Dukuns and Mystics
Words and Photo by Michael Roddan
Australia’s relations with Indonesia are at their lowest point in years. Thanks to multiple spying revelations, numerous naval incursions and some increasingly malignant boating directions (i.e. ‘back that way, mate’), Canberra and Jakarta are having a hard time getting it together.
Not only has Indonesia suspended defence co-operation with Australia, they have also recalled their ambassador from Canberra, and Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has complained to US Secretary of State John Kerry publicly about Australia’s behaviour. Though perhaps worst of all, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono condemned the behaviour of Abbott—until recently his ‘best friend’—in his most recent book.
What’s more, there seems to be very little hope of our chilled relationship defrosting, with both sides stubbornly sticking to their guns for domestic political leverage. Do we entrust our recently freed cultural attaché Miss Corby to pass the ‘peace-pipe’ on the left-hand side? Do we wait for a change of government to extend an olive branch across the Timor Sea? Or can we just blindly place our faith in black magic voodoo to patch things up?
Fuck it. We might as well try the black magic.
Though Indonesia is known as the world’s largest Muslim country, religion is not taken very seriously by the majority. It’s Muslim in the same way Australia is labelled a Christian nation.
Indonesian life is centred around the island of Java. It’s the most populous island and it accommodates Jakarta, the administrative, cultural and financial capital. But the Javanese also have a long and strange tradition of mysticism, which still runs through the society today.
Even the most highly-educated and western-oriented Indonesians still frequent their local shaman, called a dukun. The dukun play the role of traditional healer, fortune-teller and cosmic medium. But they do more bullshit services too, like cursing an ex-lover, or putting a hex on a foe. What’s wonderful though is the whole-hearted earnestness with which the Indonesians accept this practice. They really believe it.
President Yudhoyono’s recently released memoirs detail how witchcraft summoned black clouds, which ostensibly haunted his family. Yudhoyono recounts that he prayed to Allah, and here the reader can presume the existence of an interventionist God as the clouds showed themselves out. Yudhoyono claimed it was his political foes using black magic to derail his 2009 re-election campaign.
A dukun is like a mistress—it’s usually the males who visit them, it’s secretive, and you always return to the same one. It’s also stupidly expensive. It’s not just for the political class either. Celebrities visit dukun to ensure their popularity. Singers ask for a better voice. Actors wish for their good looks to remain with them. The father of one my Jakartan friends visited a dukun to curse his ex-wife. He remembered the occasion as rather unnerving as they performed a series of bizarre rituals like breaking eggs filled with sand and cutting their nails into a makeshift potion. It was never made clear exactly who drinks the potion.
Tales like these abound. Either you know someone who has been to a dukun, or you’ve been to one personally. Founding President Sukarno, pro-Western military strong-man President Suharto, and first female President Megawati Sukarnoputri all employed dukun with tax dollars.
I assumed if anyone could fix Australian-Indonesian relations, it would be the richest and most famous dukun in Jakarta: Ki Joko Bodo.
Bodo is like the Noel Gallagher of dukun: he’s rich, eccentric, loves to party, and (so they say) talented at what he does.
He’s got a Mercedes-Benz and an eleven-storey temple to prove it. Government officials and high-ranking police
officers are his best customers.
But for the poor student, he’s a hard man to get a hold of. I’m
in Kemang, south of Jakarta, and I’m knocking on the glass
wall of Pak James Ramal’s office. Ramal is a dukun, who is known to hangout and do dukun things with Bodo, but by the looks of his office—frosted glass walls with a good view of a
food court—he’s not nearly as successful.
He finally answers my knocking. It’s two pm, but he has just woken up and before saying hello, excuses himself to take a piss. If it weren’t for his boardshorts and polo shirt, Ramal might actually look a bit scary. His eyes are deeply sunken and his neck has these strange marks on them, like his throat’s been slit a bunch of times.
In Ramal’s office I talk to him about getting in touch with
Bodo. but he was more concerned with showing me his TV
ads: him in a suit in front of a green screen where playing
cards fly out at the viewer. It quickly becomes apparent these dukun are more concerned about cash than they are with
fixing the precarious Indo-Aus relationship. I don’t blame them. Plus, I can’t afford their rates.
So after consulting with the local dukun expert—a sweating, toothless tuk-tuk driver—I agree to be taken to a dukun who’s
a bit more slummy. A more, if you can say it, genuine dukun. He’s down a nest of tiny alleyways, opposite a flood-damaged asbestos shack, which seems to be slowly melting into the ground. Like Ramal, this mystic, Paaji, is taking a nap—but he assures me that it’s just to recoup power.
Paaji isn’t a straight-up dukun—he’s more like a multi-talented Islamic mystic. But hey, close enough right? Paaji sits me down and talks, like any self-respecting octogenarian, at length about a number of indecipherable things.
I pull out three A4 pictures. First, I ask him to heal the relationship between Abbott and Yudhoyono. Paaji concentrates, dances his hands to the heavens and mutters something I can’t understand. Second, I ask him to protect the ABC from Andrew Bolt and, if he can, put a curse on him. Paaji agrees and does the same incantation, trying not to be distracted by my camera’s flash.
“But,” Paaji says, looking in my eyes, “this will only work if you believe that it will work”. Thankfully the service was free, otherwise I would have choked down hard at that “conditions apply” asterisk. Nevertheless, I followed up to see if anything had changed.
I met with Greg Moriarty, Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia. I asked him if he had noticed any change in the diplomatic stoush since Paaji weaved his magic. In response to the issue, he merely shrugged, declaring: “I’m still waiting.”
I sent Andrew Bolt an email, asking to see if he’d noticed any change. He responded: “I once wrote a piece from Sumatra on the magic of local sorcerers and know it is meant to be powerful. How disappointed I have been to see it used to protect the ABC. My columns have been useless.”
Wow, A. Bolt. What a champ for responding! He’s not that bad after all, I thought. But then I clicked the link to his blog at the end of the email to his most recent post, which implied that raping young Melbournians is somehow endemic to African refugees, and that rape is a by-product of our refugee intake.
Sadly, it looks like it’ll take more than magic to make the world a more wonderful place.