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Monday, October 12, 2009

Book Review: Jakarta Inside Out, by Daniel Ziv

Oct. 12 (Jakarta Globe) In his introduction to “Jakarta Inside Out,” author Daniel Ziv writes that he dreamt up the book as “a love letter” to the city he has “been proud to call home for nearly a decade.” It reads as a letter to a longstanding love — not the naive, starry-eyed infatuation one feels for a new amour but the warts-and-all, love-you-despite-your-faults (and sometimes because of them) type of love.

As a resident of Jakarta for a little over a year myself, Ziv’s book made me reassess this capricious city with a more tolerant eye. He sugarcoats little, makes fun of much and brilliantly illustrates the contradictions one constantly finds here with the many beautiful photographs contained in the book. Each picture here is worth a thousand words, if not more, from the skeletal figure of a slum dweller in the doorway of his shanty house to images of the vibrant, affluent business area and homes shown elsewhere.

Ziv, who has an MA in Southeast Asian Studies from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, writes, “Jakarta is not what you’d call a beautiful place. It’s a chaotic maze of low-lying slums, gleaming skyscrapers and imposing toll roads enveloped in a gigantic cloud of pollution and trapped in hopeless gridlock.” If the mark of true genius is that someone agrees with you, I have to proclaim Ziv a genius.

The chapters of the book are arranged alphabetically, ranging from “Asongan” to “Wartel and Warnet,” and are also cross-referenced. There are no entries for X, Y or Z obviously, and Q and V also missed the cut.

The descriptions are humorous (bajaj are “undoubtedly the cockroach of the automotive world”) and sometimes cynical (Jakarta’s banks “tend to resemble laundromats more than prudent financial institutions”), but always worth reading. I am obviously not the only person to think so as this is basically a revamped and updated fourth printing of the second edition, put out because the last printing has been out of stock for about a year.

Ziv said the layout has changed significantly in this first self-published printing, with 20 percent of the content updated or new, and 40 percent of the photos new. The book also features suggestions of the Top 10 Alternative Things to Do in Jakarta — well worth reading if you’ve fallen into a rut in your time here.

“The emphasis is basically that it’s been refreshed,” Ziv said. “It would have taken a year and a half to rewrite the whole thing.”

He does plan a complete rewrite sometime in the near future but for now needed to get the popular guide back on the shelves.

One of my favorite characterizations is in the chapter on “Bule” (foreigners). “Some bule are arrogant, bossy or patronizing,” Ziv writes. “Others are politically correct to the extreme, culturally oversensitive or just totally neurotic.”

Adrian Darmono — a friend whom Ziv describes as a “cutting-edge Indonesian designer, blogger and Certified Bule Observer” — contributes a chapter titled “You Know You’re a Bule with a Mission if You ... .” The cutting but all-too-true examples include “Rant about how Nike exploits its factory workers in Indonesia by paying them $35 a month,” closely followed by “Rave about how you can have breakfast in Indonesia for 35 cents.”

Benny and Mice, of comic strip and book fame, have contributed hilarious caricatures of types found within the community. These range from the local neighborhood thug to the society lady with her Imelda Marcos-style hair.

I took Ziv’s book with me on a visit to the United States last month and found it a great primer and starting point for those who know nothing about Jakarta. I’ve found it equally good for those of us who live here, in providing an alternate look at the city’s foibles and making its many frustrations amusing again.

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