The Girl In The Batik Dress: Nadir Nahdi by Xia Yi

Born and raised in London, growing up as a Muslim is never a breeze. Born from a Pakistani, Indonesian, Yemeni, and Kenyan ethnic heritage, “Go back to where you’re from”, is a phrase that Nadir Taher Nahdi is familiar with while growing up in the West. A conversation with Nadir Nahdi by Xia Yi
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Video © by Nadir Nahdi

Born and raised in London, growing up as a Muslim is never a breeze. Born from a Pakistani, Indonesian, Yemeni, and Kenyan ethnic heritage, “Go back to where you’re from”, is a phrase that Nadir Taher Nahdi is familiar with while growing up in the West. Raised in London, he feels disconnected from the concept of ‘home’, where he feels as though he doesn’t belong. In #FindingNenek, Nahdi channels his interest in filmography into his personal journey of tracing his origins. Nadir Nahdi, who is the founder of BENI, a platform where millennials could engage and define themselves through creativity, traces his roots all the way to Indonesia in a pursuit to discover the stories of his grandmother’s country of origin, armed with nothing but a compass and a photo of his grandmother. In this interview, Xia Yi unravels the ideation and thought processes of Nadir Nahdi in finding The Girl In The Batik Dress, an old photograph of his young grandmother. In search of finding The Girl In The Batik Dress, he defines what it means to find and be, home.

Q: What made you want to return to Indonesia to find out more about your Grandmother?

A: First time I went to Indonesia with my Dad he kept giving money to every elderly woman beggar in the street. It was more than you would usually give too. I kept thinking is he crazy why is he doing this? I looked up at my Dad and he had a sad aura about him, he seemed pensive. “Dad, what’s up?” I asked. “Nothing..” He quietly whispered. “It’s just I see my Mother in their faces,” he said this as his eyes watered and I could see his masculine bravado doing its best to keep them away. It made me emotional seeing him so weak and vulnerable. Suddenly this place and its people weren’t just bedtime stories anymore, it was real and emotional. What person could move my unshakable Father to this point? She must have been such a beautiful person to move not only him but everyone that ever knew and talked about her. This mystery eventually compelled me to learn as much about her as possible and I grew to love her the more I learned about her.

Q: How did the idea behind ’ The Girl In The Batik Dress — #Finding Nenek ’ come about?

A: I’ve been dreaming about making this video since I was little, it was such a blessing to do it. I had been compiling pictures, numbers, and information about her for ten years almost in preparation. My YouTube channel BENI is about exploring a future-made culture but how can we do that without reconciling our past. I wanted to get to know Indonesia and my Grandmother better to solidify my roots so I’m better positioned to help shape that future.

Q: What was the process like to make this trip become a reality?

I had to gather the few clues I had to my Grandmother’s origins which wasn’t much. I had a few pictures and leads to distant relatives I’d never ever heard of before. Then it was as simple as booking a ticket. People tell me I’m crazy for turning up in a country as big as Indonesia with no real plan, but if I didn’t go all in this trip was less likely to happen. The secret to the trip’s success was the intention. I know this sounds like fairies and uber spiritual and it’s too much for some, but I don’t care because that’s exactly what it is. I had made a sincere intention to find out as much as I can and pay homage to a woman that put everyone’s happiness before her own. It was what had guided me when I strayed and gave me strength when I erred. I felt her presence in the beautiful people and nature. If you make a sincere intention, the universe will open up for you in ways you never imagined possible. I travel a lot but never before had I traveled with such purpose and as result doors and people opened up for me wherever I went. Strangers heard my story and went out of their way to help me “pulang kampung”, and I felt like the whole country was pushing to find my answers. The journey to reconnect is something we all inherently at one level of desire.

Q: How long were you filming ‘ The Girl In The Batik Dress ’ in Indonesia?

A: Filming for #findingnenek was actually an extremely complicated process. I had to produce, present, and edit simultaneously. I had to witness incredibly emotional moments for me and my family but still be coherent and engaging for the camera. There were times I wanted to just be silent and relish the moment, but after a moment to myself, I had to figure out angles and how I can get as creative as possible to film this all by myself.

Then post-production was another kind of difficulty because I had to delete and keep it short enough for people to watch it. And deleting scenes from a journey where every second meant so much to me was incredibly hard because you become attached to the footage. All in all, it took me around 2/3 months from planning, researching, production, and editing.

Q: During your journey in Indonesia to discovering more in-depth about your Grandmother, what was the one aspect you learned about yourself during this entire experience?

A: One of the most frustrating lessons was learning that in my search to find belonging in Indonesia I realized I’m different there too. I knew I wasn’t British but I also learned I wasn’t Indonesian either, I am something entirely new, a product of unique circumstances, cultures and stories colliding together. To move forward meant I would have to find the courage to build something new, and no one would do it for me. I wouldn’t inherit it or have someone else to shape it. That is an extremely lonely realization and the challenge is daunting. Slowly I’ve learned that culture isn’t rigid, it can evolve and grow too, and I gained clarity in understanding that we can draw from our heritage in unique and different ways and make it relevant to our present circumstances. That was powerful for me. I zoomed in on that, it inspires me. I am proudly Indonesian and it will always be a part of me, in a way that decorates and strengthen my journey for the future. And I see the work that you do at Mula Zine very similar to that, reimagining how heritage plays a role in our daily modern lives in a way we are proud of.

Q: What were some of the most frustrating/difficult experiences you have encountered during your adventure throughout Indonesia? Answer

A: One of the biggest insecurities growing up was my inability to speak the languages of my heritage proficiently. It would quietly hurt me when people or extended relatives would make ‘innocent’ jokes about it, “weak blood” a distant Yemeni Swahili Uncle once joked. To him, it was an innocent quip or term of endearment, but to me, it was a hurtful reminder of my place. Whether it was Bahasa Indonesia, Swahili, or Arabic it continued to hurt when relatives would engage in animated conversations that I inevitably was excluded from. I wasn’t able to engage with the family I loved, or present to them my whole personality. I loved them but at the same time, they didn’t really know me. So when I traveled through Indonesia and telling people I’m part Indonesian in my broken Bahasa Indonesia they would laugh and I felt embarrassed. I felt shame and guilt. For so long this guilt had prevented me and others like me from making any attempts to connect deeper with our heritage. As a result, I didn’t ever grow up feeling entirely part of any cultural framework.  And my life can be defined by desperately searching for something to belong to. So the journey to Indonesia to learn more about my Grandmother’s unknown past was to see what this place and culture meant to me? How much had it shaped my life? Could it be the home I’ve always been looking for? How would it determine my future? I’ve always been attached to Indonesia, more than any of the other cultures of my heritage. I draw from it proudly. Perhaps because it’s that attachment that keeps my Grandmother in my life. It’s love, and that’s what she and her rich culture mean to me.

Q: Based on your introductory text of this project, you listed out these questions — ‘ why did she leave? Why was she so reluctant to talk about her history? Why was it so important for you to know? Was your Grandmother hiding the answers you were looking for your whole life? Will you be able to make sense of your identity searching for the Grandmother, you barely knew? ’ After your pursuit of Indonesia, do you still have any unanswered questions about your Grandmother?

A: Many. The video kind of stops at a cliffhanger. I discover the house which he was born and raised in, and I even uncover an old picture of her in this huge abandoned house. Why did she leave though? What forced her to unravel her comfortable life in Indonesia as a daughter from a prominent wealthy family? Why did she go to Africa with nothing, when in Indonesia she had everything? She never once told us about any of this, why? I plan to film a follow-up video called #followingnenek early next year will begin to explore some of these questions, and I will follow her difficult journey to Mombasa, Kenya to try and learn more about her story.