The Horrible Ramadan Servant Exodus

POOR POLLUTERS EXEUNTYou’ve all seen the New York Times TV spots, where one comely Yuppie after another steps forward to testify to the section of the ever-shrinking Weekend editions of the paper that infuses his or her high-consumption life with a roseate sense of well-being. The refrain of the ad underscores the social utility of this sense of plugged-inness: “Join the conversation,” the voiceover coos, even though conversing with these pasteboard ingenues is just about the last thing any sane American would care to do.

But now, one gathers, the world economy is continuing to blindly reel toward oblivion, setting up a dilemma for the demographic the marketing masters of the Times so plainly covet: How to stage a conversation about certain urgent current events-global poverty, for instance-that doesn’t also involve the awkward question of what earthly purpose the conversation-joiners are actually serving.

The answer, we see in this Sunday Times, is “very delicately indeed.” For Eid ul-Fitr-the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, when many of the poor rural service workers who normally throng to urban centers in the Near, Middle and Far East return to their homes to celebrate with their families-the Times commissioned a surreal “Jakarta Journal” dispatch that joins the conversation with the sally, “Good help is so hard to find these days.”

You see, each time Eid rolls around, members of Jakarta’s enormous casual work force fan out to their families’ village homes in the countryside. But more important, the exodus “wreaks havoc in wealthy and middle-class households that-given the seemingly endless supply of cheap labor in this country of 237 million, mostly poor people-depend on the domestic servants.”


There are upsides to this exodus, correspondent Norimitsu Onishi notes-the “smog” of the notoriously toxic capital “thins,” since everyone knows that the fastest cure for carbon emissions is to eliminate the poor, with their deregulated factories and self-indulgent private aircraft.

But that can’t begin to palliate the anxiety that the peasant migration creates for the beleaguered domestic-employer class, Onishi notes: “For many, compounding the holiday stress was the common fear that their maids-after getting their Id al-Fitr bonuses-would stay in their villages or look for better jobs elsewhere.”

Well, isn’t that just always the way? Here you are, shelling out five dollars a week for a little floor-scrubbing and diaper-changing, and before you know it, the lousy ingrate maid scampers back to her village-on her holiday bonus, no less!

What’s more, the Jakarta elite has no recourse-beyond tending to their own grimy bathrooms, kitchens and offspring-than to check into the city’s luxury hotels for the weeklong exodus and return. “This year, hotel occupancy in the city rose 70 percent during the holiday, according to the Jakarta tourism agency” Onishi marvels. “While 35 percent of the guests were visitors from outside the capital, the rest were Jakarta residents checking into hotels.”

And be warned: The resulting spectacle is not for the faint-hearted. Onishi opens the piece with a chilling vignette from “the basement of a luxury hotel, which had been turned into a playground.” I dare not continue, but suffice it to say there is a plate of lasagna, a hurled fork, and a caterwauling child of Indonesian privilege. There is, however, a hopeful envoi: Contact has been made with the errant help. “They called in yesterday to say they’re coming home tomorrow,” reports the traumatized mother of the fork-hurling monster. “I’m relieved.”

At another hotel, traditionally a cushioned, quiescent stopover for international executives, the scene is again from a world-and at least one modifying clause-turned upside down: “Last Tuesday morning, instead of businessmen in suits or batik, the hotel lobby was swarming with young families. A man in shorts and Crocs kept an eye on his daughter, whose sneakers squeaked furiously on the lobby’s marble floor.” And that’s just the footwear, people! Gaze upward, and behold the horror known as the absent presence: “Mothers pushed strollers, unaccompanied by nannies dressed in telltale monotone uniforms.” Of course, some domestics stay on to supply temporary maid service, but just look at how they’ll gouge you! One maid agency director says the going rate for holiday workers is $5 to $8 a day-“the equivalent of what many earn a week in normal times,” Onishi notes.

Ah, what a world of social presumption is contained in that “normal times.” Or for that matter, in the Web headline Times editors furnished for the Jakarta Journal, which ran in the print edition under the rather snarky sobriquet, “Nannies Get a Holiday. Rich Families Get a Suite.” That will never do for the members of the globetrotting business elite downloading the Sunday Times on their arsenal of wireless gadgetry; they will see the far more sympathetic “In Jakarta, With the Help Away, Families Make Do.” Yes-we are all just one big happy family; let the conversation continue. Shall we have Jeeves fetch another round?