Book Review: ‘Indonesia Etc.’ by Elizabeth Pisani
When Indonesian Muslims protested a Lady Gaga concert, the security minister issued his contemptuous response by text.
By Simon Winchester
June 20, 2014 3:31 p.m. ET
‘When you arrive you cry; when you leave you cry.” This is a popular expatriate aphorism about India, but almost all who visit Indonesia for any time feel much the same. Arrival in Jakarta, the capital, is the worst. The pollution, the din, the ceaseless traffic. The garbage, the floods. Everything in those first few days is an assault. But then: Spend dawn on the top of Borobudur temple in central Java. The morning mist hugs the valleys; the rising sun spears shafts of gold between two great volcanoes; the ranks of Buddhas beside you are suddenly washed with a warm orange light, the figures becoming an army of transcendent calm. The remembered assault fades away with the night, to be replaced by: How could you ever leave? For a visitor to Indonesia, such beguilements linger in the memory: tiny rice-paddy villages in Bali, fishing communities along the Sumatran coast overlooking the smolderings of Krakatoa, clearings in the nutmeg forests of Banda Neira, or among the clove bushes of Halmahera.
A farmer in terraced rice fields in the central highlands of Bali. ©Stuart Franklin / Magnum Photo
The Republic of Indonesia is a bewildering volcanic archipelago (some 17,500 islands, 6,000 of them inhabited). It stretches for more than 3,000 polychromatic miles from Aceh in Sumatra to the jungle borders of New Guinea and the waters of north Australia. Few who spend any considered time in the country come away without loving the place. Similarly, few can but be astonished that it has all hung together. Despite a bewildering multiplicity of languages, ethnic types, religions and political beliefs, it all somehow works.
True, there have been spasms of severe unpleasantness during the almost seven decades of independence from the Dutch. But this is hardly surprising, given that the conception of the nation was so hasty, so little thought out. In 1945, the young President Sukarno famously read out a declaration that his stripling patchwork of a republic would work out “the transfer of power etc . . . as soon as possible.” His dreamy imprecision gives Elizabeth Pisani a perfect title for the chronicle of her own journeys, a spectacular achievement and one of the very best travel books I have read.
Ms. Pisani is a force of nature. She is a British-educated American, a young 50, vastly intelligent, doggedly curious, spectacularly multilingual and, as we learn from “Indonesia Etc.,” lately divorced from her Javanese husband. We also learn that she is a seasoned and gossipy drinker, an occasional smoker, a determined atheist, and as adventurous a traveler as it is possible to imagine (though one quite able to break down in tears of desperation, to admit it and to write about it).
In her youth, Ms. Pisani pursued a career as a journalist and foreign correspondent, fascinated mostly by countries lying to the east of India. But in midlife she underwent a sea change: She began an academic study of public health-care and in consequence developed a sympathetic interest in the life and fates of prostitutes. She now has an almost fanatical attachment to the practice of safe sex and has written a well-received (though not uncontroversial) book that preaches its benefits, to which she or her publishers gave the unashamedly commercial title “The Wisdom of Whores.”
Now Ms. Pisani has turned her talents and passions to a close examination of the country that she knows best and that attracts her most keenly. She recently spent a full year wandering alone through the least-familiar corners of a country that is far less well-known than its size and immense population (251 million) would suggest it should be. And with “Indonesia Etc.” she has produced a treasure of a volume.
Ms. Pisani deliberately shunned Java and Jakarta, the epicenters of power and influence from which radiates all governance of modern Indonesia. Instead she went out to see the “etc.”—she took ferries and fishing boats, cabinless cargo boats and creaking wooden sailing dhows. She fetched up in the remotest islands (all, incredibly, with super-modern post offices, one of the wonders of the nation). Each island has customs and habits and languages and diets quite alien from the others, and all are quite different from anything that our guide had ever experienced before.
So various were the islands she visited that she was able to answer a question that has bothered me for years: Why is there no Indonesian diaspora? Filipinos and Vietnamese and Indians and Chinese are sprinkled liberally around the planet. But Javans, Sumatrans, Ambonese, Kalimantanese, Papuans—there are relatively few outside Indonesia, even in the great melting pots, like the outer boroughs of New York City. Ms. Pisani explains: “Even Indonesians who are less contented with their lot . . . don’t need to go overseas to look for a better life. Why bother, when there are plenty of places within your own country that provide opportunities almost as foreign? By drifting to another island, you can unlace the stays of place and clan.” As does Mr. (sic) Pisani herself, unlacing and drifting, across the months, across thousands of miles, always delightfully up for an adventure. She seems never to have met a motorcycle she didn’t get on, a ship she didn’t board, an offer she wished to refuse. Though we sometimes fear for her—will she emerge safe and sound?—she always does, with another story to be told. “I resolved to go Haloban to talk to the Crocodile Whisperer,” she writes engagingly from one remote islet, “hitching a lift on a boat . . . from a turtle monitoring station. The weather was filthy, but that didn’t deter the boat boys. They emptied the water out . . . plugged the hole with a bit of an old flip-flop . . . It took nearly two hours, plenty of time to wonder how many weeks it would be before anyone noticed if I drowned out here.”
The impressionistic portrait of Indonesia that emerges—occasionally confusing, like her subject—is truly memorable. Memorable, and perhaps reassuring too. In Ms. Pisani’s closing chapters she considers the question of Islamic militancy, the particular fear in Washington that this immensely populous nation could one day soon be stirred into a jihadist fury. She acknowledges the concern among middle-class Javans about the “Arabization” of Islam in their country—the growing number of Saudi-financed mosques, the slow introduction of the diktats of Shariah, the ever more rigorous coverings prescribed for women in Madura and south Sulawesi. Something is happening to Indonesian Islam, for sure—but as to whether it will coalesce and become a cause for Western alarm, the author remains broadly skeptical.
Ms. Pisani recounts at length the Muslim zealots’ attempt two years ago to ban a Jakarta concert by Lady Gaga. The initial response to the alarm from the country’s security minister was to text to the press the letters “EGP,” essentially the Bahasa Indonesia shorthand for—I paraphrase the author’s words for decency’s sake—”I don’t give a rat’s ass.” Ms. Pisani considers this “a pretty good reflection of most Indonesians’ attitude to extremism.” But the response backfired. The more vehement local mullahs saw this as utterly offensive, whipped their followers into a frenzy and thus intimidated the singer into canceling the concert herself. Score one for fundamentalism, one might think.
But the author doesn’t see this instance as a sign of anything larger. “Most Indonesians support the idea of religious freedom. . . . They just don’t care that much.” They will continue to display the legendary generosity of spirit and tolerance that has long kept this remarkable corner of the world so sane and lovable. Long after the rest of the Islamic world has embraced the medieval miseries of the grand caliphate, I suspect, Indonesia will go on marching to her very different drum and still happily making it all up as she goes along.
—Mr. Winchester is the author of “Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded” and many other books.