By Ben Garcia
KUWAIT: Various ambassadors in Kuwait were interviewed by Kuwait Times to learn more about their local traditions and culture during Ramadan. We also asked about the current coronavirus situation in their respective countries and how they are handling and reacting to this pandemic. The following are excerpts from our interview with the Indonesian Ambassador to Kuwait Tri Tharyat:
Kuwait Times: We are in the time of a pandemic now. What were your orders to Indonesians in Kuwait with regards to following the local laws of the host country? What is the current situation of your people in Kuwait and back in Indonesia right now?
Tri Tharyat: This question is something very close to my heart. On March 11, 2020, the WHO announced the coronavirus was a global pandemic. Kuwait immediately responded to that call and implemented strict measures. Three days after the announcement, the airport was closed. They restricted the movement of people from all over the world. Then lockdowns and curfews followed. Nobody in the world was prepared for this.
A few days after that, we received news that one of our nationals was infected. We were all shocked. The first Indonesian infected abroad came from Kuwait, so it was huge news for us. In April 2020, the first Indonesian died of coronavirus here. The sad thing is that he was a nurse, a person who was a frontliner battling the pandemic.
So the first Indonesian was infected abroad, and the first casualty was abroad too. It put us in a very difficult and challenging situation – at some point we minimized contacts at the embassy to only 10 percent. Officially, our office did not close, but we worked from home and had skeletal manpower at the embassy.
We also applied a very strict protocol to protect our building from the virus, and disinfected the building every now and then. Weeks passed, and we heard some Indonesians could not travel and were stranded here. Some Indonesians on family visas were out of Kuwait, and they could not come back because of travel restrictions. Many Indonesians lost their jobs, many of our people were not receiving salaries, etc, so they did not have any money.
So I talked to some Indonesians here to help out. They answered our call by providing basic needs, food, supplementary hygiene kits and ladies’ toiletries. They could not go out of their accommodations, as some areas were under total lockdown. Only diplomatic cars were allowed to enter to bring them food. When they reopened, things returned back to normal again – at least no more shortages of food.
Then I found almost 70 Indonesians were stranded in Kuwait. They were families on tourist visas, who could not leave. But we are thankful, because the Kuwaiti government announced an amnesty program for expats, so we managed to send them home. We made an announcement to Indonesians and our people were able to take advantage of the amnesty. We managed to arrange 110 Indonesians to be sent home, but only 90 were eligible. Seventy stranded Indonesians with family visas were also sent home. The good thing about the amnesty was that the Kuwaiti government shouldered the air tickets, which was a blessing.
Even today, we have many Indonesians abroad infected with the virus, but the cases of infection are low now among Indonesians, with 219 cases and eight deaths. Two are still in critical condition. Around 25 percent of infections are medical personnel working in hospitals.
As for Indonesia, we are facing problems similar to other countries in the world. We learn from each other and are cooperating to ensure that at this stage we have the vaccine accessible and available to at least 70 percent of the total population of Indonesia. To date, we have inoculated around 15 percent of our population of 270 million. We have already secured 150 million vaccine doses. We have been cooperating with China, Japan, Norway and Korea to develop a vaccine of our own, and it is now in the final stage. By the end of the year, we are hoping that the entire population of Indonesia will be vaccinated.
The government has been very committed to resolving this corona issue so we no longer have to endure any lockdown policies. We have implemented a ‘push and break’ policy – when there is a surge we will take a break; when it subsides, we will open the economy. It’s hard, but this is the only way to move forward. Our economy has bounced back – the World Bank is predicting that our economy will rebound to 4.5-5.5 percent this year. This rebound is rather quicker than we thought. We are happy, as it means we managed our economy better.
In January, I thought we would be okay, so I left for Jakarta. But a few days later, my staff called and told me that my ticket was cancelled because they stopped flights again and limited the number of passengers. Thank God, a week after the cancellations, they reopened, so I was able to enter Kuwait again. But flights stopped again and curfews were imposed.
Vaccines in Indonesia are free. What is badly needed now is access for the whole world to vaccines. It is very sad that more than 100 countries are yet to access a vaccine. The sad news is that many rich countries are stocking up on vaccines. I hope everyone has access, so that all people in the world get vaccinated. If there are countries without a vaccine, it is bad for us and the rest of the world.
Kuwait Times: How will Ramadan celebrations differ this year for your embassy and people?
Tharyat: In all Muslim countries around the world, Ramadan is a big thing. Our celebration is almost similar. I was lucky to be assigned here three years ago, a few months before Ramadan. This was my first assignment to a Middle Eastern country and I am ending my tenure in a few days from now. When I joined as the new ambassador, I got many invitations. I attended many functions here – this is our tradition in the diplomatic circle.
Ramadan is the best time of the year. During fasting, the best and most important ritual for us is the breaking of the fast. In our country, all restaurants are full to capacity for iftar, unlike here where there is no celebration – just eat and break the fast. I think, what is celebrated here is the ghabqa. People attend ghabqas, go out after iftar and celebrate in diwaniyas.
This will be repeated every day, and the big celebration is Eid Al-Fitr. We normally celebrate it for almost a week. We have a big celebration here with meat and all kinds of food – you name it. People go back to their families in the provinces, and we return only after days of celebrations. Here Eid Al-Fitr is not very much celebrated, unlike Eid Al-Adha. They are focused more on Eid Al-Adha here than Eid Al-Fitr – for us, it’s the other way around. But it doesn’t matter.
In Indonesia, Ramadan prayers are lively and noisy – here, not that much. We have carnivals and feasts until dawn. The provinces are decorated with colorful stuff. When I was a kid, I walked with my friends to celebrate, with drums beating around the village. These traditions are still observed.
Girgian is unique to Kuwait – this we don’t have. Food is the same. We are a democratic country, so restaurants are open even during the day. Those who are not fasting can eat, but in respect of those who are fasting, we normally cover the restaurants. People in Indonesia are free to eat if they are not fasting, unlike here where restaurants are closed and open only during iftar.
In Indonesia, we are majority Muslim, but we all respect all religions, like in Bali, where the majority is Hindu and Christian. This was a result of compromise. At some point, the agreement between the kingdoms at that time to stop fighting was if you want to continue practicing your religion, you must go to that island. So you see a Hindu majority there.
In Indonesia, we have two main Islamic groups – Nahdlatul Ulama, the larger group, and Muhammadiyah. These groups are both Sunni. The difference is that Nahdlatul Ulama is more traditional than Muhammadiyah. Muhammadiyah is mostly run by intellectuals. But they do not contradict each other. These organizations will decide when Ramadan starts for them – they don’t necessarily go with the same dates of Ramadan. The government will choose the date either way. The two organizations develop madrasas, schools and medical facilities. We have Shiites too in Indonesia, but they are small in number.
Indonesians in Kuwait
Kuwait Times: What about Indonesians in Kuwait? How they are celebrating Ramadan here?
Tharyat: Indonesians in Kuwait enjoy the benefit of being Muslim. Since 2011, the Kuwaiti awqaf ministry has been kind enough to give us our own mosque here. The Indonesian mosque is in Riggae and we are managing it. Indonesians visit our mosque every Friday for prayers. We use it for Quran recitation and for our daily activities during Ramadan. We also use it for educating children and teaching them the Holy Quran. We have regular prayers in this mosque. We receive people and share food, even at the embassy premises. During Ramadan, I visit every group that invites me. We organize community events too.
Kuwait Times: How many Indonesians are now in Kuwait since the ban on your nationals from working as domestic helpers here?
Tharyat: Officially around 6,000, but I think it’s fewer now, since the pandemic hit the world badly. The domestic helper ban was imposed in the Middle East in 2009. The remaining domestic helpers now in Kuwait from Indonesia number around 2,600, while the rest are in retail and the medical field.
Kuwait Times: After you banned sending domestic helpers to the Middle East, do you still have the problem of human trafficking? How are Indonesians protected from human trafficking?
Tharyat: It was reduced dramatically. In some countries, like our Asian neighbors, we still have this problem. Here in the Middle East, I think the UAE has many cases, but in Kuwait, so far I only know of two cases. It’s hard to control, but we are doing our best to stop human trafficking.
By the way, we are open to countries that can provide maximum protection to our people. We have domestic helpers in Singapore, Korea, Thailand and Malaysia. Of course with our economic growth in past years, we help our people find jobs in Indonesia itself, but we cannot deny anyone from seeking to work abroad for maybe a bigger salary.