"It's going to happen
today for sure."
I had been saying the same thing every day for three weeks. I didn't
feel too sure, and nothing in my editor's voice over the crackly
phone line suggested that he felt very sure either.
For three weeks I had been hanging out in Jakarta, waiting for an
interview with Abdurrahman Wahid, the president of Indonesia. I had
spent countless days waiting at the president's office only to hear
another excuse for why he couldn't see me that day.
My editor's impatience was registering and I was aware that he
expected me to produce something. Like a profile of the president of
And today, we had been told, it was going to happen.
My colleague Anil and I headed out the glass doors of the lobby and
into a waiting cab.
We had spent a lot of time waiting together the past three weeks and
I had found Anil from Bombay to be a very good chap. I had never
used the word chap in my life before I met Anil, but Anil's very
correct colonial take on English was rubbing off. Within a few days
a sentence like “I think I'll give that friendly chap from the
embassy a tinkle” didn't even register and I found myself calling
people chaps and giving people tinkles.
I checked my hair in the rearview mirror. It hadn't yet totally
collapsed in the humidity but it was only a question of time. Most
of my body was covered and only the tips of my shoes showed under my
long skirt. It didn't feel right to wear so much clothing in
tropical heat, but I wasn't going to blow my chance at interviewing
the president of the world's largest Muslim nation by showing up in
If I looked modest, Anil did the total opposite. He wore a business
suit in a shiny material that gave off a better reflection than the
rear view mirror and rings with gemstones on every finger. I hadn't
seen such a diverse collection of gems since my school trip to the
National Geological Museum. But most noticeable of all were the
sunglasses: cat-shaped, thick-rimmed shades that would have made
Dame Edna jealous.
In the three weeks that we had been in Indonesia there hadn't been
much else to do than to pick on Anil. But Anil was so incredibly
correct in his behavior that it wasn't much fun in the long run. How
could a man so correct be such a flamboyant dresser?
We pulled up at the president's palace and went through the
customary checks. Our bags were put through the machine. We had been
through this routine many times before and the guards in their
short-sleeved gabardine business suits always seemed much more
interested in us than the lethal weapons that might be in our bags.
We were ushered into a waiting room. This was a new one. The
previous days we had waited in a room big as a soccer field with a
spooky echo and a few couches lining one wall. This waiting room was
much cozier and I had the comforting feeling that we were moving
closer to the goal. This room had gold-framed posters on the walls
and plastic potted plants. Being in the tropics you'd think they'd
be able to find some real plants, but I was happy to be there,
plastic plants or not.
I looked over my notes. Abdurrahman Wahid had come to power in the
fall of 1999, edging out Megawati Sukarnoputri in the nation's first
democratic presidential vote. After a tumultuous spring of racial
riots that ended the rule of B.J. Habibie, Wahid, a Muslim scholar,
seemed like the gentle man that could ease tensions between the
different ethnic groups and unite the nation. Fifty-nine years old
and almost blind, he had suffered two strokes.
An hour passed. Two hours. A little nervous I checked my hair. Then
I checked again. I wasn't really aware that I was doing it; it was
more a nervous twitch.
"He's blind," Anil said.
Another hour passed. Other visitors came and left. Japanese
businessmen with black portfolios. Indonesian citizens in their best
outfits. Then, finally, the Chief-of-Protocol came to get us.
"You have twenty minutes, no more. And don't deviate from the
questions," the Chief-of-Protocol said. He was a curious little
Indonesian man with a heavy Irish accent from his university days in
Ireland. Here, just outside the office of the president of
Indonesia, it seemed a bit out of place.
"Of course not," I said and looked down at the list of bland
questions that had passed inspection. My questions had been so
watered down they weren't even remotely interesting anymore. There
might be people dying every day in the Moluccas in clashes between
Christians and Muslims and the province of Acheh might very well be
trying to follow East Timor's example and secede from the nation,
but why bother the president with such talk? Let's talk about happy
A light knock and the Chief-of-Protocol opened the door to the
A tiny little man in a brown batik-goes-psychedelic shirt and a
little back cylinder hat was sitting behind a huge desk at the far
side of the room. When he heard us approach he stood up and walked
around the desk.
He was barely five feet tall. He looked old and incredibly frail.
How could a man this frail-looking lead the world's fourth most
populous nation? I had heard many stories about him. His people
thought he had supernatural powers. Of course I didn't believe any
such talk, but I forced my thoughts to more neutral ground just in
"I hope you excuse me," the president said and reached for my hand.
His head was somewhere around the lower part of my ribcage and he
stared straight into my navel. "My feet were hurting so I took off
You're the president, you can do whatever you want I thought, but
said, "Of course not Mr. President."
We sat down and the Chief-of-Protocol briefed him again on who we
were and where we came from.
I leaned forward in my chair and asked the first question. There was
along pause. The president eyes were closed and nothing in his face
let in that he had even heard me. It's hard enough to make a
connection with seeing people. Interviewing a blind man was a whole
other ball game. I started repeating the question.
"I heard you," the president said, but didn't make an attempt to
Nervously I looked at my watch. We had already wasted five minutes
on pleasantries. I had only fifteen minutes left. Come on already.
Finally the president opened his eyes halfway and gave a two-word
response to my question. Next.
Second question, same thing. A long pause before the president
answered my question with a few, abrupt words and a big yawn.
Then, by the third question, it happened. The president's chin fell
to his chest and he gave off a noise that sounded a whole lot like a
snore. It couldn't be. He was the president; he couldn't fall asleep
in the middle of the interview. I looked at the Chief-of-Protocol.
He looked clearly nervous. Yep, the president was asleep all right.
Was this what I had waited around for, for three long weeks? Three
weeks of waiting and all I get is abrupt answers to two questions
before he falls asleep?
I wasn't used to being ignored. Well, at least not in Indonesia. At
six feet tall, I got stared at wherever I went. People tried to pull
my long blond-almost-white hair and touch my clothes. I found all
the touching very uncomfortable at first, and I ended up slapping a
couple of people at the market. Slapping the locals probably wasn't
correct travel etiquette, but the touching was really excessive.
Then I read in my guidebook that for Indonesians it was good luck to
touch an albino. If this was true or not I didn't know, but it did
make me feel better about the touching. I walked around with mental
pictures of people landing jobs and winning the lottery after
touching my magical hand. Good luck to all.
I had been touched and harassed by Jakarta's nine million residents,
but the one resident whose attention I really sought had just fallen
asleep on me.
I cleared my throat. The Chief-of-Protocol cleared his throat. Anil
coughed. The president didn't move.
Finally the Chief-of-Protocol got up and walked around the desk and
gently touched the president's arm. Startled, the president sat up.
"Did you hear the one about the American and the Israeli?" he said.
"The American says to the Israeli: in our country it takes one week
to get from one side of the country to the other by train. I know,
the Israeli says, we have the same problems with trains in our
Nine minutes left and he's telling jokes?
"Mr. President," I pleaded. "About East Timor…"
The president was on a roll now. Two more jokes, shamelessly stolen
from Art Buchwald. If he was going to tell jokes he might as well
come up with something original.
Just a few minutes left. I had four sentences and three jokes in my
notes. What was I going to tell my editor? Did you hear the one
about the American and the Israeli?
"Mr. President," I said and without waiting for the punch line for
the forth joke I went ahead with my question.
The president looked grumpy. How dared I interrupt him like that? He
went on to answer the question and went further than I had expected
him to. It wasn't the most diplomatic answer, and it was great. The
Chief-of-Protocol looked more nervous than he had when the president
fell asleep. He twisted in his chair.
"Your twenty minutes is up," he said when the president paused for a
second and ushered us out of the room.
Just like that, my brush with fame and power was over. The president
looked relieved. We were nothing but two bothersome flies, buzzing
with questions, interrupting his nap. When he thought about it, I'm
not so sure he even remembered how we got there.