asakiyume: (Timor-Leste nia bandiera)
If you're going to meet an actual hero, a freedom fighter and former political prisoner who helped birth a new nation--that's YOU, Mr. Xanana Gusmão--you would do well not to be 45 minutes late. Alas, Google maps misled me about how long it would take me to drive from my house to the Pell Center, in Newport, Rhode Island, where Mr. Gusmão and a panel of distinguished experts were going to be talking about the future of Timor-Leste. And then I made a wrong turn at the very end and got lost. By the time I was driving down Bellevue Avenue, past RIDONCULOUS mansions, I was more than a half-hour late. But damn it! I did not drive all that way just to ... go home again.

Finally I found the place. A guy waiting in a bus kitted out like a trolley told me yes, this was it.

The talk was happening in a room with gilded Baroque-style accents.


between entering and **the kiss** )

I hung back in the hallway, hoping to somehow say something, anything, to Xanana. I knew I wouldn't really ask him if he could shapeshift, or if he'd like to collaborate with me in writing a story based on this experience, and I didn't want to just gush that I was a fan, but I wanted to say **something**.

And I got my chance. He walked by and saw my expectant face and stopped and smiled at me. And I started blurting out that one small thing he'd done that made me admire him was get out and direct traffic one day in Dili, when there was a traffic jam. I think I said more presidents should do things like that. But before I got two words out, he had lifted my hand to his lips and kissed it, all the while looking at me with an expression of friendly affection.

I can see why people would die for him--or better yet, live and struggle for him. He was EVERY BIT as charismatic as I thought he would be, and then some.

asakiyume: (Timor-Leste nia bandiera)
A Woman of Independence
Kirsty Sword Gusmão, with Rowena Lennox
Sydney: Pan Macmillan Australia, 2003

One curse of a life of intense action is that you may not have much time for reflection, not much time to take stock. You’re too busy doing. This certainly seems to be the case for Kirsty Sword Gusmão, who plunged into activism on behalf of occupied East Timor in the 1990s and didn’t emerge for air until—well, ever. There has always been, and continues to be, just too much to do.

A Woman of Independence captures this perfectly—the rush from one thing to the next, the clamor of small matters demanding attention while momentous matters loom in the background:

My whole day had been taken up with the petty problems of the rapazes [boys]. It was a tiny job really, this passing on of information between various parties, but it felt big and time-consuming enough to prevent me from articulating and recording my own thoughts and responses to the events unfolding around me.

Those events being, in this case, her impending visit (in 1995), on behalf of the imprisoned independence leader Xanana, to guerrilla commanders out in the field. And very soon she’s on her way to attempt that meeting, stopping to give a letter from Xanana to the wife of one of the guerrilla commanders:

[Olinda] wore the years of physical hardship and the pain of separation from her husband on her face. Nevertheless, as I handed her the envelope from Xanana, I noticed that her eyes gleamed with satisfaction, a tear threatening to escape down her bony cheeks. She had spent many years in the bush herself, having given birth to her son, Benvindo, in a guerrilla encampment in 1986. The food shortages and absence of medical attention led her and [her husband] Aluc to decide to place the infant in the care of Aluc’s father in Los Palos town. But the child was kidnapped en route by an Indonesian lieutenant-colonel who no doubt wished to use Aluc’s boy as a bargaining chip in the effort to force the Falintil to surrender. Olinda had not seen the boy since.

devotion to the cause )

Kirsty on education )

Overall, though, what’s best about A Woman of Independence are the hundreds of dramatic encounters and interactions that Kirsty describes—a revolution seen from the inside, recounted in vivid detail.

It's been more than ten years since the book was published, and Kirsty has continued her work. She’s been active advocating education in mother tongues (coincidentally, today is International Mother Language Day), as well as maternal and child health and welfare through a foundation she established for that purpose, the Alola Foundation. She’s spoken out against Australia for the bad faith it has shown—as evidenced by spying—in negotiations with Timor-Leste over oil reserves in the waters between the two countries, and when a vice-minister of education made a flippant remark regarding allegations that the principal of a Dili high school was preying on his female students, she turned the discussion back toward "the impact of sexual harassment and coercion on girls and their education."

Oh and one other thing? When she does find a free moment, she apparently isn’t averse to reading science fiction:

The following day I read a novel … hoping that the concepts in the book would help give some form to the thoughts and emotions clamouring for attention and expression in my tired brain. The novel was an eclectic blend of sci-fi and cyber-punk—pure, way-out escapism. The phone didn’t ring all day and I’d finished the book by early afternoon.

Any guesses what it might have been? (She doesn’t say.) The year was 1995.

asakiyume: (Timor-Leste nia bandiera)
A bit back I posted about spirits that live in geodes in Timor-Leste. Here's a real-life example people interacting with the spirits. It sounds like something from an old folktale--only it's from 1994. I came across it in the memoir A Woman of Independence, by Kirsty Sword Gusmão. She, you may recall, is the wife of Xanana Gusmão, the current prime minister of Timor-Leste. In 1994 Xanana was in prison in Indonesia, and Kirsty was his English teacher and liaison. They were communicating only by letters, and Xanana sent Kirsty this letter, regarding a photo she had been given to send to him, of a boy in an orphanage, a boy Kirsty had been told was Xanana's son.

My dear, thanks for the photo of my son of war )

This story entrances me, the story itself, most of all, but also the way Xanana shared it with Kirsty. It's a delicate thing, explaining about beliefs. The world is a complicated place, and how people live in it is different in more than just material ways. Some people experience a world that's thick with spirits, others a world with very few, others a world with none at all.

More on the book when I finish it--I'm nearly done.

asakiyume: (Timor-Leste nia bandiera)

Among the many good things Mandela did, he advocated for the release of Timorese freedom-fighter Xanana Gusmão from prison:

Mandela not only called for the release of Xanana Gusmao, but also insisted on meeting with the latter – and got his way […] Soeharto at first refused Mandela’s request to meet Xanana with the question ‘Why do you want to meet him? He is only a common criminal.’ When Mandela responded by saying ‘that is exactly what they said about me for 25 years,’ Soeharto promptly and magnanimously responded by arranging for Xanana to be brought from prison to the State Guest House for an intimate dinner with Mandela.
--Jamsheed Marker, East Timor: A Memoir of the Negotiations for Independence, quoted in Aboeprijadi Santoso, “Mandela, Indonesia and the liberation of Timor Leste,” Jakarta Post, 22 July 2013

asakiyume: (Timor-Leste nia bandiera)
Mt. Kablaki is not the tallest mountain in Timor-Leste; I think it's the third-tallest. But it's a sacred mountain, like Mt. Ramelau, the tallest--and it's visible (and hike-able) from Ainaro.

Mt. Kablaki


One of the students asked me when American independence day was, and I told her it was July 4th and asked when Timor-Leste's independence day was. May 20th, she told me. Then I told them the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. It's a myth, but it encapsulates values we'd like to think our first president had. Then I asked them to tell me a story about Xanana Gusmão, their national hero and current prime minister. One of the students told me how, during the resistance, local people hid him on Mt Kablaki.

I've also read that he got a protective amulet there--the sort that lets you move unseen past your enemies.

I've also heard that he could transform himself into a dog. There are many many dogs running around loose in Ainaro, so that would be a good disguise. I asked one girl if she had any dogs, and she said yes, four or five. I asked what she fed them, and she said rice, or rice gruel.

Later, when I was rinsing rice for dinner (and in Timor-Leste there's much more reason to do this than there is in America, because in Timor-Leste the rice contains lots of bits of chaff and hull), I went to pour off the water in the yard, and one of the local dogs came trotting over eagerly. Aha. Rice gruel, I thought.

neighborhood dogs

dogs at Olympio's

But back to mountains. All the mountains roundabout Ainaro are beautiful.

dramatic skies

Here's dawn over the pre-secondary school, across the street from where I was staying.

dawn from the Teachers' House

asakiyume: (Timor-Leste nia bandiera)
I enjoyed the documentary very much! There was a lot of unusual footage, like of Xanana Gusmão, revolutionary leader (and current prime minister) in prison, or of Kirsty Sword Gusmão's first visit to East Timor, back in the very early 1990s. The things I was most surprised to learn were tangential to the main story: Cipinang Prison in Indonesia was nothing like what I would have imagined, and the degree of corruptibility of the guards was amazing. Some half-dozen of them were essentially in the pay of the Timorese resistance and Xanana ended up with a cell phone and computer in prison. At one point Ramos-Horta (Nobel Peace Prize winner and East Timor's first president) remarked that at times Xanana seemed more up-to-date technologically than Ramos-Horta himself:

"What's he talking about? Does he know more Internet than me? He's in prison, and he knows more Internet than me!

Also, this prison: the prisoners cooked their own meals (Xanana filmed himself making "prison mashed potatoes") and grew their own vegetables--and apparently growing bonsai trees was part of the government's program of their rehabilitation. Consequently, Xanana was always sending Kirsty bonsai trees. She ended up with about twenty of them, it looked like.

The details of the development of their personal relationship were charming. At one point Kirsty sent him a photo of her, back to the camera so that it couldn't reveal who she was to anyone who might see/confiscate it. He then painted that photo and sent her the painting. She took a photo of herself in the same position (same hair style), looking at the painting. He then painted that. So they ended up with this recursive set of images:

Recursive Art

He sent her fish, too, and took video of himself tending fish in his own aquarium:

Fish in Aquarium

Read more... )

But I think the strength of the documentary isn't its historical focus; it's more about these two people coming together in this tumultuous circumstance.

asakiyume: (Timor-Leste nia bandiera)
So, you're growing up in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s, and you're taking ballet lessons, and you're pretty dang good at it, good enough to think about being a professional dancer, but you find yourself thinking, "You know . . . it's a bit narrow. And I am not sure I can live up to my bladey surname as a ballerina." You've always loved Indonesia--you learned your first words of Indonesian at four--so you study the language in college, where you also come to hear about the plight of East Timor, at that time occupied by Indonesia. Genocidally occupied: an estimated quarter of the population of East Timor were killed in the early years of the occupation.

May I present to you Kirsty Sword Gusmão

So in her twenties, Kirsty ups and goes to Jakarta as a foreign aid worker . . . annnnd then somehow manages to become an, um, "clandestine activist" is what Wikipedia calls it, code name Ruby Blade, working for the Timorese resistance.

Kirsty's daring exploits )

And now there's a movie about her: Alias Ruby Blade.

Alias Ruby Blade: a Story of Love and Revolution from Alexander Meillier on Vimeo.

She recently was diagnosed with breast cancer, but she's taking it all in stride, and I feel pretty sure she's going to wrestle it into submission. Chin up, Kirsty!

Screen Shot 2013-03-06 at 5.29.00 PM-Mar 6, 2013

2002 Interview: "Dangerous Liaison"
2005 Interview: Enough Rope"

1Xanana, who's 20 years older than Kirsty, did have a wife from his youth. This fact pained me. Throwaway wives: not good. However, two ameliorating factors. First, it seems as if the two had grown distant even before Kirsty entered the scene. The wife had fled to Australia and Xanana was in prison. And second, he's continued to be involved with his kids by his first wife. But who knows. That's their personal story, and there may be some badness and sadness in it, but who among us is without sin?

asakiyume: (Timor-Leste nia bandiera)

Reasons to love Xanana Gusmão:

  • As a teenage soccer goalie, he "was too busy making up sonnets to actually stop any goals" (as I found out from reading The Crossing)

  • The obvious: he was a total badass freedom fighter. Forced to drop out of school at age fifteen due to lack of money, he become active advocating East Timor's independence from Portugal, then led the resistance against Indonesia after the latter invaded East Timor. He was captured in 1992 and sentenced to life imprisonment, but was released in 1999 when Indonesia withdrew from East Timor, whereupon he returned to help East Timor make a go as an independent nation.

  • His nickname Xanana comes from the American rock-and-roll band Sha Na Na.

  • when he got caught in a traffic jam outside the presidential office the other day, he got out of his car and helped direct traffic:

Plus, handsome!

Simultaneously warm and distinguished

and back in his freedom-fighter days

This guy SMILED FOR THE CAMERA when he was captured! How's *that* for ... I don't know, confidence? Or something!

Looking gentle and fatherly at the birth of one of his children

Making up for his youthful soccer losses

There you have it. Xanana Gusmão!

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