Essay

A ride in a taxi

'These incompatible misfits who were smuggled into Australia should all be kicked out ... Thank God for the Howard Government. Better you show some loyalty to fellow Australians instead of these illegal criminals, and that's what they are, pure and simple.

I pay significant taxes and whilst happy to support worthwhile national issues, object to housing and financing some goat herder from the Middle East (who happened to have a lazy $20,000 lying around).

I don't care about people who pay their way to simply jump the queue. Turn them back. Their country would do that to me – and probably far worse. I have absolutely no sympathy for those on the Tampa or at Nauru.

Liars, send these Muslim scum back where they came from. You are giving our great country away to heathens with your bullshit. A short boat ride away from our shores is the largest Muslim population in the world. Where will you bleeding hearts be when these Muslim hordes invade our country? I'll be looking for you, finding a wall and shooting you as traitors, 'cause you are betraying your country. Send them all back and since you love them all so much you go with them. I Love my Country, would die for my Country and don't want it handed over without a fight.'

– anon: inbox, Australians Against Racism

 

THE ANONYMOUS AUSTRALIAN who sends these messages objects passionately to a humanitarian response to refugees and asylum seekers. The logic is simple: they are different, they are dangerous – we don't want them.

The anonymous Australian now rules. I sometimes read these messages as notes from the Prime Minister, expressing the fear and the retrograde race and cultural values that signify his government to me; values that seep through the veneer of sweet-talk about our Islamic and Arab-Australian brethren.

These angry messages remind me that there are many different beloved Australias, increasingly unreconciled.

My beloved Australia is one in which an uneasy dance of belonging takes place for many different peoples. It is an Australia that could have grown towards reconciliation. It is an Australia I, too, do not want to give up without a fight.

MY FATHER IS German. He was born, as was my grandfather, in a German community settled from the 1860s in Palestine. My father's village was a tiny place near Haifa known as Wilhelma. Palästinadeutschen, this small community was popularly called. More formally, its residents were the Tempelsgesellschaft, the Templers. Most were shipped to Australia in 1942 and housed in detention camps in Tatura in Victoria and Camp 14, Loveday, in South Australia. The community in Palestine was finally dissolved with the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948.

When my father's uncle stepped off the ship in Port Phillip Bay, having been transported more or less as a prisoner of war of the British, he knew he had arrived in a foreign land, neither Germany nor Palestine. He spoke German in Palestine, so he used his other language, experimentally, on the first Australian he saw on the docks.

'As-salaam 'aleikum,' he said.

'Waleikum as-salaam!' came the instant, stunned reply. 'Tehki Arabi? (You speak Arabic?)' and the Australian kissed my great-uncle welcome to the new land.

My great-uncle is said to have said that from that moment he felt at home in Australia – its one Arabic speaker was there to welcome him as the Germans were locked up.

As-salaam 'aleikum (Peace be upon you). These are, one recently arrived Iraqi refugee said to me, the sweetest words in the world to hear. I heard his loneliness, then, because everyone wishes upon you peace, in every encounter, in the Middle East. There it is a commonplace formality, not a sweet delight.

I was in a taxi in Melbourne recently, reading the Melways for my driver who could not read English. I guessed he was Arab, so I greeted him with these sweetest words. His eyebrows shot up and he beamed his reply.

'Tehki Arabi?' he said.

I wanted to say it was an old Australian tradition, at least in my family, but I was suddenly too sad.

Stereotyping and subtle dehumanisation of Arab and Middle Eastern people is so accepted that it has become almost invisible in Australian culture. But there are some moments in which it is starkly visible through the veneer. Three hundred and fifty three people drowned when SIEV-X sank on October 19, 2001, 146 of them children. David Oldfield of One Nation, wrote: 'The drownings were tragic – especially the deaths of children so unnecessarily exposed to danger by adults who simply come from a culture that does not value human life as highly as we do.'

But the theme of Middle Eastern people having unnatural and defective parental feelings was by then already familiar. Prime Minister John Howard's team concocted the story of children thrown overboard by their parents not long before. Howard declared he absolutely did not want that sort of people in Australia.

To me, the incarceration of children in remote detention centres, sometimes for years, demonstrates how little the Government cares for the children of these people he doesn't want. There is something disturbingly symbolic in the choice of fabrication in the children-overboard affair.

_______________

AUSTRALIA GAVE NEW life, hope and possibilities to my uncle and father, and to countless other refugees. My uncle didn't know, when he arrived at Port Phillip Bay, that Arab Australians and other Middle Eastern Australians had been part of the nation since before the 1860s.

Ramez Salha, a Lebanese migrant of the 1940s, changed his name and worked three jobs, often 16 hours a day, for his young Australian family. Some will still remember the Royal Park milkie of the 1950s to the early '70s, will remember that serious-faced young man who stands beside his white horse, Snowy, and stares out at me from old photos. He was to build a highly successful Adelaide carpet business. Ramez Salha's grandfather, a great traveller, came to Adelaide for an adventure in the 1890s, and took back to the village Ras el-Maten all the stories that would result in his grandson choosing to build a new life in Australia half a century later.

_______________

I WAS IN a taxi on the first anniversary of September 11. It was a strange day in Adelaide. Everyone had an opinion he or she had been polishing for a year. My driver was an extremely tired young man, but once he got talking he murmured on almost without stopping. He'd had a terrible day, he said. He'd spent all day refusing fares.

'The city is full of them. And I don't care, I would not have one in my taxi.'

'Who?' I asked.

‘You know. Towel heads. Arabs.'

'You should perhaps have refused me a fare, then,' I said, quietly.

He swung round to stare at me, then turned to the front. He was silent for a while.

'Are you really from over there?'

'My father and my husband are. My friends are. They're just people.' I felt helpless and lame.

He pulled up at my house, stared at my ordinary fence, then turned to me with an apologetic, self-effacing gesture.

'They just don't fit here, you know, and I'm all for peace everywhere, really, each in their own place. It's just today, just today I can't bear them.'

A photo in sepia, placed high out of reach of the children, attracts my attention. It is of a beautiful young man in army uniform, wearing the distinctive Australian slouch hat that seems always to intimate a life cut short. Miriam says he is her great-grandfather, Ahmed Khan. His father was a cameleer from Afghanistan. 'Lot of Aboriginal people have them in the family. Afghans, Muslims.' The cameleers married, stayed, are part of the blood and memories of her community. 'His son died young, too,' she said. 'A beautiful, tall man, Arab-looking. Had a truck accident. The police came, and the fellas told them not to move him, but the police said they weren't waiting for no blackfella and they picked him up, one had the legs and one had the arms, and threw him like a sack of potatoes into the back of the ute. He died.'

_______________

THE COVERAGE OF the war on Iraq is on my TV screen every night. I am sick of the little lilt in the voice, familiar from the Olympic Games, when the commentator remarks on Australian troops' engagement, on our one excellent missile, on our troops 'deep within enemy lines' and what they saw and did, on how good we are, how sporting. One of our fighter planes even turned back when a target could not be fully ascertained. My joke for today is that there is nothing on TV except sport. Today I am going to buy satellite and watch al-Jazeera or al-Manar instead. I want to know what is happening in the Middle East. So much information here is pressed into the service of making us feel good about being there, making us feel right. Individualistic, proactive liberators of a monolithic, undifferentiated, almost singular, victim. It is hard to get more wrong than this war.

I am struck by the difference between our coverage of the last Gulf War and this one. I don't remember anyone during the last Gulf War acknowledging Arab-Australians and their feelings, other than scholars and academics (who were asked for expert opinion, not feelings). One thing that has come out of the refugee fiasco is the knowledge that Iraqis, refugees from Saddam Hussein's regime, are people, and that they are here in Australia. One is interviewed nearly every day about what he thinks is happening to his family.

I rang Hiam just after the war started. She felt little hope. She had had no contact with relatives for two weeks, so crowded were the lines. She thinks Iraqis probably hate America more than they hate Saddam. Twelve years of sanctions and the death of so many children are not forgotten so quickly. America as liberator is real only to the Americans, and perhaps the Kurds.

Hiam faces possible deportation when her temporary protection visa expires, if John Howard feels he has made Iraq safe for her. His standards are not high: he returns Afghans to Afghanistan despite the country being in anarchy outside the capital, Kabul. She knows all this. She knows that in two years' time she could be deported with two of her children, leaving her husband, Mohammad, and baby, Fuad, in Australia, as Mohammad should be on permanent protection soon, and the baby was born here.

Her family is here because Mohammad was locked up in a lightless room for five years, taken out to be tortured with electric shocks to his tongue, eyes and testicles and then returned. His brothers were executed. Their family, Hiam's brother, mother and father, are all Australian citizens. This is why they chose Australia when they fled.

Hiam tells me that friends in their third trimester in Baghdad would have gone into hospital in these last two weeks to get caesareans. This, more than anything, shocks me. I am jolted by the sudden knowledge of how important a choice that is. A live baby when you can choose, rather than birth at home under unpredictable circumstances. We both cry, then, on the phone.

_______________

I HAVE NOT heard anyone on our news say unequivocally that a dead Iraqi soldier is a man or boy, taken forever from his mother and family. Sometimes these dead boys are even good news, measures en masse of success. They are not included in the phrase 'innocent victims'. They are not included in the terrible enumeration of the dead.

They are damage, not collateral damage. Their deaths were intended. Perhaps when we say some victims are 'innocent', we are really saying we are more innocent in having killed them, for we didn't mean to.

_______________

GHAZI RINGS ME. He has a six-year-old daughter, Nora, stranded in Jordan. He and Zulfiya had no idea, when they left the littlie with relatives and took the older ones on the dangerous journey to Australia, that they would be prevented for four years or more from reuniting with their child. Their relatives in Jordan, who are themselves illegal refugees there, do not believe them, do not believe that Australia would do such a thing, and have accused them of abandoning their youngest. Nora has stopped sleeping, so bad are her nightmares. Ghazi fights with every process lawyers can mobilise but the wait in all this is a killer.

Ghazi has an upbeat view of the war. He has a lot of confidence in the technology on display, and is sure that his family will be fine. Nasiriyya, the city in which his relatives live, is surrounded at the moment, but he sees the army as neither liberators nor enemies.

'What does it matter to the people whether Saddam Hussein has the oil or America has the oil? Let America have it. Let them put the government they want in the country. We should get decent electricity and clean water out of it, at least. And people like me will be able to go and visit our families.'

_______________

TONIGHT AN ANGLO-AUSTRALIAN NSW police officer described a rowdy and difficult bunch of Arab-Australian anti-war protesters as "Middle Eastern males". No one corrected him.

_______________

'CUT ME,' GEORGE, my Sydney taxi driver said, 'and you'll find the map of Australia in my blood. But I cannot forget that I am a Maronite Christian.' He tapped the Lebanese cedar on his mobile phone, which, along with the sprig of jasmine sticking out of his air-conditioner, had got us talking. George owns a taxi, is fluent in three languages. George is an educated man who has done whatever it takes to make sure his children go to university.

His Arabic is both beautiful and rusty, and I notice that in English or Arabic he can switch to a rich colloquial idiom, broadly Australian, or Beiruti, as well as being able to use either language in all its formal perfection. He sounds strangely stagey in Arabic and English; perhaps he knows he is putting them on like costumes. His middle register, an easygoing, mildly accented Sydneyside Aussie, is natural, but also deliberate.

Perhaps, I thought then (and I am often sad in taxis these days), he is a man who puts himself in place for his customers, for their comfort and his own.

_______________

THIS SNIPPET FROM my inbox is not anonymous.

The Lonely Arab in the West

I am an Arabic woman who live in Australia, seating in front of the TV stations receiving all the aggressiveness feelings and acts of Anglo Saxon American British, Australian against Arab. What would my kids feel in front of this superiority of the Anglo Saxon American government and the inferiority of Arab. America I hate you as you are now, peace never happened by creating wars. Have you ever thought of our feelings, what are you English government trying to make us feel? American act create only hatred within Arabic community only hatred. Do you think we going to enjoy this violence and all this advertisement for the American weapons? ... America, I can't stop you from killing Arab, I can't stop your racism against Arab and I am so small in front of your big power of war and violence but this anger you creates around the world will make me ashamed of you and your culture which allowed you to kill people ... Would you put all this money you spend on war into educating new generations around the world ... every body would love you.

– Samia Mikhail, artist

Is it any surprise that Samia Mikhail and countless others cannot describe themselves as Australian, despite the diversity of our peoples?

The police officer's description didn't go unnoticed. Some did try to correct him. There was a heated debate in Sydney.

What does it mean, and what does it take, to be Australian?

What does it give?

_______________

FAYROUZ AND I both watch Rafael's progress with pride. He is two. I am his mother; Fayrouz is his teacher. He says 'As-salaam 'aleikum', sometimes to everybody he meets. He will slip effortlessly into a bilingual English and Arabic existence, unlike us.

We talk, as always, about Australia. I say I love this country and all it could be. Fayrouz says, 'I left Lebanon when life under bombs and occupation became unbearable. I walked away from my chance to belong, not knowing that nationalism is still breeding racism in so-called civilised countries and that it is still quite important to belong somewhere.'

Yet Fayrouz struggles in contemporary Australia to give something inspiring to future generations. 'I do not believe in brutal transformations,' she says.

_______________

ARAB AND MIDDLE Eastern Australians are integral in the weave of our national identity, but somehow incognito. Their descendants are often beloved and prominent Australians – NSW Governor Marie Bashir, Premier Steve Bracks, author David Malouf. They are part of our contemporary art and culture. Loubna Haikal, Abbas el-Zein, Wadih Sa'adeh, Samia Mikhail, Abbas Mehran, Nada Awar Jarrar, Paula Abood, Ghassan Hage, Fassih Keiso, Mammad Aidani, Mohsen Soltany Zand, Mojgan Khadem: have you read their stories, articles and poems? Seen their art and films? Heard their music? Heard their names?

David Malouf, perhaps Australia's most renowned author, writes in A Spirit of Play: The Making of Australian Consciousness that until a land, a nation, exists in our imagination, we do not belong to it.

But it is not just the land that must claim us. Until all our peoples exist in our imagination as part of us, and appear in our art and culture as, in some complex form, self-representation, we will fail to recognise our brothers and sisters when they need our help, we will fail to be loyal.

We fail to know ourselves. 

 

(Some names and identifying details of individual stories have been changed.)

 

Further reading:

This is an entirely personal list, naming only those artists I have direct knowledge of and can recall. Loubna Haikal is a novelist, author of Seducing Mr Maclean (2002). Abbas el-Zein is a novelist, author of Tell the Running Water (2001). Wadih Sa'adeh is a poet, author of a number of books, including A Secret Sky (1999). Samia Mikhail is an artist. She produced and directed One Step Forwards Backwards which toured several capital cities in 2002 and 2003. Abbas Mehran is a visual artist. His solo exhibition Glimpse was shown in the Bay Discovery Centre, Glenelg, South Australia, in May 2003. Nada Awar Jarrar is a novelist, author ofSomewhere, Home (2003). Paula Abood is a writer/director. Her works include the film Of Middle Eastern Appearance and Tomorrow there will be Apricots. Ghassan Hage is a scholar, author of White Nation (2002). His latest work is Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society (2003). Fassih Keiso is a visual artist. Mammad Aidani is a poet and novelist, author of A Picture Out of Frame (1997). Mohsen Soltany Zand is a poet whose poems are put to music on the CD Mohsen. Mojgan Khadem wrote and directed the feature film Serenades. David Malouf is a writer of fiction, poetry, essays and libretti. His more recent works include A Spirit of Play: The Making of Australian Consciousness (1998), Dream Stuff (2000),Conversations at Curlow Creek (1997) and Remembering Babylon (1993).

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