Dance of Life

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They dance the tebe to mark the end of the day, the arrival of friends, the start of the rice planting. Chanting as they move--a verse from the men, a reply from the women--they circle round and round in the town squares and bush villages of the place they call Timor Loro Sae, "where the sun rises." They have danced the tebe in East Timor for as long as anyone can remember, since before the Portuguese arrived to build a colony, before their home became a battleground for foreign soldiers in World War II, and before Indonesia claimed the half-island as its own. Throughout that troubled history, the tebe has been danced as it is today--with exuberance, not sorrow.

Sandalwood first brought Portuguese merchants to Timor nearly 500 years ago. Missionaries followed, and the eastern half of the island became Lisbon's colonial foothold in the sprawling Indonesian archipelago. The Portuguese influence lingers in East Timor today, in the names and speech of its people and in their loyalty to the Catholic church. The colonial era weakened the power of the local chieftains, but much of the traditional way of life has outlived the sandalwood trade. Around 90% of the province's 906,000 people still live outside urban areas, many in villages scattered through the mountains that rear up in the island's center. Here people raise chickens and pigs, and labor over crops of maize, millet or coffee--the province's major earner of export income. They gather under hali trees near their homes for community meetings. Those who live near the coast fish from small boats crafted from palapeira trees or by wading into the warm sea. For most, life is hard. Per-capita GDP is among the lowest in the world and infant mortality rates are high.

The land gives the East Timorese their religion, too. In parts of the north, the mountains plunge to the sea; in the south they fade away to grassy coastal plains. Huge rocks and old trees, weathered and sometimes carved, are revered as lulik, or sacred objects, as are special dwellings, known as uma lulik. Animals are also considered spiritual beings, among them the eel and the dog; East Timorese warriors are named asu ain (dog's feet) for their devotion and courage. Many East Timorese still teach their children animist beliefs and the creation story of the crocodile, called grandfather, whose corpse became Timor, his form seen in the island's shape. The spread of the Catholic faith--which became a rallying point for many Timorese after the Indonesian invasion in 1975--has not killed off the old beliefs. In many places, the two faiths coexist; the spirits of their dead are believed to find their way to the top of Mount Matebian, one of the province's most sacred places, to wait for Maromak, "the shining one." But the graves of those whose bodies lie there are marked with Christian crosses.

It's estimated that the Indonesian presence has led to the deaths of up to 200,000 East Timorese; many of those buried on Matebian are among them. The land has sheltered the living too: thousands fled into the mountains ahead of the advancing soldiers, and Timorese guerrillas have long sought hiding places on Matebian's slopes. Their long rebellion has helped bring the tiny province to the attention of the region's most powerful nations. If all goes well, its people in August will finally be allowed to vote on their territory's political status.

But the fight for self-determination is only part of the East Timorese identity. Running through it are also the bright threads of a unique culture: the brash yellow of feathers in a market place cockfight; the solemn green of an ancient meeting tree in a dry field; a flash of red in the whirl of a tebe.

Ross Bird's volume of photographs, Inside Out East Timor, is published this week by Herman Press; 168 pages