Biden calls France ‘our first friend’ and enduring ally as he’s honored by Macron with a state visit

Biden calls France ‘our first friend’ and enduring ally as he’s honored by Macron with a state visit
Biden calls France ‘our first friend’ and enduring ally as he’s honored by Macron with a state visit

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - JAKARTA: Twice a week, Tjong Lan Tjen travels for more than an hour from her home to central Jakarta, where she heads to Indonesia’s largest mosque to study Chinese.

Tjong used to attend Mandarin classes in the mid-1960s but had to stop when General Suharto came to power and issued various policies to restrict the culture of Indonesia’s Chinese minority, including banning the teaching of the language in schools.

That ban was lifted after the regime’s fall in 1998, but only lately — with the development of political and commercial connections with China — has the teaching of Mandarin once again become popular in the Southeast Asian nation.

When Tjong heard that she could learn the language for free at Istiqlal Mosque, she was initially hesitant.

“A friend said there (had been) news on TV, so I thought that I could study. I also thought: ‘Is it allowed?’ In the past, it was dangerous. So, I asked around,” the 71-year-old told Arab News.

Once assured that it was permitted and that the classes were open to all, she signed up.

“I want to learn it, even though I’m old. Everyone in my generation has forgotten it, my family all have forgotten. I’m the only one,” Tjong said. “It’s always good to gain knowledge as long as we can.”

Tjong is one of 25 students enrolled in the mosque’s course, which was launched in late February. Co-organized by the Chinese government, the classes were initially set up to help the mosque’s staff communicate in Mandarin with tourists. However, as the mosque’s spokesperson, Saparwadi, who is also a student on the course, told Arab News, anyone is welcome to register for the course.

“Muslims, non-Muslims are all welcome to come to Istiqlal Mosque, (and) learn ... Istiqlal Mosque is the country’s icon, and we must stand up for all groups,” Saparwadi said. “Language has no religion.”

As the largest mosque in Southeast Asia and one of the 10 largest in the world, Istiqlal Mosque, which can accommodate more than 120,000 people, is one of the top tourist attractions in the Indonesian capital and very popular with visitors from China.

“They are very enthusiastic, they want to know about Islam, Muslims, how they pray, what they do,” Saparwadi said, adding that being able to communicate with Chinese visitors in their language is a way of learning their culture too: “And we know that we respect each other. That’s what I think is the most important.”

Habibah Munawaroh, another of the mosque’s employees attending the course, believes learning a new language has helped improve her cognitive skills.

She has always wanted to try learning Mandarin and being able to attend the classes at her workplace for free was a pleasant coincidence, as normally such courses are quite expensive.

“I like to put words together and then translate them into Mandarin. It makes the cognitive faculty work again,” she said.

“I hope these Mandarin classes will (continue) to the highest proficiency level, so that what I have learned will not disappear.”

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