hers. She broke and slipped off saddle. Her eyes and feet fixed on the ground, her back straightened. He shook her off her bike. She fell on the pavement. He started kicking her bike. His fellow riders came back and restrained him. Nobody touched her, but the leader pulled the bike away from his teammate’s violent kicks and propped it up.

"What…?"

"There is a place for women and it's not here."

"The road belongs to all."  

"Aib."

There. Some of the cyclists changed route. Some didn't come back at all. The ones who kept biking were the ones who couldn’t ignore her anymore.

After a particularly hard session, the leader went to the waiting car, as she was still catching up behind. She didn’t take long, but by the time she reached her car, the leader was already screaming at the top of his voice.

Nobody remembered what he actually said or if it was even worth screaming. It might have been stupid but it worked and they never saw her again. Though they never lost sight of her. Every time a woman spoke plainly or held her tongue untimely. Every time they looked at their placid, obese women at home. Every time they confronted their private opinions, the opinions that even they don't dare to say to themselves in secret. Every time they heard of a woman's plight for a walk, a drive, or glimpse of the setting sun that they took for granted every day.

They kept looking behind them and thought they might see her again. They wondered if they could have done things differently. They wondered if she might have been their chance to fortify the change they had wished for and if they should have been less afraid and bit more brave.

Whenever they saw a woman compete or perform in public, they wondered if she might have been their chance to prove what sort of men they were made of in private.


*Zift: Asphalt **Aib: Shame (Ar.)

It's not that meditation makes us happier or richer or faster. Meditation helps us see at things as they are. Starting with ourselves. When you see yourself as you are, you accept your own uglies and pretties. When you know what you are, you'll know what things you can and cannot do. You’ll understand the consequences of your actions and inaction. You don't hate the world around you because you'd know that you yourself aren't exempt from things that you cannot change.

(And there is much relief in simply not hating or coveting in everysinglemoment of our lives. Wallah.)

Once you see yourself clearer, you'll start seeing the world clearer too. When you see the world clearer, you'll be less surprised by the things that happen in it. It's not passive, antisocial indifference. It's more like, "this is what the world needs, and this is what you can do." So that your hopes become more realistic. And when your hopes are realistic, you'll face less disappointments. With less disappointments comes hope. With hope grows trust in your strengths and limitations. Which helps you accept your purposes in life, in every day, in reading this. And if you can accept your roles, how could you not grow a belief in a more forgiving and understanding afterlife?

(And if you can just consider the possibility of a happy ending, how could you not give it a shot?)

It's not that meditation makes us happier or richer or skinnier. Meditation can't change light-bulbs. It can, however, help you be aware of that broken light bulb and the realistic steps that'll take to fix it.

She smelled of velvet midnight. Something sweet and inviting. Something that Saudi women wore to weddings or seduction. She smelled extremely atypical of me, that I had to look around for broken perfume bottles before realizing that it wasn't, couldn't possibly be me. And that I wasn't alone in my room.

I've been meditating more regularly, which made astral projections easier. I’m so new at this that it’s impossible for me not to be curious, hence my travels to Saudi more, uh, frequent. Rituals aside, the way she announced herself said a lot of things. That she didn't slam into my face or started goosebumps or chilled the room. The way she announced herself allowed for slow comprehension, "What is that smell? I have nothing that smells like that. Who is…shit!" It was the most polite I've ever been announced to.

Demons aren't usually that polite in announcing their presence. Usually, when they do, they jump my awareness with sudden show of face or limb or roaring. One of the residents in my mother's house in Jeddah, announced himself by rabbit-jumping between me and the elevator. He was all teeth and hollow eye sockets, limbs spread apart in a pre-hug stance or utter mischief. (I frowned and walked through him.) The ones in my house in Jakarta are more aggressive. On certain nights of the week, they gather and party around my bed. The tiles reverberate, the windows creak and the she-demon from the Ring crawls towards my bed in menace. I would itch and scratch myself like mad. (Remember Lady Macbeth's insanity?)

The she-demon from last night got credit for politeness. Which meant that there was a message or a purpose in her visit. Not a random show of mischief. This morning, over breakfast and as flat as brick, my master told me that she had brought a male companion who did not enter the house and waited outside on the porch.

Their message was, "May we serve?"

I don't know why they do that, why they offer their services to humans. I’m only guessing that being a demon can be pretty boring. You know, extended longevity and deep wisdom and lack of twitter followers. If boredom is a common experience among jinn and man, then I can relate.

Though I still wonder how they found me. And if that's obvious, why they chose to follow me of all astral travelers. Sure, I might have been visiting people in Saudi a little too often because, well, for every reason you might guess. And to be perfectly honest, I may not always travel with the purest and most celibate intentions. (Shush. Stop smiling like that.)

Which made realize that, if increased traffic gave me away in their radars, then they might have retraced anyone else who has been traveling here to reach me too. And if intent had a smell, and the one that appeared last night smelled like velvet midnight, then...Oh damn.

Succubus?

And the one at the door...Incubus?

Oops.

I like when Kiki stays with me in Jakarta. He never burdens me with hospitality. He is more than intelligent company. And going to bed knowing for sure that "there is someone else human in the house" is a snug security.

That he isn’t shy to shower me with tokens of gratefulness is a whole other thing to like. Once, he fixed the house's water pump; saving me from so much worry about the basic standards of human livability. Another time, when both I and the house were too sick to receive him, he gave a bottle of my favorite brand of water and a book of poetry.

Kiki’s last gift, though, was more generous and intimate than oral sex and kept me squatting around the house for a week: He scrubbed the bathroom.

You know it is sincere when the Universe is stirred to blog about it. I could tell you how, afterward, every bathroom trip felt like a treat. I could tell you how scrubbing the house for a week - room by room, tile by tile - left me with little need for yoga and in much need for a beautician. And I could also tell you how my relationship with the house effected my relationship with my family in more endearing ways than we have had in a year. All that could bubble into long soaps.

But I want to stop at that moment when inspiration sprung and slipped through my nose. That moment when everything that could be wrong in the world dimmed with renewed faith in housekeeping.

When Kiki bid us, me and this old house in Jakarta, his kind and clean leave.

You don't, can’t, won’t and shan’t contact me through Facebook**

I don't care if you're announcing the end of the world (again), or if your cat has died (again, for the sixth time, leaving her with merely three more to suffer). All the important facts I need to survive have reached me in forceful and absolute lack of fashion without Facebook. And if you still need Facebook to contact me, then you don't know me well enough. And if you don't know me well enough, you're wasting dollars and rupiahs and fairies. So don't. Just fucking don't.

Read, spread and copy-paste instead.

As misfortunes befall upon the wicked, I am a blogger. And a goddamn pretty good one at it too. As far as I care to publicly admit, I run three blogs, two twitter accounts and a healthy Goodreads account chock-filled with Alia-esque bragging. At some point, it felt that all that hyperproductivity would have gone to scattered waste if they're not bowled in a single platform. Hence, as much as I abhor it, Facebook is still the easiest and eeriest internet marketing tool to do the job. 

There, I said it. I’m treating Facebook as my blogbag.

So if you really, really had to, you can interact with my writings. Not with me, with my writings. You can spread the word, LIKE, dislike or barrage, and - if it so happens that you're having such an awesome day - THINK. Writing is a labor of hard, back-breaking, hemorrhoids-inducing, ego-obliterating love. It has always been the highest compliment when readers take my writings with them as food for a thought or two. An awesome compliment. Thanks in advance. 

Plus, if you like my writing so much that the only way you can spread it is by claiming it as yours, then by all means, PLEASE COPY-PASTE-REUSE. None of my work is copyrighted. I don't need to. I wasn't bragging when I said that I'm pretty good at this writing shit. The fact that my signature voice is woven into all my writings is something that nobody can steal and no copyright law can protect. 

If after all that you still contact me through Facebook, well, where the Facebook did you learn to read, man?!

*Referring to Captain Obvious, obviously.

** Confused venting aside, that was kinda fun to write. I don’t care how you reach me. If it’s important enough, I’ll hear it through the silence, against the noise, across the worlds. I promise.

(Content has been deleted by author due to constant yelling from the voices in her head for inexcusable mediocrity.)

Once, a relative of mine yelled at me on twitter.

Out of the blue, she said that I was shaming our tribe with my avatar picture displaying my uncovered hair. And she didn't stop there, she mentioned my brother and told him the same thing. That I was putting our family in shame.

I took my time before replying. Two things weighed on my mind. One, This was family. Whichever way I was going to respond, I was going to have to live with it for the rest of my life. Two, I know for fact that responding in anger silences the voices in my head with unforgiving disapproval. It might feel glorious riding the high horse and calling her names, but as soon as the moment passes, I will feel like a used condom: dirty and disgusted and flat. (Because wrath is a sin, see?)

When I finally responded, I wrote from the Indonesian account in Arabic.

I said, "Transparency and credibility are respectful offerings to those who read my writings. What we show in public follows us around forever, effecting both our lives online and in the real world. I can't, for instance, degrade strangers on random, then steal their tweets and use it as my bio. [Something that she, along her timeline, did.] By the way, do you know how Hamza Kashgari was sent to prison? Screen grabs. Thank you for you kind attention, have a nice day."

She deleted her account.

Once, when my brother Anggi was in first grade, he had a school-sickness, or more commonly known as "I don't feel like going to school today. Because."

Anggi perfected his dramatic timing so that he caught the sickness in the car at the school gate. Baba, who drove Anggi to school, relented and brought him back home. Much to my mother's displeasure.

My mother, in one breath, donned her abaya, drove with Baba and Anggi back to school, and before the too-stunned-to-respond view of the entire all-male school, dragged my brother by the ear while at the same time yelled to nobody in particular: "Where is his class? Where is this boy's class?" -- Until she sat him down in his own classroom desk and chair.

Never again did Anggi catch a bout of school-sickness for the rest of his academic career. Neither did my cousins when they were so lucky to catch the school-sickness in my mother's house on school days.

Neither do, come to think, any my neighbors' children.

(Happy Birthday month, Ibu.)

Internet Mob Behavior

When the Hamza Kashgari fiasco happened, everything I feared about the Saudi society's judgment returned in folds. As if all the years of public writing and living in exile hasn't taught me a thing about trusting the anonymous crowd. If I had been thinking about writing to an Arab audience, reading about Hamzah being sent to prison over mere tweets, sealed my mouth and fingers silent.

Much to my horror, about a week after Hamza’s fiasco, my brother released the first episode of Takki. I spent the night watching the timeline for any bursts of hashtagging. Nothing bad happened to my brother or any of the crew and actors involved. In fact, as far as I know, they're doing swimmingly even under the judgmental eyes of the Saudi public.

How my brother survived the Saudi mob's attention, while Hamza and Firas did not, I was yet to understand. And it was going to take me a whole year to figure out the right keywords to google that phenomenon.

About a week ago, there was another gossip fiasco in the Saudi twitosphere: A man was photographed sharing a table with an uncovered woman. The hashtag to that translates as #MisterX'sScandal. It grabbed my attention because there was nothing scandalous about a man being in public with his uncovered wife. That it got blown up was what really took me aback.

Is the Saudi society really, really that sick?

Pause. Process. Project.

Now, the thing that mobs have in common, whether online or on the streets, is that they both represent the society at its most extreme state.

Society, whether we like it or not, is a responsive, adaptive and smart organism that behaves as naturally as an individual would given in the same situation. But smarter and, considering its size, more forceful. The mob, or crowd, or society in general, as a single unit, is accurate in its unanimous decisions.

Take, for instance, in Hamza Kashgari's case. Hamza had been poking around the lines of propriety for a while in his columns before he tweeted his doom. The way the mob behaved in response to his tweets were as natural as a pissed off child’s response to a beloved parent being publicly disrespected. I would have at least shunned if a man treated my master with disrespect. And if I weren't such a passivist I would have butchered his entire family too.

Similarly, looking closer into #MisterX'sScandal, I found out that Mister X was not just an innocent bystander being runned down by a bored, scandal-craving mob. A background check on Mister X revealed that he has been a mouthful bitch. And his mouth has offered nothing but vehement spitting upon everything it came across. So much that even his mates gave up on him.

In both Hamza and Mister X's sudden hashtagging, the mob was forced to respond. It was prodded and poked until it grabbed the first slip of tongue to retaliate so forcefully. The same response, I think I would have given if I were in the position to do something about it.

The Other Side of Mob Behavior

Whatever got me worried for so long about the mob’s behavior also blotted out the qualities that I might have liked about it too.

Again, since the mob is a smart organism, it would not exert its powers only in attack modes. It will also protect its interests and create amazing things. Such as the random acts of kindness during natural disasters. The millions of worshippers in mosques, churches and synagogues saying Amen in one voice, every day. And every time a mufti releases a stupid fatwa, or a politician is caught abusing his powers, the mob will protest and reassert its powers to create change.

That is democracy, the united opinion of the mob, in its simplest and most natural form.

So, it's not that one society is sick or that another society is better. That is a tired claim. Every society has its cultural quirks and points of outdated customs. But if you look closer, the things that we, as individuals, might dislike about a society, could be the very things that has kept that society from crumbling down to the ground, with you and I and the people we love and protect along with it.

I started trusting the voices in my head last year, on the last meditation course I attended.

Around the seventh day, I started feeling so woozy that I barely managed the mountainous terrain between my sleeping dorm and the meditation hall.

That was when the first voice said, "Low blood pressure."

During these 10-days courses, our diet is a twice-a-day meager vegetarian with very low sodium. It had happened to me before, coming home with my blood pressure so low that I needed to eat a whole kid to fix it. By the time I started feeling the same symptoms again on that course, I had already slipped the stairs and nearly killed myself in the drizzling dark once. I started fretting and worrying about dying from being too good a girl. There was no way I could manage getting a Big Whopper in that place.

Then the second voice said, "Soy sauce."

And I said, "That's gross. I ain't so crazy to listen to that kind of crazy!"

They said nothing. And on the next meal, I poured soy sauce on all my food , the only source of monosodium chloride available in the sterile dining room, and swallowed quickly because it there was no point in indulging medicinal food like that.

And the next time I heard them, the bragging voices in my blood-pressure-normalized-head said, "Glad to have your trust."

Now I know why TV shows have long breaks between seasons. After word-binging for past few months, you guessed it, I'm out of steam. Instead of flowing productivity, my writings have been reduced to irregular acidic belches.

In effort to recuperate, I saw John Irving talk before reading any of his work.

Then, while reading "A Widow For One Year", I thought that I heard his voice between the lines. The way he wrote echoed the way he talked. This goes well with Seth Godin’s theory against writer’s block, that in order to write consistently, you only need to do it a lot, a lot.

It made me wonder if good writing requires good speaking.

If this is true, well, I'm kinda screwed. English has been classified as the snobby language in my system and I can't practice it without sounding like a total dick. When I tell stories in English, I can't reach the same notes of intimacy as I do in Indonesian. 

This post being in English, I might as well be a bold dick about it too. There's just no such thing as an effective story that isn't intimate. Intimacy is the kick makes the audience tick. Intimacy allows the audience to relate, react and retweet. And there’s tedious craftsmanship in this Story-Storyteller relationship; a good story needs to be studied and repeated (or, as writers, rewritten) a lot, a lot before it loosens up and reveals its best, funniest and longest secrets.

Then again, though my Arabic is useless in formal situations, I was never at loss for Arabic words when I'm angry or horny. (Or trying to be funny.) This unfortunate fact cancels the hypothesis that in order to write well one must also verbalize well. I barely passed high-school Arabic grammar, but I get as sincere responses for my Arabic statements as I do in Indonesian -- if not worse, since neither English or Indonesian can be as offensive as Arabic.

Neither can my version of Arabic, for its generous use of profanity and grammatical incongruity, be spoken outside of the most intimate societies.

To summarize, since the interestingness of narrative depends on intimacy, regardless to language, I wonder if the more intimate a story, the easier it's delivered. And the easier it is delivered, the less likely that anyone else can tell "A Widow For One Year" the way John Irving did.

The less likely that, if I may hope and fear, his readers will tag his stories as “the random belches of an out-of-steam writer.”

Talk to me. How do you tell your stories? Does telling it in a different language change the tone? How many times and languages does it take to tell or rewrite a story until you get it right?

Follow up

This quote by John Irving addresses the issue concerning “pretty language” in fiction. Someone tweeted the link right after I published this post. Because the Universe is awesome like that.

I don’t enjoy novels that are boring exercises in show-off writing with no narrative, no characters, no information—novels that are just an intellectually discursive text with lots of style. Is their object to make me feel stupid? These are not novels. These are the works of people who want to call themselves writers but haven’t a recognizable form to work in. Their subject is their technique. And their vision? They have no vision, no private version of the world; there is only a private version of style, of technique. I just completed an introduction to Great Expectations in which I pointed out that Dickens was never so vain as to imagine that his love or his use of language was particularly special. He could write very prettily when he wanted to, but he never had so little to say that he thought the object of writing was pretty language. The broadest novelists never cared for that kind of original language. Dickens, Hardy, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Melville: to such novelists, originality with language is mere fashion; it will pass. The larger, plainer things they are preoccupied with, their obsessions—these will last: the story, the characters, the laughter, and the tears.

Also, see Chiara’s comment in the comments section.

 
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