Learning about Indonesian language, history, society and culture

Month: September, 2012

Translation – Amir Hamzah: Silence

Amir Hamzah was born in 1911 into an aristocratic family in Langkat, north east Sumatra. He studied at a Dutch language H.I.S. (“Dutch native school”) then spent a year of a Dutch Junior High School in Medan, before studying in Jakarta and Surakarta. He then returned to Langkat to become a civil servant. During the Indonesian revolution he took up a position representing the Republican government, but in 1946 was killed in the social revolution that destroyed much of the region’s aristocracy. Amir Hamzah was a co-founder of Pudjangga Baru, an Indonesian language cultural journal published between 1933 and 1942.

The below poem, Silence (Sunyi), was published in a special edition of Pudjangga Baru entitled Fruits of Longing (Buah Rindu) in 1941.[1]

The translation poses particular challenges. Not only is the language poetic, but Amir Hamzah had a deep knowledge of classical Malay literature, and this (along with a range of other influences) shaped his poetry. The result is that some of the language is somewhat archaic, and would require a fuller knowledge of classical Malay than mine to do it full justice.

Some sense of the scope of the challenge is evident from the title ‘sunyi’, which I have translated as silence but could also be translated as lonely or even desolate.

Anyway I gave it my best shot, so here it is:

Amir Hamzah

I knock on the door of my youth
Wanting those feelings to return
The garden is locked and bolted
I’m left alone in silence

I come to the arena, the place of struggle
Bachelordom a happy place
I see an elbow that keeps on touching
I stand up, not to be greeted……

Slowly I continue
Melancholy, the heart consoles
Crying, I weep
Listening to persuasion mix with grief

I hear the bangsi[2] calling and calling
Sobbing, a rumble like thunder
Mistaken, I stand remote
A body tossed by waves of yearning

I sit with chin on hands
Dreaming of butterflies kissing flowers
I doze for a while
In the embrace of old memories

It seems the sunset glow feels as though I’m seeing
Your voice, love, feels me hearing
You lean, sitting, brushing
I peak at the decaying waves.

Beseaching the waves to revere the song
To your crimson lips bright red in essence
My thoughts drift to the fields of longing
Although you are sitting here.



Kuketuk pintu masaku muda
hendak masuk rasa kembali
taman terkunci dibelan pula
tinggallah aku sunyi sendiri.

Kudatangi gelanggang tempat menyabung
masa bujang tempat beria
kulihat siku singgung menyinggung
aku terdiri haram disapa…

Teruslah aku perlahan-lahan
sayu rayu hati melipur
nangislah aku tersedan-sedan
mendengarkan pujuk duka bercampur.

Kudengar bangsi memanggil-manggil
tersedu-sedu, dayu mendayu
tersalah aku diri terpencil
badan dilambung gelombang rindu.

Duduklah aku bertopang dagu
merenung kupu mengecup bunga
lenalah aku sementara waktu
dalam rangkum kenangan lama.

Rupanya teja serasa kulihat
suaramu dinda rasakan kudengar
dinda bersandar duduk bersikat
aku mengintip ombak berpedar.

Imbau gelombang menyembahkan lagu
kepada bibirmu kesumba pati
pikiranku melayang ke padang rindu
walaupun dinda duduk di sini.

[1] The biographical information here comes from A.Teeuw, Modern Indonesian Literature Vol. 1 (1979). A useful summary of the Pudjangga Baru is provided by Sutherland in ‘Pudjangga Baru: Aspects of Indonesian Intellectual Life in the 1930s’, Indonesia, Volume 6 (October 1968), 106–127. (free to download from the Indonesia Journal site).

[2] A kind of bamboo lute.


The Religious Politics of Meat 2: Halal and Kosher meat in Europe

Rows about Halal and Kosher meat in a number of countries Europe reflect shared anxieties but also differing circumstances.

The focus of this blog is all things Indonesian. However, reading about moves to close pig farms in West Java reminded me of some news stories that I had read about the regulation of Halal and Kosher meat in Europe. Furthermore, the Islamic press in Indonesia often carries stories about Islam abroad, and the arguments in Europe about ritually slaughtered meat have not gone unnoticed.

The key controversy has focused around whether animals can be slaughtered without pre-stunning, but issues around labelling and some institutions serving exclusively Halal meat have also raised hackles. In Germany in 2002 following a case brought by a Muslim Butcher, the constitutional court caused controversy by extending religious exceptions to the requirement to stun animals before slaughter. The debate picked up in 2011 when the Dutch Parliament voted to ban the slaughter of animals without pre-stunning. Then, in 2012 Halal meat became a hot topic during the French election when it emerged that thousands of tons of halal meat had been sold to the general public without being labelled as such.

The issue combines concerns about animal welfare, questions of religious freedom and anxieties over immigration and integration. From the animal welfare perspective, recent research has strengthened the argument that animals slaughtered by having their throat without stunning feel more pain than if they are stunned first. However, the controversies across Europe should also be seen in the context of rows about a range of manifestations of Muslim piety (whether minarets, headscarves or praying on the street). Whilst animal welfare groups have raised the profile of the issue, it is notable that far right parties have been quick to jump on the issue. Whether Marine Le Pen and the National Front in France, Geert Wilders and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, or the British National Party. Moreover, those closer to the mainstream have also taken up the issue. In the UK the Daily Mail (with a circulation of around 2 million) has carried excitable stories about halal meat being sold without being labelled and during the French election Nicolas Sarkozy climbed on the halal-meat bandwagon in an effort to outflank the National Front.

However, despite there being common themes here, it is important to recognise that there are also differences in the contexts of the different European countries. Slaughtering practices vary greatly: in some countries most Halal cattle slaughter takes without pre stunning, in Britain it is only a quarter. For example, patterns of integration of Muslim minorities vary for reasons including demography, historical (sometime colonial) legacies, national political culture and institutions, and the varied social and ethnic make-up of European Muslims. There are also wide variations in the positions of Jewish communities in Europe. One the one hand a European Union-funded study examining the issue of religious slaughter cites an estimate of the Jewish population of France at around 600,000 around 1% of the population. By contrast in Norway there are only around 2,000 Jews, less than 0.04% of the population. In Germany again there are particular circumstances given the history of the holocaust.

These variations help explain some of the variation in approaches to Halal. In Norway, for example, the tiny size of the Jewish population has limited the impetus for reversing the requirement that animals must be stunned before slaughter with no exception for religious groups. In Germany the fact that the Nazis banned Jews from practising Schechita (the ritual slaughter required to produce Kosher meat) has placed severe constraints on public discourse on the issue. In France, the strong emphasis on the separation of church and state and the scale of immigration (France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe) have helped catapult controversies over integration to centre stage in national politics.

In this context the controversies over ritual slaughter give a certain resonance to the European Union motto ‘united in diversity’.