|A photo taken by Nichola |
during her time in Indonesia
Globalisation, like war, makes strange bedfellows. In South East Asia there are so many consular staff, engineers, teachers, retirees and business people, from the west who have SE Asian partners. There is a delicious aspect to being in love with a person from another culture, with a different native language. You can fall for the grace and beauty of the culture and the person at the same time, and you can watch each other navigate, like vulnerable children, through the stumbling blocks of your own language and culture.
Some of the relationships I saw while working as an expat seemed very romantic, but others were a little disturbing, or even just plain wrong – mostly the affairs where the men were very much older (from thirty to forty years older) than the women, and held all the financial power. The girls behaved like pretty little playthings, and the men seemed controlling, boorish, and happy to father children who they would possibly not be alive to see past adolescence. The girls of course, held the sexual power and used it to their benefit.
Very old rich men with very young poor women didn’t seem right to me when I lived abroad, but I revelled in the countless stories of swindles and treachery. One that springs to mind is of a retired German (sixty-five years old) who married a nineteen-year-old and returned to Thailand from a trip back home to find a stranger at his front door. His young bride had sold their house and run away with the profits. An old army man from the States told me this story, and didn’t seem to be able to understand my take on the whole thing – that it served the old bastard right and he should have seen it coming. There were many relationships where the money-age-power imbalance was there, but things did not seem so black and white. I really felt sorry for my neighbour, a young Norwegian man who was desperately in love with his Thai wife, and didn’t know the half of her goings on when he was away at work. He came back from a month away to find the house exactly as he had left it, but his wife had completely disappeared. I had seen her leave in a big black Mustang, which was close to impossible in that little Thai town, driven by the local gangster who was a kind of celebrity there.
In some of the cross-cultural relationships I encountered, it was very easy to see that one or both parties were there for convenience, but others were more ambiguous and had me asking: ‘Who, if anyone, is exploiting who?’ I wanted the relationship between Vic and Fajar in Ramadan Sky to reflect this kind of ambiguity. There is a big age difference between the two characters and there is also an understanding that the relationship will not last, that money will change hands – simply because one has money and the other doesn’t, but it’s a relationship where convenience is entwined with heady emotion, most particularly desire.
Of course, there were other things I wanted to get off my chest after several years of living in SE Asia. The widespread belief in animism and magic fascinated me. In Cambodia, I saw someone playing a harp to a spirit inside a tree and in Thailand my neighbour gave me some magic lipstick from a local witch to use to ward off a love rival. Throughout Indonesia, the practice of black (or at least grey) magic sits side by side with Islam and I wanted to show this in Ramadan Sky.
The least enchanting aspect of my travels, and the most ubiquitous, was the poverty. The grinding desperation of people trapped and destitute when they are young is a particularly terrible thing to witness. Youth is a time of limitless possibility, yet poverty takes possibility away, leaving courage and passion with nowhere to go. To see so many young men on the streets of Jakarta trying to eek out a living was to see so much frustration and so many dashed hopes. In Ramadan Sky , Fajar is the embodiment of these young people, and intentionally flawed. The way I see it, the poor are no more noble than you or I, still they are just as deserving.
Ramadan Sky is available now.