The Narratives
of Indonesian


Iin Ainar Lawide / Palu – Central Sulawesi

“A Sea of Body Memory”

“Lautan Memori Tubuh”

Oleh Iin Ainar Lawide

Palu – Central Sulawesi

Papa, Sea, and Art

I was born and raised in Palu, where art is not yet the main attraction as a permanent job for the community. It’s probably because Palu is still considered a “new city” in Sulawesi and building arts has not been what city development focuses on. But I like dances so much and decided to make a living through art. So, how did I get to know art and have been I surviving through artworks until now? The answer is Papa. Every time I was asked to explain about how I started doing art, there must be a story about my father there. He was my first gateway to the art process. People in Palu knew him as a topotutura (storyteller), a poet and an actor. He is a friendly man who loves to tell stories and jokes.


Papa is always present in every important event in my life. I spent a lot of time telling stories, listening to his jokes, and taking walks to unexpected places along with my dad. He gave me a lot of secrets that I eventually realized were very meaningful as I was building my art career. It was as if he had predicted many things to come to my life in the future. He also taught me about the history and traditions of his ancestral land without being pushy and patronizing. From him, I know that many traditions among people in Palu are related to the sea. Since then the sea and art have always been present in my everyday life.


Since childhood, my father most often took me to the hills and beaches to accompany him to work or theatre rehearsals. One time we went to the Cultural Park not far from the beach. This park becomes an art centre in Palu City. Every time Papa practised with his students, I would become a loyal observer of the theatre. It’s not a big stage, many of the audience seats were rotten, the walls were shabby, the stained glass was covered with curtains, and two fans were hanging on the left and right of the stage. Observing the theatre over time became no longer interesting for me. I ended up choosing to walk to the beach. I could see piles of rocks and sand looking like mounds not far from the beach, still in the cultural park area. It looked like small hills. I don’t know what it’s going to be built for and I don’t care about it until Papa chased after me on the beach and said, “This beach is being dredged for construction”.


I love this beach, as much as Papa admires it. Once, he suddenly said, “There will come a time when the sea asks for its rights back”. I, who was still in high school at that time, tried to understand what he meant by those words. But before I could fully understand his words, he had been taken by God. His swift departure brought deep sorrow to me. The grief kept me away from the beach as it reminded me of Papa. Finally, I decided to leave Palu for a while to relieve myself. I chose Solo as a place to escape from feelings of loss. I spent my days watching performances, watching students practising, watching wayang puppets even though I didn’t understand what the dalang was talking about. I also spent a lot of time at the museum and one of the private radio stations. This is my second home, and slowly I managed to bury my sadness.


Upon my return to Palu, I worked in a government agency as a Pamong Budaya (cultural activist) and became one of the financial operator staff at the Central Sulawesi Museum. One afternoon, the Head of the Museum asked me to deliver a letter to the Cultural Park. My memories with Papa, the Cultural Park and the beach also re-entered my mind. But when I got there, it seemed that things have started to change. There was a new building so clearly visible from the gate. Two-story building with stairs on its left and right. I spent some time looking at the building, then turned my gaze towards the beach which was out of sight. It is blocked by the shophouse and rented houses beside it. Looking back, there was a three-star hotel. Was this due to dredging that Papa had talked about all those years ago? On the one hand, I’m happy that this city finally has a large theatre with a capacity for large audiences. The Cultural Park is now busy with artistic activities. Since that day, my routine began to change. When I came home from work I went straight to the Cultural Park, to start reviving my passion for dancing step by step.


Year after year, this beach has been continuously dredged without stopping. I began to find many new buildings every month with some activities to enliven its surroundings. This has contributed to sea debris for certain. The more I watched it, the more I remembered what Papa said about the beach. In the end, I offered myself to a research institute at my former campus to research Palu Bay, which was reportedly going to become a Special Economic Zone. It was the biggest decision I’ve ever made in my life. When my career at the Museum was at its best, I chose to retire early as a civil servant so that I can focus more on my research and artwork while continuing to seek answers to all my questions.


After doing research and building the Lobo Art Community with three friends of mine, one of whom is now my husband, I began to re-open my father’s old records about this city to understand his last message. One of them is a note on Karampe. Karampe is a Kaili language which means a place for stranded boats. This area crosses four villages namely Silae, Lere, Besusu and Talise, a historical trajectory that plays an important role not only in the development of the city but also in the spread of Islam. A preacher from the Minangkabau country named Sheikh Abdullah Raqie, brought Islam to this valley in the 17th century. At that time Palu was under a kingdom led by Siralagi (Pue Nggari). Once upon a time, Dato Karama’s boat was stranded on the beach. The boat turned into a stretched mat and the sails resembled a campsite. The place until now is called the village of Karampe. From the historical records that Papa wrote down, I realized that Karampe turned out to be an important place. Unfortunately, the momentum of religious history that also marked the existence of Palu was lost in time, leaving no historical debris to trace. All areas turned into crowded mini-cities and filled with the bustle of a plural society. Only the tomb of the preacher and some of his followers remained in this place.


Preserving the Memories

In the past, many people did not know Palu. However, after the earthquake on September 28, 2018, Palu became one of the cities that stole the public’s attention. After that incident, the word disaster or tsunami should be mentioned amidst their conversation. If viewed from its history, disaster is a word closely related to Palu since it is located right on an active fault that has the potential for a large earthquake. Like what my Papa told me about the history of Palu, that the city was basically the dried sea.


But not many know about this history. My city just started to be recognized after the big disaster it experienced in 2018. On the one hand, I feel sad, but on the other hand, people are becoming more aware of the threat of disasters and learning about disaster mitigation. I also remember Papa’s notes on Karampe, Dato Karama, and the stories that continued after the tsunami. Through the tutura (story) narrated by Pak Andi Alimudin Rauf, a community leader in Lere Village, Dato Karama saw bombatalu (three-tiered waves) from the north towards Palu Bay as high as a coconut tree. He then prayed and threw his white turban. A moment later the wave broke into two and went off of his position which is currently his tomb. From this story, local people believe that the tomb complex of Dato Karama is considered a safe gathering point when a tsunami comes. As recorded in history, when the tsunami hit Palu Bay in 1938, all the Palu royal families in Lere were evacuated to the Dato Karama tomb complex. It turned out that the seawater only reached the stairs of the King of Palu’s house and the Dato Karama tomb was not affected by the tsunami. The same thing happened in the September 28, 2018 disaster. The tsunami waves only inundated the gates of the two burial complexes without reaching the burial site. This local wisdom principally has a significant impact on the community. This is a legacy of knowledge and if it is collectively preserved, the community can take maximum preventive action in case a disaster re-occurs.


Palu City had experienced city development on a large scale before the tsunami. It was even more intense after that. Local governments put natural disasters as the mainstream development. Palu Bay, which was previously visible from the shoreline, is now blocked by piles of large stones. Its beach is now elevated with a stone structure. For me, the tsunami that hit Palu Bay gave a lesson on the importance of disaster mitigation in coastal areas and local knowledge as a shared asset to identify the history of disasters in this area. One of them is knowledge about safe old villages to live in based on the tutura (oral history) within the community. However, what actually happened was that the government built a sea wall, 120 meters away from the coastline and extends from the west (Silae Village) to the east (Talise Village) coast approximately 7 km and cost Rp 250 billion funded with foreign debt. This sea wall was named Silebeta (Silae, Lere, Besusu, Talise) as it passes over four villages. Many suggestions have been given to the government, both central and local,  about the potential failure of the sea wall since the embankment will crack the surface rupture of the Palu Koro fault. As a consequence, many predict that this seawall will break before the tsunami arrives either due to subsidence or elevation of the land surface around the fault. The sea wall will only increase the risk of disaster.


Where did this idea come from? Of course, from the government in collaboration with Japan through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The central government took Japan as an example of how they built a coastal disaster protection system by building sea walls. When Palu Bay was hit by an 11-meter tsunami, the coastal area claimed more than a thousand people who died as Palu Bay had no defence against the tsunami. Eventually, the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku, Japan on March 11, 2011, became the government’s basis for building a similar seawall in the bay.


It is said that the tsunami fortress in Tohoku is the strongest in the world. A 1,950 meter-breakwater fort is buried 67 meters into the ground. This fort is located in Kamaishi Bay, Japan with a height of 12.5 meters. However, as overlooked, there is the fact that the fort was also unable to save nearly 19,000 lives when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake shook Tohoku and the eastern coast of Japan due to a tsunami as high as 10 to 40 meters. Physical engineering is indeed necessary, but mitigation efforts are not as simple as imitating other countries with their particular environments, cultures and social dynamics. That’s also what I learned in dance. As a dancer, when I create a work related to where I live, I can’t just imitate what happens outside the context of my environment.


Actually, for me, disaster mitigation planning is similar to creating dance works. Dance is not just about movement, so is the disaster that is not just about the tsunami. Both are part of something around them. So, coastline optimization combined with mangrove vegetation will be more saving. With a medium tsunami typology, mangroves and vegetation can reduce tsunami waves by 20-30%. At least this is what happened in Kabonga Village, Donggala Regency. This area is planted with mangroves. In 2018, houses in this village were protected from the tsunami by the mangroves with a thickness of 50 to 75 meters withstanding the incoming waves.


Two years on, the sea wall has reached the final stage of construction. The government keeps moving. As a resident of Palu City, the most possible intervention I can do is only through dances I create with my friends in my community. We are not alone. Many individuals also voice the same thing in their ways. If we can’t break local government policies, then it’s the people whom we teach to love their nature, to maintain the continuity in the history of this region. Now another problem arises, the fishermen and salt fishers with their ongoing recovery after the disaster have to face the sea wall project. Of course, the seawall will again kill their livelihood.


I looked back at Papa’s notes and remembered his last message at that time, “There will come a time, where the sea asks for its rights back”.


Preserved Memories

I once asked myself, why does the sea want to ask for its rights back? My thoughts drifted back to that afternoon, on Friday, September 28, 2018, where Palu City immediately turned dreary. The ground shook violently, rolling like waves. Not long after, it got dark and the lights went out. Only the sound of screaming, sobbing and chanting prayers could be heard.


I was in the house at the time, struggling to save myself. Only for reaching the door of the house, my body bounced against the wall. I also heard a rumbling sound. I thought it was a collapsed building. I hugged my 1.5 year-daughter. We both tried to save ourselves while I rubbed my belly, trying to calm myself that the 3-month baby inside me would be okay. The earthquake finally subsided. I took a deep breath, tried to think calmly and saw white dust flying from the left of the house. The building that was originally going to be a community office collapsed. We who stayed at home are all safe. The same goes for my neighbours. That night we all gathered on the street and started laying out the mats until the situation got much better. There was no lighting, the communication line was cut off, vehicles started passing by, amidst the sound of screaming, crying and panic. I also kept thinking about the situation of the people in other communities. What about my sister and her two children. My mind was lashing out.

I was startled by the ring phone. I just realized that my trouser pocket is strong enough to secure the phone. The provider I used turned out to be the only one that could be accessed that night. I still remember the name on the screen of the phone that called me. The first person to ask how I was, was Mbak Melati Suryodarmo. Maybe she had just seen the news on television. An earthquake followed by a tsunami wiped out the art festival area. She probably thought I was at that location. Not long after, Mbak Melati sent credit to my phone so that I can keep in touch with her and my family and friends. She also asked me to find out about her friend. Until midnight my cell phone rang incessantly, many friends and relatives began to ask how I was.

I don’t know how many aftershocks were there. Entering the fifth day, lighting and communication lines were still cut off. Every day I felt anxious. Recovering from nightmares, trying to be strong with sad news. One by one of my beloved ones became victims, including one of our dancers who was found in the ruins of her house with her parents and siblings. It broke my heart to hear that. The tears I held back suffocated me.

For almost a week the situation in Palu was chaotic. There were looting, shortage of food, battling for aid, and lack of clean water. This happened almost everywhere. I also took the initiative to collect children from our block. I put all the books on the community’s open stage to let them read freely. This is where the trauma healing process started. My friends and I started trying to do the good things we could do. One of them opened a relief post while continuing to look for two members of our community whose houses were buried in mud (liquefaction).

Four months on, I started searching choreographers and dancers in the three disaster-affected areas. I initiated a stage for them to re-open themselves to carry out their artistic process. As a person engaged in the arts, I also take part here. I think a dancer’s body will produce different memories of disasters. I believe as a dancer or choreographer, these memories will be recorded in their movements. This disaster will be a new chapter in rebuilding our artistic process. Art to heal.

Again, I remember Papa’s message, that someday the sea will ask for its rights back. After this disaster happened, how is the sea now? Have the rights been fulfilled? Has it calmed down? I hope its anger has subsided. Even though it is now blocked by large stones. Now, every time I pass through Karampe, what comes to mind is all about Papa’s words and notes about Karampe. Surprisingly, all the stories and notes indirectly taught me about disaster mitigation. This will be a note especially for me personally, that archival behaviour is also important to continue to be a reminder of the disaster. Because disasters can happen and repeat anytime, anywhere and can hit anyone. Times will continue to change, new generations will continue to come and do not let them be blind to the history of this disaster. The relationship between humans and nature must always be maintained. Art has taught me to always collect not only values ​​but also memories so that there is no more sense of loss due to our actions on nature.

To me, art is like a painkiller

The Narratives
of Indonesian