ARIA Spotlight: Bria LaBella

Research, generally speaking, is set up in an objectivistic dialogue. While this report will be as objective as possible, save for the reflection, it is worth noting that any philosophical or anthropological research requires a level of recognition of the subject. It would be with great remise if this project did not acknowledge my own feelings, reflections, and general point of view throughout the course of this research. When immersed in a different culture, part of ‘deep interpretation’ as Clifford Geertz calls it, is to be a participant in the culture at hand. One part of this participation is to understand yourself as both your own familiar subject and as ‘the other.’ Any purely objectivist account of my research would not fully convey my holistic experience and participation. It is with these words that this report will move forward.

As the nature of a phenomenology project has much to do with “hermeneutic clues” which, in short, are the glimpses of phenomena we are able to interpret and explore deeper, this project took on many different faces and variations throughout its duration. By no means was this project married to this very brief proposal, however, the proposal was integral to finding the point of departure of the project’s philosophical inquiry.

Beyond the formulation of the project idea, preparation for this project included the reading of various texts on Indonesian Islam. These texts were: The Religion of Java by Clifford Geertz, Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson, and Civil Islam by Robert Hefner; as well as reading the final project report of the McGill-Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) project on Indonesian Islamic higher education.

The $5000 allotted to this project allowed me to buy my round-trip plane ticket to and from Jakarta. It also allowed me to buy myself travel materials such as a suitcase, outlet converters, and proper attire for a more conservative nation.

After the schedule was made, accommodations were put in place. These included paid-for living accommodations in the female dormitory of the UIII and pick-up from the airport by the supervisor of international student affairs at the UIII. Multiple Zoom meetings were had between Dr. Buckley and me to discuss these accommodations as well as what to expect in this new cultural context.

Upon arrival at the Jakarta airport, I was picked up by Fachrul, the director of international student affairs at the UIII. He then drove me back to my living accommodations where I was provided a full bathroom, a bed, bedding, a desk, a chair, a television, and storage.

I proceeded to use the next few days to adjust to the drastically new time zone and explore the surrounding area a bit by going to the local restaurants, cafes, malls, etc. After those few days, research activities began.

At the UIII, I acted as both a researcher and an intern, so much of my research was done concurrently with my interning activities. This included correcting the English on journal article submissions for their new political science journal: The Muslim Political Review. Reading these articles gave me valuable insight into Muslim politics as well as Islamic higher education and the points of view the academy takes on global politics.

Tandem with reading and correcting journal articles, I attended three lectures. These lectures provided a wide range of insight into multiculturalism, tolerance, and power dynamics, all of which came to be a hallmark of my final research paper.

To truly get a grasp on Islamic education and its roots, I was able to visit pesantrens (Indonesian Islamic boarding schools) to talk with the students about academics and life in Indonesian society, as well as societal expectations surrounding university, education, and lifestyles. I have attached some pictures from my visits.

In addition to my internship activities, lectures, and visits to the Pesantrens, I was also able to interview those involved with the McGill-CIDA project. I interviewed Dr. Jamhari Maruf, a professor and founder of the UIII, Dr. Yeni Ratna Yuninghsih, and Dr. Philip Buckley.

As I stated in the preamble, a large part of anthropological and philosophical research is done through lived experiences and the recognition of one as both a familiar subject and ‘the other’ in a society. The only way to truly reach this level of ‘deep interpretation was to simply live in and embrace Indonesian culture.

My initial impression of Indonesia is that it certainly was not the United States or Canada. I’m not sure what I was expecting, or if I even expected anything at all; but it was different from anything I could have imagined. Coming from the United States, I am used to an incredibly secular state, where the mixing of government and religion is strictly forbidden. In Indonesia, however, they have a call to prayer five times a day to honor their duty that is associated with Islam, and more women than not wore hijabs, making me feel the most intense Sartrian gaze I have ever experienced. I, a white woman, was the outsider.

This fact about me was not met with contempt, however. In fact, I was treated like royalty. I knew I would be treated this way immediately after arriving in the country, when the immigration officer asked for my number. I would also regularly be stopped on the street to be asked if I could take a picture with whoever was asking. I only have two pictures of these incidents, though, as I did not get a photo on my own phone with the people who asked (unless they sent the photo to me), but these incidents happened so regularly that I considered it to be a bad hair day or something if I didn’t get asked to take a photo. One man said he loved me after delivering me food. I said “I love you too,” and I really do have love for every person that I had the pleasure of meeting on that trip. I have never been immersed in a friendlier, kinder, more hospitable, culture.

Something that struck me every time I left the house was the reality of a developing country, another thing I am not accustomed to. Indonesia is beautiful, do not mistake my intent with this paragraph, I just wish to report the nature of my experience and a large part of that was being exposed to a developing country. The market in Indonesia was interesting, to say the least. Most of the shops were set up in little shack-like buildings, and the owners would sit in a chair and wait for whoever came along to buy what they were selling, and they would sell anything and everything. The typical day in Indonesia is around ninety degrees Fahrenheit, about 30 degrees Celsius, and I noticed not even just one, but a few vendors selling winter hats and gloves. Another mode of selling was to go car door to car door at stoplights when the cars were stopped and show your products through the windows of the cars. As soon as any light turned red, you could see a rush of merchants, or “beggars” as one of my Indonesian friends called them, rush out to the cars and start selling. A mode of making money that really stood out to me was traffic directors. When I first arrived in Indonesia, I assumed the people directing traffic were employed by some agency or the police, but I was mistaken. Another form of ‘begging’ was to direct traffic, and once you passed by the traffic director, you would tip them.

The one exception to these market practices was the malls. The malls looked exactly as the malls in the West look, just with different commercial chains. If I had to pick something up, I would go to a mall, admittedly, because that is where I felt the most at ease. Not that I felt in danger elsewhere, but I noticed that the street markets made me uncomfortable in the sense that I did not like to see people living that way, even if they were happy, I deemed it as wrong or sub-par somehow.

For a good portion of my time in Indonesia, I was on the UIII campus. This campus is beautiful, modern, quiet, and spread out. It is truly an incredible place to live and study. One day, I was on campus looking out a window that spread from wall to wall. I saw people down below, in an undeveloped field, living. I asked the person who was showing me around, Fachrul, who they were and what they were doing there. He said they were homeless people, living illegally on the land, and that in the coming years as the UIII expands, they’ll have to be moved. “Sometimes they protest,” he said. This was a watershed moment in my stay. This magnificent place was suddenly transformed by the stark contrast of the reality it quite literally was standing upon. The town outside of the university gates with the simple markets stood out to me, feeling closer than ever before. Power dynamics were close at hand, as maybe, they always are.

In addition to the obvious economic power dynamics at play, I soon realized that I was being treated like royalty, not just because I was an outsider, but because I was white and blonde. When I went to the mall to pick something up, the models that the stores advertised were shocking: They were white. I began to wonder if I would be treated the same if I was just an ordinary (whatever that may look like) white man in Indonesia.

I became so interested in power dynamics that I decided my entire project would surround them. During my stay, I learned more and more about McGill and the Canadian International Development Agency’s involvement in Indonesian higher education, and the question that kept knocking at the doors of my mind was, “Well… What’s in it for them?” A country with so much power and resources helping a country in need… out of the kindness of their hearts? I’m not sure if I believe that.

The lectures I attended struck me as well. The first lecture was about publishing an internationally recognized journal, the second was about the role of courts in society, and the third was about tolerance in a pluralistic society. All three of these lectures had something in common: they all had something to do with power: Who has power? How does one regain power? How do we mitigate large power imbalances? Who should we give power to? What does it mean to have power? All of these questions rang over the lectures. This then oriented me to ask the same questions about my initial point of departure: The McGill-CIDA project.

While this experience was truly so incredible I cannot put it into words, there are a few things I would consider if doing this over again.

The first is for the ARIA program as a whole: More accommodations for those doing their projects outside of Montreal. I was regretfully unable to attend many of the ARIA events, and would have liked a more inclusive approach to the workshops- such as having them earlier over the summer instead of spread throughout.

The second, and last, is a suggestion for myself: Be less timid. I would be lying if I said I landed in Indonesia and immediately felt confident in my project and my place in this new cultural context. The first week or so was marked by finding it in myself to muster up the courage to outside. I cannot be too harsh on myself- I feel as though this is to be expected- but I do feel as though I wasted valuable time in the field due to my lack of might.

When looking at this project in resoluteness, I am beyond grateful for this opportunity. Before this, I had never traveled outside of the U.S. or Canada before, so having the privilege to go across the world on money for research was exciting beyond words.

I want to take some space at the end of this report to thank the Arts Internship Office and its gracious donors for allowing opportunities like mine to be a reality for students. I would also like to thank Dr. Buckley, the professor who took me under his wing throughout the entirety of the project to introduce me to the world do philosophical research- a goal I have had since I walked out of my first philosophy class senior year of high school. The UIII, as well, played a large role in this entire project and it would not have been possible to achieve this without them. From their enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff to their generous accommodations, this project is indebted to them.

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