Report of fieldwork on Timor, Indonesia (Pierpaolo de Giosa)

Pierpaolo de Giosa, student Area Studies, Specialisation Asian Studies sent a report and beautiful photographs of his fieldwork in Kupang and Dili, Timor, Indonesia.  

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As student of the Research Master in Area Studies and Asian Studies during my third semester I had the opportunity to carry out my own fieldwork on Timor under the supervision of Prof. Peter Nas. This anthropological fieldwork represents a significant corollary of my academic itinerary since my bachelor degree at ‘Orientale’ University of Naples focusing on Southeast Asian studies and at Ahmad Dahlan University in Yogyakarta. However, my choice has been deeply inspired by three classes attended at Leiden, namely ‘Perceptions of Space in Asia’, ‘Culture Seminar: Societies’, and language training in Tetun with Prof. Aone van Engelenhoven. This experience will be the indispensable step for my thesis, but it also represents a meaningful basis for the future and eventually for Ph.D. research.     

During my first year at Leiden university I had the opportunity to focus on urban anthropology and on the symbolic side of cities, far and wide explored by the approach of Urban Symbolism. Furthermore I did work with Peter Nas in order to develop a new approach able to grasp the dynamics of social cohesion in the urban context far from the isolated and exotic villages representing the ‘traditional’ land of anthropological studies. The city is a lot of places rather than a single one and it is the constant and changing result of construction, destruction and reconstruction of urban space by societies. The consequence is that often the researcher of urban communities has to wear the multi-dress of the quick-change artist meeting several people, speaking different languages, living in very diverse worlds but sharing the same urban space.


I am carrying out my fieldwork on Timor in these months to explore the biggest centers of the island: Kupang (the formal provincial capital of NTT) and Dili (national capital of Timor Leste). This island has been historically and politically divided between local kingdoms but also between the interests of two colonial powers attracted by the trade of sandalwood: the Dutch in the West and the Portuguese in the East. During the last decade East Timor has reshaped itself as a new independent international entity. The comparison of these two cities will do what history did not manage to do through the centuries trying to unify the biggest urban areas of Timor under the same lens and identifying similarities and differences. The result will be a tale of two cities, but also to some extent a depiction of the ‘Timorese City’


Kupang could be considered a clear example of Indonesian provincial city undergoing in the last two decades a massive process of urbanization and expansion. This city represents, however, an attracting magnet for all Eastern Nusa Tenggara. Under the Dutch especially peoples from the islands of Sabu, Rote, and Solor have settled in what was at the time just a small garrison town, but also Chinese and Javanese communities have played an important role. Kupang is now well known as ‘bureaucratic city’ because it constitutes the center of the provincial government of NTT where educated people from islands as Flores, Sumba, and Lesser Sunda islands are employed in public institutions. It could safely said that Kupang is a kind of ‘multiethnic city’ which is deeply concerned with the creation and enforcement of its own identity that should be able to increase social cohesion between different ethnic groups living in the same city. Politics related to urban space are thus of primary importance because as it has happened more or less a decade ago a low degree of social cohesion may lead to violence and urban riots. Official symbolism as architecture and monuments help us to grasp the soul of this city: clear examples are the roofs of the Walikota palace (with Timorese, Florenese, and Sumbanese traditional roofs) or the Tirosa Bersatu statue representing the unity of the biggest ethnic groups in Kupang: Timorese, Rotinese, and Sabunese. Nevertheless, bottom-up ‘negotiations’ between peoples with different origins are also one of the main forces in the development of a special identity for the Kupangers; particularly mixed marriages constitute a significant vehicle of cultural ethnic accommodation.


On the other hand, Dili as one of the youngest capital cities of the world is facing the new challenges brought by a crucial period of transition. After more than four centuries of Portuguese colonization and more than twenty years under Soeharto’s Indonesia what has been for hundreds years not more than a small provincial town is now attracting peoples looking for job from all over the country and also the interest of other countries and international institutions. I do consider fieldwork in Dili at the moment just a first step, because it is needed some time to understand what Dili will be in the future after this transition. The long period of chaos and violence still represents an ‘indelible scar’ for this city where several buildings burned ten years ago stand as the symbolic ghost of the past whereas the desire of peace by its dwellers depicts Dili as ‘City of Peace’ (Sidade da Paz). Urban space and symbolism in Dili seem to shape it as a ‘multicreolysed city’ where Portuguese and Indonesian influences are now surviving with a new East Timorese nationalist identity. I have been living for a while in a so called urban slum just in front of the new Presidential Palace. The majority of peoples living there have occupied the Indonesian public buildings in the area after the referendum because they did not have a house anymore. Some months ago East Timorese government has asked them to leave, because it will be build the national library over there. The reaction is a peaceful protest that bares the problems related to urban space distribution in a new independent country.


I have started to explore these two cities focusing on their urban symbolic side looking at their material and spatial configurations. I have identified some of the most significant forces in the creation, construction, destruction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of urban space paying attention to both top-down and bottom-up dynamics through synchronic and diachronic perspectives. After an initial period of ‘familiarization’ it has been easier to understand how institutions and the so called ‘ordinary people’ contribute to shape the identity of their own city also through rituals. Once back in Leiden I will focus on how social relations shape and are shaped by urban space and urban symbolism. Symbols and rituals from Kupang and Dili will be analyzed through a constant comparison. Particularly everyday life rituals, funerals, marriage’s negotiations, and cockfight will be taken in consideration as symbols affecting and denoting social cohesion in urban contexts. Finally, I would like to say that the opportunity to carry out my fieldwork represents a significant experience and background to learn in practice how fieldwork works; and, last but not least, to know new peoples : a personal enrichment of human and social relations.


Last Modified: 17-01-2011