I could do
this in my sleep
Interviewing a very sleepy president in Indonesia
"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 Indonesia.
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
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 a mini.
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
"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 things.
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 case.
"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 my shoes."
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 answer.
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
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
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 country."
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.