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Return to the field


What is it to go back to the field? After many years of writing about Indonesia, I returned in the spring last year to the scenes of my anthropological youth: the island of Nias, which I hadn’t seen for a quarter of a century, and Java, a dozen years after my last visit. I had logged nearly five years in the field but could no longer pretend that the fallow periods – of life and work – were an interval: fieldwork had been the interval. The ethnographer’s memory plays tricks with time. In jottings, tape recordings and anecdotes, things stay the same; you grow old but the people you knew are as ageless as their photographs, and the dialogue which plays in your head back home is with these fieldwork phantoms. Disciplinary critics have chided anthropologists for writing in the present tense. In their prim jargon, “the ethnographic present” is a colonial trick to deny exotic “Others” a place in history, refusing them the status of “coevals.” But the ethnographic present is the medium of memory and imagination, of human sympathy. Our informants – out of reach, seldom out of mind – persist in an eternal present: it is their presentness that makes them coevals. Like family, we can never leave them behind. What, then, does it mean to go back?

The last decade had seen big changes in Indonesia: an earthquake in Nias, the rise of militant Islam in Java, the end of a dictatorship. Too much ground to recover. But my concerns were local, and therefore personal. In Nias, I wanted to write a postscript to a long-completed narrative: to find the end of the story, or at least my bit of it. What had become of “my” characters: the big men who had wrestled for leadership, girls on the brink of marriage, a murderer and his family? Java posed more scholarly questions. A rare compromise between orthodoxy, animism and pantheist mysticism made it a special place among Muslim nations; but what was left of the social compact? Had Java emerged from the shadow of Islamic puritanism?

The short answers to these questions could be reckoned in deaths, migrations and conversions. But the longer answers were more interesting. The weight of the facts depended on knowledge accumulated in the long run, on genealogies and intimate histories, even – despite the intervals – on the residues of memory. The returning ethnographer is also in a small way part of the narrative. The witness to others’ lives helps shape their stories.

The ghost of fieldwork past does not make a quiet entrance. In Java, when I walked unannounced into the house of the old widow with whom I hoped to board, she had caught her breath and sat down in a faint. It was not me, but the sudden memory of her dead husband that had affected her. On a bright, hot, ordinary day in March, a very big piece of the past had come through the door. “I could not breathe,” she told everyone. “It was Hadi.” But when she set out a plate of food and burned incense for him in the evening, as she did on Sundays and Thursdays, she said, “Hadi will be pleased I’m not on my own any more.”

The widow’s double-take echoed my own. Memory fought a continual struggle to impose the past on the present. To look in a familiar face was to see it melt back into youth and then, unsettlingly, recover its present form. For while I had been busy acquiring children and wrinkles, so – in spite of fieldnotes and memories – had they. My friend, the former headman, sleek and self-confident when I had left him a dozen years ago, was now lank and reduced, with a tooth missing (how expressive that gap!) and an air of vanished authority. In his tired face I could read only the deficit, the gap. It was a month before I could see him as he really was; and by then, the visual impact of aging had been modified by a subtler sense of endurance, of a long game in which, as always, he would come out the winner.

In Nias, a much longer absence made these adjustments more hit and miss. Twenty-three years had turned children into grandparents. The boy who had fetched our water from the river now had a grandson. Others had reproduced their childhood selves. In the slow passage of village time, two generations had been crammed into one, three into two. A middle-aged man with teenage children (and photos to prove it), I seemed to be on a different track; I had lived less.

When you are out of the field, even for the briefest period, the most important things happen: a murder, a village coup, a broken engagement. That visa renewal or weekend off costs you the best moments and nothing can give them back. The polite answer – the Indonesian answer – to “What happened?” is always “Nothing.” When you are away for longer, however, things of ordinary significance drop away. There really is nothing to report. This is the ethnographer’s blindspot: what you haven’t seen hasn’t happened – one reason why successive ethnographers will write entirely different, equally true, books about the same place.


The picture that imposed itself on my return to Nias – a population of ex-tribals stranded on the shores of the global economy – was long in the making. Colonized by the Dutch in the 1900s, Nias had been detribalizing for a century. The end of the independent chieftains, of slaving, raiding and headhunting, had broken the old order. During the First World War (which was only a rumour in Nias) an apocalyptic conversion movement, loosely guided by German Pietist missionaries, had swept the island, destroying the ancestor cult on which so much of life was founded. But the Susua valley in the central highlands has always been a step or two behind, and until recently it was still possible for an ethnographer to emphasize the tenacity of tradition, the vitality of the feasting cycles, and the despair of the missionaries. Though it ranks among the poorest regions in Indonesia and still lacks roads and electricity, the Susua was the place to go if you wanted to hear formal oratory and epic chants or to witness the ritualized bloodbath of a feast of merit. In its gaunt hilltop villages of wood and stone, what people cared about were things no missionary or bureaucrat, seeing only poverty and sin, could suspect: a well-turned speech, the betel-scented clamour of an audience, the triumph of generosity, the lustre of fame.

Disconnection is not, of course, the same as isolation. Traders have always circulated in the hills (a little warily), schoolchildren have boarded in town, missionaries have come and gone. But the meaning of Outside has changed. In recent years several families in my host village have acquired diesel-powered generators and televisions. Ordinary folk, barely able to read, carry mobiles and text each other from the fields. The sloping swiddens no longer echo to shouted messages. There are two jeeps – one on loan from the Red Cross – which climb the hill tracks in dry weather. Along one side of the school playing-field a row of broken-down vehicles awaits that millennial day when the roads connect. And behind the wreckage, in a scene from Deliverance, sit the old chief’s sons, feet up, chewing betel.

When I first arrived in 1986, only a handful of villagers had ever left the island. Now every family is depleted by migrants, many of whom never return. The lure of what lies “beyond the sea” has changed the meaning of home, inverting a traditional valuation. In the origin myth, the island was populated by heroes lowered down on chains from the heavens, the first men on earth. (Niha, Niasan, means human being.) Beyond the sea lay evil spirits and the scarcely human Malays and Dutch. Conversion and colonization shifted the horizons. Christian converts joined a worldwide communion; the unregenerate, the damned, were reclassified as niha baero – not unbelievers or even pagans but “outsiders”. From being the center of its own world, Nias had drifted to the margins of a much bigger world. But the rootedness of life, the need to carry on planting, politicking and marrying within a tight circle of hills made it possible to adjust to external conditions while ignoring their origin, accepting the price of gold (needed for bridewealth) or kerosene or new rules about village government as givens, like the weather or the seasonal fevers. This is no longer possible. Outside no longer signifies danger or damnation but opportunity and escape – a new kind of salvation in which only the outsiders are saved. Those left behind are not merely at home, they are stay-at-homes. Life is elsewhere, they make you feel. Family and lineage are temporary, seeds blown away in the wind.

Isolation and underdevelopment are, of course, an outsider’s way of talking about the dogged traditionalism of the hills, the backwoodsmen who don’t care about government schemes and incentives. But what happens when the outsider’s language becomes the insider’s self-image, when you cease to be a warrior or an orator and become a peasant, a mere statistic? Where in the world are you?

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I don’t want to overdo the novelty of the predicament. By the 1980s, the good old days of headhunting and slavery were a distant memory; Niha had long ago broken with the spirits and buried their ancestor figures. They accepted their poverty as a punishment; they were the deserving poor. As tribals on the fringes of Christendom, latecomers to the Last Supper, they owned the resentful role of “God’s stepchildren.” On Sundays they abstained from work and stood for hours in the tin-roofed church singing grim Lutheran hymns at a quarter-speed. Save us, O Lord, and gather us from the Heathen. To an honorary insider like me there was a certain dissonance in the performance, a queasy recognition of something only half-familiar. The church elders, in crumpled grey suits, wore their hair brushed up stiffly like coconuts (something they could never explain). Between psalms they fished in pockets for quids of betel while the priest sermonized on the sinfulness of debt. Sins were debts to God, just as unpaid debts to men barred one from heaven. The floor of the church was splotched red with beteljuice like the scene of a massacre.

Niha were emphatically Christians, or Christians of a kind; but social life – minus the ancestral aura – remained what it had always been: a quest for glory won through swaggering speeches and bloody feasts that obliged as they indebted. After exhausting three-day bacchanals full of sound and fury (and signifying everything), guests would stagger home laden with raw meat, honored and appalled. Oratory, heroic chants, and pig killings – plus hymns – were the order of the day. The past was still present.


The village of Orahua, where I lived and worked as an anthropologist in the 1980s, is mentioned in E.E.W.G. Schröder’s monumental three-volume ethnography, published in 1917. Schröder was the Dutch controleur and conqueror of the Susua valley. Known locally as Silau’ma – a warrior’s title – he is remembered today solely for the fact that he shot one of the inhabitants. The last great chiefly house to be erected in Central Nias, built in Orahua in 1924 and inaugurated by human sacrifice, has on its facade the talismanic figure of a white man shooting a rifle: the ethnographer as killer. Yet the commemoration is honorable. To be shot by Sila’uma was no disgrace.

In 1986 it was possible to talk to the original builders, men who had roamed the deep forest in search of timber. Their stories, miraculously preserved on cheap Indonesian tapes, now belong to another age. And so do the voices: the rich tobacco tones, the pauses to eject betel juice, the laughs of amazement at what they had achieved. How they had moved in green twilight through the smooth-skinned colonnades that became the house’s substructure. How they had lugged tree-trunks from jungle to river and hauled them uphill to the beat of gongs and chanting crowds. (Elio Modigliani, brother of the painter, said of Nias’s houses and stone-paved plazas, “Here we find the pyramid builders in origin.”) And how, when the roof was finished, they had rolled captives from the crest, which reared like a giant wave above the square.

Today the forests have gone and so have the old men; the house lies uninhabited, a crumbling wreck. A couple of years ago the Earthquake Reconstruction Fund replaced its leaky sago thatch with corrugated iron, rust-red among the palm leaves; but everything else is turning to dust and the building is now a skeleton. Only Sila’uma, guarding the façade, remains a fixture. The adjoining house, almost as big, was our home for two and a half years. Built by the last great chief, who died during our stay, it has now vanished entirely, its walls absorbed into lesser dwellings, its ant-mined columns chopped up for firewood. In the age of school fees and government bribes it was too expensive to maintain.

When we first arrived – my wife and I – all those years ago, Ama Damari, who lived next door, had boyishly shown us round, pacing out the cavernous hall, demonstrating the walk-in hearth, the secret passages and false entrances, the snug wooden locks and unwieldy door-sized skylight. (In Nias, size matters; the dimensions of a house, a roof or a pig are always quoted.) He had vaulted nimbly into the rafters, scaling the interior scaffold to point out where skulls had once dangled, shedding their protective glow. Twenty-five years on, white-haired and hollowed, he led me on the same tour, picking his way mutely among fallen joists and seesawing floorboards. We sat on the long window seat – a seven-yard, three-inch-thick bench stepped into the façade – and looked gloomily down onto the square. The lead-grey flagstones and megaliths that I remember whitewashed in moonlight were undisturbed, so too were the beetling longhouses to left and right, each home to a dozen families. But concrete had gained on stone; breezeblocks, overgrown with weeds, and ragged lines of washing now cluttered the living space. Measurable pride in architectural harmony (those chants and statistical boasts) had given way to shanty-like squalor. A sorry scene, but the story that Ama Damari told me was much worse.

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In the earthquake of March 2005 that destroyed the port towns and briefly made Nias world news, only one house in the village had fallen, with a single victim. (It was a matter of pride that the wooden houses, built on cantilevered boles, were quake-proof.) That family had simply disappeared: the mother killed, the sons exiled to other islands, the father now a beggar, patrolling the village for scraps. But every house had been damaged. Terrified by the aftershocks, for three months people had slept in makeshift tents on the square. In the old mythology the world rests on the back of a demiurge who periodically wriggles his shoulders to rid the world of sins. But no shrugging Atlas had brought the floods, pig plagues, and epidemics that followed. No sins could justify so many deaths.

The old guard – the orators, hunters and guardians of tradition – had gone. This I had expected. But so too had many of the young. Ama Damari told me how his first son, aged nineteen, had walked out of the village one morning, intending to cross the sea to Sumatra, and was never seen again. A few years later his brother had set out to follow him and had walked into oblivion. Their mother took the amputated family to another island to revive their fortunes, finding there only another version of the life she had always known – of scrawny pigs, sweet potatoes and poverty. Ama Damari stayed behind, stunned by misfortune, a ghost in his own house. Other men of my age, the topers, cardsharpers and feastgoers of memory, had died after drinking bouts, poisoned by the local brandy. The women who survive them are known as “village widows”, objects of public pity rather than charity; but Orahua is now a village of widows – women bereft or abandoned by men seeking a better life in the palm-oil plantations and plywood factories of Sumatra. Those who have stayed are a remnant population scratching a living from land dessicated by patchouli, boom product of the Nineties. Only religion prospers. Over sixty Protestant sects, each with its tin-roofed chapel, each a mini-fiefdom, compete for handouts from the dozens of NGOs that came in the wake of the earthquake – Caritas, Save the Children, Surf Aid. (Nias is a top-five surfing destination: by lifting the reef, the earthquake actually improved the waves, aided the surf.) There are now as many trainee priests and preachers in the village as would-be teachers and civil servants (the old hopefuls), a caste of evangelists pitching for souls and subsidies in the emptying parish.

Before I left Nias I had excess baggage to deposit: an academic book in English that none could read but which came with photos, genealogies and warrior chants in the vernacular, “the language of men.” Useless as it was, how could the village not possess a copy? My host, a dry, languid man who makes a decent living as the village tailor, read the fragments aloud, surprised and a little ironic. “You must have heard them from Ama Huku” (the village bard), he said, frowning. “The old ways; the outsiders.” But he was amused, taken aback: his brother, a titled feastgiver, had been a pupil of Ama Huku. And as a small crowd gathered – a few of them tipsy on palm wine – he held the book before him like a hymnal and switched to a rhythmic sonorous chant.

Our father, with teeth a span long

Who scatters the crocodiles

Whose hands uproot durian trees

Whose legs stir the rapids

The older men began to laugh. Recalled doubtfully to the past, they joined tentatively in the response: Hu-hey!  Then, locking stares and emboldened by the sound of their own voices, they took up the refrain. Children danced about.

Great men are food for the worms

Great men are food for the flies

The cracked earth closes over

The red earth swallows up

The book had run out, but the chanting went on. One man broke off and, finger in ear, phoned his sister on a plantation in Sumatra. He held out the phone for her to hear the roar. Then he handed it to me and I was suddenly talking to the girl who had done our washing twenty-five years ago and who now, at forty, was a grandmother in Kerinci. She addressed me by my Niha name, Ama Bute, and I too was transported back to a forgotten feeling and, instantly, a sense of pure loss. I was no longer that person, nor could ever be. But who was she? What had she become? What had she forgotten?


While Nias was detribalizing, Java was retrenching. The end of the 32-year dictatorship had brought a version of democracy – corrupt but relatively open – and a new grass-roots politics. In Bayu, a village on the eastern tip of the island where I had lived with my family in the 1990s, citizens had marched on the headman’s office, threatening arson, and demanded his resignation. Soldiers were trucked in – not to crush the protest but to save the office. The security forces were having to learn new roles.

What had preoccupied me in my last months in Bayu back in 1997 was the rise of puritan Islam. In the five years I had known the village (two in the field, three out), ideological differences, camouflaged in communal ritual, had begun to surface. In a close-packed rural community hemmed in by rice fields there was no room for disagreement, let alone conflict. Harmony was not simply a watchword; it was the basis of village life.

The veil had brought division, a screen between insiders and outsiders. We shared a house with the girl who wore the first jilbab, a burkah-like covering that affronted the self-confident, easygoing women of the village and offended their relaxed sense of femininity. After her hasty marriage to an outsider, a technician from the city, Sri – a carefree student, full of laughter and pranks – had entered the enclosed world of Salafism. Her adoptive mother, who had brought her up a nominal Christian, turned her out. It wasn’t the conversion that hurt – what, after all, was a word on an identity card? – but the manner, the implied rejection. Her natural mother (Javanese sometimes share the role), as nominal in her Muslim attachment, fatefully accepted the change and took her in. But the mother suffered for the daughter. Shut up in the house day and night, Sri had made herself a stranger in the village and the village a place of strangers.

It was a hard time for the lax. In dawn broadcasts from the mosque, megaphones lashed “unbelievers”. Under the onslaught, the indifferent, spirit-minded majority and the mystics who made up an intellectual fifth of the citizenry wilted. But a coup against the “infidel” headman (my gap-toothed friend) was stifled; my ethnographic skin saved. On the toytown level of local politics militant Islam had failed; but the Islamization of schools and public institutions continued apace.

When I returned for two months in March, I had expected more of the same: veils, jangling megaphones, a war of attrition against the syncretist Muslims and the motley company of pantheists, magicians, and ritualists who make up the Javanese scene. Java was undoubtedly more Islamic. In big cities, among a large section of the young, the veil was de rigueur. In rural villages, the generation of 1990s pupils, Suharto’s children, had come of age and the version of modernity he had instilled – pious, unthinking, and materialistic – was now standard. But though ten years of reform had loosened opinion at the top, provincial life, especially village life, was still constrained by local issues. Against expectation, in Bayu the puritans had not prevailed. Impious things still went on – feasts for the dead, salacious dances, offerings for the rice goddess. Every Sunday petitioners packed the shrine of the village founder, a benevolent were-tiger whose food was incense and whose blessings ripened crops and healed sores. With all the obstinacy of tradition, the quiet majority had hung on. But there was a new factor to leaven the mix; something to blow away the veils. After all, Suharto’s children had no reason to preserve, much less embrace, what they had been taught was old-fashioned and superstitious, grandpa’s culture.


It was during the second year of our stay in Bayu that plans for a Tourist Village came to fruition. Away from its purple puffing volcanoes, East Java lacks a tourist focus, something to detain foreigners between the temples of Central Java and the beaches of Bali. The Eastern Cape is now being promoted for its trance dances, folk theatre and exotic ritual life. The region also has its own dialect of Javanese, Osing, after which the people themselves are called. Unfortunately, its raucous, ramshackle villages – nice to live in but far from photogenic – cannot compete with the tropical loveliness of Bali. When regional development officers called on me one day to sound me out on why I had chosen Bayu, I sang its praises and did what any polite Javanese would do, telling them what they wanted to hear. Bayu was unique, authentic and brimming with culture. In fact, Bayu was not quite authentic enough, so the developers built a shadier, woodier replica on the outskirts that outdid the original. Here villagers would perform their culture, do the dances and call up spirits for the benefit of tourists. This was the Osing Village.

The tourists didn’t come. By 2003, the Osing Village had been taken over by private enterprise and turned into a fenced-off leisure park, tastefully landscaped, with cabins planted among the palm trees. Locals were employed only to sweep up, and nobody from the village ever swam in its sparkling turquoise pools. But the principle was established. Culture was a thing you possessed, the object of local pride, a scarce and marketable property. Other villages were evidently without it (some had Religion instead) and could only look on with envy or disdain. With a certain gloss, the weird and funny rituals of grandpa culture (laughter an important ingredient) could be fitted to modern priorities – education, development, and the competition for provincial funds. But every time a school bus showed up to a trance dance it lost a little of its ambiguous meaning and hardened into something formulated and fixed, a public spectacle. Rituals are always performances, but the new and avid audience, wanting explanations and pictures, made them more so. Within an hour of my return to Bayu, I was squatting in an incense-filled shrine, invoking the ancestors, alongside a film crew and a local radio reporter. Outgunned by their lenses and microphone booms, I was just another outsider.

Villagers have responded to curiosity with enthusiasm. For the old, the outside-in view confirms their certainties; for the young – especially those who resist the call-to-prayer – it offers an alternative way of being modern. Under the gaze of outsiders they have made a discovery: that they no longer practice a quaint variation on Javanese themes, they possess a tribal identity as Osing Javanese. Radio programmes in Osing, advertising and schoolbooks, a vernacular dictionary, even Osing text messages proclaim the new brand. And with it come opportunities. A youth leader in Bayu, son of a mystic, has enrolled in the Association of Javanese Customary Communities; next year at a national rally he will represent the Osing in the Alliance of Archipelago Traditional Societies, a lobby of mainly tribal peoples.

As Nias detribalizes, Java, at least one corner of it, is discovering what its poor relation, God’s stepchild, has lost. In opposite ways and with starkly different results, both are responding to the globalized market. Yet the logic of capitalism does not explain everything. A village of 2000 souls, Bayu now has nineteen arts troupes, double the number of 1997. Liberated, if only a little, by a devolved state, the performing arts have discovered a new energy. For Javanists – those who emphasize the native element in their cultural make-up – the new opportunities offer a means of carrying on a much older struggle. The ways of the ancestors – the subtle humanist philosophy of Javanism, the rituals and spectacles deplored by reformist Islam – have found fresh justifications and a powerful motivation. When I attended a gathering of the Purwo Ayu mystical association I was surprised to see younger men in Javanese headties instead of the customary fez-like caps. “No need for those any more,” said one of them. “They smell of religion. We are Javanese not Arabs.” The regional leader, a rich young haji who had taken over the group in 1997 and seemed to be steering it towards orthodoxy, had reinvented himself as a Javanese sage complete with batik turban and pantaloons. Gone from his speech were the cautious pietisms, the bismillahs and insha’allahs. In his elegant new compound, built like a palace with teak-columned pavilions, fish-filled moats, and mystic symbols on the walls, it was now possible to be something unimaginable in the dark days of my last fieldwork.


The near-distance of a dozen years was just enough to reveal the emerging shape of things in Java; not enough to lose touch. After two months I would go home with an armful of email addresses and filmed messages for the family. The most poignant was from Sri who had come to see me with her children from the city where she now lived. She had joined the radical group Hizb ut-Tahrir and was campaigning for the Caliphate. When I filmed her greetings she protested, with an anxious laugh, “I feel like a terrorist on one of those TV interviews; but we don’t believe in that stuff, really we don’t!” By the evening she had gone; there was nowhere any longer she could comfortably visit.

Nias was altogether different: further back, further on; in equal measure familiar and unfathomable. Like a playgoer who has slept through Acts 2 to 4, I had, in that useful cliché, lost the plot – missed the big speeches, the subplots, the exits of those I had loved and hated. But I was not the only one. Others had returned at the same time, having missed half their village lives. My Orahua, stuck in the past, was also theirs. As I walked up to the hilltop plaza, I was called into a sparse wooden house on a cliff overlooking the flood plain. It had belonged to Jonah, a fierce moralist and implacable adversary who, in my last week of fieldwork in 1988, had murdered his cousin over a patch of land. It was his son, newly returned from a plantation, who called me in, and from this frail and passionate figure I heard the end of the story that had haunted me ever since I had witnessed the killing a quarter of a century ago: the flight of the family to sanctuary, the father’s imprisonment “over the water”, his release a year later (after payment of ruinous bribes) and his unexplained death on return to the village. “You remember him, you know what he was like,” said the son pleadingly. “You can tell them.” Then the awful coda: “They had their revenge.” The facts were so simple and hard and explosive that the bare cell-like room could not contain them. I could only witness, commiserate, and withdraw. But I had served my purpose.

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