I’m reading Ian Frazier’s Siberia, and after arriving in Moscow for his very first visit to Russia, he writes: “I was thoroughly stunned. Love, with an assist from novelty, had blindsided me. I had been overcome, lost permanently.”
I feel much the same here in Asmat, though I’m not so sure about the love part. Out of the rivers of Asmat, I’m so stunned I don’t know what to ask. I’m a questioner, curious, and questions come easily to me, but here I sit surrounded by people and we stare at each other in stunned silence, my tongue tied.
Last night I heard the story of how the village of Ocenep became two villages – Ocenep and Pirien. Ocenep was a big village on the Ewta River, about 1,200 souls, some four hours by longboat from the not really very big city of Agats. These days it’s two villages right next to each other, kind of like Manhattan and Brooklyn. You wouldn’t know it was two separate villages, you’d think it was just one long one strung out along two sides of the river. Back in the 1970s it was one village with two Jeu – the big thatched men’s houses that are the center of village and spiritual life in Asmat. There was the Jeu of Ocenep and the Jeu of Pirien, and everyone in one Jeu is united by complex family ties. Think of them as one big family.
Dombai’s Jeu was Pirien and he had three wives. One morning, it was five am, the head of the Ocenep Jeu asked Dombai to go into the jungle and get some sago, while Dombai’s three wives went in a canoe to fish. Dombai was suspicious, so he asked men to follow his wives. Eventually Dombai’s spies saw the women fucking – I’m telling the story using their words – three men from Ocenep Jeu, including the head of the Jeu. When the three women returned to Ocenep, well, there was trouble. The women throw open their skirts and said, yes, we fucked them and many other men from Ocenep, too.The men made a fire and burned their clothes and that was that.
Not a problem, Dombai said. Not a problem.
But Dombai remembered. One year later the men from Pirien Jeu attacked and killed Bifack, Por, Fin and Ajam in retribution, and moved their women and children half a mile down river to a new place and the Jeu of Pirien became the village of Pirien. What happens to one man in the Jeu happens to them all. There is no separation. No individuality. No I. Collective guilt runs deep in a place where men took certain other men as lovers/brothers who also shared each other’s wives, sometimes, and everyone was related and their Bisj Pole carvings are a tangle of men standing on and connected to other men.
There was a lot of crying. The children were sad. The men from Ocenep wanted peace. So they gave a daughter to Pirien and then the men from the two sides drank each other’s urine.
This was 1974.
What do you with a story like that? Murder, adultery, the cannibalistic ritual of drinking each other’s urine, not to mention the unsaid – were their bodies eaten; what became of the skulls? – it cries out for 1,000 more questions that I can’t even begin to ask. This was the stuff of everyday life in Asmat, and the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Just getting them to tell the story has taken days. The bible is here now, they say. We are Catholics. They themselves can’t believe they did these things. Or maybe not; maybe they just know that we outsiders think it’s weird. “Asmat is difficult,” the Bishop of the Catholic archdiocese here told me yesterday, “because not all the values of the culture can be told to people from the outside. Many things are secret. If we ask and ask, finally, they say ‘we cannot tell anyone.’” This from the leader of the religion that has been here since 1952, pounding away at the Asmat.
When I ask my guy about drinking urine, whether it’s common or not, he says. Yes. No. I don’t know. And then falls silent.
Then he tells me we must get a dog’s tooth necklace to give to an important man who’s been helping us, that the necklace is worth one or two million rupiah. This man is in his 60s, he has two wives and he’s a Catechist in the Catholic Church. Wouldn’t he rather have the money? I say; with that he could buy rice and fuel and what can you do with an old dog tooth necklace in the year 2012?
No, my guy says, with the necklace he can buy another wife.