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Q&A: Matthew Fishbane

The author of Tablet’s ‘Solomon’s Island’ talks about the big story

Adam Chandler
March 21, 2013

This week, Tablet, in conjunction with The Atavist, published “Solomon’s Island,” a true story about the epic search for Solomon’s Temple, which took our senior editor Matthew Fishbane around the globe to the South Pacific. We’ve published an excerpt of the story on Tablet today along with a snazzy trailer for the short book, which has had the internet in titters all week. The whole story is available here, but reading it wasn’t enough for me. I forced Matthew to debrief me a bit about his adventures. I hope you enjoy!

Last year, you embarked on a trip to the Solomon Islands. I picture a lot of people browsing Kayak or Expedia and fantasizing about booking a trip to a remote country in the South Pacific, but never actually pulling the trigger. What made you decide to embark on this wild quest?

A lot of people ask me: How did you find out about this? And my answer has lately become some version of “It’s my beat,” which is reporter-speak for the level of oddball expertise you gain by following your interests deeply. In this particular case my editors and I actually met to discuss if it made more sense to go in search of the Gogodala people of Papua New Guinea or to investigate the Israeli-Malaita ties in the Solomon Islands. (We literally did this in front of my computer with Google Maps open, noting the difficult canoe travel that would be involved in getting to the region where the Gogodala live.) In the end the complexity of the situation surrounding the Malaitans made a more compelling case: there were just so many layers of history, politics, and culture to uncover, and also at the heart of it a series of great mysteries–the final resting place of Solomon’s Temple being the most vivid, but not the only thing that could make any sensible person stop and ask, “What is going on here?”

But I won’t lie: I was excited to go to a tropical paradise, and in that department, the Solomon Islands do not disappoint. I hope that comes across in the e-book. Go there for vacation now, before it’s too late.

Can you identify the specific moment when you realized that you were in the midst of a completely foreign and unexpected experience?

This was a challenging assignment because there is a vast cultural gulf to overcome on short notice. The more I thought about this, though, the more I realized that it could help the writing and reporting, because it would allow me to empathize with the Israeli foreign aid efforts. These guys from TAG launch out to incredible places all over the world, and they go to help, and they have to negotiate these cultural barriers that in my experience of living in Colombia and Cambodia, and reporting from Uganda, Venezuela, and China, can cause all sorts of havoc. So in the book, there’s a scene where Moffat Maena and I are waiting for transport back to the local capital from the remote Israeli demonstration farm, and we sat there for nine hours for a truck, and with no luck. That’s where I describe my feeling for aid workers. I remember saying to Moffat, who is 80 and has lived most of his life in this fishing village: “Why don’t they organize a schedule? Not to the minute, but maybe to the half-day?” And he looked at me like it was a novel idea, but then shook his head as if to say, “There is no hope of such of thing.”

Personally I hate colonialist attitudes in magazine writing. My worst fear is that I be called a “parachuter,” and I try hard to put things in broader historical context, and to avoid sensationalizing or demeaning portraits of people who are different. In Cambodia at the Foreign Correspondents Club they liked to tell the crass reporter’s joke about the TV man who is helicoptered in to a refugee camp and asks “Who here has been raped and speaks English?” That’s not funny. I wanted to be very careful not to exoticize, but here there really were mind-blowingly strange things that happened, which lend the adventure its dreamlike qualities.

One of the triumphs of this piece is your ability to assimilate the personal, the religious, and the historical components of the story along with a lot of colorful characters. Did you have any sense that this was what the story was going to be like when you first set out to write it? What did you expect?

There is never a “weird” story that doesn’t have a reason or life behind it — but people usually just allow themselves to gloss over that in favor of the minor pleasure of a quick, “No way,” plus Facebook like, plus Tweeting it. David Grann is pretty good at making a point of this: he’ll find what appears to be oddball stuff and then through research and reporting uncover the reasons why it isn’t really oddball to the people involved. I’m not a hardcore relativist. I admire V.S. Naipaul and think it’s fair to make judgments about the people I’m reporting on. But when I found news reports about Franklin Daefa and his archaeological site, none of them attempted to understand where he was coming from with any sympathy. So, yes, I expected to find all kinds of things, and I was surprised and amazed at almost every turn. A theme of the piece is this confrontation between our mediated expectations of others and the reality of their full humanity in context. That’s why reporting is such a precious thing.

You’ve now written about a few far-flung and lesser known Jewish communities. With 80% of world Jewry now contained within the borders of two countries, how do you think the Jewish experience differs in more remote communities? What can other Jews understand about themselves by knowing more about these communities?

I do sometimes mourn the world we no longer have, where things were genuinely remote and hidden, and where human experience was truly diverse. I may be a little old-fashioned that way, and the wink to 19th-century styling in Solomon’s Island is intentional. But it’s been 10 years now since George Packer followed Susie Bayer’s T-Shirt to Africa, and it was hardly surprising to find Franklin’s son Stalin wearing a Chicago Bulls T-shirt in his village on Malaita. If you apply that lesson to the culture of Jewry, I think it’s an equally great shame. And for Jews, as I noted in my piece from Caracas, the existential threats that have shadowed the religion for millennia bring a particular poignancy to the loss of variety, the homogenizing of life. Many aspects of Jewish life are inward looking; and with Orthodoxy, that’s an understatement. I was hoping that readers might hear an echo of these tensions in my descriptions of island life. Do we look in or out? How much can we connect to the outside world without eroding the boundaries of our identities? Jews and people in the so-called developing world share this dilemma.

How did this experience impact the way you look at the world?

Another theme of the piece is, to be blunt about it, the reach of the Holocaust. If you can believe this, I actually don’t think Jews think broadly enough about World War II, with emphasis on the World. It’s understandable with such trauma to be focused on what happened to you. But the ripple effects of that horror are not done floating around the globe. Michael Maeliau, the evangelical prophet in my tale, was not that far off when he had a vision of a great tsunami covering the earth. I’m saying that the tsunami already washed over the earth, many times. And that the wounds of the Holocaust are not healed.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.