One afternoon, a little over a year ago, I received a more or less random-seeming email from a colleague that had no particular connection to either of our busy professional lives. The main purpose of such emails, containing links to the weirder corners of the Internet, is to waste time, and having some time on my hands that day, I followed the two links inside. The first was to a Facebook post, on which I viewed a lo-res video of Papua New Guinea’s Gogodala people—in grass skirts, their bodies decorated with palm leaves, body paint, feathers, shells, and other accessories, and with one man wearing barnacle goggles—singing the Shema, the holiest of Hebrew prayers. When I followed the second link in the email, I came across the text of a 2006 book titled Bine Mene: Connecting the Hebrews, by “geoscientist” Samuel Were, which made a linguistics-based case for a tribe of ancient Israelites who “journeyed down to Lake Tanganyika and in an unexplained way ended up in Fiji.” Elsewhere that day, as the result of my research (or Google searches), I found this: “Growing numbers of evangelical Christians in North Malaita believe that the Lost Temple of Israel lies hidden at a shrine … in the mountainous interior of their island.”
It was one of those frigid city days that make it easy to want to go—anywhere. I clicked over to Google Maps, punched in “Malaita Province,” then zoomed out and sat back, and considered what now appeared to be the makings of a truly great story—the kind I could tell in hotel bars for the rest of my life. A story about how the Internet said Solomon’s Temple was on Malaita in the Solomon Islands, an archipelago whose half a million people inhabit nearly 1,000 atolls, islets, reefs, cays, and islands including Guadalcanal, the site of the famous World War II battles—and about how I actually went there to see myself, which is something that very few of us do anymore, which is a shame, because the mysteries of the world are only revealed in person. How did the destinies of Israelites and the inhabitants of the most remote member of the British Commonwealth become intertwined? What did this Solomon’s Temple in the Pacific islands look like? I then bought a ticket online—which was surprisingly cheap, considering that I would be traveling 8,505 miles, or one-third of the way around the circumference of the globe.
Which is a short way of explaining how, by late spring, I came to be seated in the black leatherette of an Air Pacific red-eye, reading Conrad’s Victory en route to the South Pacific by way of LAX. I transferred to Air Nadi, where I took my seat in a hand-me-down Boeing behind a sandal-and-skirt-wearing member of Fiji’s National Rugby Delegation. In Suva, we were met by customs agents and Mormons wearing skirts and sandals, and by a Tiki band. Live orchids hung over the bathroom stalls. From Vanuatu’s Bauerfield International Airport, named for the American World War II fighter pilot Harold Bauer who made 11 enemy kills, we flew low over Guadalcanal’s Weather Coast, across unbroken green canopy on volcanic slopes, and touched down in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands—on the site of the Japanese-built landing strip that in 1942 was a fulcrum of Pacific theater supremacy before America dropped the bomb.
Jonathan, a diminutive, trim islander who sat next to me on the last leg from Vanuatu, introduced himself and inquired about the purpose of my journey.
“I’ve come to meet the Malaitans,” I explained, as he downed as many free international-flight gold-label SolBrew beers as he could. “I’m told they have a kinship with Israel. I’ve read that Solomon’s Temple is buried in the bush.”
“Matthew,” he said. “I believe God has sent you here.”
Before departing from New York, I called my bank and phone provider to flag my upcoming travel. They told me flatly that the Solomon Islands don’t exist. It was a thought that followed me through the quiet strangeness of Honiara, a dusty capital with a single main road named for the Spanish navigator Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira, the first recorded European to make landfall here in 1568. Mendaña claimed to have rediscovered the site of King Solomon’s mines, the El Dorado of the Pacific. Now there were right-hand-drive cars, the South Seas Evangelical Church and hundreds of other churches, the Hot Bread Kitchen, Club Paradise, a colonial-era Chinatown, distribution facilities for SolBrew, lackluster government buildings, shipping agents, and a university, along with the headquarters of Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation radio, and commemorative World War II sites.
The King Solomon Hotel was fully booked, so I settled in to the Mother’s Union resthouse, run by nuns, which Jonathan had suggested as a godly alternative to the Pacific Casino Hotel, with its karaoke bar and “penthouse suites,” or the Japanese-owned Mendana. The lazy, barefoot pace of things seemed governed by the chewing and spitting of betel nut, a mild stimulant made from the blood-red seed of the areca palm. At first glance, the city appeared locked in a battle between sidewalk betel-nut-spitters and store and restaurant owners who fought the rust-colored gloppy splatter with NO SPITTING signs—a battle that neither side appeared to be winning.
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.
In the decades following the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel in the eyes of many was transmuted from “socialist beacon” into “imperialist aggressor”—and as Israel battled Yasser Arafat’s PLO while strengthening ties with Ronald Reagan’s United States—the Jewish state increasingly found itself vilified in sometimes crude and simplistic anti-imperialist terms. To combat its increasing isolation, Israel sought friendly diplomatic relations with some of the most remote nations on earth—a push that happened to coincide with what Sec. of State James Baker called the “expansionist policies” that saw the settler population in the West Bank quadruple and led to the outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987. In the South Pacific, Israel first established diplomatic relations with the Solomon Islands in 1989, following Tuvalu (1984), Marshall Islands (1986), and the Federated States of Micronesia (1987), all three of which have been consistent and often lonely supporters of Israel in international forums like the United Nations. The 1990s saw Israel’s diplomatic focus shift to the states of the former Soviet Union, former Yugoslavia, and across Africa and Asia, before circling back to the South Pacific, where the Jewish state found some of its most consistent allies in Vanuatu (1993), and Nauru and Palau (1994).
In 2006, as the Lebanon war exploded, Israel came up in votes in the United Nations General Assembly 17 times; the only countries to side with Jewish state were the United States, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Micronesia, Nauru, Australia, Canada, and Tuvalu. In 2007, the Wellington, New Zealand Dominion Post ran a feature titled “The Last Outpost of the Diaspora,” about how “remote Solomon Islanders, convinced they are descendants of the Lost Tribe of Israel, have rejected Australian projects because they are too busy growing copra for the mother country.” A wave of “Israeli business men,” it seemed, had landed with a sudden and unquenchable thirst for coconuts.
These bizarre diplomatic subplots reached a head in 2009, following Operation Cast Lead, which sent Israeli ground troops into Gaza. When the controversial South African Jewish jurist Richard Goldstone issued his 574-page fact-finding-mission report concluding that both Israel and Hamas had committed possible war crimes during the conflict, only one Pacific country sided with the 114-member majority against Israel: the Solomon Islands. Three weeks later, the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth published an Israeli foreign ministry report that explained the defection—claiming that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran had sent a delegate to Oceania promising $200,000 to fund the studies of Solomon Islands medical students in Cuba.
“The Solomon Islands have never been supportive of Israel,” Michael Ronen, Israel’s ambassador to the Solomon Islands, was quoted as saying. “Iran won the support of the Solomon Islands for $200,000. I won’t offer $250,000 to overturn the decision. Israel does not buy support for money.” Leliana Firisua, the 265-lb. Malaitan who had been appointed honorary consul of the State of Israel in Honiara earlier that year, was faced with his first diplomatic challenge in attempting to explain to his countrymen Israel’s “disappointment.” “The Iranian regime continues to come up with anti-Jews comments which also includes the Holocaust denials and also other public calls for the total liquidation of the State of Israel,” he told the Pacific Islands News Agency. “So basically it is one of the nations that hates Israel and everybody knows this. So when it becomes friendly with other nations, you know Israel always had a concern.”
Yet it would be wrong to understand the entirely pragmatic connection between the Solomon Islands and the modern day State of Israel as the sole reason for the Star of David tattoo on the cell phone booth attendant’s hand. There is documented evidence that at least some 18th-century convicts, deposited in the South Pacific instead of being sent to gaols in England, were Jewish. A convict named Samuel Pollend, for one, who stowed away on the Matilda, headed to the Polynesian Marquesas, survived a 1792 shoal-wreck, and ended up in Hawaii. Another group of 20 anonymous sailors were wrecked on Malaita in 1829 and allegedly were kept there for eating by cannibals. Did one of these men father one of the competing Jewish origin myths that circulated on and around Malaita?
Because islands offer the illusion of self-contained worlds, beachcombers, or “transculturites”—people who, as one academic I was reading put it, “temporarily or permanently detached from one group, enter the web of social relations that constitute another society, and come under the influence of its customs”—can spread stories and customs like pollenating bees. In the 1920s there were some 650 Europeans and non-native whites living in the Solomon Islands, many of them busy converting the heathens. One of the most influential of the great missions in Melanesia, besides that of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, was the Pentecostal South Seas Evangelical Church, originally founded under another name in the late 19th century to convert the black laborers who worked the sugarcane plantations of Queensland. Like other Pentecostal movements, SSEC held mystical beliefs in the power of an inerrant scripture and promoted a connection to the long-ago apostolic age of the early church, which for a people without a written history but with customs of ancestral worship was less of a leap than might be expected.
Tracing the Israeli connection to Malaita through the fascinating work of the Dutch ethnographer Jaap Timmer of Macquarie University led me quickly to his studies of The Deep Sea Canoe Movement, a splinter of South Seas Evangelicalism led by a former minister of Home Affairs on the Solomon Islands named Michael Maeliau. The key to the “ethno-theology” of the Deep Sea Canoe Movement is an interpretation of elements of the prophets Daniel and Isaiah, and of Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Since this verse precedes the foundational chapter of Pentecostalism in Acts 2, which narrates the creation of the fellowship of believers, Maeliau sees particular urgency in the idea of the Solomon Islands as the geographical and therefore the spiritual end of the earth.
In an account of his prayer movement, published in 2006 by the Australian/ Singapore imprint Onestone, Maeliau describes a singular vision that came to him in 1986, a vision of the Solomon Islands. It begins with a great flood coming down a valley despite the fact that it was not raining. The water is crystal clear and forms a beautiful lake that overflows into a spray of mist like a cloud. The cloud floats toward Australia and turns north to Papua New Guinea, then makes several more loops in different directions. When it makes it back to Papua New Guinea for the second time, the cloud changes into a current, like the wake of a speedboat, and heads toward the west coast of America. When it hits, it splits into three: One stream turns north toward the pole, the other to the south, and the middle stream rages across the United States.
When this last hits the east coast, it turns back on itself, creating a great tsunami-like wave, linking up with the north and south currents to cause one huge tide covering the Earth, which then splits across the continents and swirls over Europe and Africa and then splits again, so that the currents form a tidal circle with Jerusalem at its center. Over Jerusalem, the waves smash together and shoot up into the sky in a great pillar of water reaching deep into the heavens. “It opened up like a mushroom and then floated out into all directions in the most beautiful cloud formation one can ever imagine,” Maeliau wrote, “until it completely engulfed the whole earth. Then these words came out from heaven: ‘And the Glory of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea!’”
That was the end of the vision, which supported a widely held mythology on the islands that Malaitans are descended of biblical kings and that perhaps the Ark itself landed them here, that the Lost Temple is buried on Malaita, and that Hebrew tablets in sacred places are proof that Malaitans are Israelites of a far greater purity than those corrupted by the migrations of Europe and conquests in the Middle East.
My search for Maeliau—who seemed like exactly the kind of person I wanted to meet for the purposes of telling a great bar-room story—took me to Kukum, a neighboring village, where I met Pastor Baddeley. The pastor appeared in a puff of dust, emerging out of the darkness of a storage doorway into the overcast, greenhouse-like light. He wore a crisp white shirt, shorts that were once someone else’s dress pants, and Velcro sandals. He had been sweeping, he said. His English was inflected with the polite sing-song of the BBC World Service. He told me he didn’t know where Michael Maeliau was, though he himself had been named for Walter H. Baddeley, the seventh Anglican bishop of Melanesia (1932–1947). When I pressed him, he conceded that there had been a schism, and that his church and Michael Maeliau’s church, which used to both belong to the South Seas Evangelical Church, were now no longer the same.
“Actually, what’s good is that we didn’t have to send him away,” Baddeley said about Maeliau. “We just drew lines: This is our doctrine. This here is our belief. And people, they make choices. Do I want to be on this side or that?”
He gestured to the vast cement-floor church behind him, locked shut, looking semi-abandoned. Its walls were made of traditional palm-leaf decorative matting, its beams crossed with rakish flair. When I peered through mosquito screens, I could see that the pews were gone.
“So, on Sunday that church is full and people sit on the floor or stand?” I asked.
“Actually the central committee has decided not to use this site,” Baddeley said. “I have the power to unlock this church, but I cannot open it, because I do not want there to be trouble.”
He seemed caught up in the middle of some serious business.
“Go to Auki,” Baddeley said, about the capital of Malaita. “No point in wandering around Honiara. There everything is.”
I caught a boat called the Pelican II, which impersonated a harmless harbor ferry—a diesel metal tub with slapdash soldering and thick multiple coats of white and blue paint. I took a bench seat under the awning on the back deck and chatted with Samson, who wore cargo shorts, flip flops, and a wool beanie. He was headed to Papua New Guinea to finish his technical motor mechanic degree, because no such vocational training existed in his country. He suggested I climb the volcano that is Savo Island, an iconic outline on the water that I recognized from Terrence Malick’s World War II epic The Thin Red Line. “You light a match there,” Samson said, “and the path fills up with smoke.”
The Pelican unhitched. Engine noise drowned out our voices. We cruised over Iron Bottom Sound. As the slopes of Guadalcanal receded, Samson lit a cigarette, and he and a dozen others sat impassively. At the southern tip of Tulagi and the Florida archipelago, the Pelican rounded to portside. The ocean turned opal blue, its surface suddenly a riot of surging dune-sized waves, and the ship began to rock—lightly then with increasing resolve. Saltwater sprayed abaft, then across the mid. Passengers headed inboard. An uneasy Malaitan came out to tuck his cardboard boxes peeping with live chicks into a semi-sheltered corner. Flying silver fish like strange proto-hummingbirds leapt into the air for two, three, ten seconds, sidefins abuzz, before plunging back into the white-tipped swell.
The rolling got worse. I clutched guy wires and fixed my gaze on the distant horizon, which was now above the chrome railing, now well below it, now high above. The engine’s roar closed and opened as the tub climbed watery hills and slammed back down the other side of them, with a salty splattering across the deck like a wave pounding shore rocks. Then land came into view; the water lost its richest hues and menace of depth. Malaita’s windshadow, or some mysterious current or undersea topography, turned the surface steely and nearly lake-like, and the ship, tempest-tossed but intact, puttered past an inhabited shelter island and sidled up to Auki’s bustling wharf.
“Was that normal?” I asked Samson, still feeling wobbly.
He laughed—enjoying the visitor’s bumbling.“You should see it in a storm,” he said, and then moseyed off to buy some betel nut.
The idea that the Lost Temple of King Solomon can be found on Malaita manifestly captivated one man, Frank Daifa—or Daefa, or other variants on the spelling that appear in occasional news stories out of New Zealand and Australia. Frank was said to live in A’ama village, where he claimed to have uncovered evidence of a physical ruin that proves the Israelite-Malaitan connection as well as the onset of end times. I had a phone number for him but couldn’t get an answer. In a way, as the keeper of the temple, he was my destination.
Luckily, Jonathan, my friend from the plane, had arranged for a guide to meet me at the wharf in Auki. “I am Revelation!” he announced. A knobby-headed man in cut-off jeans and a plaid shirt relieved of its sleeves, he told me not to worry, he knew everyone. “You will meet the former premier, Richard. You will go to A’ama Village and see the temple, there is Frank and his brother they call ‘Grassbird.’ You will meet our friends, who pray for Israel every day! But first, Matthew, where will you stay?” I asked if the Auki Motel, where I’d reserved, might be suitable, and he said, “It is fine, fine. We shall take a taxi there.” He led me to a windowless, rusty station wagon, hand-painted with the lettering TAXI, and negotiated a ride.
Malaita is generally the same width as Israel—as long as from Be’er Sheva to Nazareth—and it is the only one of the Solomon Islands’ nine provinces to sit on a different tectonic plate. (Revelation said Malaita was split into its north and south islands by mythical sharks fighting so fiercely that they tore through the ground.) Auki, a former colonial capital, is tucked neatly into the mouth of the Langa Langa Lagoon, a collection of stilted settlements built onto artificial islands of piled coral rocks and sand. From there one road heads south along the coast, and another north. The town, no more than a half dozen streets in a grid, was alive with the turmoil of market life and the cargo the ferry had brought. There is a bank, various government agencies and NGO headquarters, two hotels, a Telecom office with three busted Internet stations, and below a school a soccer field filled with Unicef tents serving as classrooms after storm damage to the main building. Colorful signs lined the trading posts, with their covered balconies: Shine Cocoa Exporter, Lost Sheep Clothing. It had the flimsy look of an overrun film set for a cheap western, complete with spitters and idlers, except that they were all black and curly-haired and their teeth were stained blood red from betel juice.
“We could have walked,” I said to Revelation, after our taxi ride turned out to be no more than a couple hundred yards.
“But you have bags,” he said, looking despondently at my one worn duffel.
He described the key to all economic, social, and political matters in the Solomon Islands as being an expression of “one-top business”: Strong men, at the top of steep pyramid schemes, decided everything. He seemed to think the Israeli development project under Yoel Siegel was as doomed as the other projects he’d seen before it, like the massive Japanese-sponsored rice-growing mission in central Malaita that neglected to consider that locals didn’t lack for rice. Revelation said he’d arrange for me to meet some people who knew about this Israeli one-top business, and then he sheepishly awaited some bills to pay for his transport back to his village.
At the Auki Motel, the TV in the common room was tuned to a satellite feed of Pope Benedict, in vestments, leading Pentecostal mass from Rome. I ate dinner there with the owner and a man named Peter Mae, and we naturally got to chatting about what I was after. I asked Peter if he knew of Leliana Firisua, the honorary consul of Israel. He looked up from coconut whitefish with incredulity and said, “He is a punk. The only thing that man do before is run a credit union, and it fail.” As if to confirm that these matters were no joke, the owner then told a story about a blood vengeance carried out in that same room some years ago, when a former Malaita Eagle Force commander walked in and shot a guest, killing him, while the owner sat watching. “As a witness, I was scared for my life,” he said. The shooter was never charged.
On another afternoon, on the truck to Fia River for a freshwater dip, Dani from Bulea village introduced himself and inquired politely about my reason for being there. “I am so, so happy to meet you,” he said, his graying curls bobbing eagerly. “I am happy to meet a Jew, Matthew. I feel this is God’s plan. A great opportunity. Great, great. I am Christian. I have a pan-flute orchestra.” I explained to him that I wasn’t a spiritual person and added that I’m not in the music business, in the hopes of tempering the more outlandish promises of the other representatives of my people.
“But I am very lucky and happy to meet a Jewish person here,” he said, unbowed. “You know Malaitans are Israelites?”
By then, I did, because I’d gone with Revelation to Langa Langa Lagoon, and attended Sunday services in a one-room church overflowing with people, segregated by the sexes. I’d listened to their pastors welcome me as a “Jewish brother,” and preach on the day’s text, Galatians 5:22–23: “But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness.” Pastor Kenneth wore a green T-shirt printed with a verse from Isaiah: “From the ends of the earth we hear songs.” Shell mobiles hung from the ceiling. A tattered poster showed a drawing of topless islanders menaced by shadowy, flaming hands, with a cross-shaped wharf leading into an ocean of salvation. The congregants prayed loudly, for more than two hours, raising the temperature of the baking airless room and lifting their voices to the heavens, reaching frenzies, singing Melanesian choral polyphonic hymns in Pijin: “God u tekem laef blong me.” When it was over, we moved to a ceremonial hut, where a table had been set with banana leaves and bowls of salty mangrove-flower gruel and boiled manioc. After we ate, I watched the rainbow-colored parasols and bright wraps scatter down the paths of coral stone, back to their home villages for Sabbath rest.
The evangelical spirit teaches the lesson that whoever is most plugged in to God and the line of ancestors that lead to God is most plugged in to power. For many evangelical Christians, God can literally move mountains. Pastors are constantly being tested in their ability to dream and move people and resources on the grandest scale. The bigger the vision, the broader the bureaucracy, the greater the need for everyone to have “bought in” to make the change happen. I found most things in the Solomons to be organized on models that closely resembled the size and structures of apostolic or Pentecostal churches. This “one-top business” that Revelation was so angry about was, at its empirical extreme, a version of monotheism.
The acolytes of Israeli development in the Solomon Islands had organized themselves in much the same way. The Malaita Chazon Authority, housed in a 1960s building on the other side of the governor’s mansion in Auki and designed as the recreational center for colonial officers, with its bar and “cold rooms” still intact, made a churchlike HQ (the name, chazon, means vision in Hebrew). Recently, the MCA had changed its name to MCDA, with D for “development” added to expand the mandate.
The main room of the MCA was set up like a classroom or conference room, with a giant Israeli flag hung on one wall. The offices were behind a reception desk, in a row of hot wooden barracks at the back. There I met Patrick Taloboe, a heavy-set man with a round face who had been a Telekom engineer and palm-oil processor and, in Fiji, a business manager. He had tribal markings on his cheeks and nose: light grooves that made childish sun-style emblems and lines and showed him, he said, to be “descended from kings.” “Now that Israel is in partnership with Malaita,” he told me, “it brings back the knowledge and the historical passing of the message of stories from ancestors, that one day Israel is coming back to develop Malaita.” He then enthused about the tonnage per hectare of bananas, oranges, and lemons produced in the Negev and how saying something like “100 tons per hectare” could completely blow the minds of local Malaitans. He told me Frank Daefa came through occasionally to drop off messages for the Israeli government or to share his scholarly work. Taloboe handed me a photocopy of one handwritten treatise, titled “The Rise and Fall of Oba Kingdom,” that Frank had left recently. Then he handed me another photocopy—from the image decay it was a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy—with Hebrew lettering that he said was a rubbing of a stone in Siale, the remote mountain the ancestors came from. Taloboe ran the field office, with an “allowance” from the Israeli development agency TAG, and supervised 11 employees. He had been to Hebrew University in Jerusalem the year before for a certificate in agricultural management (the diploma was taped to the wall next to some regional maps) and was holding down the fort while an 8-man Malaitan delegation—including Firisua, Lusibaea, and local MCDA administrators—was on an official Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs-sponsored trip to the Jewish state. (On the day I had landed, the local Solomon Star had published an image of the delegates, skull caps propped high on afros, standing at the Western Wall.)
“The trip is like taking Queen Sheba to see King Solomon,” Taloboe said, reporting what he had heard from the delegates, who were due back later that week. “Starting from Ben-Gurion, all the delegates just say, ‘Wow. Wow. Wow.’”
When my meetings were done, Revelation arranged for me to get a front seat next to Anderson, the driver of one of the flatbed transports going north from the market. Anderson, who wore sport-shades and had a rag of clean dreads, also worked as an EMT at the local clinic and was a talkative companion for the 4-hour drive along the coast, stopping often to load and unload passengers and their wares. He dropped me in A’ama just past the main village, where a chirpy barefoot man with gray-flecked hair ran out to greet me. I said I was looking for Franklin or Grassbird. He looked astonished at the sounds I was making.
“Franklin is here!” he said, pointing into the bush behind him.
Wearing nothing but a pair of patched jeans and exposing a curly-haired, dark-coffee-colored chest sagging off a wiry frame that used to support more, Franklin Daefa had the look of an impish shepherd. His wide nostrils, high cheekbones, v-shaped ears, and sharp chin tufted with a gray goatee all pointed to his tight smile. I told him I’d heard about the temple. I’d read about it on the Internet. I wanted to see it. I’d come from America for just that purpose. I’d been calling him for days.
As caretaker of the Kingdom of Oba, Franklin found all of this most natural. According to his elaborate theology, Oba was a 19th-generation descendant of the biblical Noah, who left some ruins that may or may not be from the period when a merchant Jew, perhaps Turkish, arrived on Malaita. The talk-house, opposite a copra-drying oven and a Christian chapel on the property, quickly filled with his extended family and a scattering of curious neighbors. I was hardly the first foreigner to land here, and everyone seemed to know the drill. Franklin explained that a Swede, a Canadian, and a South American, at least, had come to see his temple. Now, he said, sitting in a wooden chair at a rough wooden table with his naked grandson in his lap, he had given up exploring his treasured dig site, because of a bad kidney, and for lack of funds. On the side bench, his daughter-in-law, looking like a Gauguin, with a Frangipani blossom tucked above her ear, held a baby. Opposite, Franklin’s 23-year-old son had joined as well, wearing a ratty T-shirt that half covered a thin twig-like right arm, partially deformed before birth. Franklin introduced him as Stalin.
I laughed. “Where’s Churchill?” I asked, making a nervous joke.
“Actually,” Franklin said, “he is my brother.”
Half the room, if it could be called such given the porousness of the thatched walls, was a dirt floor; the other was a raised platform that made more of a gesture to “inside,” with the kitchen—soot-blackened pots over a firetable—set apart by a flattened bamboo. When Grassbird joined us, now wearing a shirt and shoes, I greeted him by name. Franklin was surprised. Grassbird said, “David: that’s me,” explaining his name. “I use Grassbird when I dealing the ganja.”
Franklin pulled out an official-looking document dated October 2011, bearing six signatures, and showed it to me as proof of his legitimacy and also his generosity. “You will see,” he said, “that we have made a gift of land to the Jews. You will see the temple. You will make your notes and record your things, and you will understand everything.” The paper described the “terms agreed on by O’oba Tribe for offering a parcel of land to the Jews as a gift.” Term 1 read:
The parcel of land offered is not by friendship, but by blood relation tie. The blood tie was first established by Gad the Jews high priest who was one of O’oba tribes great ancestor, therefore the gift is a show of token of appreciation for reunification after a separation for more than 2,700 years.
“This document has been all the way to Shimon Peres. I sent it to him. He has read it. The Jewish thing,” he said, “may be our chance to survive.”
After a dinner of canned fish and boiled taro root, Franklin held court, sitting under a bulb connected to a solar-fed car battery. Above Franklin’s head, nestled in the open rafters, was a canoe-sized ceremonial platter, carved whole out of an 8-foot piece of hardwood by an ancestor; owning the trough, where manioc was pounded and slaughtered pigs are presented for feasts, was an honor and a great responsibility. In fairly choppy but uninhibited English, he told me a mixed-up story about the biblical Solomon’s treasure chest, from Kings and Chronicles: about how a decoy, containing only the tablets of the commandments, was kept in the temple, and that the real fortune, shrouded by the wings of cherubim, was shipped to Malaita, where it lies buried somewhere in the jungle. To me and the five or six gathered black men in the lower part of the talkhouse—almost nothing but eyes in the gloom—he retold Queen Sheba’s test of Solomon’s wisdom: How she had brought before the king two finely wrought silk bouquets and one from the royal garden and challenged him to identify the real. (“In my own country, far, far away, I have heard much about your power and glory,” Sheba says, in James Baldwin’s version of it, which I later looked up. “Now, tell me, O King, which is the true, and which is the false?”) Franklin told how King Solomon had the windows thrown open to let the bees lead him to the truth; he told it with great mischief and delight, inventing words where he had no English, speaking with his face all in shadow in front of the light. “You see, Solomon was a wise man. And a wise king listens to even the smallest of beings.” His mother hooted on cue.
“Matthew, we will show you the ruins because you are a Jew,” Franklin said. “And now it’s time for you to rest.” Stalin took me to one of the huts where, using his half arm and his whole one, he tied a mosquito net to some box nails with a stretch of dried vine. Franklin’s mother came in to explain the arrangements. “Bush toilet,” she said in a toothless Pijin, pointing vigorously out the open frame that served as a window, while clapping a roll of toilet paper. “Me love you,” she added, clutching my hand in her bony fingers. She headed out, muttering. I bedded down, tucking in the edges of the netting, popping my daily malaria pill. A hazy half-moon sent down slatted shadows of palm fronds. Above them were streaks of high clouds and stars, so many stars as to be almost cloudlike.
I listened to the singsong of half-whispered To’abaita mixed with a faint undercurrent of surf and breeze. The foreignness sank in: their remoteness and separateness and otherness, the strength of their longing to be heard, my unannounced and odd arrival. Getting there had taken a week of planes, boats, trucks, contacts, negotiations, meetings, starts, and stops—but always forward toward this strange man, the master of Solomonic ruins on Malaita Island in the South Pacific. Tomorrow we would be heading further into the bush.
Later, in the deep stillness of the night, I stumbled dreamily to the edge of the compound, past the pigsty and behind the chicken coop, peering into that moonlit jungle. The depths! A wall of gray-green shadow. Where was I? King Solomon may have been wise, but these people are not, I thought, and nor am I. I knew the walk into the interior had its dangers—a slip and it could be days to reach proper medical care—but I was also struggling to suppress a greater, looming sense of disappointment. What if there was nothing here?
By morning the dread hung like an early dew. I was in the talkhouse at 4 a.m., the appointed time to embark on an overnight trip that we would attempt in a day. Frank sat regally on the same chair he had occupied the night before, as if he had never left it. Women prepared packaged “trimix” of instant coffee, powdered milk, and sugar and rekindled embers to cook rice and yams for breakfast. Bowls appeared, topped with oily, curried canned tuna. I ate like it could be my last meal. Frank looked on approvingly and then put finishing touches on his hand-drawn map.
He explained that two of the corners of the inner temple held powers of “Thunder + Lightning,” and “Earthquake destruction.” He pointed to the Jews Priest Grave Pyramid Mount and the “women’s court” and the Stone of Love. Then, tapping the small circle labeled “Holy of Holiest” on the map, Frank said, “You will not let your shadow fall across this altar. For it shall mean certain death.”
Frank ceremoniously introduced the people who would be walking with me—he had a bad kidney and would slow us down too much, he said. Dudley, a barrel-chested, serious, round-headed neighbor who had worked the archeological site with Frank when they were first clearing and promoting it, took the lead. Stalin, his dreads tucked under a knit cap decorated with a rhinestone skull-and-bones, wordlessly assumed second. Fiu, a neighbor who looked like a Daguerreotype in negative of a full-bearded Darwin, had never been to the site. “I want to see with my own eyes,” he said, “what this noise is all about.” He wore an old utility vest over his bare torso, jean shorts, and a floppy wide-brimmed fishing hat, and he carried a machete, while Dudley, Stalin, and Fiu, as is customary, went barefoot. Our team was like a parody of Victorian explorers; an echo of the Coastwatchers and Scouts who had led American GIs to ambush Japanese positions in World War II. For supplies we knocked at a closed counter in Fo’ondo village, where I paid for three thumb-sized plugs of rolled tobacco, some packs of lime-flavored navy biscuits, and imitation Oreo wafers. I was counseled not to worry about water.
After sunrise, where the To’abaita tribe’s southern boundary river met the Solomon Sea, we made a left turn and headed inland, following a muddy trail through close cocoa plantations, taro-farming settlements, and dense cover. At one point Dudley pointed to a high squealing sound emanating from beyond, and said, “Killing pig.” Shortly, the trail grew thinner, and I concentrated on double-stepping to not fall behind Dudley and Stalin racing ahead, with Fiu humming to himself behind me. Over roots and rocks, along the crystalline river, wading in it, escorted by butterflies and birdcalls, we zig-zagged up. There was no view except for the occasional cathedral vault of vines and leaves over a watery, gurgling carpet. In my worn running shoes, I slipped on moss-covered rocks and narrowly missed hitting my head on a boulder. I heard Dudley say to Fiu, “Cut him one stick.” Some determined whacks and Fiu’s outstretched hand proffered a perfect bamboo crutch. The river was cool, cascading over rounded stones, narrowing into water-sculpture steps and pools, with fish chasing away below our feet and, in spots, bright green deposits that Stalin insisted were soft emeralds—the precious stones of 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles, and Mendaña’s dreams.
We reached a bend with a 6-story-high draping of waterfalls, and Dudley halted us there. The cliff had formed when a side of a cave fell open eons ago, exposing speleothem and nooks where brown bats now hung upside down. Dudley and Stalin rolled tobacco into ripped pieces of notebook paper and sat smoking. Fiu clapped, hollered, and threw stones at the bats to chase them out and allow him to observe them in flight. He said, “Bat cave,” with an approving nod. After rinsing off a first bloom of sweat in the Edenic wash, I asked Fiu how often he’d been here. He said, “I have not.” We were now an hour and a half from north Malaita’s one road.
Above the bat cave, the way got considerably harder. We climbed the river for another two hours before reaching a second stopping point, this one closed over and narrow, where Dudley and Stalin rolled another cigarette. The only noise was the roar of water on rocks. From here Dudley hacked at the brush with his machete on the steep bank until uncovering what satisfied him as a path. From there the climb was vertical, muddy, untrodden, planting the walking stick with every stride, hauling myself up, digging in, planting, hauling, with each step punctuated from above by the rhythmic whack-whack of Dudley’s long knife. It began to rain, but I was already soaked from wading and sweat.
Between exertions, I thought about Frank’s injunction—shadow … altar … death—and found that it had burrowed its way into my brain over the last few hours and had forced me, in the absence of other conversation, into an absurd debate with myself over my own credulity and lack of faith. On one hand, there was Frank’s showman-like flair, his manifest insanity, this great distance. On the other, Kurtz, the world upside down. Faced with the unknown, we invent fictions and cast ourselves as protagonists. But why not just keep your shadow away from the altar?
I awoke from this daydream to find we were no longer climbing, but instead cutting across a small clearing toward a low shelter made of palm leaf and wood. Dudley said, “This is temple.” He gestured to a mound of half-hidden stones. “Here is grave blo dead Jew priest.” There were flagstones paving the refuge and behind it an insurgence of green, tenacious saplings, fresh vines, kudzu-like—the impenetrable thoughtlessness of pure growth. Stalin, lifting the straps of his woven bag over his head, was indicating that there’d be work to uncover the rest. He cut more tobacco and handed a palm-full to Dudley. They sat smoking as the rain grew more insistent.
Then Dudley did a fair bit of whacking, wielding his machete like an extension of his arm. He led me to a low wall, an orderly pile of stones, with what looked like a threshold. Stalin held the map, measuring the world against it. According to Frank’s drawings, this was the entrance to a sacrificial space. Stalin and Dudley cleaved the glossy foliage, and mosquitoes rose in swarms. I glopped on DEET, snapped pictures, and nodded while Fiu foraged fern fronds and contemplated the scene. “I am thinking to myself,” he said. “How did they move these stones? Where did they get them? Must be hundreds, thousands of years.”
Dudley had rediscovered what he was calling an altar stone, a coffin-sized flat slab that sat in the middle of what could have been a room. He tore at vine roots and wiped away black, fragrant mud, and this stone began to stand out against the jade wash. Its shape and location made a fairly convincing case for itself. On the other side of what seemed like a small moat, Dudley whacked the ground, then swatted at mosquitoes buzzing around his bare chest, then sliced saplings in two with such precision that the top part stood for a cartoonish moment before remembering to fall. He paid particular attention to a rocky protuberance there, and dinging his knife off the tip of it, declared it the holy of holies. Then he stood on it, surveying the site, sweating.
“You should not let your shadow fall there,” I said, half joking.
Stalin, nearby, half smiled in reply, shrugged, and pointed his machete at the cloud cover. Dudley, who was in no mood to linger, headed down to the “Females’ Temple,” trying to pinpoint a special rock. His whistles shortly drew the three of us to him, and he and Stalin set to work clearing a stone. It was as big as a tree root and shaped like an automatic transmission, tapering off, with its flat side down. The three barefoot men and I crouched below it and heaved it over, exposing a wet teeming microcosm. Stalin used his good hand to claw away the dirt, then a clump of stricken leaves to wipe its face. “This is the Hebrew tablet” he said, standing back to take it in. “You will tell us what you see.”
Back at Franklin’s talkhouse that night, cut and bleeding from slips and scratches on the descent, I was told to stretch out on a bench face down to have my legs rubbed with coconut oil. A man approached with a bottle of the fragrant yellowy stuff—he smiled abashedly as we hadn’t met; he was Rex, Anisi “Moses” Maeta’a’s son—and then set to work on my calves. “Without this you shall not walk tomorrow,” Franklin said. At first, I was embarrassed, but the massage felt good. I was tired. All we’d eaten were coconuts, navy biscuits, bananas, a “jungle peanut,” imitation Oreos, and some fresh watercress plucked along the trail. Fiu sat in the lower corner with a faraway stare he had picked up at the site and not relinquished since. Dudley, bathed, had donned a faded olive-green bomber jacket against the post-exertion chill. He noted that we’d only barely outrun the river’s rise. Bowls of rice and taro root topped with canned tuna appeared, and the explorers ate hungrily in silence. Light left the sky. A coconut pith was touched to flame to smoke out mosquitoes. The single low-watt bulb was reconnected to the car battery.
Franklin began a soliloquy, a rambling explanation of the site—the only ruin of Oba’s Kingdom—that fluttered in and out of discernable English but never lost conviction. Many of his ideas are summarized more succinctly in the handwritten 2011 treatise he had given to Patrick Taloboe at the MCA, titled “RISE AND FALL OF OBA KINGDOM.” It reads like the handbook of a young fantasy-role-playing gamer—something not dissimilar to inventions I made in my Dungeons & Dragons days—hanging personal, nearly sci-fi whims on the recognizable scaffolds of human religion, history, and society. Section 3 of Daefa’s pamphlet, “Gad the Jew,” begins with a scattering of spelling and grammar mistakes:
While Oba’s Kingdom was yet in its prosperous state, the Jews arrive on trading purposes. At Ofi were cited the minerals the Jews traded for with Malaitans. The Jews made two trips, the latter leaving Gad at Oba Kingdom. Gad at his arrival was accompanied by his wife Jess and his three daughters Ester, Moab and Lena. Ester married Fua, the Priestly King. Gad introduced the Law akwale Taki, which are the Ten Commandments, which was written in the Bible, by Mosea. … Gad’s seal is the Eagle.
And there were other impenetrable beliefs: something about Adam and Eve and the idea that the garden of Eden may yet still exist as Malaita; something about an “Esenic party,” a kind of vanishing twin to an “Edenic party.” Oba himself was a spiritual being made flesh. The Jew arrived 32 generations after another godly figure, Melchizedek, arrived in Oba’s land and “dedicated the altar in the Holy of Holiest room.” Gad introduced sacrifice. And so on, all with the attention to detail of an island L. Ron Hubbard.
“Now this tablet,” Daefa finally asked me. “You saw it. It is Hebrew?”
I hesitated, then just went for it: “I don’t think so, Franklin,” I said.
To my relief, my host didn’t seem wounded. He set his goatee bouncing with laughter and said, “Well, you will believe what you believe.”
The next morning, I shouldered my sack and walked to Kadabina, the site of Yoel Siegel’s development project. Frank had agreed that it didn’t make sense to wait for transport trucks, which might not pass until the next day. Best to get a jump on the heat, he said. It was about 23 kilometers of flat road, three to four hours, but in a region with only one way in and out, and a limited number of vehicles ashore, no point in expecting a miracle. “With the bad road,” he said, “walking will be faster anyway.” He then gave a ceremonious blessing to me and my “firm” and the Jews and all the people of Israel. When I stopped at Grassbird’s to say farewell, he staggered down from his stilted house, wearing shorts and hastily-donned unlaced combat boots, and then walked with me for the first hour, awaking as he strode. There was, as always, plenty of traffic: barefoot or flip-flopped humans on either side of the road, going to the well, going to a small market, going to see someone, or just gathered there and looking up at me, an apparition. My shadow grew shorter, the dew lifted; I began to sweat.
There was no way to sneak in, by land, to northern Malaita. To the right was the forbidding thickness we’d ventured into the day before. To the left, the sea. Along the road coconut groves, then houses, then coconut groves, then copra dryers, more houses, more coconut groves, lean-tos, betel-nut sellers, idlers. Grassbird recognized one of Michael Maeliau’s teenaged daughters, and we stopped and spoke a while. Michael was in Indonesia, at prayer assembly, she said, and wouldn’t be back until next month. She spoke perfect English and wore a cloth head-covering and white blouse, was on her way to school, and was somehow related to Grassbird. North of a petrol drum depot, the road got considerably worse, and I started perambulating truck-sized potholes. Grassbird decided to turn back, and we stood in the middle of the empty road, shaking hands and exchanging thanks, before he headed south, while I continued toward the site of the Israeli project. Waves of uniformed schoolchildren floated by in giggly packs, chirping their “Mone-mone!” greeting at me, lightly tittering in my wake.
For the first time in a few days, I was alone. I came around a small bend to discover a parade ground, surrounded by open-air thatched huts resembling classrooms. They all pointed like camp barracks toward the field, which resembled a grass lawn but was on closer inspection made up of tiny clover. In the middle of the ground, before a small elevated viewing stand, listless in the humid heat: an Israeli flag.
A hand-painted sign explained the surprising scene. This was Ngalikekero Christian & Cultural School, offering “vocational training” (carpentry, “home economics and life skills,” typing, “plumbing & allied trades”), “kindy & preclass” education, and hosting a cultural center for honing “traditional skills.” At the center of the sign was the school’s emblem: a Jewish star with a circle containing a menorah, an eagle, and other symbols, as well as the motto “Righteousness exalts a nation.” In red, across the bottom, was written in all capitals: “To give hope to the hopeless & aim to the aimless.” There was no one around. I sat on the steps of one of the huts to munch the rest of a PowerBar I’d stashed. Pushing on, I fell into step with a school teacher who was going to the next village for a union pay meeting, and the closer we got to there, the more polo-shirted adults seemed to be heading the same way. Others called out to me from their yards, “Iu go long wea?”—Where are you going? To which I could answer with the place-name password, Kadabina. It not only ended all local confusion about my presence, but also gave me a frequent thumbs up and a quick inquiry about when it was all going to be up and working, when the waet-man was going to be back. The further north I got, the more this friendly curiosity was slowing me down, so I soon took to just hustling through settlements while waving and shouting “Kadabina!” which seemed to do the trick.
My last flip-flopped companion decided to leave his wife at the clinic, a one-room shack, and show me the short cut to the project headquarters. He was young, and kept apologizing for his adequate English. As I didn’t have an appointment with anyone in particular, the man insisted I visit with his uncle first: He was a “chief.” At a roadside shelter we made a right turn into the grove and up a rise and emerged onto a hilltop clearing where a number of houses perched on stilts. An old Hitachi excavator sat at the end of a newly cut dirt road. A talkhouse, with decorative thatch roofing, had been erected near a small graveyard fenced in flowering orchids. Chickens nosed around the clover. And over it, hanging listless from a white pole, flew another Israeli flag.
In the compound’s reception hut, I took shelter from the midday sun and sat with Moffat Maena for a while, catching my breath. Maena was much younger-looking than the 80 years he said he was. He vaguely resembled a grandfatherly frog, with a broad chest and overlong arms. He whacked open a pair of coconuts with the long knife he was carrying and handed me one. I drank its sweet liquid while he talked of the new construction behind us, which would house the Israeli agricultural and technical assistants on their extended visits, and about how Emmaus Village, as he had dubbed his family’s collection of houses, had providentially been in the right place to be Kadabina headquarters. Maena noted that Emmaus was where Jesus first appeared to two of his followers after his resurrection.
Maena’s father Alan had scouted for American GIs against the Japanese. His uncle and brother died in World War II, killed in the fighting over Guadalcanal. After the war, and a degree in Fiji, Maena worked in the government’s agriculture department, which sent him across the Solomon Islands. He had been to Hawaii once, and Australia once, both for brief stopovers related to ministry affairs. Now the foreigners were coming to him.
He walked us down the road through the project land, which he said used to be Catholic mission land from 1921. “We’re gonna help our brothers,” he said, referring in his pleasantly colonial-style English to the Israelis who had already been here on several “technical visits.” This way, he said, would be the demonstration farm. Over here the aquaculture ponds, dug out to run freely into the sea. Up this way would be drip-technology beds, maybe some husbandry, some chickens. All of this was on the plans that had been drawn up and were posted on the wall of the talkhouse. What we saw in real life were some dry slopes, carpeted with nettles, creepers, and brush, and dotted with straggling coconut palms. By the side of the road was a boulder-sized half of an ancient, giant clamshell. Gesturing to it, Maena said, “Looks like Noah’s ark was here.”
In the talkhouse behind the Israeli flag, laminated sheets stapled to makeshift bulletin boards showed images of the dedication ceremony that had occurred a few months before, with dozens of pigs slaughtered and a few chickens for the kosher visitors. And a photocopied campaign flyer dated 2001 showed Leliana Firisua’s round face framed by wide curls. His platform was three-pronged: “Peace, Prosperity, Israel.” “To enable development to occur in the area North Malaita Constituency law and order must be restored,” it read. “My involvement in the peace process has given me the ability to broker a deal which will satisfy the entire populace in the To’obaita area including our ex-militants.” A map showed the northern part of the island with circles at proposed “development,” “tertiary schooling,” and “agricultural sites.” The back of the flyer read: SHALOM.
Maena Moffat said he was Firisua’s nephew, somehow, but we soon determined he was more like what I would call a cousin. No matter: “If Israel tries to help us,” he said, “I thank God for that.” He put me up in the stilted guesthouse under construction for the Israelis. Before sunset, Maena’s grandson escorted me to a half-mile stretch of unspoiled white-sand coastline where a pack of children had gathered for recreation. The small island of Basakana, no more than a mile across the crystalline, calm waters, took the menace out of the great emptiness—the thousands of miles to next landfall. Besides an occasional paddled dugout skimming across the horizon near the island settlement, there was nothing here but glory. Unflinching children recruited me to play soccer with a coconut pith on the sand. I grabbed my mask and snorkel and swam out over the reefs, floating in the body-temperature brine, dove to meet parrot fish, and spotted sweetlips and angels. Lobster antennae waved from nooks. Coral swayed and primped. Clowns tended anemones. On the ocean floor, 30 feet below, camouflaged soles melted into the spotted sand—confusing dreamlike apparitions. When I’d exhausted myself, and the sky had warmed into rich purples and reds, we strode back up to Emmaus, where a dinner of rice, taro, coconut-milk fish, and stewed greens had been set out on the talkhouse bar.
As Maena’s grandson helped me install mosquito netting in one of the three guesthouse bedrooms, I noticed that he was tattooed on the back of his left hand with the likeness of an Israeli flag. And then I saw that he had another, larger tattoo on his left forearm that said MAEKALI. I asked him about it. He said it was his great-grandfather, a great warrior.
“Is Maekali Hebrew?” I asked.
“We are all Israelis here,” he said.
It took me a day and a half to make it back to Auki from Kadabina. Maena and I had gone out to his shelter on the road at 1 a.m. to wait for a cargo truck to come by, but the first two, which churned round some hours later, were “full.” (Maena didn’t press the driver, so there must have been some limit to the number of people who can fit on the flatbed floor and side ledges and cab roof.) No more trucks came that morning, and with no cell-phone service there was no way of finding out if more would come except to stand by the side of the road, which we did for nine hours, taking turns napping, swatting mosquitoes, pacing, looking up at stars in the palm fronds, talking about “California.” I said that I lived 500 meters from a very big river, which in my part of Manhattan is true. How did he picture those skyscrapers, this 80-year-old man whose father fought World War II on Guadalcanal, and who was now working with the honorary consul of Israel, who in turn has shaken hands with Shimon Peres?
At dawn, Maena’s son Micah, a former policeman with a blond afro, came down and was surprised to find us there; he had some coffee and rolls brought, and we ate in sullen disappointment. Kids rode by on bicycles decorated with Israeli flags. After sunrise, a pair of women came round the corner yelling “ON Saaaaaaaaale!” I bought some speared reef fish from their bucket. (The fish were pale, discolored versions of what they showed me underwater the day before.) Micah carried the catch by the tail to Emmaus to have it prepared. By 10 a.m.—when the first of the transports was returning north, loaded with fresh human and material cargo from Honiara and Auki—we gave up and decided to try again that night.
At first, I felt a great empathy for the Israelis, who were trying to turn this kind of inefficiency into a productive farm. Hadn’t this Yoel Siegel read his Conrad? Didn’t he know that all Western enterprises end up swallowed by the jungle? But after the initial frustration, I took the reprieve for a blessing. At the end of the day, I grabbed Maena’s grandson’s Chinese imitation BMX, too small for me, and left his tattooed hand and Emmaus behind, feeling exhilarated by the spackled light and the freedom of anonymity.
I spun north along the empty road parallel to the beach, through potholes, through villages, through coconut groves, past sunken Japanese aircraft carriers. My long legs churned too fast on the tiny cranks. Palm trees arched overhead like a long glorious nave, the only sound the whirr of the chain and the crunch of sand and rocks under the balding tires. Paradise. I waved to wide-eyed locals walking barefoot nowhere, and pedaled to Malu’u to see Suava Bay, where Israeli plans call for an airport and tuna-processing factory. From the broken wharf, it was easy to see that imagining an international airport in this place was like asking Peter Minuit in 1626 to imagine the skyline of present-day New York.
In Malu’u’s central market—a concrete shelter built by foreign aid—just opposite the wide beach and bay, I met 62-year-old Warren Raomalefo, who was peddling deep-fried cakes to schoolchildren on midday break while perusing a religious pamphlet about the Apocalypse. I asked him about Israel. “We don’t know what the future is,” he said. “These things never reach the bush.” At a frontier-style general store called Lionheart enterprises—selling from behind glass counters everything from utility diving masks and car batteries to beauty products and milk toast—I bought a Coca-Cola for Sol$9, my first luxury in days. A thatch-walled house around the corner had a sign painted in lettering with the words “GAZA STREET” next to “JEW,” the star and lines of the Israeli flag, and a pair of decorative horned cattle skulls. In a sewage-colored mangrove behind the market, a crowd of uniformed youngsters idly taunted an insane man with a single hip-length dreadlock; he brayed at the crowd like an elephant, screamed, and slammed into the water while the mob hooted. Riding back to Emmaus, I slipped off a pedal and scraped an apple-sized patch of skin off my left knee—and with blood streaming down to my toes and flip-flops, must have made a similarly crazed sight.
Back in Kadabina, the wound cleaned up from my depleted first aid kit, I spent the late afternoon snorkeling and collecting shells. During the day, Micah had arranged with a driver to save us seats, and this time Moffat, Micah, and I hopped onto the open flatbed of the truck a little after midnight. The transport made an oasis of light slowly tossing through potholes, stopping every few hours for all 30 passengers to stretch. When it started to rain, a single heavy tarp was rolled out; I held one corner of it aloft as an air intake, until the shower passed. By first light, we were back on graded dirt and by dawn on narrow pavement—rumbling into Auki as birds scattered out of the palm dates. A massive police truck was parked below the government buildings. A summit was to be held over the following three days, and foreign dignitaries, including Australians and Malaysians, would be in town. “There will be international media,” the police announced from the riot-gear loudspeaker. “Anyone with open beers. Will. Be. Arrested. Anyone selling marijuana. Will. Be. Arrested.”
The next morning, I opened the Solomon Star to find an interior headline heralding “Free Entry Into Israel”: “SOLOMON Islanders does not need a visa to enter Israel.” It was the first newsworthy result of the Malaitan delegation’s diplomatic trip. They were headed home. My journey, it turned out, had only just begun.
As Auki bustled in preparation for the arrival of the Malaysian delegation, Jackson Gege picked me up in an official white U.N. Toyota and drove me to his office in the provincial government compound on the hill overlooking the port. At “around 37”—like many Solomon Islanders he had no registration and unreliable baptismal records—he was trim and fit in his blue jeans and neat knit shirt and belt of holstered cell phones and multi-tools. He worked for the U.N.’s Development Programme, but he had also taken a personal interest in the “Israel issue,” as he liked to call it, ever since a fateful semester in 1998 at the University of the South Pacific in Honiara. It was there, Gege recounted after turning on the paltry standing fan in his office cluttered with papers, that he had heard of a Canadian marine biologist and evangelical Christian who had said, “I hear there are people on the Solomons who are Israelites or Hebrews.” Shortly after, the ethnic tensions erupted and the student returned to Canada. Gege’s cousins joined the Malaita Eagles Force, while the bookish Gege laid low. Since then Gege had produced a manuscript exploring Israeli-Malaitan ties. He showed me the Word file on his UNDP laptop, scrolling through images of green stones that may or may not be unformed emeralds.
“In Hebrew ‘go’ is l’cha, and in Kwaio ‘go’ is lecha,” Jackson said. “It just makes you think. ‘Yes’: ken, keu. I want to write, like digging. Going deeper and deeper. People are making fun of all this, but Malaitans will always look at Israelis like a brother.”
In the summer of 2010, through the work of the ambitious politician Leliana Firisua, Gege was sent to Hebrew University in Jerusalem to further his environmental-planning studies. He was also charged specifically with finding a consultant or a friendly Israeli who might be persuaded to come to Malaita to work toward improving the lot of the people there. One of the courses he took was with Yoel Siegel, an international development and aid expert with a dozen years’ experience working for an Israeli outreach program called TAG, which works in far-flung places like Azerbaijan, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Kenya, Jordan, and Indonesia. As Gege told it, he had asked a number of his professors if they or anyone they knew might be willing to set out for the South Pacific. None of the professors were available, until he went up to Siegel after class. Might he consider coming to Malaita and helping them achieve their development dreams? Siegel said yes.
Jackson handed me a VHS cassette of a “documentary film” titled The Lost Temple Discovery! Part One, from Liberty Productions, PO Box 1, Auki, Malaita. The credits went to “Frank Daefa of A’ama, North Malaita and Anisi Maeta’a of Central Kwara’ae,” who “both claim to be of Jewish descendant through the line of Zadok the priest during the time of king David and his son Solomon,” the jacket copy read. The plastic case had a pixelated image of a pile of rocks, a “G” for “General Exhibition,” and the tag line: “… tacked away in the mountains of North Malaita, the ruins of this sacred site of once a religious community is being discovered. Who could be the builders … and to what god was it build for?”
Israel’s own plans for the Solomons may someday attract similar wonderment. The US$20-million plans for the “Kadabina Proposed Demonstration Farm and Industrial Park” include—among other amenities drawn up by Aaron Weingrod of Weingrod-Abrahamson Architects of Jerusalem—an “Organic Restaurant on Cliff−Sea View.” Near Buma village, if land could be negotiated from the Ailakwa tribe, a regional center was set to host a pineapple-juice-processing plant, pineapple plantations, eco-timber milling, and a cattle farm to supply Honiara with meat. The 39 hectares of the Kadabina site would host drip-technology tomatoes, dwarf mangoes that allow for easy harvesting, chickens, and—after dredging a pair of destroyer-sized basins into what were currently coconut flats across from the ocean—advanced aquaculture. “High value crops,” directly from Israeli seed with agricultural laissez-passer from signed technical agreements and Memoranda of Understanding, would be distributed to the population to be grown “in their own customary land.”
In Suava Bay, the multicolored planning maps indicated, a few years from now if not sooner there should be a fully functioning tuna-processing plant connected to a deep-draft wharf. A long, thin orange rectangle on the map showed the location, around the eastern flank of Malu’u, of Malaita International Airport, a hub for direct flights from Tel Aviv to the rest of the South Pacific, but also routing through Bangkok and Seoul for exporting the sushi-grade bonito and importing friendly eco-tourists. Suava and the surrounding feeder projects would provide so many jobs that all the Malaitans who had migrated to Honiara in search of work over the past 30 years will clamor to return. Biospheres, eco-apartment complexes, self-sustaining etceteras; “the villages will become basically in the same system like the kibbutz,” Firisua told me, back in the capital. Military assistance from Malaitans, flying planes in support of the Israelis—all these things I heard from the dozens of people surrounding the Kadabina initiative.
As a teenager, the year before he left for Honiara to attend King George VI high school—Leliana Firisua recalled to me as he chomped on a huge piece of dry pound cake in his office following his return from the delegation trip to Israel—he was hungry, lacking for food, wondering where he might manage to find sustenance. One day, when he was feeling lonely, a sweet mango fell out of a tree, clattered off some tin roofing, and then bounced into his lap. “It didn’t roll to me. It jumped, up off the ground, into my hand,” he said. “I thought about it. At this time I thought perhaps God had a purpose for me.” From 1985 to 1987 he went on scholarship to Abingdon College in Oxfordshire, England, training for a “Diploma in Financial and Cost Accounting.” The winters were difficult. On the BBC World Service he heard about Operation Moses, and later Operation Solomon, airlifting Ethiopian Jews to Israel. When he came home, he joined the auditor-general’s office, then he managed a public credit union, married, had four sons, and ran for local office, where he decided that a friendship with Israel was Malaita’s sole viable path to development. He then started corresponding with the Jewish Agency for Israel.
At odd hours online, Firisua underwent “advocacy training”—led, it turned out, by a young foreign-service officer, Daniel Taub, who would later go on to be the Israeli ambassador to London—and received a diploma. “From there on,” he said, “there was no turning back.” Within less than 10 years, he was named honorary consul of Israel in the Solomon Islands, given a pair of brand-new white Toyota Prados with diplomatic plates (CC7, for his main vehicle), and set up with an office in one of the third-floor shops of the Hyundai Mall, off Mendana Ave. The storefront glass had a huge mural picture of the Jerusalem skyline and the name Emunah, or faith.
In November of 2011, at a gathering of 45 distant honorary consuls in Jerusalem, Firisua decided he wanted to go to the Holy City. While there, he skipped out on a programmed visit to the Israel Museum and instead met up with an Israeli marine biologist and fisheries consultant he’d met in the Solomon Islands, who worked at the time for the NGO WorldFish. “Come, I want to go the Wailing Wall,” Firisua said.
“What are you going to do there?” the Israeli said. Firisua called him a “backsliding Jew, the most backsliding Jew you have ever seen.”
“No,” Firisua said, “I just want to go and pray. I think I have a message there.”
They went together. Firisua prayed at the wall, but the message did not arrive.
“Come, come,” his friend said. “I will take you in. There’s a tunnel that goes this way under, and there’s so many Orthodox praying in there.”
“You sure?” Firisua said. They went in. On the left, he noticed a sign marked with a verse from Isaiah 56: “My house is a house of prayer for all people.” The Israeli wanted Firisua to look at the excavated wall of the temple, and how deep it went underground. Firisua said, “No, no, no need. I have found what I was looking for.” The message was expansive; Firisua felt vindicated and reinvigorated: “This is the Israel I was looking for,” he said. He also met Shimon Peres, who told him, “Today you do not need to have your own captain. Or to build your own boat. Today we are now in a global boat.” He also recalls that Peres told him, “On this boat if you ask your neighbor and your neighbor cannot able to give you a biscuit, or a glass of water, go around the boat!” Recalling this made Firisua laugh. “There are people in the boat, that maybe they can spare a piece of bread.”
As we spoke, I flipped back and forth between snorting at him in disbelief and finding myself almost buying into his incredible and improbable Horatio Alger tale: From North Malaita to meet the patriarch of Israel, President Peres. He said I could meet Jimmy Rasta, no problem.
Reading an encyclopedia in prison, Jimmy “Rasta” Lusibaea discovered that the Six Day War started on a June 5. This is the same date, he said, sitting in the consul’s office on the third floor of the Hyundai Mall on Mendana Avenue, that the Eagle Force “took off” the armory, the make-or-break gambit that cemented the power of the militia. Interpreting this as a sign, on the delegation trip to Israel, he put in a request to see the bunkers in the Golan Heights. He observed the machine-gun riggings and admired their versatility and easy withdrawal. He convinced a female IDF soldier to pose for pictures with him. Tanks performed exercises. Lusibaea called it “really a beautiful place” and took notes to relay to his Lion Heart Security servicemen.
Lusibaea—whose wife was campaigning in the by-election for his parliamentary seat vacated because of a conviction on 10-year-old assault charges, which he was appealing to the High Court—was wearing a military-green fishing hat, black slacks, and a black knit polo unbuttoned to reveal a large Jewish star pendent. He had a Cobra tattooed on his right bicep and an eagle over his heart. At 42, he had the paunch and thrust of a sprightly 50-year-old, and to me he seemed demonstrably aware, as people who have done time can be, of the seriousness of existence and its limits. In Lusibaea this awareness translated into a palpable charisma. “It’s a dream of my whole life,” he said. “One day I’ll set foot in the Holy Land.” Firisua, who was sitting behind his desk and lightly monitoring the diplomacy of Lusibaea’s recorded interview, reminded him that he had indeed set foot in the Holy Land, removing his shoes and socks to wade in the Jordan.
Before the tensions, Lusibaea had been working security at the Gold Ridge company mine. “They start chasing out all of the people from outskirts of Guadalcanal,” he recounted. “The police force in this country, they failed, because they kidnapped about 18 of us civilians from Malaita.” The mine shut down. Some observers of the lawlessness, corruption, and anarchy of that period say it amounted to a “failed state” condition, but a more accurate description is that since independence, the Solomons has remained unformed, never managing to consolidate into a functioning system of any kind.
“When they start to rape our women, our girls,” Lusibaea said, “that was when we start to form up the boys.”
“How did you have the idea to raise an Israeli flag to strengthen your fighters’ hearts?” I asked.
“I was thinking that if this is our big story,” Lusibaea said, “that we are migrated from Israel, and when we see all this Arab wars around the Israel, they don’t like Israel, so we just thinking that this is like Solomon Island here. The other eight province they don’t like us, so we must be the same.”
Surrendering in 2003, he said, under the impression that he’d be granted amnesty from his participation in the Peace Accords and in the new climate of RAMSI’s arrival, Lusibaea was instead arrested, accused of murder and bank robbery, tried by Australian judges, and sent to prison.
When we were done talking in Firisua’s office, Lusibaea drove me in his tinted-window Toyota Landcruiser down Mendana Avenue toward Honiara’s light-industrial outskirts, where neighboring villages had been swallowed up by a miniature form of urban growth. Lusibaea pointed to the Lawson Tama national soccer stadium, where FIFA’s Oceania confederation was holding a World Cup qualifier tournament. “Some of the boys on the national team are mine,” he said, adding that he’d be attending in the VIP box, where I would be welcome to join him. Lusibaea was released from prison on bail in 2007, and in 2008 he was baptized in Malu’u. He then cobbled together a construction crew to give his demobilized but still-loyal fighters a chance at employment. They did some earth-moving and began to enter competitions for government contracts. Lusibaea called the company “Lion Heart.” As a result, he now had “boys” everywhere: a cement crew laying sidewalk along an anonymous stretch of the highway we were driving down—his “boys” on contract for the upcoming Festival of Pacific Arts. Their allegiance, he allowed, helped get him elected to parliament as the representative of North Malaita in August 2010.
Driving past mega-churches, he pointed to a modern building on the left: “Ministry of Fisheries,” he said, naming the portfolio that he had held under Prime Minister Danny Philip, and that he still hoped to recover one day. “Should have been mine.” He blamed his loss of the ministry not on his militant past, but on his hard line on tuna prices, which Japan, China, and Taiwan had managed to keep artificially low for the last 20 years through a mix of leverage, targeted investment, and bribery.
In November 2010, Lusibaea had been convicted of unlawful wounding and assault—the court said he had shot an unconscious man in both knees and struck a policeman with a pistol following a gunfight at a nightclub in September 2000—and was facing two years and nine months in jail. Riots broke out after sentencing, and less than two months later, he had been released, but was still unable to resume his parliamentary role.
“Australians, Australian press,” he said, “they want to interview me all the time. I don’t talk to them. I don’t bother with them anymore. I went to this Townsville peace agreements not expecting to be arrested”—he put the accent on the “ah”—“then they put me in jail. But you are Jewish and we are brothers.” He turned his eyes away from the road to lock into mine and solemnly announced that he was speaking off the record, then started banging on the wheel as he launched into a harangue that didn’t seem to require much in the way of direct quotation. Australians! Inviting him to peace talks under amnesty and arresting him on the spot. Taiwanese! Wanting to cheat him out of Solomon’s tuna stock. His enemies in parliament!
He softened to express admiration for his Australian lawyer, a woman who earned his respect by explaining that she had as much to gain from taking his demobilization case as he did—a kindred spirit, he said, returning to a more conversational tone. Together, in what Lusibaea now considers a sign from God, they decided to plead guilty and do the time. He presented this as a clever maneuver that left doubt about who had done what and what had actually happened. Lusibaea had one murder count dropped and was acquitted of the murders of two special constables who were allegedly killed in his yard. He served some of a five-year sentence for robbery in an Australian-built prison in Honiara, lifting weights, reading the Bible, finding God. Even off the record he refused to talk about his treatment. “You are lucky you are not Australian,” he said. “You would not be in this car.”
We arrived at a dirt road under construction, with tar drums set up as barriers. A worker in an orange reflective vest and hard hat rolled one out of the way. Lusibaea pulled over to him. The window came down, some words were exchanged, and a wad of bills several inches thick was handed over. “These are all Malaitans,” he said, the A/C racing to chase the blast of midday heat that had flooded the jeep. “My boys.”
Down the desolate warehouse-lot industrial-park feeder road, past two more checkpoints, was the compound of Lion Heart Plant Hire Road Construction and Heavy Machinery. We pulled in through a high gate into a football-field-sized yard, piled high with timber, strewn with broken-down and half-functioning diggers, shovels, graders, and dozers: late 1990s Korean and Japanese dinosaurs.
At the center was a shelter, with more “boys” at work molding cement blocks. (Of some 3,000 Eagles Force fighters, he explained, a good hundred and thirty, “plus many commanders,” still worked for him.) A few boats sat on trailers, one with an Israeli flag riding on the antenna.
Jimmy’s brother was there, a former lieutenant in the Eagles Force, wearing dark aviator glasses. When he greeted me, standing in front of his jacked-up 4x4 with a heavy array of field lights and surfing stickers, his lit cigarette bounced like a diving-board between his lips. At Jimmy’s insistence, I snapped a photo of them together, both flexing.
That orange Toyota dump truck over there, Lusibaea said, was his first war vehicle, and later his first business truck as well. It had finally given out, but sat as if in dignified repose around some other junkers, a scene that made me think of the World War II cargo ships that had hauled alien invaders to the islands.
In the Lion Heart business office, a curvaceous secretary was tabulating some receipts. Lusibaea’s interior office had a bulletin-board wall with aerial maps of North Malaita, his district, a full-size Israeli flag, photos of him and the Israeli aid delegation on a boat headed to his Barefoot Lodge, and a self-portrait in prison in front of dull gray walls in a small courtyard. The room was like that of a field commander for whom paperwork was an insult, action a reprieve.
The house improvements, he said, were modeled on a military outpost he’d seen in Haifa. The ground floor was now all cement block, a separation wall protecting a “party room” with a bar decorated in traditional anthropomorphic motifs. Chalk-covered workers were laying Asian bathroom tile on the outdoor staircase and mixing mortar for a fountain basin. The middle floor held lodgings for his wife and children. The top floor was a single-room apartment surrounded by tinted glass. Wood paneling and shelving nooks, stuffed with puffy furniture (and including a church organ), gave the room the feel of a pleasure cruiser that had run aground during a great flood and then hung on high ground after the waters receded. Lusibaea said, “I can see everything from here. All my workers. Anyone approaching.” His three Israeli flags flapped under the overhang in the hot breeze.
He showed me a plastic Korean Air bottle, filled in Israel, marked “JORDAN RIVER,” now half empty, “because old and sick people have heard about it and keep asking me for a little,” he said. Photographs of his warrior days were laminated or framed and tacked to the walls. One showed Lusibaea, standing with comrades in arms, banded in bullet belts, holding a giant automatic weapon painted with the words “WRONG BET” and a protective blessing in Fijian, his wife’s native language. Another had him on the bow of a boat surrounded by the rest of his military command, all heavily armed. “This is the day we attacked the armory,” he said. A necklace of shark’s teeth, a talisman of war, hung over the frame. “I don’t show this to anyone,” he said.
Firisua shortly joined us in the lot. Lusibaea was eager to get more Israeli flags from him. Firisua said, “Has he shown you the crocodiles?”
Jimmy Rasta had not shown me the crocodiles.
“That is why I’m here,” Firisua said. “I’ve heard about his crocodiles but never seen them. You have to have ‘right balance.’ I cannot be seen going in and out of Jimmy’s compound. It’s not good for the Israeli consular vehicle to go there. People will be asking, ‘What is he doing there in the compound of a former warlord?’ ”
Lusibaea didn’t disagree. We ambled together to the fishpond, a hole he had had dug to below the water table with an excavator. From the stilted pagoda that housed his free-weight equipment, we could look down into the greenish muck to see it teaming with what Lusibaea called “local tilapia.” “I just download it in Facebook just now,” he said.
Then across to a chicken-wire-and-wood contraption built over a cement pit, with a hand-painted sign on a swinging gateway that read “DANGER. Crocodiles. NO KIDS.” The pair of massive spiny reptiles inside looked sleepy, too heavy for their tiny legs, even in the shade of their Guantanamo cells. The larger one yawned, revealing a row of thumb-sized teeth.
“What do you feed them?” Firisua asked, looking to me all of a sudden extra fleshy and plump.
“Chickens,” Lusibaea said. He lifted his pant leg to note that his heeled black outback boots were made from the skin of a toothy brother of theirs. “I always wear my crocodiles.”
That afternoon, Lusibaea and I watched the soccer match pitting the Solomon Island Bonitos against the Fiji Bula Boys from the VIP box, a lazily cordoned-off central section of the 10-row covered grandstand. Despite the crowd rousing from a broiled slumber to lackadaisically rally “Go! Solo! Go!” the Bonitos missed a number of opportunities to score, drawing nil-nil. In the VIP parking lot, Honiarans streaming out came up to Lusibaea to shake his hand, calling him “Chief, Chief.” One of Lusibaea’s entourage handed me a copy of a printout, saying he had written and submitted it for publication in the Star. It was titled “Relationship,” and began “The Trip to Israel has drawn some very important destiny to all beloved Malaitans.” Before dropping me at Mother’s Union, Lusibaea told me about seeing Jerusalem’s lights from the Dead Sea and how because of visa trouble, he had had to fly through Fiji, separate from the rest of the delegation, who had gone through Australia. When I thanked him, he gave me a wink, flashed a smile both charming and menacing, and said, “No worries, mate. We are brothers.”
On the wide resthouse balcony, shoes off and showered, I read my Conrad, sipped tea, and ate pineapple, papaya, and four different varieties of banana, each sweeter, softer, and more fragrant than the next. The Pacific Islander II, a black Bali Hai cargo freighter flagged Panama, had pulled in to port and was being unloaded by scurrying men and machines. To the west, Savo sat brooding. Ferries and powered canoes set out on their final evening runs. I noticed that my nails had gone soft from lack of milk. I’d also taken to wearing like a talisman the shell necklace I’d bought at the Auki market.
The moment you believe the myth that the tropical island is a paradise, Conrad suggested, is precisely the moment that the island has driven you insane. Over the next few days in the capital, I caught what few sights there were to see, including the American-built Parliament building. I met several times with Firisua, representatives of the South Seas Evangelical Church, Jonathan and his cohorts. I ran into Pastor Kenneth on the street and made plans to go scuba diving.
Firisua liked to go to the Kokonut Café, an ocean-front compound with multi-level open-air restaurants, a beer bar, and a cove with captive dolphins who shared a swimming hole with schoolchildren. (A sign on the gate read, “Upon entry, all rules must be followed to ensure the safety of reptiles, mammals, staffs and customers.”) The place belonged to a Chinese immigrant whom Firisua admired. He was known around town as the Red Devil, owner of Red Devil Enterprises, which competed in many of the same areas of Jimmy Lusibaea’s Lion Heart Enterprises. Firisua liked to order a “light meal” there and relax with the view. “Most of the things we are looking at now,” he had said, “they are all forming based on a personal dream, a journey. Look at Jimmy. He knows more about Israel and the wars than me, because he read a lot of books about Israel. He has his own journey. This place”—sweeping his arm over the ocean, which was scattering a warm star-like reflection of sunlight—“where you are sitting now—is a long dream.”
Over lunch one day, Firisua, wearing a blue safari suit as big as a sail, gave me his best self-amused and pensive look and said, “Matthew, you must buy something here now, before the Solomons become the center of the world. You can live here with the dolphins.” He also explained to me his theory of self-effacement, part of which entailed him instructing his four sons to intermarry with other races, so that “there will be very little remnants of Firisuas on the island.” He proudly noted that one son was dating a Malaysian. A second liked a Dutch New Zealander. “If it goes according to plan,” Firisua said, “then there will be no more Firisua face. I will basically disappear. Just as Israel will physically change the place I am from. My wish is that after me there will be no Malaita and no Firisua left.”
He struck me as full of contradiction: He wanted to disappear but was physically enormous. He had no time but had spent the better part of several days showing me around. “Everyone loves Israel here,” he had said once when describing his plans for a consular building to replace the Emunah office in the Hyundai Mall. “It will have the highest security and a helipad.”
Me: This idea I heard from the North, that people were descended from Jews? What’s your position on that?
Firisua: In actual fact I am not in that line of thinking. First of all although there were scribblings or something that were sort of seen in the mountains or that type of worships and all that. I don’t work up into that. Because my idea of thinking is that whatever is there will be revealed at a later time, not now.
Me: How do you deal with that idea when you talk to the people in the north?
Firisua: It’s not just started. It’s started thousands of years ago. It has been coming through generations and generations that we left of port Yemen, maybe 400 or 500 years ago.
Me: You don’t believe that yourself, personally.
Firisua: No. What I’m saying is leave those things to surface at a later time. Because I don’t want to intertwine these sort of stories with what the government is doing and what my office is doing.
He went into a darker description of the challenges of island life. “Development aid has ruined us,” he complained. Asian timber concerns, fishing licenses, bribery, mining, corruption, thoughtless nascent tourism, the damage done to local culture. He ranted about Gold Ridge and about how the mines were extensions of the colonial domination that had been perpetuated by copra production systems set up to be unfair to the Islanders.
“When did the tensions start?” he asked. “Why did Malaita Eagle Force happen? They happened right after gold was found in the mine. It was no accident, Matthew. In the chaos that followed, all the gold left, and the mine has been shut down since.” He mopped his sweaty brow with a neatly folded handkerchief.
“Everything here happens because of outside business interests,” Firisua said, narrowing his gaze. “Look into it.”
At the dive shop, a dozen Taiwanese expats—recent arrivals, young couples: aid workers, and merchants—were gearing up to complete their open-water scuba certification course. They were going to be led down by an acne-covered, unhealthily skinny German who’d washed up here. For my private tour, I’d been assigned Victor Ono, a mustachioed, jovial Kermit of a man. Victor was an officer in the Royal Solomons Police Force, part of the submersion team charged with handling unexploded ordnances, examining new finds (a previously undocumented World War II wreck was spotted off Florida the month before), and recovering dumped bodies.
Driving to Bonegi I, our dive site, in a flatbed cargo truck, we talked about the separatists on Malaita. Victor found the whole thing ridiculous. Malaitans, he said, were “like beaten dogs after the tensions,” making noise. “They thought they were invincible,” he said. “And then we had enough and chased dem out of here.”
“But they took up arms,” I said.
“Yes, but what have they gained?” he said. “And these plans they are talking about? People they make fun of Malaitans, especially from the North. About them they say, ‘What is this bullshit they are saying?’ ”
We turned off the main road. Victor paid a “kastom fee” to some red-eyed betel-chewers at a bamboo gate, parked on the beach, and geared us up. He reviewed our safety checks: buoyancy, air, and releases. We waddled into the light surf, swam past the first reef, and then descended, squeezing air out of our ear canals, breathing as easy I could, settling into weightlessness and the rhythmic bubbling of precious gases. Ahead, the stern of the Hirokawa Maru took shape, leaning on its side. I followed Victor down along the massive steel vault, into a cargo hold, past a gun turret and coiled chain, all covered in living coral, nudibranches, giant barrel sponges, sea fans. At 30 meters depth we weren’t yet to the ship’s mid. Victor pointed to a sea turtle flapping carelessly around the wreck. A tuna’s silver hide flashed a reflected ray and then faded back into the blue.
On the beach, Victor checked my pressure gauge and laughed. “You were sucking it down!” I told him it’d been a while since I’d been below. We chatted about the hundreds of ships in that bay and around the waters of the Solomon Sea—their holds still stuffed with unsalvaged oil and World War II cargo, their nameless dead, and the commemorative wreaths solemnly sunk there every August by returning veterans. He rhapsodized about other dive sites, like the one near Florida, where Manta rays flock to drift tunnels to feed. He said he loved his work. “Every day I wake up and thank God for another day in Paradise.” If the Solomon Islands aren’t paradise, I thought to myself, forgetting for a moment about the sunken carnage in front of me, then there is no such place on earth.
On my last night on the island, at Mother’s Union resthouse—under the influence of Malaria pills and the rack of celebratory SolBrews I’d treated myself to at the Kokonut Café—I dreamt I fell off a boat, fully dressed, weighed down by all my packed bags. I sank, watching my notebooks soak, the ink lifting off the page and dissolving in beautiful black smoke-like swirls. In the morning, Firisua drove me to the airport, early enough for us to share a last cappuccino at an empty roadhouse disco. He wore a crisp blue shirt and tie and was headed to a ministerial meeting that day, he said, to press for one of his Memoranda of Understanding.
“Israelis and Jews will have a place,” Firisua said, making his final pitch. “They will have a synagogue here, feel the openness and the freedom. The Jews should have a second home, why not on the opposite side of the Earth?” Through his arrangements, his oldest son, 21, would be headed to Sde Eliyahu, a religious kibbutz in northern Israel, after living with a Jewish family in Australia for six months. “He might become the first convert,” he said.
I thanked him, said goodbye, and stepped through airport security. Once on board, I began to shiver and sweat; I’d surfaced from my last dive on Iron Bottom Sound with a late-blooming fever. Over the course of four flights, I begged Polynesian, then more flatly Asian, then blandly American flight attendants for blankets, looking more and more homeless as each brutal leg of the trip brought me closer to home.
At LAX the U.S. immigration officer in my line’s glass booth briskly waved through the morning rush from the Pacific rim. When I stepped forward, he slowed down. “Solomon Islands,” he said, wryly. “Where’s that?”
“Yeah. Exactly,” I said. Nothing I’d heard for weeks had been face value.
“No, really,” he said, looking suddenly more stern. “Where is it?”
“The South Pacific?” I said. “Northeast of Australia?”
He softened and then shook his head in disbelief. “Solomons. I’ve only ever heard of it from storybooks.”
In the following months, back in New York, I received periodic missives from the void, reminders of having experienced, as opposed to having dreamed, this other Israel. From Patrick Taloboe, the man with tribal scars on his face: “There seems to be more for the world to know about our Malaita province.” From Firisua, written in a formal but off-key 19th-century colonial bureaucrateze, with cordial inquiries after my health, and with every number followed by its numeral in brackets: news of the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding [MOU] at Rarotonga; news of Kate & Will’s royal jubilee ducal visit: “the people were so excited and so many happenings throughout the three  days. I was invited for the official dinner at Government House and it was truly an Island feast.” His self-effacement worked: As time passed I found it harder to conjure his girth and jollity, his lumbering, flip-flopped realness. As his message grew in me, his massive frame shrank, much the way a returning astronaut, having set foot on the moon, then sees its horizon recede into a globe, then a marble, then a single dot.
I received a handwritten cursive A4 letter via Solomon Royal Post, in an onionskin airmail envelope edged red and blue, signed by Franklin Daefa. It was headed CONCEPT REPORT underlined with a ballpoint against a straight edge. “After your visit to me and our sacred site, land,” it began, “our House of Hosts Committee met to evaluate our discussion.” I was officially “approved” as an “appropriate link for the Jews of the U.S.A. and even the Land of Israel.” A list of recommendations followed:
1: Your firm will act on our behalf in contacting a prominent Jew in U.S.A., to delegate our messages.
2: Our first message to our brother Jews consists of our confidental standby assistense (sic), when Jews are confronted. This message is sent by the House of Hosts to assure the Jews in Israel, that help that exceeds all material supernatural powers in coming, after arrangements had been finalized.
And so on. I was told to treat “paragraph 2B” as “very confidential,” and warned to “delegate to your most trusted Jew person,” so as not to be “expose to threat.” But Franklin also had grievances to air. Against the consul in particular, with increasing aggression and resentment: “Our last request is a suggestion,” he wrote. “It would be for best interest of the nation of Israel and Malaita people for the Government of Israel to replace our Solomon Consular with a competitive one thank you.” Through Radio New Zealand, the rudimentary websites of the Star and Times, and Firisua’s updates, I learned that Jimmy’s wife Vika Koto had won the North Malaita by-election, becoming only the second woman to serve in the nation’s parliament; she was promptly muzzled by her husband from speaking with the Australian press. That week’s Star also ran a report on the visit of a prominent Papuan evangelical leader, under the headline, “Solomon Islands Will Prosper, Says Man of God.”
In late November, 188 of 193 United Nations member states voted on a symbolic resolution to raise Palestine’s status to “non-member observer”—that of the Holy See. The United States and Israel vigorously opposed the measure. The Solomon Islands’ U.N. envoy, Ambassador Colin Beck—sent to New York a month after delegates from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Solomon Islands Ministry of Home Affairs signed a Memorandum of Understanding touting bilateral ties—was expected to vote with Israel, as did Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Panama. Instead, Beck went rogue, voting with the majority. Two weeks later, he was recalled to Honiara. Firisua was quoted in the Solomon Star as saying, “It is truly a sad day regarding the friendship Solomon Islands share with Israel.” And in February, a tsunami killed at least nine and left hundreds homeless.
The handful of postcards I had sent from Auki never arrived. But I was most eager to finally watch the tale promised in Franklin’s documentary, The Lost Temple Discovery! Part One. I delivered the VHS cassette Jackson Gege had given me to a professional digital transfer joint in midtown Manhattan. Later that same day, I took a worried call from a clerk there. “I’ve tried everything,” he said. “But now I’m certain. There is nothing on this tape.”
The greatest voyages are genuine leaps of faith that propel explorers across the emptiness. Voyages of discovery set out to find not what is lost or buried but what is yet to be found. Often in the history of human adventure we launch in anticipation of one thing only to stumble onto something else entirely—something equally unknown and equally wonderful, which is also a version of ourselves.
In my mind, the globe, in all its full roundness, grew a new axis: a rod running from Jerusalem through to the middle of the South Pacific, a mere 3,000 nautical miles east of Honiara. But the more I thought about the strangeness of the Israeli-Malaitan ties—despite the evident realpolitik advantages, the logic of missions, and the generosity, if not moral engagement, of foreign aid—the harder it was to grasp their origins. The conviction that Yoel Siegel and Leliana Firisua seemed to so effortlessly display never moved me, except to marvel at. I occasionally fashioned Malaitans as antipodean versions of the settlers of the West Bank, reclaiming ancestral land and pride in the way rock by coral rock they piled into the lagoon to make their village of Langa Langa. (In fact, Israel had recently suggested building an artificial island off the coast of Gaza.) And hadn’t the State of Israel, in the last decade especially, made physical separation a guiding principle of its security? In 2005, two years after the first continuous segment of the West Bank Barrier was erected in response to the Palestinian uprisings of the Second Intifada, IDF engineers proposed a 2-mile, 25-meter-deep moat along the Gazan border with Egypt, to thwart smuggling tunnels there. It was never built, but the idea of Israel as an island in a sea of hostility remains a powerful and oft-used metaphor. On Rosh Hashanah of 2012, in the wake of the surging upheavals of the Arab Spring, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toasted a gathering of his political party by calling Israel an “island of stability amidst the storms.” That parallel to the Solomons—island nations, island peoples—held me for a while, but then, as I worked through what little relevant Melanesian material I could dig out of the archives of the New York Public Library, and re-read Conrad’s Victory, the notion lost its strength. “An Island is but the top of a mountain,” Conrad wrote. Sometimes, his character said, “It seems as if everything that there is had gone under.”
What had drawn the Malaitans and the Israelis together? Israel was shoring up support in a dangerous world and trying to spread a little prosperity, grooming a back-up protein supply, maybe even nurturing a future vacation spot, while piggybacking on a strange confluence of myths and beliefs. Yet two things in particular stood out, awaiting their proper explanation. The first was how Firisua had said, “The Jews know all along there are blood ties on this island.” The second was the tattoo on young Moffat Maena’s grandson’s arm—not the Star of David, but the name in large print on his forearm: Maekali, the name of the warrior who prompted the Maenas to proclaim “we are all Jews.”
One afternoon in the NYPL reading room, under the high vault of its tropical-colored ceiling clouds, I was handed a slim volume titled Lightning Meets the West Wind: The Malaita Massacre, by the anthropologists Roger M. Keesing and Peter Corris. By its card I was the first to check it out since 1982. When I sat down to read it, I quickly discovered to my amazement that Maekali was in it. So were the blood ties.
At the heart of what Keesing and Corris recount is a story of a people in “partial isolation,” living in a world both timeless and continuous, with mortal enemies just a valley away, in a realm broadened by cosmic myth. An island people will see themselves as the center of their universe, until forces that build beyond the horizon appear unannounced and doom them. From the mid-19th to the early 20th century, white masters “recruited,” coerced, or kidnapped natives of Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, and the rest of Melanesia to pitilessly work the sugarcane fields of Queensland, which became part of Australia. This human traffic was known as Blackbirding, and it engendered blood vengeance for lost kin, enough that in later years the ships that plied these trades were known to spill broken glass on deck to discourage surprise attacks by barefoot warriors. Besides the brutality of forced exile, the spread of disease, and indentured servitude if not outright slavery, Blackbirding also left a shortage of labor at home that kept early Solomon Islands colonial plantations from flourishing. British administrators—“small men with myopic vision,” as Keesing and Corris call them—dealt with unruliness through punitive actions.
On both sides, murderous human hunting expeditions sought to settle accounts. But a dark business such as this is never settled. On Malaita, an island regarded in Victorian England as the wildest place in the whole of the British Empire, the cycle of death and reprisal dates back to at least the 1880s. Jack London, who sailed a yacht to Langa Langa in 1907, was one of many adventurers to spread lurid tales of white men being “tomahawked,” bloody slaughters, “village massacres,” and “vessels burning.” (“His head remains in Malaita.”) The Perth Western Mail of Sept. 28, 1907, for example, corroborates in a typical item in a round-up of Commonwealth news: “A good deal of unrest prevails at Malaita, one of the Solomon group,” it reads. “As the result of a punitive expedition an islander was killed by shell there, and the natives swore to be avenged. An order was sent forth that a white man’s head was wanted.”
From the “native” side, revenge was most often carried out by a ramo, a kind of warrior-leader-assassin, who was part of a customary triumvirate of clan leaders, together with a priest and a feast-giver. Ramos were feared, and they worked for hire, or for bounty. “Most often, killing on Malaita began with the violation of the rigid sex code—with seduction or adultery,” Keesing wrote.
In 1927 a sympathetic district officer named William R. Bell prepared, as part of his bureaucratic duties, for a modest show of strength in the Kwaio region of central and north Malaita. On Oct. 4 of that year, a Tuesday, with his collection team in place north of Auki, Bell invited the gathered Kwaio, led by the warrior Basiana, to pay what Her Majesty was owed. According to Keesing’s retelling, Basiana paid first. Then he gathered his rifle from a pouch nearby, tucked it under his arm, and rejoined the line to await a second turn at the collection table. Once there, Basiana lifted his weapon over his head and smashed the butt down into Bell’s skull, exploding it.
Exactly how many Malaitans died in the official punitive expeditions and brutish justice that followed is hard to establish. At least 60 Kwaio and To’abaita were shot by marauding, drunken, mercenary “people hunters” who could not be contained by poorly equipped naval escorts from the capital at Tulagi. Malaitans had never seen such horror. Village constables and neighboring tribes were suddenly and immediately forced to choose between rebellious alliance with the Kwaio’s outgunned warriors, or complicity with the powerful colonial forces. People were herded into talkhouses only to be hanged from the rafters. Holy sites were desecrated, ancestral skulls paraded as trophies, shrines toppled, causing a massive disruption in the tribe’s sacred relations with the past. Those like Basiana who ran soon realized the limits of the territory; they surrendered, were captured, jailed, and hanged, or summarily killed. As one 80-year-old quoted in the book recalled, “ ‘When they destroyed our shrines and villages, they destroyed all the good things in our lives.’ ”
As ruin was brought down on Malaita, Maekali, one of Bell’s former village constables, was caught between his British overlords and his own kin. As Keesing notes: “A few [of the constables and former police] remained staunchly loyal to the British, keeping small bands of followers; they and their factions have been liberally rewarded ever since with development schemes, schools, and other benefits.” A few days after reading this, I checked with Moffat Maena that the Maekali tattooed on his grandson’s arm was the same of the Bell incident. It was, he said. He called Maekali a warrior, a chief. Micah’s great-grandfather remembered—and was in his way a participant in—the massacre of 1927, which had inked his great-great-grandson’s forearm with a mind-spinning mix of pride and shame. Maekali rests now in a family burial plot, under a flat cement vault, behind a fence made of orchids, in the center of Emmaus Village, next to a 20-foot flagpole that flies the colors of the modern-day State of Israel.
What I learned from my journey was not, as I expected, that Joseph Conrad was right about islands and the darkness that lives inside of our fantasies of paradise. Rather, that from the seeds of history, a single tree grows. World War II washes ashore, prophesied by tribal ancestors and evangelists alike, as foreshadowed in photographs of white soldiers grinning at Malaitan skulls. Blood feuds became “land disputes.” Anglican missionaries became Anglican missionaries. Capable colonial administrators like Bell became international technical and agricultural advisers—Taiwanese, Australians, New Zealanders, Japanese, Israelis. Constables became honorary consuls. Ramos became warlords. The Malaitans read their own history in the history of Israel because they, too, in living memory, had suffered a physical and spiritual Holocaust. As the ancestral saying goes, “Bukales I Fouango e sula no’o”—a sapling once bent, springs back; forces set in motion must carry to their conclusion, even to the ends of the Earth.
Solomon’s Island, by Matthew Fishbane, is a production of The Atavist and Tablet Magazine, published March 2013.
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Author: Matthew Fishbane
Matthew Fishbane is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Virginia Quarterly Review, Salon.com, Outside, The Walrus, Boston Review, and other publications.
Photos: Matthew Fishbane, unless otherwise noted
“Marines At Guadalcanal” Newsreel: Department of Defense / Department of the Navy, National Archives
Hymnal: performed by members of the South Seas Evangelical Church, recorded May 2012, by Matthew Fishbane
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