review, travel writing

Titik Nol

Why do people go on a long journey? Some of us have this perverse obsession with far away places, somewhere beyond our reach. We want to travel, we want to get out of the box and experience something odd. But at the end, after so many miles done and covered, what is our final, real destination? In his latest travel book, Titik Nol, Agustinus Wibowo invites us readers not only to once again glimpse what’s beyond distant countries out there, but also to see the true meaning of a journey. He seems to ask us to follow him going in full circle and then decide what the nature of our journey is.

Unlike his two previous books, Selimut Debu and Garis Batas, Agustinus Wibowo’s Titik Nol tells about how he begins his long, adventurous journey and ends it in the very starting point. He starts it in Indonesia, from where he departs for Beijing, China, to take his undergraduate study in computing. After four years being embedded in the land of his ancestors, he decides that he won’t come back to his home country, but pursue his long, deep-rooted dream: travelling around the world down to the zero point, South Africa. Abandoning all the benefits and privileges of a settled life and higher education, Wibowo sets foot in Tibet to see Mount Kailash, the holy place of Indian Hindu people which is not, in fact, located in India, for some borderline annexation reason. After going up and down that highest mountain in the world, where you can virtually touch the sky, he continues his journey to Nepal, and finds a heaven for all the backpackers stopping by: cheap motels and stuff, discotheque, Western food, enjoyment, everything. Kathmandu is a place for tired backpackers to boost up their energy once more. But while it offers a heaven on earth, boredom seems to be the nature of its existence. Soon, Wibowo finds himself ready to go on and arrive in India. It’s one of the biggest countries in the world, no doubt about that, with one of the biggest populations to boot. Along with its developing economy, there are poverty and crashed dreams of its people who are forced to accept the unfairness of the caste system. It’s full of deceit, manipulation, liars, uncivilized behaviors. But when he faces its “opposite twin”, Pakistan, things couldn’t be worse. Contradiction, hypocricy, wars and riots in the name of religion, it’s all there. Pakistan might not be as growing as India, but its two-face nature is no different. But the worst view presented in this book is, of course, the face of Afghanistan. Nothing precious but wars, nothing cheap but humans’ lives.

In Titik Nol, quite unfortunately for me, Wibowo gets more personal and brings up his family matter, alongside his stories of stopping by and staying in China and South Asian countries. The experiences of his adventures mingle seamlessly with the miserable memories of sitting beside his mother’s sickbed he narrates. I found it too dramatic, too sentimental, and too gloomy that at one point I fell into suspicion that he has abandoned his particular writing style, of which hilarity and witty are the characteristics. But it turned out that I didn’t have to worry. All his personal woe and widely opened family problems do not prevent him from writing the way he usually does: funny, smart, objective, critical, and unjudgemental. The plot is in a very good pace, too. The switching narrative unfolding Wibowo’s story of his journey and his mother’s dilemma in the sickbed seems so fused and produces meaningful life lesson, if you want to take it in.

Personally, to be honest, I don’t like how Titik Nol turns out much. I didn’t expect it to be too personal the way it is. I’m sorry for being rude, but I never want to know others’ personal business, which is here being revealed for all the world to see. I am a firm believer in “your business is yours, my business is mine”. I don’t think it is wise, for whatever reason, to wash your dirty linen in public. What I want from a travel book is a sense of experience that I cannot have because of my own limit, new knowledge and insights that I can only have by reading books. Knowing others’ family affairs is never my goal in reading, much less in reading a book like this. I am a little bit disappointed with this book, despite the fact that Wibowo originally intended to present it to his mother.

Overall, Titik Nol by Agustinus Wibowo is a package of “personal” experiences, both on the journey and beside the sickbed of his parent. I still quite like it, though not as much as I expected to, thanks to the knowledge and cultural insights Wibowo brings out to the readers aside from his personal woe and misery.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

And the Mountains Echoed

Indonesian edition’s cover

Humanity is a very complex issue. What’s right, what’s wrong, it’s hard to decide. I’ve been a witness to Khaled Hosseini’s proving it in The Kite Runner, and now again in his latest work, And the Mountains Echoed. It’s a splendid book with numerous, neatly overlapping pieces of narrative and various human, unsettling characters. Through the many stories inside it, Hosseini once again invites us to understand the nature of human beings, and of being a human.

Those stories begin with a piece of narrative, where Saboor, an old poor man, brings his younger daughter Pari to Kabul with him. He tells his family that he will be only doing labor for a rich man in the city, and that Abdullah, his oldest son, doesn’t have to go with them. But Abdullah insists, and even though Saboor has already warned him, he refuses to get back home. So they depart together, Abdullah and Pari riding on a cart while Saboor pulling them. Abdullah thinks he’s only keeping his father and beloved sister company along the trip, but once in Kabul, he discovers the ugly truth: that his father is going to sell Pari to a rich childless couple to get some money for surviving the severe winter ahead of them. But it’s only a tiny piece of story among many others forming the entire course of events. Readers will soon find out that Pari’s heart-wrenching story actually begins with Nila and Suleiman Wahdati’s complicated, empty marriage, and that their chauffeur Nabi plays a very big part in it. It will also be revealed, later on, that the terrible ordeal Saboor’s family has to deal with at that time is not the only one, evidently seen in the difficult life Parwana, his second wife, has to lead. After the second half of the book, the storyline gets even more complicated with a story of Pari’s later life in Paris, Abdullah’s refuge in America, and of how a middle-aged surgeon named Markos Vavaris makes an effort to connect them via Abdullah’s daughter.

The threaded stories are woven together by the characters inhabiting their crowded space. It is quite impossible to elaborate all their portrayals one by one, but there are some main “actors” who deserve to put under the spotlight. I know the whole story of And the Mountains Echoed centers around Abdullah and Pari, but the fate befalling them will not be realized without the role of Nabi, their uncle. Out of love and ego, he comes to Saboor and suggests that he sells one of his children to the Wahdatis. Nabi is not a mean person by nature, and he is a very kind man and brother, but his desire to do everything for the one he loves has driven him to decide something so cruel and unacceptable. What he’s done hurts Abdullah so deeply, especially because the boy is very vulnerable and afraid of losing his beloved one. Abdullah may not look affected much by the loss of his sister, especially when the narrative shows that he can go on with his life, but deep down he’s not the way he is anymore. On the contrary, Pari doesn’t seem to realize what happens to her, for her life has taken her away from her childhood memories. Nevertheless, she is still described as mentally weak. Though very smart, she is not as determined as her mother, Nila Wahdati, who dares to fight anything and anyone in her restrictive society. But Nila is a very intricate character, too, charming and pretty, yet so lonely and mournful and emotionally unstable. She deems her marriage to Suleiman an escapism, but in it she cannot find happiness, either.

Every character Hosseini describes in And the Mountains Echoed seems to doom to weaknesses and damaging selfishness. They are heartless, merciless people without them realizing it. It is so hard to judge them, because they are all humans, and humans live with mistakes. What so amazing about them is that they are so deeply and clearly portrayed, bearing evidence of Hosseini’s indisputable talent for creating soulfully many complicated characters. But that’s not it. Hosseini is also skillful in not only writing, but weaving stories. The intertwining pieces of the narrative seem to be told at random, without considering where each ends and where each begins. But if you peruse them carefully, they’re actually written in order, meant to run smoothly and nicely to reveal the one core idea Hosseini intends to deliver. One story is connected to another, and another until they’re braided in a certain, beautiful pattern in which we can see the whole meaning. This model seems so ambitious, and is truly well executed, but the result is not really satisfying. There are some stories which I deem unnecessary, not having any significance in forming the storyline. They’re like loose threads in the pattern, not even worth notice. And, as a consequence, the atmosphere shrouding the narrative doesn’t feel as strong and poignant as that of The Kite Runner. Reading And the Mountains Echoed is, in my opinion, quite easy. It doesn’t need your extra energy, and won’t make you drained of emotions.

Overall, And the Mountains Echoed is actually a wonderful book, a collection of touching, marvelously told stories. All the characters are also amazingly described, inhabiting a space of narrative that’s cleverly woven. But there’s something missing, and without it this book feels a bit less.

Rating: 4/5

review, travel writing

Selimut Debu

There’s no travel writing book as horizon-broadening and mind-opening as Selimut Debu by Agustinus Wibowo, at least in my limited reading experience. It gives us not only fascinating insights into what (actually) happens in the post-war Afghanistan, but also a deep perception of the dynamics of its society, the blend of religion and tradition its people hold dear, and the foreign interference in its internal affairs. Wibowo makes it as easy to read as an open book, so every bewildering, complicated aspect comes to bright light.

It’s 2006 and the second time Agustinus Wibowo set foot in Afghanistan, a geographically mountainous country with horrifying history, endless wars, shocking, tidily veiled traditions, and heaps of continuous problems. He takes us to every corner of the dust-blanketed land, from one direction to another, from one border to another. But Wibowo does not only show us what he really got from his grueling journey. Reading this book is like being dragged mercilessly into the secrets of the prevailing wars, the suicide bombs, the Western interference, and all the financial aid which goes to nothing. Yes, nothing. Here, we are forced to see, with eyes so wide open, the ugly truth about the circling dollars and the charity system that eventually do not make any difference at all. The people are still uneducated, the bombs are still exploding, the guns are still fired, and the wars are still going on and on. With or without Taliban, with or without those bunch of dollars, Afghanistan is, and perhaps will be, still a battlefield that won’t be getting anywhere.

Armed with fearless, unbiased narrative, Wibowo unveils what is behind veil, what’s inside the burka, something that people generally, and wrongly, comprehend. While the Western gender-concerned organization tries to hammer the idea of equality between men and women, of fighting the oppressive patriarchal social system and culture into the heads of the Afghan women during the “post Taliban” recovery, all they need is only their burka to cover them, to keep them safe. Outsiders in general, and Western people in particular, will never understand the need to cover women’s bodies in countries like Afghanistan, where women cannot trust their bodies to just anybody, anytime anywhere they like. It’s not about patriarchal or not, oppressive or not. It’s about making their own choices. And feminism is just about that. It doesn’t have to mean “you have to work” or “you have to fight your husband” or “you have to go to school” or “you have to put off your burka”. Sometimes it simply means wearing burka instead or staying at home or being married and having so many children at sixteen for their own sake. What women favor in one country doesn’t have to be the same as what other women choose in another. Afghanistan is not America, so you cannot expect it to have, or accept, the same ideas of gender and feminism.

Selimut Debu has also opened my eyes to the religious practice and belief of the Afghan people. Wibowo’s interaction with the Afghan society, from cities to untouchable villages, tells me much about how its people see their religion, which is nationally Islam. It reveals much about the opposing ways of Sunni and Syiah, but that’s not what interested me most. I was more drowned into how religion and culture cannot actually go separate ways. More often than not, people confuse religion with culture. Religion comes from God, but people cannot live without culture and tradition, therefore they feel the inevitable need to blend them and try to live with them in harmony. But that harmony often demands people to abandon the sanctity of their religion and, as a result, blur the holy lines. It happens not only to the Afghan people, but, I think, also to everyone of us. Sometimes we know that it’s not right, but we just can’t help it.

Selimut Debu is a wonderful package as a whole. Not only did I find Wibowo’s fluid, humorous, smart writing style captivating, but his perceptive mind and observant views are bedazzling as well. He does not have any tendency whatsoever in his writing, and he tries to be honest as much as he can. Here, he’s not only a travel writer, but also a cultural observer with sharp eyes and indubitable intelligence. So far, I never doubt his works, nor his ability to produce a great one. This book is also equipped with beautiful pictures, in a way creating mental images in our minds that strengthen the descriptions inside it. Everything seems perfect to me, although some typos got in my way of enjoying it thoroughly.

In short, Selimut Debu is something you must read to see beyond what people “force” you to see, something that will certainly drive home to you the unknown, veiled facts about the present Afghanistan.

Rating: 4/5