29 May 2007

Keep the spirits up

For those of you who expect a pre-final exam spurt pep up monologue, I apologise for the disappointment. I will save the self-reflexive effusions for the end of academic yearpost. Instead, I will abuse my blog to revise for today's exam and at the same time, present you with the opportunity to gain invaluable insight into the most interesting spirit world of Java, followed by the significance of phalluses in Bali, as purported by my current favourite ethnographer, the late Clifford Geertz.

As a teaser, you should have a look at this funny horror clip of a Sundel Bolong:

So, Geertz distinguishes three greater types of spirits in Java:

1) Memedis: also called "frighteners". They scare the hell out of you but don't do you any harm. The motto here is "Their bark is worse than their bite". Subcategories are:
a) Panapasti: Who have their heads where their genitals should be.
b) Djims: Who pray five times a day in Arabic.
c) Sundel Bolong: The Javanese version of a succubus, more or less. Some believe she doesn't really do any harm while others say she is so beautiful that men cannot resist and follow her - only to be castrated. I daresay, the descriptions fit me a little bit: Long dark hair covering her buttocks, fair skin, the only thing I don't have is a whole through my stomach. I already wondered whether there is a fetish about that and Stacia suggested I could produce sundel bolong dolls that look like me and make a fortune in the sex industry. Well... But she also said that Super Mario was an analogy of Jesus (the fireballs! isn't it evident??) because Nintendo "could not contextualise Jesus as a Middle Eastern guy, therefore they re-contextualised him as an Italian guy". Hm.

2) Lelembut: also called "etheral ones". You really don't want to meet one of those. They live majorly in dark places and especially latrines are full of them. If you "step outside" at night, chances are high that one of them will enter you through, well... while you are squatting and possess you. Don't worry, though. People will find out eventually, once you show symptoms of madness, sickness or death.

One famous kind of lelembut is a kemomong. Some people even enter a voluntary devil's pact with them, like for example, Brataséna, the Javanese shadow-play hero. He "once died on purpose merely because he had never been dead and wanted to see what it felt like" (Since he angered the Hindu-Buddhist authorities in his afterlife - people are not supposed to decide their own fate, that is made for them - they threw him back to the living. So no harm done).

3) Tujul: also called "children who are not human beings". These are the ones you should look out for. If people become unexpectantly very rich in a short period of time (but have a Dagobert Duck attitude), people say a tujul must have taken a hand in it.

Geertz associates these three groups of spirits with the first of the three groups that Javanese society, in his view, consist of (the distinction has been contested by Mark Woodward):

1) Abangan:
the more "traditionalised peasants and their proletarianised comrades in the towns", "traditionalised" referring to pre-Islamic Hindu-Buddhist and/or syncretic beliefs.

2) Santri:
historically, rich Muslim traders, today, a group of the population that practises a more orthodox version of Islam than the abangan. The term santri refers to students of religious schools and the following of the Qu'ran, Sharī‘a and Hadith. Although it is not exclusively practised by Santris, Woodward will provide us later with a textual approach to analysing the single most important ritual feast in Indonesia, the Slametan: a ritual gathering held for various reasons throughout the year.

3) Prijaji:
the distinguished elite, white-collar nobles (a long time ago, ancestry was traced back to semi-mythical kings of pre-colonial Java until the Dutch ran out of "true" nobles to employ in administration and hired others too which were henceforth also considered to be prijaji).

Woodward, in contrast, opposes Geertz's categorisation and works with a dichotomy between kejawen/abangan/animists and shariah-abiding santris. Although the Slametan "links blessing and food and extends from Arabia to Southeast Asia" (but is called differently in other countries), "elements of the Slametan derive from pre-Islamic traditions and are interpreted in Islamic terms". He says that Geertz wrongly portrays ritual meals as an animistic rather than a Muslim thing.

I will try to summarise Woodward's argument while at the same time revealing what a slametan entails:

1) What does a Slametan look like and what are the key elements?
Who's invited? The Qu'ran and Hadith specifies neighbours, kin and the poor as people to whom one owns special obligations.

For the santri, public rituals are required by Sharī‘a to define a community.
For the kejawen, the ritual transforms a pre-existing group (ie office employees) into a religious community.

Giving food serves the same purpose of distributing blessings. So even if one cannot attend a slametan (which happens more often in urban centres than in the countryside), one at least tries to send food.

The main parts of a slametan are:
a) Invocation = ujub = a speech by the host in the most formal language possible (usually High Javanese). Woodward believes there are five theologically motivated purposes:

_ link an elaborate feast with the simple ritual meals of Muhamad
_ define the recipients of blessings (depends whether it is held after a birth, a marriage, a death, before the departure to a long journey, Muhamad's birthday...)
_ specify the saints and other beings to whom food and prayers are dedicated (santris invite more Arabic saints whereas kejawen include Hindu-Javanese kings many of which are said to have been converted to Islam before they died)
_ establish the good intentions of the host (which matches Sharī‘a ritual prescriptions)
_ establish his humility (something really important in Javanese culture, I won't go into detail)

b) Arabic prayer (a common solat/sembahjang not an individual doa/donga)
The more people pray, the more blessings are distributed.

c) The Food
You are supposed to fill your plate with more than you will eat. It is rude to empty your plate as your host will look bad. Therefore, you eat a little bit and take the rest home.

2) What is the point of all this? Featuring: The state of slamet and the role of sufism and religious text
Slametan refers to the Sufistic state of slamet which derives from Qu'ranic salām which means peace or tranquility. Slamet is the social and psychological transformation of Sufi notions of peace, blessing and tranquility.
Sufism - what? Sufis hope to replicate Muhamad's experience of Allah in their own lives. Submission to God is understood by internal terms. Kejawen mysticism was influences by 12th century Ibn ‘Arabī and especially the theory of the unity of being (wahdah al-wujûd). In Javanese, wujud = human soul + Allah. The objective is not to eliminate hierarchical differences between Allah and yourself but to underscore and articulate them.

3) Implications for the debate of syncretism
OK, so what is all this debate about? Southeast Asia in general is considered to be syncretic when it comes to religion, this does not only include Islam (prevalent in Malaysia and Indonesia) but also Theravada Buddhism (Burma, Thailand). Woodward accuses Geertz to present the Slametan as an animistic response to a strange religion. He says that both santris and kejawen see the slametan as an inherently Muslim ritual, even if they have differing opinions about it: The kejawen tend to see it as essential and the Sharī‘a-centric piety as a supplement whereas the santri consider the slametan as a supplementary source of blessing. It is therefore useful to remind ourselves that Islam, like any other world religion, is not monolithic and that there are differing textual interpretations within its different streams. Bla Bla Bla.

Finally, the patient readers (or sly scrollers-down) among you will be rewarded with why the pre-colonial polity is a huge drama in Hindu Bali and what the Negara state has to do with phalluses.

27 May 2007

Light me up

Today, as yesterday, the day before that and the day before that, it is raining. People say, every cloud has a silver lining but if you haven't seen the sun in weeks, that makes you seriously wonder why so many people are happy with a silver lining when they can have a golden ray of sunshine.

Seriously, ever since term 3, London has been covered in an opaque grey blanket, the sun only showing itself once a week (if at all) just to torture anyone who might have hoped in foolish glee that it is going to stick to the damn sky - just to disappear again, leaving you aching for serotonin.

Dr. Lifestyle (remember, the Gower St doctor I consulted around January when I slept so much it caused me to worry) seemed to have been right about the lack of sunlight thing, I just wonder why she didn't call SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) by its name. My point is that since this state of feeling sleepy all day, relying on coffee which alleviates that but doesn't animate your spirits and this general gloomy I-am-staying-in-today-even-if-that-sucks-to-hell mood is unbearable (no surprise so many British people migrate to the Canary Islands or the Mediterranean), I am going to do something against it.

Since I can't afford light therapy lamps, even though they surely are a damn good investment for anyone staying longer in this country, I am going to buy full spectrum light bulbs instead which despite their price (15 £) are worth the try.

24 May 2007

Dealing with Wedls

On Sunday, I had a panic attack due to my sudden change in financial situation. Was all freaking out, couldn't eat and was just about to leave for UCLH because i was so desperate. All banks etc. were closed, so was uni. I did not know where else to go.

The situation is that I might have to return to Vienna for the summer or even for the rest of my course. While the first one is a huge and disadvantageous but I guess bereable sacrifice, the latter would be absolutely inacceptable.

So I went to see my dev UG tutor on Monday even though I was really suspicious about his listening skills. However, I decided that I wanted to contact the uni just in case I mess up the exam (the UG tutor happens to be the course convenor of that class). I was afraid he would send me to my other tutor Jeff (remember, the guy who laughed at me about the expensive study packs). He didn't, though. Instead, I told him what the situation was and he said, "What do you want?" - I told him I am afraid about how this affects my ability to do my best in the exam (it is a rather economic one, so something for which I need to THINK and concentrate hard while revising) and he replied, "SOAS is not responsible for your home economics" at which I snapped, "I know!" but being shocked at this lack of sensitivity on his side. He said some other stuff too which sounded pretty harsh to me, like "Forget about it and enjoy the exam" and "This is just a mood swing! (at which I raised my eyebrows in disbelief) The examiner's board won't consider anything else than medical reasons." Do I have to inflict injuries on myself or throw myself out of the window?? This guy was certainly driving someone to do that. "Why does this happen now? Was this foreseeable before you came here?" and "Things like these happen in life, all the time. This is about managing crises." and the best of all, "So what is the worst thing that can happen? Then you go back to Austria and do your BA there!" By that point, I had semi-successfully tried to hold back crying (he had done most of the talking after the "SOAS is not responsible for your home economics"-part so I did not tell him about the panic attack just about the fact that I experience a lot of stress due to an unexpected financial situation. I was afraid to be too spiteful and "irrational" and that I will cry) but when he presented my return to Austria as the "worst that could happen" in a "what is the big deal about this" sort of attitude, I practically ran out of his office before I broke down in tears. I sat in a deserted staircase for a while until I calmed down.

I mean, I took that patronising preaching and didn't say a thing even though I found it really offensive. Who is he to tell me that life is always like that? I guess he tried to help me in some weird and twisted way but he was being really inappropriate about it.

People in this department have a very hypocritical approach to poverty. They teach about poverty reduction elsewhere in the world but won't see desperation or unequal opportunities when these knock at their very doors. This is not about figures and balances. I believe my tutor was being a male economist on this. He basically told me to get some balls and sit that exam "even if I was living in a tent". It might not be SOAS's job to sort out my home economics for me but it is their job to help me succeed. They fucking recommend and advise you to talk to your tutors about anything that potentially affects your studies in the departmental handbooks! You are not just a full-time studying machine, you are also a human being. Mood swings! He could just as well have said I was an adolescent woman with PMS!

I contacted Lauren (student union welfare and education officer) who was really supportive (it is probably more her job than my teachers but still). She actually tried to find out what we can do about the exam.

In retrospect, now that I have written the exam today (The girl that sat behind me during the exam was given the wrong question sheet. She asked the invigilator to contact her course convenor and guess who that was...) and have replayed and replayed the scene in the office over and over in my head (I just can't believe he said all these things!), I have realised that he is pretty similar to my old maths, physics and head teacher at secondary school, Prof Wedl. It seems everywhere you go there will always be a Wedl. Anyway, my point is that while you may not always like what he tries to tell you, it somehow makes sense which makes you even more furious at him. Also, Wedl was a really hardcore cliché mathematician - feelings are members of the irrational set. All is about fucking ratio. While I see that my tutor's advice might have made sense if there really was no other option, I object and believe that he could have at least tried to talk me through the options. Maybe I am expecting too much of my teachers but now that I have actually told people about it, I realise that having someone listening to you can actually be a huge relief. You know you are not on your own (what initially made me panic) and that there are people who understand your situation.

17 May 2007

Exam Period Update, London and life in general

Here I am, procastrinating again.

Actually, I should be studying these cursed development economics topics (which is what I did for the last few days until it came out of ear and out of my nose). GDP, PPP, SAPs and PRSPs into infinity. I need a break. Maybe reading about Southeast Asia will help. Also, I am slightly panicky about this development exam because my lesson at school was to stay away from anything remotely related to mathematics. It is interesting how I suddenly have these "u-huh moments" when I read through stuff again one year after I heard it in class and suddenly a lot of things make sense to me. For most of the time at the beginning of the year, I sat in that tutorial, staring off into space and at the clock on the wall alternatively, thinking, "What the hell am I doing? Why did I decide to continue with development?" It seems I have found my answer now. That doesn't mean that I like it more than anthropology. The latter is still my primary passion and I will probably always be in love with anthropology. However, while I was going through the economics stuff, I remembered what development was like at Univie. Very theoretical and basically revolving around policy paradigm shifts and debates concerning the social aspects of development. At SOAS, development is very much approached via economics which - even if I struggle with it - gives it a better foundation I believe because what matters in the end and what poverty reduction is about in the end, is generation and productive use of capital.

Concerning capital, thanks to my third and last Dinwiddy instalment (term 3), I have broken a new record with my account balance. I have actually exceeded my overdraft limit (not the valuta limit!) for the first time in my life. Luckily, I am probably going to receive a larger sum of money from the sale of my flat soon. Until then, my credit card will be put to use as much as I can. I haven't really checked my account the last months because money and surviving stressed me out so much a while ago that I just worried more than I lived. This does not mean that I imprudently spent my money with both my hands. I just stopped thinking twice whenever I buy everyday things. Also, for the first time over here I have bought markers (in English a "Marker" is a highlighter and a "Filzstift" is a marker), something which I badly wanted when I arrived but which I deemed an unnecessary expense. I just can't live like this anymore. This is what London does to you. It makes precious things out of markers.

From Serrula's holiday remuneration (still not received any payslips, neither me nor Lila), I ordered a book I have wanted to buy for three months or so now. It is called Diaspora City and is a London Writing Anthology. I might have already told you about it. In addition, I also bought a DVD of a movie I have wanted to see ever since it was released in 2001, Intimacy. After a year of pennypinching, everyday craze of living in this city and studying like mad I deserve treating myself.

About London: Will I go home this summer? Can I imagine returning to Austria for good after my degree? When I came here, I expected to regard Austria as home after I will have moved away from it. That I will dash to the Austrian delicatessen shop in London regularly and that it will be difficult for me to build a new life from scratch. Now, that summer is drawing near and the end of term and full-time uni, I asked myself, will I go and visit Austria? And then, something which I have probably known for a very long time at the back of my head, became clear to me: That I do not consider Austria a home. Sure, I grew up there, went to school there, spent the most part of my life there and it is where my friends and family live. But I am not anchored there. Although I love drinking Mélange, strolling through beautiful Vienna and spending time on the country side, I do not miss Austria or my life there. Another reason is that there is no market for my qualification whereas, in the UK, there is. Most importantly - and this is where I will not pretend to have penetrated the mind of the British after only one year of studying with predominantly international students at one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world - the Austrian tendency to parochial thinking, multicultural cleavages and reservation is something I find irreconcilable.

Will I stay in London for good? I don't know. It certainly will nurture your curiosity and entdeckunglust for a long time but also slowly and very sneakily, it gnaws at your sanity. Even the multiculturalness that I so admire about it can drive you crazy at times (ie Sam trying to study at SOAS enveloped by groups of people who speak Sanskrit, Chinese and Swahili trying to block each other's noise out; the bureaucracy marathon and just being a pedestrian can be very nerve-wracking too not to mention the financial side of things). I want to travel. I want to see Southeast Asia. If coming to London was my last dream then going to discover Asia the next one! Prudence suggests that I pay back my tuition fees first before I travel the Philippines, get kidnapped and then my mum has to pay ransom AND my student loan.

15 May 2007

Good Things Come To Those Who Wait...

You know these days where you absolutely don't know what is going to happen when you get up in the morning and then once you leave the house, you believe this is one of these days and then the whole day unfolds before your eyes as if in slow motion and it turns out to be not one of these days but one those days instead?

I got up in the morning, late of course, for an appointment with the doctor. I don my stuff, run out into the bloody cliché British rain that has been haunting this country for the last weeks. An emergency car rushes by at top speed with that ear-splitting sirene on full volume and literally hurting your ears. I wait for the 73 and once in the bus, discover I had a baby bus again (that is a baby screaming in pure spite of its parents and the parents neglecting it for the most part of my journey). An Ötzi kind of guy gets in later, old and long greyish beard. The bus spits me out at Gower Street and after a short walk I arrive in the practice.

The receptionist was really nice and said he would put me in even if the walk-in-clinic hours had already been over ten minutes ago. In naive gratefulness, I take a seat in the waiting room. After some time, my name is called up and I am asked to "please go to room four in the basement, room four in the basement" (it is a joined practice and all doctors seem to have their rooms in the basement whereas the nurse occupies the whole ground floor). Room 4 didn't bode well. Last time I went there, it was the incompetent Indian doctor who sent me home with the advice of changing my lifestyle after 45 minutes in the waiting room and a horrible time because I was sleeping more hours a day than I was actually awake. My fears were confirmed once I came in. She uttered her robot-like "How can I help" without even so much as looking at me. I told her while she seemed not to be really listening. She was not being helpful at all. She would have sent me off without so much as moving a finger. I told her I wanted her to weigh me before I go and see the specialist. She really asked me why even though she should have known herself. It was as if she tried to tick as many names off her daily list as possible while at the same time breaking the record for laziness. The best thing was, when she suddenly groped for her bag, took out her mobile phone and started typing. I thought she was writing a text message before my very eyes! Only when she saw my weird look did she admit that she didn't have a calculator. I suggested she could use the one on her PC. She said, she didn't know how to use that. Finally, I was sent home being just as clueless as before.

It doesn't surprise me that the UK health system has so many private charities and clinics that offer their services to the public when obviously NHS is useless. I haven't really had any benefits from the NHS so far. If I only courd afford it, I would go to a private GP anytime I needed one.

I mean, believe it or not, there is a quiz on the NHS website which asks you about your symptoms and tells you if you really need a doctor or can solve the problem on your own!

13 May 2007

Exam Climate

Since I haven't updated in a long time: As most of you probably know, right now we have term 3 = exam period. I already have 50 % behind me (SEA GP & TIA) and have the last two ones coming up. The library is packed with more or less studious students, the library has sent out e-mails that it is NOT allowed to sleep in the library (as some have tried with sleeping bags and camping backpack). The fact that it is packed makes it currently a very bad place to study unless - like me - you know the secret places.

Exams work as anonymously as possible. You are given a candidate number by the Registry which you collect together with your exam timetable from the Faculty Office. It pretty much resembles IELTS in terms of regulation. Everyone has to leave their personal belongings including jackets at the front of the class, switch off their mobile phones. There is an invigilator who you have not met before. Everyone has their own table. You can only take what you need to the table where question sheet and answer booklet lie ready for you. You cannot leave the classroom at any time you want and if you go to the toilet, only one person at a time and there is someone waiting outside the toilet for you (pretty much like Matura). You are reminded that plagiarism is an examination offence (that is NO learning by heart of whole essays or arguments in advance and presenting them as yours even if it was from your own essay). The invigilator checks your student ID card, exam timetable and candidate number (to ensure that it is really the person supposed to be writing the exam). If for religious reasons, ie Jewish passover, your religious authorities do not permit you to take exams and you can bring evidence for that, you can apply for that IN ADVANCE (I think the beginning of the year) which I find really interesting. Hopefully, my Ethnic Minorities and the Law class next year will give me some answers on that.

After months of spring and even summer feeling, the bad stereotypical British weather is back, only fitting for exam period. It has been raining (really RAINING) cats and dogs the last two weeks and is going to at least the whole of next week. It hasn't been raining like that ever since term 2 which is why I, one more time, had to find out what happens if you step outside with anything else but boots (that includes the toasting-your-socks-on-the-heater part).

For those of you who haven't heard yet, my flat in Vienna is being sold right now and with some luck, I might be able to finance my final year at university with the money that is left after repayment of the mortgage and the housing benefit (Wohnbauförderung). A young couple living around the corner has been looking for a flat in that complex for ages and my flat happens to be the only one of it on the market! Isn't that great? They even want to keep the kitchen!

I will now return to my readings of debt crisis, structural adjustment, debt relief and neoliberal policies *choke* and spice it up in between with some Ethno SEA stuff (Bali, Siva's penis and its significance for the pre-colonial polity).

I apologise to anyone I haven't had time to stay in contact with these weeks! Rest assured that I do am thinking of you!

03 May 2007

About Stacia's Haircut, Bratwurst and why Islington rocks!

As you see, Stacia went from this...

... to this!

That was the weirdest place ever (even for Camden Market)! They had decapitated dolls and their limbs decorating painting-framed mirrors, a huge horse with lots of weird hair, a shopowner with plastic tubes in his hair, a gnome-ish hairdresser who looked as if he just escaped from a Star Trek Set and a woman who looks like some person from an American series in the 1950s (can't remember what Stacia called it). Although they did a really good job with her hair, they refused to give her advice when she rang them up a few days later to ask them how to style it.
Anyway, so while she was getting her hair done, I read through some magazine that is called Bizarre and that had really, really bizarre teasers on the frontpage. This is how I found out about the Wank-a-thon in Islington. I thought that place where I live was boring! The Masturbate-a-thon is an event copied from the states where people pleasure themselves for charity and raising awareness. You find a general description of the UK event here, the apparent winner (6.5 hours with support of girlfriend and mother) of last year here and the elaborate US website here. In the magazine there was also an article about a male escort who recycles his condoms up to six times (that is just so wrong!) and something about testicle juicing *yuck*.
After the haircut, we went to get some food at the international summer food court in the market and guess what I saw:

Needless to say that I did NOT succumb to the CONSUMING temptation to eat anything from there.