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The Tale of the Bearded Turtle

Wikan Satriati is a graduate from the Faculty of Letters of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Wikan is an experienced editor specializing in manuscripts of literary and cultural content, and works as a freelance translator. She translated Harry Aveling’s essays from English into Indonesian for inclusion in an anthology of Indonesian poetry, Secrets Need Words: Indonesian Poetry 1966–1998 (Center for International Studies, Ohio University, 2001). IndonesiaTera published the Indonesian translation in 2004 by under the title Rahasia Membutuhkan Kata: Puisi Indonesia 1966–1998. Yayasan Adikarya IKAPI (Indonesian Book Publishers Association) Book Program chose the publication as a quality book.

Wikan is the author of two children books: Gadis Kecil Penjaga Bintang (The Star’s Caretaker), published by KataKita in 2008, and Melangkah dengan Bismillah (Walking with the Name of God) by KataKita, 2006. Currently she works as a publication assistant at the Lontar Foundation, a non-profit institution whose primarily goal is the introduction of Indonesian literature to a world readership through translations of Indonesian literary works into English.

Wikan can be reached at wikan_satriati@yahoo.com.

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The Tale of the Bearded Turtle
by
Azhari

A long time ago, when time was still determined by many people and ships relied on shining stars and ancient astronomy, and pirates were the Sultan’s main enemy, there lived a storyteller who relied on lies. When crosswinds controlled the sea, the harbor was crowded with sailors who waited for the sea to calm. At such boisterous time, the storyteller came down from the mountain. He always came to the harbor after asr, the afternoon pray time, for he relied on the generosity of the sailors he mesmerized with his stories.

The sailors gave him Coromandel cloths, ceramics from Campa, Persian carpets, Javanese batik, Barus incense, opium from Magrib, and their voyage stories. After they left, the storyteller sold the gifts and the sailor’s tales became fodder for his new stories. He mixed them with such skill that the original stories were barely recognizeable. His mouth reshaped the stories the same as a sharp knife whittled a piece of wood. The poor sailors never realized that his stories were the same as the ones they had told him.

He embellished the stories in every retelling. After he finished, he asked two or three sailors, “What do you think? Do you believe the story? What happened on that journey, Ranir? Oh, Pasha, tell me about the girls in the Upper Country.”

When the sailors told their stories, he listened carefully. He clapped when they finished, not so much to applaud their skill, but because he had found material for the future.

The storyteller’s tongue was as sharp as Zulfikar, the Sultan’s favorite sword. And he died at the tip of Zulfikar because of “The Bearded Turtle.”

His story about the turtle humiliated the Sultan deeply. He had noble intentions: to entertain the sailors who waited a long time at the harbor because of the unrest at sea. The Sultan interpreted the story differently.

In the days leading to the storyteller being beheaded by Zulfikar, countless ships were docked at the Lamuri harbor. The line almost touched the edge of the horizon. Neither cross winds nor stormy weather prevented the ships from sailing. The sea was calm, and the sky luminous. It was the best time to set sail. But also for pirates to attack.

No one could predict when the pirates appeared or sailed away, not even the Sultan and his trusted clairvoyants. The crew of the merchant ships worried when they saw the Sultan’s warships return with scorched sails and broken masts, although the mighty ships had been armed with cannons and gunpowder made in Turkey.

Due to its strategic position between the harbors of the Upper Country and Lower Country, the Lamuri harbor was the best place for the ships to dock. However, white men had seized the Malacca harbor five years previously and since that time, Lamuri was deserted. The new rulers of the Malacca harbor had reduced their docking fees to half of those at Lamuri.

Ujud had a hand in this. He was a traitor, indeed. The Sultan’s furious cursing of Ujud could still be heard. According to The Saga of the Pleasure Gardens, written by the most brilliant palace author, the Sultan regretted not cutting off Ujud’s head with Zulfikar when the wretched man incited a group of rich Kleng men to revolt. Instead, the Sultan exiled him to Malacca.

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The briliant palace author had a reason why the Sultan did not behead Ujud. As written in the saga, the Sultan was remorseful for having swung Zulfikar at the neck of his own son, who was suspected of sharing pleasures with the Sultan’s favorite concubine. Also, according to the saga, after his son died, the Sultan promised to put Zulfikar away and only use the sword at important moments.

But it wasn’t like that, said the saga experts, especially the white men who lived hundreds of years later. According to one white interpreter, the Sultan stored Zulfikar because of the strange dream he had the night after beheaded his son.

In the dream, the Sultan was visited by a companion of the Prophet who said Zulfikar was his favorite sword and used to defend the Prophet’s religion.

The Sultan asked: “Oh, Sayyidina, how come this sword was in the hands of Kadi Malikul Adil and why did he give it to me?

The companion replied, “The sea is so vast, it can bring everything to anyone, pious or not.

Since that dream, the Sultan kept Zulfikar locked away.

The fate of Ujud changed after the white men seized Malacca and crushed the rulers who had once been conquered by Lamuri. The Sultan of Lamuri was unable to stop the white men from entering his land. All he could do was stare across the ocean because of a rebellion happening at the same time. Rich Kleng men were allies of Ujud, who had fled to the Halimun Forest.

While the Sultan succeeded in quelling the rebellion, the white man became too strong in Malacca. Quick attacks by the Sultan’s sea armies were defeated by the white man. The Sultan planned to use larger armies and more mature strategies against the conquerors. He equipped his warships with the latest and most powerful cannons ordered from Turkey. Consequently, the imperial treasury needed more money and the Sultan raised the docking fees for the Lamuri harbor.

Ujud was appointed a special adviser to the white man to help resolve Lamuri and its conquered land problems. He suggested a plot to weaken Lamuri. As soon as the Sultan raised the fees at the Lamuri harbor, Ujud told the white man in Malacca to lower the fees in Malacca harbor to half the price. The result appeared in the upcoming bad wind season. Almost half of the ships that used to stop at Lamuri then docked in Malacca. That’s why the Lamuri harbor was deserted during the last five years.

The Sultan regretted he did not behead Ujud with Zulfikar.

Lamuri lost again when the white man set up a huge brothel in Malacca. The management of the Shining Face was placed directly under the harbor rulers. This was also Ujud’s suggestion. He said, “I often heard the sailors pour out their lonely hearts when their ships stopped at Lamuri. There were no brothels because the pious Sultan did not permit it, even after I told him that not all sailors had the same religion as us. Before I could finish, the Sultan gripped his Zulfikar. Who would not be afraid when looking at that sword? The lonely sailors were only entertained by the rambling fantasies of a poor storyteller. I pity the sailors whose ships docked there.”

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Since the Lamuri harbor was empty, the storyteller rarely came to the city. He had lost many of his faithful audience. He only left the mountain if he heard something important was happening in Lamuri.

He went to the harbor because he had heard that many ships had thrown anchor due to the recent pirate activity.

“Tell us, oh storyteller. Please,” a mate welcomed him. “You must have countless stories. I brought a special aged wine from the Peranggi cellars. This wine will warm your body and your mind. You should try it.”

“Yes, tell us about the Lamuri pirates if you know about them,” said another sailor.

“Ho, ho. Do not get me wrong, my friends. Today I’m not going to tell you about the Lamuri pirates, not this time. Leave worry about the pirates to our captains and merchants. Let the admirals and His Majesty the Sultan think about it. Let’s have fun. We haven’t seen each other for such a long time,” the storyteller replied.

That afternoon, the storyteller told many stories. He talked through the night until the sun rose the next day. In turn, the sailors told him about the harbors they had visited, and their love experiences in every town. They forgot their ships couldn’t depart from Lamuri, and the Sultan’s promises to quell the pirates had yet to be fullfiled.

Day after day, the storyteller entertained the sailors who waited for the Sultan to defeat the pirates. The storyteller ran out of tales, and the saillors realized how long they had been on shore. They still waited for good news from the harbor authorities.

One day, in the middle of a story, a dozen men approached the gathering. The storyteller rose and halted.

“Storyteller, let me be brief. Today I want to hear about the Lamuri pirates. I know you know everything about them,” said an old captain.

“Oh, Tun, is that you? The captain of the Pari Fish? How is the Magribi woman with an ivory neck?” asked the storyteller.

The old captain’s face flushed.

“Tell us truthfully, what is actually happening on our seas?”

“And you, Abdul Kadir, the famous navigator and favorite of the merchant Barus, old friend and shipmate who vowed to never set foot on this land until the white man had left Malacca. Should I be touched? Are you breaking your oath to never again listen to my stories?”

The young sailors were surprised to hear the storyteller had a relationship with their superiors.

“No, I don’t know anything about pirates because they no longer exist. Didn’t the Sultan promise to eliminate pirates at the sea as fast as your ships can move?” said the storyteller.

“You’re lying, you know everything. Aren’t you one of the Lamuri pirates? Not a single ship has returned since they went to chase the pirates two weeks ago.”

Everyone was silent after Abdul Kadir’s statement.

“You’re absolutely right, Abdul Kadir. Both of us were Lamuri pirates. Everyone in this harbor knew. But that was decades ago, before these young mates were born. I was captain of the most feared Lamuri pirates in Upper Country and Lower Country, and you, Kadir, were the navigator I most admired. In your hand, our ship moved as fast as Zulfikar would behead us. At that time, Sultan still needed our power at sea. Then, one day, His Majesty the Sultan said he no longer needed us. It was the day a mufti brought Zulfikar to this land. The Muslim holy man from across the ocean presented the sword to him,” the storyteller said.

“That day I said to the Sultan, ‘If the masts of our ship could talk, they would say that the white man was on its way, and we are the frontline force to prevent their arrival.’ And don’t you remember what the Sultan said? The Sultan, my uncle, hugged me and said, ‘Thank you, oh my nephew, for your warning.’ We were disappointed about his stubborness, but since we respected our Sultan, we obeyed him. So I refused your advice to rebell, oh Qaran.”

The storyteller walked to an Abysinian and hugged him.”How is your daughter in Bukhara? Is she a big girl now? I hope you’re keeping your promise to visit her at least once every two years.”

“Yes. I’m on my way to visit Zulaikha. But news about the Lamuri pirates made me stop at this wretched harbor where I never wanted to set foot again. I thought the Sultan had called you back.”

“Oh, Qaran and other old friends. The unrest at sea has brought us together. I never imagined we’d meet again like this. The Sultan made his decision, so did you and I.

“You, too, left Lamuri forever, to go anywhere. You were also disappointed that I was unable to fill your needs.

“Because of my love for this land, I didn’t want to go anywhere and chose to settle down in the woods. I refused the house the Sultan gave me. Living in the woods for such a long time has made me lose my knowledge of the oceans. I come to this city occasionally as a storyteller. I always listen for news about you from the sailors who want to hear my stories. This is how I have somewhat satisfied my longing for you,” said the storyteller.

“You will have to leave me. You have to because I do not know any better than you who the real pirates are in Lamuri. Now I hope you’re still willing to listen to my story about the Bearded Turtle. I used to tell you this story in the middle of the sea, on the deck during the long boring days while waiting for the wind. You knew that the day after I finished telling the tale, our sails would be pulled by the wind from all directions.

“Even to this day, among you are those who believe that the tale was a spell to attract the winds. It was only a joke between me and our briliant navigator. He looked at the stars in the sky, and told me that in seven days the wind would blow. Then I gathered all the men on deck and told the tale. How excited you were. You knew you would soon be free from the boring day-to-day waiting for the winds. Hopefully with this tale, your ships can sail tomorrow,” said the storyteller. “Now listen carefully.”

A long time ago, when the animals and trees could talk and the harbor of Lamuri had yet to be named, a turtle king reigned over this part of the ocean. He was respected by the ocean creatures for his speed and strength.

One day, a ship appeared on the horizon. On the deck stood a camel. Just a camel.

His strength and power made the turtle king less vigilant.

The old adage says, if you see a ship with a camel on deck, expell it at once because the camel has been expelled by the Prophet Solomon, lord of all animals. What kind of sin had the camel committed to make a prophet as patient as Solomon do that?

In the land of Solomon, the camel had spread much slander and lies that caused a lot of trouble. The camel continued to spread false stories from his exile because that way he was able to influence the rulers of the world. Without his lies there wasn’t a single king willing to pray for a camel the Prophet Solomon had banished. Everyone who believed the camel’s lies was doomed to live in misery and their destiny was as black as the fog that covered its ship. And so it was for the turtle that lived in this harbor.

The camel told to the turtle king how odd he looked, because in the land of Solomon and in all the countries across the oceans he ever visited, every turtle had a beard. The turtle king became angry when he heard this. He said, “Tell me where I can buy a beard, oh camel the news messenger.”
“According to Solomon, you do not have to spend your wealth to grow a pluck of beard on your chin. Pray for the safety of this nomadic camel and a beard will grow,” said the camel with a laugh, and so told his lie.

The turtle king prayed for the camel’s safety and the camel went away with a heart as big as the ocean.

And today, turtles still believe the lie. Notice how slow a turtle walks. The poor creature crawls on the ground looking for its beard, because it thinks Solomon might have thrown it away.

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