For Ahmad Fuadi, author of the “Negeri 5 Menara” (“The Land of Five Towers”) novel trilogy, life is an adventure.
Fuadi’s life, on which the trilogy is based, has taken him from a small village in Sumatra to large foreign cities, such as Washington, D.C., and London.
Born in Nagari Bayur, a small village along the edge of Lake Maninjau in West Sumatra, Fuadi always had big dreams.
“I’ve always wanted to see the world,” the 39-year-old author said.
But instead of seeing the world, his mother sent him to study at a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in Ponorogo, East Java, after he completed junior high school.
“I tried to reason with my mom,” he said. “I was one of the best students in my school. I wanted to go to a state high school to continue my education, then go to one of the best universities in Indonesia.”
His mother was adamant, though. She wanted her son to become a cleric.
“So, I went there halfheartedly,” Fuadi said. But from his first day at Pondok Pesantren Modern Gontor, Fuadi found the school was not what he expected.
“[The school] is in a small village in a remote area, but it has a global feel,” he said.
The school, which is located on a 15-hectare area in Mlarak, a small village in Ponorogo, housed more than 4,000 students, tutors and staff in its compound. All of them spoke either English or Arabic 24 hours a day.
“It was like living in a whole different country,” Fuadi said.
The daily life and friendships among the all-male student body of the pesantren and the students’ struggles to achieve their dreams became the basis for Fuadi’s first novel “Negeri 5 Menara.”
More than 100,000 copies of the initial novel sold within the first year of its release, and the book has been named a best-seller by its publisher, Gramedia. Originally released in 2009, “Negeri 5 Menara” is now being translated into English, and that volume is slated for release at the Ubud Writer’s Festival on Oct. 6.
In addition to the translation, the novel is also being made into a movie. Million Pictures is shooting the movie adaptation in Fuadi’s hometown in West Sumatra, the pesantren in East Java, as well as Bandung and Trafalgar Square in London. The filming will wrap the end of this month and the final product is expected to be released in January 2012.
Like the novel, the movie tells the story of the friendship of six young boys throughout their four years at Gontor, and how a single mantra, “man jadda wa jadda,” or “Those who work in earnest will succeed,” transforms them all.
“The mantra was introduced to us on the first day,” Fuadi said. “Our teacher stood in front of the class shouting it loud and clear. Then he asked us to repeat after him again and again.”
According to Fuadi, the phrase comes from an old Arabic saying, although the exact origins are unknown. The mantra became ingrained in each student’s mind and drove them to success.
After leaving Gontor, Fuadi majored in international studies at Universitas Padjadjaran in Bandung.
However, he was dealt a tragic setback when his father passed away while he was at school. Without the family’s breadwinner, he had to earn his own living and pay for his tuition.
“I tried selling things, like food and clothes door-to-door, but I wasn’t very successful,” he said.
Then an older student at the university suggested Fuadi write international and political analysis pieces and submit them to local newspapers.
His first article was published in the local paper, Gala. Fuadi admitted his first paycheck of Rp 12,500 ($1.40) was not much, even in those days, but it was enough to get him hooked on writing.
After graduating from Universitas Padjadjaran, Fuadi joined the news magazine Tempo.
As a young reporter, he worked hard on investigations and developed news sources. He used the second mantra that the teachers at Gontor taught him: “man shabara zhafira,” or “Those who persevere will get lucky.”
“One night at midnight, my editor asked me to go to the morgue at RSCM [Cipto Mangunkusumo] hospital to count all the bodies admitted, to determine how many people were killed that day,” Fuadi said. “Not only did I count them, but I also uncovered each of one of them so that I would be able to describe the conditions of the dead bodies for the article.”
Fuadi’s tenure at the magazine started in 1998, one of the most volatile eras in Indonesian history. He was assigned to investigate the rampant killings that followed the resignation of President Suharto.
Fuadi’s perseverance paid off. In 1999, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship that allowed him to earn his master’s degree in media and public affairs at the George Washington University in Washington D.C.
In addition to studying, Fuadi and his wife Danya “Yayi” Dewanti, who was also a reporter at Tempo, became correspondents for Voice of America. They reported the devastating Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks live from Washington.
“It was an usual bright, sunny day in September,” Fuadi said. “Yayi and I took a bus to the VOA office. When we got there, everyone was watching live news on TV. Shock and terror were written all over their faces.’’
Fuadi and Yayi went to the White House and the Pentagon to interview government officials.
“Along the way, we saw men and women from many different backgrounds and ethnicities lining up at the Red Cross to donate their blood to the victims,” he said. “The attack pulled the nation together.”
Fuadi finished his studies in 2001 and returned to Jakarta. He teamed up with his wife to produce documentaries for VOA. The projects took him to the most beautiful parts of Indonesia.
To better himself in what he was doing, Fuadi applied for another scholarship. In 2003, he won the Chevening Award and studied in the media arts department at the Royal Holloway University of London.
“I feel that I have fulfilled all of my dreams,” he said. “I’ve studied abroad and seen many beautiful parts of the world. It’s time for me to give back to society.”
It was his wife who suggested Fuadi write a novel based on his experience at the pesantren.
“I encouraged him to share his experience in Gontor. I was sure many city people like me would find it very interesting,” Danya said. “The pesantren taught him a lot and made him the man he is now.”
Fuadi agrees. “Those four years were quite inspiring for me,” he said. “Maybe my story would also inspire others.”
He started writing his first novel in 2007 while also serving as the director of communications at The Nature Conservancy Indonesia Program, an environmental NGO.
“I usually had an hour at dawn and half an hour after lunch to work on my novel,” he said. Within a year and a half, the 432-page novel was finished.
Fuadi received several phone calls from production houses after the book was released, all of which were interested in making a movie from his novel.
“My aim was to share my life experience with others, and I believe making it into a movie will help to spread the spirit to as many people as possible,” he said.
But what is the soul of “Negeri 5 Menara?”
“It’s the universal spirit of friendship, hard work and perseverance to achieve your dreams,” Fuadi said.
He also received invitations to talk about his book on TV, radio and public programs. In December 2009, he resigned from The Nature Conservancy to become a full-time writer and public speaker.
“I feel that this is the path that I should follow to be useful to many people,” Fuadi said.
Also during December 2009, Fuadi established Komunitas Menara (Community of the Towers) – a volunteer-based organization that focuses on providing education to underprivileged children.
The group currently runs a preschool, which educates 35 less-fortunate children in Bintaro, South Tangerang, for free.
“Bintaro is quite a developed area, but behind the housing complexes live people that do odd jobs, like coolies, clothes-washers, street buskers and many others,” Fuadi said.
“These people have the least resources available to raise their children well.”
Komunitas Menara now has two salaried teachers and one volunteer to teach a daily basic preschool curriculum, including religious and social values.
“The children have changed drastically within a couple of months,” Fuadi said. “Those who were unruly have become more obedient. Those who used dirty language do not use it anymore.”
Fuadi seems to have accomplished all of his childhood dreams. He’s traveled to more than 30 countries, become an inspiration to many people and is now giving back to society.
“I want to expand Komunitas Menara,” he said. “I want it to be a center for volunteers, where professionals in any field can donate their time and talents to help other people.”
Faudi said his new dream was inspired by a church near the George Washington campus in Washington.
“Everyday, I saw professionals taking off their ties and jackets to cook for the homeless people lining up at church,” he said. “I’m sure people in Jakarta are just the same. They have a heart to help other people. They just don’t know where to go or how to do it yet.’’
It seems this isn’t the end of Fuadi’s great adventure.