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The Cultural Emergency Relief Action: The Rebuilding Manuscript Library in Dayah Tanoh Abee, Aceh

Oman Fathurahman

This is an abstract of keynote presentation for the international conference on "Culture is A Basic Need" organized by CER Prince Claus Fund, the Netherland, 25-26 September 2006

On December 26, 2004, the Tsunami destroyed almost one-third of the Aceh’s province. Thousands of people killed, millions of them who survive from the natural disaster loss their houses, families, friends and love ones. The earthquake and the Tsunami damaged and swept almot all infrastructures such as office buildings, hospitals, schools, religious places. In summary, the natural disaster has turned Aceh to ground zero.

Human relief efforts came to Aceh from around the globe. Varieties of international aid organizations offered helps and assistance for Aceh to re-develop and reconstruct its region. The most remarkable loss understood by some of the Acehnese and people outside Aceh was its loss of cultural and historical inheritances. The offices of cultural archives and documents were either damaged or destroyed. They feared that Aceh will loose their local knowledge and wisdom which have been kept inside these offices. If houses, offices, schools, roads and other infrastructures can be re-built, they imagine what should they do to replace and re-develop their historical archives from the ruble and mud.

The Need to Preserve the Richness of Aceh’s Manuscripts
Post Earthquake and Tsunami
On January 18, 2005, just four weeks after the natural disaster, I went to visit the Bumi Rencong, a pseudo-name we usually call for Aceh. I brought along with me some basic needs in my suitcase. I was thinking that the stuffs that I brought might be useful for people in Aceh. In fact, my main purpose of this visit was to observe and identify how the Tsunami have affected the preservation of cultural inheritance and old manuscripts in the region.

For long, I understand that this province is rich with old manuscripts, particularly those that relate to religious issues. This is actually not very difficult to understand since Aceh has been known as one of the the first regions (or province) in Indonesia to receive the influence of Islam. There are some prominent and prolific ulamas from Aceh in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Hamzah Fansuri, Shamsuddin al-Sumatrani, Nuruddin al-Raniri, Abdurrauf al-Sinkili, and others. They wrote important religious works found now as manuscripts. The influence of their works spread not only in Aceh, but also in other regions in the Malay-Indonesian world.

Before the Tsunami, there are at least five institutions in Aceh, which maintain old manuscripts. They are The Foundation for Education and Museum of Ali Hasjmi (Yayasan Pendidikan dan Museum Ali Hasjmi/YPAH), Center for Documentation and Information of Aceh (Pusat Dokumentasi dan Informasi Aceh, PDIA), Center for the Study of Traditional History and Values (Balai Kajian Sejarah dan Nilai Tradisional /BKSNT), Provincial Museum (Museum Negeri Propinsi), and among these, the biggest is Dayah Tanoh Abee in Seulimeum, Great Aceh. Besides old manuscripts, these institutions also keep and preserve other variety of any important historical documents, which some of them are only available in Aceh.

The Tsunami destroyed and damaged some of the above institutions. PDIA and BKSNT were among the worse hit by the disaster. What left is only their name. The buildings and all of the important documents preserved were damaged and could not be saved any more. In fact, on my visit, I could still see the building of PDIA, although it was no longer stand right and full of flood and mud. And, at that time, the documents are still inside. However, given the massive loss caused by the Tsunami, people attention were focused to how to save the lives of the people by providing food, shelters and medicine. Therefore, I found some people laughed at me when I told them what I was doing. In their thought, instead of paying attention to those old archives and manuscripts, I should help them giving clothes, foods, and other basic needs. That is why the above institutions received no attention from the people, let alone the government.

The Foundation for Education and Museum of Ali Hasjmi, which possessed historical documents including old manuscripts produced, written and compiled by Professor Ali Hasjmy for years and years were also left in flood. Although the situation within this center was better than the other two institutions; the PDIA and BKSNT. Some of the books and documents that were in flood were still able to be secured. Fortunately, old manuscripts, which were kept in a special room, did not really damage.

In mid 2005, the Center for the Study of Islam and Society, PPIM-UIN Jakarta and The Archipelago Society for Manuscripts (Masyarakat Pernaskahan Nusantara/MANASSA) worked together with the Centre for Documentation and Area Trans-cultural Studies (C-DATS) Tokyo University of Foreign Studies to catalogue all the manuscripts of Ali Hasmjy’s collection. This catalogue is scheduled to be published at the first of 2007. As part of the collaboration, the Project also plan to digitalize the manuscripts.

Provincial Public Museum was one of the institutions that keep and preserve Aceh documents, including old manuscripts. It is very fortunate that the Tsunami did not really cause major damage to the building, so that all the documents and manuscripts kept at this institution were secured.

The most relieving facts was that the largest institution who keep and preserve abundance of old manuscripts, Dayah Tanoh Abee in Seulimeum, Great Aceh is secure. It is argued that this Dayah might has the biggest numbers of manuscript collection even throughout Southeast Asia (approximately 3.500 manuscripts). The only damaged was caused by the earthquake. It has just caused some section of the Dayah broken, including the base building of manuscript library. In fact, when the earthquake and the Tsunami hit Aceh, there has been already a reconstruction process taken place in the Dayah, especially in building the manuscript’s library. However, due to the insufficient funding, they had to stop the work. Worse, the earthquake which rocked the region before the Tsunami damage the structure of the library. Their hopes to start the re-development of this library had fade away.

I would argue that the effort to re-develop the manuscript library in Dayah Tanoh Abee is very important. This needs to be carried out in a near future. It is because more than 3.500 manuscripts written since the seventeenth century are hold in this place. So far, these manuscripts are kept just in Meunasah or in the private room of the Dayah’s leader without any efforts to preserve it well.

The Rebuilding of Tanoh Abee Library
and Preservation of the Archipelago Manuscripts
The Center for the Study of Islam and Society (PPIM) UIN Jakarta made an effort to develop a collaboration with the Cultural Emergency Response (CER) Programme of the Prince Claus Fund in 2006. Through this collaboration, sufficient funds are allocated to the rebuilding of manuscirpt library of the Tanoh Abee. The decision made by CER to help develop this library is such an important support. This will preserve the richness of the written documentations of Aceh, especially those of the old manuscripts.

More than that, ---and this is one of the most important thing--- the assistance given by CER through PPIM UIN Jakarta has developed a new kind of trust of people at Tanoh Abee towards foreigners. Before, Tanoh Abee was considered as a difficult institution to access. They used to prevent foreigners to access their archives, due to their past experiences with the foreigners. So that some of the important information may have not been properly explored. As an Islamic-based research institution of the Islamic State University, PPIM-UIN Jakarta has played its role in establishing this kind of trust from the Tanoh Abee people to the foreigners.

If the rebuilding of the library which is funded by CER accomplish, it is expected that foreigners or people from the outside will be able to have greater access to the historical manuscripts. With this, researchers or historians will have broader opportunity to explore new data, especially those that is necessary to reconstruct the socio-religious and intellectual dynamics of Aceh society.

Similar to the other general manuscripts, the richness of old manuscripts in Aceh are resulted from the accumulation and contestation of tradition, culture, politics, customs, economy and socio-religiosity of the Acehnese people. Thus, these manuscripts have become important for the people to understand more about the history of Aceh. Losing old manuscripts on Aceh will break the historical and cultural chain of the Acehnese society.

Compare to other regions, Aceh’s manuscripts are richer, especially in their religious characteristics. Most of these old manuscripts were written in the sixteenth century, while a large part of them are written in the seventeenth century by the Aceh’s ulamas such as Hamzah Fansuri, Nuruddin al-Raniri, Shamsuddin al-Sumatrai, and Shaikh Abdurrauf al-Sinkili. The total numbers of old manuscripts become double after the students of these ulamas copied them. In addition to that, the relations amongst one ulama to the other have enriched and diversified the existing manuscripts. A study conducted by Azyumardi Azra (1992) showed the importance of these manuscripts to reconstruct the social-intellectual history of Islam, in Aceh, Indonesia, and in Southeast Asia.

The collection of manuscripts at Tanoh Abee has not been inventoried properly. Hamdan Hassan (1978) mentioned that some of the manuscripts, and the efforts to catalogue the manuscripts have been previously carried out by Wamad Abdullah & Tgk. M. Dahlan al-Fairusy (1980) and Zunaimar & M. Dahlan al-Fairusy (1993). Tgk. M. Dahlan al-Fairusy himself has led the Dayah until now. However, these catalogues have not yet included sufficient descriptions of the manuscripts. They also have not yet incorporated the whole manuscripts and have not widely publicized. Therefore, very little was known to the public.

It is therefore important to say that the CER’s support to rebuild Tanoh Abee Library post Tsunami is an important step in preserving old manuscripts. In particular the effort to inventorise these manuscripts will depend on the rebuilding of the manuscipt library. Besides the cataloging, other important agenda that need to be done soon is the digitalization. This process will produce digital texts, to anticipate future loss or damage of the manuscripts either cause by ‘man-made’ or natural disasters.

For the 2007, PPIM has received a positive response that Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (TUFS) had been successful to convince Toyota Foundation to support cataloging the manuscripts in Tanoh Abee. Toyota Foundation’s decision was made after they learned that CER has previously agreed to finance the rebuilding of the manuscript library.

On behalf of the Dayah Tanoh Abee and Acehnese community in particular, and the society in general, I have to say my utmost gratitude to the CER of Prince Claus Fund for its support to the importance of preserving old manuscript of Aceh. My special gratitude and thanks also goes to Iwana Chronis, Program Coordinator of Cultural Emergency Response, who has worked continuously, as our contact person of CER, to make the rebuilding effort comes into reality.

I believe that we still need other supports towards the efforts to preserve manuscripts in Aceh and in other places in Indonesia. It is because Indonesia has rich important manuscripts, which contain not only religious issues, but also materials that relate to other knowledge such as history, law, customs, medicine, technology etc. We hope that what CER of Prince Claus Fund has done to Tanoh Abee will inspire other institutions and activists to understand the need to preserve our cultural inheritance.

Bonn, 22 September 2006

Related Issues
About the Conference on "Culture is A Basic Need"
Wisdom, Devotion, and Modesty: Jan Pronk's Speech
In Memoriam: Pewaris Naskah Aceh (Abu Dahlan al-Fairussy al-Baghdady)
A Dialog in Radio Nehterland (Bahasa Only)

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