Posted by: biblioglobal | November 4, 2014

Timor Leste: Beloved Land (Book-from-every-country #60)


Beloved Land by Gordon Peake. Published 2013.

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.


  1. I remember the indpendence of Timor Leste …I was in second year in my Ph.D and we had a number of students from Indonesia and Malayasia and other neighbouring countries as fellow students. When the news of independence reached the University, there was a “mourning event” among the Indonesian students, for they had grown up being told by the goverment, parents, schools that Timor was integral to Indonesia and they saw this ‘independence’ more as a sucession of a rebel state! But that I guess is always the view from the “colonizer” while the “colonized” believe its their independence!

    • That’s really interesting. I should have mentioned in my post that this book was definitely very much pro-independence. My vague sense of the issue before reading the book was that both sides had some merit. I came away from it with a sense that independence was clearly the ‘right’ thing. But that’s dangerous since I have only read one perspective.

      • I agree…I mean while I was/am pro – indpendence, I cannot turn a blind eye on the fact that I belong to a country (India) torn my terrorisim which fuels all kind of successionist movements (namely Kashmir) – the militants call it independence, I/we call it rebellion and the truth, somewhere lies hidden in-between, neither black or white!

      • Yup, reality is always complicated. I read a book about Kashmir that I thought was really good and reflected the complexity- In the Valley of Mist by Justine Hardy.

  2. I read your post a few days back and I remembered it again today. The part about the language situation was so interesting for me! I suppose it has something to do with my linguistics education and so on, but still – having laws in a language you don’t understand, and not being able to write in the language you actually speak, it sounds so… I can’t even put my finger on it. I think this will be yet another “must-read”.

    • Timor Leste is probably an extreme case, but there are probably a lot of countries where it is hard to figure out what language the laws should be in. I remember reading in a book about translation (“Is that a Fish in your Ear?”) that the European Union writes its laws in multiple languages, all of which are supposed to be counted as the ‘original language’ of the law. So sometimes, if something is ambiguous about a law in one language, the courts will look at how it was written in another language, to see if it was clearer there. I think that’s fascinating!

      • I haven’t really thought about it. Though I live in the EU… That really is fascinating!
        And about another story that came to my mind – I always get emotional or excited when I think of language cases like this. I remember how I got all sad when I heard about two women who were the only ones speaking a small local language somewhere up north in Europe… I just felt something in me get crushed when I realized that soon no one would ever talk to their children or say how much they love someone in that language.
        See? I’m getting all emotional again.

      • It is very sad when languages are lost, especially the way you express it. At the same time, I like the idea of people from far away being able to communicate with each other. I don’t know how to reconcile those two things.

  3. How so very fascinating! I remember the independence but I had no idea the country began as a Portuguese colony or that there were so many language issues.

    • The same with me. I knew that there was conflict and then independence, but I had no idea why or what the history was.

  4. I haven’t written any blog post on my site or commented on a my favorite blogs for the past few months (this PhD is killing my blogging life haha!). But I’m just very happy not to leave something here. I’m so glad you were able to read this book. The interesting points you’ve mentioned like the Timorese migrants to N. Ireland and the reconciliation process of the country are also what I find interesting and admirable, respectively, in Timor-Leste. This brave and resilient country is a great example of how the western-centric concept of justice and reconciliation may not be useful, and sometimes, hurtful, to the healing of a post-conflict country. It’s just admirable how they effectively used their own traditional justice system to forgive the past and look ahead to the future.
    Once I get ahead of my timeline, I will go back to your previous posts and perhaps read those that you’ve reviewed. Thank you. Obrigada (as they say in Timor-Leste. Portuguese!). 🙂
    It makes me think of what book from or about the Philippines that could be of interest to you and hopefully be included in your list. Cheers!

    • I’ve been having the same problem with grad school and blogging lately, so I definitely understand. You can always get back to it when time/inspiration permits.

      I’m finding the topic of reconciliation really interesting and something I would like to read more about. For my Rwanda book, I read a book called The Antelope Strategy, an oral history that focused on the question of how the victims and perpetrators of such horrific violence are able to live side by side. The answer for many people seems to be just not talking about it. From a Western perspective, that feels wrong- you’re always supposed to face problems and deal with them. Avoiding problems just makes it worse. But the people interviewed in Rwanda gave very compelling arguments for why it was better for them to just not talk about it. It was really eye-opening for me.

      I don’t have a book in mind yet for the Philippines yet, so if you have a recommendation, do let me know! And thanks for suggesting Beloved Land, I learned a lot from it.

      • I heard from aaa conference that when it’s difficult to assign guilt or identify perpetrators of a crime, approaches like that in Rwanda and Timor-Leste are more effective and stable.

        Yes, I will think of something from/about the Philippines. See ya around!

  5. Thanks for your review! My next book will be on the islands of the Pacific so you might be able to knock off a bunch of countries all at once. Gordon

    • That certainly sounds interesting. I will have to check it out!

  6. […] Land, which was recommended by fellow around-the-world book blogger biblioglobal, who wrote a pretty complete review of it, so if you find mine lacking, go check that one out. Another good review and summary was published […]

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