Voting with Betel Juice: a Timorese short story by Dadolin Murak

In this story, written in 2017 and recently translated into English. Timor-Leste writer Dadolin Murak depicts a family caught up in the politics of a Timorese election. Timor-Leste (East Timor) experienced Indonesian military occupation and crimes against humanity from 1975 to 1999, when the country voted for independence. That vote, on 30 August 1999, is approaching its 20th anniversary.

Despite promises of justice, the perpetrators of mass violence walk free. The country’s leaders and the international community have abandoned the quest for those who committed crimes against humanity to be held accountable, and those perpetrators can now be featured in interviews on national television. Still, voices within the country continue to call for justice. Dadolin Murak writes in an upcoming book of poetry, Lilin Referendu (Referendum Candle): “Apologies / We have failed to gather up your bones / We have failed to accompany your souls / Because our voice has been too muted…”

This story is about a family, and about the failure to achieve justice for the dead. The political party names are invented, but the parties reflect the real parties of contemporary Timor-Leste. It was translated by Pamela Sexton with some minor corrections from Susana Barnes. The original version was in Tetun, ‘Tuu ho Bua-Malus Been’ and was published in Jornal Matadalan Dili, in 2017.


Voting with Betel Juice

by Dadolin Murak

Carmen wore her traditionally woven cloth beautifully. In the pre-dawn dark, the crowing cock anticipated the sun’s arrival and Carmen was already up and busy preparing. She boiled the young corn and heated water to make coffee. She’d prepare food before setting off to the voting station. Her husband Victor also woke early. He had fighting cocks who woke him early with their crowing. On waking, he gave corn and water to five cocks next to the house under the eaves. His cocks had priority over everything else in life for him. Sometimes, even when food was scarce, there was corn enough to share with these cocks.

“Hey, Carmen. We need to hurry a bit. We need to get to the voting station to join the election,” Victor hollered from outside, holding one of his cocks.

“Asíca, have your three brothers bathed yet?”

“Azé and Nitu are bathing in the river, Mama. Mario didn’t come home last night.”

“Really…? So where did he sleep?”

“Yesterday noon, he said he’d sleep in the office of the Flourishing Dream Party, Mama.”

“Are the corn and sweet potato ready?” Victor yelled from the yard.

“It is ready, Dad”

Entering the house, Victor stepped right up to the dining table to eat. Carmen and her daughter Asíca ate in the small cooking space at the back. This was how it usually was in their lives. It wasn’t right for the women to eat at the table with the men. Women always sit in the back.

They put on their best clothes. He wore a white shirt, and a black jacket, though it was terribly hot. Carmen wore the light-colored traditional cloth made for women, put a necklace on, and placed a decoration in her hair. She also brought her betel nut, white lime powder and betel leaf in her small woven basket. If Carmen didn’t chew her betel nut each day, she’d get a splitting headache. When she had a headache, there was no use in giving her a pain-killer; pills couldn’t cure her headache. She just needed her betel nut. That was her medicine. With it, her headache would fly away free.

“Mama, come on. Papa’s already left. And Azé and Nito have also already left.”

Asíca called to her mother, but Carmen remained in her room. Carmen’s head was suddenly full of thoughts as she prepared to go to the voting center. During this last month, in this small family of theirs, tensions would often arise between her three sons. Mario was the local village coordinator for the Flourishing Dream Party (FDP). Nitu was active with the New Dream Party (NDP). And Azé was a youth leader for the Enduring Dream Party (EDP). Victor gave all his support to his son Mario, because for some time, Mario was always ready to give him small amounts of cash for his cock-fighting. Mario often received visits from the FDP campaign coordinator, Señor Kaldy Leite.

Last week, when Carmen was cooking in the kitchen, she heard through the holes in the palm stalk wall Mario discussing issues with his boss Señor Kaldy, who had dropped by to share a coffee following the campaigning.

“Hey, Mario. How come you can’t control your crazy younger brothers? I hear talk they’ve started to steal some of our people. Is that true?” Señor Kaldy challenged Mario in a loud voice.

“No, no, no, boss. Our people are still solid.”

“You have to work hard, ok? I hear talk that you’re going to marry in November. Do you need some support?”

“Yeah, that’s right, boss. My love and I will have our party here, ehmm….but…” With some embarrassment, his eyes to the ground, Mario answered his boss. But before he could finish his sentence, Señor Kaldy cut him off.

“Ok, good, Mario. I’ll prepare some support to warm everyone’s spirits, mm hmm. I’ll send a few cases of beer to you. But what’s important is you have to work hard…If our people start joining the New Dream Party, that’s no good. Our dear President may hang our hides,” Señor Kaldy explained.

Carmen didn’t like Mario’s boss; one day he arrived at the house and yelled at and abused Mario’s two younger brothers.

“You two, Nitu and Azé, you better stop acting so stupid, you hear! This nation will only advance under the Flourishing Dream Party. FDP already has the dream laid out and it’s the truth that when you join FDP, your dreams will follow the right path. Your dream will follow the true dream of our beloved party president. Really, you two should just join with your brother Mario. Look at you two; even though your big brother Mario doesn’t have a formal job, he’s still always got money. I’m right, aren’t I?” Señor Kaldy stood and spoke cynically and arrogantly.

The heat and dust sailed around them, dirtying their clothes a bit. They walked for nearly an hour to the voting center. Once it opened, they stood in line. The heat burned their skin, but didn’t stop them from voting. The sweat rolled down their skin, they were thirsty, but they didn’t turn away. Around her, Carmen saw people dressed in all colors of cloth, some with hard faces, others with sweet faces. They all held their registration cards, as she did. Some wore hats with their leader’s photo on it.

“Mama, there are my brothers, over there.”

Carmen looked over at her three sons. But they stood apart from one another. Mario dressed in a white and blue shirt, Nitu in a green and blue shirt, and Azé was dressed in a red and yellow shirt. They also carried their cards.

“What are your brothers doing, Asíca?”

“Oh, Mama. They’re reviewing and controlling things by watching us vote. People call them election PRISKAIS. When something is wrong, they are the ones who complain,” Asíca explained, though she got the name ‘FISKAIS-monitors’ wrong. She hadn’t finished primary school. She had stayed at home, helping her mother every day, and sometimes going to work in the fields as well.

“Complain? Complain about what?” Carmen asked with frustration, not understanding this process.

“Aww, Mama, it’s almost our turn to vote. Hey, Mama, yesterday I saw Mario with an envelope filled with money. In the evening, I went to the market to meet uncle Toi and he said that Mario had just given $100 to each of them.”

‘So it’s true. Yesterday I saw him give your father $150. But your father didn’t give it to me. Who gave this money to Mario?”

“Well, let’s ignore it, Mama. We’re almost to the voting booths.”

Mario and his father Victor always had secrets. They never told these things to Carmen or her other sons. Sometimes they’d come home with beer, but the two of them would drink silently together. Mario didn’t like his younger siblings, particularly his two younger brothers despite them always working hard on their land. This situation led to Carmen not really liking her oldest son and her husband.

“Asíca, what should we choose? Where should we punch the paper? There are so many photos to look at.”

“What did Mario say, Mama? We should do as he said.” Asíca slowly explained the voting ballot to his mother.

Before stepping up to cast her vote, Carmen took out her betel nut and lime and chewed.

“Hey, Mama. Don’t chew here. Can’t you wait a little bit…?

“Well, my head has started hurting; we have been waiting more than two hours already,” Carmen said as she chewed, looking to her daughter.

As she received her voting ballot and held the nail with which she’d make her choice, her three sons all looked to her. Her husband also gave his full attention to her. Her husband stood with some of the leaders from FDP. From their eyes, it was clear that each wanted Carmen to choose their party.

Carmen took the nail with a quivering hand. After some time, she looked at the voting ballot with its many photos. Suddenly her thoughts flew to the past. To August 30th, 1999, referendum day. At that moment, in the early morning, everyone was well-dressed, ready to vote in the referendum, although night before the militias and military just burned down several houses in their village. There were only two options at that time. And it was clear, they chose the option ‘reject autonomy’. But shortly after referendum day, her oldest son was shot in front of their house by Indonesian special forces military and their militia. Carmen saw it all so clearly in her memory. Her son’s body fell to the ground, his blood flowing. The bullet entered the front of his chest, making a huge hole before coming out his back. She’d run to hold her son. She heard her son’s last voice: Mamaaa… his breathing stopped. Carmen cried, screamed, but only the wild birds listened to her cries. The military and militia walked on.

As she held the nail, a tear drop fell from Carmen’s eyes onto her ballot. Her hands shook. She put the nail back, then brushed her mouth with her hand. She then spit the betel juice which she’d been chewing into her palm. She brushed the juice with the tip of a finger, making it turn red. She then brushed all of the ballots with her red betel juice. She carefully folded her ballot, and then calmly stepped forward toward the voting box. Her thoughts stayed with the bullet which had punctured her son’s heart. She asked herself, “Why did they kill my son so?” She was angry and sad to see her sons without any good work between them, thought they had all left school already. She stepped outside, where her daughter Asíca was waiting for her.

“Mama, which did you choose? And what took you so long? Hey, Mama. Why are your eyes so red, like you’ve been crying?” Asíca hugged her mother with sadness.

Carmen was quiet. She kept asking herself why they killed her son.

“This red betel juice on my ballot is the blood of my son,” Carmen said to herself with a heavy heart.

Suddenly she turned to Asíca with tears in her eyes, “I want these party leaders to see your older brother’s blood on my ballot today. I’m still waiting for the day that justice will be served.”

“What…? Mama, you spat on your ballot?”

Santa Cruz, Dili, Timor-Leste 19 July 2015-2017



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