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Time to become amigos

Ken Westmoreland, a new Webdiarist, is a UK-based Portuguese and Tetum translator. This is his debut piece for Webdiary. Many thanks, Ken, and once again, welcome.

Time to become amigos

In the light of Suharto's death, Paul Keating peddled out the 'Jakarta Lobby' canard about how some Australians saw Indonesia through the 'prism' of East Timor. Yet many commentators in Australia have taken an even more negative and distorted view of Portugal and other Portuguese-speaking countries, simply because of East Timor.

It seems the Portuguese are easy game. Unlike the Indonesians' colonial master, the Dutch, the Portuguese are, ahem, "wogs", but unlike the Italians and the Greeks, they are not as well represented in Australia, or have as high a profile. Portugal-baiting has almost become the new Pom-bashing. If it's Portuguese, the conventional wisdom goes, it must be corrupt and incompetent, suspect, or sinister. It has overtones of black legend and blood libel. While Fairfax editors deferred to Paul Keating's quaint insistence on spelling Suharto's name as "Soeharto", rather than, they, along with other media outlets, routinely misspell or mispronounce Portuguese names, usually turning them into Spanish ones.

Of course, it works the other way: as a Portuguese speaker, I have the advantage of being able to follow discussions about East Timor in that language, and can attest that English speakers do not have a monopoly on cultural arrogance, ignorance or prejudice. Many contributors seem to have a chip on their shoulder about the "Anglo-Saxons". Portuguese colonialism is absurdly romanticised, and while it is true that the Portuguese did not behave in East Timor like the British did in Australia, the notion that the Portugal's legacy is one of racial harmony and coexistence would be news indeed to the indigenous peoples of Brazil.

Some Portuguese-speaking contributors make the bizarre claim that having Portuguese as East Timor's language of government and courts is no more an anomaly than Australia having the British monarch as head of state, but not even the staunchest monarchist in Britain, never mind Australia, would suggest that affairs of state be conducted in Norman French. True, Tetum may be influenced by Portuguese, but that does not make it a form of Portuguese any more than the influence of English on French, make it a form of French.

The problem is not that Portugal has some sinister secret agenda in East Timor, but that it has no agenda at all. It is simply a façade, or to use the Portuguese expression para o inglês ver (for the English to see) in other words, for show. The truth is that the Portuguese are not really interested in Asia, and have not been for centuries. Portugal is probably the only country in Western Europe that has fewer ties with Asia now than it did in the sixteenth century. Rather like Australians and New Zealanders who "did" Europe when they were younger, it is as if the Portuguese went to Asia just to say that they did it once, they didn't like it, and they don't want to do it again.

Helping East Timor and promoting the Portuguese language are both laudable, but it is not necessary to do one in order to do the other. In fact, it's actually counterproductive. By confining their efforts to promote Portuguese to East Timor (or Macau and Goa) the Portuguese give the impression that it is a language of the past, and that they are only interested in preserving the past, rather than building the future, and confines a language of 200 million speakers to a ghetto.

If it is not unreasonable to ask "does East Timor need the Portuguese language?" it should not be unreasonable either to ask "does the Portuguese language need East Timor?" Even if nobody in East Timor wants to learn Portuguese, that doesn't mean that nobody else should want to, or that the language has no value. After all, few people in the Philippines speak Spanish, and few in Eritrea speak Italian, but this hardly deters Australians from studying either language.

Portugal and Brazil should be less worried about whether or not the East Timorese want to learn Portuguese, and more worried about the fact that their language is not more widely taught in universities in Australia and elsewhere in the Asia Pacific region. Even in Western Europe and North America, Portuguese lags behind other European languages in the popularity stakes, with children in the UK more likely to learn Latin and (ancient) Greek. While Spain's international cultural organisation, the Instituto Cervantes, concentrates its activities on countries where Spanish is not spoken, Portugal's equivalent, the Instituto Camões wastes its limited funds and resources by promoting Portuguese in Brazil. It should be represented in Sydney, not São Paulo.

Or in Canberra. Perhaps, as a way of atoning for the 'Jakarta Lobby' and its rabidly anti-Portuguese comments over the years, the ANU could start teaching Portuguese, in addition to the many other European languages already taught there. A surprising move by DFAT has been the appointment of Peter Heyward, formerly Ambassador to Brazil, as Ambassador to East Timor, rather than some Indonesianist or Dick Woolcott clone.

Of course, it is tempting for people in Australia and Portuguese-speaking countries to dismiss the other as being too "poor" and/or "far away" to be of importance. Yet if Brazil is "poor", then why are Australian regional airlines buying Embraer aircraft from Brazil, and if Australia is "far away", then why does Brazil import left hand drive Holden Commodores from Australia? Of course a mutual interest in East Timor has brought Australia and Portuguese-speaking countries together, but to allow it to be a stumbling block to forming good relations between them is short-sighted, and a squandering of opportunities.


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A Most Interesting Country

Ken, an interesting piece.

In November 1989 my wife Jenny, her mother and myself were in London, miserable weather having laid us low with head colds and flu. Her brother, who was in Lisbon, advised us to re-schedule our travels and come there straight away. So we did.

The transformation was remarkable. Within a day we were all recovering well, and in no time were immersed in that lovely city.

I made contact with my old friend Jill Jolliffe, who is pretty fluent in Portuguese (and Tetum too, I think). Knowing my interest in music, she suggested a visit to a fado club, and introduced me to her favourite for dinner and a show. (Jenny was still a bit off colour and decided to stay home.)

For those readers not familiar with it, fado is a haunting and most distinctive style of music, and the club had an excellent player of the Portuguese guitar. Not only that, but various staff members took turns at vocal leads; the first time I have ever seen someone in a restaurant leave off washing dishes, and without bothering to remove her apron, take centre stage in the live act. Fado is sometimes called the Portuguese answer to the blues.

Jill has made a name for herself as a journalist specialising in Portugal and East Timor, and it has been good to see her star rise as those of Paul Keating, Richard Woolcott, Heinz Arndt and the rest of the Jakarta Lobby have fallen.

Portugal needs to get out more

Thanks Ian.

Although I dislike Australian Portugal-baiting, I also dislike Portuguese navel-gazing. I have been telling the Portuguese for years that they need to get much more involved with Asia in terms of trade and tourism, as well as "people-to-people" links.  

The claim that this was not possible in the past because of East Timor is complete nonsense - South Africa under apartheid had ties with Taiwan and Hong Kong, while Israel has ties with Singapore and Thailand even though its nationals are still banned from Malaysia and Indonesia. In fact, Portugal's airline TAP briefly flew to Bangkok in 1997-98, when the prospect of self-determination for East Timor was still a pipe dream.

I certainly agree with you about the charms of Lisbon, and Portugal generally (even if fado isn't really to my taste) and the Portuguese should be making more of an effort to attract tourists from the Middle East and the Asia Pacific - if people in the UK and Ireland can bypass Heathrow in favour of Dubai, so should people in Portugal. 

As for the wider Portuguese-speaking world, Brazil has always had diplomatic relations with Indonesia, although contacts between the two countries have been so limited that East Timor was a non-issue. 

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