I’m in the Netherlands—right now in an appalling Amsterdam full of drunk tourists and fancy shops and not-so-fancy shops. For the past few days I have been in Leiden at the KITLV—the Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, or its English name is the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies. The KITLV hosted a conference with what was almost certainly the largest collection of Aru experts ever to sit in one room (apart, of course, from whenever a bunch of people who actually live on Aru get together). There were six of us, and five of us gave talks about our various specialties. It was a small conference room, but it was full. Three of the audience were not academics, but actually had relatives from Pulau Wokam, so they should also be counted among the experts. I was very happy to see them there. The others in the audience were anthropologists, historians, and linguists, especially Southeast Asian and Islamic specialists.
This is the first time I’ve been to the Netherlands. It is a very charming country, though, the cities being old and not much changed since the seventeenth century, they can be difficult to navigate. Keeping with the conceit that my mind hasn’t yet left Aru, though, I keep noticing traces of the old colonial connections between the Netherlands and Indonesia. In fact, you could say that the whole town is a trace of those connections, for surely the grand churches and bridges in Leiden were built in part with profits from the East Indies.
First, of course, there were the people themselves—the men and women descended from Aruese who had been born in Holland, but found their way to our little conference and had so much to contribute to it. Then there are many other people in the streets who just look kind of Indonesian, or Indo-European. Then you see bits of Indonesian or Malay everywhere. I saw this post’s title on an ordinary house in a leafy Leiden suburb. “Untung-untungan” could mean or “depending on luck,” but there’s an additional resonance of smallness and artificiality, so on another level it equates a certain kind of luck with a toy. That is a very interesting phrase to put on the front of your house, and I had to assume that the people inside had roots in Indonesia. There are bits of Indonesia everywhere. In Leiden it’s especially pronounced because of the university and the KITLV—every used book store has maps and prints from the old colony.
There are also Indonesian restaurants everywhere. In fact, I just had dinner in one. I tried speaking Indonesian with the waitress, but it turned out she was Tibetan and didn’t know the language. Apart from that, though, the atmosphere was authentically Indonesian in a shocking way, with remarkable Indonesian details like faux wood paneling on the walls, odd electric fans everywhere, and a slight worn dinginess on everything. The Nasi Kuning was satisfying, if not as good as Ambon’s. The place was straight out of Indonesia, except for the carpet, which would be impossible in the tropics, and the roses on the tables.
This was interesting to find among the appalling “global culture” on display in Amsterdam. Checking in to the hostel I encountered an indescribable woman dressed all in bright pink, with a pink plastic shot glass around her neck on a string of pink plastic beads. A couple blocks away there was a Dolce & Gabbana store selling ghastly tuxedoes in a black-on-black paisley pattern that looked like the mummified corpse of something that was brighter in the ‘70s but not more tasteful (and I will say that this was one of the less stomach-churning window displays on that street). Leiden is a frumpier city, bourgeois but in the best sense, and after spending so much time there it pained me to think what the staid burghers who had built all these churches with plundered East Indies money would say about their capital being turned into Europe’s version of Las Vegas. But the burghers never felt too bad about commerce, after all.
That is another part of the Indonesia connection that troubles me. At the conference I brought up the Banda Islands as an example of various things again and again—an island group whose population was exterminated almost totally and replaced with slaves. It was a strange coincidence, and hard to reconcile Leiden’s old charm with the knowledge that a genocide was happening on the other side of the world at the same time some of these adorable little buildings were taking shape, and moreover that the two events were somehow connected. Maybe I had begun to think about this connection before the conference even started. History does not tell the most appealing story about the ways the Dutch accumulated their wealth, which in turn funded these adorable building projects. The perspective of those who were on the receiving end of Dutch traders’ ambitions does not flatter them, and so for a long time I thought of them as nakedly acquisitive people for whom a few artists and scholars could not adequately compensate. Yet it’s hard to dispute that the result for them back home was a very pleasant country—a work of art on a grand scale. So, it is hard to reconcile these two ideas. How does the tawdriness of present tourist culture change things? It doesn’t bear thinking about.