Photo: Achirul Arif Setyawan for This Is Southeast Asia
In front of a mosque | 2500 words | Translated by Dan Benjamin
I grew up in a small city on the edge of West Java, in a district that every morning is thrown into shadow by Mount Ciremai. Unlike in Bandung, where I go to college, there’s not much vehicle traffic in my hometown. It’s veritably quiet, especially as night starts to fall. The only busy place is the central market which supplies vegetables throughout the province. Every weekend people from neighbouring areas come to this hometown of mine with its cooler weather to replace the air in their lungs, usually filled with exhaust smoke from the trucks on Java’s North Coast highway. Sometimes I long to come home and take in this air – but not often.
I’m more at home living away, in my adopted city – I’ve even been known to return to my hometown a mere once a year. It’s not a question of distance, because from Bandung to this town is only two hours by public transport, while riding a motorbike cuts it to an hour. I just don’t have the will to come home much. If it weren’t for Mama ordering me to visit for Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, when there’s a semester break, I frankly might not come at all.
In my hometown there’s nobody to talk to, I always feel alone. There also isn’t privacy like I get when I’m in Bandung. I need to be two-faced: to appear to be diligently praying five times a day in my mother’s presence, while in my heart I’m often questioning my faith.
Aside from high-minded philosophical-ideological issues, perhaps the thing that most grates on me here is smoking: in the family home, I’m not free to smoke. If Mama finds a hole in my T-shirt, made by a stray ember, she will unleash on me repeatedly. ‘Weren’t you once extremely anti-smoking – didn’t you jeer at your friends who used to smoke? Why have you now become like them?’
To avoid Mama’s reprimands, I often smoke in secret. One of my favourite places to do so is in front of the mosque.
The rectangular-shaped mosque, about as wide as half a football field, has three tiled terrace spaces around its perimeter: one at the front by the main entrance, then two wider ones to the left and right of the prayer hall exit. These usually get busy when there’s an Islamic instruction session or ahead of prayer-times.
This mosque can accommodate a lot of congregants, but as usual with places of worship, most people attending are old. Often I eavesdrop on their discussions, which don’t stray far from asking each other their news and sharing recipes for brews to manage chronic gout, all interspersed with the stale jokes typical of old guys. Retired men, at sea because they don’t work any more, meet each other here, pray, and talk about their children, who have moved away to big cities. I guess they make this mosque into a way to overcome loneliness – like me, in a way.
Ever since I was a child the renovation of this mosque has been ongoing and unfinished. Even now, planks of wood, splattered cement and sand can be seen in the front courtyard. Two sets of steps have just been built in front of the main entrance which connect the mosque’s top floor with the ground. They cross diagonally immediately in front of the large front windows. For what purpose I don’t know, because inside the mosque there are already two staircases (and the top floor is only open for Eid al-Fitr). Because of those arbitrarily-positioned steps, people prefer to gather at the spaces by the prayer hall exit, merely passing by the space at the front.
Precisely because it rarely becomes a gathering-place, it’s this front area that’s become my favourite place to be alone. Immediately beneath one of the two cursed sets of steps, I find tranquillity. The steps shelter me from people’s gazes, and I can more freely sit and look at Mount Ciremai in my own company.
Every prayer-time, I hurry to this place. My main purpose is not to pray, but to put distance between myself and the affairs of my family home which make me feel claustrophobic. In the house I announce I’m going to pray, but on arriving at the mosque my time is mostly spent drinking coffee bought from roving hawkers and smoking. It’s meditative for me, replacing prayer which – who knows why – I’m yet to find a way to enjoy again. Instead I can be reverent, so to speak, with my own mind.
Usually I bring along perfume and some sweets for after I finish smoking. Though I think they can lessen the aroma of tobacco, neither are enough to defeat Mama’s sense of smell, which is strong as a police dog. Mama’s face grows sullen on finding my clothes smelling of smoke. But recently, since she’s seen me going often to the mosque, she’s been less bothered about the issue, in fact is looking veritably happy. I think Mama wants to see her son have faith in God more than she wants him to have a healthy body without elevated risk of cancer.
‘I didn’t think you were a smoker’.
It’s my family’s unemployed neighbour, who by chance has crossed paths with me here while he waits for the Maghrib prayer to start. ‘Can I bum one off you?’
As I suspected. I can’t be bothered being polite and courteous, so without a word I hold out my pack of cigarettes. He takes one, lights it with a lighter he has on him. Then he sits down next to me.
‘You finished college?’ he asks casually.
I say I’m putting together my final thesis. I am in fact anxious that I won’t finish on time because my research has been obstructed by the pandemic. I can’t go anywhere, including to the archives that are my main sources. To him, though, I declare, ‘Inshallah, on the will of Allah I’ll finish my dissertation in the near future’.
‘I’ll pray that everything goes smoothly. After that you’ll come back here, right, and give back to this community’, he says. ‘Hey, what’s your major again? I’ve forgotten’.
‘History’, I say.
On hearing this answer, Cigarette-Bumming Neighbour looks at me a little awkwardly, then makes a long ‘ohhh’ noise to cover up his uncertainty. I’m guessing he’s confused about how to continue the discussion without offending me because my choice of discipline is – in the eyes of most people – considered not very promising. We’re each silent after this uncomfortable exchange. While our mouths are unmoving, the hands of Cigarette-Bumming Neighbour are active, searching for the cigarette pack I’d set down beside me earlier. He takes and lights another one. I let him, not having the heart to forbid it.
My own cigarette is slowly making my body relax. Occasionally my mouth plays with the white smoke, like Bilbo or Gandalf when they’re smoking their pipes. Doughnut-shaped smoke, floating and floating, then finally disappearing. I draw a deep breath while looking at the peak of Mount Ciremai, which appears to be vanishing too, drowning in the colours of the late afternoon sky.
This neighbour and I have rarely spoken, at most maybe a casual greeting if we’re passing each other on the street. Different to me, my mother knows this man well – actually I suspect that everyone in town knows him well. He’s a resident jokester in the groups of men who hang out. Perhaps because I’m acting aloof, he can’t slip in jokes like he normally does. I know from his body movements that he’s not comfortable with this silence. I suspect he’s racking his brain for another topic. But I’m fine with letting silence unfold, I really cannot be bothered with small-talk. I just want to be here with my own thoughts and not be disturbed. Did I not come here because I want to avoid interacting with Mama who currently talks so much?
Recently Mama’s gotten to like watching religious sermons on her phone. If I’m in Bandung, those sermons – which sometimes are accompanied by political propaganda, as if left over from the last presidential election – she shares with me via WhatsApp messages. I typically respond with indifference, but if by chance my mood is good, I’ll reply with a thankyou, just to be respectful. This time when coming home for Eid al-Fitr, as I’d suspected, I needed to prepare my ears to receive all her advice face-to-face.
After a long time not seeing her, I’ve noticed another change in her. I feel that Mama is telling long stories more and more: she’s already becoming like one of those old women whose hobby is recounting the experiences of their youth. And it’s like I’m compelled to become a small child again, whose task is to listen with enthusiasm.
‘You are the only man in our family’, Mama recently said. ‘It will be you who gives away your siblings at their marriage ceremonies’. Earlier today, on two separate occasions, she passed this message onto me. I understand, I understand, I replied silently. I don’t need to be told repeatedly that this task will be inherited by me. After my father’s passing, Mama always started presenting me with this sort of talk. Perhaps she’s wanting to remind me to be a good role model for my sisters? Or is this some sort of expression of mourning, as yet incomplete? Is Mama lonely? Regardless, I make an effort to listen respectfully, my facial expression as serious as possible.
I can’t deny what I feel when I hear her: my head feels like it wants to explode, the house suddenly feels extremely small, and stultifying. The words Mama uses are made as demands upon me. A burden that’s come to feel palpable on my shoulders, though I feel I’m not ready to take it on. The issues of my dissertation, meanwhile, and what I’ll do after graduating, are really starting to come home to roost. Quarter-life crises are real things!
So when the call to prayer echoes, I hurriedly go to the mosque to avoid all these feelings that make me uneasy.
Will I continue to employ these sort of avoidance efforts? Until when?
Cigarette-Bumming Neighbour appears to be making efforts to read my thoughts. He taps to flick off the ash; a lot of the cigarette has already burned down. Occasionally he looks over at me like he wants to start another discussion. Finally, he breaks the silence with:
‘If you graduate, I’d say that that school would take you on as a teacher’.
He tilts his chin toward the school-building next to the city square. Because this mosque sits precisely in front of the square, from here can be seen all the buildings surrounding it.
‘Mama’s also suggested that’, I say. Seems he did successfully read my thoughts. That school was the last place my father worked. So it’s no wonder Mama knows everyone there. It’s very likely Mama has got information from them on a possible position.
‘As long as you don’t have a job anyway, being an honorary teacher at first isn’t a problem, right?’
Cigarette-Bumming Neighbour is saying all this very seriously. Pretty ironic that I’m getting job advice from him. I just nod my head, and give a bitter smile. Imagining myself teaching on a salary of 300,000 rupiah per month ($US20) makes me feel ill. I’m amazed by a friend who’s been an honorary teacher since he graduated. If you add it up, that much money isn’t even enough to cover the cost of cigarettes.
On the other hand, I think with a wince – yeah well, so if that’s the case, don’t smoke then!
This period, the end of college, is forcing me to come face to face with realities that beforehand I hadn’t even considered. As if all problems have piled up at the same time, and I’m having difficulties unravelling them one by one. Is this sort of discomfort what people call maturity? So far what I feel is only a confusion that seems to be without end. I honestly feel shaken.
I watch Cigarette-Bumming Neighbour enjoy the last puff of his smoke before he airily throws the butt away. Now he takes another one from the packet which I’ve placed on the ground. Already a third, I think… he really is shameless. I want to blow up, and say to him: buy your own cigarettes, stop talking so incessantly, and put your trash in the bin! But, as usual, I bury emotions of that sort.
I’m irritated by his not-giving-a-damn attitude. I do not understand his behaviour. He, who has rarely talked to me before, can simply act all of a sudden like he’s my close friend? Perhaps he’s just very sociable? My mind takes up the other side of the argument. Or he really is just a guy who doesn’t know his place!
But you know, regardless of his attitude, he is actually a good guy. He can always be asked by people to help out (because he really does have no steady work), to fix a pipe that’s clogged or similarly tough jobs. It was he who was first to help our family shift our stuff when we moved a few years ago.
Seeing this neighbour, of the age he is but relaxed about facing life, makes me think that perhaps I should try to learn from him. To have no formal permanent work in your mid-30s but still look happy: to me that must be some sort of gift from God. His life’s not massively ambitious – and really, there’s nothing wrong with a life that’s not massively ambitious. The important thing surely is that you can fill your stomach and smoke every day (sure, some of this guy’s cigarettes he bums from acquaintances). He doesn’t care what people think of him, pays no heed to all the demands and expectations and ideals of society. Is mental health really only a relevant issue for my generation? Mental health – to hell with mental health.
I see someone I know walking towards the mosque gate.
Several times I gaze to see if the figure in the distance, wearing the mukena female prayer-garb, is her. The figure slowly gets closer. Really truly my mother. Damn: damn. It’s very rare for Mama to go to the mosque: she usually prays at home. Could she have been motivated to join the mosque communal prayer because of me?
I stub out the cigarette I’ve been smoking while swiftly tidying my koko shirt and sarong that’s become wrinkled. In my anxiety that Mama will catch me smoking, I don’t think twice about giving the cigarette packet, which still has a dozen smokes in it, to Cigarette-Bumming Neighbour.
‘For you, hey’.
‘Wow – really? Thank you!’ He thanks me with great enthusiasm, as if he rarely gets given things like this. His face looks amazed, though his hand is simultaneously accepting the packet with no hesitation.
I do a hurried furtive walk to the ablutions area. I spray a lot of perfume on myself. I hope the ablution water can help remove the smell of smoke from my mouth.
My views and ideas, which are dynamic and evolving in many areas, are always subordinate to my reluctance to worry my mother. I don’t feel right voicing openly to Mama what I think. In her mind, I’m still a devout youth who always diligently prays and recites the Quran when he’s away from home. I’m still thought of as a young boy with a trove of achievements, like when I was in middle-school long ago. She still idealizes me: as a person who is straight and honest in facing life.
Oh God, oh God, I ask for forgiveness, because I have committed a great wrong. I have deceived my mother.
© Fikry Ainul Bachtiar
English translation © Dan Benjamin