Sacredness in development


It was open casket.

Sidling in the doorway behind my colleagues, I tipped my vision over the rim of the coffin to peer at the old man who had passed away two days earlier. Carefully folded arms and covered with lilac gauze which lay shimmering over him. His body was incandescent. I thought back to the only other time I remembered seeing a body void of life. I was 5 years old and my cousin had passed away from an eating disorder that as a child I had no idea about. She would read to me and my other younger cousins, her legs tucked under, perched on the couch as we sat on the dusty tiles of a Karachi floor. Strung in a line like baby ducks, hanging off her every word. Then one day, her spirit vanquished, I peered from another doorway as her body was washed by my mother and aunties. I saw her pale arm lifted and held in my mother’s hands as she wiped her fingers one by one, her nails clipped and cleaned. Or maybe that is just a dream.

In so many cultures the body remains in the home where it is washed and mourned. A friend described the way his Tetum teacher was curious about funeral homes in Australia. What were they for? Late last year our landlord had asked how we felt about using one of the spare apartments to keep her mother’s body after she passed away for two days before her burial. Tia, her mind adrift with Alzheimers had been absent from her usual rounds behind our house. Picking through the trees, her bare feet clinking the pebbles beneath the banana trees. Collecting bottles and forgotten cigarette lighters. She had not been walking for over a month and her mother, our landlord, was sure she would pass away soon. I felt taken back. Shouldn’t a body be in a morgue?  A hospital? Buried straightaway? Then I remembered my cousin’s languid arm, my mother kneeling on the bathroom tiles, and it did not seem so unnatural.

Death, mourning and grief in Timor-Leste is cocooned in ritual and politicized by history. Ancestors are invoked and consulted when resolving conflicts, during marriages and celebrations. They guide life. For Timorese, Catholicism fits neatly with ancestral beliefs, perhaps because of the identical notions of resurrection and remembrance. The rituals that remember Christ and remind of Mary and turning to them for help and guidance are not that different from the cultural invocations that solidify the role of ancestors. Remembrance of those who died and fought in the Indonesian occupation is a central feature of political organization. Current conflicts and tensions are in a way, over memory. Who is remembered for what, and whether they were really there at all. In the same way I can never be sure if my cousin read to me the day before she died, Timor is locked in hazy recollections of the past.

Two of the dead man’s daughters lay themselves over the sides of the coffin, gazing at their fathers face and crying. Quietly, a colleague began to sing as one by one the others joined her. The daughters paused briefly from the privacy of their grief to join the group in song. Their mother, now a widow, paused the deep wails that came from her sternum. Her son beside her massaging her hands, thin as branches, and limp with grief. Comfort. Touching as a way to soothe, applying a balm to the absence of him. I would buy cassava chips from their father a few afternoons a week. I knew him in life, and now in his death, his body beside me, empty of life, did not distract as much as his living, breathing daughters. Somehow death draws so much attention to life.  The lushness, the fecundity of grief. It makes the air smell different. As though it is full of oxygen. It was them I was drawn to and not to any horror of his body.

His daughters will wear black for one year, and no one will ask them to dance at wedding parties. They will visit their fathers grave, talk to him, remember him, leave him gifts. There will be a financial burden on the family for a time, and possibly for the forseeable future.

Ritual and remembrance as in many cultures, comes at an earthly, material cost. With hospitality a steadfast value and collective living still the core of social relations in Timor, there will be many mouths to feed. There will be a slaughtered buffalo and pig, rice and water spinach, banana juice and Bintang. There will be Catholic prayers uttered in Tetum. More beautiful mournful songs. The same songs of struggle and sadness and the sacredness of land that wound around the valley floors during Indonesian times.

Sacredness in tradition and culture is described as lulik, adat or lisan in Tetum. Sacredness can bring joy and togetherness, comfort and solace. Sacredness can at times cause horror and grief, depending on who decides what is sacred and what is not. Globalization and it’s incumbent, capital, have their eager swords drawn. The question for nations like Timor on the precipice of enormous social change, is the place for sacredness. There are other deaths worth grieving too. The fragmentation of community. The grief of industrialization and the dynamiting of sacred mountains, sacred stones. If Tiu too becomes an ancestor, conversed with, consulted, what advice is there for the fragmentation that globalization, tech-solutions and capitalism may likely initiate?

Sacredness as an essential feature of social organization in many societies is humanistic development’s conundrum. If we are committed to sustainability, to ownership, to respect, inclusiveness and equality, then the sacred cannot be ignored, nor can it be essentialised. This is the grey space between cultural relativism and essentialism that takes time to unpack. It is complex, and deservedly so but there is space there to understand how meaning through tradition and culture work to bind communities in ways that are beneficial for wellbeing.


Other Stories.


Back online almost a year later.

It’s strange to think nearly a year ago we were traipsing across the foho on the outskirts of Dili, following the Stations of the Cross. Thousands of us beneath the shifting light of the heavy leaf and the damp undergrowth. The only sound, the round robin of prayer thrown back and forth between groups of youths along the mountainside.

A lot has happened since then. I have wrapped up my assignment and the boy and I did a trip to Europe over the Christmas break. I was so excited to be somewhere completely new. That thrill of not knowing what to expect and also to see the expected. London was magical, Paris breathtaking, Barcelona inspiring and Rome just ahhhh. The tropical half isle has permanently set my body temperature at about 33 celsius and it was a shock to be in temps that were close to zero. Though, Winters are beautiful and I have missed them. Even now thinking of those shorter days in Sydney when the coats get dusted off and the boots go on for the first time. Pockets thrust deep in pockets and the trees turning.

Timor has it’s seasons too and they are surprisingly discernible. The rainy and the dry, but also a windy season and a respite season where the mornings and evenings are cool, and we pull out the heavier tais to keep us warm at night. Small but significant shifts that let you know the Earth is still turning.

Part of the reason this blog got put aside for a while was that I was thundering through my Masters Thesis. I finished it on a drizzly afternoon in Ubud, Bali in June last year. It was one of the largest pieces of writing I have ever completed and the bliss was astonishing. Now that I know how to structure a large piece of writing, and buoyed by my enthusiasm, I began making big plans for regular writing. Short stories, travelogue essays, critical essays on development. A larger piece like a novel…

Instead, as the habit of writing ended, the same old fears and doubts came in and took it’s place and silenced me into writing nothing. Not even this simple blog. Many of my doubts are about what to write and whether anything I write will be worth reading.

There are the personal anxieties about being good enough. A therapist I saw once during university said the number of young women that expressed ‘not being good enough’ as the root of their procrastination, avoidance, destructive behavior was leading her to think it needed a diagnostic classification. That’s quite likely part of it. But it was also the kind of young woman I was-a mixed race, white-passing Muslim woman of color. Later on when I knew what identity politics (screw you) were, when I found literature and pockets of thought that answered so many of the questions were the irritations and dead-ends I found myself in able to be unpacked. When the spotlight was on the audience who you wanted to be good enough for.

There are the other socio political anxieties. The appalling realization of the circumstances of Australian history and 200 hundred years of institutionalized racism experienced by Indigenous people. Seeing it all differently, the backyard, the bush, the creek, the foundations of the house you played underneath on hot summer days.  A contemporary government of both sides that fell over each other to find a morally void solution to the humanitarian crisis of refugees. A post 9-11 society where I experienced the world shift. A terrible moment between a held breath and an exhalation where my friendships, the society I lived in, the communities that grew me up become cautious and fractured. To hesitate before saying it was Eid. To seize up whenever Islam or Muslims were mentioned. To cringe and pray the dude wasn’t brown whenever a criminal act made a headline. Down conversational roads with friends that left me unsettled and alone with that rancid exhalation now come between us. The world had changed and I was expected to explain it and soothe that change for them.

The rise of Islamophobia contributes to an underlying nausea, a motion sickness I feel every day. On the worst days the anger and the hammering defensiveness render me mute. My fingers haven’t a tethered word in them. My voice is all anger and rage and I do not play the good Moderate Muslim role well. I am an angry brown woman and we’re a post-racial society now so there’s no place for you, Harpie.

‘There’s no such thing as Islamophobia.’ Cried the educated bigot.

‘Islam is not a race.’ Said the smug Councillor.

‘Muslims don’t win Nobel Prizes.’ Crowed the atheist.

They just invented soap and all.

On other days I can tinker with my thoughts. Push back with some grounded words. Those are good days. Finding yourself amongst some written words. Fist pumping pushing back against the tide of the grand narrative.

Other days I go back to the giants and giantesses who prop me up a little. The different feminisms that talk about the things you saw your mother, your brother, the brown men and women in your and other brown and black communities go through that had nothing to do with glass ceilings and everything to do with inequality.

In the time I’ve been away from this blog, two incredible books have entered the Australian literary scene. Omar Musas’s ‘Here Come the Dogs’ and recently the Stella prize nominated ‘Foreign Soil’ by Maxine Beneba Clarke. For other writers of color or aspiring writers of color, seeing these books published and appreciated is inspiring and motivating. I remember the first time a school text written by a non-white writer was placed in my hands at 16. It was Bharati Mukherjee’s ‘Wife’. The thrill of familiarity, the understanding, the deep feeling of home, the absence of racism and the recognition in those pages had a lasting effect on me.  I felt at home seeing other voices and other stories in print, on real paper with a book jacket and a price tag on the back.

I had read about some readers’ experiments where they would read only female writers for one year. In this article Sunili Govinnage talks about her experiment of reading writers of color for one year. In the intersecting ways in which I find myself in stories and in literature, race is definitely at the forefront. It’s where my synapses tingle and I am drawn into a story where it’s difference makes it familiar. I remember reading a John Berger quote in year 12 that said “Never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one.”  It changed my reading and gave me the courage to look for those stories that spoke to me of people and time and places that felt like somewhere I had been already. Where I could recognize the items in the room, the way a couple danced around a painful thing, the way the knees of brown and black children become grey when they play. Instead of looking to books to escape, or transcend where I was, I wanted the opposite. I wanted to feel rooted to where I was. To be made real in a book. To be made visible in a story-even if it isn’t your own.

Ten years on from that John Berger quote and I see the other stories getting a seat at the table. Seeing this and finding communities of readers and writers of the other stories has gone someway to dismantling the fears I had and the paralysis I was experiencing around finding voice, shaping it and finally using it. Every writer or aspiring writer possibly goes through these. But for some, the politics of voice throw up different hurdles. As I became a different reader I found in others courage and in other stories the heroes and heroines I needed and the urge to be a part of that chatter too.