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Poetic guardian
Kalimantan Meratus Dayak tradition

Wearing a black pullover, blue vest and black hat, the gentleman was very modest in appearance. With graying hair and moustache, he had a firm expression on his face. That evening, he was one of a dozen poets from Kalimantan whom the Jakarta Arts Council had invited to read their poems at the Cakrawala Sastra Indonesia 2 (second Indonesian Literary Horizons Forum), held in mid-September.

His modesty off the stage disappeared, however, the moment he took center stage in the New Theater building at Taman Ismail Marzuki, Central Jakarta. The hundreds of people in the audience sat mesmerized as they listened to the incantations of the Meratus Dayak tribe contained in the poems he read. Silence reigned supreme in the hall.

Sitok Srengenge, poet and activist from the Utan Kayu Community (KUK), clicked his tongue in admiration right after the poet, Boerhanuddin Soebely of Kandangan, Hulu Sungai Selatan, South Kalimantan, began reading his works. "Great!" he whispered while giving the thumbs-up. Sitok and most of the people in the audience expressed their appreciation as the poet recited his poem titled Megatruh and Senja Kuning (Yellow Twilight), which, while ostensibly focusing on the funeral procession of a Meratus Dayak tribal chief, describes how modernization has signaled the death of the Meratus Dayak community as a whole.

"iii....laaahhh/panjampaian janji panutusan hajat/maut dunia maut karama/sambut ka Nining Raja Kuasa" was the incantation that Soebely read out in the Meratus Dayak language while groaning sorrowfully. His Megatruh ended with the following lines (translated): To the white mountain, to the white mountain, that is the destination, the mountain where days and months lead on/to a land where there is neither morning nor night/to a land with diamond sand and grass made of gems.

The poems that Soebely read that evening forcefully articulated the sorrow of the Meratus Dayak tribe as they find themselves left behind by modernization. Through his poems, the sorrow becomes gripping, while at the same time expressing the magic nuances of beauty.

Meratus Dayak spokesperson

Of Banjar Malay blood, Soebely, born in 1957, is very close to the Meratus Dayak people, a tribe that lives in the Meratus mountain range of South Kalimantan. He often visits the homes of Meratus Dayak people and overnights there. As he is very close to the Meratus Dayak people and also because many of his literary works voice the sorrow of that people, fellow writers from Kalimantan call him the spokesperson of the Meratus Dayak community.

"Pak Soebely may be regarded as the spokesperson for the Meratus Dayak people because many of his works dwell on the problems they face. "Indeed, as he gets along very well with many Meratus Dayak people, his poems and plays contain a strong Meratus Dayak element," said Jamal T. Suryanata, a poet and an elementary school teacher in rural Kalimantan.

It is rarely the case, he noted, that a writer living with an isolated tribe writes about the tribe. Soebely, however, said that the only thing prompting him to come to the defense of the Meratus Dayak people was humanity and solidarity. The Meratus Dayak people, he said, should be defended because they did not enjoy proper access to development and had sacrificed a lot despite their own local wisdom.

"A few years ago, a gold-mining company proposed that the Meratus Dayak people be evicted from their protected forest on the grounds that their age-old land cultivation system was detrimental to the environment," Soebely said. It was true, Soebely said, that the Meratus Dayak people burn felled trees to open up new land as part of their slash-and-burn cultivation system. However, he went on, the people had their own ways of preventing forest fires.

They made fire partitions 45 meters wide to stop the fires and ensure that they did not spread, That way, the soil in the place where the felled trees were burned would be fertile. "The Meratus Dayak people living in uplands here have never used fertilizers or pesticides. They have their own traditional wisdom to ensure that the soil structure is not be damaged. This local wisdom differs from modern farming systems," Soebely said.

As they were being forced out of the forest, in June 2002 hundreds of representatives of the Meratus Dayak tribe from 300 centers across South Kalimantan came together for a four-day congress. One of the motions adopted by the congress rejected the exploitation of the Meratus Mountains Protected Forest in any form. A father of two teenagers, Soebely said that the fight by the Meratus Dayak people against the relocation proposal was legally well-founded.

Theatrical involvement

Soebely is no newcomer to the literary arena in South Kalimantan. Having devoted himself to literature since 1979, Soebely, a graduate of the Open University's School of Politics and Social Sciences majoring in state administration, has published several collections of poems, including Palangsaran (1982), Patilarahan (1987) and Ritus Puisi (Poetic Rite, 2000). His three novelettes, titled respectively, Reportase Rawa Dupa (Report from the Swamp of Incense), Seloka Kunang-Kunang (Stanza of Fireflies) and Konser Kecemasan (Concert of Worries) won the serialized story writing competition held by Femina magazine in 1997, 1998 and 2001.

A civil servant working for the Hulu Sungai Selatan regional administration, Soebely is also actively involved in theatrical activities along with his Teater Posko La-Bastari theater group. They have performed in several cities in Kalimantan and also in Surabaya, Jakarta, Bali, Yogyakarta, Bukittinggi (West Sumatra) and Melaka (Malaysia). Most of his plays dwell on social and political issues related to the well-being of the Meratus Dayak people.

Almost 50 years old now, Soebely promises that he will continue writing poems and plays and taking part in theatrical activities. He is determined to voice the sorrow of the Meratus Dayak people through his poems. "I will take the road of solitude as a poet to let the public hear the innermost voice of the Meratus Dayak people. I will not stop writing my testimony until such time as my hands can no longer write," he said.

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