Living in exile is a life “born out of blood, pain, sadness, anger and spirit”, wrote Simon Sobron Aidit, 72, the exiled Indonesian poet who died on Feb. 10 in Paris. His utmost wish, he told Radio Netherlands two years ago, was that all victims of 1965-66 be fully rehabilitated. “They should be recognized as human beings,” he said.
To many who knew Sobron in the 1960s, he was a famous poet, one of the best writers in the anthology Ketemu di Djalan (Meeting on the street). To others who met him in his later years in Europe, he was known and loved as a warm, friendly personality among Indonesian exiles in Paris and Amsterdam. And to Internet readers in recent years — many of them from the younger generation — he was known as Oom (uncle) Sobron, whose stories they enjoyed very much.
But to Soeharto’s New Order government, Sobron Aidit was just a
blacklisted name, a taboo. And for that reason alone, he, like
hundreds of others who were allegedly involved in the 1965 coup
attempt, was banned from his country.
Born June 2, 1934, in Belitung, South Sumatra, Sobron, a language
teacher, was sent by the Indonesian-Chinese Friendship Institute in the mid-’60s to Beijing (then Peking) to teach at the Academy of Foreign Languages. On the fateful days following Sept. 30, 1965, like most Indonesians, he had but one question troubling his mind: what happened in Jakarta? “All we knew was that the political atmosphere was heightened. Didn’t Bung Karno describe the situation as jor-joran revolusi (a fury of revolutionary calls)?”
Suddenly he recalled what his brother, D.N. Aidit, the chairman of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), had said when visiting Beijing only a month earlier. Bang (brother) Amat, as Sobron affectionately called him, had warned: “Be alert, something will happen that will shake our country, so please don’t go home!”
“That’s all we knew,” Sobron told his story 40 years later in
September 2005. When a Cuban delegation later came to Beijing and
conveyed Fidel Castro’s message that D.N. Aidit had died, few among his friends believed it, but Sobron did. For him, it was also an omen. Late 1965, the bloodbath at home began. For Sobron and others like him, life radically changed afterwards.
He loved quoting Gus Dur’s word klayaban (wandering) to describe his life, but quickly qualified it: not wandering around at will, but being forced to do so. Banned from one’s own homeland is very painful, he said. We got old abroad, some even died because of the bitterness. Sobron’s Internet writings — he wrote stories every day – bear traces of such feelings. His sentiments may be understandable.
At the same time, he had — and wrote with — a great sense of humor, sought friends and was open to the public, including his former adversaries. In the view of Asahan Aidit, his younger brother, Sobron was “a literary diplomat”. The spirit of revenge runs throughout his post-1965 writings, but he hid it or expressed it eloquently.
His years in China was an unproductive period, but changes in
Indonesia since 1998 and the emergence of the Internet liberated
Sobron. He went home regularly and wrote more. Yet, neither his use of Indonesian (combined with the Jakarta dialect) nor the literary value of his works was really high, said noted writers Ajip Rosidi and even Asahan.
However, Sobron succeeded in turning himself into “a fabric of
stories”, producing an enormous amount of light and relaxed
narratives that were easy to understand and entertaining.
He did not write to argue, but to tell about his grandchildren,
friends, food and other things of everyday life. Once he related an anecdote he had with a barber in Indonesia. Having heard his name, the barber told him that he was a killer of communists in the ’60s. As the barber said that, the blade was poised to shave Sobron’s stubble. Both smiled. Sobron “survived” and left the barber with another smile.
Nurturing relationship through simple stories of everyday life may be the way he chose to humanize himself — after all, he was too aware of how the 1965-66 victims were treated, that he wanted them to be recognized as human beings. He argued that, as long as the decree banning leftist ideologies continued to exist, victims of the ’60s could be, as he put it,”di-Munir-kan” — that is, killed like the mysteriously poisoned human rights fighter Munir.
Sobron went through a spiritual upheaval. Brought up in a pious
Muslim family, he seemed less and less interested in religious
rituals as he moved to Jakarta. He was close to his eldest brother D.N. Aidit but, according to Asahan, Sobron had serious difficulties with Bang Amat’s insistence that “politics is the commander” — a style the Indonesian political left tried to impose in the ’60s. Later, during his years of exiled in Europe, he turned to Christianity.
“Sobron cannot be a ‘true ecommunist’,” Asahan said, “just as he
could not be a `truly religious’ man. He remained himself. The only thing he could turn himself into was becoming a true writer — which he did.”
It was this quality, his industriousness in creating stories, that attracted many and demonstrated the significance of the Internet for marginalized groups like the exiles. At a 2002 Washington conference, to which he was invited but could not attend, he praised mailing lists like John McDougall’s Apakabar as a free arena. Soon he acquired a website and the Internet became his new “homeland”.
Last week he fell unconscious while en route to the Internet cafe to post his stories — and died the next day. His remains are scheduled to be cremated at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and his ashes will be placed in his wife’s grave in Beijing and in his mother’s grave in Belitung.
The tragedy of the mid-1960s has left deep impacts on Sobron’s life, career and spirit. It has affected thousands of other “Sobrons” similarly, both in the past and in the present. The tragedy is a great challenge this nation — which Sobron loved so much — must face and resove.
The writer is a journalist with Radio Netherlands.