— By Kelly Fitzgerald —
“Miss, the students want time to prepare for Muharrom. No class today, okay?” my co-teacher said with a smile Friday morning, five minutes before our last class of the week was supposed to begin. It was my second week teaching at SMA Wachid Hasyim 2 Sidoarjo and I was not to be easily deterred from entering the classroom. My brow furrowed slightly while I considered what to say.
“But Bu, don’t you think their learning is important too? The students have a test in two weeks. I would feel bad if we don’t have class before then.” Having made my point, I bit my lip and waited. She thought for a moment then shrugged with a nod. Okay, your funeral, her wavering smile seemed to say. I ignored the unsaid words and celebrated instead: Success! English class was not going to be canceled on my watch. I grabbed my teaching bag and together we ascended the stairs to the classroom. The shoe rack outside the door was full, so the students were definitely there. We slipped off our shoes, opened the door, and… quickly realized that class was indeed canceled for the day.
The classroom had become a full-on workshop, with the fruit of the students’ labor encircling the perimeter of the room. They were making a dragon. The desks and chairs were pushed against the rear wall and the dragon occupied the rest of the space. Scraps of paper, wire, fabric, and our students busily working covered every inch of the floor. A few students looked up from their work to greet us, but it was clear that there was no English learning happening that day. Just when you think you you’ve seen it all, class is canceled because of a dragon.
Two days later, I completely understood why my students needed that class time. For months prior to my arrival at their school, all of the students of SMA Wachid Hasyim 2 were busy preparing costumes, music, and performances for Tanggal Satu Muharrom, also known as the First Day of the Islamic New Year.* Their endless hours of work culminated in a Carnival-esque parade through the streets of Sepanjang, Sidoarjo on the morning of Sunday, October 2, 2016.
In addition to making their own costumes, most students also created a costume for their walikelas, or homeroom teacher. Not having a homeroom class of my own, my costume was a favorite topic of debate among the other female teachers for the weeks prior to the big day. At first, the general consensus was that I should dress up as a Nona Belanda, a Dutch lady. Having already become the face of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia one time too many, I vehemently opposed the idea and asked to wear something more Indonesian… or at least less Dutch. In the final days of September, one of the teachers had a flash of inspiration that I should dress up as Srikandi, a Javanese wayang kulit [shadow puppet] character taken straight from the Mahabharata Hindu epic. I agreed and within the hour I was trying on costumes in a rental shop.
When at last October 2nd arrived, final preparations for students and teachers alike began well before dawn. When I arrived at school shortly after 5 a.m. with my friend and fellow Fulbright ETA, Krupa Patel, the campus was already bustling with students fully costumed and sporting all manner of make-up. Their costumes, combined with the collection of hulking paper mache creations that they would parade through the streets, gave our school a decidedly whimsical feeling in the early morning light. The energy in the air was like a cross between streaking through Disney World before the park opens and having a sleepover with 2,000 of your closest friends.
With the help of Krupa and another teacher, I transformed from a bleary-eyed English teacher to a bow-wielding, gender-changing hero. Krupa threw together a costume of her own and by 6:30 we were ready to take to the streets. Without really knowing what was going on, we joined the flow of fellow costumed revelers spilling out of the school gates. We were joined by my headmistress, Ibu Nur, who guided us to the holding area on a nearby street where classes were lined up and joining the parade, one-by-one.
We waited at the official start, watching class after class from other local middle and high schools march past. Each costume was more creative than the last. Some students opted to dress smartly in matching batik, their hair neatly combed. Others wore handmade costumes created from paper, plastic, styrofoam and anything else they could get their hands on, which en masse had an impressive effect. Still others wore no costume at all, prancing through the streets bare-chested and wearing grass skirts as if they were taken from a distant moment in history. Nothing in an American high school rivals the scale and creativity on display in Sepanjang for Muharrom.
Finally, it was my school’s turn to hit the streets. Krupa and I, along with Mr. Yoshi the Japanese teacher and his two friends from the Japan Foundation, were ushered to the front of SMA Wachid Hasyim 2’s section of the parade. And so we marched. The parade wound around town, looping through now-familiar streets. Music was everywhere: each class carried a small orchestra called patrol** that they played nonstop. Boys played the gongs and drums and xylophones and girls shook and shimmied as modestly as they could. Onlookers lined the streets every step of the way, wearing pajamas and enjoying the view from their porches. Occasionally a cry of “Bule! Bule!”*** went up when someone noticed that some of the marchers didn’t look quite like the others, but for the most part everyone was equally transfixed by the fantastical, shimmering, larger-than-life costumes which preceded us.
Finally, after hours of waving at children and dodging the traffic that flowed around the parade, we reached our final destination: a local university campus. The relief was clearly visible on the dancers’ and drummers’ faces alike. Our students eagerly accepted the complimentary meal boxes and began replacing the thousands of calories they had burned that morning. The boys shed their patrol instruments and flopped down in the grass. The girls still managed to find energy to take a thousand selfies before finally calling it quits. As for me and Krupa, we recruited Miss Nisa–an English teacher who has no qualms about dressing up as a Nona Belanda–to take us back to SMA Wachid Hasyim’s campus for lunch and a well-deserved rest.
In the days following Muharrom, school life went back to normal. No longer did the sounds of patrol practice waft through the classroom windows. No longer did grass skirts poke out from under students’ desks, hinting at the silliness that occurs when teachers are not around. And of course, no longer did we have to cancel class because a dragon ate the classroom.
During those first few days, and even now, as I reflect upon Muharrom many weeks later, the entire holiday takes on a magical aura in my mind. I feel incredibly lucky to have been a part of this holiday from start to finish even though I am neither Muslim nor Indonesian. My students and fellow teachers welcomed one and all to leave reality behind for a day as they brought in the Islamic New Year with dragons, drumming, and dancing.
Kelly Fitzgerald is a second-year Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) living in Sidoarjo, East Java. She spent her first grant in Pangkal Pinang, the capital of the beautiful but lesser-known province of Bangka-Belitung. When she is not busy teaching, she enjoys learning Indonesian pop songs, drinking excessive amounts of coffee, and exploring Sidoarjo and Surabaya from the back of a Gojek. You can read more about her travels at https://whereintheworldiskelly.com/.
* Muslims across the world celebrate Muharrom differently. Among many Muslim communities worldwide, the holiday is observed with fasting and prayers. It can take on a solemn note in some areas depending on local beliefs. In Indonesia, Muharrom seems to be just another reason to spend time with friends and family. Across the country, people visit the homes of neighbors and relatives for the requisite praying and eating that accompanies most holidays in Indonesia. However, some communities take their celebrations to a whole new level. This year I am fortunate enough to live in Sepanjang, Sidoarjo where Muharrom is celebrated with a full-blown Carnival-esque parade through the streets.
** Patrol is similar to a western marching band. However, patrol often has only a dozen or so players and uses traditional Indonesian percussion instruments such xylophones, drums, and enormous gongs carried by two people.
*** Bule is a term that technically means “albino” but is used to describe all foreign people, especially those with white skin. Occasionally it can be used in a derogatory way, but in this case it merely was an expression of surprise because very few foreigners pass through Sepanjang, much less participate in their festivals.