Living through interesting times and recording them as an observer, albeit with a strong attachment, offers a value not only for future historians, but also for those of us on the periphery.
Canadian Jeremy Allen straddles the worlds of expats and Indonesians alike. He first came to Indonesia as an “innocent” backpacker in 1980 and “became enthralled by Indonesia’s natural wonders, its vibrant culture, and by the way [he] was received with warm hospitality.”
He is an innocent no longer, and nor are any of us in Indonesia who’ve witnessed first hand the natural and manmade disasters, the social unrest, the blatant corruption, and the disregard for legal processes – often by the judiciary and law enforcement agencies. All this, and more, is covered by the local and international mass media, NGOs and personal social media.
‘Jakarta Jive, Bali Blues’ is a reprint of two books. The first, originally published in 2001, has as its core the events which lead to the forced abdication of the “dictator in all but name” Suharto in May ’98.
Other accounts have been published about the Asian Economic Crisis (krismon) which lead to resign, but, as Jeremy points out, “all economic circumstances are relative”. For him, “the quadrupling of the price of imported cheese was a minor inconvenience.” However, “for a middle-class mother, the four-fold in baby formula was a serious concern.” As businesses and banks collapsed, one solution was for selebritis to establish upscale warung makanan which came to be known as kafe tenda (tented café). At one such, Jeremy learnt from a former banker at a Soeharto-owned bank that “he believes that there is nothing wrong with nepotism as long as you keep it in the family“.
Although his income at the time was derived mainly from copy writing, his keen ear and empathy marks Jeremy out as a “proper journalist“. He was curious and concerned as he ventured out on the streets in that tumultuous week, often in the company of Monica, a traumatised Chinese-Indonesian student from Trisakti University, the scene of still unresolved shootings, who hid her tension behind the lens of her camera.
She was to develop into a filmmaker, documenting the aftermath of the mass rapes of Chinese women, and the students’ continued push for reformasi, the “desire to see an end to Soeharto’s rule with no clear concept of how to replace the existing authoritarian government with a more democratic political system“. (Many would say that nearly 20 years later that in spite of direct elections there are still few with a clear concept.)
The students divided into two groupings, militant activists and those demanding a more peaceful route, both facing the “incompetently commanded troops“. And then came Ramadhan, the Islamic fasting month and all sides called a cessation, probably because “the prospect of hours in the tropical afternoon sun without a drop of water would be a rigorous test of both political zeal and military discipline.”
Among the ‘characters’ Jeremy met was Pak Trisno, who became a journalist “fired with humanitarian fervor … documenting the plight of the common people as a half-made, fractious republic lurched from one crisis to another.”
In 1965 he was arrested, accused of subversion, but never tried, and spent the years until 1974 being “shuffled from one prison to another in Jakarta.” Upon release he was helped by friends to establish a used furniture-antiques business in South Jakarta, close to expat enclaves. And they lead Jeremy to an ‘expose’ of the duality in the then expat scene in Jakarta. There were many insensitive DIAs (“dollar income a**holes“) who thought life was “dirt cheap“, and they are contrasted with the majority of Indonesians for whom “life was no party“.
Bali Blues, the second book has as its focus the Bali bombings on October 11th 2002. Jeremy had hoped to be in Bali that day to meet some friends, but fortuitously had a business meeting in Jakarta, while an allergic reaction kept his friends out of both the Sari Club and Paddy’s Bar.
He “hastened there and discovered that [his] friends’ fortuitous escape had not been an isolated occurrence. A few remembered feeling a force at their back, like someone physically pushing them out of harm’s way.”
And so begins a personal account about the balance between the metaphysical and physical planes of existence at the centre of Bali life, and the changes wrought to the land- and mind- scapes with the advent of mass tourism, as well as the seekers of a residential paradise with little understanding of the exotic norms.
Underlying and beyond the urbanisation, the traffic jams, the real estate vendors, new age dreamers, surfers, and the Javanese economic migrants (including “professional prostitutes”), lies a “shadowy parallel world, called Niskala, and the physical world, Sekala. These are kept in balance through the endless cycles of prayer, ritual and public ceremony. The catastrophic Bali Bomb disrupted this harmony, threatening the well-being of Bali, but of the world.”
Much of the book are character studies of Jeremy’s social circle, so it comes as something as a shock to find chronological accounts of the fateful evening with laughing terrorist Amrozi and his cohorts intertwined with those of Jeremy’s Indonesian friends.
The book closes with an epilogue. A week after the executions of the three bombers, Jeremy undertook a cycle ride from Bali back to Jakarta. En route he took a detour past by the burial site of the two brothers, Amrozi bin Nurhasyim and Ali Ghufron. They had been buried in a “plot of carefully cleared land shaded by mango trees, with a chain-link fence enclosing the side-by-side graves.”
The fence had been erected because so many faithful pilgrims made midnight visits and took away the “mystically charged earth.”*
So much of contemporary history is reduced to message bytes and sound bites that having a personal, occasionally anecdotal, yet essentially objective account of seminal events such as this omnibus edition is of immense value.
There is a strong humanity shining through Jeremy Allen’s prose; I recommend it for that and to all those seeking a good armchair read.
Look for it in your local Periplus book store.
*Note: the gravesite of Imam Samudra, the other executed bomber, has also become a place of pilgimage.
First published in the Indonesia Expat magazine 19.9.15