The Narratives
of Indonesian


Zulfikar / East Aceh District

“The Unconditional Tolerance”

“The Unconditional Tolerance”

Written by Zulfikar

Translated by Dila Fadillah Syahlan

In the silence of the night in Solo, I sat on a bench in the smoking area. My eyes were fixed on a suitcase before me. I was recalling the history of my journey, up to the point where I sat at the Purwosari station that night. 

My train was leaving in an hour. Even birds understand when it’s time to return home when the day turns late. So, what was going on to me? Why had Bandung become the destination for my return? 

It had almost been a year since I lived in Bumi Pasundan (Bandung), a place I had chosen between two objectives: continuing to live out of town or returning into the arms of my family. The choice was given by my eldest brother to me. With a good intention for the survival of his youngest brother, I was entrusted to his close friend. 

A crowd of good people brought by God. I was given a job and was taught new knowledge in the trade sector. However, it was not that factor which shackled me to stay here, but it was a distraction with a purpose to stop me from dancing, hindering me from my artistic activities, keeping me away from the circle of the performing arts. 

“You can’t go home, art is not an easy thing to be accepted in our hometown. Go back and try to dance in the village, I bet all you get is chirps of negative words,” 

“Kah dititep le abang keunoe u Bandung bak loun. Bah kah hanjeut ka meunari le,” 


“Your brother entrusted you to me so that you won’t dance anymore.” 

When I was little, I had all the freedom to dance, I could feel my mother’s pride as she supported me to dance. She usually laid a piece of songket cloth around my little waist. She would never forget to line my eyes with black powdery eye-liner, taken from a small gold-plated iron case, souvenirs from Arab, she claimed. Likewise, My father as a member of the school committee clearly showed his happy face. I and seven other dancers performed the Piasan Raya dance on the stage at that time.

For my family and most of the community where I was from, there is always an expiry date to dancing. I remember the pride they used to show, which quite easily vanished as I reached adulthood. I struggle in a continuous debate about this with my family. 

Dancing is so commonly accepted for young children but when it comes to adolescence and adulthood, it suddenly becomes a taboo. There is so little room for dancing within society. 

I got accepted in the Department of Textile Art Craft at a university in Solo, without knowing exactly the intents and objectives of the course, nor that I knew what I was going to do there. But I took this opportunity as a ticket to get out of my habitat. From there I learned a lot about fabrics, including batik, weaving techniques, songket, lurik, ikat, jumputan, and I got so astonished by the technique of embroidery. Indonesian embroidery fabrics are manually made by hand, the beads are attached to the fabric one by one, taking many days to complete. From embroidery, I find the meaning of patience in creating a piece of cloth. Making motifs with embroidery techniques must follow a pattern, in contrast to other techniques, the making of motifs follows the breadth of the fabric.

I even traced embroidery to a library in Aceh. Hours of being there, floor by floor I explored, I stopped at an old cupboard in the corner. I dusted it off, I cleaned the book which was piled in the cobwebbed cupboard. Barbara Leigh was the author, “Hands Of Time The Craft Of Aceh” was the title. Reading this book I found what I was looking for about embroidery through an umbrella.

Once upon a time, there was an embroidery artist from Alas named Arsyad. He was anxious about the rules regarding the permissible and non-permissible motifs of a piece of cloth. Flowers, leaves, trees, rocks, mountains, rivers, and other natural objects are common motifs for cloth. He thought about the possibility of putting humans in the typical Alas cloth motif, which was then applied to the umbrella he made. According to him, life is not only about nature but also about human presence. This was against the prevailing customs to put humans as motifs. I then prayed, wanting to encounter the umbrella he made.

On the next day, I visited a museum which has a small library. Before even entering the intended library, I found the umbrella that I had mentioned yesterday in the prayer. In the centre of a hall, in a glass case. My heart was bursting with excitement, at a loss for words from feeling the miracle of prayers. Since hearing the story of the embroidery artist, I spontaneously reflected my life on him. I felt I could very well understand the urge to break boundaries raging in the artist’s soul.

But I was surprised that this reflection came from the mind of the body of a dancer, where the conflicts on body occur. I began to understand the conflicts that often occur between customs, which in my head crept into the debate about dance, dancers, the body of dancers in Acehnese people.

A colossal dance designed to open the Aceh Province MTQ¹ event in East Aceh in 2017 was dismissed by the masses. 130 dancers cancelled their performance after preparing it for two months

“This dance has a message that we want to deliver to the audience, about the fate of a man who forgets God,” Muhaji explained. His hard work in training his team was fruitless. An artwork worth to enjoy and contains religious messages were arbitrarily disbanded. Not only the dancing ban, but their burst of anger was also suffocating.

When other districts or cities in Aceh host the event, was it not attended by religious leaders?” I asked Muhaji.

Of course, but it went well, and was appreciated by the audience” said Muhaji.

Were there any issues outside the event? When we hosted” I asked, couldn’t wait to hear the answer.

Hmmm, to my knowledge dancing is prohibited in our area, right? Especially for adults. According to information from supporters and some committee members who had invited us: some people could not accept the elected government of this second period,” Muhaji answered my question again.

If you still performed, how would the religious leaders respond that night?” 

They said that some of them would have left the event and were reluctant to participate,” he replied in a low voice as if unappreciated.

Ouk saban hitam, pikeran hana saban”. 

All hair may be black, but the minds inside are not. If the work of Muhaji’s team was simply rejected, unworthy of being upheld at MTQ events throughout Aceh, how about the presence of major religious leaders of the majority religion there? Shouldn’t there be a curation of works before dancers can perform their moves?

“In this work, we use the Sufi dance and some Acehnese traditional movements” explained Muhaji.


Humans and their bodies have the freedom to move. Like babies starting their hand movements, crawling, walking, and ultimately running. The progress of their movement even brings happiness for the family. Our bodies have limits due to biological factors such as paralysis, stroke, disability,  but they happen beyond the reach of humans. Age, however, is not a reason to limit the body. 

In my opinion, a body with dancing activities is not only for children, but adults also have the right to dance. 

It is okay to have religious views in the mundane routine of everyday life. It becomes out of sync if such an opinion is not applied thoroughly. If adult dancers are deemed to drive lust, present imaginative immorality, then what about soccer players wearing shorts? Isn’t the sharia law sets the limit on men’s private part to be from the navel to below the knees? Not only that, if the dancing body is not worth showing, then why can football spectators glorify the body of a dribbler in the field? Is it not the same demonstration of one’s moving bodies?


I am so passionate to introduce my Mother to understand dance embodiment. The day after graduation, I mustered up the courage to invite her to an event. I will appear there as one of the dancers on the stage that night. I want her to see that I grew up in the performing arts as a dancer. For me her blessing was indispensable. My happiness was matchless because my urge to be free had not been easy. After I performed, I asked her opinion.

“You do something in vain, child, do not waste your time dancing. You are an adult now, that’s enough, okay?” she replied. I gasped. Speechless, I lost all my words for hearing my mother’s words that night. 

I turned on a motorbike, then drove her back to my rented house. All the way I only gazed at lights around, holding back a conversation that would only lead to a conflict between us. I felt no use to argue with her.

I have no reason to stop dancing. This makes me unstoppable. I have a hope that dance will have equal rights like any other activities, considered as a normal activity for both children and adults. If dancing was tolerable for me as a kid, then why must my adult body be seen with preconditions?

¹ Majelis Tilawatil Quran (MTQ) is an annual competition for Al-Quran recital, held from the provincial level to the national level

The Narratives
of Indonesian