A loud thwack shakes the roof of the guesthouse where we sleep. Then another, closer to, followed by a third directly above my head. It’s like an aerial bombardment in which none of the shells explodes. Extricate myself from the mosquito net and peer gingerly out. A low mist hangs over the forest, somehow amplifying every sound. Denis is already up and quite unfazed by another resounding report.
Denis looks at me pityingly, shakes his head and nods towards the shiny green foliage above the guesthouse.
‘Mango fruit.’ He grins.
I am just about calmed down again when the sound of an over-throttled outboard engine rises up from the river bank.
‘Mr Masing has arrived?’ I ask eagerly.
Denis lifts his pork-pie hat, rubs his forehead and shakes his head.
‘Fishermen,’ he says. ‘Big day.’
No sooner has that noise died away than an unearthly snarling roar emanates from the depths of the jungle, culminating in a shrill, angry whine, a crash and silence. ‘Chainsaw,’ says Denis. ‘Sago palms. For the feast. Big day.’
From across the bridge, beside the longhouse, comes a chorus of terrified, trumpeting squeals.
‘Pigs?’ I ask, getting the hang of this. ‘For the feast?’
Denis nods cheerfully.
‘Big day!’ we say in chorus.
By the time I’m up and out two or three pigs have already been killed and chopped up into pieces which are being carefully laid on a log fire by a half-dozen Iban in shorts and T-shirts, who are already enjoying the benefits of a bottle of palm wine. Once the pieces are lightly scorched they are carried down to the water, scrubbed clean of any remaining hair or dirt before being further dissected and taken back to the fire. At the same time glutinous rice is being cooked inside lengths of bamboo. Dogs prowl hopefully.
Inside the longhouse, where plaited palm leaves are being wound round the central columns and bunting hung from the roof beams, Along, the headman, is well enough to talk to us. He is a tiny, stick-like figure, skin hanging slack from his arms, which like his back, neck and throat, are copiously tattooed. His face is strong and alert and he has a head of thick grey hair. Emong interprets for me as the old man describes the stomach operation he’s just undergone, proudly hoists his shirt, peels off the dressing and shows me the wound.
I am introduced to his friend Badan, who is, at eighty-six, one year older than the headman. He says their tattoos were done many years ago and very painfully, using the traditional method of soap, a pin and soot from the fire.
Both Badan and Along are old enough to remember the time when head-hunting was part of the Iban way of life. They witnessed it as recently as the Second World War and the emergency with Indonesia. The heads would be smoked and there would be a festival to celebrate the event. But the chief dismisses the practice now. ‘It was useless. Not good. It was only to show you were stronger than the next man.’
He hasn’t much time for the past. He thinks that most things are better today. ‘Today generation is good. We not only meet Iban but also meet white people. Meet white people and we eat together, play together, we talk together. There’s no more fighting. That’s good.’
Before we can play together (and I’ve heard that the Iban love to party), we have to observe the ritual start of the feast and just as I am down to deciding which pair of trousers would show the blood least the arrival is announced of James Masing, the first Iban ever to become a government minister in a country run politically by Muslims and economically by the Chinese.
Everyone is delighted to see him, none more so than myself. He looks much more like a real guest of honour, anyway, having with him local politicians and a police escort. He also brings his daughter Karen and wife Marcia, who wears an ‘I Love Kathmandu’ T-shirt. Masing is a smallish, powerfully built man with the hunch of a boxer and dark, wary, almost Latin-American looks. He wears a baseball hat and greets everyone with apparently genuine personal interest.
After climbing steps dug into the butterscotch-coloured clay of the river bank he is met by female dancers in silver-bell head-dresses, silver-beaded skirts and glittering tasselled shoulder pieces beneath which can be glimpsed heavy-duty brassieres. Drums and ceremonial gongs are played as the sacrificial pig is brought out, legs trussed, hanging upside down from a pole. As it’s laid on the ground, it rolls its eyes as though it now knows what’s going to happen and just wants to get it over with.
After ritual sharing and passing around of a cup of palm wine, a spear is handed to Masing. Some politicians have to kiss babies, but if you want to get re-elected in Borneo, a passing knowledge of butchery is useful. With admirable cool, Masing places one foot on the pig’s head and swiftly punctures its throat.
The ladies in the silver head-dresses and sturdy brassieres then precede him up the plank to the door of the longhouse, where a white cockerel is passed backwards and forwards over his head to ward off evil spirits – though I should imagine jet lag is his main problem at the moment.
Despite having arrived back in Sarawak only the night before, Masing seems to have time for everybody. I talk to him in the guesthouse before the evening celebrations. He defends the building of the Batang Ai dam, saying that before the water level was raised, a place like this would have been virtually inaccessible. (Naturally he regards this as a bad thing.) He’s more cautious about Prime Minister Mahatir’s much vaunted aim of a developed (i.e. fully industrialized) Malaysia by the year 2020. He doesn’t think the Iban will be ready to play much of a part in such a society.
They are an egalitarian people, he says. An Iban headman only holds his power by consent. They dislike being told what to do and will not accept hierarchies, which is why he thinks they have not produced many politicians. Nor are they willing to give up their animist beliefs despite great efforts to bring them into the Muslim or Christian fold. ‘They are pragmatic,’ says Masing. ‘They will see what a god has to offer and take what they want.’
The evening party is a bit of an anti-climax. Most of the men of the longhouse have been drinking throughout the day and the presence of so many politicians and administrative officials seems to have dampened whatever spontaneity they have left.
The highlight of the evening is a group drumming round. Long, thin drums made from bark with soft, deerskin tops are struck hard, fast and ever more furiously with the flat of the hand until one member of the group breaks the rhythm. He then has to down a tumbler of tuak, which makes his chances of surviving the next round even more unlikely.
The last thing I remember, as the tuak takes effect, is James Masing describing Iban hospitality as a contest. The host must provide far more food and drink than is strictly necessary and the guests must consume as much as possible without falling over. From what I can see around me as I find my shoes, slither down the plank and head across the bridge to the guesthouse, it appears that the host has won this one hands down.
And the rain is back. Drumming on the roof in a soft, soothing, all-embracing rumble.