Portuguese, a fatherland

There is an old man who sells cigarettes and phone cards near my house, which is on the Malai Street, in the common thinking.

In theory, because of the number of restaurants and the presence of the major internet cafes and ATM, this is the number one place for malai activities in the city, but it’s been very quiet lately. Even the “street children”, who live with their families only three blocks away, seem to have had to resort to creative forms of entertainment. Last night they seemed to be having diabolical laughter contest.

Back to our old man, one of the few older man always around. Most of the phonecard, newspaper and cigarette business is dominated by younger men. This katuas (elderly man) wears the same red t-shirt and tapered jeans and flip-flops every day. The t-shirt reads “A minha patria é a lingua portuguesa” (My fatherland is the Portuguese language).


This quote, by Fernando Pessoa, appears out of context on the t-shirt, so those who don’t know better deem it bizarre, misplaced Portuguese propaganda and little else. But in fact, I was recently at a PhD Thesis defense about Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon, and I learned the fascinating context of this quote.

Fernando Pessoa was/is one of the most compelling literary and cultural figures of the twentieth century in Portugal. With his “heteronyms” (full literary personalities, not mere pen names) he created a richness and diversity of mostly poetry and some prose that will entertain scholars and readers for centuries. Beyond his iconic “image” (glasses, fedora, mustache), he was an emotionally complex person who believed that genius and madness went together. He recognized both in himself from a very early age.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Pessoa is that from a very young age, he was bilingual in English and Portuguese, and had a significant amount of French. He spent his formative school years in South Africa, where he attended posh English schools. The first couple of years of his writing, late adolescence, have been largely dismissed as dabbling by scholars in the past.

Well, said Pessoa Scholar, an eccentric guy in his own right from Bogatá (who has recently got his due in the Portuguese media) pointed out rather polemically at his thesis defense, that statistically over a third of Pessoa’s gigantic espólio, or archived works, is not in the Portuguese language. When reading Pessoa’s early notebooks, largely in English, we see that he appreciated the playful qualities of the language. He was by no right “orthodox” in his use of language.

Pessoa Scholar went out on the limb, before a tough jury, to point out that the famous quote on the old man’s t-shirt is often heinously taken out of context. Apparently Pessoa said “A minha patria é a lingua portuguesa. Que a invadam!” (My paraphrasing.) In other words, My fatherland is the Portuguese language. I hope it’s invaded!

Let’s try to imagine Fernando Pessoa finding out that this quote was reprinted on t-shirts in Timor, with money from the bilateral aid budget.

At least the t-shirt is high quality, the old man seems to like it a lot! It’s the kind of shirt that is washed once a week, and taken straight off the line and put on again.

I have yet to see if this old man speaks Portuguese. It is possible that he is conversant in Portuguese, only older people are, and rich young kids. (The only news reported by Lusa yesterday from Timor-Leste is that the Portuguese school increased its enrollment this year. The Portuguese school apparently costs $5/mo., whereas public schools are about that per year.)

The issue of language is extremely thorny here, and lies below a lot of the gripes and politics of the moment. For example, apparently, the “Petitioners” were not receiving promotions not because they were Westerners, so much as for not speaking Portuguese. Obviously Fretilin and certain personalities in the FDTL have really pushed the importance of the Portuguese language. They spoke it in the jungle, they continue to speak it in the halls of power. The other day I heard Lu Olo, the speaker of parliament giving a speech in Portuguese in a taxi. I asked the driver if he understood it. The answer, no.

My Tourist friend, who is a professional translator, seems hakfodak, or stunned by the language issue. Everything seems so messed up. How can this all work? He and many think that Tetun is going to have to become a full working language, a language of debate and record.

I do too, but I see its current limitations. It seems that everybody is so used to conducting serious, technical conversation in either Indonesian or Portuguese that nobody is willing to invest in Tetun for this purpose. Ironically, it’s probably at some UN-sponsored “working groups” where local NGO people mix with long-term malais where the language is being stretched to its limits.

In this current political context, looking at the original context of the “fatherland” quote, “Que a invadam!” (I hope they invade!) illustrates how loaded the language issue really is. At the moment the Australian left and most of Portugal sees the current crisis as bald-faced attempt by Australia to “take over” Timor’s affairs — an imperialist “invasion” of sorts. And of course when thinking of the unfading influence of the Indonesian language, looking to Timor’s recent history, the word “invasion” conjures up all too real and horrible imagery.


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