Renowned poet Taufiq Ismail has never shied away from controversy in his writing. From his 1966 collection, “Tirani” (“Tyranny”), to the 1999 volume “Malu (Aku) Jadi Orang Indonesia” (“I Am Ashamed to Be Indonesian”), he has both depicted and criticized Indonesia’s social and political environment.
Born in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, in 1935, Taufiq is one of Indonesia’s most prolific poets. He is also recognized beyond the nation’s shores and has traveled to countries throughout the region and further afield, including the United States and South Africa, to read his poems.
Over the past years the soft-spoken poet has taken up a new cause: as an opponent of smoking, which he says is responsible for 400,000 deaths in Indonesia every year. He said smoking has been a concern of his for a long time.
“I tried smoking when I was a teenager because of peer pressure, but was never addicted to it. I smoked occasionally as an adult, also because of peer pressure, as nearly all my fellow artists are smokers,” he said.
However, over the years he began to see how addictive smoking was. He said he also saw smokers who were unconcerned with how their habit affected non-smokers, and he learned some statistics related to smoking, including the trillions of rupiah earned by cigarette producers from “poisoning young people.”
The real turning point was in 2000, when his cousin died of complications after a stroke that was at least partly attributable to years of chain smoking.
“My cousin had a PhD in public health, and was about to be appointed as a professor,” Taufiq said. “He should’ve known better. Yet when he had a stroke and had to be in a wheelchair, he didn’t stop smoking. He said he couldn’t stand not to smoke.”
The cousin was in his early 50s, and left behind a wife who was not working and two children who were still in college.
“He wasn’t that wealthy, as he was a civil servant, so he left a financial burden for his family.”
The death prompted Taufiq to write “Tuhan Sembilan Senti” (“Nine-Centimeter God”), which opens with the lines: Indonesia adalah sorga luar biasa ramah bagi perokok, tapi tempat siksa tak tertahankan bagi orang yang tak merokok …
(Indonesia is an extremely friendly paradise for smokers, but a place of unbearable torture for non-smokers …)
The poem goes on to say that you can sit on a bed while two people with HIV/AIDS are “infecting” one another and not be affected, but a non-smoker who sits next to someone who’s smoking can easily get sick. Another passage teases ulema who are addicted to smoking, comparing them to pagans who worship “small gods with fiery heads.”
After writing the poem he was invited to speak to antismoking groups, and to read it publicly on campuses and at religious events.
“Three ulema from the Indonesian Council of Islamic Propagation reportedly stopped smoking after I read the poem at one of their events,” Taufiq said, chuckling.
He went on to write six similar poems, including “Indonesia Keranjang Sampah Nikotin” (“Indonesia Is the Nicotine Waste Basket”) and “Perokok Adalah Serdadu Berani Mati” (“Smokers are Daredevil Soldiers”).
The poems are to be published as part of a collection of poetry on drug abuse and boxing, although he does not yet have a title or publishing date.
“I came across an article on the boxing business and how inhumane boxing is,” Taufiq said. “The objective is to knock a person down — it’s terrible. Hundreds of boxers have died, and who will win or lose is set up to enable gambling.”
In writing his poems, Taufiq often refers to research, inserting statistics as well as scientific facts.
He also said he prefers to use “a humorous style to tease people instead of judging and blaming them.”
One community that is difficult to convince to stop smoking, however, is his own: artists and writers.
Butet Kartaredjasa, an actor, musician and comedian, even defended cigarette producers before the Supreme Court in April. In a bid to prevent children from smoking, the National Commission for Child Protection (Komnas Anak) requested that the Supreme Court issue a legal directive confirming that cigarettes contain addictive substances, so the central government would automatically be required to ban the sale of cigarettes to children and pregnant women.
Butet, himself a heavy smoker, testified that such an action would badly affect the arts scene in Indonesia, as cigarette companies were active and generous sponsors of arts events.
Taufiq countered that while cigarette producers were aggressive in their marketing, many other corporations were willing to sponsor arts events, from telecommunication companies to banks.
“We have a bigger responsibility than that,” he said. “Defending cigarette producers means being involved in the murder of 400,000 people a year.”
From Vet Science to Scribe: Inside the Life of One of Indonesia’s Favorite Writers
Taufiq Ismail was born on June 25, 1935, in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra.
While still a high school student in Pekalongan, Central Java, Ismail had poems published in several magazines.
During his days as a librarian at the Islamic Indonesian Students’ Library in Pekalongan, Taufiq broadened his knowledge of literature by reading the works of Chairil Anwar and Pramoedya Ananta Toer, as well as books on history, politics and religion.
He received a scholarship from the US government to study at Whitefish Bay High School in Milwaukee, where he was introduced to the works of Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman.
In 1963, Taufiq graduated from the Department of Veterinary Sciences and Agriculture at the University of Indonesia, and for a time he worked for PT Unilever to finance his literary endeavors.
He was involved in writing the “universal humanist” Cultural Manifesto, which argues that artists should be allowed to freely express their opinions. The Cultural Manifesto came under fire from the Indonesian Community Party during the 1960s for going against the party’s beliefs that all Indonesian works must contain socialist ideology. The manifesto is now recognized for helping free Indonesian art from red tape.
He also endeavored to increase the predominance of literature within school curricula through the “Students Ask, Writers Answer” program, which he helped found.
He is also the recipient of various awards and recognitions, including the Talent in Art award from the Indonesian government (1970), a Cultural Visit Award from the Australian government (1977) and a Southeast Asia Writers Award (1994).
Taufiq’s works have been translated into Arabic, English, Japanese, German, and French.