Originally Published at #AsiaNow
I had already sat for several hours, gently sweating, as thousands of people arrived at an open-air building in Solo, Indonesia. The streets outside were full of pedestrians, cars, motorbikes, buses, and the smell of fried tofu. People pressed into the building; some took seats close to the front, while others went to the second level to rest after a long twelve-hour trek, and some stood, impatiently awaiting the arrival of the man they had come to see.
Unceremoniously, Habib Syech bin Abdul Qodir Assegaf appeared. He began to walk through the crowds of people, heading toward the front of the building. Along the way, Habib Syech passed out small amounts of cash to the children, shook some hands, and slipped through the many others reaching to touch him. He eventually made it to the front of the building and sat down, immediately stoking the incense coals prepared for his arrival. Habib Syech asked if audience members had any questions, and for the next two hours he responded to queries about banking, proper Islamic practice, and a wide range of other topics. And then, suddenly, the atmosphere in the room changed.
Habib Syech reached for a microphone and began singing. He is a difficult figure to clearly define, but he typically travels around Indonesia, Malaysia, China, and Taiwan to perform sholawat (sung praises about the virtues of prophet Muhammad) accompanied by 20-30 musicians. The crowd lurched forward, and several limbs became embedded in my back and side. During the question-and-answer session I had come close to dozing off, but I was now fully awake, even as the room grew intensely silent, audience members gazing at Habib Syech. Along with their gazes, they also directed camera phones in his direction. Some individuals were holding two or three recording devices to capture this 90-second performance by Habib Syech. A surprise to me during one of my first field site visits to the Habib’s building, camera phones became a constant presence at all events involving this figure.