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Jakarta - a modern Babylon where the poor have it tough

Ayu Utami is one of the 20 million inhabitants of Indonesia's capital. The former student activist deals with the megacity's contradictions in her texts. The writer says Jakarta is not friendly to those who have little.

Every year, 300,000 more people move to Jakarta

Every year, 300,000 more people move to Jakarta

"Oh darn it, I scratched too deep. Crazy… This wall is crumbly. Look! Here! Under this layer of colour. This is it. This is the layer of that mural with the literature quote," Ayu Utami explains jubilantly.

We are standing on a sidewalk facing a wall at Cikini railway station - a small station in the middle of the city. Trains swelling over with commuters from Jakarta's suburbs stop here.

Under the layer of paint that Ayu Utami has scratched away, a poem has been written in black against a yellow background. The poem is titled "KTP," the abbreviation for identity card in Indonesia.

"KTP" was written by Goenawan Mohammad, a poet, writer, thinker, and one of Indonesia's best known cultural critics, with whom Ayu Utami worked a great deal.

A poem by Goenawan Mohammad about Indonesian identity

The Indonesian poet Goenawan Mohammad is very interested in identity

The poem speaks of the multiple identities of Jakarta's inhabitants. Each year, at least 300,000 more people arrive in the city, from all over Indonesia. But the city does not change them very much. Nor do they change the city. Most come here to work and do not bring their traditions with them. So Jakarta, this city where languages and cultures live side by side, never really becomes their home.

Twenty languages spoken

We go back to the car, where our driver is speaking in Javanese to his wife on his mobile phone. In Jakarta, at least 20 languages are spoken. Like the driver, Ayu Utami was not born in the capital but came as a child. Her family hails from Bogor, where people speak mostly Sundanese.

She wrote her first novel "Saman" in the national language Bahasa Indonesia. It quickly became a bestseller in this modern Babylon and was then translated into many other languages.

Ayu Utami tries her hand at reading aloud: "He looked at me. Then deep into my eyes, before sitting down next to Rosano. It was actually a very brief contact. As if he were shy, but at the same time proud, manly… he looked at my tray and said 'You don't eat much.' Sihar Situmorang. He smiled. Sihar mostly spoke in the Jakarta dialect. Occasionally a Batak expression came through, usually when he got excited. To her ears, it sounded warm and comfortable…"

Bringing literature to public spaces

"Saman" tells the story of a Catholic priest who sides with the poor. He then falls in love and gives up his priesthood. It is also the story of a group of women, who break out of their traditional roles. Published in 1988, it was named best novel by the Jakarta Arts Council.

Ayu Utami is now a member of Jakarta Arts Council and tells me about the projects. "Last year, we focused on the subject of cities. Many groups worked with our committees on this theme. The literature and arts committee joined forces. And then a multitude of graffiti and murals with literary quotes from well-known Indonesian writers were created in various places around the city. Behind it was the idea of how to take art and culture out of museums and bring it to the public? The graffiti and murals were supposed to become part of people's daily life."

Literature and art in public spaces? Not locked up behind walls? Is this Ayu Utami’s comment on the politics of this megacity?

Ayu Utami in the car

Ayu Utami insists on writing about the problems of Indonesia

She replies that politics in Jakarta are more and more for the rich. Many laws criminalize the poor, and then they are thrown in jail. Political issues are a natural part of her stories and articles.

"I can't just separate my writing with problems faced by the people, the problems of Indonesia. I cannot write in an ivory tower."

'Like a huge river, with no beginning or end'

Now Jakarta is full of graffiti, protest drawings and some of the literary murals have not been painted over, yet. The dynamism of these changes tells stories about what is on people's minds.

15 minutes away by car, there is another mural with Jakarta's skyline under a bright blue sky. There is a young man sporting a crimson shirt in the picture. He is wearing sunglasses and looking at a piece of paper. On it is a poem by Sitor Situmorang, called "Jabotabek," which talks about the Semanggi Bridge, Jakarta's first modern bridge.

"Semanggi, from here, from this clover-leaf shaped concrete bridge; I look at this large city, and at the traffic today, which flows underneath this bridge, like a huge river, with no beginning, nor an end." Author: Edith Koesoemawiria
Editor: Anne Thomas

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