Sun, 14 Oct 2001

Feeling caught in the middle in Jakarta

How do you feel as an expatriate in Jakarta? Are you frightened yet? Does your heart skip an extra beat when you hear a firecracker go off in the dead of night?

Does the call to prayer now sound haunting for all the wrong reasons? Are they talking about you behind your back? Did the guy in the warung (sidewalk food stall) you just passed say bule (whitey) or boleh (may)?

It's hard to tell.

Your two weeks of language training now feels pathetically inadequate. Suddenly you wished you'd paid more attention in class. You might be able to ask for directions to Pasar Raya, but how do you say, "I sympathize with the people of Afghanistan", or tell someone that you "respect the tenets of the Muslim faith"?

The embassy instructs you to stay at home. They always do this, you tell yourself. They're just covering themselves in case something goes wrong. If you stay at home you feel like a fool. If you venture out you suddenly wish you'd stayed at home. A colleague of mine says that once-friendly ojek (motorcycle taxi drivers) now refuse to take her. Salespeople in department stores express surprise that you're out of the house. "Aren't you frightened?" a friend of mine was asked while shopping in a mall recently.

You want to shake people and tell them that you're still a friend of Indonesia. That you still love their smiling faces, the balmy weather, the wonders of the local culture. That you actually went out and bought all three volumes of the trilogy written by that Pramoedya guy (Better not tell them you haven't started reading it yet).

People everywhere remember where they were when the planes hit the World Trade Center. But for expats in Jakarta the night of Sunday Oct. 7 is just as memorable. I was at a dinner party. Cocktails, music, wine and laughter. The problems of the world, if we thought of them at all, seemed far away. Then a phone call. A muffled conversation in the next room. Our host reappeared and said, "I guess it's started." None of us had to ask what he meant.

We immediately crowded around the television set, and there they were again, those grainy night-vision pictures which CNN announcers inevitably describe as "dramatic". We've seen them so many times before, in Iraq, Serbia, Kosovo, and always the same -- a pinprick of light moves slowly across the screen, followed by an explosion and the futile tracers of anti-aircraft fire.

New world order? The end of history? I don't think so. This looked very much like history repeating itself. We hurriedly ordered taxis, our heads crowded with apocalyptic visions of what tomorrow might bring.

But what exactly are we afraid of? Aren't we just falling back on our old prejudices about "fanatical" Muslims? So far, reports of expats being menaced have been few and far between, and we're yet to hear of actual physical attacks by the Islamic groups that daily threaten "sweepings" and holy war. Which isn't to say there won't be trouble in the coming days and weeks.

But let's not forget that in the aftermath of the attacks in the U.S. hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent Muslims living in the West reported being harassed, spat on and assaulted. Some were even killed. In Australia, a mosque was set on fire and a bus carrying children from an Islamic school was stoned by angry locals.

So who would you rather be -- "a person of Middle Eastern appearance" nervously walking the streets of New York, London or Sydney, or an expat in Jakarta, sitting cocooned behind the tinted glass of a Silverbird taxi?

-- Joshua Macati