Thursday, October 13, 2011

Looking for Eliza

Upon our first meeting, mas Arif said that he wished to know how I was tied by kinship to Eliza van Zuylen. I countered in the same way: I wish to know my kinship tie with Eliza van Zuylen. We looked at each other and laughed. I am from Holland and I am looking for a family member who lived in Pekalongan. Arif lives in Pekalongan and longs for archives stored in Holland so that he can learn about his city’s history.

Living in Oosterbeek, I know what it is to be “without archives”. Our town hall was destroyed during the Battle of Arnhem. I believe that the great numbers of avid local historians in the town were spawned by the absence of those archives. We are all trying to bridge that gap that separates us from the pre-war era. This is the way in which I understood Arif’s and Zahir’s reference to the lack of information about their buildings and streets. What was the Pekalongan in the colonial era that is still so present in the streets? Suddenly I became aware of what a great luxury it is to be able to access the Dutch colonial archives. I believe that lack of this kind of access inspires a particular kind of longing and disorientation. There needs to be a large, carefully planned effort to transfer information from The Netherlands to the former Netherlands East Indies so that the people here can explore/ interpret/ construct their past. Indonesia is ripe for this. Over-ripe.

I am here in Pekalongan as the guest of the Pekalongan Heritage Community, a group of citizens committed to making the most of the gigantic potential of Pekalongan’s history. Mrs. Eliza van Zuylen-Niessen is an historical figure in Pekalongan who has gained world-wide attention for her signed batiks. I have my name to thank for this extraordinary invitation.

Now we have found each other. We each have access to what the other does not have. During my three days here, mas Arif showed me Pekalongan’s enormous strengths. Now it is up to me to go back to Holland and accumulate information that can be meaningful for them.

The past three days I have been examining the hopes that they have pinned on me from many angles. I would like to develop a project proposal that is mutually satisfying and beneficial. Not just a research project, but a project that demonstrates that I have learned from the Back to the Villages project and thus places the needs of batik producers, rather than researchers, front and centre. Then I will feel that I have truly left the ivory tower behind.

Pekalongan received me very warmly. I sense a longing here to have the real Eliza van Zuylen walk through the door and begin talking about her life, take them on a tour of the city as it once was, hold up her batiks and explain them.

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