One love — Jakarta celebrates Valentine’s Day and the Prophet’s birthday with reggae in the park

St. Valentine’s Day is a Roman Catholic-derived holiday which captures the imagination of some Jakartans. This year Gangsta Rasta and friends put on a free reggae concert in the park. Meanwhile, Maulid Nabi refers to the birthday of the prophet Muhamad.  Its observance in many Islamic countries is at matter of custom and often involves lights, processions and poetry. Both celebrations, on the 2011 calendar, got bunched up in the same three-day weekend last year. Would there be a collision?

Valentines Day Jakarta

Anak reggae

Red-pink-and-white ads and merchandise are everywhere this time of year in Jakarta. Most of the hype is directed at adults, including the Westernized and expats. But even a child could figure out that Valentine’s Day is for lovers.

The subtler shades coloring this lovely holiday — like who was Cupid and did he have a crush on Plato — may require explaining for those who aren’t up on their Greek and Roman history. It’s true — you know — there are many ways to say love in Indonesian. And even romantis isn’t used the word you’d think. One common V-day localization is “Hari Kasih Sayang”  which is “Care Day” and fails to provide any clue as to just how sexy the holiday is (oops — I mean, can be cuz that all depends on if you’re married or not ; )

Valentines Day makes headlines each year in this part of the world because it puts people in a bind — whether or not to celebrate. In a tabloid survey of Muslim and mixed Christian-Muslim celebrity couples the politically correct answer was that “you celebrate it differently depending on whether or not you’re married. ” I guess some Indonesians worry that V-day might be some tawdry affair for oversexed Westerners. I mean to give the benefit of the doubt to people who may not have grown up exchanging heart-shaped greeting cards each February (in many younger Indonesians actually have).

Apparently to avoid confusion — such as between love and sex, or culture and religion — some Islamic leaders in Indonesia would simply ban Valentines day. If such fatwas may get more coverage outside the country than inside, they probably still work against the hardline agenda : – ]  This year, Indonesia’s ulema made the very practical and culturally consistent decision to leave the celebration of Valentines Day up to the individual. Of course, there weren’t many reports in the press about that step. It simply lacks the sensationalism that seems to drive a lot of religious journalism these days.

Of course, people in Jakarta  are generally very laid back about these types of things. You can basically celebrate or not celebrate whatever the hell you like. However, there are exceptions and — ironically — the prophet’s birthday seems to be among them. Why is it ironic? Because the prophet never ordered anyone to celebrate his birthday, let alone in an obsessive or oppressive manner.

I still remember how I learned that Mohammad’s birthday is on the calendar and that some people like to celebrate it with fireworks. According to my Silver Bird driver I was nearly hit by a Molotov cocktail at Zanzibar cafe in South Jakarta, maybe a decade ago.  My driver was pretty shaken up. According to him, there was a bule who did get hit (and he thought it was me). The driver insisted we keep down as we moved through the car park and back to the auto.

And the next day in the Jakarta Post I read that I had been out partying on the prophet’s birthday.

So, as I was solemnly slaloming through mad holiday traffic toward the Jamaican jamboree on Valentines Day at Barito Park in South Jakarta, I was thinking to myself  “Why are all these pale blue suburbans (cheap public transportation) filled with guys in white waving flags in Arabic?” And I was actually looking for glass on the road, since smashing things is what the rent-a-mob does best. There was no glass, but I did see some prominent 3 meter-long banners in front of Gandaria City, the newest, biggest mall in this part of Jakarta reading “Churches not welcome.”  Lovely.

Pluralism Fail in Jakarta

The people of NU will not accept churches at Gandaria City (mall), Kebayoran Lama (S. Jakarta)

With five official religions (not including rasta) Indonesia has more national holidays than anywhere. And each of them — in my book — is a fair excuse to catch Steven et al, Gangsta Rasta,  Tony Q and all the anak reggae.  But was I rushing headlong into an epic three-way Valentine’s Day battle between Christians, Muslims and the followers of Haile Selassie?

Definitely not. It was a beautiful cool, eminently relaxing night celebrated in time-honored Jakarta — masing-masing (each to his/her own) style. When the rain began to pour, I found myself sharing a bus shelter with the respective (and respectful) disciples of prophets Bob and Mo, all equally soggy and equally looking forward to the rest of the three-day weekend.


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