26th April 2022


25 minutes read

Attila Bartis

God, White, Man

translated by Thomas Cooper

26th April 2022

25 minutes read

Seven years ago, as fate would have it, I arrived in Indonesia for the first time in my life, on Vesak. Vesak is the celebration of the birth, enlightenment, and departure from earthly existence—or Parinirvāna—of Gautama Buddha. Parinirvāna cannot really be called death, much like the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. From the perspective of the sciences, even clinical death is not death, because death is the place from which no one returns, and no one moves on. Death is Nothingness. Not the place where something is absent temporarily, but where there is only and irrevocably Nothingness. Living like this is impossible of course. One either has to come back or move on, but there is no place for man in Nothingness.

Vesak is a bit like Christians celebrating Christmas and Easter on the same day, and something else too. Something we can’t celebrate, because in the case of Christ the Son of God, it would be hard to speak of a single moment of enlightenment. Perhaps the day of the Sermon on the Mount, or the first miracle, but that’s no good either. Fortunately, it’s not up to me to find in my own religion what best corresponds to Buddha’s enlightenment.

Buddha was a teacher. We know that. His goal was not all that different from the goals of the other great teachers. To bring an end to suffering, at least to the extent possible. Like the other great teachers, he believed that one of the essential preconditions for an end to suffering was that we should not cause suffering to others. While it’s not entirely clear that he emphasized this principle more than others, what sets Buddha apart is that not a single follower used his teachings to cause suffering in the name of the one True God and the one True Good. Admittedly, due to this lack of militant missionary disciples, Buddhism did not become the most successful religion in history. And that’s what interests us here: the fact that Buddhism isn’t so successful.

The most successful religion thus far in history is Islam.

True, on paper there are at least half a billion more people who follow the teachings of Christ than there are Muslims, but the statistics do not touch on the question of who we consider a follower of a given religion. Someone who has a paper indicating that they were baptized at the age of eighteen months, or someone whose life from cradle to grave is shaped by the norms of the given religion, whether they believe in the Almighty or not. These kinds of statistics are most eagerly churned out in the West, where statisticians regard one’s actual beliefs as utterly private and all that matter are one’s papers. The statisticians are wrong. Belief is indeed private but it isn’t necessarily a condition of religious life. And religion itself is not a private affair but a communal one. The analysts who respect individual rights could have learned this from the communists even, who didn’t dare take down the crucifix in Polish school classrooms for forty years.

My religious identity is solid. I am a Christian. I am also Catholic. And the fact that my faith is weak and unstable doesn’t change a thing. I need a God. Sometimes God presents Himself. Usually momentarily, I admit. But there were moments in my life when I didn’t merely long for God, assume the existence of God, consider God necessary, but truly knew the existence of an Almighty with the same certainty that makes me know the visible world around me. True, even in these moments my faith was not so strong that I would have laid down my life for God. But the God I experienced didn’t ask for my life.

If my faith isn’t strong enough for me to lay down my life for God, then why bother so much with my religious identity? What is it anyway? A mere cultural identity? Yes. If culture includes everything created by the human spirit, then my faith, my religion, is part of my cultural identity. My faith is not linked to nature.

Neither my racial nor my sexual identity is exclusively a cultural product. Anyone who, in an attempt to legitimize an idea, divides culture and nature with a surgeon’s knife, as if the two had nothing to do with one another, is probably making the same mistake as someone who, in an attempt to legitimize a different idea, invokes nature where nature has no role and no place.

But when it comes to the Lord God, a link is missing between me and nature. We can be more or less sure that we have a conceptually determined self-image, and that this self-image is a precondition for the conceptually determined image of God.

I have no answer to why God must exist. And not only do I have no arguments for the existence of God, but I also have no clear, vivid, stable image of God. The only thing of which, with a clear mind, I can be certain is that any idea I have of God is mine alone, or perhaps that of my community, but no person has ever lived on earth, their deepest faith notwithstanding, who had knowledge of God Himself, and not of their own image of God. Much as there is no person alive who has experiential knowledge of death, and not just of clinical death.

I say that I am a Catholic, and no one can take that away from me, I’d be bad even as a Unitarian. According to the teachings of my religion, I don’t belong to my religion. The fundamental precondition for being a Christian is the unquestioning acceptance of divine filiation. One cannot simply appeal to one’s right to liberty and change the dogmas of a religion just because one doesn’t like them. It’s possible, with power, to ban a religion, persecute it, or found a new one. But the given religion will always decide who is a member of the fold and who is not. That’s just the way it is, alas. And more so than two plus two equals four. It’s not four because a mathematician has more liberty than I do, but because it is his prerogative to decide. No one will ever ask me what I think. Either I know the answer is four and I’ve completed the first grade, or I don’t know the answer and I have to repeat a grade. This alone is the reason I will never have the right or the means to change the dogmas of a religion, and if anyone thinks they have the right to do so, God save us all from their rights to liberty.

Within the Church, one can debate whether celibacy is a wise and useful tradition or not. I can hope someday that there will come a pope who will take it upon himself to ensure that the abolition of celibacy in the priesthood will be recorded in the history books alongside his name. But even if celibacy is abolished, this will not change the fact that Christ rose from the dead on the third day, ascended to heaven, and sits to the right of God the Father. Anyone who does not believe this cannot be a Christian, or a Catholic for that matter because the word Christian is a synonym for this item of faith.

Then what makes Unitarians Christians? Because it is better to have peace. But one could hardly find any other argument. The question now however is not what makes a Unitarian Christian, but what makes me a Christian. Even a Catholic. For a man past the age of fifty, after all, it hardly suffices to say that I am a Christian because I was raised as one.

I wasn’t.

People don’t usually remember their baptism, but I do. I was five when I was baptized for the sake of my paternal grandmother’s peace of mind. This was the only incident in my upbringing that would help explain my Catholicism. My mother was a Calvinist because her mother was a Calvinist. My maternal grandfather was Greek Catholic, so my mother’s brother became Greek Catholic. I became a Roman Catholic only because tradition dictates that a son follow the religion of his father and a daughter that of her mother. Had I been born a girl, I would be Calvinist. Or unbaptized, as baptizing me would have done nothing to soothe my maternal grandmother’s restless soul. And as my mother did nothing to hasten my baptism for five years, probably she would have done nothing to hasten it later too.

Then what makes me a Catholic?

Because after a fairly long period of crisis, I accepted relatively late, around thirty years of age, that I would be no better Unitarian, Jew, or Buddhist than I was a Catholic. That there would always be an unbridgeable chasm between my worldview and the worldview offered by any religion. But nor does it fit my worldview that I should deprive myself of religion entirely. I need sacrality, rituals, a house of God. I need tradition. I need it even if I don’t follow it. All that happened, in the end, was that I was suddenly able to accept the irresolvable contradiction between the dogmas of my religion and my worldview. It was not the church that had to accept me. I had to accept the church.

True, my religious life is of no interest to anyone these days, at least within my own cultural sphere. I had to come to Java, the largest Muslim community in the world, for my religious affiliation to be of any concern to anyone. Here, the first question is what religion I belong to. The second is my name.

Back home, I don’t know the religions of some of the people closest to me. Not that I don’t talk about God with my friends, but in the Western world it’s not just church and state that are divided. From many perspectives, God and religion are divided. In the case of my Jewish friends, I probably know in almost every case whether they follow their religion or have converted, or whether their grandparents converted, or whether they are atheists. Of my Muslim friends, I know without exception that they are Muslim. I have one Hindu friend, who I know is Hindu. In the case of my Christian friends, I don’t know. Though that’s not entirely true either, because I do know which confession my Romanian friends belong to. I know who is Orthodox and who is Greek Catholic. I don’t have any Buddhist friends, only friends who have wanted to become Buddhists for many years, but for some reason, God only knows, haven’t managed to pull it off.

But when it comes to religious belonging, what I know about whom is no longer a question about God.

And my gender identity is now more interesting than whether or not I have a God.

My gender identity and sexual orientation are as plain as can be. I am a heterosexual male. There is hardly a more primitive, problem-free identity. I would trade years of my life to know what it is like to be a woman, to feel, see, give birth, love as a woman, but this desire has nothing to do with any kind of insecurity concerning my identity. It is more akin to wanting to know God himself instead of one’s image of God.

In any case, one of the greatest mercies I have been extended is that my gender identity has never caused any crisis for me. That’s not to say that sexuality can’t ruin my life, because of course: that can ruin anyone’s life fairly easily. But at least God has spared me unnecessary suffering, fear, humiliation, possibly even prison or some forced treatment. And it doesn’t hurt to keep this in mind. That even in my Western, enlightened culture, a culture not only fighting for rights but winning them too, it is still easier to be a heterosexual man than a heterosexual woman. And easier yet than being a homosexual man or woman. And a thousand times easier than being someone who is not sure where he or she belongs. One should keep this mind not simply as a matter of good manners, but because anyone who doesn’t keep this in mind fails to grasp the full meaning of their gender identity. Of its place in the world. And identity is precisely this: the place I fill in the world.

When I arrived in Indonesia on the day of Vesak, I had a sense of national identity, a gender identity, and a religious identity. Not counting my identity as a father, a writer, a photographer, and all the other incidental identities one doesn’t bother with much, until suddenly there they are. For a long time, I never thought that I had a civic identity. Then suddenly I was forced to reflect on this question, and it turned out that I do. But the three pillars on which the rest is built were firmly in place, if not without some chips here and there.

My friends took me down to the shore. I saw the ocean for the first time in my life, at least as much as one can see of an ocean after dark. We sat on a bench made of bamboo, and a woman at a warung, a small family-run shop, served us some es jeruk, calamansi orange juice with ice. From here, if one looks straight out at the ocean from Parangtritis Beach, the nearest land beyond the horizon is Antarctica. To stand on this coast seems a bit like standing at the end of the world, even with the eyes of the Javanese. For me, 12,000 kilometers from home, it certainly is.

And then the warung woman said something to my Hungarian friends living here, and I learned my first Indonesian word: bule.

White. That’s what “bule” means, nothing more and nothing less. And it can be pronounced with an array of intonations, implying an array of meanings. A bule can be a demigod, who is more beautiful, better, cleverer, but above all richer than a Javanese. A bule can be a miserable fuckwit who is afraid of snakes in the rice fields and doesn’t realize that when the motorbike’s brake lever is hot, to pour a bucket of cold water on it and it will work again. At such times we smile at the bule politely, and when they turn around, we laugh. The bule is the person we dupe at the market, or, on the contrary, the one we’re careful not to dupe even by accident, lest they think we would stoop to duping them. A bule is a “free-sek,” because the Javanese can’t pronounce the letter X, but even without it, the term means that a bule engages in sexual activity with anyone, anywhere, at any time. Especially if she’s a woman. Completely regardless of whether she’s a university student, a university lecturer, or whatever, a bule woman is free-sex, or in other words, a whore. True, Javanese rules of etiquette do require us to be reserved and endearing to a bule woman, but if she is willing to converse with us, after the third sentence, a Javanese young man might pull out his phone and scroll through his collection of porno shots as if it were the most innocent thing in the world. And hang his head in shame if, as it so happens, she’s not interested. He didn’t mean any harm, that’s what he was taught, nothing is more interesting to a bule woman than a collection of pornographic pictures. That’s what he was told him at home, at the mosque, at school, but even experience confirms it, because if the woman sitting beside him has her shoulders uncovered and her dress only reaches her thighs, then why wouldn’t she be interested in these pictures?

It was only then, in May 2014, I realized that until that moment I’d never had a racial identity.

I had a national identity since it would be quite impossible not to have one growing up as a member of the Hungarian minority in Ceaușescu’s Romania. And not just a slowly developing national identity, but one that was decided for a lifetime before I even learned to read and write. I admit, were I asked to explain what it means to be Hungarian, I probably would be more stumped than if I were asked about God. Especially if I had to define my Hungarian-ness not by what it isn’t, such as non-Romanian, but rather with some plausible statement of what it is. My mother tongue, I might say. Ignoring those who are cherished Hungarians, but don’t speak their mother tongue, and those who speak it better than I do but aren’t too fussed about being Hungarians.

I would never suggest that what we cannot define precisely does not exist. This has probably become one of the greatest pitfalls of Western thinking. That what cannot be defined does not exist or is at least dubious. The nation, for instance. But there are nations, much as there is love and a great many other things that cannot be defined or squeezed into a formula but still are. The absence of a definition means the absence of a definition, nothing else. And of course, it is difficult to talk about something for which we have no definition. Or to talk about it precisely. Without contradicting ourselves. But I’d probably have one or two moderately plausible thoughts were I to be asked: What does it mean to be Hungarian?

The only thing that never occurred to me until May 2014 was that I am, first and foremost, white. Though I had taken several trips to the Middle East and three to the Far East, I had never realized what I came to realize at that moment, thanks to the courteous, kind words spoken by the warung woman. That I am not just Hungarian or, in a slightly broader sense, not just European, but white.

And the very first meaning of white in the non-white world is that it is more foreign than the foreigner. So much so that were I to fall in love with a Javanese person, get married, have children, maybe learn all three forms of Javanese in addition to Indonesian, and even learn more about Javanese culture than the Javanese experts on Javanese culture themselves, and were I to convert even, it won’t change the fact that I am a bule. A white foreigner.

A bule may receive more positive discrimination than negative. A bule may find it annoying at times to be treated with such exception. But if a bule is in an accident, he or she will pay up even if a local was at fault, and heaven forfend that a bule ever be so rash as to involve the authorities.

On Java, everything that is meaningful to me about my national identity is utterly uninteresting. Aside from a few very exceptional cases, no one gives a rat’s ass about my Hungarian-ness, and it was some time before I happened across the few exceptional cases. What was immediately and vividly clear to me was that my identity as a white man would be my identity for the duration of my stay, even if it were the rest of my life.

I wonder what would happen if it weren’t me arriving in Java but someone from Java arriving in Hungary. Let’s see. Let’s suppose my grandfather was still alive. Alive some thirty or maybe forty years ago, in Transylvania, in the village of Szárhegy, Lăzarea by its Romanian name. There and then because it would be well-nigh impossible to find a plausible parallel between the two, but the lifestyle in Szárhegy at this time corresponds to the lifestyle of today’s Yogyakarta. The four million inhabitants and twenty universities in Yogyakarta change nothing. It’s a village. Small-plot farming. Hand threshing, plows drawn by cattle. Friday prayers here, Sunday mass there. In one place, donations are collected to help a neighbor whose house has collapsed in an earthquake, in another, alms are gathered for a family whose house has been struck by lightning.

So let’s have my grandfather sitting on the porch, his life behind him. Including everything from the first dance with his bride, to the time he spent as a Soviet prisoner of war. He’s seen Oláh Roma, Russians, Slovaks, Italians, Armenians, Jews, and Gábor Roma too, perhaps them the most. In his eyes all Roma steal, and he wishes the antichrist himself would smack them in the ass because they’re ashamed to ask but not ashamed to steal. He’s looking at Big Creek Street, and the street looks like it does in reality, a dusty dirt road. Csabi Pál trundles past in his wain, as he does every day. “May the Lord’s blessings be on you,” they each say.

Then old Rafi happens by, the tinsmith, a Gábor Roma. He lives at the far end of the village since the Gábor Roma would never mingle with the Oláh Roma. He and my grandfather discuss the repairs they will do to the gutters in the spring. They drink a jug of sour plum wine on the porch. And this sharing of wine on the porch is an unwritten law. My grandfather is polite enough never to say to Rafi that he has no business going in the kitchen, and Rafi is polite enough never to ask my grandfather, Feri, why are we sitting on the porch when winter has shrouded half the land in frost? They sit and drink wine as they usually sit and drink wine. Sharing the troubles of life.

And now, from across the creek, over by Zárug the Armenian’s shop, comes an Indonesian man.

Anyone who expects my grandfather or even old Rafi to see this man approaching from Zárug’s shop not as a complete stranger, but to see him through the prism of critical thought, anyone who expects my grandfather to make space for the skirt-wearing, short, brown stranger beside him on the porch – at least as much as for Rafi – undoubtedly has nothing but the best of intentions and wants what is beautiful and good. But that person either knows nothing about human nature, and that’s a problem, or knows a lot, but doesn’t bother with it in the slightest. Which is worse.

By human nature, I am referring to the qualities which, although they date back to animal times, later helped further the construction of human communities and societies. And then helped protect them. Or to subjugate another.

Alas, it matters little how good or just an ideal is. Those who forcefully transform it into reality always do so based on the law of the jungle. They always follow the laws of nature, even when it’s that same laws they seek to override. They follow natural law just as those who defend their territory and possessions do in the name of another ideal and another law of nature. This is not worth despairing over or denying, because it is not bad. Nor should we rejoice, because it is not good either. It is a simple, but inescapable fact, which has its uses and its curses in equal measure.

In social struggles, no matter how morally just the cause may seem on the surface, down below, raw natural laws are always clawing at each other. That this Indonesian man is a complete stranger to my grandfather is not a good thing. Because it has nothing to do with good or evil, right or wrong. It is natural, and we have known for a long time now that nature knows no ethics, no law, no rights, no aesthetics. The law of the jungle has nothing to do with the jungle, after all, we just have to give it a name.

The Indonesian man will be Black to my grandfather, but even to Rafi, though Rafi’s skin is darker.

The name for a person who arrives from beyond the village, regardless of why has always been: Stranger.

If he stays for a night in a hayloft and thanks to the people of the house for breakfast with a “God be with you”, then he’s a vagabond. If he stays at the inn, spends a pile of money, and takes pictures, he’s a tourist. But he is still a stranger.

And he’s no more of a stranger to my grandfather than my grandfather is to him. The only difference between them here is that one of them is at home. Anyone who leaves this out of their critical thinking is forgetting how to think. From the moment this hypothetical Indonesian man crossed the creek, it will take a hundred years for Szárhegy to become home. And that’s doing well, since, in Indonesia, a Chinese man may still not feel at home though his ancestors arrived in modern Indonesia some four hundred years ago. And I don’t mean that he feels merely a bit out of place. No, he is so out of place that though his ancestors lived in Java before the first Muslims arrived, though he is a citizen, though his grandfather fought against the colonizers, to this day he cannot own Indonesian land. Even the little piece of land on which his own house rests. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, he can only be a full member of the nation as a tenant.

In Indonesia, the Chinese are regarded much like Jewish are in Central Europe. The Chinese man is the man who lives here but isn’t Indonesian (though one can be about as Indonesian as one can be Czechoslovak, Yugoslav, or Soviet, the Lord God Himself has never seen an Indonesian, at most a Javanese, or a Sundanese, or a Papuan, or any other of the three hundred nations living in Indonesia). The Chinese man might be a businessman or an intellectual, and never sets foot in the rice field. The Chinese man is too driven, which means he likes to humiliate the Indonesian. The Chinese man has expectations that are too high, his house has to be cleaned properly, t so clean you can eat off the floor, not just a pass of the feather duster over the porcelain, otherwise, he’ll talk to the Indonesian cleaning lady as if she were a dog. Indeed, the tone of the Chinese man is worse even than that of the Malaysian, and yes, the Chinese man has a dog because the Chinese man is godless. The Chinese man has good connections and can get anything taken care of, apart from being a military officer or a policeman, or a government official. If he does happen to become a member of government or even the governor of Jakarta, one only has to alter a single word in the speech uploaded to YouTube so that, instead of building sewage systems or elevated railways, he ends up spending two years in prison for desecrating the Koran.

The second Indonesian word I learned, on the ocean shore on the day of Buddha’s enlightenment, after bule, was not “thank you,” but “Chinese.”

So one hundred years. Or at least as much time as it took from the abolition of slavery to the day when a Black man could use a white man’s bathroom. In a very good case, perhaps only as long as it took between the Second World War and 1968, when the West German student went home from the student protests and asked, for the first time in his life, “Dad, what were you doing before 1945?” To which we add two decades, when he was asked by his own child about his own past, and as a once rebellious student turned respectable citizen, he was able to answer his child with his head held high.

Of course, if one can apply the so-called law of the jungle effectively enough, if one can assert one’s interests with no care for the costs, then one can cut these one hundred years down to as little as a couple of years. Alas, one finds no precedent in history when this has not cost many more lives than the number of those it benefited. So far, the solution with the least bloodshed has always been for my grandfather to share some wine with Rafi on the porch first, and twenty years later for me to share wine with Rafi’s son in the kitchen.

The only person whom I can expect to overcome what is almost impossible for a human to overcome, the only person I can expect to share wine with Rafi not on the porch but in the kitchen, the only person I can expect to see the Indonesian man approaching from Zárug’s shop differently from how my grandfather sees him, and differently from how the Indonesian may see me, the only person against whom I commit no act of violence when I override their internal natural laws, in fact, the only person against whom I can, and sometimes must, commit such an act of violence, is myself.

written by

Attila Bartis

More about the author

Issue 01


More about this issue

translated by

Thomas Cooper

More about the translator


God, White, Man by Attila Bartis
The Hungarian novelist Attila Bartis on the necessity to consider his white identity in Indonesia, and what lies at the roots of racial prejudice.