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.

The Drumming Ramadan Men

Ramadan moves every year based on the moon, which means that almost every time I’ve been in Indonesia I’ve run into Ramadan, even though I’ve been there at different points during the summer.

This year, I was in Solo for Ramadan and it was overall very low-key. My favorite lunch place started closing for lunch and only opening for dinner, which wasn’t great, but other places were open, so I survived. I also stopped drinking water during language class, which again wasn’t great, but was manageable.

There was, however, one complete unexpected new twist to this year’s Ramadan. The second or third day of Ramadan, I was startled out of my sleep in the middle of the night by drumming. And singing. A parade, I thought hopefully. It was three in the morning.

The next night, the drumming men were back, right on schedule. A parade every day? Less likely.

I eventually gave in and got out of bed to peek through the curtains at these people disturbing my sleep. As it turned out, they weren’t really men at all, but instead teenage boys. Their nightly drumming and singing, however, remained something of a mystery.

I ended up asking my language teacher what was going on. She explained that their job was to make sure everyone woke up in time to eat breakfast before sunrise. I’d had that suspicion, but I’d thought there must have been something more to it. There wasn’t. I prepared for a 3 A.M. wake-up call every day.

Luckily, about halfway through Ramadan, the enthusiasm for wandering around the neighborhood had tapered off significantly. For a few amazing days, they didn’t come at all.

Then one day I woke up to drumming again, but it sounded different. Almost as if there was only a single drummer. The next day, they came again, but still muted. I went back to sleep.

I asked around and apparently this drumming happens in lots of neighborhoods, both in Solo and Jogja. Often, according to my language teacher, it’s children doing the drumming. The other option is to play a siren instead. Given the choice, though, I’d pick one of the neighborhoods I had the luck to live in before: neighborhoods with no wake-up call at all.