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Bali Mon Amour


In the aftermath of the bomb attack on a disco in Kuta Beach, Bali a number of journalists wrote about the loss of innocence in that exotic isle. They must have been overcome by another spasm of the historical myopia that afflicts the scribes of today. Maybe they received their information from Colin McPhee’s best-selling account of his enjoyable stay on this island, called A House In Bali: “In the afternoon and evening Bali grew unreal, lavish and theatrical like an old-fashioned opera scenery.” This was as much an invention as the earlier perception of Bali, defined by the colonial invasion and onslaught which began in 1846. “The Balinese are fierce, savage, perfidious and bellicose people, loath to do any work, and so they dislike agriculture,” a Dutch visitor had written some hundred years earlier. Only after conquering and domesticating these ‘bellicose savages’, a task completed in 1908, did the Dutch authorities and other Westerners start to appreciate the locals and their culture. Less than a generation after Dutch troops had massacred 4000 locals in a puputan, a fight to the death, Bali was on its way to becoming a major tourist destination, marketed as a gem of purity and innocence, of beauty and delicacy.

By initially attracting the glitterati of the Western metropolitan centres ? glamorous people like Noel Coward and Charlie Chaplin as well as other aristocrats, artists (among them musician Colin McPhee) and actors ? the island established itself as the site of paradisiacal innocence in the tropics. Several Hollywood films were shot (Bali, The Last Paradise!), several best-sellers set in Bali were written. Any cruise liner worth its dime would include this fabulous island on its itinerary. By the ’50s, Bali was a dominant image of South Sea Romanticism, as if created by Rousseau and Gauguin and choreographed by promotional experts from New York. Many fell for the fake charm. Even an intelligent and reflective man like Pandit Nehru, first Prime Minister of India, was lured into calling Bali the “Dawn of the World”.

This packaging remained intact, even after Independence. Now Bali was the Indonesian candidate for Paradise, a role that fit snuggly into the nationalistic designs of the two successive ruling generals, Soekarno and Soeharto. However, Soeharto made life difficult for the ad agencies when, in the aftermath of his coup in 1965, around 50,000-100,000 supposedly Communist Balinese were massacred by their brethren. The ’70s saw the advent of mass tourism: the untouched beaches were transformed into clearing houses for the escapist dreams of Australians, Americans and West Europeans. Hotels still advertise with slogans like: “Paradise hasn’t changed for thousands of years, except to get better.” Or: “Paradise begins and ends in Bali. Bali’s greatest asset are the Balinese themselves, a serene, harmonious people, spiritual in a pure and delightful way.”

Little wonder that Bali’s culture became a reflection of the image of tourism agencies. Merchants, hotel owners and artists have a common interest to preserve this profitable, streamlined culture, which reliably offers what the visitors expect. “Nobody on Bali could seriously think to challenge the idea of Balinese culture. Even those people who oppose tourism and see themselves as defenders of tradition are supporters of the idea,” writes anthropologist Adrian Vickers. Even if this culture were to perish, one would take its death mask and use it as long as the sweet grimace on the mask conjures the image of an idyll for the innumerable tourists. As far back as 1971, a World Bank expert came to the conclusion that Bali’s cultural expressions would soon disappear. But he was not unduly worried: “Bali can still retain its romantic image and be thought of as a green and sumptuous garden.”

The true history of this Garden of Eden was, however, human, all too human. In the 17th century, Bali was an important exporter of slaves, who were shipped not only to the different ports of the Indian Ocean, but all the way to South Africa and beyond, to the Caribbean. Business boomed, until the first complaints found their way to the Indonesian Archipelago. Seemingly without reason, the Balinese slaves had run ‘amuk’. They had even dared to seize a whole ship and to maroon the crew ? what humanity, though: instead of throwing the slavers into the sea, the Balinese had dropped them ashore! The Dutch East India Company continued to receive so many complaints, that they forbade the import of Balinese slaves in 1688, in an ordinance whose language is reminiscent of the EU decision to restrict the import of English beef. The term amuk initially referred to a highly ritualised form of confrontation between clans, in which the two best warriors fought one another without any restraint. For Balinese society had never been peaceful or idyllic. A multitude of greedy princes sought reassertion in small but bloody skirmishes. The court literature is full of romantic war legends, which describe in hyperbolic detail how the corpses of the enemy were heaped up in mountains, how the flowing blood formed an ocean. There were too many masters and too many wars.

This historical excursus has, of course, no bearing on the gruesome inhumanity of the recent crime, but it does put it into perspective. The violence of terrorism is not the Original Sin, but the latest in a series of horrors perpetuated on this beautiful island. The murderous bomb blast did not destroy the innocence of Bali, it damaged a successful trademark.

ILIJA TROJANOW is a German novelist, and Special Correspondent for the Suddeutsche Zeitung, and currently lives in Bombay (India). Trojanow can be reached at:


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