From on high

Yesterday morning I serendipitously saw Daniel Groshong, a friend of Mercenary Professor who friends from university will most certainly remember fondly. Groshong is a highly talented, committed photographer. Mercenary and Groshong met in the intense moments of crisis in 1999 here. When I was Mercenary’s “research assistant” – read: sat in his office telling people when he would be back, and researched footnotes for him – we were attempting to put together a photographic archive of the crisis. Groshong was very interested.

Well Mercenary has since moved on to a new PTSD-creating area of the world. (He only got over Timor with the help of Reiki and his new partner, who was also here. We are still waiting for his memoir about Timor, with Byron epigraphs and all!)

Before coming to Timor, I had seen the Turismo Timor-Leste website and been really impressed with the colorful and highly attractive images featured there. Turns out many of them are Groshong’s!

Groshong has spent the last three years committed to his labor of love – a glossy, coffee table book revealing the unexpected beauty of East Timor. (Please visit the site.)

This book is intended to “sell” Timor as a tourist destination, but also simply to counter the two most common images of the place: first — bloodthirsty, genocidal and conflict-ridden and second — “exotic” far away Asian poor island. The tear rolling down a child’s dirty cheek. The exotic trance-like dancers of the tebe-tebe, and the mysterious tall Lautem sacred house.

The production is very attractive, the color spectacular. It contains notes by Bill Clinton, Kofi Annan, Xanana and Ramos-Horta. He self-published this book out of Hong Kong, where he based. He is currently working out the distribution of the first print run, which is no small task.

I met up with Groshong and some of his friends and we go to talking about how the “Report” – i.e. of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the current political crisis – is being anticipated rather like the word of God. Perhaps somebody should go up to Mt. Matebian or Mt. Ramelau (oops, then more rancor over East and West) and “receive” the Report.

The Report was originally to be released October 7, and then the 8th and now everybody has given up waiting. Many traumatized Timorese have their bags packed in case things get dicey, even though some sources say it will be released only two weeks from now. (The UN has a track-record in Timor of deceiving over dates, in 1999, it announced the referendum result four days early, catching many off guard, possibly putting them in danger.)

This Report is rumored to contain over 100 names of people guilty of the sin of commission, that is, giving out arms during May and June of this year to civilians. And more people are apparently accused directly or indirectly of the sin of “omission” – turning a blind eye to such activities.

I hate to anthropologize here, but it seems worth mentioning that many kingdom’s origin myths, or mythical histories, contain stories of internal conflict, followed by the invitation to an outside family or group to come and resolve the conflict and wield political power.

One of “my” kingdoms comes to mind. Babulo claims that the “house” (or clan) with spiritual authority has “always” had this, but that at one point political conflict caused the kingdom to invite “clever” people down from the slopes of Mt. Matebian to mediate and take over political power.

When I was in Lospalos, Otelo said that the elders of Likerekere, near the tip of the island, tell of how they used to “invite” outsiders with sort-of makeshift gigantic wax-candle “lighthouse.” It’s unclear whether this was a mere invitation to trade, or whether they actually ended up asking these outsiders to wield political power. But waves of arrival from the East seem to have obliterated the “original” languages. Easterners can remember an order of arrival, connected to current-day groupings and languages.

One of the most famous works of anthropology about Timor, written by Elizabeth Traube looks at the fascinating connections between cosmology and colonization in the Mambai mountain culture. She writes, “Mambai have not passively submitted to colonial domination. They have endeavored actively and creatively to make sense of their colonial situation drawing on preexisting symbolic categories.”

She was one of the first to detail the “absorption of their colonial rulers into a cultural order,” the interpretation of the Portuguese as the returned “younger brother,” invited to take over politically, as long as the “older” maintained authority over spiritual matters. This was a consensual and “logical” cooperation, according to the Mambai view. (Traube, as an aside, was one of the few “old school” anthropologists to vehemently speak out against “integration” with Indonesia.)

It’s interesting to speculate how this paradigm of strategic handover of political authority at times of crisis (if it is at all useful) might affect the current “modern” political crisis.

I find myself rather stunned at how people are looking to this report as the final word. It’s not a legally binding document, a legal process.

Perhaps the most frightening thing for Timorese is exactly that there can be no “handover” of power, that this is merely a “neutral” analysis of who is right and wrong, with no guarantee of mediation or control from the outside.


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