In Another Country

Rural Indonesian Muslims talk about voting for president.

San Francisco Chronicle Magazine

September 2004

Amat took me to Sengkol, his village, which was just a cluster of buildings roofed in corrugated tin. It straddled Lombok’s main highway like a village on the Nile: Food stalls, odds-and-ends stores, and shacks for bottles of gasoline hung out signs to draw business from the daily stream of traffic. Trees overhung the road in Sengkol, and kids on top of rice trucks would crouch to avoid getting knocked by a branch.

Amat had just finished showing me Lombok island on a motorbike. We drank coffee on the dirt porch of his family’s shop and studied a fresh spate of rain. He treated me like a tourist, and I let him. I wanted to write about Indonesia’s presidential election from the citizens’ point of view, and if possible I preferred to vanish, to avoid announcing myself as an observer.

“Good coffee,” I said.

“Yes? You want some?”

“I have some.”

“No, you must take some home. A kilo of Lombok coffee! To remember your trip!”

“No, seriously —”

Amat told his wife, Johar, that I wanted a kilo of Lombok coffee, and they rode off on a motorbike to buy some dried unroasted beans from a dealer down the road. For the rest of the afternoon — after doing laundry at the village well — Johar worked at winnowing husks from beans in a bamboo pan, roasting the coffee in a nearby oven, and grinding the beans by hand. “Seriously. I don’t need the coffee,” I told them, but Johar smiled; she was happy to do it. Her hands worked while Amat relaxed (having earned his money from me) — first outside the shop, later in front of their woven-bamboo house across the road. Johar sat with us and made pungent, quick-tongued comments at anything her husband said.

Lombok is the small island next to Bali, poor and Muslim and dependent on tourist overflow. For this reason Amat would vote for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired general. A military man might keep the nation stable, he thought, and Indonesia needed peace. The Bali bombings had ruined Lombok’s economy.

I asked, “What about Megawati?”

The incumbent president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was not popular. Amat said that most of Lombok wouldn’t vote for her.

“Woman president, no good,” he said. “Must be a man.”

“For Islamic reasons?”


“What does Johar think?”

Johar shook her head. She had no opinion. Politics were not her thing. Strange question from a tourist, anyway.

“You want to see a traditional Sasak village?” Amat asked.

“No thanks.”

“You want to do anything?”

“No. Actually, you know what? I’m a journalist. I’d like to interview Johar.”

I pulled out a recorder that had been in my bag for most of the day.

“Interview about what?”

“The elections.”

This excited Amat. A journalist! He quit being a tour guide and went out to find neighbors who would share their opinions. A mother with a child in a sling, a young athlete with a pink volleyball, and a devout-looking Muslim in loose clothing and a white pillbox cap all came in to sit down. Johar went first. She said Susilo was probably her man for president. She wanted to throw something at the TV every time a candidate named Amien Rais came on; he was too pompous. Megawati was unacceptable.

“For the same reason?” I asked Amat, who translated.

“Yes,” Amat said. “Woman no good as president. Not strong. She needs to stay in the kitchen!”

“Johar said that?”


Everyone who came through Amat’s house had roughly the same opinion. Sengkol was a conservative place. Only the devout-looking Muslim, who’d been on a hajj to Mecca, disagreed about Susilo. I could tell he loathed the United States. He had dark almond eyes and that frightening quiet manner of a jihadist — a limp, resigned, watchful silence. He wore a thin curtain-fringe beard and hid his laughing mouth behind the collar of his shirt, as if embarrassed to show his teeth. Amat called him “Haji.”

“Who would you vote for?”

“I don’t like any of the candidates.”

I understood his answer well enough to change the subject. Radical Muslims had no one to vote for in this election.

Did he feel the Iraq invasion was a war on Islam? I asked.

“All Muslims are brothers,” he said carefully. “When anyone attacks a part of Islam, all Muslims feel a pain in their hearts.”

Amat added, “That’s how I feel, too.” He pointed to his chest. “It hurts to hear about Muslims dying.”

Haji stared with his eerie quietude. He had politely made clear that we were enemies. Now that I was a journalist a shadow of politics, or plain misunderstanding, had fallen between me and everyone on the porch. Washington had enough trouble explaining its rationale to Americans; how could the war begin to make sense to Muslim villagers in Sengkol?

I asked another neighbor, who had mixed opinions on the war, if he saw it as a response to September 11, and his answer was the surprise of that rainy afternoon. When Amat described our most recent defining disaster, this tall, secular-minded man, reticent behind squarish glasses and the brim of a driving cap — by no means unintelligent — had no idea what I meant.

“He’s never heard of September 11?”

“He doesn’t watch much television,” said Amat.

Michael Scott Moore


Idomeneo in Berlin

Remember the scandal over “Idomeneo” in Berlin? Remember how Islamists went mad when the Deutsche Oper decided to stage a controversial production of Mozart’s opera, unleashing a storm of violence?

By George!

Behind the frosted-glass office doors of an old building on New Montgomery Street in San Francisco you can find a barber shop, a bartending school, and a number of lawyers

Noah and the Dinosaurs

One rule of fundamentalists is that they hate to be interviewed. William Dembski doesn’t. He has a long face and glasses, wears knife-edged slacks and sober ties; he mixes fashion sense with a relaxed wonkishness that announces dedication to reason rather than the Bible-thumping fanaticism he’s been accused


I Have Landed

The title of Stephen Jay Gould’s twenty-second book on natural science borrows a phrase his grandfather scribbled in an English primer after he arrived at Ellis Island

For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again

I think Derek Walcott holds the title for Greatest North American Playwright Almost Never Produced in San Francisco, but Michel Tremblay runs a close second.

The Invention of Love

The last time one of Tom Stoppard’s plays had its American premiere in San Francisco, last spring, I wrote that it “wouldn’t be above Stoppard to spin a whole script around a minor and meaningless point of grammar.”


Sending in the Marines

NATO, officially, is pleased to have pirates to fight. A mission against sea bandits in the Indian Ocean is not mission creep for the trans-Atlantic alliance, if you talk to its leaders

Battleships Off Somalia

Navies are expensive, and sending warships to Somalia is a hugely inefficient way to fight pirates, considering that the number of successful attacks off the Somali coast this year

How Do You Prosecute a Pirate?

The most eyebrow-raising aspect of Western counter-piracy missions off Somalia is how rarely they arrest a pirate.


Ghosts of Dresden

The Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 destroyed the baroque center of what Pfc. Kurt Vonnegut called, in a letter home from Germany, “possibly the world’s most beautiful city.”

How to Film Nazis

The big surprise last week during the Berlin Film Festival was a disastrous premiere for a long-awaited feature film, Jud Süß — Rise and Fall, by a talented German director named Oskar Roehler.

Nazis on the Campaign Trail

Holger Apfel is a burly, fat-cheeked 35-year-old with glasses, given to wearing brown suits. He leads a delegation of the neo-Nazi NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany) in the German state parliament of Saxony.


It’s Called Soccer

Americans live on what amounts to an enormous island, defended on two shores by the sea, and we’ve evolved a few marsupial traditions that nobody else understands.

One Hundred Years of Hanging Ten

The George Freeth memorial in Redondo Beach is a salt-bitten bust of a lifeguard in an old-fashioned swimming vest, gazing with the stoicism we expect from early surf heroes into the deep mysteries of a concrete parking garage.

Tilting at Turbines (in the Severn River)

The morning was clear and cold, with frost on the church steeple and the cemetery grass. I had a quick English breakfast at a white-cloth table, in my wetsuit, and drove to Newnham, a village on the Severn River in Gloucestershire, parking near the White Hart Inn.

Other Prose

Denis Johnson, Poet of the Fallen World

“I’m kinda like Ozzy Osbourne,” says Denis Johnson in a distracted moment, explaining that he might not remember to call me back. “My wife was just telling me that.”

This Will Kill That

“Here is one,” replied the archdeacon, opening the window of his cell; he pointed to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, whose two black towers, stone walls, and huge roof

The Curse of El Rojo

I’d packed the car lightly — a bag of clothes, a bag of cassette tapes, a backpack of books, a few essential tools.

Michael Scott Moore is a literary journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness and Blood, which was named a best book of 2010 by The Economist and Popmatters. He was kidnapped in 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage for two and a half years. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, is out now from HarperCollins.

Full Bio

Newsletter Signup

Speaking Events

September 04, 2018

USC Center on Public Diplomacy

12:00pm to 1:00pm

USC campus; ASC 207

Los Angeles, CA 90089

October 17, 2018

Mechanic’s Institute Library
Part of LitQuake

7pm (subject to change)

57 Post St.
San Francisco, CA 94104

More Speaking Events


The men from the Naham 3 are all friends of mine — a crew of 26 sailors from southeast Asia who worked on a tuna long-liner flagged in Oman but owned by a company in Taiwan, which abandoned them after Somali pirates hijacked the ship in 2012.

While I was in Somalia a man called Geoff Carter wrote about a picture of Indian men surfing on stand-up boards around 1800 off Chennai, which altered the known history of surfing a bit, even though the picture was hiding in plain sight at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Some people have asked about the Somalia memoir. It’s right on schedule, I promise, but it won’t be out for at least another year. It’s been revised in full, twice (see above), and it’ll need a few more revisions before we get anywhere. Old-fashioned authorship. July, 2018?

A version of what happened in Somalia is available as a Long Read at The Guardian, and, in somewhat shorter form, for German readers, in Der Spiegel. It’s not even near complete. Enormous parts of the story have been left untold.



Kathy Robbins

509 Madison Ave.
5th Floor
NY, NY 10022
(212) 223-0720


Yelena Nesbit Harper Wave

195 Broadway
New York, NY 10007
(212) 207-7075