The Devil’s Weed: Smoking, Indonesia and the Strongest of Links

Rarely can there have been a country so in thrall to tobacco as Indonesia. Indeed, even the most cursory glance reveals a symbiotic link ‘twixt leaf and nation: the smoking of cigarettes informs every facet of existence is in some way. Enjoy a kopi susu or percedel in some roadside joint, or savour the sambal in a warung, or take a bus journey across the wilds of Sumatra; everywhere, everything and everywhen will there exist the pungent aroma of nicotine.

The most notorious brand, of course, is the ubiquitous kretek. Ostensibly a clove cigarette, its reach extends far further than a mere vessel of smoking. No; Kretek, as typified by Sampoerna et al., exists as an icon or a totem, a cultural signifier every bit as redolent of Indonesia as the dragons of Komodo, the stupas of Borobudur or the volcanic folklore of ancient Kelimutu. Its sweet odour and iconic crackle stimulate the senses, massage the synapses and create a liminal bond in a way few other substances can. So much so that the slightest aroma engenders the creation of a minute Indonesian facsimile, gathering together millennia of culture, history and conflict into a single action which forms and evaporates as the smoke catches in the wind and floats away into eternity.

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