Arbiru. It’s an adjective and adverb in Tetum. Quite useful and on a list of words that are important and tough to translate. Interesting that I grasp for other Asian words in the English language to translate its meaning. Somewhere between kamikaze bravery, running amok, randomness. As a memory aid, I would think “arbitrary” in English.

Arbiru can go right and it can go wrong. It is somewhere on the edge of chaos, and something essential to the war machine.

Looking through Luis Costa’s Tetum-Portuguese dictionary, I notice that there are few words in Tetum that have ar- as a prefix. The only other words from Tetum (Terik) are aruma (meaning whichever, whatever) and aran (meaning to hate, synonym with hirus).

But the word’s second and third syllables are more potent. A biru is a totem, or an amulet, possessing power to turn its holder invincible in war. Falintil guerrillas used these.

It hardly seems a coincidence that this amazing map, annotated by Xanana Gusmão, of the eastern part of Timor, depicting the crucial dates 1983-85, was named “Talismã” (or biru). The map is from the Archive of the Resistance.

But apparently biru is more about invincibility than the actual object, and it is not something harnessed only by Timorese. From a recent Tempo Semanal article about a meeting between Coronel Lere and ex-Indonesian army official Prabowo [my translation]

“Before we shot at each with firearms but now we just shoot with words,” Coronel Lere said.

“At that time, Mr Prabowo’s biru was strong and mine was too because of this we didn’t hit [each other],” said Lere who received him with a smile.

Another character that comes to mind in this discussion of [ar]biru is the “white” Falintil called Niki Mutin, meaning the “white bat”. There are lots of urban legends about this guy, who appears to have been a ginger-haired Australian man. One is that he was ex-SAS. Another that he killed Indonesians. He apparently stayed with the Falintil for years during the 1990s.

But as historians can tell us, the original malae “Arbiru” was a man named Francisco Duarte, who was sent to Maubara in the 1890s to reign in some rebellious groups. Read more about him here, in this text by Geoffrey Gunn.

With any luck, I can convince a friend to write more here about this Duarte character, and this temptation towards a Heart of Darkness reading of (post-) colonial Timor.

3 thoughts on “Arbiru

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