‘WE MUST STOP the boats.’ It’s a phrase every Australian has heard, ad nauseam. It’s been the theme of election campaigns and political advertising. It’s a statement so often uttered on the nightly news that a time when politicians showed empathy to asylum seekers and refugees seems like a fading dream. For over a decade, but particularly for the last five years, this simple saying has sent a blunt message: ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’
The ‘stop the boats’ slogan has divided communities, led to the re-establishment of inhumane offshore processing policies and ultimately, sadly, delivered election-winning results. It is an example of the very real and effective way in which fear sells. What is forgotten in all this posturing is that we are not just stopping amorphous ‘boats’ from coming to our shores; we are also stopping people. Who are these people? Many are risking their lives for a chance at a better one – a life like ours – and yet, we know almost nothing about them, and rarely hear their stories. Mahtab’s Story (Allen & Unwin, 2008) helped to change that.
Libby Gleeson’s novel provides a glimpse into the lives of those who arrive by boat, through the eyes of a young Afghani girl named Mahtab. Importantly, the novel also shows us that these people are so much more than just ‘boat people’ – a term used to flatten and de-identify asylum seekers when they arrive on our shores. Mahtab’s Story gives texture and context to the lives of thousands that have attempted to make it to Australia, and millions that have made the journey to seek refuge around the world.
CHAPTER ONE BEGINS sharply, opening with a two-word sentence: ‘MAHTAB ACHED.’ The capital letters lend a sense of urgency. The subsequent paragraphs take us into the small, cramped space Mahtab is hiding in: curled up in a truck that is making its way to Pakistan. She is scared, trapped and unsure when she will be safe again.
The text then flashes back to the world Mahtab left. The first chapter is dedicated to painting an image of Mahtab’s home, which she loves and holds dear, and its slow descent into a place heavy with the fog of fear and whispers of terror. The language of the first chapter is simple yet evocative, offering an insight into the life and pleasures of a young Afghani girl. Quietly, through descriptions of weddings, playing with friends and storytelling time with Mahtab’s grandfather, Gleeson establishes a human connection with the reader.
…there was music and dancing and rows of tables laden with dishes of goat and lamb kebab, sweet fruit and yoghurt… (p. 1)
She remembered nights when her whole family sat around the low table. They warmed their feet… Her grandmother poured tea and passed around the steaming glasses… Her grandfather told stories… (p. 4)
These are universal joys: family, friends and good food. The author shows us that we all enjoy similar things, even if the context seems completely different. The connection forged in these opening pages is the bedrock of empathy and, after establishing this empathy so early on, we are shocked when Mahtab is thrust violently into dark times, into a coldness she describes as ‘the fog’.
…that fog had seeped into the house and into their lives. There would be no education for girls… Her mother no longer went to work. The women almost never left the house. (p. 4)
In a particularly powerful scene, Mahtab’s uncle screams at the children for doing something they had always done for fun: flying kites. His cries, directed at the girls, speak of deep fear that has been born of tragedy.
You are putting the whole family in danger, you will be killed and your fathers and your mothers and your brothers and your sisters and your cousins and what do you think you are doing? You have been told that everything has changed and you are never, never, never going to play like this again. (p. 3)
Gleeson takes pains to show the changes in the lives of Mahtab and her family, emphasising that things were not always cold, hard, closed and scary. She makes the important point that regular people, like Mahtab and her family, suffered deeply because of changes in the country, changes they could not control but that affected them deeply.
Mahtab’s parents decide they must leave. At the close of the chapter, Mahtab’s grandfather has disappeared and the situation doesn’t look like it will improve. Mahtab overhears her mother explaining why they had to go:
…I do not want my young children to be buried before their time or to have to bury me while they are young. I want them free of fear, free of all of this. We must go, for them. (p. 10)
Their destination is Australia, where Mahtab’s father has an old acquaintance – a visitor to the village from years before. With that decision, the journey begins.
THE MAJORITY OF the book describes the perilous, multistage voyage from Herat, Afghanistan, to Australia. Several chapters are dedicated to the interminable, stifling truck ride from Afghanistan to Pakistan. They give the reader an insight into the perhaps unexpected landscape of these countries: the mountains, the greenery, the snow. The juxtaposition of the peaceful countryside against the danger Mahtab feels is jarring.
Once the family arrives in Pakistan, the story begins to draw attention to the anxieties that come with these uncertain and dangerous journeys: the splitting of families, the monotony and frustration of waiting, and the overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Almost as soon as they arrive, their guide, ‘Hairy Man’, advises Mahtab’s father to travel ahead alone, leaving the rest of the family – Mahtab, her mother and her two younger siblings – to wait for further instructions and, if required, money.
Mahtab’s father leaves silently in the night, and the silence continues for days, weeks, months. The wait becomes increasingly unbearable. Mahtab has to become strong for her younger siblings in a way that no child should ever need to, and we witness this change through her eyes. She looks after her brother and sister, distracting them with games, toys and stories. Eventually, she tells her sister a white lie about her father to protect her from the painful truth: they had no idea where he was, whether he was safe or even alive.
She took a long, deep breath. ‘Hasn’t Mum told you? He got in touch with Hairy Man. He has arrived safely and he’s sending money and we are leaving soon to go and be with him. There was danger but he is safe.’ (p. 66)
This resolve though, does not come without growing pains. In nearly every chapter, Mahtab is beset with doubt:
Had Dad stayed here?…Where was he now? (p. 87)
Would Mum smile again in Australia? (p. 108)
She closed her eyes and tried to imagine her father’s face…how he would smile and laugh to see them… But if…? (p. 123)
These questions tug at our heartstrings and remind us that Mahtab is just a young girl mustering unfathomable strength in order to make sense of the world and survive it.
After more than eight months of waiting for word from Mahtab’s father, her mother makes a decision for the rest of the family. Things are no longer safe in Pakistan, so they must follow him to Australia, alone. Mahtab’s mother negotiates with Hairy Man, the family travel in secret to the market for passport photos and they eventually arrive at the airport. The flight to Indonesia via Malaysia is largely uneventful. Subsequent events, however, are much more fraught.
It is at this point that the story becomes especially politically relevant. Successive Australian governments have suppressed the stories of asylum seekers who arrive by boat, limiting media access to detention centres and laying the propaganda on thick. As such, a blow-by-blow account of the experience, albeit fictionalised, offers an important counterpoint to the government-approved narrative. Gleeson describes how Mahtab and her family are reliant upon the people smugglers, and at the mercy factors such as the integrity of the boat and the proximity of Indonesian police. (Their first attempt to escape is thwarted by police at the port.) Though it is clear that this is not a safe or legal journey, it still feels like it is the right thing for the family to do.
While the boat journey is harrowing, the family’s first contact with Australia is truly heartbreaking. We have been taken on a journey with Mahtab; we have felt her fear, experienced the pain of separation from her father and appreciated her yearning for safety. When the rickety boat her family is on meets an Australian ship in the ocean, her joy – and the delight of all on the boat – is palpable. We find ourselves almost cheering too: at last, their struggle might be over. But of course, that isn’t the case.
‘Maybe it’s a special ship from Australia and it’s come to welcome us.’ But there was no welcome. As their boat drew closer to the huge steel vessel, a voice came over the loudhailer…
‘They say we are not welcome.’
‘We must go back.’
…‘We will die.’
How could this be? Didn’t they know what had happened? Didn’t they know about the whips, the dogs, the beatings, shootings, stonings? The trip through the mountains? The hiding in the truck? The months, the months with no father? The tears? The tears? (pp. 113–15)
The harsh reality of the Australian immigration process is inescapable. Mahtab and her family are transported to land and immediately whisked to an onshore processing facility that is essentially an immigration prison. Their confusion is obvious.
'Your father told me about big cities where he would be able to work and you children would go to school and you would grow up free.’
Free? Free was how she felt when the boat came into the harbour and she touched land again. Would that feeling ever return? (p. 132)
This section of the book attempts to show how others perceive and interact with Australia’s immigration system. The difference between the black-and-white descriptions so often given by the government and the nuanced reality of the situation is stark.
Weeks of waiting in uncertainty and the accompanying sense of overwhelming helplessness take their toll on Mahtab. Slowly she buckles, emotionally and physically, to the brink of death. Eventually, relief comes in the form of a message delivered by a stranger: her father is alive. From this point, Mahtab’s future begins to brighten and so do her diary entries, a habit she developed while recovering from a debilitating illness in detention.
Day thirty-four’s entry is blissfully short:
It is true. We are accepted. We have the visa. We are coming to you, Dad. We are coming. (p. 174)
WHEN READING MAHTAB’S Story, it is useful to understand its genesis, particularly given the recent public debate that kicked off at the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival on who can write the stories of others and how to get it right (or as right as possible). My response to Lionel Shriver’s opening address reignited an international conversation about appropriation, context, ownership and aesthetic. In light of this debate, Gleeson’s book is even more important as a positive example of writing fiction that mirrors the real lives of many. Gleeson pens the story with thoughtfulness, empathy and respect, and in doing so shows that honouring others does not mean a loss of freedom of speech.
Gleeson reflects on the inspiration for the book in a note at the end of the text. Interested in writing about the experience of being a young Australian Muslim girl in the twenty-first century, she met with a group of young women in Year 11 at Holroyd High School in Western Sydney. These students, refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, shared their perspectives on life and the details of their journeys to Australia. ‘Their stories of persecution and fear in their own countries and of their escape to Australia were so compelling that I felt I had to write about that experience,’ Gleeson explains. This is what makes Mahtab’s Story particularly powerful. While not a biographical account, the book is heavily inspired by the real lives of actual Australians – and one student in particular: Nahid Karimi.
Mahtab’s Story is not unfamiliar. However, it remains compelling because Gleeson’s choice to relay the story through the eyes of a young girl lends the book emotive thrust, allowing it to challenge the stereotypes and preconceptions the reader may harbour, however unconsciously. Furthermore, Mahtab’s Story says nothing of the politics of ‘boat people’ and uses very little political framing throughout, thankfully releasing it from that sphere of discussion. Instead, as the story of a young girl searching for safety, freedom and life’s simple pleasures, it instils an empathy that no amount of government or media posturing can undermine.
Burnside, J 2016, ‘The collapse of values’, Griffith Review 51: Fixing the System, viewed at <https://www.griffithreview.com/articles/the-collapse-of-values/>.
Gleeson, L & Karimi, N 2008, ‘Libby Gleeson reads a passage from Mahtab’s Story’, viewed at < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLECvU4Ai-8 >.
--- 2008, ‘Mahtab’s Story by Libby Gleeson’, viewed at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6Ykw6ehfPI>.