The garden of earthly delights

I feel the need to respond to Pedro Rosa Mendes’ critical meditation on Timor’s existence published last week in the Público. To give you an idea, the piece is peppered with subheadings like “The Indonesian occupation was implacable and the Timorese leadership is dismantling with zeal all that was left: dignity”.

One feels in reading his writing, that he is describing episodes, scenes, moments in time — much is repulsive, screaming out from the Timorese landscape. It’s a bit like a large canvas, where different scenes are occuring in different places, but there is unity in the way in which the scenes jar and disturb.

He paints a grim picture [my translation]

The sympathy for the Timorese cause stagnated into an ideal of society and of the individual that is disproven by frustrating daily experience. Ignorance, trauma, misery and neglect, with a sprinkling of the poisons of complacency, paternalism and piety, have made banal behaviors of predation, dishonesty, egotism and bad-faith. Solidarity, generosity and gratitude are in the minority. What is criminal in other places are common rites, in the Timor of today, in offices, businesses, in the market, in traffic and in the home.

The “historic leadership” rules over the impossible country, in passive civil disobedience, that thinks and acts as though everybody owed them everything and as though everything was for the taking, from the Petroleum to investment to international attention. Coveting and social jealousies infect the workplace, the political, social, and even familial spheres. “Here everybody gives orders and nobody obeys,” to cite an old Timorese [man] educated in principles which have since lost their value in the country.

Reaction to Rosa Mendes’ writing was swift from Portugal. It was called “a punch in the gut” to the concerned Portuguese public, whose illusions and romantic ideas Rosa Mendes so forcefully shoots down. Xanana himself even commented on the piece, which was timed for his state visit to Lisbon.

Few of Rosa Mendes’ points are far from my own impression of the state of things. And I have thrown myself headlong into histories of violence in Timor for the past couple of years, so the nightmarish is never far away for me.

And yet, with distance, I’m able to focus on the spontaneously positive parts of the sometimes grotesque landscape. (For example, Veronica Martins’ luminous tais pictured below. Or the NGO Forum’s forceful broadside addressed to the Prime Minister and his coalition called simply “The Law does not only apply to small and poor people“.)

Perhaps I mention Portuguese agronomist, anthropologist, artist, and poet Ruy Cinatti too much here. But he really touched a nerve when he captured a paradoxical feeling of connection-alienation with Timor. When he wrote in devastating verse “The Timorese will only be right/when they kill me” he was not only expressing the profound injustice in colonization. He articulated how a raw encounter between the self and the Other provokes a (sublime?) impulse to self-destruction. It drags us away from comfort and towards dark reaches of our being.

(I would argue this “raw encounter” and its impacts are not necessarily unidirectional, not only coming from an unequal power dynamic between West and Other. It bears asking: how has the intense, “raw encounter” with the malai changed the Timorese?)

It is the collision of Construction and Destruction. On facing panels.

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