Expert in Indonesian Linguistics

December 06, 2021

Waruno Mahdi doesn't know where to start telling stories, he has so much to tell.
The 78-year-old Indonesian's life alone is worthy of a movie, but his decades of linguistic work are currently being honoured in his home country with a two-volume special edition of the "Journal of the Humanities of Indonesia". If you listen closely to him - smiling mischievously and gesticulating wildly - you realise how much his linguistic and cultural studies are connected to his eventful life.

Already as a child, the diplomat's son lived outside Indonesia, his father worked in Beijing and Moscow. While studying chemistry in Moscow, Waruno Mahdi's Indonesian passport was cancelled in 1965 for political reasons and he could not return to his homeland. But he did not fit into the political system in the Soviet Union either and lived, isolated from other compatriots, in Voronezh in central Russia. In 1977, he managed to escape to West Berlin in a spectacular way by exploiting a loophole in the passport control at the Berlin Zoo railway station. A year later, Waruno Mahdi was offered a job as a technician at the Fritz Haber Institute - he was able to convince the interviewers with his special knowledge of the treatment of air-sensitive compounds, which he had acquired in Russia. He then worked here for over 30 years, and even after his retirement in 2009, he continues to work as a part-time assistant in "his" department, Physical Chemistry, and still helps today with website design and in the image archive. Incidentally, in 2000, at the age of 57, he received German citizenship.

Living outside Indonesia made Waruno Mahdi sensitive to the language and culture of his home country. Already during his time in the Soviet Union, he found numerous peculiarities in a Malagasy-Russian dictionary, which he analysed in elaborate detail. This was followed by numerous lectures, essays and books on the developments of the Southeast Asian language area, for example at the Dutch University of Leiden. He investigated linguistic peculiarities of the Malay language and compared it with related languages such as Malagasy or Polynesian. From this, he drew conclusions about migration movements of the individual ethnic groups and their social and cultural developments. He also analysed the encounters with European linguistic cultures in detail, for example, how the Indonesian words "amok", "junk", "cockatoo", "orangutan" and "rattan" found their way into the German language.

Waruno Mahdi had to give up a doctoral thesis in linguistics for health reasons, so a classical scientific career was denied him. Nevertheless, he stood by numerous young anthropologists and linguists with valuable hints and advice. FHI Director Prof. Dr. Gerhard Ertl also recognised the originality of his colleague's linguistic studies and gave him the necessary freedom to do so.

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