The Jakarta Post
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Of pebbles and ice cream: Voice of a Timorese poet
Ati Nurbaiti, The Jakarta Post, Ubud
We all scattered / we all ran in every direction. These two lines are scrawled in the notebook of the man with the guitar, one of two books in his bag that is filled with phrases, mostly in Tetum, but also in Indonesian.
Bernabé (Abé) Barreto Soares does not know and does not care what will happen to those lines, whether they will remain as they are, all jumbled up with other notes to himself, or whether they will one day become verse.
He only knows that something came to the surface, his memory of being scattered and running together with residents of the town of Dili who were caught in a conflict that is hard to understand, not long after they gained their hard-fought independence.
More than once, he said during the annual writers' festival here, he was surrounded by people who were set on attacking him -- once because he was trying to stop them raze the family home.
"Suddenly I had the confidence to calm them down and address them," he said, recalling the moment when he told them that if they killed him, they would be killing themselves -- "for you are my brother, as we are of this same sacred soil".
This experience of the power of words reinforced his view, he said, that giving people dignity overcomes "the deprivation of having no acknowledgement, no recognition". He quotes Mother Theresa, saying that this is the worst form of poverty.
Soares, a former information officer and now translator at the United Nations office in Timor Leste, was enjoying a vacation in Ubud, Bali, listening to fellow poets and writers, and attending the launch of the anthology, Terra, which includes his poem.
Ayu Utami, Dorothea Rosa Herliany of Indonesia, and Miles Merrill of Australia, were among those at the launch and whose works are also in the collection.
Soares accompanied Dorothea on his guitar as she read her poem. He said he felt an immediate bond with his new friends at the festival, Wiratmadinata and Debra Yatim -- both of whom have written poems about Aceh, particularly following the 2004 tsunami and earthquake.
Whenever an Indonesian writer presented their work, Soares -- formerly a long-haired young man living in self-imposed exile in Canada -- expressed his support.
"I was raised on Indonesian literature," he said, citing Sapardi Djoko Damono and Ayip Rosidi as being among his favorite writers.
Tetum, which is widely spoken in Timor Leste, dominates his writing; "listen to its beautiful sound," he told the audience at the Dragonfly cafe here when reading out his poem -- I am a pebble that you throw in the pond. But he also savors Indonesian phrases, those with a rhythm lost in translation: pontang panting, scattered, malam berbulan-bintang, a night of moon (and) stars.
Soares spells out his big dream; of the contribution of the literati to Timor's character building -- again citing words of wisdom from Indonesian figures first president Sukarno and educator Ki Hadjar Dewantara.
A "cautious optimist" when it comes to his often turbulent, fragile nation, he is encouraged by the feedback to his monthly radio program, which features poetry readings and introductions to writers from around the world, interspersed with appropriate music.
Without cultural education, he says, people will end up as couch potatoes hooked on bad TV, university graduates sans sensitivity, people unable to agree to disagree -- not to mention the young men spreading fear, throwing stones and worse now and then, leading to the persistent, yearlong multitude of refugees in the dusty town of Dili.
Apart from his radio program, Soares said he had managed to visit a number of refugee camps across town, entertaining residents at night after work along with a few other artists. "We stopped because of the security condition," he said.
Across the small country, there is actually no shortage of talent, he said. Traveling around Timor Leste, he added, would help reveal talent across the regions. And building the culture, he added, would require working with Indonesians, which would help forge friendships between the two peoples.
"Let politics be ... we can light candles."
Exposure to literature, he said, helped people go beyond perceptions of black and white. Timor's history, and the former president they once shared with Indonesia, Soeharto, is not black and white, Soares said.
Understanding history is a must, he said, citing Sukarno.
It is far from clear how the cultured like Soares will perceive the upcoming report touching on the violent history of 1999, which is expected to be released in January by the Commission for Truth and Friendship set up by Indonesia and Timor Leste. While history is never black and white, critics are warning that the official version of what sent people "scattering, running in every direction" will be too vague, to say the least.
But the poet just smiles, pointing to the candles lighting up the restaurant.
Somehow he figures he will start to build his dream of contributing to Timor's culture and education, continuing where the political crisis in his country stopped him and his band of friends from going around the refugee camps, and airing the radio programs more often.
"Just like in my poem," the new father of a baby boy says, he wants to be like "a pebble dropped to the bottom of a pond", creating, hopefully many, many ripples.
He orders desert -- "I'll have my favorite" -- and gives the waitress a big smile. Soon the poet is digging into his ice cream, a perfect mix with a perfect rhythm.
It's right there in his notebook of treasured thoughts and words: "Strawberry, chocolate and vanilla."