Interview: Nadir Nahdi

Born and raised: London, England

Currently living in: London, but his work takes him around the world. When he spoke to Buah, he was in Indonesia.

Age: 28

Find him: BENI (YouTube channel) | Instagram | WIRED interview

Quick things: Nadir Nahdi founded digital storytelling platform BENI and is part of YouTube’s #CreatorsforChange program. In October, he released a 25-minute documentary about his journey to learn more about his paternal grandmother, who was born and raised in Indonesia. 

(Screenshot via BENI YouTube channel)

Q: You first went to Indonesia when you were 18. What made you want to go then?

At 18, it was the first time that I was allowed to travel by myself entirely. So it was one of the first things I wanted to do. I was like any other 18-year-old and I wanted to travel the world, but for me, that wasn’t enough. I wanted something very intentional. For me, Indonesian culture was probably the least present — my grandmother’s the only Indonesian in my family. We had some very distant cousins and relatives, but my grandmother’s siblings passed away. So out of all the cultures we’re a part of at home, Indonesianess was probably the most fragile, and it was a big objective of mine to not let it slip away. So, I wanted to go. I hadn’t been, so I was learning the language, I wanted to reconnect, meet distant relatives at 18. I loved going to Indonesia and telling people I was part Indonesian; it gave me a sense of pride and people were really receptive.

Q: Did you know about Indonesia before going there, like through your family or at home?

Indonesia was a presence in our house. We always knew that my grandma was Indonesian and it was very much a part of our lives. The clothes we wore, my sister would wear kebaya, it was the food at home, rendang and nasi goreng, and there were these symbols of Indonesianess that always reminded you on a subliminal level. But, it was very superficial and as I grew up, I started to think about what Indonesianess was to me, apart from the food, apart from the clothes. How are you associating with it on a different level?

Q: Now, 10 years later, you’ve made this film. Did you intend it to be 10 years later?

That was totally coincidental. The video is actually a culmination of what I’d learned over a period of 10 years. The big difference — 10 years ago, I intended to do the same thing, which was learn more about my grandma and find out where she was born, but I failed. The biggest difference between then and now was technology. Technology helped me do so much more than I could have possibly done. It was social media, it was connecting with people, distant relatives — I put things on Instagram and people would reach out. All of that stuff resulted in me getting the number of a distant relative who knew where my grandma lived. It was that person — so I initially thought my grandma was from Solo, because she had spent her teen years there, and I thought she must’ve been born and raised there. But actually, through this person, I learned she was born and raised in Kediri. So then, I go to Kediri, and I find out that she was born and raised there, and without technology, I would not have had that opportunity. So, although it’s 25 minutes, the video is a crystallization of 10 years of failures, 10 years of questions, of me trying to understand what this place means to me and as a result, I’ve traveled to Indonesia multiple times and it’s become part of who I am.

Old photos of Nadir’s grandmother. The one on the far left of her wearing batik was key in helping him find out more about her background. (Screenshot via BENI YouTube channel)

Q: You mention in the video that you felt shame for not knowing about your grandmother. Can you talk more about that?

So, my father, he probably feels the most shame out of anybody because he knew very little about his own mother. With children, sometimes it’s too close to home to ask questions why, and it’s the grandchildren growing up in the west who are like, well, I was born and raised here but there is something more to me and I want to know what that is. What happened with my dad was I’d ask him questions like, “How could you not know this? Surely, you should know these things.” But, you could sense that shame, like he couldn’t really believe it himself. Life just went on and they didn’t think much of it, and he didn’t realize how important it would be further down the line.

But how I faced that shame personally was when I superficially engaged with this culture on a level but then, when I went back [to Indonesia], I kind of realized it when people were having conversations, especially complicated conversations, and I couldn’t follow. Particularly with language, I find it difficult to follow. So you’re excluded from the conversation, even though it’s within a frame that you understand and you’re attached to, trying to hold on to. And I felt shame that I couldn’t understand what people were saying and that I didn’t deserve to be part of this culture. That really bothered me my whole life. I think my whole life I’d been yearning to be part of some sort of cultural framework, to be accepted and welcomed into a culture, since I didn’t have that growing up. So going back to Indonesia, it made me feel guilty that I hadn’t put enough legwork into actually learning the language, learning things I should’ve learned about. I thought that as I learned more, I’d feel better about the whole situation, but as I learned more about my grandma and this culture, the guilt just got bigger and bigger. I think it’s just something I have to live with.

Q: What advice do you have for people wanting to learn more about their family heritage, especially in terms of getting over that guilt?

I think for me that guilt is not something to be ashamed of. When things start to unravel for me was when I started to embrace that guilt. But that guilt wasn’t a result of my not wanting to learn more; it was more like we come from very complex backgrounds of movement, migration, and it’s put us in a situation where you’re navigating multiple identities at once, that we didn’t have the space to fully explore our identities in that same way. It’s a catharsis in some sense. You feel guilty, but if you embrace it, you start to open yourself and it’ll give you so much back in return.

It’s all about sincerity of intention. When I made the intention of learning more about my grandma, beautiful things happened around me. I’ve traveled a lot but I’ve never traveled where things just worked out the way they did. I’m a realist, but I’m being serious: The universe was doing things like flights were delayed in my favor, I was coincidentally bumping into people who were helping me on the trip. It was like the whole country was pushing me toward this direction. So I think if you sincerely make an intention — everything starts with an intention — then things will open up for you.

I also think it’s patience. A lot of people see the 25 minutes of the video but they don’t see the 10 years of work put into it. And then, also, film your elders. I literally just put a camera in front of my dad and just started talking to him about it. People are dying, and they take with them history and wisdom and culture. People like me and you and I’m sure some of your readers are still navigating who we are, and we’re starting to question what we’re going to teach our own kids, what part of our cultural heritage is important for us to hold on to, and naturally some things will be left behind. But, we need to know these things, and we need a grounding in these things, even though we might manifest them in very different ways. It’s so important to be grounded and understand the cultural frameworks which made us and, whatever we decide in the future, if it comes from that place, then whatever decision you make is fine. But, as long as you have paid respect to who you are, then I honestly think you’re in the best place for your future.

Q: What was your dad’s reaction like to the video?

For my whole dad’s side of the family, it was insane learning more about their mother, watching that on a screen. It was bizarre because there were things that they’d never known and what it did was beautifully mobilize that side of the family to reconnect, go back to Indonesia. It certainly reignited that passion to do something about it. All it took was for one person to reconnect that. I feel incredibly blessed that the video helped.

So, when we watched it, imagine this environment where it was me and my family, and we’re all in a room — that was the most nervous I was playing it back. So there’s the batik scene where I’m juxtaposing my grandma’s face and then my dad starts tearing up. And then, when it hits the end where we just see the picture, my dad sort of chokes; he’s trying to hold it back, but he lets out a little sound and that breaks my heart. My sister next to me left and then it becomes this total mess as well. It ended and we’re all just in tears, laughing. It was like catharsis. It was like total therapy; it felt like a therapy session and that was really amazing. Because I think a lot of this unknowing, ambiguity of our heritage is quite damaging to our mental health. It’s really traumatic. This deeply ingrained shame that we were talking about, it latches onto us deeply and it plays out in really devious ways. In that moment, when certain questions were answered, we were coming together over someone my dad loved. I met my grandma maybe twice, she died when I was about 4, but I think my dad was so touched that his son had felt so connected to someone he loved dearly. It brought us together.

Editor’s note: This poignant scene just kept the tears coming for me. (Screenshot via BENI YouTube channel)

Q: What has the response been from a more general audience? Have you noticed particularly how people of Indonesian heritage have reacted? 

In Indonesia, there is a love for that “pulang kampung” story. And it’s been amazing to see the response on that level, and it’s been really supportive. Even during the journey, I made this hashtag #findingnenek, and the story had become bigger than me. I was on Twitter and I saw people talking about this bule guy going around Indonesia trying to find his grandma, and it was mad. I was getting recognized on the train, I was getting recognized at malls — people knew me as the guy trying to find his grandma’s kampung.

It did things for two sets of people: for the local Indonesians, it helped them realize how much they should appreciate the things they take for granted, and for the diaspora audience, it made them realize how formative and significant knowing and owning your culture can be. It was very interesting to see that dynamic.

Q: When I heard you speaking Indonesian in the movie, it reminded me of my own cobbled-together Indonesian-speaking skills, and I loved hearing that as you met people and got to know them. What has it been like for you to learn the language and to communicate in it?

My Indonesian is terrible. You know, they say speaking and understanding are different parts of your brain, right? So, I had a little bit of Indonesian, I picked up more when I was there; you know, when you’re in the context, you go into survival mode and you learn so much more. And it was beautiful to see the culture open up to me even with the little that I’d learned. Language is key. If you don’t have language, people can’t open up and be who they are to you. But even the little language that I knew, which was me piecing together words, but at least I was able to convey a meaning. And what I was able to do was to connect to people on a deeper level.

There’s this scene where I’m talking to this older man when I arrived in Kediri and that’s my favorite scene. The powerful thing about it, and I don’t know if this is related or not, but it’s like, you grow up in the west and you’re always being asked, “Where are you from? Where are you really from?” And that question, the subtext behind it is that you’re different, you’re not from here, you’re from somewhere else, so tell me where you’re really from. And I go back to this kampung, and I meet this old man, and the first thing he says after I salam him is, “Dari mana?” Like, “Where are you from?” And I’m like, well I’ve been asked this my whole life. I said, “London.” He said, “No, your skin is the same as mine. Where are you from?” And I thought about it, and it wasn’t until that night that I thought, when I’m asked that in the west, it’s to differentiate me as other. But in that context with the man, he was saying how we were similar and drawing parallels and connecting with me.

Q: What has it been like having this very personal part of you exposed and living this very personal journey in public?

It’s been really, really interesting. It’s one of the most personal stories of mine and what I realize is that I’ll never be able to tell a good a story as my own. And by opening up, the reaction I’ve gotten for it has been the most powerful. It just takes one person to open up for an army of other people to feel brave enough that they can. Like I said before, a lot of our identity is riddled with mental health. A lot of us in the diaspora, as a result of this difficult climate, are struggling with a lot. So it’s been therapy. And I think a lot of people — they saw themselves in that movie and that was really amazing to me. That inspired me and really motivated me to the point where it was worth spending three-four months working on for people to see it.

Q: If you can share, what are some future goals you have with your grandmother’s story? Is there going to be a part two? Will you be delving into other sides of your family?

I intend to do all of those but specifically with my grandma. I think my grandma’s story is so fascinating. I think over the last several months, people know my grandma, in some sense, they recognize her, so she’s become a character. And I was thinking that it would be amazing to have the sequel be #followingnenek, and following her and her journey from Indonesia to Kenya, to getting on a ship and going on that journey, to see why she left, because I still haven’t answered why she left.

A lot of people are asking why she left because she came from a prominent Indonesian family. I kind of have learned why. So I think the next story is following nenek, why she left everything, and the struggle with that, and then the story of her meeting my grandfather. She arrived at Mombasa, at the port, and she was this beautiful Indonesian girl, and my grandfather was like this beach boy, smoking his cigarette on the dock, welcoming people, sees her and is totally blown away by this Javanese girl. They eventually get married and she stays there for the rest of her life. It might not be that blockbuster ending, but it will be some interesting conversations coming up.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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