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Beyond Bali (Review)

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Ana Dragojlovic. 2016.
Beyond Bali: Subaltern Citizens and Post-Colonial Intimacy
Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press
ISBN 9789462980648

The myth of the Balinese as happy, ‘peaceful Hindus and carriers of ancient culture’ (p. 17) is a fairly consistent trope in the European, Orientalizing imaginary, perpetrated by the global tourist industry and reinforced by the Balinese themselves. But it ignores the reality of the violence and economic deprivation that underpins much of Balinese society. Some people, as Ana Dragojlovic points out, are even astonished to discover that Balinese migrants exist. After all, ‘why would Balinese people leave such a magnificently beautiful place?’ (p. 138).

Dragojlovic provides a brief historical outline of the relationship between the Balinese and the Dutch. Having massacred the entire royal family of Bali in 1908, Dutch colonial authorities initiated a process of ‘Balinization of Bali’, creating the myth of Bali as a peaceful island inhabited by Hindu creatives - a ‘living museum’ (pp 28-29). This essentialist and preservationist approach was further promoted under the dictatorship of Suharto, after his forces had massacred 5% of the population in the mid-sixties. The myth continues today among Balinese migrants in the Netherlands where, as Dragojlovic repeatedly points out, when compared with other immigrants (for the most part, immigrants from Islamic countries) they are regarded, by Dutch and Balinese alike, as the ‘best-of-all-the rest’ (p. 18).

One of this book's many contributions to mobility studies and the scholarly analysis of the experience of migration is how Dragojlovic maps out how Balinese migrants in the Netherlands reposition themselves within an increasingly xenophobic cultural climate by reconfiguring kebalian (Balineseness) in exile. This leads to the migrants nurturing the post-colonial intimacy of the title. Dragojlovic's convincing argument is that, in a Dutch society increasingly characterized by xenophobia and Islamophobia, Balinese anxieties about identity and marginality lead to the Balinese negotiating a post-colonial intimacy with the Dutch that stresses their colonial commonalities in order to distance themselves from ‘unwanted, socially inept, backward foreigners’ (p. 174). In other words, Balinese migrants, in dialogue with contemporary Dutch state discourses, engage in processes of othering, conspiring to create a post-colonial intimacy in which Dutch and Balinese are united by a fear of Islam and share a suspicion of the Turkish and Moroccan migrant communities. Consequently, we should not be surprised to find a Balinese dancer who was at the centre of the late Pim Fortuyn's populist right-wing political campaign (p. 36).

Dragojlovic's account reveals that Balinese immigration occurred in two waves. Firstly, we have the leftist political exiles who found themselves unable to return to Indonesia after Suharto's coup and the massacres of 1965-67, but who were warmly provided with ‘a safe and supportive environment’ in the Netherlands during the 1960s (p. 55). More recent arrivals have often been Balinese who are married to a Dutch partner. What both of these groups share is the fact that mostly they live in upper middle-class neighbourhoods and many even own property and businesses in Bali (pp. 33-34).

This did make me question the consistent use of the term ‘subaltern citizens’ of the book's title. After all, subaltern and propertied middle-class don't seem to belong together. Gayatri Spivak recently characterized the subaltern as being ‘those who don't give orders; they only receive orders … those who do not have access to the structures of citizenship’.[1] Personally I found the phrase ‘Balinese subaltern citizens’ to be used so frequently throughout this work that it became painfully repetitive. Nevertheless, Dragojlovic does provide convincing examples of Balinese subalternity. Let me share her most powerful example.

The concept of kebalian, characterized as peaceful and creative Hinduism, merges successfully with the anti-Islamic rhetoric of a growing and audible, and by now almost mainstream, section of Dutch society. Consequently, when a Balinese migrant makes an anti-Islamic statement, he or she is always wholeheartedly supported by the Dutch audience (p. 91). But the post-colonial intimacy nurtured by the Balinese has its limits. When a Balinese invokes the powers of the niskala (the invisible, spiritual world) as an epistemological category, they are met by incomprehension, and even dismay, by their Dutch spouse and family. Such beliefs are considered to be ‘superstitions that need to be eradicated’ and, indeed the pressure is on the Dutch partner to ‘uplift their non-Western partner’ by denying the validity of ‘Balinese ontology’ (pp. 122-123). So, kebalian in this transnational context, certainly has its limits, and those limits are set by the Dutch.

Dragojlovic has provided us with the first book length study of Balinese immigrants. Her book is a superb balance of the theoretical and empirical, with a mix of case study narratives and analysis. This work should become the standard for many years to come. It is the result of years of field work and research and is written with admirably clear articulation, which makes it accessible to the non-expert as well as being indispensable for the specialist. Consequently, it is with some dismay that I have to comment on a number of mechanical errors, though let me stress, these are not intended to belittle in anyway Dragojlovic's admirable scholarly accomplishment.

Firstly, the index is unreliable. Rob Nieuwenhuys, Tjalie Robinson and Walter Benjamin are all mentioned in the text but are absent from the index. An encounter with the book and film Oeroeg (The Black Lake) gets three pages of analysis (pp. 15-17) but neither the book's author, Hella Haasse, nor the title Oeroeg, gain an entry in the index. Leiden historian Henk Schulte Nordholt is mentioned in the text on seven separate occasions, but only one of these gets a reference in the index. Michel Foucault gets four entries in the index, but his work is discussed eight times in the text, and so on. A footnote (p. 180) refers to a work by Schulte Nordholt in the bibliography, but the work in question is not listed in the bibliography. Each chapter has numerous typos. University of Amsterdam scholar Paul Bijl is referred to as ‘Bijs’, not once but twice (pp. 138 and 139). The term ‘postcolonial’ gets used (p. 16) and within two pages becomes ‘post-colonial’ (p. 18). Tucked between the incomplete bibliography and the error prone index we find the author's biography, which opens with ‘Ana Dragojlovic in (sic) an anthropologist’. Obviously, and sadly, cost-cutters in the academic publishing business no longer consider it necessary to employ copy editors. The painful result is an outstanding piece of scholarship in shoddy packaging.


[1] Steve Paulson, Critical intimacy: An interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Los Angeles Review of Books, 29 July 2016, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/critical-intimacy-interview-gayatri-..., accessed 19 February 2018.

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