Island encounters

| September 7, 2021

The first time I visited the island of Timor, I was there for an hour.

The passenger ferry I was travelling on through the eastern Indonesian archipelago had docked just long enough for me to jump in a waiting taxi and do some shopping. I wanted to buy tais – the famous Timorese woven cloth.

Tais purchased in Dili in 1997. 

Yet, as we drove to the local handicrafts shop, I felt a little unnerved.

The streets were near deserted, eerily so. There was not a tourist in sight, and the local people stared at me blankly. Still, the owner of the handicrafts shop greeted me enthusiastically.

I looked through the piles of cloth he had on display and chose a boldly coloured one with Portuguese-inspired patterning, a design that marked it out from all the Indonesian ikat cloth I had seen elsewhere.

Engrossed in my choice of cloth, I didn’t notice that the taxi driver was hovering around me nervously. He was anxious to get going.

When we arrived back to the docks, I found out why. The ferry was pulling off its mooring and the gangplank was already raised. Yet the sight of a 20-something white girl stranded alone by a taxi on the docks was enough to bring the captain round.

He returned the ship back to its mooring and the gangplank was lowered. As I boarded, a battalion of on-rotation Indonesian troops cheered me on wildly. I was horrified at having created a spectacle. The ship set sail and I found a place to hide on the upper deck.

It was from there in 1997 that I first studied island Timor.

Lunch in the rice fields. 

Like the cloth or tais I bought on my first visit to the country, this is a story told by the threading together of the warp and weft.

The lengthwise ‘warp’ dwells in the experiences of the two decades of my involvement with Timor-Leste and, more particularly, the months I spent travelling with my family from west to east across the island.

The crosswise ‘weft’ is made up of the stories and ideas that shuttle back and forth across the island to create the shared fabric of Timorese people’s lives.

These often deeply cultural stories and ideas weave and continually reweave together the past, present and future. They connect not only the people but also the languages, lands, waters, animals and plants that comprise this rich and varied landscape.

These are reoccurring stories across time and space that are suffused with ideas about the profound life-organising significance of insiders and outsiders, the mountains and the sea, the trunks and the tips, the darkness and the light, family and marriages, traditions and modernity.

The threads of these diverse preoccupations cultivate and nurture relationships, revealing layered interconnections between people and the land and an astonishing depth of historical attentiveness.

Language policy was and remains a flashpoint issue in the tiny nation. Used often as a tool to wield power and status, divergent views can trigger deep recriminations and anger on all sides.

Rice fields and mountains in the kingdom of Lookeu. 

While Portuguese and Tetum eventually became the new country’s designated official languages, with Indonesian and English as working languages, the status and recognition of indigenous languages has been more opaque.

Amid, at times, controversial public debates, some Timorese have forcefully continued to assert colonial ideas that consider indigenous languages to be backward or unsuited for the modern world.

Some raise concerns about the potential for the official indigenous language policies to divide rather than unite the country. Others have more mundane concerns, and some parents who are fluent in indigenous languages – but who worry about their children’s educational future – ban indigenous languages from being spoken at home.

A minority of public advocates are more supportive: they recognise that the majority of rural Timorese primarily speak one or more of these indigenous languages at home and they have advocated for these languages to be recognised in the national curriculum.

Language is, of course, not the only controversial post-independence issue.

So, too, in the early years was the status and role of diaspora Timorese, many of whom were returning to help rebuild their country after spending a large part of the occupation overseas.

Most Timorese people grow up learning that knowledge is partial, that your perspective depends on where you are from. They know, too, that rural Timorese norms and customs are different across the country; sometimes they are even different in the same village.

Sunrise at Jaco. 

They know, because they continually do it, that ‘truths’ about places and histories and cultures are worked out in the moment, in context, and in constant negotiation with others.

Even so, given the chance, most Timorese will forcefully put forward their particular view of the world.

Foreigners in Timor are inclined to be in search of facts and absolutes. Hence, when an individual Timorese speaks about ‘their culture’, these outsiders don’t hear it as partial—they hear it as fact.

My work as an anthropologist and geographer forces me to pay attention to the partial truths and constant negotiations that make up people’s lives. Because I am trained to think this way – to pay attention, listen, observe and unpack the nuance.

As I have come to know more about the richly interconnected worlds of Timorese cultural and ecological communities, I have also learnt about their life pathways.

I have begun to see and, more importantly, feel the connections between people, their lands, waters, local histories, politics and associated rituals of life and death.

As I have investigated these connections as an academic, people often explicitly ask me to record and take their stories to those in power.

I have come to realise that people do not share their stories without reason; they expect me to weave something new with their knots and threads.

As the cloth takes shape, so too do my obligations to these people and all their varied aspirations.

This is an edited extract from Associate Professor Lisa Palmer’s new book Island Encounters: Timor-Leste from the Outside In, published by and available through ANU Press.

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