IN THE BEGINNING, I had to avert my eyes – not that he’d asked me to or anything. Sometimes I’d try to make myself look, but I could never quite bring myself to. My not-looking reminded me of times as a kid at the local swimming pool, standing near someone changing into their cossies. I might inadvertently see them naked, but would feel weird looking in their direction too squarely or for any decent length of time.
Watching him felt too intimate. But more than that, if I’m honest about it, I was somewhat uncomfortable with the whole thing. The careful positioning of the prayer mat; his giant hands with their ridged karate-knuckles raised gently to the sky; the shifting of his voice into something low and rhythmic. I had an Australian mistrust of religion in any form and, well, this was all so unmistakably religious. My boyfriend’s three-times-a-day prayer was something to which I turned a blind eye. It expressed a part of him that was unknowable to me, and embodied the fear that I usually managed to suppress: that the two of us were, in some fundamental way, incompatible.
At the start, walking around with him in public, he was forever convinced that people were staring at us – a white girl with a ‘boatman’, as he called himself. I tried in vain to explain that nobody here could tell where he was from, or how he had come here, and that even if they did know either of these things, chances were they wouldn’t care. Besides, I insisted, here you can’t know where anyone’s from by what they look like. This was – very understandably – hard for him to swallow. In Afghanistan (where he spent his early childhood) his almond eyes alone marked him as belonging to the Hazara tribe. In Iran (where he spent over two decades) locals could tell he was Afghan from his face, and he lived with the constant anxiety of being arrested, deported or beaten as a result.
Eventually, he came to realise that Australians do, in fact, find it hard to guess where he’s from, but it’s much harder for him to accept that they don’t have a problem with it. When people ask the inevitable question, he devises strategies to buffer against their shock. He’s intentionally vague about his background (‘Middle Eastern’) or else he makes people guess (a very tedious game), or else he prefaces things by warning people they needn’t be afraid but, actually, he’s from… Afghanistan. Occasionally, he tries to soften the (perceived) blow with a joke: you’re probably wondering where my beard is, hey, or my AK-47? One time, a local shopkeeper studies his face and asks (in her own accent, which I can’t quite place): Where are you from? For once, he says, proud: Afghanistan. Her upper lip curls. That’s all right, she reassures us, in the way you might address a kid who’s knocked over your cup of coffee by accident.
At the towering construction site where he works as a water-proofer, in the midst of a pep talk, the boss assures his workers that here in Australia everyone belongs. ‘Doesn’t matter where you’re from,’ he says. ‘Greek, Leb, Polish, Brazilian.’ As he speaks he singles out workers with his finger to indicate their different backgrounds. Brazilian? My boyfriend turns to see who the boss is pointing at; turns out it is him. Another time a stranger at the train station guesses that he might be Italian. He repeats these anecdotes – Brazilian, Italian – like they’re enormous compliments. It saddens me to see how proud he is to be able to hide where he’s from, how flattered he is when people think he’s something he’s not.
Very few people are outwardly hostile. But a lot of people – mostly out of genuine curiosity – seem to find it difficult to get beyond the matter of his ethnicity. Some appear to want a crash course in Afghan history, politics and cuisine. Others scrabble for some kind of connection, however tenuous. ‘Oh, Afghani,’ says one man. ‘We knew a Baha’i family once. Lovely people!’ Others are sympathetic, or even apologetic, no doubt in recompense for our nation’s treatment of refugees. This last response is tricky too, because it comes from such a well-intentioned place, and he knows it, and yet he’s allergic to any hint of pity. He can’t stand it when he suspects people like him, or find him intelligent or kind, because they know where he’s from and what he’s been through, rather than on the basis of actually getting to know him. It can be a trap, though: he is a deep thinker and remarkably kind, but if anyone points out these qualities, his default position is to assume that they mean for an asylum seeker. (When one of his short stories gets accepted for publication in an Australian literary journal, he insists it is because the editors felt sorry for him.)
When people discover he’s Muslim, they often assume he must be a ‘cultural’ Muslim in the way some people identify as culturally Jewish or Catholic without practising the religion. A good year into our relationship, my sister’s doing the 5:2 diet, and my boyfriend tells her he’s doing the 11:1 diet. She looks intrigued. ‘Yeah, it’s called Ramadan,’ he says, chuffed with his joke. ‘Eleven months eating, one fasting.’ Later, she checks: ‘Is he Muslim?’ I can see her double take – a cognitive dissonance that reminds me of when, after having formed friendships with particular Serco officers, my boyfriend learned they were gay. When a friend says casually that some Middle Eastern guys just want to have a white girlfriend ‘for fun’, my boyfriend seethes – as do I, when another friend suggests that maybe I have a ‘thing’ for Hazara guys.
My own friends and family – themselves a typically Aussie mishmash of backgrounds – are generally unfazed by my boyfriend’s origins. Still, when someone’s visiting and it is prayer time, he usually says he needs to make a phone call. He’s scared of being too foreign; he doesn’t want to test the limits of anyone’s open-mindedness.
After getting to know him better, more than one person has told me: ‘You actually forget, don’t you, where he’s from?’ (And I think I must have on occasion said this, or thought this, too.) I know this observation is meant to convey his charisma and warmth. I know it’s meant with complete sincerity, as a comment on his almost preternatural ability to connect to people. And yet, isn’t it somehow dubious, that this erasure should be considered the ultimate compliment? Why is it that – in order to express our closeness – I never say that he makes me forget where I am from?
I AM HIS teacher; that is how we first meet. Every sentence structure he uses, I’m able to trace back to one of my lessons. Often, he’d recite these lessons back to me. I say: ‘We should have taken the earlier train.’ His response: ‘Should have, should have…that means you’re expressing a regret, something that didn’t happen, but you wish it had happened? Correct?’ After he finds work, and begins to associate with other Australians, I notice whenever he uses a tense or a word that’s not from one of my lessons. He’ll tell me who he heard use it, and the sentence they used it in. He collects strings of words like a bowerbird. He commits train announcements to memory, perfecting the intonation: ‘Please stand clear. Doors closing.’ The same with GPS commands and chunks of dialogue from Jason Bourne movies: ‘I can’t see him; I don’t see him.’
Five years ago, early on in our relationship, we read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe together, and he still overuses particular words that to me have Narnian echoes: dismal, yearning, solace, fawn. I like how he’s resurrected these words, breathed new life into them. When he starts working full-time as a painter on construction sites though, he gets teased (‘given shit’) for talking ‘like a girl’, and so to compensate he goes a bit overboard with the swearing. He learns arselicker and cocksucker. He comes home excited at these new additions to his vocabulary. (In Farsi, he explains, they say ‘testicle massager’!) He addresses people as buddy and complains about the guy he has to work with who’s a total bludger. He starts to describe himself as ‘Affie’ and – despite how it makes me wince every single time – ‘Muzzie’. He eavesdrops on workmates, and then quizzes me at the end of the day: ‘What is chuck-a-sickie?’ ‘What’s a titty bar?’ ‘Is Dog a normal name for a man here? And what about Recharge?’ (Eventually we work out he means Doug and Richard.) Later, when he enrols in a diploma of counselling, he learns other terms that I still don’t really understand the meaning of: modality, person-centred and minimal responses.
Some of his ‘mistakes’ stick, cement themselves into our own personal language. There’s Macquarie Port, and Hall Town, and Harbour Darling. Bankstown becomes Bankistan and zebra crossing is giraffe crossing. Cucumbers are queue jumpers, the polystyrene netting around papaya is hijab, and Vegemite is grease. Some of his Farsi words drift across into my English, so that now we are used to substituting namak for salt, ail for cardamom, zira for cumin, and anar for pomegranate. We rarely use one another’s names; instead, we call one another jan, roughly equivalent to ‘dear’, but used far more commonly in Farsi, and without sounding old-fashioned as it can in English. (I text him for a translation for this piece, and he writes back: ‘Jan means soul, everything for me, my spirit, whatever makes a body alive; between a couple it means darling, but maybe a little deeper.’)
Sometimes he gets annoyed at me for not correcting his mistakes enough, or for failing to point out when he’s using a word that sounds overly formal or just plain funny. But I hesitate. I don’t want for his language to become smoothed over and blandly ‘correct’. I like it, the way he’s patched together all these words from different places into an English that’s become so eclectic and idiosyncratic.
He tells me that traditionally Persian rug-makers would deliberately introduce errors into their work to remind themselves that flaws are an integral part of being human (and that only Allah was perfect in all aspects). These mistakes would be subtle like, for example, a different colour used in a flower petal. And I think of his own mistakes like this: little imperfections woven into the tapestry of his language – a creation that’s distinctly his.
AT THE START, when we’d be standing at traffic lights and a man slipped his hand into the back pocket of his girlfriend’s jeans, he’d gawk every time. He’d nudge me at men holding hands, at people tending to dogs like toddlers, at women with bare legs and sleeves of tattoos. When I took him to Coogee, he didn’t know where to look. He didn’t understand why Australians don’t eat bread with dinner nor why they’re so careful about how much sugar they eat. He was impatient to try KFC (which he wasn’t able to finish) and to taste alcohol (which he still can’t really understand the point of) and to visit a nightclub (which he’s vowed never to return to). Excited about introducing him to the Australian bush, I took him for a short walk in Katoomba. Within maybe half an hour he started blasting some music out of his iPhone. ‘Oh my God, what do you think you’re doing?’ I shrieked. I explained that this was just not what we did in the bush (and fumbled for some kind of clever cultural explanation). He retorted: ‘You Australians, you treat the nature like…like it’s something… Sacred.’
At the start it seemed everything here reminded him of something back there. When he tasted watermelon, he scrunched up his face and said it can’t compare to the watermelons in Afghanistan. If it was hot, he’d say it was nothing compared to when he was in Mecca. The first time he tasted oysters (at Christmas in Macquarie Port) he likened them to boiled sheep’s head. Every time we heard fireworks in the distance, he would physically jolt and explain that on hearing such a noise his instinct was to hide under the table. Once, when I stopped to coo over a sick-looking cat without a collar, he got uncharacteristically upset. ‘What would you do if you saw a human by the side of the road?’ he challenged me. Sometimes I grow impatient: I want for this place not to remind him of anything. I want him to be here, now.
For a while, we toyed with the idea of moving to another part of Australia. He was fairly indifferent about it and said that he may as well be living anywhere. It was nice to know that he was so willing to follow me, but at the same time it bothered me that after several years living in Sydney he was still so unattached – that I was the main thing tying him to this place.
Now, though, it feels different. I wouldn’t say either of us feels entirely at home in Sydney. Much of this city still feels exclusive and rushed. But we do feel attached to our tiny patch of it. Arthur Street has become our little world. When our new flatmate described our street as ugly (she’d just moved from Artarmon) we both felt the same stab of defensiveness.
When we walk up our stretch of street, he knows where we’ll pause: me to pat the cats (that live in the same house as several ibises); and him to rummage through the mounds of people’s discarded furniture and clothes – a habit to which I introduced him and which he used to consider deeply embarrassing. Now our garage is stocked with his findings. When we reach the lights, he’ll always insist on cutting in front of the traffic, even when we’re not in a rush, and call me ‘so Australian’ if I insist on waiting. In the evenings, when the light is pink, we like to walk a loop over the railway line and back. He has a particular look reserved for when trains go past, because he thinks their lights look beautiful. Even though neither of us really drinks, every Friday night we go to the pub and eat $10 steak and chips. On the way back, we’ll pause to listen to the busker on the corner. When we first met, he found buskers insulting. ‘How dare they try to turn music into some kind of transaction,’ he used to say. I remember at the time questioning whether I could really be with someone who didn’t like buskers.
He laments my culture’s lack of neighbourliness and the way we treat our old people. On more than one occasion, he invites the old man (who spends his days watching daytime TV) and his son who live in the apartment two-metres opposite ours for a drink, suggests the son bring his guitar over (and he could show him his two-stringed damburra) and our neighbours try not to betray their suspicion (because suspicion in my culture applies not just to would-be terrorists, but also to people inviting you to their house for tea). One time I’m making a cake and realise too late we’ve run out of eggs (and our current flatmates are annoyingly vegan). With my boyfriend’s words in the back of my mind, I knock on our other neighbour’s door to see if she might have any. She says they just got back from being away, and they haven’t done the groceries yet. When I step back into our apartment, my boyfriend asks where I was, and when I tell him, he shakes his head: ‘Why did you do that? They’ll think we’re weird.’
‘But you’re the one always going on about how sad it is nobody talks to their neighbours. And I’ve said hello to her before on the stairs. She’s really friendly.’
‘Yeah, but jan, you have to consider the context.’
WHEN HE STARTS a sentence with ‘we’, it’s invariably in reference to people from his culture. For someone belonging to a diaspora, for someone with a history of dispossession, this identification makes perfect sense. When he talks about his culture it has a weight to it, and in comparison my own feels altogether nebulous. When someone living in Auburn has a relative die, hundreds of compatriots will stream through the house, paying their respects. If the bereaved is going home for the funeral, everyone will pool money to help out, even though they are struggling financially. If my boyfriend has a friend over (who is then no longer just a friend but also a ‘guest’), then his code of hospitality means absolutely everything must be done to make the guest feel welcome (no matter how exhausted or unsociable the host may feel).
When his ‘we’ doesn’t include me, I can’t help but bristle. Perhaps part of me is envious that he feels such belonging and tenderness towards his culture when I lack such an allegiance to my own. This bristling bothers me too. It makes me feel self-absorbed, too Western. I feel as if I can never possess the grace, humility and elegance that I imagine women in his culture possess. (When I was teaching in detention centres, and my students occasionally told me that I was not like other Australian women, or that I reminded them of an Afghani girl, I used to feel so pleased.) Despite being – by my own culture’s standards – quiet, modest and fairly ‘low- maintenance’, I nevertheless feel that – by the norms of his culture – I am too needy, too ambitious, too feminist, too scruffy. He, too, can suffer a similar sense of inadequacy. He can feel that he is not educated enough, not adventurous enough, not modern enough.
He gets annoyed that major incidents ‘over there’ don’t even make the news ‘over here’. Within days of being in Iran (visiting his ill mother, who on account of being Afghan has no access to medical treatment), Sydney features in their news for its record-high temperatures. In late January this year, attackers drove an ambulance packed with explosives past a police checkpoint into a crowded Kabul street. More than one hundred people were killed and several hundred others injured. Yet every time I turned on my radio in Sydney, the ABC news had an update on the embarrassing saga involving a minister rigging a ballot to decide on a name for one of Sydney’s new ferries (and opting for ‘Ferry McFerryface’).
IN THE EVENINGS, my boyfriend sets himself up to pray in the corner of our lounge room, between the bookshelves and the spot where we keep the vacuum cleaner. And when we’re away somewhere, he consults an app to work out which direction Mecca is (which, since I went to school in Penrith, I’m used to thinking of as in the direction of the Blue Mountains). It amuses me slightly, when a new flatmate sees him praying for the first time, freezes and starts tiptoeing around like a well-meaning tourist in a temple.
It seems I’ve grown used to him praying. I’ll busy myself by putting the kettle on or cutting up veggies for dinner. ‘Used to’ is not quite the right way to think about it though. That makes it sound like I’ve learnt to put up with some kind of irritating habit, like his snoring (which I have not gotten used to). The truth is that I’ve come to see the beauty of his prayer. In our rushed Sydney lives, where our sleeping patterns and routines are dictated by work timetables, there is something so elemental and ancient about rising with the sun and beginning the day by acknowledging something greater than us. I like how the ritual ties him to the day, how it calms him and gives him solace. I like how this sacred and intimate thing doesn’t need to happen in a mosque, but takes place here, before my very eyes.
Now, my boyfriend’s praying is part of the mental list I keep of things to tell new housemates: make sure to pull the bathroom door shut tight, until you hear a click, otherwise the wind makes it slam; the rubbish gets taken downstairs; keep this screen door closed so the mozzies don’t get in. Oh, and my boyfriend tends to sleep on the lounge-room floor. I can’t sleep through his snoring, and he gets up real early to go to work. Plus he prefers it to sleeping in a bed. And if you come home and he’s praying, don’t think you can’t make any noise, or you can’t use the kitchen – he’s really not fussed.
At the start it seemed somehow fraught to tether myself to someone so tenuously attached to this place, someone so uprooted and so homesick. But as every year unfolds and passes, I come to believe more in the love that he’s swathed me in from the start. I come to trust that he’s here to stay.
On our street the old quarter-acre blocks are being sold off in lots of three or four to developers. Across the road, Lume – a soulless, hideous apartment block promoted as a ‘boutique development’ with a ‘contemporary cosmopolitan perspective’ – went up in the space of a few months. Who knows how many months more we’ll be able to keep on extending our lease? I try not to think about it. I recently stopped using Blu Tack. Now I just hammer nails in. When, inevitably, we get moved on, I figure my boyfriend can always patch the holes with No More Gaps. Hopefully our elusive landlord won’t be able to tell.
When he’s not here, in our little apartment, his possessions take on a poignance, all the more so for being so few. When he’s not here, I miss the smell of the Deep Heat that he rubs into my knees when they get sore, and the smell of the rosewater that I drop into his eyes when they’re red and painful from the day’s dust and paint. When he’s not here, I get a feeling like homesickness.