Immigration at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport is frustrating for anyone. Last night, though, my arrival process was as smooth as I’ve ever experienced. From plane to taxi in 20 minutes flat, which includes purchasing my visa on arrival, standing in line at immigration, getting my bag, and customs. That’s faster than most US airports! Part of it could be that I arrived on a flight that landed at 11:25 PM, so the airport wasn’t as busy as normal. But still, a pleasant surprise.
Some of my fellow travelers did not have such an easy time. Standing in the line right next to mine at immigration—or, to be honest, holding up the line right next to mine—was a group of 10 Arab men, presumably just off the flight from Doha. None appeared to speak Indonesian or English, but it was evident that they were displeased about something that was holding up their visas. The immigration agent, in classic bureaucratic fashion, sat there looking bored as the designated spokesman of the group attempted to communicate with him. The other 9 travelers talked loudly, sucked in their teeth (“tsk!”), waved their passports around, and generally tried to make their frustration known to everyone.
I don’t speak any Arabic, but I did catch one key interaction. As I was speaking to the immigration officer in my line, the men started saying “hadiah.” In Indonesian, this means gift, and it’s obviously an Arabic loanword. The travelers’ spokesman got right into their immigration officer’s face and started saying “hadiah. hadiah.” I can only interpret this to mean that he was offering a bribe.
I caught my immigration officer’s eye and smiled, and she said to me something to me along the lines of “it’s always like this with the Arabs” (orang Arab selalu begitu). Her colleague looked disdainfully at the Arabs’ spokesman and said “no hadiah, boss.”
There is a larger commentary here, on relations between the Arab world and Southeast Asia. Some of my very favorite recent work by historians has looked at movements of people and ideas around the Indian Ocean (Laffan and Tagliacozzo), and I myself am writing a bit on Arabs in Java. Most of the existing work, though, adopts the perspective of the Southeast Asian looking at the Middle East. I’ve always thought that it would be important to look in reverse, at how Arabs and Middle Easterners view their Southeast Asian co-religionists and whether or not their has been a circulation of ideas from Southeast Asia back to the Arab world that parallels the travel of ideas from the Arab world to Southeast Asia. It would take someone with good knowledge of Arabic and local Southeast Asian languages to do this, but it would make for a fascinating contribution.