Tuesday, December 24, 2002

54 FIRDAUS SQUEEZED MY HAND

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The air was filled with dusty sunlight, the smell of roasting fish and the happy squeals of little girls; in front of us lay the pool, the tropical ferns, the Hindu carvings and the semi-naked bodies of the rich; sprawled on seats to our left were bronzed young men with something of the lordly arrogance of Lebanese arms dealers or Colombian drugs barons. It was like being in one of the posher parts of Bali, but we were in fact in the restaurant beside the sparkling rooftop pool of Jakarta’s luxurious Grand Hyatt hotel, only metres above a major road junction with worryingly high levels of air pollution.

I was having lunch with Carmen, and my colleague Ian, the pallid faced lover of late-night bars and frequent opponent of Carmen in games of tennis.

"How’s Melati?" I asked Ian, remembering the girl I had once observed him meeting at a night club in East Jakarta.

"Melati? That was a long time ago. She was getting too keen on the idea of marriage." Ian kept a straight face and took a tiny sip of diet cola.

"The President’s wife died," I said, breaking a period of silence.

"Strange that," said Ian, adjusting his dark glasses. "They rushed the body off pretty quickly. No TV cameras viewing the corpse. My driver said it was suspicious."

"Indonesian Moslems like to get bodies buried quickly," I commented, remembering the death from tetanus of Min’s young brother.

"What do you think the Suharto family are worth?" asked Ian, looking in the direction of the turquoise waters and two slim girls sitting beneath some Balinese statuary.

"Many many billions of US Dollars," said Carmen, putting down her glass of Muscadet.

"How do they do it?" I asked.

"Well they own this hotel for a start," said Carmen with her usual giggle. "The gossip is that Suharto family businesses do work for the government oil company; the family make money from taking pilgrims to Mecca; they own half of East Timor and millions of hectares elsewhere."

"They’re into timber and mining," said Ian.

"Not forgetting cloves, sugar, rice, and wheat," said Carmen.

"And they’re said to be middlemen when weapons are bought for the army," said Ian.

"What about the Suharto charities that build mosques and schools?" I asked.

"That wins Moslem votes," said Ian.

"The rumour is," said Carmen, "that the charities are slush funds for the family’s businesses. The family is not poor. Property and investments all over the world, or so they say."

"I don’t imagine that people like Clinton or Bush are poor," I said.

Two plates of giant spicy prawns arrived for Carmen and myself. Ian was on a diet.

"How’s the book going?" I asked Ian, who had once told me he liked to write about his travels.

"I’ve been writing about Borneo," said Ian. "Last holiday I was in Samarinda in East Kalimantan."

"You’re brave," said Carmen, as she pulled the head off a prawn.

"Flying there in a Garuda plane, you mean?" asked Ian.

"Not just that," said Carmen. "Aren’t Borneo’s Dayaks headhunters?"

"They’re headhunters," said Ian, grinning, "but mainly Christian. I found them actually rather easy going and pretty honest."

"So what’s it like in Borneo?" I asked.

"Lots of rain forest," said Ian, sitting back happily in his chair, "except where the forests are being cleared by fires; there are tiny subsistence farms with pigs and sweet potatoes; Samarinda’s on a very wide river; it’s got some modern housing and the usual mosques and open air markets; the usual minibuses; the usual children in white shirts and red skirts."

"Don’t the Dayaks hate the immigrants who’ve come in from Java?" I asked.

"Probably," said Ian. "I imagine some Dayaks might like to hunt the heads of the Chinese timber barons who’re destroying their forests."

"Is your book non-fiction?" asked Carmen.

"Non-fiction," said Ian. "Except that writing about people always involves a wee bit of fiction."

"Always?" I asked.

"I was writing about an Australian girl called Mary," said Ian. "Met her at the Hotel Mesra in Samarinda. Now, let’s imagine Mary says, ‘Eh, Ian, what did you think of the whatsit, you know, the place with the monkeys?’ I would write that down as, ‘Clint, that was a wonderful trip to the Kutei Game Reserve, where we saw these gentle orang-utan. And weren’t these gibbons great?’ It is a fact that we went to the game reserve."

"Who’s Clint?" asked Carmen.

"I change everyone’s name," explained Ian.

"Did Mary see gibbons?" queried Carmen.

"She probably did," said Ian. "Mary’s a composite character based on Mary and Veronica. In the book she’s called Jean. Otherwise she’d recognise herself."

"So if you write about me," said Carmen, with a titter, "I’ll be a mixture of two people, and will be young and beautiful."

"My book would be unreadable if I didn’t edit my notes," explained Ian, with a grin. "I don’t take notes while I’m talking to a girl on some trip. I make notes months afterwards, when I feel in the mood. And then I do a bit of editing."

"Deconstruction and slippage of meaning," said Carmen, giggling loudly.

"What’s that then?" I queried.

"I’m not sure," admitted Carmen. "I think the supporters of deconstruction argue that words mean different things at different times, and different things to different people. This bloke called Jacques Derrida argues that there’s some slippage of meaning with words."

"Ah," I said, "Like ‘handicapped child’ means someone worthless or someone good, depending on who you’re speaking to." At the back of my mind was a memory of Ian once suggesting that I should have left Min in the street, rather than trying to rescue him.

"Yes," said Ian. "Words like ‘immigrant’ or ‘Moslem’ can mean lots of different things."

"Giant prawn," said Carmen, "means something deliciously lemony and salty to one person, and something puke-making to someone else."

"I like fish," said Ian, "but I’m going for a workout when I leave here."

"Have you heard of Jean-Francois Lyotard?" asked Carmen.

"Sounds like a keep-fit man," said Ian, smiling.

"Lyotard" said Carmen, "argues there’s no longer any religion or philosophy, like Marxism or Christianity, that can explain everything. Unless it’s a religion or philosophy that constantly changes as new discoveries are made."

"Lyotard? A writer?" I asked.

"A deconstructionist," said Carmen. "The religion or philosophy has to evolve."

"Because of scientific discoveries?" I said.

"Science now has its uncertainties and paradoxes," explained Carmen.

"Uncertainties and paradoxes," I said. "That sounds like real life."

"So Ian’s book," said Carmen, "could never be pure fact."

"My book may not be Gospel truth," said Ian, "but it’s got some relation to reality."

"Gospel truth?" said Carmen. "Mark’s Gospel claims Jesus’s last words were, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me? Luke had the last words as, ‘Father, to your hands I entrust my spirit.’"

"John?" I asked.

Carmen chuckled. "According to John, Jesus said: ‘The task is done.’"

"So it’s OK to make slight changes," said Ian.

"It seems to happen," said Carmen. "As time passes. And audiences change."

"But is there a danger that a work intended to be non-fiction develops into a work of fiction?" I said.

"Well Luke seems to have added bits," said Carmen, sounding serious for a change. "But I don’t think he was trying to mislead people. He wasn’t intending to change the basic message. He was just trying to give added value."

"The danger is if you unwittingly add bits that are fundamentally untrue," I commented.

"Scientists sometimes slightly fiddle their results," said Carmen, "when they know they’ve got a good case, and are desperate to convince people."

"Just like spiritual mediums and policemen," said Ian.


Walking near the mental hospital in Bogor’s Babakan district, I passed a group of small children playing football in a muddy field. Like most Indonesian boys they knew how to enjoy themselves and they had few inhibitions. They skated on the slippery red earth, hurled themselves into puddles, and wallowed in mucky wetness like happy little hippos. When they stood up they shook mud from their hair, wiped mud from their cheeks and eyelids, and slapped mud off the seats of their shorts.

Sitting under a mango tree, dressed in Islamic headgear, were three teenage girls, one with a motorbike. They giggled as some of the boys made their tummy muscles ripple or did clownish handstands and cartwheels which always ended in more floundering in the mud.

My conscience was troubling me as I had not visited the mental hospital for some time. I called in at the office of the children’s ward to speak to the nurses on duty and was told that over in the Merdeka ward there was one little boy who was rather sick.

The large open courtyard of the Merdeka ward was peaceful and sunny in the way that a farmyard or orphanage in Rumania could be peaceful and sunny; in one corner an elderly patient was helping to feed a malnourished friend who was lying on a lumpy mattress; in another corner a ragged woman was scratching her hair.

"This is Firdaus," said the motherly nurse in charge of the office, as she patted the head of a boy aged about ten. "The police found him on the railway track. He can’t speak."

Firdaus had a most appealing appearance apart from egg-sized bumps on his forehead and absolutely enormous lumpy fleshy scars on his chest. It looked as if, at some time in the past, he had been involved in a major accident or been attacked by a maniac; and not had his wounds attended to by a doctor.

"He doesn’t look very happy," I said.

"He’s depressed. No family. No friends," said the nurse.

I took him for a walk around the hospital grounds and bought him some chocolate milk and some savoury snacks. On our way back to the ward, he squeezed my hand and stared at me hard. His big gentle innocent eyes told me he was feeling a little better.


I get nervous before going to certain sorts of party. This particular party at the sports club was full of tall confident people talking about surfing, diving, sailing, shopping, and soap operas. I felt self-conscious, awkward and out-of-place. Maybe it was the cheap wine.

"You OK , Kent?" said a voice. I turned and was overjoyed to see Anne, wife of Bob.

"Fine," I said.

"You looked sad."

"It’s just me."

"I know how you feel. Some of these people are not our type."

"What type are we?"

Anne paused and sipped her wine before replying. "I like to think I’m a little bit cultured, independent, tolerant, intuitive. Pauline and Bob might say I’m changeable. Maybe we change moment by moment." She sort of laughed.

"What about me?"

"I’d say Kent that you’re adventurous."

For two seconds I felt rather good about Anne’s comments. Was it flattery? "So, how come I’m scared of things like flying?" I said. "And most sports terrify me."

"But you’re the sort of person who wanders into the slums. You’re a nonconformist."

Again I felt good momentarily. "I’m usually a conformist when it comes to taking orders from the boss. I keep quiet at staff meetings."

"It can be a good quality to be self-effacing. I’d say you’re sensitive and painstaking."

Did that sound good? "I’m sensitive if people criticise my work. And I’m sometimes lazy about marking and reports."

"Be more sanguine, and you’ll find it’s good for your health," said Anne, whose frown seemed to suggest that she was about to give up on her attempts to cheer me up. "Now, come and meet this American, called Lane. He’s in mining. He’s very in touch with what’s going on."

Before Anne wandered off I was introduced to a middle-aged man with a smart suit and a grey, heavily-lined face that suggested too much stress Anne told him I was interested in politics.

"How is the political situation?" I asked. "What do the Americans think is going on?"

"Two schools of thought," said Lane. "Some people at the embassy want us to be sympathetic to Pakpahan." He looked around, as if to see who might be listening.

"Pakpahan? The union leader?"

"That’s him. There’s a feeling that workers should not be paid starvation wages, and allegedly tortured and killed if they try to improve things. There’s a worry that the corruption in high places creates instability. Leads to Moslem extremism."

"The other school of thought?"

"The hawks at the embassy support the Indonesian military. They believe the military holds the country together and is a useful bulwark against China. They think that in the real world you have to be Machiavellian. Suharto and the military are good for American business."

"Mobil, Nike, Caterpillar," I said.

"There’s more," said Lane, "Hughes Aircraft, Reebok, Freeport, Mattel, Levi Strauss, all the fast food people."

"What about when Suharto retires? Are the Americans worried?"

"Our defence and intelligence people seem to be keeping in with certain top generals who may take over from Suharto. Probably generals from the elite regiments: Kopassus and Kostrad. The embassy also tries to keep in with Megawati, of course."

"Will the Americans choose the right people?"

"If you remember Nicaragua, Vietnam and Cambodia you’ll know that we Americans are expert when it comes to dirty tricks and torture. We train torturers and terrorists, put them into power, and then decide to topple them."

"Is Suharto’s position weakening?"

"There’s a group within the Indonesian army that claims to be loyal to Suharto and very Islamic. Although their Islam is probably only a means to gaining power. These generals try to spread rumours about the loyalty of the more secular generals. So, who can Suharto trust? Murdani, Sudrajat, Faisal Tanjung, Wiranto, Yudhoyono, Hartono or Prabowo? I think Suharto tries to keep a balance between the factions. It’s all shifting alliances. The Catholic Murdani may talk to the pro-democracy Abdurrahman Wahid and his traditional Moslems. Some pro-Suharto Moslem leaders seem to like General Hartono."

"The newspapers talk about a Moslem ‘Green’ faction and a Nationalist ‘red and white’ faction. Are these ‘red and whites’ in favour of democracy?"

"No," said Lane, screwing up his face. "They want continued army rule so they can stay rich. It’s just that they want to avoid a take over by a faction making use of Islam. It’s all about power."

"You think most people in your government and business community support army rule?"

"Most do. Not all of them. I’m in mining and the army is our problem. It wants money from us for protection."

"What happens if you don’t pay?"

"What happens when you don’t pay protection money in Palermo? You may be forced to close down."

"What’s your solution?"

"Close down the army," said Lane, in a whisper. "Then you’ll get less crime. Less illegal mining. Less illegal logging. How do you close down the army? No more money from the World Bank, the IMF, the donor countries. Then the army would shrink."

"Who’s then going to buy British and American jets?"

"That’s it, isn’t it. We support the army so we can sell them weapons. I wonder if any people in this country are giving money to political parties in the States?"





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