Serat Yusuf, or how I spent my summer vacation

As I mentioned earlier, the first part of this summer I was in Indonesia just doing language study. I was lucky enough to get a last-minute scholarship, which meant that I got to study with two university professors in the Javanese department at UNS. It was awesome. My teachers were great.

On the last day of classes, I got to take a field trip to one of the libraries in Solo so that I could practice my reading. These days, Javanese is written in Latin script, but it also has its own script that was used up through the first half of the 20th century, so I needed to learn that too.

It was really interesting getting access to manuscript libraries in Indonesia. Technically, I could have just walked in on my own, but it felt too strange to do so. What would I say? What explanation could I give? So having my teacher bring me in and introduce me to everyone really helped. Now I feel like there’s a bridge and I can now go back to those libraries on my own.

This library that I visited on my last day is probably not like what you’re picturing. It was one room, with shelves to the ceiling covered with glass and low tables. When my teacher wondered aloud how they reach the high shelves, the answer was that they don’t put any books up there.

And those books? They were all manuscripts. It was totally exciting and also totally intimidating. Am I at the point in my studies where I can work with manuscripts?

The answer was apparently yes. My teacher asked for something unique and out came Serat Yusuf. A manuscript from 1729. And when I say from 1729, I mean that particular copy was created in 1729, copied from an earlier version. It tells the story of the prophet Yusuf.

Just looking at the manuscript was amazing (you can see a photo of it here. its opening pages were illuminated and covered in gold leaf. Though there was some damage from bugs, overall the manuscript was in very good condition. It was beautiful.

And then came the hard part: actually reading it. Four hours later, I’d gotten through exactly four pages and so far nothing had happened in the story. but a month before I wouldn’t have been able to read it at all, so I still felt pretty accomplished.


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