Caught in a Lie

The remote Indonesian village of Tenggulun is a haphazard collection of wood and corrugated-steel shacks along two perpendicular, paved streets. The shacks are mostly one story and unpainted. Behind the shacks are plots of corn and rice. Down the main street, bulls pull carts full of hay and crops at the end of each day, and chickens roam from house to house.

On that main street last year, I told the driver to stop the car. I had noticed a small compound of dingy, one-room buildings clumped around a freshly painted mosque. The driver told me this compound was Al Islam, an Islamic boarding school. The school had been founded by relatives of Mukhlas’, the now-imprisoned militant who planned and executed the 2002 attacks in Bali.

Children leaving the compound stopped their bicycles to stare. My Indonesian friend and colleague, Helena Rea, opened the passenger door. A boy ran past the car. Helena recognized the boy as Zaid, Mukhlas’ son. Helena called his name and ran after him. I ran after her.

Helena turned left down a dirt street just off the main road, and for a moment I lost her. By this time, a gaggle of Tenggulun’s women—some of them with covered heads, some only in sarongs, many with babies—had come out of their homes to watch.I caught sight of Helena, who pointed toward a house. I told the driver we would find our own way back to the city. Shaking his head, he sped down the main road.

Paridah binti Abas, Mukhlas’ wife, came out to greet Helena and me. Around her stood five of her six children, a handful of their friends, and some relatives and neighbors. The porch was strewn with children’s bicycles, an old stroller, a motorbike, and piles of little shoes. Laundry in all sizes hung from the corrugated steel roof. Paridah invited us inside. The children followed, as did Mukhlas’ mother and sister. The women touched our hands and asked if we wanted to bathe. Paridah introduced us as friends from Jakarta. We had arranged the meeting with Paridah by mail. Tenggulun has no phone service.

Paridah closed the door and cinched the stained red-and-white gingham curtains. Properly hidden from the gaze of men, she removed the black veil and gown that covered her face, head, and body. Underneath, she wore a small, cream-colored head wrap, baggy brown polyester pants, and a dirty white T-shirt. It was the first time I had seen her face. Her high cheekbones angled to a narrow chin, her lips were naturally dark, and her teeth flashed an impeccably white smile when she caught me staring.

We heard a baby’s cry and peeked into the back room of the two-room shack. Paridah slept there with the children. The cry came from a homemade cotton sling hanging from a large spring. Inside was Paridah’s youngest son, Osama. He had just awakened from his nap.

She brought him into the front room, and we situated ourselves on a mat on the floor.

We talked about Paridah’s life in Tenggulun and about the status of Mukhlas’ case, which was up for an appeal. Paridah told us she had enrolled her three eldest children at Al Islam, the school run by Mukhlas’ older brothers. The brothers gave Paridah a break on tuition and offered her a part-time job teaching English, math, and Quranic translation.

Later, we assembled in Paridah’s traditional, outdoor kitchen and squatted over cutting boards and newspaper-wrapped vegetables from the nearby market. We made Malaysian curries and stews.

We talked late into the night, that night and the next. Paridah asked Helena and me about the rules and customs of Christianity. She asked our opinions about the so-called clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. Paridah argued that moral and religious beliefs would only become more important in the coming decades. The practice of democracy, she contended, would not survive the 21st century. We tried to push Paridah to talk about her and her husband’s roles in Jemaah Islamiyah, but she was vague and changed the subject.

Just before sunrise on our last morning in Tenggulun, I lay awake thinking about our conversations. Helena told me that at 4 a.m., she had seen young students from the Islamic boarding schoolmarching down the main street in a military-style formation, chanting angry slogans. We decided we needed to ask Paridah more questions.

That last morning, Paridah was cheery. She sent a daughter to the store for milk to make sweet Malaysian tea. She told us she was taking us to visit Mukhlas’ brother Ja’far, both as a gesture of respect to the family and to ask him to drive Helena and me back to the city. Paridah assembled her veil and gown and hurried out the door. We followed. “Remember to smile sweetly at Ja’far,” Paridah called over her shoulder. “That way you will get what you want.”

We found Ja’far at his house. An almost exact copy of Mukhlas in stature and facial features, Ja’far nevertheless looked more rugged than his devout younger brother, sporting long hair, a denim shirt and jeans, and a floppy farmer’s hat. We sat on the floor, and his wife served us tea.

We asked him if he thought Mukhlas was guilty. He said that while he believed his brother wanted to combat the “bad things” in Bali, he didn’t believe that Mukhlas was capable of making such a huge bomb.

The night before, Helena and I hadgrilled Paridah about her husband’s whereabouts in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Jemaah Islamiyah planned and committed violent attacks including Bali. Paridah told us—just as she had told police—that during those years Mukhlas lived in Indonesia—there, in Tenggulun. She said Mukhlas moved to Tenggulun to look after his ailing father and spent long months helping his older brothers open their boarding school.

Helena asked Ja’far if he missed Mukhlas now that his brother was in jail. “No,” Ja’far said. “I haven’t seen him in 10 years.” Paridah sat up straight and stared hard at Ja’far. Her alibi for Mukhlas during Jemaah Islamiyah’s most violent years was quickly unraveling. Ja’far was contradicting her story.

“Whenwas Mukhlas in Tenggulun?” Helena asked. “Did he ever work at Al Islam, the boarding school?”

Ja’far did not notice Paridah’s face. He continued to talk, and as he did, Paridah’s eyes grew increasingly wide and scornful. “He was never here, for a long time,” Ja’far said. “He was always moving around. Of course, he preached here a few times, but he was never part of the structure of Al Islam.”

Paridah interrupted Ja’far to correct Helena on a translation. She turned to her brother-in-law, glaring, and abruptly asked if he would drive Helena and me to the city. He said he had loaned his car to a friend, but he would try to find us a ride. We stood quickly to leave.

In silence, we walked back to Paridah’s house. We reached the porch, and Paridah darted inside. “Poor Paridah,” Helena said after she was gone. “She knows she lies. I want her to know that we know. I want to tell her. But now is not the time.”

Inside, Paridah was packing cucumbers, Malaysian spices, and taro chips for us to take on the drive. A van pulled up with Ja’far trailing behind on a motorbike. He said the van’s driver would take us to the nearest bus stop, at a junction in the next village. But he said we had to leave immediately. We packed our bags and said a rushed and awkward goodbye to Paridah and her in-laws while most of the village looked on.

In the van were two local women covered head-to-toe in black. One of them had taught at Al Islam from 1996 to 2001. Her husband recently had been detained for aiding the Bali attackers. She said her family lived next door to the boarding school, and during those five years she had seen Mukhlas only two or three times.

The driver, a man, was suspicious of our questions. He asked Helena if she was a Muslim. Helena was silent—she did not say she had been raised a Christian. The driver sped up and dropped us at the bus stop with no word of goodbye.

Hours later, as I waited for a plane back to Jakarta, I noticed that I was still calibrated to life in the village. My blouse was buttoned up to the top, and I was avoiding eye contact with men. I saw a devout couple dressed exactly as Paridah and Mukhlas would dress—she covered in black, he in a white tunic and cap—and I found myself wanting to talk to them.

I looked around the airport. None of the other passengers—mostly middle-class Indonesians wearing jeans and T-shirts—was smiling at the black-and-white couple. Instead, they cut their conversations mid-sentence to stop and glare, frozen with fear.

Then I remembered the last thing Paridah had said to me. Just as I was stepping into the van to leave Tenggulun, she pulled me back. “Before you go, I want to ask you one more thing,” she had said.


“I want to know,” she said and paused. “Well, I want to know, weren’t you afraid of coming here?”

“Why would I be afraid?”

A few weeks later, back in Jakarta, I read in the Indonesian papers that Paridah, along with her children and Mukhlas’ mother, had visited Mukhlas at the prison in Bali where he was awaiting his death sentence. I sent a batch of books to Tenggulun with a letter asking about Mukhlas. But by the time the package reached the village, Paridah was already gone.

Tomorrow: “Hell will become a very painful place.”