A Language in Common


John Michael Gorrindo

Mursalim awoke with a start.  It was to be a busy day, but that was how he liked it.  While his wife and three daughters slept, he slipped into his swim trunks and barefooted stepped quietly down the hallway out to the front porch.  There he took the bucket and chamois and filled the bucket with water from a hose.  His pride was the van in the carport.  To maintain its immaculate condition was of paramount importance.  Mursalim, the worker bee, was duty bound to keep it that way.  It was the very meaning of early morning existence. He could not repress a broad smile as he watered her down; then scrubbing and rinsing away the finest particles of dirt from every square centimeter of her body.  His mind raced.  The foreigner was to arrive at the airport at 10 AM.

The American descended the metal steps of the standard which had moments before been rolled up to the jet liner’s front exit.  He walked alone on the tarmac, following the other passengers in through the domestic arrival gates.  Inside, everyone was crowded round a short conveyor belt, waiting expectantly for their baggage to be fed in the building from outside off of carts through a port in the holding room’s wall.  Within a few minutes, the baggage started to appear at the head of the belt, pushing its way through the port’s rubber flaps.

An airport official checked the American’s baggage claim stubs against those on his luggage, and let him pass out of the holding area into the airport’s check-in lobby.

Mursalim was already there to greet the American, nervously pacing, wearing his baseball-style cap which hid his baldness.  Mursalim saw and recognized him immediately as he fit the self-description included in the email he had sent Mursalim two days previous.   The American acknowledged Mursalim with a relaxed smile.  Mursalim grabbed one of the American’s two bags, and through the airport’s main gates, led him briskly out into the adjoining parking lot.

The van was parked nearby.  They followed the arrowed route to the exit kiosk, and Mursalim paid the attendant.  Once on the road, Mursalim drove slowly but spoke quickly.

“Selamat datang ke Makassar, Pak Bennet.  First I will take you to my home and you can take a shower after I show you your room.”

“Sounds fine, Mursalim.”

“Then we can drive into downtown Makassar.  I can take you anywhere you want to go.  May I suggest Fort Rotterdam as your first tourist object and then to Pualam Restaurant for lunch?  It overlooks the ocean.”

“Hmm.  Yes, OK.  As good a start as any.”

Saturday morning at Mursalim’s house- his wife instructs their servant as how to properly wash some silken wear.  The three daughters giggle at recycled Tom and Jerry cartoons on television in the living room.  Then the van pulls into the carport.  Mursalim ushers the American inside his home.  No one notices the guest.  No introductions are made.

“Here’s the remote control for the AC, and the key to your room.  Don’t open your windows, please.  And keep the door shut at all times.  We have a lot of mosquitoes here.”

The American walked into the guest room of Mursalim’s home- the first room on the right after passing through the front door.  It reeked of insecticide spray.

“Oh yes, Bennet, I would like to show you a great tradition of Makassar tonight- one of the finer fresh fish restaurants here in the city.  Do you like fish?”

“I’ll follow your recommendation, sure.”

“And after, we can go back to Pualam as they have a Dangdut competition.  Pualam is across the street from the esplanade overlooking the ocean.  Half the restaurant is outdoors, and they have live music every night on an open air stage. Have you ever listened to Dangdut?”

“Yes, just a few times while in Java.  It all sounds very interesting, Mursalim.”
“Do you like watermelon?  I’ll bring you some now.”

“Hospitable of you, thanks.”

“I’ll be right back.  Here, let’s make sure the door is closed.”

The American could feel nothing but the heat and humidity draining his bodily fluids at a rapid rate.  He took the remote and turned on the AC.  Clean and simple this homestay, he thought.  Gracious host who speaks English very well, too.  Very reasonable rates, as well- can’t beat that!

Mursalim soon rapped loudly at the door.  “Here’s your watermelon.  Oh, yes, the bathroom with shower is just up the hall to the left.”

The American sat on the bed and ate the watermelon pieces, spearing each one with the plastic toothpick provided.  It wasn’t a moment when he heard Mursalim again, this time calling him through the door.

“So go ahead and take a shower, and then we’ll go out again, OK Bennet?”

“Yeah sure, just give me a second.”

“Sure!  No problem! Take your time!”
Stepping back outside into the torpid July heat, the American followed Mursalim to the van.  The van was as spotless clean inside as it was outside.  The young female servant slid open the carport gate after the two men were seated inside the van and doors were shut.  The neighborhood streets were narrow, and she stood behind them in the road as the van backed out.  Once Mursalim had cleared the gate, she walked back into the carport, slid the gate closed, and locked it.  Four young men sat squatting down opposite the house watching the scene intently, their backs against the white-washed wall of the large house across the narrow street.

Twenty minutes later, Mursalim pulled the van off the highway leading into downtown Makassar into the large, empty parking lot of Fort Rotterdam.  Only the fortress walls surrounding the complex were visible.

“Listen, Bennet, do you mind touring the fort alone after I take you in and introduce you to some friends of mine?  Today is Friday.  I must go pray at the Mosque.”

Yeah, sure.  I’ll manage.”  The American looked around him.  There wasn’t a soul about.  The fort occupied a vast tract of land.  Walking through the fortified gates after paying the small entry fee, the American followed Mursalim over to a lone café, a few men playing chess out front, sitting in a shaded porch area.

Bennet, this is Rizal and Lala, both from Makassar.  And this is Michael from Flores. 
They are all tour guides.”  Handshakes were exchanged all around.  “A coca cola Bennet?  I will get you one.”  Mursalim disappeared into the dark café without waiting for a reply.

The American sat next to Lala who was bearded, and wore a kopia and long koko.  He was serious and intense, his eyes peering out from behind round spectacles, studying the American intently.

“Mr. Bennet, you have plans to visit Tanah Toraja after leaving Makassar?”

“Yes, that is the plan.”

“Do you need a guide?  Any of us here can accompany you.  Tanah Toraja is best appreciated by means of traveling with a knowledgeable guide.  Their culture is very complex, and the mortuary rites really deserve a total explanation.”

“Well, I hadn’t really considered it.”

Rizal and Lala stood by like silent sentinels while Lala seized the moment to engage the American.  His eyes turned a little wide and wild and his voice urgent.   A passion in mind had suddenly seized him.

“You may wonder why this?” Lala asked rhetorically, pointing to his traditional Muslim attire.  “Mr. Michael here is Catholic, as he is from Flores, and the rest of us are Muslim, but I have recently become a devotee to a great Imam in Makassar and pursue my faith and learning very vigorously.”

“I see.”

“It is my mission to ever become closer to Allah, and to do so, there is so much I must study and learn.  It is a long and difficult path I must follow, and it is only right I do so with not only my heart- but with my mind.  The great Imam has impressed upon me the necessity to study the history of Muslim thought.  It is not enough that I simply go to the Mosque everyday and pray.  Now I see what must be done to do Allah’s will- here every day as long as I live.”

Rizal and Michael looked on impassively.  The American looked up at them momentarily before looking back at Lala.  “Well, I wish you luck,” he said.

“I think you will find Sulawesi Selatan very interesting and so worth your time, Mr. Bennet!  You know, the culture here is unique.  For instance, we have many local languages- Makassar, Mandar, Bugis, and Konjo.  And there is a special script used to write all of them.  It is called Lontara.  Have you heard of it?  Take a consonant, for instance- say “m,” then follow with a different vowel each time- “ma,” “mé,” “mi,” “mo,” “mu,” “me.”   An inflection placed next to each scripted consonant indicates the vowel.  These make up the building blocks of the written language.” 

“It looks a bit like Arabic script save the curves having been straightened out.”

Yes, Mr. Bennet! AbsolutelyVery clever of you!  It is derived from Arabic.”

Lala spent several minutes writing out a long sentence used the Lontara script and then translated it into IPS phonetics.  “Lontara is taught in all our local schools.  It is required!  What is amazing is that it can accommodate the sounds of all our local languages, and can be used to phonetically symbolize them.”  Lala looked up from his writing with great satisfaction and thumped his pen on the paper.

Mursalim reappeared with a cold coca cola for the American, who never drank the stuff.  He took a sip, and was surprised to find out how good it tasted. 

“I must go to the Mosque now, Bennet.  I’ll be back in an hour.  Enjoy yourself!  There is a museum which includes artifacts of the Gowa Kingdom in the building next to us.”  Mursalim hurried away, waving as he walked.

The American took the break in the conversation to advantage.  “Thanks gentleman.  I appreciate the company,” he said bolting down the remainder of his coca cola in two long gulps.  “I think I’ll tour the museum.”  Standing up, he shook hands with all three men once again and walked over the museum, paid another small entrance fee, and entered the first floor. 

On this Friday morning during the height of the tourist season, save the two guards, he was the only other person in the museum.  In one corner a royal bedroom on display.  Scale models of 17th century Gowa ships were featured across the room.  There was something lifeless about all of it.  Gowa was a Kingdom long dead and gone.  Eventually he gathered that the Dutch had used divide and conquer strategies to bring down the Gowa Kingdom by forging an alliance with their enemies, the Bugis Kingdom of Bone.  In their gratitude, the Dutch promptly turned around and subdued Bone. 

That was the kind of language the American could understand.

He exited the museum a half-hour after he entered, and back on the grounds, peered out at the several long, two story, Dutch-style buildings nearby- most of them painted white with steep roofs made of gray slate.  The fort was representative of the bye-gone colonial era- its inventory of buildings recently restored with their interiors converted into Indonesian government offices.  They were as lifeless looking as everything inside the museum.  A foregone style of rule had been supplanted by a newer one- most likely similar- just under the guise of a different bureaucracy.  That was the kind of language the American could understand as well.  The fort was the quietest place imaginable.  The American had yet to understand the meaning of Friday noon in a Muslim city. 

He wandered about the complex for another fifteen minutes and then back towards the Fort’s main entrance.  There he met three travel agents sitting, waiting for business that would never materialize.  One said she was free lance.  The American wondered how these well-dressed people survived at all.  Helluva way to make a living, he thought.

Suddenly Mursalim’s van appeared turning off the main thoroughfare and pulling into the empty parking lot outside the fort’s high walls.  The American stood, bade the travel agents good luck, walked to the van, and sat in the front passenger’s seat.  Once out on the ocean side boulevard, the van motored towards the downtown and Pualam restaurant. As the boulevard intersected other large cross streets, a convoy of cars moving from the van’s left to its right caught Mursalim’s eye.

“A Bugis’ wedding!” he cried excitedly.  “We’ll follow them!”  Bearing to the right, Mursalim accelerated into the intersection.  He trailed them badly as they were moving quickly, and it became a race to catch up.

The convoy moved with the knowledge of where it was headed, forging ahead as if controlled by a single mind and pair of hands, merging into thick traffic as it penetrated a densely populated neighborhood.  It turned every couple of blocks to the left or right, and soon Mursalim seemed to have lost them.  But soon enough he spotted a sole car transporting passengers attired in traditional wedding colors, and tailing them, was quickly led back to the convoy which was still in line, but now double-parked along a busy side street.

Passengers had thrown car doors open and alighted onto the street.  The women all wore long mauve colored dresses, pastel in hue and silken-sheen in texture, with head scarves to match.  The men wore plaid sarongs with black jackets, no ties, and traditional black kopia covering their jet black hair.

Mursalim pulled up behind the parked convoy.  “Go ahead and get out.  Follow them in.  I’ll park and return.”

The American readied his digital camera as he stepped out onto the sidewalk.  He was a little uneasy.  Didn’t he need an invitation?  His doubts were soon dispelled, as two men with the procession beckoned him to join, welcoming him with friendly smiles.  Mursalim pulled away from the curb, and the American filed into an alleyway, merging into the procession.

Looking back, the American saw the groom- a handsome young Bugis attired in the most sumptuously exotic of groom’s wear.  His long flowing sarong was embroidered in golden lace and a ceremonial Keris was stuffed in a waist sash.  A silver filigreed cross sash angled down across his long sleeve tunic, and an elaborate headdress adorned his head.  It was an ensemble worthy of a sultan.  Patriarchs of the wife’s family stood one to either side of him, and just ahead of them walked four other men clutching on to the bamboo handles of a large wooden box filled with all manner of tropical fruit, two on each side.

To the great delight of everyone, the American began to take photographs.  He was the only person there in possession of a camera, and the fact that no one present would ever see his photographs didn’t seem matter.

A short way down the alley, the procession turned right through a gate into the outdoor reception area- a spacious, shaded porch that was long, narrow, and filled with plastic chairs. Against one wall were two large tables covered with white linen and set with serving dishes brimming with food, stacks of plates, and eating utensils.

The American took a seat and watched as the groom was escorted into a very small room at the head of the porch.  Piles of shoes were stacked and strewn along its front wall and next to a darkened doorway through which the groom along with several other men entered.

The wedding patrons surprised the American once again, as he was approached and invited to enter the room of import.  He imagined they wanted him to continue taking photographs.  Patriarchs of the wife’s family sat in silence cross-legged on throw rugs, their attention on the groom and Hakim who were huddled together while sitting on an elevated stage.  The Hakim’s charge was to conduct a traditional ritual of agreement which detailed the groom’s responsibilities of marriage according to Islamic principles. The patriarchy in attendance was there to bear witness.  A large, multi-colored tapestry of elaborate design hung on the wall behind them.

With legal documents in hand, the Hakim quietly read the terms of agreement.  He paused after each point, allowing the groom to respond with a verbal affirmation.  The two clasped hands throughout with their thumbs pressed firmly against each other, pad to pad.

The American could only guess at the significance of it all.  Was this just the first stage of the marriage ritual?  Why weren’t the rest of the people in attendance allowed to witness this?  Later the American would learn from Mursalim that this was not the actual marriage ceremony, but only that of the groom’s agreement.  Only relatives of the wife were invited to the reception.  A Buginese wedding unfolded in three distinct stages.  The bride’s agreement constituted a separate ceremony, attended by only the groom’s family in turn.  Female members of the groom’s family wore golden gowns to that event.  The actual marriage ceremony where both sides of the family came together took place after.

Once the groom had completed his set of verbal agreements, he signed the documents and was now bound to a husband’s religious responsibilities according to Islam. The Hakim leaned forward, hugged the groom, kissed him on both cheeks, stood, and stepped off the stage.

Behind the scenes in a backroom hidden from view, a retinue of bridesmaids was meanwhile attending to the brides, her dress, and her make-up.  Finally, the bride made her entrance onto the stage, and promptly sat on the rug next to the groom.

The American paused a long while before taking her picture with the groom.  He was transfixed by her regal dress and queenly comportment.  Like a creature superior to all things earthly, she seemed freshly arrived from a transcendent world, her presence redefining beauty on earth as cast from celestial radiance.

Her naturally dark complexion had been completely obscured, having been powdered white; while her lips were painted a luminescent ruby.  A tiara of filigreed silver spanning ear to ear was clipped carefully atop her lacquered, black hair.  Her dress was equal in ceremonial brilliance to the groom’s, and the two sat together before the patriarchy without saying a word as the most beautiful couple in the world.

The American finally stood and took photographs of these two, immaculately beautiful people.  Afterwards, he rested his camera by its strap as it hung around his neck, and continued to admire his eye’s glory that would soon be but a visual memory.

Maybe if he had gotten married in such a manner his marriage would have lasted, he thought.  Maybe- just maybe- if he had been a man who understood the language of formality and ritual it would have impressed upon him the importance of exchanging vows of a lifetime with a woman.  What hurt most was that such questions could never be answered, he thought.  It seemed it was much too late, and he would never know.  Such moments come only once for most people, and do not come again.  His chance to be one half of the most beautiful couple in the world had been his long ago for only that one moment but it had been lost to him.  He hadn’t even known what meaning the moment held, and that it had come to him in due turn.  He had let it go- never knowing it was before him and was never to return.  Only now did he see and feel the loss.  Knowledge is truly pain, he thought; especially when it comes too late.

The patriarchy sitting on the throw rugs slowly rose after several more minutes, and the hundred or so guests who had been sitting somewhat impatiently moved quickly to the banquet tables upon seeing the men exit the small room’s doorway.

Mursalim reached through the doorway and grabbed the American’s arm.  “Come Bennet, we are invited to eat.” 

The Bugis women in their long mauve gowns smiled at the American and ushered him to the tables full of food, only to quickly cut him off once they reached the stack of plates which were placed at one end.  In fact, everyone reached in front him- mobbing the tables as if it were an everyday sport.  He stood surrounded, being pushed and shoved to and fro- a helpless yet towering figure buffeted by hungry creatures all around him- most of them a third to one half his size and a foot to two feet shorter.  All the while, the crowd urged him to reach in and grab a plateful of food.

After the meal in the cloistered alleyway outside the enclosed reception area, a trio of young, longhaired Bugis men fired up a sound system, electronic keyboard, and electric bass.  The singer began to passionately wail a ballad of unrequited love- Dangdut style- and the alleyway’s residents poured out of their tiny, densely clustered living quarters and pressed into the alcove where the band had nestled itself.

One of the last to eat, the American wandered out into the alleyway to watch and listen.  As he squeezed through the crowd to get close to the band, a woman possessed with the spirit of the moment turned towards him and began to dance with wild abandon- hips gyrating and arms writhing outstretched and lofted above her head.  Engaging him with eyes aflame, she used her dance steps to carve out an empty space around them, pushing the crowd back up against the walls on either side of the alley, making room for only the two of them to dance.  She tipped her right hand towards him, arms still outstretched, and the American reached out to take it with his own.  A pasty white pallor enveloped her face and though she pulsated with rhythm, her hand was cold and clammy to the touch.

The American spun her around and she threw out her hip towards him which he answered in kind- their hips colliding once and then twice, and then once again.  The crowd came alive- laughing and clapping fervently- men, women, and children alike.

As soon as the song ended, the American heard a loud hissing sound from behind.  He let go of his partner’s hand and looked back into the darkness of the alleyway.  Mursalim gestured for the American with alarming intensity.  The American could not tell if Mursalim’s face countenanced grave fear or anger. The American felt he must oblige, but he had no idea what could be the matter.

As the American walked slowly through the crowd who still stood cheering and clapping, he did so with growing reluctance, feeling like a child about to be chided by his mother.  Finally abreast of Mursalim, he looked at him quizzically. 

“It’s time to go, Pak Bennet.  You could nave been pick pocketed in there!  You see, no matter how friendly everyone seems, you were in danger.  And that woman you danced with- did you see her sniveling and the traces of powder around her nostrils?  She is a user of narkoba.  It’s not a place for a foreigner to be.  It’s time to go, Pak Bennet.  I am responsible for you.”

The American stood quietly and didn’t reply.  “Follow me out,” Mursalim ordered.  “The van is parked far down the street.”

Once seated in the van, Mursalim told the American their grand diversion had upset the rest of their planned daytime schedule, and that it was already time to return home before going back out again for dinner.

“We’ll visit Pualam later after dinner and watch the Dangdut competition, so no problem there.”  The American stared straight ahead and said nothing.

“You know, these are my people, Pak Bennet.  I know then too well.  And I am very sorry to be so strong with you.  I am really very sorry.  But I was afraid for your welfare back there, as you were mixing with a crowd from outside the reception in that alleyway.  For you to be dancing with a narkoba user is much too dangerous, Pak Bennet.  Do you know how harsh the drug laws are here?”

“Yes, I’m aware,” said the American.  “I understand.  Let’s move on.”

After a half-hour of driving, the van pulled into Mursalim’s carport.  The American retired to his room after taking a shower, and lay down naked on the white sheet which covered his large bed.  The air conditioning cooled him slowly.  Mursalim’s house seemed to occupy some sort of heat sink.  It was unbearably hot and humid outside his room.  He suddenly realized the wisdom in returning to the cool peace and quiet of one’s own air conditioned room for the afternoon.

He drifted into sleep.  As the sun began to set, he was awaken by the tape recorded call to evening prayer- the adzan magrib- blaring from loudspeakers of a nearby Mosque, closely followed by those of one, and then two more a little more distant.  He lay staring at the white ceiling of his room, the musky sweetness of mosquito insecticide lingering in his nostrils while a polyphony of chanted Arabic prayer sounding from three Mosques called the faithful to accept Allah as the one and only god, and Mohammed his only prophet.

The American put his hands to his breast.  The air conditioning had penetrated his skin down to the bone, making it as cold and clammy as his that of the hand of his afternoon’s dancing partner.  He listlessly turned his head to peer over towards the desk where his watch lay, wondering half-asleep if that was where indeed he had put it.  Deciding it didn’t matter, he propped himself up and sat on the side of the bed, noticing his skin in its nakedness to be as white as the bed sheet, the pillow case, the tiled floor, and the paint on the cement walls of his room.

In the cheap armoire in the corner he had neatly put away his clothes upon unpacking his travel bag earlier in the day.  He gently opened one of the armoire’s thin doors and reach in for some fresh evening wear.  By the time he was dressed, there was a knock at his door.

“Pak Bennet, are you there?”  I have some juice for you.”  The American opened the door, and took the glass of orange juice from a smiling Mursalim, who had set the glass on a small saucer.

“We’ll leave for the fish restaurant in about a half-hour, OK?”  Mursalim looked at the American with a winsome, broad-toothed smile.  His teeth were god-damned magnificent, the American thought, and he knows how to use them to full advantage.

“Yeah, sure- and thanks for the refreshment.  Oh, by the way, dinner’s on me tonight, Mursalim.”

“Oh, thank you so much, Pak Bennet!  It’s so appreciated by me, believe me, my brother!” replied Mursalim, bowing in thanks.
Once again, the young female servant unlocked the carport gate, slid it open and Mursalim carefully backed out onto the darkened street.  As they had earlier that day, the same group of four young men sat together sphinx-like against the white wall of the house across the street, their eyes fixed on the van and its occupants.

Mursalim carefully negotiated the narrow streets and its speed bumps as he drove through his neighborhood.  It reminded the American of suburban labyrinths back home, prompting thoughts concerning cross-cultural comparison.  Middle-class life doesn’t vary much around the world, he reflected.  It’s essentially a matter of traveling in a motorized vehicle, shuttling between one air-conditioned building to another.  And upon his personal inspection, middle-class life in an Indonesian city seemed to size up nicely to such a description.   An odious comparison?  He wasn’t sure yet.  It was too early to know.

Yes, there was much the American had yet to learn- especially about his host’s peculiar middle-classness.  Both Mursalim and his wife worked, they had a “housekeeper” they referred to as their “servant,” and the family made money on the side that economically ensured their middle-class status.  But Mursalim, even though he swore to a strong work ethic, would have had great difficulty in rising from his poor beginnings in a city like Makassar without having married up in society.  He had done something very out of the ordinary.  As a Bugis man, he had married a Chinese Indonesian- a racial and ethnic coupling extremely rare.  It was the Chinese Indonesians who owned and controlled most of the country’s economy.  Mursalim shrewdly made his marriage moves accordingly.
Twenty minutes later, Mursalim turned off the ocean boulevard and drove down a long side street full of restaurants.  He stopped and parked in front of “Le-Le,” the renowned fish eatery.  It was but one of many similar restaurants on the same street offering an astounding variety of fresh fish which the customer could inspect on ice as stored in a large cooler.  The cooler sat very near the large fish grill which was placed on the sidewalk at the restaurant’s entrance. The smoky aroma of grilling fish could be smelled up and down the street, and this exhibitionistic cooking was “Le-Le’s” most effective form of advertisement.

Mursalim and the American walked into Le-Le, passing the grill whose grate was covered with sizzling flounders.  A man showed them to the large ice box, and opening the lid, handled many of the large fish, showing off what were available and making recommendations.  The American marveled at the variety of fresh catch, indigenous to the local waters and completely foreign to him.  Some were blue in color; others orange-red or speckled silver and white.  Most were enormous in size.  He took the recommendation of the fish handler, and after choosing, moved on into the gleaming white dining area along whose walls were stationed a few wash basins providing patrons soap, towels, and running water to clean up before and eating.  Though eating utensils were provided, most everybody ate with their hands.

Passing a towering bunch of bananas hanging from the ceiling, Mursalim ripped off a few and encouraged the American to do the same.  The two men then carried their appetizers to a table.  This was family style dining- one was free to sit at any of the large tables.
Soon a waiter came to take drink orders, and then a server dropped off plates of rice, a serving dish filed with stewed greens, and several small bowls of sambil.  Within minutes after the drinks arrived, so did the grilled fish- the American’s smothered a la “rica-rica”- a hot tomato and chili sauce.  The fish had been grilled whole with the head intact, and the diner either used a spoon to gouge and scoop the fish’s flanks off the bone, or their fingers to pick off chunks.

As the American enjoyed his meal, he noticed across the dining area a pair of handsome doors with large panes of sparkling clean glass through which one could see a well-lit room painted white.  A sign above the doors bore a single word painted in black letters- “Musholla.”  He asked Mursalim about it.

“Oh, that is a Muslim prayer room.  As a Muslim must pray five times a day, some businesses provide a prayer room for their customers.”

“Very convenient,” mumbled the American in between mouthfuls of fish and rice.

A few moments later, Mursalim suddenly cocked his head, and sitting up straight, listened for only a split second to a sound coming from just outside on the street in front of the restaurant.  The American was oblivious, and before he could look up from his food, Mursalim had bolted from the table and run out of the restaurant onto the street.

Traffic in both directions had stopped in front of “Le-Le,” and a large group of onlookers had poured onto the streets surrounding two motorists who were hurling insults at each other and beginning to shove each other about. There had been a rather harmless encounter between a motor bike and a car.

Mursalim sliced through the crowd like a knife and rushing the two men, grabbed hold of their collars, pulling them apart.  Speaking to them sternly, he emphasized no harm had come to either of them nor their vehicles, and it was better to cool down, return to their vehicles, and move on.

The two followed Mursalim’s directives without saying a further word, and as quickly as the confrontation had started, it ended peaceably.  Within a minute, the two had dispersed, the onlookers returned to their business, and traffic resumed flowing as normal.

Mursalim reentered the restaurant to his seat, resuming a casual manner.

“What was that all about?” asked the American.

“Oh nothing,” Mursalim blithely replied.  “Just a small matter of disagreement out on the street.

Minutes later the two men finished eating, washed their hands and approached the cashier.  The American figured it wouldn’t be cheap- and it wasn’t- but you get what you pay for, he thought.

After the build-up, the American was looking forward to visiting Pualam, and Mursalim drove the two down to the esplanade by the ocean front.  Parking his van in front of his wife’s bank around the corner from the nightclub restaurant, he asked the night security man who stood at the ATM machine to keep an eye on it.   

The two men walked around the corner to the restaurant entrance.  Pualam’s front façade was wall-to-wall windows, allowing patrons to look out to the esplanade and the ocean beyond where the sunset could be enjoyed as it faced west.

Once inside, the American was happy to see Pualam had some local color.  Bar girls in tight dresses whose backs were emblazoned with brand names of beer walked about in very short skirts and high heels, and a group of transvestites- or waria- accompanied by their smart-looking gay escorts occupied a large table near the entrance.

Mursalim introduce the American to the restaurant’s female floor manager, a slim and beautiful Makassarese with long, coal black hair who led them out to the open-air concert space where perhaps two hundred people sat at night club style tables covered with white linen which were situated around three sides of a dance floor set before a well-lit proscenium and stage.  True to Mursalim’s word, a musical contest was in progress, and a young vocalist with a number tag pinned to her dress was taking her turn at singing a Dangdut standard.

Mursalim and the American were shown one of the few open tables remaining, and they sat down.  The American soon noticed his was the only western face in the audience.  Competing vocalists were called up in succession.  Each performance was carefully reviewed by a panel of three judges who prominently sat at a long table set upon the dance floor in front of the stage.  After half-dozen vocalists came and went, each wailing their ballad bemoaning the sufferings of unrequited loved, the American came away impressed most by the house band, a solid group of professionals expert at the Dangdut style.

Most remarkable was the youngest member of the band, a slight boy probably still in his middle-teens.  All the instruments were electrified save his own, the suling, which was a very simple transverse bamboo flute.  The suling’s musical role was to punctuate each of the singer’s lyrical phrases with an improvised obbligato, whose opening note was approached by an ascending glissando swooping up out of the ether. Articulation is musical style’s most telling signature, and each of the suling’s melodic tones wavered slightly in pitch, bending pitch unpredictably so that the ear was always teetering on the edge of anticipation.  It was a lot like the blues, the American thought.  The young musician held the suling up to the microphone and played as if he was born to do nothing else in life, delivering short burst of exotic, lyrical brilliance placed in the brief pauses between each of the vocalist’s breaths.  Each song gave him the opportunity to solo, allowing the listener to better appreciate the scale structures foundational to Dangdut in addition to the full range of articulations used to express the melodic uniqueness of Dangdut’s instrumental styling. 

Just as the Bugis bride and groom’s ceremonial dress had embodied the spiritual beauty of local matrimonial vows, this young virtuoso had the talent and soul to express with a foot long piece of bamboo Dangdut’s artistic essence.  Music is the universal language the American was joyfully reminded.  In the course of a half-dozen songs and improvised choruses, the young suling player with his dynamic folk instrument had brought the Dangdut style to life.  Embedded in an otherwise electronic musical texture, the young virtuoso had showered the American’s virgin ears with the blessings of an entire musical aesthetic.

Makassar is a tough town, the American thought, but there are diamonds in the rough everywhere.  And Mursalim was no different, he concluded- rough around the edges but possessing a soulful heart and a smile that flashed like diamonds in the sunlight. Later outside of the restaurant and after the competition, Mursalim looked at the American coyly, and a shit-eating grin passed over his face.

“And now, Pak Bennet, what do you think?  How about a trip to Makassar’s red light district?  We’re very close by, you know.”

The American looked at Mursalim as if he were seriously considering the proposition.  Then he turned his gaze towards the boulevard, looking out to the ocean beyond the esplanade.  He spotted the waxing gibbous moon hanging yellow in the star-studded sky.  Looking back at Mursalim, an avuncular smile slowly crossed his face.

“Let’s save that, Mursalim.  Thanks just the same.  Besides, today’s been much too special.  I’m just beginning to understand your language, and I wouldn’t want to go and mess with it.”

“Go and mess with it?” repeated Mursalim, half-mockingly, his face twisted up like a corkscrew.

“Yeah,” replied the American.  “I wouldn’t want to go and mess with it.  Brothels are pretty much the same wherever you go, I imagine.  They just have too much in common.  It would ruin an otherwise perfectly uncommon day.”