ON 2 December 2016, Ahmad Zakarsih, a thirty-four year old school administrator and Bekasi resident (possessed of a Jakarta identity card and therefore the right to vote in the city's upcoming gubernatorial elections) left his house at 6:00am and headed for the capital some 28 kilometres to the west.
He was there to protest against Jakarta’s Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (“Ahok”), who is running for re-election next week.
Many have claimed that Ahok insulted the Quran during a campaign stop. Indeed he is currently on trial for blasphemy (it's a controversial prosecution) even as he continues the hustings.
When asked why he participated in what was to be one of Indonesia’s largest-ever demonstrations, he replied quite simply: "I felt that I was answering a call of nature. To my mind, Ahok had shown disrespect to Islam.”
People seen marching through the streets of Jakarta, demonstrating against then-Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama’s (or “Ahok”) “blasphemous” statements. - Karim Raslan Photo
That's not to say that he's always been anti-Ahok: "I could well have voted for Ahok if he hadn't been involved in the case. In fact, I have no problem if Ahok isn’t imprisoned because if he truly is guilty, then Allah will punish him anyway."
As an alumnus of the Tebuireng pesantren – one of Indonesia's most celebrated residential religious schools (the late President Abdulrahman Wahid was a student) and thoroughly versed in Islamic theology and philosophy—Ahmad has the confidence of a man with an elite education however modest his means.
He also has the comic timing of a late night TV show host.
Ahmad Zakarsih (second from left) with his brothers. - Karim Raslan Photo
For example he describes Ciputat—in whose State Islamic University (UIN) he was also a student—as being like Las Vegas, replete with all manner of “terrible” temptations, something a visitor to the drab suburban Jakarta neighbourhood might find a little hard to comprehend.
Ahmad is Betawi – one of the original residents of the Jakarta region. The community’s most famous scions include the dangdut icon Roma Iroma, with his kitschy, Elvis-like look combined with staunchly conservative views.
However, over the decades, the Betawi have steadily been eased out of the centre of the vast twenty-eight million strong conurbation, selling their strategically-located homes and rice-fields to throngs of newly arrived Javanese, Chinese and Arab Indonesians.
It also has to be said that most of the Betawi were supporters of Fauzi Bowo, the Governor of Jakarta that Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) defeated in 2012 on his way to winning the Indonesian Presidency in 2014.
Ahok was Jokowi’s running-mate and hence “inherited” the Governorship. Hardliners in the Betawi community have arguably never been reconciled to these newcomers.
Ahmad's house has become a centre for kids in the neighbourhood to recite the Quran and practice hadroh every day. - Karim Raslan Photo
Ahmad’s own family home in a corner of the now-booming, 2.6 million-strong Bekasi (Indonesia’s fourth largest city, the one almost no one has heard of), is all that's left of a small family farm replete with orchards and sawah.
As he explains: "There were eleven of us and my parents had to sell land to educate us all. Back in 1998 when I went to Tebuireng, my boarding and tuition fees were IDR60,000 per month.”
After completing his degree, Ahmad worked in Siak on the island of Sumatra as a religious teacher for four years, marrying in his last year (it was an arranged match – he's at pains to stress that he never dated his wife), after which he returned home to Bekasi.
Ahmad Zakarsih with his family at their home in Bekasi. He and his wife had an arranged marriage and are now raising their two-year- old son. - Karim Raslan Photo
Both he and his wife work. They have a one-year old boy and are planning for more children.
Every evening, he gives free Quran classes to local kids, which he enjoys immensely. He’s known there as “Pak Ustad” (“Mr Religious Teacher”).
They also play the hadroh – devotional music with drums and stringed instruments.
Despite the vast amounts of money being poured into Bekasi's infrastructure – from toll roads to LRT's – Ahmad is an unflinching critic of the current administration.
"Things are much tougher now than ever before. There's more '”outsourcing” (contract employment) and all these Government cards for health and education are very difficult to apply for. Islam has also fallen badly behind."
More than 150,000 demonstrators gathered at Indonesian National Monument (Monas) protesting against Ahok's “blasphemous” statements. - Karim Raslan Photo
Much has been said about what motivates those who are ranged against Ahok. It has often been portrayed as a straightforward contest between fundamentalism and secularism, prejudice and pluralism, “black and “white” or “evil” and “good” as it were.
Talking to Ahmad however, with his cryptic language studded with Koranic phrases one gets a sense that – like all else in Indonesia—that there is more than meets the eye.
For a start, many of the more conservative Muslim groups who enjoyed privileged access and influence during the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono years feel excluded by the current centrist ethos.
The KH Noer Ali flyover welcomes visitors to Summarecon Bekasi. The flyover is named after a national hero from the city, Kyai Haji Noer Ali who fought colonial masters during independence. - Karim Raslan Photo
As we part, I ask Ahmad how he'll be voting.
He gives a half-smile and explains that he'll be conducting a special prayer to seek guidance – the 'sholat istikharah'.
"Who knows," he adds, "maybe I'll be moved to vote for Ahok?"
A monument at the Summarecon Bekasi town centre. - Karim Raslan Photo