Timor Leste was one of those countries that I worried about finding a book for when I started my book-from-every-country project. It’s both one of the world’s newest countries and also quite small! (Though still big enough to require three books if I were reading the world logarithmically) Luckily I came across the blog of TheBlackTwig who was working and traveling in the country and who recommended The Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles and Secrets from Timor-Leste by Gordon Peake.
The Beloved Land is a mishmash of travelogue, light history and sociology, focusing on the process of forming a new country.
The basics of Timor Leste’s history (since I didn’t know it before reading): Timor Leste was a Portuguese colony for a really long time. Except that Portugal mostly ignored them and didn’t do much colonizing. When Timor Leste finally got independence in 1975, Indonesia invaded and took over within a few days. Decades of guerilla warfare ensued until Timor Leste regained independence in 2002.
Given its history, I thought the fact that the book’s author was from Northern Ireland gave him an interesting perspective. It turns out though that Northern Ireland also has another connection with Timor Leste. For some reason, large numbers of Timorese immigrants work in Northern Ireland. The chapter focusing on those immigrants was really interesting.
Gordon Peake spent a number of years as an international aid worker in Timor Leste and a lot of the book focuses on criticism of workers for the U.N. and other organizations who were in the newly formed country to help it come into being. Sometimes I got tired of his complaints about how bad the other aid workers were- that they didn’t learn the language, didn’t spend time with local people, didn’t stay for long enough to really learn what was going on. His overall points seemed reasonable, they just got a bit repetitive.
The language situation was really interesting. The lingua franca of Timor Leste is a language called Tetun. Tetun didn’t have ‘status’ as a language though, or standards of writing or grammar. Also the aid workers helping to get the country going didn’t speak it. So most of the country’s laws got written only in Portuguese, the other official language. The problem being that almost no one in the country actually speaks Portuguese! The Portuguese, as rather disinterested colonists, hadn’t taught the language extensively. Under Indonesian occupation, the Portuguese language was a rallying point for the independence movement and Indonesia banned the teaching of Portuguese. So when East Timor gained its independence it was a point of pride to have Portuguese as an official language even though fewer people actually speak it than either English or Indonesian. As a result, the country ended up with laws that most of the legislators couldn’t read, and government officials didn’t know how to enforce. (According to the Wikipedia page on Timor Leste, Portuguese is now widely taught and now about 25% of the population understand it, as opposed to 5% in 2006.)
Another major theme of the book was that the motives and behavior of the East Timorese are just too hard for outsiders to understand. I found that attitude of ‘these native people are just so mysterious’ to be a bit frustrating, though I suppose it’s better than drawing unfounded conclusions. I was intrigued though by the amount of forgiveness displayed by many people in the book. The independence struggle in East Timor involved a lot of violence and and several atrocities. It split families onto one side or the other. In so many countries, conflicts like that have caused ongoing problems. Yet in Timor Leste, there seems to be remarkably little resentment now about what happened in the past. There was an outbreak of violence in the country in 2006, but the sides in 2006 didn’t at all match those from before independence. Person after person that Gordon Peake interviews is remarkably forgiving of people who did terrible things to them or their families. (This cultural pattern does have the drawback that people get away with some pretty bad things.) Peake isn’t really able to understand what is going on beyond invoking a complex web of family and social ties, but I would love to get a better explanation.