When Alif Fikri, the main character of Negeri 5 Menara, or “Nation with Five Towers,” enrolls at the Pondok Pesantren, an Islamic boarding school in Madani, East Java, he is not following his heart, and would rather study at a public senior high school.
He is just going to please his, mother who wants him to be an ulema (Islamic scholar), and because he believes the school, which offers lessons in both religion and science, can help him reach his goal of some day becoming an influential engineer like B.J. Habibie – the former research and technology minister who went on to be President.
That is when the novel, inspired by the real life experiences of the author, Ahmad Fuadi, really begins.
We are taken on Alif’s journey through the pesantren, which immediately amazes him with its mantra, “Man jadda wajada” or “Whoever does something persistently will succeed”. Through Alif’s eyes, Fuadi details what really happens in a pesantren.
In the pesantren, Alif, who hails from Maninjau, West Sumatra, meets Raja from Medan, Said from Surabaya, Dulmajid from Sumenep, Atang from Bandung and Baso from Gowa; soon all of them become best friends.
Alif does a great job of learning life lessons: he quickly adapts with people from various ethnics. In fact, this is one of Alif’s best assets; it allows him to go really far in life.
Alif and his best friends teach each other important values such as loyalty, team work and healthy competition.
For example, despite his cleverness, Alif is not comfortable talking in front of large groups of people. But with the help from self confident orator Raja, who teaches Alif how to control an audience, Alif is able to impress people with his much-improved English speech.
Then, when Alif and the gang thwart an armed robber’s attempt to steal from the pesantren, they realize that they could not have done so if they hadn’t united.
Fuadi, a former Tempo journalist, definitely knows how to show a message and not just tell it; he lets the reader make their own conclusions on the values conveyed in the novel.
The intensity of Negeri 5 Menara goes beyond the friendship between Alif and his group. This novel shows Alif’s writing and photography skills rapidly develop after he joins the pesantren news media group. He also masters English and Arabic (including calligraphy) thanks to the pesantren.
Those skills prove invaluable to Alif’s future, as he ends up becoming a successful journalist in Washington, and not the engineer he once yearned to be.
After graduating from the pesantren, Alif and his best friends realize their dreams to live in Washington, Jakarta, Mecca, Cairo and London, each with a unique tower, hence the title “Nation with Five Towers”.
The book is also funny. Fuadi describes the experiences of the boys with humor and joy.
Like the time when senior student Tyson punishes Alif, Raja, Said, Atang, Dulmajid and Baso for being late to go to the mosque, Fuadi writes:
“Tweak the ear of your next buddy as hard as I tweak you,” says Tyson.
As Tyson tweaks Alif’s ear, Alif does the same to Atang and Atang follows the suit to Said. At the end, Baso, unable to tweak the ear of anyone else, has no choice but to tweak the ear of a cabinet. This kind of humor really adds to the richness of the novel.
The novel is however missing resolution on the religious aspects of life in a pesantren. We learn that Alif reads the Koran three times a day, so it can be assumed he is learning something from it, but we are unfortunately not told what he takes away from the good book. A discussion of Alif’s favorite verse and how it is relevant to his daily life would have been a valuable addition.
The novel has contains a number of annoying typos, such as kota kata and decandence, which are supposed to be kosa kata (vocabulary) and decadence.
However, overall, Fuadi has done a great job telling the story of Alif’s life in the pesantren and showing that pesantrens are great places to study. Although, it’s still hard to understand how the students can survive a daily routine which begins at 4 a.m. and does not end until 10 p.m.
An English edition of this novel would be useful is dispelling the unfortunately still spreading myth that pesantrens are a hot bed for terrorists. Negeri 5 Menara instead shows that the schools help students realize their full potential and produce successful graduates who contribute to society.
This novel is highly recommended, particularly for young people. The strong story and easy flow of the writing make Negeri 5 Menara a pleasure to read.
Anyone interested in understanding what actually goes on in a pesantren would benefit from reading this book.
I wait with baited breath for the sequel to this novel, which is the first in a planned trilogy.
Negeri 5 Menara
Gramedia Pustaka Utama