JAKARTA, Indonesia—He didn’t say much in Indonesian, but it was more than enough.
Whether thanking his hosts for going to the trouble of making his favorite food or recalling the shouts of street vendors from his childhood, President Barack Obama’s every utterance in a speech Wednesday morning at the University of Indonesia was met with laughter, applause and a swelling feeling that he belonged to this nation of islands.
After two previously planned trips were canceled, Indonesians initially seemed reluctant to get excited about the visit. But all was forgiven once his plane touched down.
“It feels like he’s a brother who disappeared for a long time and then came home,” said Rini Mustika, a 29-year-old secretary, who was at a cafe eating chicken porridge for breakfast when Obama’s speech began on TV.
No one seemed to care about U.S. foreign policy or trade or relations between Islam and the West. On this trip back to his boyhood home, the personal—not the political—was king.
“It was so touching when he said, ‘Indonesia is part of me.’ And the way he spoke, so calmly, with so much familiarity, I feel like he’s so close to us,” said Ida Syaidah, a 42-year-old housewife who lives on the outskirts of Jakarta.
As the boys played a game in the courtyard of Obama’s old elementary school, the girls ran over to a TV set with the live broadcast—the only place the speech was playing at the
Menteng 1 school.
They were bursting with the energy that young girls normally reserve for pop idols—and Obama seemed more like a rock star to them than a president.
What would they ask the American president if he had visited his old school, on a side street of a shaded, upscale neighborhood of the capital?
“Can I have your signature?” Qinthara Taqiyyah, 9, asked in English.
“Can I take a picture with you?” Audrey Haironisa, 9, added, also in English.
She added that she wanted to ask to visit his house—”the White House,” she recalled after a pause—and play with his daughters, Malia and Sasha.
The students said they were happy Obama was in Indonesia, but would have been happier if he’d come to the school.
With little prompting, they broke into a song written for Obama, singing at the top of their lungs, as if it were a chart-topper.
About 150 protesters gathered in front of the Istiqlal Mosque as Obama and his wife, Michelle, received a tour. Some of the protesters wore masks of Obama’s face with the eyes cut out.
They were not Islamic hardliners, however, but were members of a small political group that sought to make a statement about economic domination of the West. Riot police kept them a few hundred feet away from the building.
The mosque is Indonesia’s largest. Obama walked in stockinged feet through the prayer room, underneath the dome and across the sprawling courtyard before he went to the university for his speech.