Saturday, March 06, 2010


On 4 March I visited Sitor Situmorang, the Batak man, now 85 years old, who had such an influence on my work in the early years. 
I remember our first meeting in Leiden in 1978. He was wearing a beret that he had picked up in Paris, one of his favourite cities, at a jaunty angle. He was friendly, but very impatient because I did not understand his status in Indonesia nor what I could expect from my acquaintance with him. At the time I was 23, and obsessed with Batak kinship terminology and kept pestering him about the Batak terms for various kinship catgories.

When I undertook my first period of fieldwork in Indonesia, he was also in Indonesia and we joined forces for a short time so that he could introduce me to some of his extended family and facilitate my fieldwork project in that way. He has a very dominant character and I faded into the background, but from that back seat, I learned alot about the way that the Batak interact and expectations of adat or customary law. Sitor also shared with me many of his reactions and impressions about being back in Toba, the country where he had been born and raised, but which he had left when he was still a young man. He often leaned on my anthropological knowledge as he tried to make sense of what he was experiencing. 

Sitor is a poet and writer. He sought the deeper meaning in every circumstance in which he found himself.  His return to the Batak area was not just a personal voyage but an investigation of the social history of his people. Since then, his writings have focused heavily on Batak history. Because of his life story, he has been able to blend an insider’s and an outsider’s perspective.

Sitor was the one who introduced me to Harian Boho, a rather out-of-the-way bay on the west shore of Lake Toba where he grew up. His family helped me find Ompu Sihol -- I was searching for a weaver who could introduce me to the traditional Batak weaving arts, and she was the one they recommended. This was certainly a crucial moment in my fieldwork and in my life, as it was she who taught me how to weave with a backstrap loom. Legacy in cloth is peppered with photographs of her at work.

I often think back on that journey.  It was a turning-point in both of our lives. He was as old, then, as I am now. I now understand the need that comes with this age, to reconnect with one’s roots as one tries to make deeper sense of one’s being-in-the-world. The way he shared his insights and discoveries was precious to me because it opened up a whole new world and gave the Batak traditions vibrancy.  His example was also a kind of permission for the blending of the personal and the sociological that is my current path in the town of Oosterbeekk, the Netherlands.

When Legacy was launched in 2009, Sitor was in Indonesia. Upon their return, his wife, Barbara contacted me and invited me for lunch.  It was a reconnection after a long time and some bumps in our relationship.  Anxious to see his reaction, I handed the book over to Sitor immediately.  I was anxious to see his reaction. This book was so long in the making that I know that he had given up on me ever finishing it. 

He sat down and looked at the front cover: Legacy in cloth. Then he looked at the spine: Batak textiles of Indonesia.  “This is just about BATAK textiles? ” he asked, surprised. When he started to look through the book, it was as though he couldn’t stop.  I was very aware, as I watched him inspect the tome, that there were few people for whom this book would have more meaning than Sitor. Finally, he placed it to one side and looked at me sidelong. 

 He said just one word: “Congratulations.”
After a pause, the conversation began to roll.

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