Review: Andrew Beatty’s new book tells the story of his experiences in a Banyuwangi village
What would it be like to live and research in an Indonesian village for several years?
With his family in tow, Beatty lived in a village in mountainous Banyuwangi district, which he gives the pseudonym ‘Bayu’. The book is divided into 22 engaging small chapters or vignettes which deal with aspects of life in Bayu as diverse as a night on the town, a pilgrimage to forest caves, local transsexuals, eroticism and child care. Admirably depicted with a delicate touch, these little tasters of village life beautifully enhance the reading experience.
Picturesque Bayu village is found halfway up the ridge of a volcano. It is one of several villages located in close proximity, and situated only a dozen kilometres from Banyuwangi city. In Bayu and these surrounding villages pre-Islamic rituals are still practiced, including a shamanistic trance ritual (seblang), which forms a part of a ritual for cleansing the village community (bersih desa) and the reciting and performance of Javanese texts (tembang). The rituals and traditions of these villages, as with mountain communities elsewhere in Java, appear to be waning.
Bayu itself boasts Banyuwangi’s most lively arts scene. Some local residents have made conscious attempts to preserve or revive the culture and the ways of the Osing people, the group who consider themselves indigenous to the area. This cultural revival is practised through ‘traditional’ weaving and architecture. Bayu is also home to the most highly reputed gandrung singer/dancers. Gandrung is typically an all-night event which is focused on a woman who dances with men and sings. It is still popular in many Osing villages, but other rituals of Bayu seem exotic to the average Indonesian, and even to other Osing people from elsewhere. Beatty notes, for example, that the rituals in Bayu ‘attracted reporters and school students, jostling for pictures, noting down ‘Osing custom’’.
Bayu’s cool, ethereal air, its morning views to the plains below and volcano above and nearby coffee plantation, mean it is little wonder the local government is attempting to promote it as a tourist village. All of this combines to provide Bayu with, I would argue, a uniqueness. Although Beatty claims that ‘it could have been any village in Java’, I think it is precisely Bayu’s uniqueness which makes it such an interesting place to study and which makes it particularly ideal for studying forms of religious adherence that have all but disappeared in the rest of Banyuwangi, not to mention elsewhere in Java.
Beatty’s earlier work, Varieties of Javanese Religion was based on his fieldwork in Bayu. In it Beatty describes Javanese religion as a continuum. At one end of the continuum are proponents of a ‘purer’ version of Islam for whom he uses the term first popularised by Clifford Geertz in the 1960s, santri. At the other end are the mystics, who the see the human body, forests and foods as symbols of the divine which reside in all of us, and the animists who live in a world populated by spirits. In between these, is the middle- or common-ground, which Beatty calls ‘practical Islam’.
A Shadow Falls gracefully complements Varieties. It also focuses on the religious continuum described in Varieties, and it does so in a very personal and illuminating way. Throughout the book, mystics, animists and lay Muslims benefit from Beatty’s sensitive analysis, although most of the discussion relates to Beatty’s close relationship with the mystics. Beatty is charmingly frank about his relationship with the mystics in Bayu and his initiation into a mystical organisation, Sangkan Paran. He explains, ‘I found myself drawn to the mystics. In a simple-minded way, we like people who like us and among the mystics I felt accepted and liked.’ The author makes no secret of where his sympathies lie. He seems genuinely moved when he joins a pilgrimage with these friends; he praises the village guardian spirit and describes a book written by a ‘handsome’ local mystic as a treasure.
A ‘shadow in the heart of Java’
This sympathy is in stark contrast to his relationship with proponents of the purer form of Islam. He sharply criticises their adherence to ‘a puritan grassroots Islam hostile to tradition and political compromise’ led by ‘vanguard’ of ‘reformist zealots’. The pious, orthodox Muslims irritated Beatty and he makes no secret of his antipathy towards them. Seeing their religious practice as a ‘threat’, he describes them as ‘watchful…alert to openings, and he warns that ‘their time would come’. He characterises this type of Muslim as the ‘unfriendly neighbour’ with a ‘hectoring tone’ and a ‘thin smile’, prone to ‘ostentation’ and a ‘desire to impress’. Beatty felt ‘excluded’ by ‘the dogmatist’. He found their teaching ‘uninspiring and pointless’ and was ‘appalled’ when they attend prayers instead of assisting the family of a deceased villager. In sum, the transformation they represent is ‘shocking’.
Beatty is not anti-Muslim, rather he is anti-puritan. … he becomes a player in the religious tensions he depicts
Puritanism isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Describing the Reformation in England Max Weber wrote that ‘asceticism descended like a frost on the life of ‘Merrie Old England’’. Beatty would surely concur. Puritanism is, as the book’s title suggests, a ‘shadow in the heart of Java’. Beatty also unapologetically aligns himself with old (the ‘strange and sensual’) against the new (the ‘harsh and puritanical’). He is not anti-Muslim; rather, he is anti-puritan. However, unlike Weber, he becomes a player in the religious tensions he depicts. Beatty shares, for example, a mocking joke with his more tolerant friends at the expense of the pious.
The advantage of Beatty’s approach is that we get can see what religious modernisation looks like from the mystic’s perspective. Unfortunately, readers of A Shadow Falls don’t get a sense of what the apparently repugnant reformist Muslims see in their own beliefs. I assume that reformist Muslims are concerned with following God’s word and saving souls (both theirs and others), but Beatty does not provide their side of this story. Expressions of their Islamic adherence such as loudspeaker broadcasting of recitations or the wearing of the veil, although new to Bayu, seem to have been characteristic of villages throughout Java in the 1990s. An indignant Beatty portrays these as an assault on Javanese values, but their puritanism might also be quite restrained by national standards. In any case, Beatty doesn’t tell us how they compare to Muslims associated with the national mainstream organisations of traditional Islam (NU), modernity (Muhamadiyah), Islamism, let alone the greater extremism of smaller groups.
Perhaps wanting authors to be able to blend anthropology and travel writing in a single book is like wanting to have your cake and eat it too
This highly personal approach is not uncommon in the travel genre—the shelf on which this book will be found in major book stores—indeed it’s what we expect. Perhaps becoming personal and engaged is what is required to make the shift from scholarly author to successful travel writer. In the travel book Lost Japan, the American Alex Kerr similarly dedicates himself to the study of local culture, becomes involved in ‘traditional’ arts and ends up berating the modern Japanese for not being Japanese enough. While Beatty relishes the informality and humanity of local beliefs, he criticises the reformist Muslims for not being ‘Javanese’—this is awkwardly reminiscent of the kind of exclusion involved in describing someone as un-American or un-Australian. Perhaps wanting authors to be able to blend anthropology and travel writing in a single book is like wanting to have your cake and eat it too. But travel writing can allow for real sensitivity and nuance. Whatever the shortcomings of novelist VS Naipul’s earlier publication Beyond Belief, his accounts of travels in Indonesia in that book sincerely and sympathetically engage with literal or puritanical forms of Islam. Readers may thus be disappointed that Beatty does not draw on his exceptional knowledge and experience of Bayu to provide a similar sort of balance.
For better or worse, a great travel book allows the writer to get ‘personal’ and the reader to be taken along for the journey. This book certainly does that. Regardless of how one feels about puritanical Islam, the honesty, intensity and insight with which Beatty writes is a real delight. ii
Andrew Beatty. A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java. London: Faber & Faber, 2009. 336 pp.
Nicholas Herriman (Nicholas.Herriman@adm.monash.edu.au) is a postdoctoral fellow in the Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash Asia Institute, Monash University.