The Shepherd’s Life: A Challenge to Travel Writers

shepherdNature writing is the new travel writing. In the UK the last decade has seen those with itchy feet and literary ambitions turning away from foreign shores, and instead folding inwards towards fens and fields and fells. The books they have produced are often dubbed “New Nature Writing”. This is not simply some vacuous marketing phrase, for they really do differ from the works that went before. The “Old Nature Writing”, before the genre became fashionable, was generally done by real experts. Their books were more likely to be filed as “popular science” than as “literature”.

But many of the best-known – and indeed the best – of the New Nature Writers are amateurs, in the old and by no means disreputable sense: at large with a roving eye that skitters from science to literature, from geology to philosophy in the space of a few pages. Its’s a modus operandi which can, if done well, create an impression of formidable polymathy, and along with the dominant first-person narratives it reveals New Nature Writing for what it is: travel writing, by any other name. It’s as if Patrick Leigh Fermor had walked, not from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, but from Land’s End to John o’ Groats.

Travel writing is my literary first love, so I have relished this newest incarnation of the genre. As the “Travel” shelves of bookshops have contracted to a slender yard of guidebooks, classics and comedy quests, there’s been solace in the concurrent swelling of the “Nature” (or sometimes “British Travel”) section. Some of my favourite nonfiction reads in recent years have come from these shelves: Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground; Patrick Barkham’s sprightly, nature-themed domestic travelogues; Tim Robinson’s magisterial multi-book engagement with Connemara (Ireland, admittedly, but on the cusp of the domestic when it comes to travel writing, apparently) ; and, of course, the works of Robert Macfarlane.

But at times the pleasure has been tempered by a sense of unease, for close reading reveals that New Nature Writing frequently suffers from many of the same issues which make travel writing the most ethically troublesome of literary genres. A reader with a sharp eye can spot the same contrived encounters, the same casual cutting and pasting of chronology – and perhaps even the same glib disregard for the actualité, a series of Songlines transposed onto a landscape of oak woods and hayfields. Travel writing’s preponderance of a white male gaze is there too (just look at the names I mentioned above!), and the same problems endure with that polymathic pose – often a particularly ersatz pose in this age of Wikipedia. But the biggest problem of all, and the main cause of my unease with New Nature Writing, is its relationship with what scholars sometimes call “the Travellee”: the inhabitants of the place that the travel writer passes through (or inhabits as an expat) – in short, what were once known as “the natives”…


There are many reasons for the apparent decline in the popularity of traditional travel writing. The rise of the internet; the easy availability of cheap air travel; the transient whims of the book-buying public and the commissioning editors who minister to them: these all have something to do with it. But perhaps a more fundamental cause is simply a lack of confidence. In a truly postcolonial age where old power dynamics have largely given way, it would take a certain supreme confidence – arrogance even – to go boldly in search of “the heart” of some foreign country, the language of which you speak imperfectly at best and the history and culture of which you come at only with the enthusiasm of an amateur. In the twenty-first century the image of an Oxbridge-educated Englishman at large in Central Asia with a book contract and a vintage copy of the Travels of Marco Polo can seem like the most appalling anachronism. Go back to the myriad travel books published during the 1990s; in even the best of them you’ll often find moments to make you cringe – moments which almost always involve encounters with or depictions of “the Travellee”, the natives…

New Nature Writing’s shift of focus towards the domestic, then, could be seen as the result of a crisis of confidence, travel writing cringing away from postcolonial complexities, going in search of badgers, hawks and otters because they seem so much safer for an ethically-aware author than nomadic tribesmen in some developing nation. If you stick to home ground, then you’re surely less likely to run unwittingly into the ghost of Edward Said, ready to batter you around the head with a copy of Orientalism. Stray no further east than Lowestoft and you should be fine…

Except that the foreign does not definitively begin and end on the beach at Lowestoft.

Robert Macfarlane’s second (and as far as I’m concerned best) book was called The Wild Places; more recently he has written about what he sees as an “eeriness” in the British countryside. But a place can only really be “wild” or “eerie” when seen with outsider eyes – just as a place can only be “exotic” when held in direct contrast to your own notions of normal. New Nature Writing, again and again, positions the British countryside as an exotic, othered, foreign territory – for both writer and reader. And its approach to “the natives” of that foreign land is often peculiar, to say the least.


By ostensibly focussing on “nature”, the genre often manages to ignore “the natives” altogether, denuding the countryside of inhabitants entirely, or encountering only a handful of atypical representatives (who often turn out to be “expats” – organic downsizers, well-heeled literary types, elective refugees from some other, metropolitan existence). Ignoring people is a very potent way of representing them: a tacit acknowledgement of their existence remains, but they are firmly put in their place; they are made singularly insignificant. It’s also a prime example of a writer awarding himself tremendous authority: that to entirely unpeople a landscape. A travel writer ignoring the inhabitants of, say, the Hindu Kush to glory exclusively in the grandeur of its natural features is the sort of thing scholars have been vigorously critiquing for decades. And yet New Nature Writers often do exactly this in smaller mountain ranges, closer to home.

If the natives do chance to appear, it may be as an abstract presence, without voice or name, somewhere off the page, and in all likelihood doing something nasty – baiting a badger or grubbing up a hedgerow, probably. Where New Nature Writing lapses into the consciously political this hostility often becomes overt, but even when it doesn’t there is almost always a latent assumption that the old ways were better; that the natives of earlier generations were somehow operating on a higher plane (rather than also simply trying to extract the greatest return from a working landscape with all the means available to them); and that their descendants are somehow debased. Here, then, is the modern equivalent of Wilfred Thesiger proclaiming that “his” Bedouin had been “spoilt” by the arrival of the internal combustion engine.


Travellee and Traveller: Salim bin Ghabaisha and Wilfred Thesiger, not actually in the Lake District…

It’s all here, all that has made traditional travel literature so troublesome, and this is why I read James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life with such excitement.


I’ve come to this book a little late. I’d seen reviews last year – a warmly received memoir by a Lakeland sheep farmer and sometime Twitter celebrity. But none of the notices that I read had made it clear just how political a book this was. So I was surprised and delighted to discover within a few pages that this was not simply some prettily written country diary. It was a fierce riposte to all that is problematic in the mainstream of New Nature Writing. As I read I kept disturbing my companion from her own reading: “Listen to this! This is what I’m always going on about!”

Very early in the book Rebanks remembers a moment during his schooling when a teacher addressed an assembly:

I listened, getting more and more aggravated, as I realized that curiously she knew, and claimed to love, our land. But she talked about it, and thought about it, in terms that were completely alien to my family and me. She loved a ‘wild’ landscape, full of mountains, lakes, leisure and adventure, lightly peopled with folk I had never met. The Lake District in her monologue was the playground for an itinerant band of climbers, poets, walkers and daydreamers… Occasionally she would utter a name in a reverential tone and look in vain for us to respond with interest. One of the names was ‘Alfred Wainwright’, another was ‘Chris Bonington’; and she kept going on and on about someone called ‘Wordsworth’.

 I’d never heard of any of them. I don’t think anyone in the hall, who wasn’t a teacher, had.

If “Thesiger’s” Bedouin had had the space to speak maybe this is how they too would have responded: “Wilfred who? Lawrence of what???

The political intent is underscored with the quotations at some of the chapter openings, egregious examples of the way admiring outsiders have viewed the Lake District and its people, and from the outset Rebanks wields the word “we” with deliberate intent. “We” is, of course, a powerful word, the converse to “they”. In most travel writing when the author speaks of “we” he is identifying with his readers (and in the process often placing the Travellee firmly amidst the ranks of “they”). But not here. “We live”, Rebanks says; “Our landscape”; and in doing so he is being deliberately assertive, provocative, even aggressive. There is a certain provocativeness elsewhere too. He jabs sheep with antibiotics, kills crows, watches the hounds cross his land on the line of a fox almost as if he’s trying to get a rise out of double-barrelled hobby-farmers and crusading journalists who would sweep aside six millennia of agricultural engagement with the British landscape. But if they should swing for him he’s ready, with passionate passages where he makes his own reverent – and rooted – responses to the landscape around him obvious.

Wilfully provocative books are, obviously, meant to provoke. Perhaps he uses that insistent “we” like a jabbing finger once too often, and it’s natural that some might react unfavourably (see the book’s smattering of one-star reviews on Amazon and the nature of their complaints). But for those familiar with and troubled by the tropes and traits he’s kicking against, then The Shepherd’s Life is a wonderfully energising book.

The book is not without its own problems, of course. Though the prose is crisp and considered there are occasional slips. It has the fragmentary nature of many modern nonfiction books with their roots in social media. And there seem to be some peculiar lapses of editorial supervision in the middle sections. There’s also room for criticism in Rebanks’ telling of his own tale. That insistent “we” gets a new context when it is revealed that he left the farm in his twenties to study at Oxford. Maybe this is an author with a need to insist to his peers that he’s still one of “us”, despite the details of his curriculum vitae (something I can sympathise with). And he is perhaps a little disingenuous when he insists that he went to university simply to prove some kind of point before returning to farming. As well as being a shepherd, he reveals, a little too hurriedly, that he also works as a consultant to UNESCO, which begs the question: can you be an authentic travellee voice if you have a degree from Oxford and a career in international consultancy? (For what it’s worth, I’d say that yes, of course you can. Rebanks notes that his own grandfather was “quite simply, one of the great forgotten silent majority of people who lived, worked, loved and died without leaving much written trace that they were ever there”. Identity is never a monolithic thing, and if the travellee is to speak, he needs to have the means to do so. But perhaps an insecurity over this point is behind what those one-star Amazon reviewers misidentify as “a chip on the shoulder”.)

Also, though the hard and sometimes squalid realities of work in the landscape are closely described, there’s a certain lack of context due to the fact that Rebanks avoids much proper discussion of the financial realities of farming – beyond a passing mention of the fact that many small farmers have to do “two jobs” to support themselves (more likely to be contracting work than world heritage consultancy, perhaps). The contentious but hugely important role of agricultural subsidies, not least in places like the Lake District (and West Cornwall, for that matter), gets no mention either.

Ultimately, though, these are only passing complaints, for The Shepherd’s Life is a robust and invigorating piece of work, a challenge to all travel writers, wherever they choose to travel. It reminds them that they cannot sidestep the genre’s thorny ethical challenges simply by staying at home. Do travel here, it says; write about this place if you want to, represent it, revel in it, love it, but remember that those are not empty fields. And remember too that when it comes to travel writing’s ethical issues, the Lake District might actually turn out to be more dangerous than the Hindu Kush. After all, there could be an erudite and angry shepherd with an Oxford degree and a Twitter account, at home somewhere out there in those wild and eerie places.

As Rebanks notes, “If we want to understand the people in the foothills of Afghanistan, we may need to try and understand the people in the foothills of England first…”

© Tim Hannigan 2016

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Indonesia Expat Article

The most recent edition of Indonesia Expat is history-themed, and it comes with an eclectic array of articles on all sorts of intriguing subjects – from the lives of expat wives in centuries past to the influence of Javanese traditional music on the development of jazz (the former piece is by Rosie Milne of the Asian Books Blog, while the latter is by the ever-entertaining Terry Collins). Also included is a piece by myself, on the early spread of Islam in Indonesia. Here’s the introduction; for the full article follow the link at the bottom:

Settlers, Saints, Kings and Conversions: The Dawn of Indonesian Islam

The hamlet of Leran lies amidst the low fields north of Gresik in East Java, a few kilometres inland from the muddy shores of the Madura Strait. On a December day in the year 1082 a funeral party gathered there beneath leaden monsoon skies.

Leran lay within the kingdom of Kediri, a realm ruled by a raja who claimed to be an incarnation of the god Vishnu, and in the surrounding countryside there were temples where shaven-headed priests oversaw Hindu worship. But there was no such priest amongst the members of the funeral party, and there was no pyre of scented timber. Instead there was a hole dug into the damp soil and aligned so that the corpse, bound in pale cloth and laid on its side, would face towards the northwest. When the mourners gathered at the graveside they cupped their hands and whispered words of Arabic prayer.  They were burying a Muslim. Her name, marked later in Kufic calligraphy on a carven headstone, was Fatimah binti Maimun, Fatimah daughter of Maimun.

We know nothing about her – her age, her race, her place or birth or cause of death. But amongst the various flotsam and jetsam of history, cast up along Indonesia’s shores, hers is the oldest identified Muslim tomb, dating back almost a thousand years, fully two centuries before the rise of the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit kingdom…

Read the full article online here…

© Tim Hannigan 2016

Book Review: Crazy Little Heaven

clhIndonesia is strangely underrepresented on the “travel literature” shelves. The merest glimpse at the map of the archipelago should surely be enough to tantalise any would-be travel writer. And yet, compared to similarly vast China and India, Indonesia seems to have been visited by relatively few literary wanderers. Paul Theroux, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Colin Thubron, William Dalrymple: none of them have passed this way with pen in hand. Tim Mackintosh-Smith even managed to sidestep Sumatra in the final part of his “in the footsteps of Ibn Battutah” trilogy, despite the fact that the Tangerine traveller spent a very interesting sojourn there. V.S. Naipaul (whose mode of travel is more that of bad-tempered tourist than intrepid travel writer) did pass briefly by on his Islamophobic odysseys of 1981 and 1998, but given the malign influence of Naipaul on virtually every subsequent Indonesia correspondent with literary aspirations, the less said of him the better. In fact, the only instantly obvious contender for the designation “classic Indonesia travel book” is Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago – and that was written almost 150 years ago!

But in the last year or so there have, at last, been some worthy additions to the Indonesia travel shelves. Elizabeth Pisani’s Indonesia, Etc. finally gave us a proper, high-profile “portrait of the nation” travelogue – and thankfully, it came from a writer with a long and deep relationship with the country, rather than a passing member of the “posh white men” club. It’s brilliant, and has much to offer newcomers and old-timers alike. Then came a book which received far less attention, but which, if there was any justice in the world, would be winning prizes. Andrew Beatty’s After the Ancestors: An Anthropologist’s Story was, I’m pretty sure, the single most impressive book I read last year, better even than his previous book, A Shadow Falls. And then, to wrap up my reading year, came another travel writing delight: Mark Heyward’s Crazy Little Heaven, first published in 2013, but with a new edition apparently in the offing.

Crazy Little Heaven is essentially a travelogue, an account of a journey across Indonesian Borneo, from Samarinda in the east to Pontianak in the west, by boat, by road, and on foot. That alone promises the sort of off-the-beaten-track adventure of which classic travel books are made – the stuff which Redmond O’Hanlon served up in his journey Into the Heart of [a different, non-Indonesian, bit of] Borneo. You certainly get the adventure and the foetid jungle atmosphere in Heyward’s book. There are steamy mountain passes to be crossed, rapids to be ridden, leeches and bad food to be endured, and various human difficulties to be dealt with. But what makes the book so impressive is that the author hangs upon the framework of a relatively simple – albeit very engaging – travelogue all sorts of other, more complicated things.

Mark Heyward is an Australian by birth, but he has spent over two decades living and working in Indonesia. The journey described in Crazy Little Heaven actually took place early in that long stretch – in 1994. But by returning to his memories and diaries of the trip 20 years later, the author has been able to use it as a device to create a book that is at once a travelogue, a personal memoir, and a deliberately and affectionately subjective portrait of the country he now calls home. It’s quite a feat, structurally as much as anything, but he pulls it off – thanks in part to the clever decision to use a crisp, immediate present tense to tell the tale of the journey, and then a softer, more reflective past tense for the passages of memoir, even when the events described occurred long after the central Borneo adventure.

So, in this relatively slender book (250 pages or thereabouts), we get to visit Flores, Lombok, Java and various other corners of the country, as well as Borneo. There are also the illuminating passages on history and ecology that are de rigueur in travel writing, and plenty of encounters with orangutans – which is always a good thing! There are also compelling first-hand recollections of the turbulence that wracked Jakarta in 1998 as the New Order collapsed and the way for Reformasi opened, and more besides.

In many ways, Crazy Little Heaven makes an attractive companion piece for Indonesia, Etc. Heyward and Pisani have both known Indonesia well for around two decades; both have worked there and so know the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the civil state; and both are very well qualified to write a book about the place. But they take very different approaches. While Pisani remains, to some extent, a sceptical outsider with a critical and analytical eye, Heyward has a greater degree of emotional connection. He is married to an Indonesian; he has an Indonesian family; and that gives his book a warmer tone than Pisani’s. Indeed, perhaps the most memorable section of Crazy Little Heaven is a sustained passage recounting the customary journey to his wife’s home village in Central Java at the end of Ramadan – an immersive and deeply affectionate account, and one of the finest evocations I’ve read of the soft, slow-moving world in which most Javanese people still live, but with which so few foreigners connect. The warm tone is also evident in Heyward’s intriguing reflections on the idea of religion in Indonesia as “a kind of poetry” (this from the son of an Anglican vicar, who lapsed from Christianity, and then converted to Islam for marriage).

Make no mistake, however: this book is first and foremost a good-old-fashioned traveller’s tale. The 1994 crossing of Borneo frames the whole thing, with each day of the journey – seventeen of them in total – forming a chapter. And it’s in the descriptions of life on the river and on the trail, and in the smoky Dayak villages visited along the way, that Heyward’s prose is at its best. There is a delicate, deliberately descriptive style that captures the atmosphere of deep forest and ramshackle riverside townships perfectly, without lapsing into lurid exoticism. And there are fleeting moments of strange magic – not least the discovery of a pair of bleached human skulls in a crevice of a limestone outcrop. There is also a refreshing honesty about the challenges faced by any party of foreigners undertaking such a trip – the wrangles over prices with guides and porters and boatmen, the suspected thefts, and the frustrations that such things cause – though Heyward never for a moment descends to the petty whinging that can taint books by those authors less naturally suited to travel (Naipaul springs to mind, again).

Crazy Little Heaven is charming, insightful, and very well written, and it does something to address that paucity of decent travel books about Indonesia. And it is original and even innovative too in the manner of its telling. The idea of an author returning to the subject of a youthful journey in middle age is hardly new – Patrick Leigh Fermor and Laurie Lee both did it, and indeed, the aforementioned After the Ancestors is based on fieldwork Andrew Beatty conducted in the 1980s. But the combination of travelogue and broader memoir here is unusual. The appealing thing about this book is that, as you reach the final, seventeenth day of the journey it describes, with the sun setting over the South China Sea, you know that the author’s adventure is really only just beginning.

© Tim Hannigan 2016

Is “bule” a racist word?

This was supposed to be a box text for a book I’m currently working on, but I got a little carried away. I’ll be needing to cut it back by about nine-tenths, but before I do I thought I’d share it here, as it’s always an interesting topic…

Is the Indonesian term “bule” racist?


Bareng sama bule…

If you’re a Caucasian foreigner and you spend any time in Indonesia away from the beaten tourist track and the expat bubble, you’ll hear it: bule. It might be an excited whisper between friends as you pass in the street – “Hey, look! A bule!” Or it might come with a grin and a wave – “Hello bule!” It’s just two simple syllables (the pronunciation is “boo-lay”), but it’s a word powerfully primed for controversy.

Let’s start with the logical semantics: bule originally meant “albino”, but in its modern colloquial sense it’s generally used as a term for Caucasian foreigners. Very occasionally it might be used for a non-white Westerner, but only when their status as a Westerner trumps their skin colour – when they become, in short, an “honorary white guy” (those determined to muddy the waters of the debate always also manage to find an instance of “bule” being used to describe a tourist from Japan or Korea, but I’m inclined to dismiss those instances out of hand as atypical irrelevances – because I can. Ya-boo bule!). I’ve seen some people try to translate it as “honky”, or even as the Hawaiian word haole. But those are unequivocally hostile terms, which bule simply isn’t. As far as I’m concerned the most accurate translation is nothing more than “whitey”.

So bule is unquestionably a racial designation, but is it actually racist? This is a question that has been stirring up endlessly furious debate on internet forums and in expat bars for years – debate which, incidentally, leaves 99 percent of Indonesians utterly baffled; as far as they’re concerned it’s just a word for a white guy or gal.

Some grumpy expats – and boy, can some expats be grumpy! – like to insist emphatically that if it’s a racial designation, then it must be racist. (These grumpy expats are generally the same ones who like to claim that “Indonesia is the most racist country in the world”, and who, as they warm to their topic, frequently back it up with all sorts of vicious slurs on the intellectual and moral qualities of the entire Indonesian nation. Grumpy expats don’t have a great sense of irony, it seems.) However, as those with a little more self-awareness like to point out, for most Caucasian Westerners, living in Indonesia will simply give them their first unnerving experience of being routinely identified, and indeed overtly addressed, in terms of their own skin colour – something which is, of course, a far less novel experience for Black Americans or British Asians. It doesn’t necessarily imply racism in the word bule, and it certainly doesn’t imply that Indonesia is “the most racist country in the world”.

Very few Indonesians are even aware of the idea that the word bule might be contentious – it’s used in newspapers and on TV after all. And if they do happen upon the expat debates they are usually bemused and defensive: “But it can’t be a racist word! We don’t use it as an insult,” they protest; “we love bules! It’s just a word for white people!” The response to this from those determined to be offended is that in 1900s Mississippi, in its average daily usage the “N-word” wasn’t consciously used as an insult either; it was just “a word for black people”. They have a point, of course, but my personal riposte to this is always that any white expat in 21st-century Indonesia who tries to equate his experiences with those of Black Americans in the Deep South a century ago probably needs to check his sense of perspective…

For all those who get offended, there are plenty of other foreigners who are quite happy to use the word bule themselves. I’m one of them. I like the word. It makes me laugh. And it makes Indonesians laugh when I use it. “I’ve reclaimed it!” I once glibly proclaimed to a work colleague. He was a cleverer man than I, and he eyed me sternly, then pointed out that the very fact that a white man from a former colonial power could so easily come trotting into a postcolonial Asian nation and start casually self-designating with a racial – and possibly racist – term with laughing ironic intent said something about balances of power in identity that ought to give any self-proclaimed liberal pause for thought. In any case, it was certainly a million miles removed from the idea of some Black Americans feeling empowered to “reclaim” the “N-word” out of a centuries-long heritage of oppression and exploitation.

Ah, bule – it’s a word to make your head spin…

For what it’s worth, my personal take is this: Indonesia is not “the most racist country in the world”, and bule is not, of itself, a racist word. It’s almost never used with insulting intent – and even on the very, very rare occasions when it is, it’s in the intent, not the word, that the insult lies. Indonesia is, though, a country singularly lacking in the concept of “political correctness”. If it wasn’t, then bule certainly would be an unacceptable term, and if things one day head that way, then it will be perfectly reasonable for Caucasian foreigners to complain when they hear the word (and what’s the betting that at that point the same grumpy expats will be bemoaning the fact that in Indonesia too, we’re now blighted by “political correctness gone mad”?).

For the moment, however, being called bule doesn’t bother me one bit; and I’ll keep using the word myself. It all comes down to the fact that to be happy as a foreigner living or travelling in Indonesia, to not exist in a permanent state of frustration and rage, you need to remember that you are a foreigner, that you do look different (and that, like it or not, even if you’re on a EFL teacher’s salary, you’re also almost certainly much richer than the vast majority of the people around you). You will also inevitably often be assessed and addressed on first sight according to your skin colour – and maybe it’s actually healthy for white Westerners to experience that once in a while.

Keeping this all in perspective can be hard if you spend your time entirely in tourist or expat hotspots. But I know that when I’m riding my motorbike through some small town in the hinterlands of Java and I spot another incongruous foreigner on the street, strangely dressed and twice the size of everyone else, even I find myself staring. In fact, I sometimes have to fight the urge to shout out as I pass – “Hello mister! Hello bule!”

© Tim Hannigan 2015

A Brief History of Indonesia Media Coverage

coverMy new book, A Brief History of Indonesia: Sultans, Spices, and Tsunamis: The Incredible Story of Southeast Asia’s Largest Nation, was published this summer, launching first in Southeast Asia in July, then in August in the US, and finally in the UK in September. It’s available from all the usual places, though of course, you really should try to buy it from a bricks-and-mortar bookshop if you can…

I had a grand old time launching the book in Indonesia in July and August, starting with some fun events in Bali. First up was a talk, accompanied by the fabled high tea, at the glorious Biku Restaurant in Seminyak, followed by a lively evening session at Casa Luna in Ubud. Other events in Bali, Yogyakarta, and Jakarta followed, all organised by the lovely folks from the Periplus bookshop chain. Last up – literally on the way to the airport – came a final talk at Komunitas Salihara, hosted by the formidable Ayu Utami, who I was very excited to meet (she’s a proper Indonesian literary superstar, and very cool with it).

It’s been really exciting to see how much attention the book has been getting from Indonesian readers and Indonesian media. As an English-language book it was obviously written with non-Indonesians in mind first and foremost, but it’s been very gratifying to get such warm responses from the people whose country it’s actually about.

12039228_10153197818427984_3651873102638603337_nI got featured in the Indonesian-language version of National Geographic – which not only called it “a book which is light to read”, but also delighted me by calling me by my favoured Javanese form of address, “Mas Tim”!

I had a lovely – and very detailed – profile in Harian Nasional by Devy Lubis, and there was more coverage in Bisnis Indonesia, Waktoe, Intisari, Tribun Yogya, Bali Pos and Kedaulatan Rakyat in Yogyakarta which made much of my notion that Indonesians really should stop saying “it would be better to have been colonised by the British, not the Dutch…”

My favourite Indonesian coverage, however, was a fulsome review in Media Indonesia (one of my favourite Indonesian papers) by Hera Khaerani, with the delightful pull-out quote:

What is unique about each of Hannigan’s books is his way of interpreting historical facts and presenting them in a cinematographic way, despite being armed only with the written word. He is able to create a theater in the heads of his readers… (Keunikan setiap novel Hannigan ada pada caranya menginterpretasi fakta sejarah dan menyajikannya secara sinematografis meski hanya berbekal kata-kata yang tertulis. Dia mampu memainkan teater dalam kepala pembaca…)

Tempo Magazine kicked off the English-language coverage with a fine review from Bill Dalton, doyen of Indonesia travel writing, calling the book “a highly readable, informative, solid and irreverent introduction to this sprawling island nation.”  The same review was later reprinted in The Bali Advertiser.11889692_10153511643579303_6494228137556188346_n

Writing in The Jakarta Post, Hans David Tampubolon said that the book “manages to capture this heavy and rich history in a very easy to understand and entertaining narrative”. There was more Jakarta Post coverage in an interview about my favourite books. Meanwhile, Bali & Beyond magazine kindly called it “definitely a must-read” and said that it was “almost as if you are reading a story book rather than complicated research by a historian.” I’m not a historian, as it happens; I’m a history writer, which isn’t quite the same thing, but I won’t quibble with a positive review!

There was also a very detailed review in the Asian Review of Books, also published in the Jakarta Globe, in which Stephen Joyce wrote:

A Brief History of Indonesia is an intelligent and lucidly-written piece of work that has more than enough content and drama to attract the general Asian history reader; and is the perfect companion for travellers and tourists who wish to delve deeper than their travel guide’s history section and get closer to the beating heart of this troubled yet remarkable nation.

In Indonesia Expat veteran Jakarta-based writer Terry Collins reviewed the book, suggesting that it “be translated into Indonesian as an all-purpose supplement to the shallow versions of national history ‘approved’ by successive governments”!

Foreword Reviews gave the book five stars, and said that it “presents Indonesia as a place of high drama”, and Lonely Planet made it one of their top books to “read before you go”, and called it “a highly readable and entertaining narrative that highlights the many personalities who have shaped the nation – and our perception of it…”

And there has eve11050220_501342990028717_5866183669623329163_nn been some coverage on home ground! My own local newspaper, The Cornishman, ran a nice piece, very excited that a “local author” had scored a “bestseller”, even if it was on the other side of the world! And Lucy Munday wrote a feature which ran in The Western Morning News.

And now, it’s time to get on with the next book…

Lebanon 2005: Revolution Day

Here is the final of the three old pieces, written about a journey in the Middle East a decade ago, that I recently discovered, stashed away in the dusty recesses of my files. After some time in Syria I crossed the border into Lebanon. The former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri had been assassinated two weeks earlier – by Syrian security forces, the gossip insisted. At the time there was a heavy Syrian military presence in Lebanon. Many Lebanese felt that their country was, militarily at least, a client state of their bigger neighbour, and now, they had had enough. The “Cedar Revolution”, now largely forgotten, was “Arab Spring Mk.1”, but worlds away from the more recent catastrophes in the region.

damascus3 (2)Revolution Day
Beirut, 28 February 2005

They had been coming into town since first light, down the highway that curved along the coast from the direction of Byblos and Tripoli. Lying in bed in the little guesthouse, up the flight of narrow stairs above bolted-down shop-fronts still marked with old bullet holes, I could hear the sounding of car horns, and the low, liquid sound of determination moving through a crowd.

By mid-morning the army had closed the road to the north, but people had left their vehicles on the verges beside the Mediterranean and continued into the city on foot. I watched them from the balcony: a thickening flow moving determinedly towards Martyrs’ Square. The previous days had been lit by soft spring sunlight, but today a blank white sheet had run in across the sky and everything was very, very still. Except for the protesters.

Most of them carried Lebanese flags and waved them as they walked. Leaning out, I could see the long, snaking line moving down the coast, all red and white.

It was late February. A day earlier old men who read the French newspapers had been sunbathing on the smooth rocks beneath the Corniche; tomorrow young women with expensive sunglasses would go skiing on the last of the shrinking snows up on Mount Lebanon. But not today.

I stood for a long time on the balcony watching the moving crowd thickening and thickening, and hearing the roars moving back and forth from the direction of the square. The pastel-coloured tower blocks on the rising ground behind the road were smudged in the soft grey light, and right in front of the balcony, on a billboard looking down over the road, was a huge poster of the man whose portrait was plastered to walls and windows and old bullet-scarred doors all over the city: Rafik Hariri.

In the poster he was wearing a fine suit – the suit of a prosperous man – and standing with his hands in his pockets glancing upwards and smiling. He had kind eyes and wavy iron-grey hair and a thick moustache. There was a black band across the left-hand corner of the poster.


A fortnight earlier I had been in Amman. It was cold; there had been thick, wet sleet in Petra two days before. Amman was a strange white city, like grimy snow settled over warty hills. There were flocks of pigeons in the yellow sky. I stayed in a guesthouse with dirty corridors, and the streets were crowded with lost Iraqis and Palestinians.

I read about it in The Jordan Times, sitting at a tiny metal table on a narrow, sloping alleyway just off Sha’ban Street, eating hummus and good bread, and drinking thick, grainy coffee that tasted of cardamom. It was on the front page. Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon – the anti-Syrian former prime minister of Lebanon – had died in a huge car bomb blast near the seafront in Beirut. The students from the Lebanese universities blamed Syria. They were already demonstrating.


I saw a small girl give a flower to a soldier.

They had been ordered to keep the crowds out of the square, and the people coming down the road from the north – and me, strolling among them from the guesthouse – swung left at the bundled rolls of barbed wire. We could see the red-and-white hordes on the other side: people who had come in by other roads, and the students who had camped on the sloping grass by the Martyrs’ Monument for days. Sometimes a gang of youths would kicked the wire aside where it lay loose against a wall, and a great surge of people would dash forward with a cheer to join the protest. The soldiers smirked as they pushed the wire back into place, and when the little girl reached up, holding the flower, the man with the gun grinned broadly and you knew that no one would be shot today.

By lunchtime they had disobeyed heir orders and taken the wire away and the road was open. The Lebanese soldiers hated the fact that there were Syrian check-posts, and Syrian intelligence officers in their country as much as anyone.


The “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon was a little piece of history that could have been made for inquisitive tourists. It all seemed to happen in the course of one day; the result seemed clear – and good; and no one ran for cover under bullets or fell coughing to their knees in tear gas clouds.


damascus 4I wandered back and forth all day. The square was full. There were students clinging to the top of the statue, waving their red, white and green flags. There were banners and posters in Arabic and English and French, telling the Syrians to go home. There were girls in headscarves and girls in tight sleeveless tops with their pierced belly-buttons showing. And there were old women and men in suits. And one man with curly grey hair, holding his little daughter by the hand, and with a flag over his shoulder called out to me: “Allez, monsieur! Come and protest with us, protest with Lebanese!”

There were great walls of white wood close to the memorial, and they were scrawled with messages in three languages, messages of commemoration for Hariri, the Martyr, and messages of condemnation for Syria – go home!

Above it all the great hulk of the old Holiday Inn loomed with its hollow windows, and the acne scars of a million bullets from the old war. Not far away there was a barrier across the road, and black scorch marks on the pavement, and rows of cars with shattered windows and smoke-black buildings. Hariri died there. No one was guarding the scene; no one had cleared it up, after two weeks; and no one had properly investigated it.


In the little shop, just off the square with its high walls lined with jars, I had to queue for a sandwich. I had eaten there the night before when it was quiet, and drunken bottles of Amstel beer. There were no other customers then, but today the heavyset man behind the counter shook his head breathlessly.
“I am so busy today,” he said, “It is the manifestation – revolution makes them hungry.”
They didn’t call it a “demo”, or a “protest”; they used the French word – “manifestation”. I liked that.


In the afternoon I walked away from the square. The streets around the university were empty, and a soft sunlight had cut through the clouds. I bought an ice cream and walked along the Corniche. It was very still, and I could hear the roars from the square, and when I got back it was almost dark, and they had lit little fires near the statue, and there was a big television screen near the old opera house, and in the Lebanese parliament they were debating a motion of no confidence in the government of Omar Karami, and there were still students clinging to the top of the statue, waving their flags.

The crowd was mixed, but it was mostly young, and by evening when the sightseers had taken the children home to bed it was clear that this was a very middle class movement – and in Lebanon the middle class is disproportionately Maronite Christian. I never quite got over the deft, chic confidence of these trilingual young Lebanese, thoroughly Mediterranean in their look and their outlook. You couldn’t help but feel a little shabby and provincial around them. But they were furiously positive too. Things would change, they said; they were sure. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but things would change.

They liked Walid Jumblatt, the canny Druze politician.

“He’s mad,” said a very beautiful girl with a nose piercing and braided hair. “I mean really mad, chemically mad, like us.”
Her boyfriend had marijuana-stained eyes and he wore the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up. He laughed when she said this. “He is! She’s right.”

I asked when they thought Karami’s government would fall. Not today, they said; maybe next week. They were going skiing tomorrow – did I want to come?


The crowd was going nowhere, but it was getting late, and I began to wonder how the day could end. It was still cold at night, and I envisaged the kind of hung-over, grey-sky weariness of mornings at music festivals in the coming dawn. Perhaps they wouldn’t chant as hard the next day.

I had wandered away from the square again when the cheer went up. It was a huge roar and a boy with a red neckerchief went dashing past me shouting, and car horns started sounding all the way up the road along the coast, and I turned back quickly towards the square and someone told me the government, the pro-Syrian government, had resigned in the face of the protests.

I had nothing invested in what was happening, and I knew only what any diligently interested tourist ought to know about the politics and history of the country, but I understood well enough that this was what the crowd wanted, and I was absurdly happy for them.

They were dancing on the street outside the guesthouse all night, and the car horns were sounding all night, and in the morning it was very cold, and very grey and my visa was about to run out.


There was no traffic, and no one walking on the streets. It was very, very still and silent. There were no buses running from the terminal, but I found a nervous Syrian taxi driver who wanted to get out of Lebanon, and he crowded me and a handful of other Syrians into his car, and filled it with boxes of soap and biscuits and drove over the mountains to Damascus.

Syria seemed shabby and subdued in a way it hadn’t done a week earlier. The woman behind the counter in the guesthouse in Souq Sarouja shook her head as I filled in the register.

“They are crazy, the Lebanese,” she said. “We have always known that they are crazy; they are always doing things like that.”

© Tim Hannigan 2015

Syria 2005: Grief

In 2005, ten years ago, I spent several months in the Middle East. I recently came across some pieces I wrote about that journey, buried in my digital bottom drawer. Reading them I was struck by the awful fact that things have gotten not better, but much, much worse.

Syria 1 (2)Grief
Damascus, 19 February 2005

The sky was heavy and yellow over Damascus on the Tenth of Muharram, and I took a taxi to the tomb of the Prophet’s granddaughter. We passed through busy streets in the poorer quarters on the southern edge of the city. There was bad building work and loose wire, and I saw the head and neck of a slaughtered camel hanging outside a butcher’s stall, fleshy lips pointing at the pavement. It still had its woolly winter coat.

The mausoleum of Sayidda Zeinab was in a grubby Shia suburb of dust and yellowing concrete. The streets were already crowded and the great golden swelling of the dome rose above the compound walls against the heavy sky. All along the pavements there were stalls, full of prayer beads and skullcaps and books of prayer and theology with embossed covers. And there were posters of the Shia Imams, together like a multiplicity of stern Jesuses with the blinding white blank of the Hidden Imam at the centre, or as individuals: Ali and Hussein, green-turbaned and black-bearded and fiery-eyed.

Lean youths in jeans and black tee shirts, and women in black head-scarves and little children in their best clothes, and shabby men in old jackets, and here and there a tall figure in robes and turban: they surged along the grubby street and around the corner and into the gate of the compound, past the soldiers who searched bags and pockets as best they could. I went with them, though the gateway, and inside.

The tomb, under its great dome, lay ahead, people clamouring up the steps, tripping over discarded shoes. It was flanked with arches of blue-green tilework and a band of golden calligraphy framed the roofline: “Peace upon Zeinab the Great”, it said. The courtyard was full of people and there was a smell of sweat and hot breath, like at protest marches and outdoor concerts. From the space behind the tomb I could hear the rising pulse of voices and a hollow marching sound: thump, thump, thump.

A dozen young men, dressed in black, strips of green cloth tied tight around their brows, formed a ragged band: mourners, like everyone here, for the Imam Hussein, killed at Kerbala – with his baby son in his arms, they say.

They were led by a man with curly brown hair, rising in knots above his headband. His face was blotched red with furious grief and his eyes brimmed with tears. His voice cracked as he chanted – “Oh Martyr! Oh Hussein!” – and with each chant he brought his bolted fist high up above his head and swung it down with mighty force onto his own chest. The others matched the beats, fists pounding in time against breasts. Thwump! Oh Martyr! Thwump! Oh Hussein! They swung their bodies together in time so that it was like a dance. Their eyes were red and their brows gleamed with sweat.

A small boy stood in the crowd nearby. He was wearing a tatty woollen jumper and up above his head he held a crudely painted placard, marked with two words in white on black and splattered red: Martyr; Hussein. He stood on tiptoes, straining to hold the sign as high as he could. His mouth was tight with determination.

Thwump, thwump, twhump!

There was a roar from the courtyard gate and a new mob of young flagellants came surging through under waving green banners. They swept past the gate of the tomb in a seething knot beating out a mighty rhythm on their own flesh.

I stepped back a little, out of the way, onto the raised platform at the edge of the compound. A girl with pale brown eyes in a black headscarf smiled at me. I nodded back, a little startled.
“Where are you from?” she asked – and I was still more startled by her accent.
“From England,” I said, “like you…”
She smiled again; she was very beautiful. She was born in Iraq but she had been brought up in London. She was training to be a doctor. “Where exactly are you from?” she asked.
“From Cornwall.”
“You don’t have a Cornish accent,” she said.
“You don’t have a London accent,” I said. Hers was crystal clear but without any superior sharpness.
“I went to a good school,” she said; “I suppose you did too.”

The mourning youths surged past us on another circuit of the courtyard, fists pounding into flesh. Some of them were sobbing as they chanted.

“I must say,” she said, “I’m surprised to see a… a…”
“Tourist?” I suggested.
“Yes! I’m surprised to see a tourist here.”
“But you’re from England too.”
“But I’m a… I’m a… this is my culture,” she struggled, but smiled at the absurdity. “Actually this is the first time I’ve been to Ashura celebrations in a Muslim country. Of course, I would like to have been in Iraq, in my homeland…” she trailed off.

I told her I had wanted to see the Ashura parades in Pakistan, but that it was too dangerous there where the commemoration of ancient bloodshed all too often gave way to new sectarian atrocities. She said that was sad. She was very beautiful.


They kept coming, all day, flowing into the confines of the tomb. I peered over shoulders and piled shoes and saw the gold and silver and the mosaics of the inner chamber, and the dozens of hands reaching out to touch the metalwork around the grave.

Outside the tomb courtyard there were rags and scraps of paper and plastic and spilt food underfoot, and the sky hung heavier above crooked television aerials and jagged rooflines. Taxis and minibuses and donkey carts were howling over cracked tarmac and there was an edge of frenzy on the air.

I met an acquaintance out on the street, a Swiss-German who had studied Arabic in Damascus and was serving an internship at the Swiss embassy. The courtyard was more crowded now and we were jostled through the gateway again, past the struggling soldiers.

There would be no sunset over the Lebanon Ranges tonight, but the light was fading, thickening to a murky grey. There were many Iranians in the tomb complex now, and I remembered a little Persian – What is your name? Where are you from? America? No, not America.

When the light was all gone there were lamps around the courtyard and it shone back off the dome of the tomb, and in the corner, close to the gateway I saw men in pale shalwar kamises. They were chanting, but not like the youths of earlier: it was singing really, to the glorious heart-beat rhythms of Qawwali. Their faces shone in the lamplight, and they only slapped at their chests with loose palms. I went across quickly, unable to resist, and yes, they were from Pakistan, of course, and very quickly they were all around me smiling, and they pressed a chocolate bar and a carton a fruit juice on me and there was a tiny woman, all in black except her face, and she spoke immaculate English, and in a matter of minutes I had an address scribbled down and a very genuine offer of a place to stay in Karachi next time I came to Pakistan.
“But…” I began, and she smiled tenderly.
“Of course, I know you would not normally be coming to Karachi; it is a dangerous place. But you will be safe if you stay with us…”

I left them and picked through the seething crowds. The Swiss-German was speaking Arabic with a group of angry men. His face was lined and serious, and he was touching his mouth uncertainly with the ends of his fingers. The men had tense faces and furious eyes.
He glanced at me as I came up. “Ah…”
The foremost of the angry-eyed men looked at me and asked something. I knew enough to understand the question: “England,” I said.
His eyes flared and he tilted his head back and said, defiantly, “Iraq!”
He was broad-shouldered and he wore a black jacket that made him look broader still. He spoke with angry passion, and raised his finger as he did so.
The Swiss-German made conciliatory noises.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
He glanced at me. “They are talking about politics. Actually, I am not really comfortable with this conversation…”
There were cracks of grief and anger in the voice of the speaking man, and the others clustered behind him, nodding furiously as he spoke.
He said something, then said it again, half-shouting, beating at his own chest. I didn’t need a translation: “I am a Shia!” he was saying; “I am a Shia and even I am saying this!”

The Swiss-German mumbled and touched his mouth. “He is saying that with Saddam gone Iraq is destroyed; he is saying that even though he hated Saddam, everyone knows that only Saddam could keep Iraq peaceful. He says Iraq needs a strong hand and the Americans are like children; he is saying ‘what have they done, what have they done?’ He is very angry. Actually this is not really a political idea that I subscribe too. I think we should go.” He started to move away.

I lingered for a moment.
“Peace upon you,” I said, and held out my hand.
The man stared at me for the briefest of moments, then shook it firmly and warmly, his eyes blazing. “Thank you!” he said, in English; “Thank you!”

© Tim Hannigan 2015