Excerpt: Solomon’s Island
The Internet says the Lost Temple of Israel is hidden in the South Pacific. A reporter went to investigate.
For about 4,000 years, until the arrival of gun-bearing Europeans, the tribes that populated the islands of Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia maintained a balance of offense and defense that basically precluded the possibility of large-scale political units. In the intervening years, Solomon Islanders have not lost their taste for tribal piercings, markings, and imaginative hairstyles. Mohawks, blowouts, dreadlocks, half-crowns, tonsures, cornrows, shaved-tops, birds of paradise, and naturally blond afros grace the heads of men and women alike. They speak a host of local tribal languages and a lingua franca of Pijin whose simplified syntax and phonetic spelling were a gift from missionaries, who helped contribute words like “pikinini”—which here means “child.” The possessive form—a shortening of the construction “belongs to me” or “belongs to you”—becomes blong me, blong iu, which is in turn in speech shortened to just blo, such that everywhere you walk, you hear people telling each other blo me, blo iu. A giant billboard along Mendana Avenue advertising baby formula exhorts Solomon Islanders to Luk aftam gud helt blo pikinini blo iu.
As remote as they are, the Solomons are also used to the idea that they are a pivot on which history turns. From August 1942 to February 1943, when the Japanese fully withdrew from the islands, some 31,000 imperial soldiers and more than 7,000 Allies were killed in fierce land, sea, and air battles. What they did mattered to the outcome of the war. Dozens of Allied and Japanese military ships, transporters, and cargo vessels, and hundreds of planes rest between Guadalcanal, Savo, and Florida, on the seabed of what American soldiers dubbed Iron Bottom Sound. Over time, the hundreds of wrecks sprouted coral gardens, havens for some of the earth’s most astonishing forms of life.
In 1978, the Solomon Islands were granted independence, but remained within the British Commonwealth, making the new country a constitutional monarchy with the Queen of England as its figurehead. A series of ineffective prime ministers then quarreled, stole, blundered, and strangled the untapped potential of land and sea that is as close to a terrestrial paradise as we are likely to see before death. A 1920s colonial prospectus put it best: “The soil and climate of the Solomon Islands are admirably suited for the growth of every kind of tropical production. … Coconuts grow there faster, and more luxuriantly, than in any other part of the world. Hurricanes are unknown. … Here is a rich, fertile country, with nearly every natural advantage.”
But poverty clung to the people. Jobs were scarce. The colonial systems of copra and cocoa farming allowed middlemen and wholesalers to hoard profits. Crippled by remoteness, producers were only as good as their ability to reach shipping. Sovereignty in many ways became the country’s most valuable asset. Soon, whaling countries were offering to build bridges and repair airports; Taiwan, needing leverage in the international community, built health centers and kept a watchful eye on the price of tuna. Tribal rivalries festered. Non-governmental agencies also proliferated, as the Solomon Islands languished in the ranks of the 40 poorest countries in the world.
In the late 1990s, high unemployment and complex internal migrations plus severe tribalism, “land alienation,” and incompetent post-colonial governance led to general unrest and instability. A loose band of marauders known as the Isatabu Freedom Movement, or Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army, started to target Malaitans, who though ethnically indistinct from Guadalcanalese, were technically settlers and resented for having grown into a working-class majority in Honiara.
Malaitans responded by forming into the Malaita Eagle Force, led by a dread-locked, dark-skinned man named Jimmy “Rasta” Lusibaea who, like Solomon’s Temple, is something of a legend on the Internet. In 2000, he captured Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu and forced him to resign. He rallied his troops under a modified Solomon Islands flag that included the Star of David—a black warlord fighting for Israel in the South Pacific.
By 2003, despite the Townsville peace agreement in 2000 and the contested elections in its wake, the country was bankrupt and the capital in full-blown chaos, with militants and less organized gangs roaming the streets and raiding the national treasury to pay for beer. The Solomon Islands prime minister made a desperate appeal for international aid. Under the aegis of the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), a security force of several thousand troops landed and effectively began to run the country. Representatives of 14 other Pacific nations also participated under Operation Helpem Fren. RAMSI is only this year finally handing over full command to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force; for a year New Zealand troops have been on a farewell tour, performing the Haka war dance. Charged with “ensur[ing] the safety and security of Solomon Islands,” RAMSI has presided over amnesties, weapons collection, looting control, contested elections, anti-Chinese rioting, health and development projects, economic reform, tax collection, among other civic activities.
Into this post-conflict environment parachuted an Israeli development expert named Yoel Siegel, whose photograph I’d spotted on a website, in which he is seen posing between a pair of rotund Melanesians below a banner strung across an empty tropical road. The sign reads:
The Israel Development Experience 2nd–10th November 2010
Auki, Malaita Province, Solomon Islands
After changing a precious wad of U.S. dollars into Solomon dollars, imprinted with warriors, shields, ceremonially carved posts, and mythical sea turtles, I bought a cell phone from an Australian telecom outfit, and as the attendant handed me the device over the counter, I noticed my first Star of David—no more than the size of a bottle cap, it appeared between her thumb and forefinger. It was a moment before I realized it wasn’t a pen doodle, but an unprofessional tattoo, and that the twin lines above the star made it look like the flag of the Jewish State, a resemblance that turned out to be entirely intentional, and an important part of my story.
Enjoy this preview? To continue Matthew Fishbane’s adventure, read the rest at The Atavist.
The writer’s new novel, The Retrospective, is a surreal study of the contested sources of Israeli identity