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A Shadow Falls: In the Heart of Java Paperback – 2 Apr 2009
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In A Shadow Falls: In the Heart of Java, Andrew Beatty writes - from deep inside the largest Muslim country in the world - the unforgettable true story of how Islamic fundamentalism has come to change an entire way of life.
About the Author
Andrew Beatty is an internationally-respected anthropologist, who has spent five years in Indonesia. Before he became an anthropologist he spent another three years travelling in Asia. He teaches at Brunel University and lives near Oxford with his wife, who is from Mexico, and their two children.
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Islam is the shadow falling. Beatty describes the people he meets fairly but this work is clearly written with the plight of the Javanist mystics and ancient culture in mind. Accusations of anti-Islam are unfair but reading the book the adherents to what has become the orthodox Muslim way of life are far less likeable than those who Beatty describes embracing the rich and much deeper culture of Java.
The Javanese culture is given full exposure. The shadow plays, the puppet dance, the blending of genders, the roles of men and women living ordinary lives in their ordinary way but doing so with a particularly Javanese approach are fascinating to read about. The intrigue of village life with different factions living in different parts of the village could be anywhere but the way the locals deal with situations is definitively Javanese.
Beatty also goes to great length to describe the living conditions. This is clearly a poor place and Beatty describes the environment fairly vividly though it would be a surprise in Java if it were not much messier than the impression is given.
Beatty's narrative and flow is excellent. This work is easily readable and engaging. The people are really the stars though it is easy to get them a bit mixed up at times. Beatty's affection for them shines through the pages even if he himself is clearly concerned about the effect of Javanese upbringing on his first child. During the book Beatty drops in to places like the local school to give a description of the way classes are taught. He visits the prayer houses including the mosque. The rice field and its back-breaking labour as well as the local administrator's office all feature.
Mysticism features quite heavily. Beatty delves into the spiritual practices that make up traditional Javanese belief. There is of course no codified version of those beliefs so this is a local interpretation but it is insightful nonetheless. The way in which those beliefs have moulded a consensus-minded social structure and administration are interesting points to ponder during the narrative.
The other religious belief covered is of course Islam. This features in village life throughout the work but the growing assertiveness of orthodox Islam and its ability to swamp existing beliefs is clearly a concern for Beatty. The fascinating heterodox Islam that can be adapted for life in Java struggles against the hardline version that insists on screeching through a megaphone at deafening decibels. The growing power of the hardliners in the village leads to a showdown that Beatty is a part of. The anthropologist should not become the story so in truth Beatty errs regardless of how a reader may view one side or the other.
Indeed, the entire second section of the book is less engaging than the first. It is much more interesting to read about the rituals and lifestyles in the first section. Beatty departs at the end of the second section with no real indication that a shadow has truly fallen, merely that it is being cast. It is still the threat of orthodox Islam to the vibrancy of the Javanese culture that Beatty sees in the mid 90s. Given the work was published in 2009 it would have been more interesting for the second section to have been a study of life a decade or two into democracy to see whether traditional beliefs were still in effect.
This is a really fascinating book to read. It is rare to have such a detailed study of village life in Java. A Shadow Falls is good snapshot of life in eastern Java during the late years under Suharto even if the dictator himself and his regime are almost non-existent in the writing. It would make for a fascinating study to compare life then and now and to see whether Javanism has been robust enough to stand up to Arabism in this remote part of the world.
However this is changing and as old traditions incorporating mysticism and older faiths are replaced with zealotry and imported ideas from hotbeds of fundamentalism the attitudes of people change too.
In recent months we've seen the Christian and Chinese governor of the capital city, Jakarta arrested for blasphemy against the Koran - and this books provides an illustration of the situation and fertile environment of intolerance that has enabled the hardliners to gain such power.
Sadly this is a pattern repeated across the world as the oil rich states spread their hard line faith via donations...
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