Life in Aceh, Indonesia

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In a collection of just released work by Acehnese writer Azhari, Nutmeg Woman, we are brought into a world before the devastating 2004 tsunami that killed over 220,000 Indonesians. Civil war wracked the province. Indonesian occupation was brutal and fought against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Like the Papuans and East Timorese, the Acehnese wanted to be an independent nation.

Azhari -- who wore a t-shirt with the word "iBoobs' under the Apple logo when I saw him -- often writes in riddles, demanding the reader understand the struggles of a people that no colonial power has ever controlled. Outsiders and eccentrics are treated with suspicion. Strong women counter the absence of men, many of whom have disappeared after generations of fighting. Jakarta still refuses to fully investigate this legacy.

During my recent visit to the area -- as a guest of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival -- I found unconventional attributes of an Islamic state and fierce resistance to orthodox interpretations of the Koran. Aceh is not Saudi Arabia, Iran or Gaza, all places I have witnessed creeping Islamization and brave men and women challenging its implementation.

Aceh remains a traumatized province despite a 2005 peace deal that ended the decades-old, violent conflict. Sharia law is now implemented with homosexuality and adultery punishable by stoning. Poverty is rife -- the smell of rubbish is everywhere and dirty water runs across some streets -- while women mostly wear headscarves and sit separately from men at public events.

There are no cinemas. Entertainment options are limited. Religion often fills the breach, but I met many young people who thrived on satellite television and the Internet. Facebook was a common thread, an obsession and window to the world. Everybody under the age of 30 asked if I had a Facebook account and if I'd accept their friend request.

Nindy Silvie, Raisa Kamila and Mifta Sugesty, three schoolgirls who were my translators, regularly watch The Simpsons, Family Guy, BBC and CNN. Nindy spoke with an American accent, had a South Park tune as her ring-tone, didn't wear a veil and read Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens. I couldn't believe my ears. Here I was in Aceh, talking about the "fundamentalist atheism" of Hitchens and his hatred of religion. She thought he went too far, though she was hardly a devout Muslim.

Although Aceh is no longer under occupation, tourism is virtually non-existent. International NGOs invaded after the 2004 tsunami and huge re-development dots the landscape. A new airport, large German-backed hospital and tsunami museum are tangible signs of modernity.

It was surreal seeing Jewish gravestones, in Hebrew, in the Dutch-era cemetery in the shadow of the tsunami museum. Writer Fozan Santa, with black, greasy shoulder-length hair, told me that there was no hatred towards these monuments and generations of Acehnese had protected them. "People here don't hate Jews", he said, "they hate the Israeli occupation of Palestine."

I met many young men under 20 who said they had wanted to fight against Israel during its bombardment of Gaza in December and January. "For our fellow Muslims", one said. Many had never met a Jew before and were amazed that I expressed deep disquiet towards Israeli behaviour in Palestine.

Fozan showed me the bookshop he ran near the heart of Banda Aceh, the capital. Most books were in the local language, including titles about Marx, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Hitler's Mein Kampf and the power of the Israel lobby in America.

Politics flowed through the veins of many activists, a leftist perspective on the world. During a public forum, I was asked what I thought about the "real terrorism...the issue of globalization and free trade. How do we overcome that?" I replied, slightly unsure what angle to take, that the post-1945 world order was in desperate need of reform and the Muslim world's time would surely come. Indonesia, the world's biggest Muslim country, is talking about assuming a more powerful position on the global stage, not least towards the Israel/Palestine conflict.

The election of US President Barack Obama was welcomed warmly across the province. People like his rhetoric and his apparent change in attitude towards the Muslim world, but their patience is limited. Wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Palestine continue with no signs of closure. The relationship to American power is contradictory. Washington's influence on their lives is minimal but its ability to bring peace doubtful. The idea of a benevolent America was appealing but images on satellite television from the Arab world dispelled those myths very quickly.

Acehnese identity is intimately related to Indonesia's wish for integration and historical desires for independence. Many craved true freedom but realized it was impossible at the present time. The cataclysmic tsunami wiped out entire families and communities but brought a desperately needed resolution to civil strife.

History can have a cruel sense of humor.