Friday, December 27, 2002


I was invited to a reception that the Saudi Arabian Embassy was holding in one of the biggest five star hotels in Jakarta. At the entrance to the grand ballroom, I shook hands with a tall smiling gentleman in Arab robes, whom I presumed was the father of one of my pupils.

"Your son is a good student," I said.

The man raised his eyes heavenwards. He could see that I was lying. He knew his son was potentially bright but not exactly a scholar.

I ambled over to one part of the room where there were a number of young ladies. I seemed to be attracting a lot of attention: some women were staring in my direction and smiling. As I am sometimes a little bit slow on the uptake, it took me some minutes to realise that in Saudi Arabia they do things differently. The women mainly stand at one end of the room and the gentlemen at the other. As discreetly as I could, I edged over to the correct section of the assembly.

On a table of great length I could see a whole roast lamb, dishes of leg of lamb with yoghurt, cracked wheat with yoghurt, cucumber salad, and pastries with honey, but no alcohol. I picked up some lamb and a fruit juice and approached an elderly and kindly-looking Indonesian whom I took to be the Minister of Social Welfare.

"Do you know a place called Panti Bambu?" I asked him in English. "It may have links to your ministry."

The old gentleman gave me a puzzled look. I proceeded to tell him a little about the place where Wisnu had lived.

"Panti Bambu?" he said, blank faced.

"You are the Minister of Social Welfare?"

"I am the Chairman of the Council of Ulema," he said, quietly and politely. He was referring to the body made up of influential religious figures who are experts on Islamic law and dogma.

I accidentally dropped a piece of gravy-covered meat onto the expensive carpet. Neither of us could think of anything further to say.

Having escaped to the food table and picked up some more lamb, I managed to get talking to a small, nattily dressed, middle aged Australian, who seemed to fizz with happiness .He was the local boss of some UN agency.

"Any famous people here?" I asked him.

"That looks like the president’s eldest daughter, Tutut, over there in the middle," he said, nodding in the direction of a young woman who sparkled like a star at a Hollywood premiere.

"Beautifully dressed in an Islamic sort of way."

"Friendly smile," I said, "She looks younger than her age."

"She’s in the toll road business, and said to be close to certain generals, like Hartono."

"Useful. What about Tutut’s brother, Bangbang?" I asked.

"I don’t see him here. They say he keeps in with General Sudrajat."

"You have inside information?" I was wondering if the Australian had links to the security services.

"I simply read the press. I get most of my information from a publication called Inside Indonesia. The Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek are also useful." He beamed.

"I recognise the soberly dressed woman on our right," I said. "She’s smiling at us."

"I think it’s Megawati, daughter of Sukarno."

"And now leader of the PDI party," I said. "She has a motherly smile."

"The military reckons that if there were free and fair elections she’d get sixty-per-cent of the vote. And the PDI is not a Moslem party. It’s a secular party, a mixture of nationalists, Moslems and Christians."

"I hear she has some friends in the military."

"Gumelar and Hendropriyono are said to have helped Megawati become boss of the main opposition party, the PDI."

"So the army’s not united?" I asked.

"Ten to twenty years ago, it was Christians who had a lot of the top posts in the armed forces, people like Sudomo, and Benny Murdani. Then Murdani criticised certain particularly corrupt people around Suharto and it looked as if the army was no longer automatically on Suharto’s side. Murdani ceased to be the Armed Forces boss and Suharto, in more recent times, has been promoting people like Feisal Tanjung and Hartono, who are Moslems."

"So is the army now more Islamic?"

"No, it’s more complicated than that," said the Australian, grinning merrily. "It’s difficult to tell whether General X is part of the Moslem faction or part of the Nationalist faction. General X might ally with General Y because both have the same religion but more importantly because both are from the same region of Indonesia and both have the same business interests. It’s more about money and power than belief in God. I don’t think the generals are necessarily particularly religious. A Christian officer might crack down on Christians in Timor and a Moslem officer might crack down on Moslems in Aceh."

"Who are the up-and-coming generals?"

"Suharto tends to give top posts to relatives or people who’ve been his personal guards. There’s General Prabowo who’s married to one of Suharto’s daughters. There’s Prabowo’s ally, Sjafrie, who was trained by the Americans, allegedly about the tactics of terror. There’s one top general who allegedly wants to use militias made up of preman, that’s street thugs, to keep law and order. A lot of the generals are rumoured to have links with preman."

"What part does the underworld play?" I asked.

"Who runs things in Indonesia? I was told, in one city, that it was the local mafia boss who was in charge. Of course these things get exaggerated."

"What about Jakarta?"

"In my part of Jakarta, things like parking and gambling are supposedly controlled by a gang of Ambonese Christians. They even have influence in the shopping malls. Dangerous people some of these Ambonese. A gangster from East Timor is said to run Tanah Abang market."

"Why does the military put up with criminals?"

"Imagine a city where the mayor is a military man, let’s say an Ambonese Christian, well connected to generals and businessmen in Jakarta. He may use local Christian gangs to help him stay in power and bring in the money, or at least that’s how his opponents see it."

"Useful connections," I commented.

"The mayor will make sure the jobs go to his family and friends."

"So it’s like politics in Britain," I said jokingly.

"Godfathers sometimes have links to the police, politicians and certain freemasons," said the Australian, eyes twinkling.

"What about these youth organisations like Yorris’s Pemuda Pancasila?"

"Some are good. Some bad. One of these groups reportedly makes its money from protection rackets, gambling, prostitution. And it’s used by very powerful people to do their dirty work."

"Such as?"

"A number of the demonstrations you see on the TV news are not the work of ordinary citizens. They’re the work of criminal gangs, paid for by sections of the elite."


"The danger is that when the president retires there could be a civil war among all the competing criminal factions, or even military factions." The Australian had put on his serious face as he related this.

"What about military discipline?"

"There was a gambling place near us being protected by a soldier. A policeman had an argument with the manager. The soldier and the policeman came to blows. Next day a group of soldiers came to the police station to beat up the police."

"I’d still think it’s safer here than in Detroit or even London," I said.

"In a sense, the criminals here are kept under control. You’re right. The streets are safe."

"That’s what it’s all about surely?"

"Empires don’t last for ever though," said the Australian. Do you know this quotation? ‘There has been a gradual weakening of civil liberties, an increase in the power of the army, and an acceptance of corruption among public servants. Vast fortunes have been made by a small group who use their wealth to control the Senate.’"

"The Senate?" I queried.

"That was someone writing about the Roman Empire, but it could apply to Indonesia or even the USA."

I was walking alongside the railway track, near Batutulis in Bogor. The sky was a perfect blue and the shacks and gardens on either side of the line were alive with noisy cockerels and happy children.

"Hello, mister," said a schoolboy, in white shirt and red shorts, who had walked up behind me from the direction of a mosque. "Where are you going?"

"Just out for a walk," I said. "Is the track safe?"

"Safe, mister. Not the roads though. My little sister had an accident." The boy looked worried.

"What happened?"

"Hit by a car. Broke her leg."

"Did the car stop?"


"Is she in hospital?"

"She’s gone to the dukun."

"She’d be better at the hospital. The dukun’s a faith healer, isn’t he?"

"Like a doctor. Do you want to meet my sister, and the dukun?"

"OK. Is it far?" I thought it would be interesting to see if the dukun really was helping the little sister; and if he was not, then perhaps I could offer to take the girl to a proper hospital.

"Not far. Up in the hills."

"Fifteen minutes by car?"

"Fifteen minutes."

"We’d better consult your mother. What’s your name?"


Mother, an apparently shy woman, didn’t want to come with us and so Mono and I set off up into the hills with my driver. The track became twisting, steep and potholed and the vegetation turned to something close to jungle.

"You said fifteen minutes," I complained to Mono. "It’s been almost an hour so far."

"Nearly there," he said.

The dukun’s house, when we got there, was a plain Dutch-style bungalow in a tiny village. Mono led me through the front room, where one or two youths lounged on ancient armchairs, and on into a dingy bedroom where the boy’s young sister lay on a mattress, next to an older female companion. The sister looked as if she wasn’t enjoying her experience.

The dukun entered the room and we were introduced. He was a giant of a man, aged around fifty; he wore baggy trousers and looked as if he could have been a retired boxer; his face had a solemn, battered appearance.

"How’s the patient?" I asked.

"Almost better," said the dukun. He took the girl’s hand and she stood up. I was impressed. But I was still a little worried in case the bones had not been set completely correctly, or in case there was any infection.

"Shouldn’t she have an x-ray in the hospital?" I said to the girl’s companion, whom I took to be a relative. "I’ll pay for hospital treatment."

"No, thank you," she replied quietly but firmly.

"How can you treat patients without antibiotics and x-rays?" I said to the dukun. I tried to sound friendly.

"My father taught me how to set bones," he said solemnly.

"Can you cure fevers?" I asked.

"I deal with bones."

"In Britain, where I come from, we tend to use x-rays when a leg gets broken."

"Hmm," said the dukun.

I felt I had been undiplomatic and decided to say something more friendly. "My driver told me about a dukun who lives near me in Jakarta, in Rempoa. I think I’ll go and see him sometime. His name’s Ariri. Do you know him?"

"No," said the dukun.

"I get sinus problems sometimes. And a stiff neck. I’m told he massages people’s feet."

The giant dukun said nothing. This seemed to be an indication that it was time to shake the man’s hand, make my departure and return Mono to his home.

When I got back to Jakarta, I decided, on an impulse, to pay a visit to Ariri, my local dukun.

I have always been a little bit wary of the paranormal; I have tended to take the attitude that it is probably better not to dabble in such things, unless you can be sure that you are dealing with good, as opposed to evil, forces. I had once read about experiments carried out at the University of Manitoba in the 1950s. According to a report in a learned journal, a Hungarian healer had succeeded in bringing about a faster than average cure of some sick mice. He had also managed to get some plants to grow faster than normal. I did not rule out the possibility that certain dukuns could on occasions have a beneficial effect on people’s health.

At a dinner party in London, given by an Italian Countess, I had been introduced to a numerologist, an elderly gentleman of dandified appearance. This numerologist, who had apparently given consultations to Winston Churchill, had promised, in return for being given my date of birth, to give me some free advice. He said that after doing some mathematical calculations at home he would send me information about my role in life. I hesitated at first; but then decided that the man sounded as if he was on the side of the angels, so to speak.

A few days later a small envelope arrived and inside was a much folded piece of blue paper on which were written three sentences. The numerologist had written that I was a negotiator, that I should do more to avoid false pride and the things of the flesh, and that I should get more exercise.

He seemed remarkably accurate about the false pride; I wasn’t so sure about the things of the flesh.

The foot-massaging dukun, Ariri, lived in a relatively poor kampung, in a small bungalow filled with children. He was comfortably built, bright eyed, and easy to talk to. I felt reassured. After seating me on a wooden chair, he began some foot reflexology, squeezing each of my toes in turn and pressing hard against various other parts of the foot. In a mixture of Indonesian and English, we got chatting about dukuns.

"How did you learn to be a dukun?" I asked.

"My father taught me," he said, with a big smile.

"I’ve heard there are both good and bad dukuns ," I said, perhaps unwisely. "Are there any bad dukuns?"

"Lots of bad ones," he admitted. "Be very careful."

I had heard of dukuns who were incompetent and who had failed to get people better; I had been told that when a patient had diarrhoea, a dukun might spray water at the patient with his mouth; sometimes a dukun would burn a piece of mystical writing over a glass of water and then get the patient to take a drink; dukuns often acted as midwifes and in the past this had sometimes meant dirty hands and dirty equipment.

"What do the bad ones do?" I asked.

"They harm people," said the dukun, without smiling. "Sometimes they kill people. Good dukuns can help people who’ve been affected by bad dukuns."

"What makes these things work?"

"A kind of energy."

"Do you believe in spirits?"


"Where do they come from?"

"Everything has a physical body and a spirit body. The same with plants and animals."



"How do you know there are spirits?"

"What makes something come alive? Where were you before you were born?"

"Don’t know."

"The spirit enters the body and leaves the body. Dukuns try to treat the spirit, not just the body. But now I am treating your body."

He squeezed my big toe and I squealed.

"How does that help?" I asked. "It’s agony when you hit that spot."

"It helps the energy to flow."

My neck, shoulders and sinuses felt much better that evening. And I was pleased that I had met some dukuns whose views were not necessarily unreasonable.



Post a Comment

<< Home