The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Thursday, September 22, 2016


At home with the Aremaniacs                                  

The Brits would have loved it.  Deep in the heart of East Java the Union Jack carried with pride, waved with vigor, cheered by thousands.
But the only blondes bobbing in the swirling ocean of football fanatics were two benign Belgians, disguising any assumption that they might be Dutch or American.  Their trick was to pull on Harry Potter cloaks of invincibility, in this case T-shirts screaming love for Arema Football Club.

Paul Beetens and Annie Aertsen (right)needn’t have bothered.  Had the boisterous crowd known the couple were from the tiny royalty that’s become the darling of European soccer they’d have been mobbed as heroes at Arema’s giganormous birthday bash in Malang.
The day-long show celebrated 29 years of less than spectacular successes on the field (Arema was last trounced by Persipura Jayapura) but almost three decades of heartfelt hope and soul-wrenching prayer. With wet cheeks they recall 2010, the year of majesty when they reigned over the Indonesian Super League.
To revive the fatigued ambition the fans painted the town blue. Although 11 August is the official 1987 birthday, the police persuaded organisers to shift to the nearest Sunday to minimise disruption.  The tactic was a success. Total chaos was reduced by five per cent – gridlock by marginally less.
The Belgian tourists thought the event a hoot.  And a roar, amplified by a hundred thousand Hondas, plus a backing choir of Suzukis and Yamahas.
“It’s a celebration of solidarity,” they shouted. “Everyone seems happy. We’re lucky to be here at this time.  We came for a trip to Bromo – and this is a bonus.”

Malang’s followers didn’t get labelled Aremaniacs by holding soirees with the gentry so security was intimidatory.  ‘Was’ because threat fatigue soon set in – as it does wherever trouble is imagined.  Suspicion is a high-maintenance emotion with a short shelf-life.
A Brimob squad in age-of-terror black vaulted from a Barracuda APC (armed personnel carrier) that looked like a giant toad. They checked packs of tear-gas cartridges, slung Pindad SS1 assault rifles across their chests and swaggered into the front line. 
The everyday cops, eclipsed by this awesome show of military might, showed their authority by pulling out traffic offenders and disarming riders carrying flagpoles.
“To stop them being used as weapons,” said one Polwan (policewoman) who then used a confiscated stick to whack the bottom of a fan giving cheek.

In the West this arresting sight would have been a clear case of police brutality – upgraded to sexual assault in the hands of an ambitious lawyer with a Facebook account. There’d be stand downs, sackings and a Federal inquiry.  But this is Indonesia – so the victim just laughed and rode away, 
cheered –or maybe jeered - by the bystanders.  It was difficult to know whose side they supported.
Arema’s birthday party is one great Do It Yourself shebang, at odds with the official choreographed  17 August Proclamation Day events where goose-stepping discipline rules. The hand-made banners often use English to add status, though the grammar and spelling tended to dampen that desire.
Though the mob was largely male the event was egalitarian.  Women may have been outnumbered, but they compensated with enthusiasm by pillion dancing and urging the drummers to bang harder.
Teenage Fitri’s message across her bosom was encouraging: Football For Unity, Indonesia is not Iran or Saudi Arabia, so a woman’s place is almost everywhere.
The Union flags were there to inspire. The UK teams are models for Arema fans who wish their lads could be as skilled and focussed as ManU.   In Malang it’s the English league which excites.
The fans trickled through the gauntlet of gendarmes, and then opened throttles for circuits around the flower beds before the Balaikota (town hall).  The courtyard was fronted by two blue fibreglass lions, so kitsch they wouldn’t make it into a Disney cartoon movie. 

Arema’s symbol is a lion for reasons as weird as the cult.  The horoscope sign for August is Leo, known as singa in Indonesian. So the fans call themselves singa edan (crazy lions) and carry cuddly toys to represent the jungle king.
They also use a corrupt form of mirror writing, even applied by Merdeka University Rector, Anwar Sanusi to show his campus has street cred. He featured in a poster mouthing the decidedly unscholarly ‘tamales ngalu nuhatu’, which untangles as ‘happy birthday’.
Suddenly the police radios sputtered and the uniforms dashed away.  Clearly a fight had erupted, or – shock, horror, - maybe a suspicious package. Fortunately it was the lunch bell and the packages contained the local alleged delicacy nasi rawon (black beef soup).
In the absence of authority the helmetless rode on regardless.
Noir may be elegant in Paris salons and warming in cold climes, but in the tropics it’s torture. By noon the sweating Brimobbers decided there are limits to anonymity, so ripped off their face masks. 
This delighted the gigglies seeking selfies with Men in Black. The bullet-proof Barracuda began to melt.  So the doors were opened, letting the local guys goggle the weapons wonderland.

A fence was erected to give the police some peace. The sticky-beakers stepped over, the kids ducked under. The Ninjas gave up.
 As most celebrants were Muslims the only lubricant was water.  So when prangs occurred and mudguards cracked the response was resignation, not an excuse for a boozy brawl.  Foreign club managers should attend next year’s party (probably 13 August) and learn about crowd control:  Keep the crowd dry.
The greatest danger was not from a deranged knifeman but an invisible toxin. 

The fans should have prayed for real winds of change. Concentrated carbon monoxide kills.  In lesser doses it sickens.
The saddle dancers lost their balance, the banner boys began to flag, the kids in lion masks stopped growling and started coughing. Arema’s birthday is a fun show which should be on the tourist calendar, a marvellous expression of organic togetherness.
But on a windless day in Malang it’s a health hazard.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 22 September 2016)

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