Monday, August 2, 2010


By Abé Barreto Soares
Dili, June-July 2009

“Poetry is existential communication”
Breyten Breytenbach


The issue of nationalism is always an interesting topic to elaborate and talk about, particularly in a country like Timor-Leste, which has gone through periods of colonialism under Portuguese and Indonesian rule.

Like any other writers from Portuguese colonies in African continent, Timorese writers also played a very significant important role in burning the sense of nationalism alive among their fellow compatriots during the struggle for national liberation. A concrete example can be taken from Angola is its writer, Antonio Agostinho Neto who, “was not only Angola's first president but he remains its most prominent poet, with his work published in several languages. Neto's poetry deals with the quest for freedom and several of his poems were converted into liberation anthems.”

This short paper tries to analyze and discuss the literary works (poetry) of three prominent Timorese poets, namely Fernando Sylvan, Francisco Borja da Costa and João Aparicio which, at least, have helped shape the sense of Timorese nationalism in the recent past of Timor-Leste’s contemporary history.

The paper also will discuss a little bit the relevance of these three writers’ literary works in today’s context of a free and independent Timor-Leste, and their vision towards a prosperous and peaceful Timor-Leste in the future.

Fernando Sylvan: “....even in one minute I will not be silent”

This Timorese man was not only known as a poet, but also known as a prose writer and an essayist. His real name was Abílio Leopoldo Motta-Ferreira. He was born in Dili, Timor-Leste on 26 August 1917. He died in Cascais, Portugal on 25 December 1993.

He spent most of his time in Portugal. Wikipedia further describes that “even though there was a geographic distance between Portugal and Timor-Leste, the writer kept writing on his motherland. He elaborated on Timor-Leste’s legends, tradition and folklore in his works. In the end, he was well-known as a great poet of Portuguese language, and he became the president of its Society.”

Through his book, A Voz Fagueira de Oan Timor, we will be almost familiar with most of his poetic works. We will find some of his poems in this book, describing the strong sentiment of Timorese people’s nationalism spirit.

In 1971, three years before the Carnation Revolution took place in Portugal, Sylvan had started alerting his fellow Timorese on the issue of racism. The year 1971 was then declared as the International Year against Racism. As a spokesperson for the colonized people from the Third World, Sylvan expressed his profound sentiment on the matter through his poem, Message from the Third World. From some of the lines of the poem he marked his firm position by chanting:

“Não tenhas medo de confessar que me sugaste o sangue
E esgravataste chagas do meu corpo
E me tiraste o mar do peixe e o sal do mar
E a água pura e a terra boa
E levantaste a cruz contra os meus deuses
E me calaste nas palavras que eu pensava.
Não tenhas medo de confessar o esforço
De silenciar os meus batuques
E de apagar as queimadas e as fogueiras
E desvendar os segredos e os mistérios
E destruir todos os meus jogos
E também os cantares dos meus avós.
E eu sobrevivi
Para construir estradas e cidades a teu lado
E inventar fábricas e Ciência,
Que o mundo não pôde ser feito só por ti.”

In 1981 after six years of the invasion and occupation of Timor-Leste by its neighbor, Indonesia Sylvan appeared again by encouraging his Timorese compatriots to fight against foreign domination, so that in the end peace and freedom would be gained. He lamented Portugal’s weak reaction to such reality. The poem, Timor-Leste which Sylvan wrote displayed his statement and his cry:

teu grito fretilin ecoará
com Portugal quieto
com Portugal calado
sem um acto de força a tua força
sem um gesto de orgulho ao teu orgulho
sem um nada de nada a tua História

Mas tu resistirás a Indonésia
e lutarás
e redesfraldarás a tua bandeira
e recantarás o teu hino
e reproclamarás a tua independência

E na liberdade das tuas liberdades
terás a justiça da tua justiça
e no amor do teu amor
terás a paz da tua paz......”

Sylvan had a vision that sooner or later the war of Timor-Leste against Indonesia for achieving peace and freedom would come to an end. He believed that in the end Timorese people would reap the fruit of independence. Such vision was shared by Timorese leader overseas, José Ramos-Horta (current President of Republic of Timor-Leste) when he waged a diplomatic battle in many years. From Ramos-Horta’s book, “Funu: the Unfinished Saga of East Timor, we can also find an untitled short poem on war, which he cited:

“Funu, guerra. –A guerra
há-de terminar
a sorrir amor.

Semente a partir-se
tem seu fim na flor.”

The spirit of Mauberism which, in many years, was fostered and promoted by Fretilin during the struggle for Timor-Leste’s national liberation inspired a man of letters such as Sylvan. Through the poem, Manifesto Maubere Sylvan wanted to reinforce further the determination of Timorese people, the Maubere people to affirm its own identity. Many Timorese overseas, particularly in Portugal, used to recite the poem in their cultural performance as an act of paying tribute to the poet.


A cultura é a memória
de um povo que não morre!

A acção é a história
de um povo que não morre!

Ouviram bem?

A vida é a liberdade
de um povo que não morre!

A independência é a vontade
de um povo que não morre!

Ouviram bem?

A justiça é a oferta
de um povo que não morre!

A luta é a descoberta
de um povo que não morre!

Ouviram bem?

There was no doubt that the death of Nicolau dos Reis Lobato, Timorese leader who was killed during the combat in the jungle in 1978 had really shaken the fighting morale of Timorese people for independence. Sylvan made an effort to revive the fighting spirit by describing the greatness of Nicolau Lobato, which would continue to be alive and exist in the hearts and minds of Timorese people. The poem, Vozes Mauberes revealed such deep sentiment:


Uma criança chama:
-Presidente Nicolau Lobato!

Outras crianças chamam:
-Presidente Nicolau Lobato!

Vamos responder-lhes com as vozes dele:

As a tribute to Xanana Gusmão (current Prime Minister of Timor-Leste), who was in the jungle as the prominent resistance leader, Sylvan sang in his following poem. He used the rooster as a metaphor to describe the warrior, and the blade as weapons. However, in his poem he described Xanana (the warrior) as a rooster using no blades to fight. This shows that Xanana used his brain, and diplomacy to defeat his enemies.

Poema a Xanana Gusmão

(mas só depois)
os galos
lutarão sem lâminas

The poem also served as an effort of its poet to respond and conclude a Timorese popular song who was famous during the war as described as follows:

Manu aman Timor-Leste
Manu futu fatin
Lalika tau tara manu futu fatin

In ceremonies to commemorate national holidays, Timorese people usually remember their heroes and heroines who died during the war—fighting for independence by observing “one minute of silence”. As a poet who had alternative views, Sylvan reacted by expressing the following poetic words as an act of protest:

“Pedem-me um minuto de silêncio pelos mortos mauberes
Respondo que nem por um minuto me calarei!”

Francisco Borja da Costa: “……on the point of my bayonet/ I will mark in history the form of my liberation”

This man of letters was more famous with his last name, Borja da Costa when we talk about “who is who” in Timor-Leste’s literary circle. He was born “in Fatuberlihu, south coast of Timor-Leste on 14 October1946.” He died at the age of 30 when Timor-Leste was invaded by Indonesia on 7 December 1975. Indonesian paratroops were the ones killing him.

Borja da Costa had a keen observation on the issue of racism during Portuguese colonial rule “when he fulfilled his military obligations in Portuguese army and deployed in Laclubar. He noticed that his military service that he undertook served as ‘a good experience” since he had the courage to speak out against racial discrimination. After the military, he joint public service. From his post in the public service, he could manage to observe the censorship process practiced in Portuguese rule. He carried our personal research on discrimination against Timorese people in work places.”

When the Carnation Revolution took place in Lisbon on 25 April 1974, Borja da Costa was already in Portugal “doing an internship with “Diario de Noticias” “ When he was in Lisbon, “he worked and lived with other Timorese in Casa dos Timorenses, a centre for Timorese nationalists overseas. In his own words, he said that he “was educated politically” by Timorese radicals.”

During his stay in Portugal Borja da Costa’s spirit of revolutionary literature was sharpened even more through his readings of works by famous writers. “In his view, writers who had a big influence on him were Bertold Brecht, Pablo Neruda, Maxim Gorky, and the poetry of Mao Tsetung.”

Borja da Costa was a poet who “wrote poetry in the classical form, in the Tetum language. Its images were all of the things of Timor: of the spiraling mountain peaks, of the chickens in the knuas (villages), of the rivers which divide and re-unite endlessly.”

Borja da Costa began trying to wake up Timorese to open their eyes clearly to see the reality that they lived under colonial rule when he returned from Lisbon in 1974. Along with his comrade Abílio Araújo in Fretilin which he was also part of it, they “composed poetry and songs expressing the people of Timor who had long lived under the oppression. They transformed traditional songs. The first work of this cooperation was “Foho Ramelau”, which was later known as the “revolution anthem” of Fretilin.”

Foho Ramelau
Tan sá timur ulun sudur uai-uain?
Tan sá timur oan ata uai-uain?

Hadeer rai-hun mutin ona lá!
Hadeer loron foun sa’e ona lá!

Loke matan loron foun to’o iha knuak
Loke matan loron foun iha ita rain

Hadeer kaer rasik kuda talin eh!
Hadeer ukun rasik ita rain eh!

Through the song, Foho Ramelau Timorese felt that they were strongly firm to have the destiny in their own hands, sooner of later.

Many years during the resistance war, the song continuously burned the spirit of Timorese alive to fight for their rights to self-determination. In towns and cities of Timor-Leste, the song was banned for Timorese to sing by the Indonesian occupying force but in the jungles and overseas where Timorese resided such as Australia and Portugal, the song continued to be heard by people.

Any country in the world always has its own national anthem. Borja da Costa contributed his work “Pátria, Pátria” for the national anthem of Timor-Leste. It was publicly sung for the first time when Timor-Leste’s independence was declared on 28 November 1975.

Hino Nacional

Pátria, pátria!
Timor-Leste, nossa Nação
Glória ao Povo e aos heróis
Da nossa Libertação.

Vencemos o colonialismo
Gritamos, abaixo o Imperialismo
Terra Livre, Povo livre
Não, não a exploração.
Avante unidos
Firmes e decididos
Na luta contra o Imperialismo
O inimigo dos Povos
Até a vitória final
Pelo caminho da Revolução

Pátria, pátria!
Timor-Leste, nossa Nação
Glória ao Povo e aos heróis
Da nossa Libertação.

For hundreds of years Portugal ruled Timor-Leste. Timorese people lived under heavy oppression. After the decolonization process of Timor-Leste which, in the end, did not produce a good result in 1970s, Timor-Leste was forced to face the invasion and the occupation by Indonesia for more than 20 years. Timorese people felt that they were not the owners of their homeland with the fact that it was occupied by others. They lived in darkness, they lived without freedom. The following poem, “O Rasto da Tua Passagem” described Borja da Costa’s strong revolt against colonialism and forms the liberation of colonized people. Timorese activists in Australia managed to record the reciting of the poem in both English and Tetum and tried to circulate it in Timor-Leste and Indonesia clandestinely during the resistance years. The reciting of the poem helped fanning the fire within the hearts of young Timorese who studied at universities in Indonesia.

O Rasto da Tua Passagem

Silenciaste minha razão
Na razão das tuas leis
Sufocaste minha cultura
Na cultura da tua cultura
Abafaste minhas revoltas
Com a ponta da tua baioneta
Torturaste meu corpo
Nos grilhões do teu império
Subjugaste minha alma
Na fé da tua religião


Minha terra, minha gente
Banhada em sangue
Escorragada, exangue

Barbaramente civilizaste na demagogia da tua grei
Brutalmente colonizaste na ambição da tua grandeza

Na ponta da tua baioneta
Assinalaste o rasto da tua passagem
Na ponta da minha baioneta

Marcarei na história a forma da minha

João Aparício: “…….Timor, o my Land/You are my name!”

There was no much information to describe this young poet. According to the website of Editora Caminho, it states that “João Aparício is a poet living as a refugee in Portugal.” In 1999 he worked as a radio announcer for Rádio Renanscença, Lisbon in a program called “Timor, Sol Nascente”, which was broadcasted daily. He had published his poetic works in a book called Versos Oprimidos where he used his pen name Kay Shalay Rakmabean in 1995. Then, in 1999, he published his poetry book entitled A Janela de Timor, and in 2000 he published another poetry book called Uma Casa e Duas Vacas.

Poems taken to discuss and analyze in this paper are mostly from the book, A Janela de Timor. The launching of the book took place in Lisbon in April 1999. In some part of his remarks for the launching, Aparício affirmed his poetic vision as follows: “O sofrimento do Povo de Timor foi e continua a ser o alicerce da minha poesia. Não vivi em mim mesmo. Vivi a vida e alma dos meus irmãos
timorenses. Fui obrigado a reflectir mais cedo sobre o mundo e sobre o drama
da minha Pátria. Aquilo que escrevi é o que maioria do Povo de Timor pensa
e sente, desde que a tragédia se abateu sobre nos. É a sumula da
consciência de um Povo que está presente: a consciência do Povo de Timor. É pensar de modo novo o que foi dito e vivido pelos meus antepassados e pelas gerações de actualidade."

Aparicio’s affirmation described above was really in tune with what the Lebanese poet, Kahlil Gibran said about the essence of a poet is that, “The poet is the mediator between the creative power and people” As a poet, Aparício fulfilled the criteria to be the spokesperson for the lives of his people which are full of pain and joy.

Poets everywhere almost have the same character. They have a strong love and passion towards their own roots of life. As a descendent of Timor-Leste, Aparicio values a lot his beloved country’s existence. He really appreciates the landscape of the three montains: Ramelau, Matebian and Kabalaki which Timor-Leste has. On this, he described in the following poem, Meu Nome:

Meu Nome

Imagem viva de Ramelau, Cablaqui e Matebian,
Tres almas gemeas, imortais e sagradas,
Loucas no combate e mansas no amor.

Timor, o Terra minha,
E's o meu nome! "

Aparício sees Timor-Leste as the cradle of life, which he always loves. Timor-Leste is like his soul, the soul of Timorese people. The poem, Timor-Leste depicts this sentiment:


És o meu berço natal,
Onde p’ra sempre Te amarei,
E onde sempre Te Espero!

Jamais voltarei a perder-Te..
P’ra que continues a ser
Alma minha, terra úbere.

The flame of Timor-Leste’s struggle was almost gone before Santa Cruz massacre occurred, which woke up the conscience of international community that something went wrong. Two days after the massacre, Aparicio took his pen and tried to express his feelings, and made an effort to encourage the Timorese people who were in national mourning moment. With the poem, Timor-Pedra-de-Toque he encouraged them:


Pátria da ha’u-inan e dos aswain,
Está as escrever a Sua História
Com letras de sangue e de lágrimas,
Está a construir o Seu futuro
Com os cadáveres dos Seus filhos.
Pátria de Xanana e dos jovens de Santa Cruz,
Continuará a bater os portões do mundo
Com a Sua mão cansada e ensanguentada;
Continuará a gritar para Portugal
Com a Sua voz de irmãos de séculos.


Xanana Gusmão and his revolutionary character where lots of Timorese considered as their guide in the struggle for national liberation inspired Aparicio to utter his thoughts in the following poem, Xanana –Mito:


És o oan-mane-kmanek de todas as mães,
O maun Boot X dos nossos jovens,
O áman das crianças de Timor…

És a uma lulik dos velhos,
O lia-na’in dos sábios..
És o mito do povo de Timor-Leste.

Timorese resistance once again entered a phase of shaking when Xanana Gusmão was captured by Indonesian troops in Dili on 20 November 2002. It was a big blow for the resistance. This, of course, made Timorese down. Aparício stood up again with his pen, challenging his enemies by stating in the following poem, Xanana:


Caíste nas mãos do inimigo;
Em angústia e luto está
O coração do teu povo amado…
Quem te traiu, meu irmão?
Que te traiu?
Toda a ilha chora…
Todos os homens de boa vontade choram..
Até os túmulos dos heróis choram por ti…”

Relevance of Poetic Works in the Context of Timor-Leste Today and Tomorrow

Now Timor-Leste lives in the atmosphere of independence. Since 20 May 2002 Timor-Leste has restored its independence. Timor-Leste has been part of international community as a free, independent and sovereign nation. As any other country in the world, Timor-Leste indeed has its own past which it had gone through, its present which is now happening with full intensity, and its future which it dreams of achieving it with a full of hope.

Development activities are now carried out in all aspects throughout the country. The question now is: what is the relevance of the literary works of the poets in the aspect of cultural development at the moment and in the future?

There is no doubt that the poetic works of the three man of letters: Fernando Sylvan, Francisco Borja da Costa and João Aparício play an importante role to constantly revive the social, political and cultural values which they believe in for Timor-Leste as a sovereign nation in the world.

As an individual, Sylvan dreamed of building a new nation. He wanted to love people, ideas, and things. He had his belief for peace in the future. This dream can also be shared by his fellow Timorese which are part as citizens of the world. In a line of an untitled poem, the man chanted:

“…… Quero só ajudar a propor a outra vida/Quero só ser mais um a fazer novo mundo.
Tenho de amar pessoas e coisas e ideias.
Tenho de ter certezas na paz do futuro.”

Children as the future of the nation will continue with a new struggle in today’s modern globalized world against: poverty, hunger, illiteracy, etc. He asked the kids to wake up and get up:

Meu filho
Não podes
Dormir sonhar:
Guerrilheiro tens de ser
Que o povo
Tem de lutar!

The values of unity are the classical ones, which are still relevant in the process of nation building. The cliché, “A união faz a força” continues to become as guiding principle which can consolidate the life of a nation. The strong national unity of Timor-Leste will bring Timor-Leste to achieve stability now and in the future. Since 1974 Borja da Costa had appealed to his fellow Timorese to be united. The poem, Kdadalak espressed the poetic vision of this man of letters:


Kdadalak suli mutuk fila ué inan
Ué inan tan malu sá ben ta’han

Nanu’u timur oan sei hamutuk
Hamutuk atu tahan anin sut taci

In today’s world, there should not be forms of oppression of any kind. In a free and independent Timor-Leste, there should be a change of mentality for its people. The poem, Povu Maubere Sei La Sai Atan ba Ema Ida continues to remind Timorese of this concept:

Ita tenke hamosu
Moris foun ida
Atu haluha tiha
Katak povu ne’e sei sai atan
Ita tenke hamosu
Ema foun ida
Husi rai ne’ebé ita hamrik ba ne’e

Ita tenke harahun
Tauk no todan
Opresaun koloniál”

Like Sylvan who sang in his poem, Manifesto Povo Maubere, for determing Timorese’s own cultural identity, Borja da Costa also wanted Timorese not to be slaves for any one at this time, when they enjoy their independence:


The fighters’ struggle in the past was not in vain. The result of their struggle is the freedom which is now enjoyed, and where they had waited it for so long.
As a nation, as a people, Timorese should not forget the aswains (the heroes). Borja da Costa reminded his fellow Timorese to be with him in “Um Minuto de Silêncio” for remembering the role which the fallen heroes had played:

“….Hakmatek ba,
Imi-nia hakmatek, ita-nia hakmatek
Oras atu hakmatek
Ba hakmatek tempu nian
Ba moris nian
Ba ema hirak be saran na


Since 1976, Aparício had wanted to invite his fellow Timorese, when living in the era of independence, to simply live in tranquility, not wanting war, and having no empty stomach:


Sou rouxinhol do Oriente,
Alma de rosas…

Não querro guerra
Porque me rouba a paz

Quero mais arroz
E uma simples guitarra


As a people and a nation anywhere in the world, for the sake of survival in all aspects of life, Timorese people should, along with their poets, constantly engage in acts of reflections: looking towards the past as big lessons to learn, living in today’s reality in an intensive manner, and hoping to embrace the future with a great joy. To reinforce this commitment, Kahlil Gibran had said that, “But if in your thought you must measure time into seasons, let each season encircle all the other seasons, and let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing.”


APARICÍCO, João—A Janela de Timor, Editorial Caminho, Lisbon, 1999

BREYTENBACH, Breyten --End Papers, McGraw-Hill, 1987

CAMÕES--- Revista de Letras e Culturas Lusófonas, July-September, 2001

EVANS, Boddy Alistair-- Internet (About.Com), “Biography: Antonio Agostinho Neto

FERRIS, Anthony—Spiritual Sayings of Kahlil Gibran, New York, 1962

SAHE INSTITUTE FOR LIBERATION--Poezia Borja da Costa iha Luta Hasoru Kolonializmu, Dili, 2005

GIBRAN, Kahlil – The Greatest Works, Jaico Publishing House, Mumbai, 2003

JOLLIFE, Jill—EAST TIMOR Nationalism & Colonialism, Queensland, 1978

SYLVAN, Fernando—A Voz Fagueira de Oan Timor, Colibri, Lisbon, 1993