A chance to flirt with the fair sex
Banda Aceh has not had much to celebrate lately. Its shorefront lies in ruins after the December 26 tsunami. Many survivors still huddle in tents at night, or squeeze into communal wooden shelters. Even the signing last month of an ambitious peace accord to end decades of separatist warfare only raised a cautious cheer.
So when the annual state fair opened last month, on an outdoor exhibition site, there was a collective sigh of relief. Only weeks earlier, it seemed uncertain if the show would go on. Exhibitors dragged their feet, unsure if the city could pull it off. But the show did begin, and hundreds of thousands of Acehnese visited the fairground during 10 days of live entertainment, educational exhibits, shopping and feasting.
For Aceh's youth, there was another reason to celebrate its return. In a society guided by conservative Islamic mores, such events are prime opportunities for pacaran (flirting). During the daytime, the fair is packed with families and young children. But at night, as the volume rises from the outdoor stage, boys like Fahrui emerge from the shadows. A secondary school student in a tight blue T-shirt, Fahrui is on the prowl. The aim, he explains, is to befriend an eligible female and collect her phone number, before moving on. To catch their eye, he says, 'just move like a snake'.
That may not be enough to impress Narni, a university midwifery student on her third day at the fairground with Desi, a psychology major. A potential boyfriend has to be 'caring and romantic', she explains. In the past three days, she has collected 10 phone numbers, though she always waits for the boy to approach first.
Like every woman in the crowd of several thousand revellers, both Narni and Desi wear Muslim headscarves. They also wear tight jeans and make-up, carry mobile phones and flash coy smiles at passing boys, a sign of Banda Aceh's mixing of tradition and modernity. Other women stick to loose dresses and draping headscarves.
The air may be ripe with courtship, but it is far from raunchy. Hand-holding is rare, even if a couple is dating, and public kissing is a no-no. As the concert gets under way, though, some take advantage of the shadows to move a little closer.
Public displays of affection are risky in Aceh, the only province in Indonesia where Islamic sharia law applies. Plain-clothes sharia police are said to patrol the fairground, hauling off canoodling couples for compulsory prayer meetings. Earlier, a group of Islamic students rallied against immodesty with placards condemning 'tight clothes' on women.
The evening's finale is a rousing performance by Rafli, a wildly popular local singer who recorded a CD for tsunami victims. Blending Acehnese drums, Arabic guitar riffs and a stomping rock beat, Rafli's band fills the fairground with music. But it is mostly boys and young children who sway to the beat as Acehnese women are not supposed to dance in public.
Yanti, a 21-year-old kindergarten teacher, cannot help herself. A smile glued to her face, she moves on the spot. Isn't she afraid of falling foul of the sharia police? 'My body is moving itself,' she yells over the music. 'I know it's not appropriate or polite, but what can I do?'
Simon Montlake is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok