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In forgetting

AbdouMaliq Simone

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EPO D'Fenomeno

Out at Sea


The sea’s hold on blackness is a history of turbulent articulations, violent submergence, and dexterous manoeuvre. The sea as stage, modality, and performative register asks us to consider the unfathomable costs of a restless modernity that enforces both inflated confidence and dissatisfaction. The illusion that there is no settlement at sea, and that settlement always requires the crossing of uncharted languages, underpins convictions as to the generativity of disappearance, evacuation, and serendipitous collective formations occasioned by “all hands- on deck”. As the most overused horizon of the “out there”, the “just beyond”, the beyond that promises a just reckoning or viable erasure of the constraining codes of overly familiar identities, or of the empiric obsessions of those who wish to stay at home by abandoning it, the sea would seem to affirm “by the grace of God”, whatever is “out there” is “afforded” to us. 


The sea embodies forward memory, a memory not of things past but of the promise of becoming, that whatever disposition violently differentiated human lives might take, it is availed its own escape hatch, its volatile mixtures with the wanton histories and sentiments of others who have been forced or lured into paying attention. For blackness, this can be manifested in the incessant skipping around of implications for those who bear its designation; the ways in which quotidian framings scatter-scatter; in the momentary alliances and antagonisms that come together and fall apart, veering across tricky currents, and at other times, curating somnambulant reverie. Interludes of frenzy and exhaustion mark the prolonged labour of creating the possibility of remembering, of re-suturing a viable sense of commonality that could be drawn upon for even the most minimal escapades into venture capital, that can be drawn upon for solace and care in the permanent uncertainties in which more and more lives are ensconced. In such mundane seas, blackness is the fungible asset of selves who become their own cargo cults, or at least attempt to repair their expulsions from households, communities and ways of life, with nebulous and provisional tropes of belonging. What is sought is less a destination, less a secure emplacement, less the dreams of specific attainments, but more the possibilities of memory, of having something to hold onto in the ebbs and flows of precarious labour, something that demonstrates that they actually made something of themselves in the midst of others who already claimed to be “made men”.


Yet memory has its own costs. In the stories of centuries of travel across the hundreds of islands of eastern Indonesia, and all of the histories of hybrid peoples living hybrid lives that frequently degenerate into desperate simulations of themselves, very few can remember that wherever they now find themselves is the by-product of the weariness of so many double crossings; the accumulations of betrayals, identity traitors, and traders trading off cherished values for cheap imitations. Double-dealing is a critical component of blackness on the high seas, for it traffics in ready-to-wear imaginations capable of bringing new ideas of nationhood into view but dissipating quickly in the drudgery of military-industrial drag shows offering cash payouts. Nevertheless, even as the toilets overflow on deck, something is brought to life that perhaps can’t be remembered, that never shows up at work on time, if at all, that ravages the kitchens of luxury hotels, that seeps its way into the toxic soils of next year’s harvest, that wears itself proudly in the vacant eyes of young men and women from nameless islands on the move again.


On Deck

It is 3:30 am halfway between Ambon and Sorong in eastern Indonesia on the 42-hour ASDP ferry. On the upper deck there are some 200 young men and women, animated on cheap sugary coffee, in the midst of extended arguments about the best way to make a living. Some are heading for contracted or non-contracted work in the oil and mining operations of Union Oil, Amoco, Agip, Conoco, Phillips, Esso, Texaco, Mobil, Shell, Petromer Trend Exploration, Atlantic Richfield, Sun Oil and Freeport (USA); Oppenheimer (South Africa); Total (France); Ingold (Canada); Marathon Oil, Kepala Burung (UK); Dominion Mining, Aneka Tambang, BHP, Cudgen RZ, and CRA (Australia). Others are returning from stints as casual labour in Kupang and Makassar, with boxes of goods barely intact after weeks on various ferries. The atmosphere is tense as exhausted bodies banter, cajole and provoke around which of them is more eligible to access what kinds of opportunities and resources, which forces and actors are primarily responsible for their sense of precarity, which for the multiple disruptions and uncertainties facing their families and communities. The talk is intensely racialised; who can be trusted, who is most complicit with the predominant threats posed, which religion or ethnicity most complicit with corrupt politician or military officials, who is a “real” Indonesian, and who is not. And whether it even matters.

The upper deck of the ferry assembles a cross-section of almost the entirety of eastern Indonesia – people from the Moluccas, Kei Islands, Lembata, Alor, Flores, Timur and West Papua, as well as Javanese and Minahasans. With the exception of the latter two peoples, these youth are often called “Melanesians”, a loose term designating “blackness”, but with little overarching coherence or consensus. Although increasingly ascendant, blackness is an infrequent term of self-attribution but one through which others are denigrated or emplaced. It is invoked to describe who one is either against or allied under continuously shifting circumstances. For in this region, identity is as fluid and turbulent as the sea. The youth gathered have an underlying appreciation that they are all in “the same boat”, despite their sometimes-wild claims of having the upper hand. At times racially inflected provocations seem intentional, a means of eliciting rejoinders potentially replete with useful information, where the anticipated self-defence might give something away. Everyone seeks something from each other – confirmation about impressions, tips about possible work opportunities, assessments of conditions in particular places or work sites; all of the ins and outs about how to successfully manage a life on the move.

Despite the expressions of resentment, superiority, and suspicion, these protracted exchanges constitute the medium through which those gathered slowly “make their way” toward each other, identify grounds of possible complementarity and forge temporary alliances to share access to specific places to live and work, receive services, documents, and consumables, and to exhibit unanticipated solidarities with exploitative bosses. Many of those gathered have known each other for years, and in the vociferousness of some of the exchanges the space of the ferry becomes an opportunity to rehearse the solidity of ties in face of their anticipated vulnerabilities in face of a larger audience, as well as a raucous duplicity that provides cover for intricate collaborations with each other. Those that are strangers are thus lured into “speaking their minds”, revealing something of themselves through the performance of the well-worn rituals of ethnic, religious and racial insult.

This is an opportunity to size up potential collaborators and companions, a means of pushing through parochial and tribal allegiances in order to figure the tentative operations of a collective life in movement, stretched across great physical and cultural differences. When these youth disembark in Sorong, and spread out to various sites of extraction in West Papua, in a region that is one of the most “colonised” in the world, in terms of its erasure of the lives and aspirations of the indigenous population, there will be a proliferation of WhatsApp messages that relay impressions, information in ways that constitute a “grassroots” articulation of these places. What youth most fear is to get stuck in a dead-end situation, without a viable way out. So, a dispersed infrastructure of care unfolds, and these all-night gatherings on an ASDP ferry east act as a distorted yet deliberative body, intent on exorcising its fears and anxieties so as to propel a way into multiple alignments which distribute obligations across very real differences in background, deterring any accruing sense of indebtedness. As the sun emerges, and youth drift off in exhaustion to await another long day at sea, Ati, concludes, “we all leave Black brothers and sisters.”

Many of these youths have been on the move for years. Some move back and forth between places of origins; others simply move from one underpaid position or half-baked money-making scheme to another. But wherever they land temporarily, their increased numbers are filling up expanding coastal cities and the towns and villages that surround mines, plantations, pearl beds, fish processing centres and natural gas installations. Seldom settling in definitively anywhere, their circulations across different territories, occupations, compositions of residence, resource accumulations and institutional affiliations engender their own articulations, which coincide in sometimes complicit and sometimes antagonistic ways with the articulations of burgeoning extractive economies. But do they remember those nascent belongings; do they belong anywhere, or care?


Once Upon a Time in Papua


Sorong is the largest urban area in West Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province, the gateway to perhaps the world’s most spectacular tourist area, Raja Ampat, and the administrative centre of what is emerging as one of the largest zones of low-carbon extraction, rich with lithium, nickel, cobalt, magnesium, and rare earth metals. It is also situated in one of today’s most militarily repressed, thoroughly colonised regions, where the Indonesian state has long done anything necessary in order to suppress the aspirations of indigenous Papuans for national liberation. This was an aspiration dutifully expressed according to international law in 1962, and failed in its realisation by cold war politics that saw the United Nations succumb to the complicities between the US, Netherlands and Indonesia governments to deter the supposed spread of communism.


In the past decades West Papua has largely been forgotten by the international community, its indigenous inhabitants too often viewed as “stuck in time”, both incapable of and disinterested in managing their own nation.  Even as Indonesia is made up of clearly Black populations, colonial apparatuses had often incorporated them into various military, policing and administrative functions based on their apparent receptivity to Christianity and by the fact that they were not Javanese. Papuans, however, were considered at an even further remove, embodying all that was feared and despised about being Black.


Possessing the earth’s most diverse biosphere and until recently largely unnavigable by road, West Papua was also far too geographically removed to warrant much interest beyond those with the capital to exploit its riches. Nevertheless, a plethora of resistance movements has endured over the years; small groups of armed insurgents have operated in the interior highlands for decades, sporadically making their presence felt. Continuous generations of young students have constantly challenged the Indonesian encroachment on everything – land, family, culture.


Indigenous Papuans are now a minority population in face of the inward migration of minority groupings from other eastern Indonesian provinces who have insinuated themselves in the transport and retail sectors, and in face of the heavily subsidised mass transmigrations of rural dwellers from distant, powerful Java, promised large tracts of cheap land. Large-scale corporate agriculture and mining have forced many Papuans into the major urban areas, and in Sorong this has meant increasingly difficult interchanges between the native Moi, who retain customary authority over large swathes of now urban land, and the nascent demands of incoming Papuans from other regions claiming space and opportunities under the auspices of a still aspirant national identity whose institutional platforms are constantly being eviscerated.


Because of Sorong’s position within long-standing circuits of trade, the Moi were widely viewed as the most-“worldly” and least-black of Papuans, and there is a common joke that for a Moi household it is an embarrassment if it has less than two university graduates, man and woman.


Sorong itself is a rambling town dispersed along a north-south axis of some 75 kilometres, with the gravity of administration and economic development rapidly having transferred from the old centre and its ports and markets, south toward the massive petrochemical installations and zones primarily populated by Javanese immigrants. It is one of Indonesia’s most cosmopolitan cities in demography if not always in atmosphere, and is the largest constellation of a so-called Black, Melanesian population which is largely Christian, in contrast to the majoritarian Muslim identification of Indonesia, with residents from Ambon, Northern Sulawesi, Kei, Arawak Islands, and Nusa Tenggara Timur.


These so-called “other Blacks” bring with them particular skills and orientations cultivated by their original locales and the colonially shaped expressions they were allowed to take: ex-fighters, brawlers, drivers, thieves, mechanics, tricksters, marketeers, seafarers. The solidity of any consolidation of ethnicities and regionalisms into a “Black identity” waxes and wanes, shows up and dissipates according to the situation or place at hand, and who and what is being contrasted or enjoined. Sorong’s is also an overwhelmingly young population, and schools, churches, mosques and clubs teem with different experiments, with words, performances, sensibilities, and tensions.


Police and military personnel are everywhere, but many are in plain clothes, and also function as land brokers, financial consultants, engineers, loan sharks, development planners, and religious advisors. While a nominal local-rule policy is in place, which assigns at least on paper the bulk of civil service jobs to the Moi, their sources of autonomous income, as well as regulatory authority, are limited in a delicate dance between plying the administration as the ticket to economic advancement and using their position to cushion the intensity of state violence.


In the very heart of the old urban core, right behind the city’s sprawling main market, is a wide expanse of semi-forested land, nearly resembling a classic city park, verdant and rambling. Peppemaranda is the traditional home of one Moi affinal grouping, now primarily settled by a loose-knit network of Rastafarians, hip-hop artists, hustlers, civil servants, layabouts, fisherman and cultivators. Some come from households with a fair amount of money, others are and have always been dirt poor. The grounds are scattered with all types of makeshift constructions – shacks, huts, three-story wooden apartment blocks, simple bamboo shelters, and more elaborate edifices constructed from shell and discarded materials. In the last instance the land is inalienable, as this is officially adat land, cemented to the use of whatever lineage can legitimately display connection to the MoiKaron sub-clan. While the Moi have been dispossessed of most of their customary holdings, this expanse, at perhaps one of the most strategic locations in the city, has largely been forgotten since, as one Javanese taxi driver puts it, “they are not interested in developing themselves.” He continues: “They have not only forgotten the significant education that Indonesia provided them, they have forgotten the industriousness and the ways of life of their ancestors, they simply lay about, scavenging and thieving.”


One of the ironies of the area is that it is widely accessible and impenetrable at the same time. The “community”, if you want to call it that, has helped build a walkway along the inlets from the sea plied by longboats carrying goods and passengers from outlying islands to the centre of the market. From this walkway, much of the interior of the area is visible, open, yet still recessed, not because it is foreboding, but because it is such an anomaly in its larger surroundings. Just to its north is an overcrowded neighbourhood of the Bugis, the traditional seafarers, where the density of cultivated dilapidation stands in stark contrast to the near-pastoral setting of Peppemaranda. Lambert, an artisan in Peppemaranda who fashions bamboo beds sold in the nearby market, claims that “we have everything we need; we store rainwater, we make compost-based sanitation systems, we have every food we might desire.”


Indeed, the residents of Peppemaranda are always tinkering with things, as well as leaving things alone. Wilson, whose occupation is unspecified and who grew up in far-away Waina, talked about the district as being a place of “spontaneous combustion”. Many elders have gone elsewhere to concrete houses on demarcated plots with cars, leaving the young ones to manage. They did so by rendering all kinds of people extended family, whose wheeling and dealings with each other about responsibilities and rights sometime led to prolonged arguments or even violence, but which seemed to always be resolved by rearranging things – space, household compositions and tasks – as no one was all that interested in taking charge of anything except their own singular rhythms and past-times. Lambert says that any dispute is always easily forgotten, as was the assignation of specific authority and tasks to specific individuals. Things happened, as Wilson claims, in “their own time.” What is particularly important in their ethos is the sense that they could largely live as they wanted because the city has forgotten them. Perhaps this was partially true, for indeed the potential value of this land, given its location and size, is always being concretely depreciated in the frustration of developers more than willing to pull out the big bucks, the political clout, and deep reserves of deviousness to take hold of this property.


First, those to whom the land was ceded and entrusted fell in the gaps between different branches of the Moi that had gone their own way. On top of this, countless numbers of bureaucrats always seem to forget where essential documents have been deposited. In efforts to go around negotiations with Moi customary authorities, surveyors often inexplicably forget to bring certain equipment, key actors forget to show up at meetings, incoming municipal administrations forget what the previous ones had decided, and litigants forget to file the essential paperwork. This meshwork of forgetting buttresses the reputation of Peppermaranda as a place of “no good”. Inhabited by residents deemed incapable of making anything useful happen, the area accretes layer upon layer of attributions that any project would likely and quickly face its own demise.


But it is not only a matter of being forgotten. For the residents are not interested in any kind of recognition of their efforts, rights or endurance. The claim of being forgotten is always accompanied by the invocation that they themselves have forgotten about being forgotten ; that it does not matter to them; that they are, as Lambert put it, “called upon” for other purposes, although who calls and for what objective was also something forgotten. There is simply a call that came through the sudden twisting of leaves in a vegetable garden, or the piercing sounds of cicadas in the trees, or in the sudden appearance of a small child momentarily blazed in a halo of white light, or in a frail woman sitting in silence on a porch having walked seven straight days from the hill country. One could respond or not, and there was no sense about how adequate the response might be to the objectives of the call, for each call could quickly change its mind in terms of what it might want from those to whom it was issued.


Wilson indicated that such calls never came at the “right time”, that even if they were expected, there was something unruly, surprising about when they actually turned up. There was no time that was the right time, and so Peppermaranda is lived not according to rights (or wrongs) so as much as to exigencies, the sense that something needs to be done right now, but whether it was actually done or not, doesn’t seem to matter. You can forget about it and there would be more calls, more inexhaustible opportunities.


Time and forgetting seem inextricably entangled, where time is experienced, if not measured in terms of a play of forgetfulness rather than memory. So, the game of time is: to be forgotten, to forget that one is forgotten, to forget that being forgotten matters, and to forget to respond to a call whose objectives, implications and terms of fulfilment are themselves forgotten.

For three decades, AbdouMaliq has worked with practices of social interchange, technical arrangements, local economy, and the constitution of power relations that affect how heterogeneous cities are lived. He has worked on remaking municipal systems, training local government personnel, designing collaborative partnerships among technicians, residents, artists, and politicians. AbdouMaliq is Senior  Professorial Fellow at the Urban Institute (University of Sheffield) and an advisor at OtherwiseMag

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