Thursday, May 11, 2023

Time Made Time Spent

 (for Harna and Lasma)


Home again after a long journey, I multitask. There are the things that need to be picked up from 5 months ago, and there is the residue from the journey. It doesn’t take long before everything criss-crosses into the chaotic jumble that is my current now. I iron a blouse while doing a wash, breaking off to examine the provisions in the kitchen and write a quick message to a friend; I note that it is time to put away my winter clothes; then I remember to pay a bill… In the meantime, I daydream about Ompu si Sihol, my weaving teacher in 1980. I recall her sitting on her haunches, stick in hand, guarding her piglet so that it can eat without interruption. This was part of her daily routine. Her day was always calm and clear. I remember admiring her amazing work habits: methodical, orderly, deliberate, calm. I did not expect such excellent time management in a poor Batak village but I am embarrassed now to admit it because Batak weavings should have taught me that they were made with careful discipline. When Ompu si Sihol wove, her work was methodical, orderly, deliberate, calm. I break off my rushed criss-crossed chaos to sit down and write.


Ompu si Sihol didn’t multitask. She set herself a goal and she worked on it until it was done. Never rushed. The goal that she set for herself was manageable and filled her day; she did it expertly, not fast and not slow. Step by step. She kept in mind the preparations for the next day in the process. Time was in her hands. Time was the process of weaving her cloth: winding the warp today, setting up the loom tomorrow…  Occasionally a neighbour would come by to chew the fat while Ompu si Sihol continued her work, methodically and unwavering. Only feeding her pig and taking a bath in the stream when the sun was high, would pull her away, but those interludes, too, were part of her day’s rhythm. I often think of that when I am multitasking, in a rush to meet deadlines, forgetting the pot on the stove. And I admire Ompu si Sihol all over again. But having recently learned more about the technical side of Batak weaving, I know that there was so much more to Ompu si Sihol’s way of working.


I recognized that deliberate, clear orderliness that I learned from Ompu si Sihol when, more than 30 years later, I observed Ompu Elza, br. Sinaga, weave her bulang. I saw that the steps in the process of making a hiou (the name for a cloth in her culture) structured her days. The parts of her cloth framed the steps in weaving it. The facilitating techniques were her medium, and in her hands that medium also synchronized with the cloth’s design.


I recall how she reacted viscerally, even after 15 years, when she remembered what it was like to try to meet the demands of the sagging market, to try to earn a few cents. It turned her into a slave because she needed every cent she could get to try to meet the needs of her family. She worked non-stop, pressured to weave ever faster. She hated every second of that demoralizing bondage. Ompu Elza likes to work with utmost care, checking, double checking, establishing her best self in her cloth.


During my years in the Batak area of North Sumatra, I have rarely observed that methodical manner of working but I assume that it was once the norm. Today, most weavers work quickly. Speed of execution is their priority. They cut corners, take liberties to meet market strictures, even taking pride in their capacity to zip through a cloth. Speed and flexibility is where they see their expertise: “I just try to make money,“ they say. “I weave whatever the market asks. Do I like weaving?” My question puzzles them. “I am just trying to earn some money, that’s all.” And they sandwich the weaving between other demands on their time. What gets half done now will be worked on again later. Late nights if necessary. A double weft fills a cloth faster than a single weft. Dispense with ikat in this erstwhile ikat tradition and shift to supplementary weft because it is faster; there are fewer steps involved. Don’t bother to repair a broken warp yarn like Ompu Sihol did fastidiously; no point repairing errors. ‘Seolaholah’ (‘quick and dirty’) is good enough. Weaving in this way has everything to do with the rhythm of the market. The market discourages rigour and quality. Consumers don’t know quality anymore anyway, so it is a waste of time. The market teaches weavers that their work has no value. Their products are disposable tokens. Only speed has value because only money has value. 


These speed-weavers work in a ‘modern’ time frame. They probably have neither knowledge nor recollection of the cloth frame that Ompu si Sihol lived within. How could they? The income of weavers has been drastically low for generations and they have had to adapt to maximize their earnings. Even those painful economic circumstances declined further as the (semi-) mechanical loom gained in popularity. Such a loom weaves cloth faster and drives prices down. Backstrap loom weavers now have to compete with (semi-)mechanical speed for even just a tiny corner of the market. If these women had an alternative, they would not be weaving at all; they would prefer something less demoralizing. They have not had the luxury to think about time nor the perfection of their skills, nor their creative capacities and the capacities built into their ancient weaving tradition.


I think back on my anthropological training and my fascination with temporal frameworks. I learned that the circular Batak warp represents never-ending cyclical time, the cycle of all life.  I saw the warp In my mind’s eye as a circle mapped onto a concept, like a letter in the alphabet representing a sound. I imagined the fully woven but uncut cloth being circulated in the hands to depict the perpetuity of life, something the Batak apparently used to do. 


Ompu Elza weaving a Bulang
But there is that other dimension already mentioned above; that  Ompu Elza wove to a rhythm consistent with the structure of her cloth-in-the-making, allowing the design and techniques of her cloth to structure her days: one day to weave half of the red part, the next day for the other half, pausing for lunch only when a segment had been completed and so on…. Cloth design was simultaneously weaving time.  In her loom she made time while she spent time. Time was not just an abstract ‘out there’. It was experiential; it was her guide and the framework of her self-discipline. It shaped her days. When Ompu Elza wove her bulang, she lived the process -- and I think that was the case with Ompu si Sihol as well. Ompu Elza’s longing to work in synchrony with her cloth, supported by the sufficiency of pay that I gave her for her work, provided her with the room that she needed to be able to co-exist with her cloth.


This is the room that weavers, who are plugged desperately into the market for their daily needs, all the while competing with semi-mechanical looms, do not have.


A Batak weaver inherits her repertory from the ancestors, all the way back to the first ancestor who came down from the upper world. She must accurately recapitulate the weaverly steps first performed by her ancestors to make a cloth fit to be named (na margoar) and thereby eligible for social ritual, to enable the wearer to come in contact with the spirit world, to entreat that world to be benign. The temporal process of weaving is a sacred trust just as the design of the cloth. And so each generation of weavers is also like a cycle of uncut cloth rotated in the hands; each with the onus to pass on her divinely inherited skills to a successor, the next link in the chain. 


Let weaving time take its rightful place in acknowledged lifecycles of the Batak: the cycles of the sun and moon, the winds and rains, the rice, the links of which the patrilineage is made, the birth, maturity and death of all creatures. The exclusive purview of women, weaving time is women’s time when she is free from enslavement to the market and has the space to embody the process of creating time.

The weaverly ways of Ompu si Sihol and Ompu Elza open what feels like a magical  window onto a conceptual world that has faded into the past. When I set out on my first fieldwork expedition in 1979, I wanted to find remnants of the pre-colonial Batak conceptual system. I remember pondering the elusive matter of conceptual change. We live ineluctably within our conceptual frameworks; is it even possible to recall or re-experience a conceptual system after it has transformed? Are we not mono-conceptual? We cannot live in two conceptual frameworks at one time, or flip-flop between them. Are there any words or ways to describe or elicit another one? Watching Ompu si Sihol and Ompu Elza weave, I feel that I am privy to something rare and precious, something to be treasured like a final drop of healing medicine. Theirs is a conceptual invention outside modernity, outside capitalism. In the West this is what we seek as a way out of the damaging way we go about having clothing. Theirs is an alternative to the globalized fashion system, which is none other than a driver of production, consumption and waste. Yet this precious alternative is slipping away before our eyes -- unrecognized, un-treasured, unnoticed -- as elderly weavers die and others concede defeat and lay down their looms a very last time.