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Book Review: ‘Dark Angel’

Getting to know Aceh is like peeling an onion, an Acehnese once said as a matter of fact.

“There are so many layers — peeling off one layer after another is a tearful experience.”

In the long course of this country’s history, Aceh, which is rich in natural resources, has ironically had more than its share of problems. In the late 1940s, founding father Sukarno placated Aceh, which had helped the young nation, by promising it greater autonomy as a special province.

This did not come to be, resulting in a loss of faith in the central government.

The negative feeling toward Jakarta peaked in the 1970s when Aceh’s younger generation — led by Hasan di Tiro — waged a movement to severe ties with the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia through the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

The armed conflict bore sour fruit for the Acehnese, who were oppressed by the military from the 1970s onward.

There was the same amount of distrust in Jakarta as there was in GAM, for the lives of the Acehnese were endangered by both warring parties.

Author Teuku Iskandar Ali bin Sabil, popularly known as T.I. Thamrin, surely went through a painful and tearful process, peeling away the many skins of Aceh to collect stories for his debut novel Bidadari Hitam (Dark Angel).

Thamrin’s extensive experience working as a journalist at Ambassador, Kadin, Matra, Tempo, and also Acehkita, influenced the way in which he fleshed out the scenes and events in the novel.

Historian and rights activist Hilmar Farid, in his foreword for the novel, likens Thamrin with Seno Gumira Adjidarma, who was an editor at the now defunct Jakarta-Jakarta weekly magazine.
Seno once defied the New Order’s command to cease publishing “investigative” reports on rights atrocities in East Timor (now Timor Leste), which were in contrast with the government’s versions.

As a result, Seno was dismissed from the magazine’s board of editors. He did not stop though.

Armed with “journalistic” good judgment and the baggage of untold stories from the ground, Seno produced short stories, which were later collected in the heart-wrenching Saksi Mata (Eye Witness) in 2004.

Hilmar says:”..(Seno’s achievements) are evidence of the power of literature. They confirm the idea that if there is silence in politics, literary figures must speak out. Journalists are unable to access the private spaces that are depicted in literature, such as trauma, collective memories of oppression, and the unhealed wounds of human rights abuses.”

“But this doesn’t mean literature can fill the role of journalistic works. Literature presents realities through different forms and perspectives,” Hilmar writes.

According to Hilmar, Thamrin’s Bidadari Hitam is meant to touch upon the hidden wounds that many Acehnese bear and most mainstream media and even rights defenders fail to properly accommodate.

Having endured years of armed conflict, the Acehnese still do not enjoy the benefits of democracy. Regime changes make little difference.

Among state leaders, only former president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid took the conflict to heart, doing his utmost to end it peacefully.

Real change, however, came only after the monstrous earthquakes and tsunami struck the westernmost province. A peace agreement was signed and the doors were open for talks between GAM and the central government.

Bidadari Hitam tells the story of the years before the tsunami struck.

The author punctuates the story with milestone events.

In the first few chapters, the novel centers around one character, Ahya, as he comes of age, quickly learning to fear both the Indonesian Military and those who claimed to fight for the Acehnese people, GAM.

The larger-than-life character of Ahya is the voice of reason in the story — until his parents send him away from Aceh to study in Java.

His storyline is left dangling as another character is introduced: Fitriah, a childhood friend of Ahya’s who falls in love with him. Several chapters are playfully dedicated to Fitriah alone. But she is no hero either, for her story ends tragically.

The military accuses Fitriah of being a GAM spy and imprisons her, subjecting her to sexual abuse. It will not stop, the soldiers say, until she confesses she’s a spy.

To survive, young Fitriah chooses to take the offer of a a contract marriage to a military officer. The marriage is filled with violence and she runs away from her husband. Joining a small group of GAM members, Fitriah vows to take up arms against the military.

Thus, if the reader expects to find in Bidadari Hitam the story of one girl’s struggle — as the title suggests — they will be disappointed.

The real main character of Inong comes into the picture only after the fourth of the book’s seven chapters.

The author surely had his reasons for structuring the novel in such a way. But Inong’s lonely fight could actually stand alone as a strong theme, even from the start.

Therefore, it seems that Thamrin uses the name Inong — also an affectionate term of address for a young Acehnese girl — to signify that Bidadari Hitam is the story of all Acehnese girls and women.

Born of rape, Inong’s very existence brings misery to her mother, who is abandoned by her family and scorned by soldiers when she tries to look for the father of her child.

Life deals Inong many cruel blows. She too is accused of being a GAM member — it’s a typical story of Acehnese women living in rural areas.

Illiterate and naive, Inong fights back in her own way: the by-then HIV-positive woman vows to sleep with as many soldiers as she can.

The book could have been a brilliant way of showing the world how armed conflicts have left nothing but scars and trauma. Trust — even among the Acehnese — is a rarity for some of them lead double lives, working as informants, locally known as cuak.

Despite the excellent concept — the idea of fictionalizing untold truths — Thamrin is too much under the influence of his journalistic background. In his desire to be accurate, he overuses violence, making the story as banal as the reports of a human rights watchdog. The author apparently lacks the patience to make the characters live in the imagination.

In real life, Aceh may not need another hero. But, in great literature, the truth can be presented more clearly than in real life. This earnest and well-meaning story fails to hit the mark.

Bidadari Hitam
T.I. Thamrin
Imparsial and Aceh Judicial Monitoring Institute
Jakarta
2008
251 pages

Reviewed by Emmy Fitri