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Of Space and 17,000 Islands

  • By Azwan Ismail
  • September 9, 2005

By Goenawan Mohamad

“…a girdle of emeralds on the equator”
– Multatuli (1820-1887)

A metaphor may beguile, even as it misleads. Multatuli’s depiction of this archipelago – yet to be called “Indonesia” – was repeatedly quoted by various leaders of the nationalist movement early in the 20th century. But a figure of speech is a figure of speech; it is not a definition.

“Emerald” or “smaragd” (Multatuli’s phrase is “de gordel van smaragd“) originates from the Greek smaragdos: “green gem.” Its beauty is fascinating. Indeed it brings to mind vibrant tropical forests without end. But hard and chiseled emeralds, when arranged into a “girdle” (gordel), are a finished product.

Meanwhile, 17,000 isles “linked one to another to become one” (“that is Indonesia,” says a national hymn) form a space that is never finished. It is continually being produced. The linking process began even before the 17,000 isles “became one,” and will continue beyond that.

The condition of “becoming one” is a constant demand for review and revision. For “one” is a mystifying number. We are never certain if indeed there is a “one” that is seamless, without lack, and without excess. Particularly if it was transformed from “seventeen thousand”.

What we know is: a space has been produced, is being produced and will be produced.


Man produces space, and a social space grows. Needless to say, this is also a political space. Borrowing loosely from Henri Lefebvre’s thesis in The Production of Space: a space is produced in the dialectic between man and the expanse of sea-land-atmosphere in which he lives and dies. In the process two situations emerge.

There is a time when space appears as something conceptualized. This “representation” presents space as it appears to builders of houses and fields, architects, urban planners, bureaucrats of regional administration, national economy technocrats, and social engineers. I will name that space the “L space,” for “lurus,” “linear,” “lekas” (“straight’, “linear”, “quick”).

The role of this “L space ” in every society is immense, and it is primarily this space that shapes modernity. It is easily translated into design, letters and numbers. It is as clear as black on white. It is easily controlled and easily used to control. But it is not everything.

Another space occurs when social space is produced in history: space that is directly occupied by man and his body – out of which customs, legends, and various symbolic acts are born. It is this space that is called upon in recollection, hope, and anxiety, and as such it is not easily transcribed into characters and blueprints. I label this “representational” space “R,” for “rekalsitran,” “rumit,” “redup” (“recalcitrant”, “complex”, “blurry”).

The history of these 17,000 islands is one of frequent engagement, crisscross, and negotiation between the “L” space and the “R” space and the men that interact with the two, either simultaneously or by turns. The “L” space pushes us to draw a straight, single line. Here conformity and uniformity play a significant part. On the other hand, the “R” space keeps bobbing out of the “L” space’s complete enclosure. It is not always clear, it is an annoyance, and it is persistently at variance.

In the “L” space, man manages differences as it manages Taman Mini (Miniature Park): a chain of 17,000 islands, 450 languages, and who knows how many accents, customary laws, and faiths are represented as a regular series of units, like stages with the same backdrop. But this “Miniature Park,” for all its “multiculturalism,” ignores the “R” space. Supervisors of the “L” space tend to standardize (and hence immobilize) the differences between various incompatible, even conflicting, currents that are obscure and volatile, and generally evade any classification.

Those who perceive the world as an “L” space – departmental officials, territorial military officers, real estate executives, and official clerics from the Ulema Council – will never fully succeed in producing the space they aim for. For the “R” space is alive; it speaks in symbols and signs, echoing memories and traumas, with the residue of history or its social subconscious. In diagrams and scripts, within the “L” space people capture only some aspects of the “R” space. A large part remains unearthed.

The vast multitudes living consciously and unconsciously in the “R” space do not always reject the transposition of their lives into the “L” space. At times they may even enjoy it. But more often they object. Eventually, in rebellion or otherwise, “users” of this space are at odds with the “producers” behind the grand design.

That is why, the 17,000 islands envisioned as space in the form of a “community” or “nation” is not a prophesied assemblage. “L” and “R” spaces do not necessarily co-exist peacefully. Lefebvre, a Marxist with a highly imaginative and incisive mind, is correct in describing how nations are formed: first through intersectional commerce, and second through violence. These two energies unite in producing a particular or ‘national’ space.

So, too, with “nation-states.” I connote the hyphen (“-“) between the two words to indicate a symbiosis that is not always stable between the “L” space and the “R” space, between a constructed structure and existing expanses of land, in history. It is nationalism that attempts to provide a discourse for this symbiosis. It is nationalism that forms part of what Lefebvre terms “metaphorization,” when “violence is cloaked in rationality and a rationality of unification is used to justify violence.”

Lefebvre’s omission: he mentions only “rationality.” In fact, nationalism as metaphorization reinforcing the symbiosis between the “L” and “R” spaces contains “L” + programmatic + progressive elements and “R” + affective + conservative elements. Bennedict Anderson’s musings in Imagined Communities indicate that this ideology was born in the shadow of the religious fervor it replaced, including its irrational aspects: it is nationalism that generated a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, of contingency into meaning, of chance into destiny.

But it is for this very reason a successful discourse of nationalism is a highly uncertain thing. The space that is formed, as I have stated, is also a political space where power, conflict, and rivalry occur. An “imagined community” is never universally imagined. It is always the product of the one that dominates the imagining – the one who holds hegemony that is transient…

What is admirable about nationalism is that in its uncertainty, it emerges to break through destiny – while posturing itself as the voice of destiny.


A chain of 17,000 islands like an “emerald girdle on the equator” is a panorama that may be witnessed only from the skies. In other words: from a space untouched by time.

On earth, space and time are mutually formative. The “Wallace Line,” a divide separating Bali and Lombok, Kalimantan and Sulawesi – such that fauna from the two halves of the 17,000 islands differ greatly – is one example: once upon a time the Asian Continent did not end with the Chinese coast and the Malaysian peninsula, but stretched to Kalimantan and Bali. In the Pleistocene Epoch, lasting nearly 2 million years, until 10,000 years ago, dozens of ice ages alternated with warmer interglacial periods, causing glaciers to advance and retreat. Oceans and islands were created, continents joined and separated. Geography is history.

But there came a time when the mutual shaping of space and time changed. Domination of the “L” space over the “R” space – marking modernity – indicates that change. Here I return to Lefebvre’s thesis when he says: “With the advent of modernity time has vanished from social space.”

Eventually time was indeed recorded only with measurement instruments and timepieces, for different functions. Time as something experienced in the “R” space, time that is close to the body and the symbols of a common life – the Javanese pakuwon, the computation of auspicious days for harvest festivals, teeth cutting rites, or circumcisions – has all but lost its significance. It has become time in the “L” space: visually interpreted into numbers and letters, divisible, eroded and contracted, and even erasable so as to leave no trace. Or it is turned into a commodity: valued because it can be traded for cash. Time, Lefebvre stated dramatically, “has been murdered by society.”

But I doubt this is true. To be sure, when nation-states work, they need consistency and certainty, and time must be transformed into mathematical units: thus the 17,000 islands are grouped into “Western Indonesian Time” and “Eastern Indonesian Time,” in the national budget, time is pegged in accounting columns.

Certainly there is a tendency for power, constantly threatened by uncertainty in time, to cling to spatial certainty: regimes may change, but territorial consistency must always be defended. Nationalism speaks as if time is a vacuum – the 13th century Majapahit era is likened to 21st century Indonesia – and patriotic ideology worships not an era, but a place.

But time never dies, despite Lefebvre’s verdict. It is invulnerable: transformed into mathematical units, it remains effective in a space lashed by modernity. It is easily used to sustain life. It may be abstract, but it is not vacant. We can no longer say, as did Amir Hamzah in one of his famous poems, “time pass by, it is not my turn.” Time will not allow us to be released from our turn. It is powerful. When “time is money,” and money is of great importance, swiftness becomes of the essence and signs of space, such as borders, are no longer crucial.

Sooner or later, space becomes brittle. Increasingly, nationalism will turn into mere nostalgia, if it does not cease to worship space. What do 17,000 islands signify, if they do not enter into a reckoning that benefits time? Would it be impossible to imagine an invasion threatening Indonesia, and the generals in Jakarta deciding that, by the reckoning of time, priority for defense should be on Singapore rather than Biak? A girdle of emeralds is beautiful, but to what avail if it hinders movement?

But behind the virtual space created by technology, physical space, like time, can never be murdered. There is no sign that we will ever live like ”the first man in space” described in the poetry of Subagio Sastrowardojo: far from a beloved earth, even were we able to witness the 17,000 islands like glowing gems. On earth there is always space that is no less fascinating, near but not entirely vanquished.

August 13, 2005


Goenawan Mohamad is one of Indonesia’s foremost poets, writers and journalists. A principal figure in the shaping of modern and contemporary Indonesian literature, he was among the original founders of Tempo – Indonesia’s leading news and comment weekly, where this article first appeared.

First Published: 09.09.2005 on Kakiseni