Straining to make herself heard over an Oasis cover band, Maggie, who didn’t want to give her full name, explains her bar’s strategy during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
“You don’t want to be too obvious,” she says, also asking that the name of her sprawling venue in the heart of the Kemang entertainment district in Jakarta be withheld – after all, she doesn’t want to attract attention.
Every Ramadan during the past 10 years, Maggie has shut the bar in the front, covered the windows and directed patrons to the restaurant in the back where drinks are served in ceramic mugs rather than glass. Signs advertising Heineken and Bintang beer are covered in black plastic. “You never know if there’s going to be trouble,” she explains.
Welcome to Jakarta at Ramadan, where a variant of “don’t ask, don’t tell” may well be the maxim for some as a way of keeping the peace between hardline conservatives and secularists – as well as a nod toward the simple realities of keeping a business open.
“If I can’t sell beer I can’t pay my girls,” says Maggie of her army of about 60 or so young waitresses.
But after a first half of 2017 that saw the persecution of the Indonesian capital’s gay and lesbian community, the jailing of its Christian, ethnic Chinese governor thanks to rabble rousing Muslim conservatives and the election of his successor, whose manifesto includes a year-round ban on alcohol, the light touch on tippling may come as a surprise.
Not especially, it turns out. It’s true that Jakarta has been gradually restricting booze during Ramadan since about 2005, when anyone buying beer had to show ID to prove they were the legal drinking age of 21. As conservatives gained influence, though, “nightspots” like ostentatious clubs, massage parlours, and karaoke bars with billiard tables – would close during the holy month or face the wrath of vigilantes. Tarps would be thrown over beer billboards. Liquor stores would be boarded up.
As attacks on transgressors by groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) grew more violent, the government of the previous governor Basuki Purnama – who is better known as Ahok – made it official, banning all alcohol sales everywhere during the fasting month. The edict, made through the city’s tourism agency, closed the centres of sin, or, in the case of music venues, for example, curbed their operating hours. On the face of it, the conservatives got what they wanted.
But because this is consensus-loving Indonesia, the ban came with a twist: a rule stating hardliners must follow existing rules against taking the law into their own hands to smash up businesses suspected of selling alcohol during the prohibition period.
“It’s like the government said ‘you’re both right. Now back off’,” says Sandra Hamid, the country representative of the Asia Foundation think tank.
The result, Hamid suggests, is not so much a display of tolerance, of which much is written by foreign journalists. Rather, it’s a manifestation of muddling.
“This is a negotiation. It’s a manifestation of the Indonesian desire to find a grey area – the middle way so that both sides win and no one loses face.”
Helping the Maggies and revellers of Jakarta is that the hardline FPI is in disarray anyway, owing to scandal and loss of influence.
Police, often enablers and enforcers of the wishes of hardliners, have turned against the group since its new reformist chief, Tito Karnavian, took the reins last year. Since then, the FPI leader, Rizieq Shihab, has become mired in a sexting scandal with a young woman who is not his wife. The affair may put Rizieq at odds with the country’s onerous pornography law. He is on the run in Saudi Arabia.
Last week, police arrested two members of the group after video circulated on social media of them striking a 15-year-old boy of Chinese descent for having allegedly slandered their leader. The pair were part of a larger group of men caught on video harassing the visibly shaken youngster to sign a letter of apology for the supposed slight.
“The police are being firmer [with the FPI] thanks to the leadership of Tito,” Hamid says.
So, at the halfway point of the fasting month, what does this all mean on the street in Kemang?
“It’s been steady compared with previous years,” says Mukiyono, who dishes up fried noodles and rice or chicken soup from his food stall everyday.
Normally he goes through 7 litres of rice every day, he says, using the Indonesian measurement for the grain. During Ramadan that slips to four. “It might be a little busier at the weekend than it usually is.”
But down the road at the Bremmer Beer Garden, they aren’t taking anything for granted. Nestled down a nondescript corridor off the main street of Kemang, Green Day songs play at a low volume as the night crowd filters in. “We’ve been getting about half of the usual crowd,” says the bartender Glen, who wouldn’t give his last name. In the six years that Glen’s worked at the beer garden, this is the first time the beer garden has been opened during Ramadan.
“There’s going to be a change of government so maybe now it makes to sense to open while we can,” Glen explains. “Things are going to get stricter.” ■