Stealing with the Eyes

Stealing with the Eyes
Stealing with the Eyes

Stealing with the Eyes, published by Haus Publishing in May 2018, is memoir of anthropology, art, sickness, witchcraft, and unpaid debts, set in the Tanimbar islands of Indonesia.

Back in 1994, I travelled to Tanimbar Islands (Indonesia) as a trainee anthropologist. And there I met three remarkable sculptors: the crippled Matias Fatruan, the buffalo hunter Abraham Amelwatin, and Damianus Masele, who was skilled in black magic, but who abstained out of Christian principle.

Part memoir, part travel-writing, Stealing with the Eyes is the story of these men, and also of how stumbling into this world led me to question the validity of his anthropological studies, and eventually to abandon them for good. Through my encounters with these remarkable craftsmen, and weaving together Tanimbarese history, myth and philosophy, I explore the forces at play in all of our lives: the struggle between the powerful and the powerless, the tension between the past and the future, and how to make sense of a world that is in constant flux.

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A beautifully written evocation of a journey into the village communities of eastern Indonesia, and a remarkable meditation on the uneasy business of travelling to foreign lands in search of stories.

— Tim Hannigan


Chapter 1: An Exorcism of Sorts

I still dream of Tanimbar. I dream of scattered islands and atolls, of rocky bluffs and of cliffs that plunge down into the blue-green water. I dream of fleets of outrigger canoes putting out to sea for sea cucum- ber. I dream of journeys on foot up the coast roads at night, the stench of forest buffalo hanging in the air. I dream of frigate birds that wheel and circle over my head. I dream of heirloom gold that flashes in the sunlight like the plumage of fighting cocks. And I dream of the sun, shattered into a million parts. These dreams do not come frequently, but when they do I wake with a nagging sense of unease, a mixture of nostalgia and gratitude and regret.

The last time I dreamed of Tanimbar was some months ago. The dream was so vivid that when I woke in the pale light of an English spring morning, my heart beating fast, it took me a few moments to realise where I was. Beached upon the sheets in the morning light, feeling the tides of the dream pull back, I realised that it was twenty years since I had touched down in Saumlaki.

Later that morning, I took down the old cardboard box that sat on top of my bookshelves and opened it up. Inside were sheaves of letters, tattered photocopies, plastic boxes of photographic transparencies. I held up the slides against the light, one by one. The transparencies were turning green with age. Each slide was like a tiny illuminated flash of memory. As I looked through the slides, names and half-remembered Indonesian phrases returned to me. I had a strange sense that I had unfinished business with Tanimbar, or that Tanimbar had unfinished business with me. I had debts to discharge, obligations to meet, even if I was not sure what these debts and obligations were.

I packed the slides away. It was then I realised that after two decades I wanted to write about Tanimbar. I wanted to pass on the stories I had been told, to trade in things half remembered and half forgotten. It would be an exorcism of sorts. It would be what in Tanimbar they call – or they once called – a mandi adat, a ritual-law bathing that squares all accounts with the past.

I packed the slides and the photocopies and the letters away. Then I went out into the spring morning to clear my head.


“In this moving and elegantly written account of a remarkable journey, Will Buckingham captures the rhythms of village life in eastern Indonesia and asks important questions about the troublesome business of travelling to far-off lands to steal with the eyes – and with the pen.” — Tim Hannigan, author of Journey Through Indonesia: An Unforgettable Journey from Sumatra to Papua.


Coming soon!

Years ago, I put the research report that I wrote in Indonesia online. I have just revamped the website, and you can find it here:

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