(To read this series from the beginning, go here )
This, the penultimate installment will cover around two decades, and as I set out to write it, I can see no narrative thread that follows the topic, Islam. So, I’ll commence, and see what develops.
I left Saudi Arabia, went back to San Francisco where I and my wife found work, and settled in. An old friend, who worked in movies and TV, in a minor but interesting position, came to me with an idea. Like everyone on the fringe down there, he wanted to make a score, and thought my experience in Saudi Arabia might yield some fictional gold. First a novel, then a screenplay.
The protagonist would be a young American educated Saudi man, love interest a Jewish American woman he met in the States, with, at first unknown to him, ties to Israeli intelligence. He stumbles on, and then infiltrates, a fundamentalist plot to take over the Kingdom and use its resources to finish off Israel, once and for all.
This required a lot of research, because as I found when my friend asked various questions, having lived in the Kingdom without access to English language books and press on the place, was by itself not all the informative. I was astonished to read that almost from the beginning of the Kingdom there had been elements that considered the House of Saud to be traitorous to Islam, in particular for not continuing the jihad that had unified the country onwards beyond its borders. These were the Ikhwan(Brotherhood), who revolted in the late 20’s and were only suppressed a couple of years later with British help. It was to their descendents I then ascribed the plot in the novel.
Also informative was Raphael Patai’s “The Arab Mind,” which if you look at the reviews on Amazon is condemned by many as “racist,” usually, and certainly here, in my opinion a sign that the work makes uncomfortable points.
Thus I first encountered the Islamic concept of a binary world: Dar-ul –Islam, the House of Islam, and Dar ul Harb, the House of War, that part of the world which has yet to accept Islam, and which in its very unbelief is an affront and an aggression in itself that must eventually be subdued.
In any event, we got a certain way into the project, and my friend sold a couple of scripts to a show he was working on, while I started to quail at the extent of research I would have to do into espionage and security trade craft. So we never finished. Yet, one could take my concept and start fresh right now.
My father-in-law came to visit. Then I learned that my conversion was not at all expected to be pro-forma. This is when I first had to conjure up excuses and sometimes comical ( running around comedy terms) to conceal what an utter fraud I was. Kamal wanted to go to the mosque. We told him there wasn’t one, which was technically true at the time, but we did know people who met for Friday prayers. So, we prayed at home, and there would be an after you Alphonse Gaston routine, in which he suggested I be the imam and lead the prayer, and I deferred to his age and dignity. It was a dispute that I had to win, because as Imam he would face forward, and sit in front of us.
Older Roman Catholics may remember the Latin version of Nicene Creed, recited after communion. I served mass – certainly not my idea – and never learned the whole thing. Somewhere half way through I was reduced to “mumble,mumble, somethingque et otherbus.”
Having never again recited the Islamic prayers again after an initial demonstration to the father in law before the wedding, similarly here, I was reduced to something on the order of “Obble, Allah, gobble, Allah.” It was a charade I was to master in later years. Or, perhaps not. I may have fooled none, but was never called on it.
For much of the 80s I was busy with work, and the two daughters born during that time. Yet I did follow the news as always, and while events in the Middle East and the greater Islamic world were framed within the Arab Israel conflict, and that also within the ongoing Cold War.
There was the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 to Beirut, where passengers with Jewish sounding names were segregated and an American navy diver murdered and his body dumped on the tarmac. Here was a clear sign of Islamic Jew hatred, yet I had been programmed to process it as part of the Israel issue, with Arabs wrongly but perhaps understandably conflating Jews with Israel. And I suppose this implanted algorithm kicked in when poor Leon Klinghoffer was dumped into the sea from the Achille Lauro.
Much of the violence was Iranian inspired: The Berlin disco bombing, the Beirut Marine Barracks bombing, the many kidnapped Western hostages held for years, but there was also Lockerbie. Television news had horrifying, yet also inspiring stories of the resistance to the Soviets in Afghanistan. After so many decades of appeasement and indifference, Reagan supplied weapons and, less spoken about, advisors, so that American policy was killing Soviets. This was refreshing after the hand wringing during the Viet Nam War that we might accidentally sink a Soviet ship moored in Haiphong.
One day In 1989, that same friend with whom I had worked on the abortive novel, called me.
The Red Army that day had withdrawn its last units.
“Victory!” my buddy shouted, so hard I had to hold the receiver away.
Indeed. Victory, something we had never in our lifetimes known, and this win was only a prelude to the final triumph when the wall came down. Where I lived, San Francisco, there were a few long faces among old time reds, and there wasn’t the dancing in the parks that I remembered from the day Nixon resigned, and again, which had disgusted me, when Saigon fell, but generally, across the board there was a sense of jubilation, a great weight lifted. The garrison state into which I had been born had done its duty, stood fast, and now so long after 1945, we had truly won the peace.
The Reagan, and the Bush years, had also been good for me personally. After futilely waiting out the doldrums in the energy business, around 1984 I moved to a major defense company with a big bump in pay. My wife and the older daughter had gone back to Indonesia to visit family but I had felt insecure and financially stretched, so from 1981 to 1987, I went without a vacation.
Finally, I felt secure and prosperous enough for all of us to make the trip.
President Soeharto, the general who had pushed aside Soekarno in the late 60s was still in charge. The Indonesia I had known in the 70s was still recovering from the socialist excesses of the 60s, with onerous interest rates after the hyperinflation of Soekarno’s last years, and little prospects for those who did not not work for International organizations, as had my wife, or in energy.
Now, despite the crash in oil prices a middle class seemed to be developing rapidly. Friends and family were prospering, some with foreign employers in manufacturing others in their own businesses, and some in the rapidly developing tourism and hospitality sector.
There was another change, small at first, which I noted: some family members had begun wearing the hijab. This was an article of dress I had never seen in Indonesia before, and could only name because I had read of changes occurring in Egypt. You saw them here and there in Indonesia that year, and it looked kind of weird. Still, to each his own, I told myself and gave it no more than a passing thought.
We were traveling with another American family, that of a work buddy, who had heard my tales of the islands and decided to have a look. They enjoyed themselves immensely, and in the following years we evolved a routine wherein I traveled in remoter islands with them, as my kids were too young for such adventures, and in any case more interested in hanging out with their cousins.
Over the next few years we came to focus on the Moluccas, the Spice Islands, an island group with a storied history from the Age of Discovery, and one in which we found mixed Muslim and christian populations living in harmony and tolerance, as they were quick to tell us. It was a lovely story, one which we bought gladly, and which was to unravel with astonishing speed and brutal results a decade later.
April 19, 1995
My older daughter and I were traveling to visit relatives in Texas were between planes in Dallas, and like everyone else, transfixed as the monitors showed the horror in Oklahoma City. After some minutes we spontaneously looked at each other and said, “I hope it’s not Muslims.” It was barely more than two years since the first World Trade Center bombing.
Indeed,this was my standard response to any such outrage, and when it was Muslims who were the perpetrators, I was an early adopter of the “anti- backlash” fear, which while still never having occurred anywhere in the West that I am aware of, is the standard media and political response in the West, even as the wounded are being given first aid, and the body bags zipped closed.
For, you see, these were people, indeed, by marriage,my people, and as tedious and annoying as I found their religiosity, people for whom I cared, and in whom I found enjoyment for their other traits. And sticking by them was critical to my own self image. From my earliest encounters with world geography, I had wanted to roam the world, and it was its peoples, not the exotic beasts of National Geographic, whom I wished to meet and know.
My older daughter was now in Middle School, and had a unit on Islam, or was it just Arabia?. I don’t remember, but her assignment was one of those collaborative exercises where she and her friends imagined themselves running a caravan service to Mecca. I supervised, made suggestions, thought the who idea was fun. The whole history of conquest is now elided, and I think it must have been then as well, because neither of my daughters, as adults had any idea of this until I brought it up. Just the other day, reading about the terrible situation in Syria,I thought of my trip there in 1980, and the Christian villages around the Krak des Chevaliers, a crusader fortress. I distinctly recalled my thoughts that day, how I said to myself, these Christians must have been there since the Crusades.
Which is utterly false. They had of course been there since Roman times. How could I have thought such a thing, when, by the time I finished elementary school I had a basic grasp of both classical times and the middle ages?
This is a testimony to the power of pro-Islam, anti- Western propaganda, which has been building for decades, and these days is disseminated everywhere, and not even discernible as such to most.
Sometime in the late 90s local TV in the Bay Area started broadcasting Ramadhan greetings. I thought that was nice.
It is hard to remember how and when things changed in that part of the Islamic world familiar to me, and in the hearts of the Muslims I knew.. This was a large span in a life, and the changes were gradual. I don’t remember when it was no longer proper to buss my sister-in-law on both cheeks in the Dutch style, and instead, hold my right hand over my heart in the Muslim style. Nor do I remember when she began wearing a hijab. Her children did not, but by the end of the 90s, married and with children, they all did, as did the granddaughters. I noticed that people I had known who used to keep a bar at home no longer drank. The empty bottles stayed for a while as decorator items, then vanished entirely. Those who had ignored the fast entirely now fasted, and their very young children joined them.
No do I remember when my brother-in- law became admirer of Khomeini. There were many more changes to come, and those I saw in family in friends only mirrored what was shaping the world at large.
We joined the local Indonesian community for national days, and events aimed at raising the profile of the country in the US. Many of these took place at the Indonesian consulate in San Francisco. Earlier there had been heaps of liquor, then a new consul and the place was dry and convocations began with Islamic invocations, despite the fact that a large part of the community, who had attended for years, were part of a long established settlement of Christian, mixed Dutch Indonesians, centered in San Jose.
I returned a number of times to the Moluccas. These were storied isles indeed. H.L. Tomlinson, in “Tide Marks,” (1924) quoted a sea captain who had spent his life sailing them: “They are like stars in the sky, these islands. Some are great kingdoms; others are one coconut. And you could not see them all in a thousand lifetimes.”
The pull for me was as much as – if not more than – than their astonishing beauty, but their
place in history and the cultures that remained to testify to those who had come from all quarters of the Old World(And the New for that matter: I have read an account of Spanish adventurers,who arriving inn Peru too late to join the Peru, took off for the Moluccas, and washed up shipwrecked at Wahai, a town we visited) Spain made a try for the spice wealth of the great Sultanates of Ternate and Tidore, but lost out to Portugal, and later the Dutch took them all, after giving the upstart English a drubbing. And well before them had come the Arabs, those great seafarers who learned the secret of the monsoon, tying these distant dots to the Red Sea and Africa, and the greater world of Islam, as the dynasties they established built states – the “great kingdoms” of Tomlinson’s words – that traded with all who came – from China, India, and even pre-Tokugawa Japan. Here, in one place were all those currents that had entranced me as a boy. India, China, far Araby, and the island peoples themselves.
Christianity came with the Europeans, and as in most such contacts, the Muslim populations were largely impervious to evangelizing, but some animist groups, a few of which survive today, remained unconverted. Thus one might find a cluster of villages, all with the same name, but with a sobriquet: Islam, Catholic, or Protestant, evidence that various branches of an ancient clan had embraced different religions.
One such was Hitu, on the north shore of Ambon, capital and largest island in the south Moluccas. Ancient ties of blood and obligation knit the separate communities. The Western New year is a major feast day in the Moluccas,and in fact, the celebrations go on pretty much throughout January, ending when the booze runs out,
In HItu, during this time, Muslims will join Christians in painting and repairing the church, and Christians return the favor to the mosque. When the work is finished, there is a great feast, but the two confessions eat separately, so the Muslims might avoid pork, but gather together after, for an all night boozer. As Muslims drink less, they help the staggering Christians home.
Early in 1999, fighting broke out in Ambon, capital of the South Moluccas. First reports showed Christian and Muslim youth groups armed with spears and bows and arrows screaming at each other in the downtown area. The BBC and CNN had some film, but the area soon went dark, and the conflict went on for another four years, strangely under reported. The origins remain obscure, but the Muslim side drew in support from across Indonesia,and beyond, with the army supplying some weapons to the Muslim side, and more coming in from the southern Philippines.
My brother in law was from Halmahera,an island north of Ambon, populated by Muslims and Christians, as well as tribal animists in the interior. Halmahera natives in and around Bandung had a mutual aid society that served both social and business networking needs. A relative had headed the association for many years. He had been born Christian, seen which way the wind was blowing and converted to Islam. He prospered in West Java, owning a fleet of small trucks and distributing consumer goods to smaller villages throughout the province.
He was an an impressive man, and I had always liked him. And he was on to me. When we visited, he always saw that one of his sons found something interesting to show me on his extensive property when the rest of the family was gathering for prayer.
Thus I was shocked and appalled when, as it turned out, the last time I saw him, he berated one of his sons before a house full of relatives and neighbors. The boy had gone to Ambon to fight, lost heart, and come home.
“I would be a kshatriya(a Sanskrit word translated as knight in Indonesian, and in India the warrior caste) were I your age. I would, fight jihad, drive the kaffir away, but you., you…”
This was the first time I ever remember an Indonesian using the Arabic word that we would translate as infidel, or unbeliever. Nowadays, sadly, Indonesian Muslims are so arabized that they use the plural kuffar, correctly. And these days, jihad needs no translation.
During this time, that lovely village, Hitu, turned on itself, and both its 17th century mosque and 18th century church were destroyed.
So as my account moves to the millennium, little seems to have change in my attitude towards Islam. My knowledge of its theology was no deeper than it had been when I was a schoolboy, and still the avid news consumer I had always been, as I read of each large scale Islamist attack, I still placed them in a long internalized context of inter -state(Israel and the Arabs) and communal conflict.
When I was in Indonesia I would note increasing fundamentalism, but still see much of Islam, as it had long been practiced there, as part of the country’s fascinating cultural mosaic, with many aspects actually quite charming. 1995 had marked
the 50th anniversary of Indonesia’s independence and on a bus trip through Java and Madura there were celebrations everywhere,the smallest villages putting on shows of both national pride and love of their traditions. Along with the red and white bunting of the national colors, there was yellow, from the land’s ancient Hindu and Buddhist past. Children and young people dressed in traditional costumes, and wore garlands of jasmine. Islamic green was absent.
Yet, in the back of my mind synapses were firing, and connections being made, for its only now, fifteen or twenty years after the fact, that I recall a late afternoon, early evening conversation at work. The office was quiet and only I and one other guy, an Indian – a Parsee- remained. I cannot recall how we came to speak of such things, but a shared antipathy to Islam surfaced and I said, in reference to the Iran Iraq War, that one bunch of Muslim motherfuckers killing another was all to the good. We high fived.
Yet somehow, I packed this inchoate sense of enmity away.
Shortly after this, a confluence of events – a reorganization at work that sidelined me, the retirement of a beloved boss who had been my mentor, the fall of Soeharto and an economic crisis that made Indonesia a bargain basement, my wife’s longstanding discontent in the United States, and my own middle aged yearning to do something entirely different -, not to mention an inflated sense of wealth from the dotcom boom – led us to sell up and move to Bali, Indonesia.
But we did it, and in the event, this
brought me closer to Islam than I had even been.