Letter to the Young Person Who Pinched my Book


I forget your name. We met only once and it was a couple of years ago. You were a new waiter and I was an old coffee drinker. I ordered, you brought me my coffee (strong latte, in a glass, steamed milk on the side) and I opened my new book. The bright cover caught your eye. You made some remark and I was surprised: not everyone would be interested in the Tjanpi Desert Weavers.

I was just back from working at the foot of Yulara. The city hummed and throbbed and clanged around me but the red earth still glowed within me, the emptiness, the stillness and the silence still called. I opened my book. For a paperback it was pretty pricey, around seventy bucks. But for an art book it was a steal. There on the cover were two aged Aboriginal women, proudly holding their distinctive animal sculptures. Like Yeats’ ancient Chinese in ‘Lapis Lazuli’ –

    Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes, 

    Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

(Writing at a time of conflict, Yeats sees ‘gaiety transfiguring all that dread’. By ‘gaiety’ Yeats means the creative drive of the artist.)



Forgive me, I digress.



I lingered over the images. My women weavers, or sculptors, all come from the fantastically named Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjanjatjara and Yankunytjatjara communities. Have you ever come across such challenging place names? I’ve worked in those desert communities and still I struggle to say them right. In the pages of my book you’ll have learned the great secret of the weavers’ ‘desert’ country: with the changing seasons the desert erupts in blooms. You see colours unimaginable in the landscape and you find them again in these flimsy frail pieces of woven whimsy.



It was time for me to go. I rose and went to the counter to pay. Somehow you materialised at my side and somehow I parted with the book. As a loan. I left, delighted to share in the city’s grey morning all that gaiety and light.



When I returned to the café the following week, you weren’t there. I never saw you again. I never saw my book again. What happened? Did you leave the job for a better one? Did you leave town? Did your mum get sick, back in Sweden? I don’t imagine you saw the book and whispered to yourself, ‘I think I’ll pinch that.’



And what prompted me to part from a new book and lend it to a new waiter? Was it the coffee? I’ve done madder things after drinking coffee. Was it some small kindness, some act of courtesy, some swirl of skirt or flash of dimpled smile?



I don’t remember how or why. I don’t remember your name, I scarcely remember your face. I do remember my feeling of unexpected pleasure when you showed an interest. I hope you have the book still in Sweden or Iceland, and the Tjanpi women weave gaiety into your life.




About Tjanpi

Katangku kuruntu kulira kunpu palyanma Making Strong works with a Strong Heart

Tjanpi Desert Weavers (Tjanpi) was initiated by NPY Women’s Council in 1995 in response to an expressed need by Anangu women for meaningful and culturally appropriate employment.


Coiled basketry was introduced at workshops held in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands. Within two years, artists were making a quirky range of sculptures as well as baskets, and by 2000, weaving had spread right across the NPY region.


Health is not a Human Right

I am about to make some shocking suggestions: 

Health is not a human right.

The Morrison-Turnbull budget cuts to Medicare Rebates are not completely bad.
Running in the dark this morning, I noticed the illuminated sign outside the local hospital. It read:



I felt unhappy reading that. A hospital is a place where human beings help other human beings with their health. The meaning of a hospital cannot be realised with that label. ‘Private’ tells the reader that some humans will be admitted and others turned away. Privacy as a personal property might well have been eclipsed by the internet, but ‘private’ survives with this message, unkind to some, saying ‘keep out.’


If health were a right we’d need to outlaw Down’s Syndrome, premature death and disability. We would legislate and make ourselves ridiculous. The error of language here betrays an error of thinking. We cannot assert a right to health, but we can create a right to equal access.


I am a private doctor. I am a public doctor. The public is composed of private persons. I treat one person at a time, privately. That is, personally, confidentially; two humans together, doing what every human does in a lifetime: ordinary transactions of care.


Doctors generally share a number of characteristics. We are serious, careful, committed and proud. We are defensive of our liberties, self-righteous and voracious of cures. We are expensive; I mean someone, somewhere, always pays for cures. In its new budget the government has pegged Medicare rebates. This skewers doctors and patients: either the doctor loses or the patient loses. There is nothing new in this.


When Hayden-Whitlam introduced Medicare I bulk-billed everybody. I thought it was a wonderful thing that a person, be she rich or poor, might consult a doctor equally. I thought so then and I think so still. To assure doctors they would not lose, the Hayden-Whitlam Government set up a referee who increased the rebate in pace with the rising costs of practice. This was costly. So the government told the referee to stop indexing rebates. And I stopped bulk billing. Often patients found themselves facing a choice – see the costly doctor or feed the family. When this occurred all doctors I know abated their fees so the patient might afford both cure and food.


What a government does in tightening benefits is to create the need for a new force to operate in care. The force is not one of rights but of grace. The doctor and the patient gaze upon each other as we did through all history, unmediated by refunds and rebates, freer now of the obscuring presence of the insurer. Two humans in a situation of human need.


The words ‘Private Hospital’ jolt me. They remind me that health is not merely a matter of economics or of civil rights, but of civil opportunity.


Taxi Driver in Jerusalem

The cab driver’s clothing smells of cigarette smoke. He looks about seventy but I tell him he is too young to smoke. He asks, ‘You are doctor?’His throaty voice is the ashtray of a thousand smokes.

I confess I am a doctor and the driver changes the subject. He drives with dash and confidence, like the tank commander he used to be, a few wars ago.


He detects my foreigner’s accent in his own language and asks: ‘From which country you come?’

‘Australia. You?’

‘Here. Born here, in this city. Only here.’

‘Here’ is Jerusalem.

The driver starts to sing a love song to his city, the song of a faithful son sung to a mother. 

I listen to the words and as the singer’s voice thickens I take a peek. Tears glisten on the driver’s cheeks as he sings his song.

‘All my life in this city. I live in the house I born. Never leave, never change address. This my one home.’


The song ends as we approach our destination, the fruit and produce market. ‘You maybe visit other places, maybe Tel Aviv?’

‘Yes, we’re going there in a couple of days.’

‘I take you. Only 260 shekel.’

The price is fair. We agree. I give him the address and he will pick us up at 8.30 am.

‘I am best taxi in Jerusalem. My mother tell me I am best. Not my wife say this.’ A hoarse smoker’s laugh.


Eight-twenty we sit at the kerbside, two old tourists and two thirteen-year old grandchildren and four suitcases and sundry packages. Eight-thirty, still sitting. Eight-forty, a bit restless. I call the best taxi driver in Jerusalem. The recorded voice invites me to leave a voicemail. I do so. Eight-fifty, no driver, a new voicemail with a bit of an edge to it. At nine, no driver and my voicemail is choicemail. I end with, ‘Would your mother be proud of you this morning?’


A man pulls up in a brand new cab, a squat little vehicle with a raised ceiling, a sort of minimaxicab. Yes, the driver will take us to Tel Aviv. His price? ‘Two hundred forty. Is OK?’ Is more than OK. The cab smells of new car. The driver hums with the pleasure of his new vehicle and the vehicle hums up and down the great hills that surround the city and the driver tells us what we are seeing. Hill follows hill, hills unfolds into yet more hills and every hillside is dotted with dwellings and farmland. Yaakov – that’s our driver’s name – gives a quick history of every community. ‘This one settled by Hasidim from Rumania, that one is collective, built by kibbutzniks, you know, communists? This one – you see minaret? – a Muslim community. That one a “moshav”, cooperative farm, Palestinians and Zionists together, in one community. Down there, old tank, burned out, from the first war.’ And so the drive goes on, every hill telling a story, the same old stories, sad stories of conflict, stories of hardship, of failure, of success.


Yaakov’s phone rings, a woman’s voice. He listens and answers: ‘Yes, we arrive soon. I meet you at the beach. Yes, I drop customers, I come and we meet.’ Yaakov smiling, the smile a grandfather smiles on his way to a picnic on the beach with his daughter and the grandchildren.


The land flattens, the traffic slows and thickens, green gives way to cement, here is Tel Aviv, sparkling by its beaches, the light a blaze. We alight and pay and take Yaakov’s card. We will ride with him again.


The best driver in Jerusalem is forgotten. Two days later my phone rings. A voice thick with smoke says, ‘I miss your call. You want me?’ It takes me a moment to recognise the voice of the lachrymose singer of Jerusalem, his mother’s pride. Not his wife’s. I remind him of our arrangement.

’O yes, something happen. Family…’

I remind him of my family. I remind him he has a phone and our number.

‘Yes. Sorry for that.’

I ask, ‘Would your mother be proud of you this morning?’

The man’s voice, softer now, says, ‘No.’

I tell him he has shamed his city. ‘Do better next time.’


Flea Market

A hazy day in Jaffa. The Old City is full of blind turns and all turns are the right ones and no crooked street or alleyway disappoints. Galleries abound and every one repays our curiosity. The blaze of sun and the blue of sea have penetrated the local artists like an inoculum. Helpless, they turn out vivacious works bursting with colour. Over a number of hours we come across nothing that is dull or derivative or second rate.

Every so often we tumble from a narrow and twisting descent into an open space crammed with broken bric a brac. By one such space, a dusty shop manned by a torpid, pear-shaped man sells old art works of varying mediocrity and unvarying neglect. Here in this luminous place I come across a stark photograph. The image in black and white shows a cinematic scene that surely predates all cinema. In the picture a large man in a formal black suit stands at one side of a square like the Jaffa square at our shoulder. He faces a group of men who wear white suits. These men stand in a rank with rifles raised and trained at the man in black.     


We are about to witness an execution. As witnesses we cannot escape the victim’s aloneness. As witnesses we become complicit in something awful, something we cannot comprehend. The photographer has caught the moment, snapping the scene from a vantage above and behind the riflemen. They wear hats that would previously have been white like their suits, but the white is soiled. On closer view the suits do not appear pristine. The faces of the riflemen cannot be seen.


Our simple sympathy for the one, who, unarmed faces the many, gives way to complexity. The soiled suits and grimy hats hint at long labour in the field. The raised guns of the executioners rest on slack, uneven shoulders; these weary men are not ready to fire. Do they identify with their victim? War-weary, do they wonder whether when the guns will be trained on them? Do they perhaps reverence the man in the black suit? The victim who stands uncowed, the man who stares at his killers, the human who was sufficiently free only that morning to dress himself with such sober dignity looks older than the riflemen. Is he the father of one of them who fights for an opposing force in some civil war? Is he a burgher, or perhaps (as he too is hatted) even their rabbi?


I gaze at the photograph that captures so much. It stands loosely affixed to its frail wooden frame, grimy with age, eloquent of truth. And, importantly to me, the truth here is not easy. Fertile with hints, arid of certainty, the photo invites enquiry. How long has the image waited for its interlocutor?


I know I want this photograph that has so much to say to me. Can I afford it? Where in our artcrowded house will my wife allow me to hang such a miserable scene? How will I safely bring that frail and awkward thing home to Australia?


My granddaughter dwells in sunshine. She wonders, ‘Why on earth would you want a picture like that?

‘Why not, darling?’

‘It’s cruel, Saba.’

‘What if the man had to be punished, darling?’

‘Saba, do you believe in capital punishment?’ – she shakes her blond head, shocked by her grandfather’s response.

‘No darling, I don’t. I don’t believe in easy answers. And war asks hard questions, this picture asks hard questions.’

Another shake: ’ What, Saba? You know they make mistakes!’


I look around. Here is the photo, here the dusty premises, open, apparently abandoned; where is the vendor? I race through the doorway into an adjacent shop with my breathless enquiry. ‘Next door’, says that vendor. Slingshot back to the first premises I collide with the cushioning belly of Homer Simpson. No it’s not Homer. The face above the torso is stubbled grey.

‘How much is this picture?’

The man looks at my shoes, running shoes, tourist shoes. He calculates for a while, silently measuring, calibrating opportunity and innocence. He names a sum of astonishing modesty. ‘Fifty?’ – I ask, incredulous.

‘Alright, forty shekels.’

I hand the man his forty pieces of silver.


Hours later my mind floats and thuds to earth. Another sunny outdoor scene, one I witnessed myself in 1995. The location of the latter scene from real life was unambiguous: in the grounds of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, I paused while ascending a slope to read the inscription beneath a cattle truck perched at an angle on a section of rail line.


I read a Hebrew text explaining it was in such trucks that millions were crammed during their journey of some days to the extermination camps. There they died, ‘al Kiddush Hashem’, in sanctification of the Name.


Labouring up the slope towards me an older couple, aged, I guessed, in their seventies, puffed and sweated. They took a breather at my side. The man, plump and snowy haired, read the inscription and scowled. He grunted angrily. Between breaths he managed to declare: ‘There was no sanctification. I was there. I know!’ In the face of that knowing I stood silent. The man’s wife, younger than he, tried to calm him. Turning to me she apologised; ‘He always gets upset here. He always comes here on the first morning in Jerusalem. Always here in the morning, then the Wall.’


By now the man had recovered breath. ‘Nothing holy there. Nothing…’ He looked up: ‘Except once. One time only I saw sanctification. I was in the camp, one of hundreds, all of us there, all hassidim, with our Rebbe. The SS officer ordered soldiers to strip the rabbi. Violently, they tore all his clothes off him, that holy, holy man. His hat they threw down. We looked away from the rabbi, we would not see his disgrace. The SS man screamed, ‘Any one who turns away will be shot!’

We knew they would shoot. We knew because they shot anyone who would not look while they hanged our people in the ghetto.


The officer screamed orders to the soldiers who raised their guns ready to shoot our Rebbe. The rabbi turned to the officer. We heard his voice: ‘Will you give me one minute to bless my people?’ The officer laughed. He mocked the Rebbe. ‘You want a minute? Have two minutes old man.’


The Rebbe turned away from the officer and the soldiers. He turned to us, his hassidim. He raised his arms and he called out, ‘’How goodly are thy tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” Then the soldiers shot him while we watched.’


I remember the year of that visit precisely. Two days later an Israeli patriot shot dead his country’s prime minister.


Smoking the Peace in the Middle East

We stand on the Tiberias to Tel Aviv highway waiting or the early morning inter-city bus. As we anticipated the bus is crowded with soldiers and civilians returning to work after the Passover
holiday. My wife and the two grandchildren struggle into the bus, informing the driver that we have four suitcases that we’ll need to stow in the luggage compartment below. The driver activates a switch and a hatch opens. The luggage compartment is too full to fit a sandwich. I stand on the pavement with my four suitcases and a thoughtful expression. A soldier just old enough to grow a few whiskers has a backpack to stow. He leans deeply into the luggage compartment, bending his slim back, hefting, pulling, piling, jamming items of baggage together. He has created ample space for his backpack.

But he steps over his own luggage towards my array, grabs a suitcase in each hand and thrusts them into the space he has created. Again he leans, lifts and shoves. Somehow our cases are all aboard. I hoist the soldier’s backpack, find an interstice and widen it, shove the pack in and hope. The hatch closes and we two ascend, the last of the riders. I pay the modest fares for the 170 kilometre ride for four passengers. The driver apologises: regulations require him to charge the two thirteen-year olds full fare. He is sorry, what can he do? – he asks with a raised shoulder.
Inside the bus all seats are occupied. Three young soldiers lie in the aisle, one sleeps while the other two busy themselves with their screens. From the rear seat a figure in civilian red rises, beckons to me, indicates the seat he has vacated. I must sit.

Amused, grateful, mildly embarrassed, I tell him I’m alright mate.

No, he says, I must sit.

I shake my head.

‘Please sir, sit. Next stop, I descend.’

Three recumbent soldiers in the aisle rise with good grace and make way for the old man with his bulky backpack.

We emerge from the two-hour bus trip at Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. Passover has just come to an end and we are looking forward to eating leavened breads again. We emerge from Security and see before us a huge array of croissants, bagels, seeded rolls and pastries. I take the family’s orders and approach the squat woman behind the counter. ‘Two double espressos, one croissant, one chocolate turnover, one danish pastry, please.’ The woman maintains a studied silence. I stand for a moment, nonplussed. Has she not heard me? Is it perhaps, self-service? Is she perhaps deceased?

After a good time the woman passes me three paper bags. She manages to do this while turning her back to me. She has not spoken. Feeling like a semi-licensed thief I fill the three bags. Mrs Pastry now leans over her ranks of post-paschal breads in my direction, proffering coffee in a paper cup. A second follows. Still, no conversation. 

‘By what sum am I indebted to you?’ – I ask in my courtly, non-colloquial Hebrew.

The oracle now speaks: ‘Forty.’


Ellie looks up and laughs through her mouthful of chocolate yeast turnover: ‘Look Saba, Savta!’

We look towards the tee-shirt shop next to Mrs Pastry’s, where Ellie indicates a shirt in pink with the text:

‘Ellie, would you like shirt like that?’

Ellie would like a shirt like that.
Ellie and I enter the tee-shirt emporium. Hundreds of tee-shirts of modest price and quality hang from cords suspended from the ceiling. All the shirts are suspended high, beyond human reach. Safe from theft they are also unpurchasable without human help. We look around us. Moving browsily beneath the display a handful of humans considers the merchandise. One sits, cross-legged on stool, like patience on a monument, entirely still. This person is slim, petite, elegantly presented.Her lips are the colour of venous blood. Her skin and hair are of midnight black. I approach her. She does not speak or move.

Hazarding a guess, I ask, ‘Do you work here?’

The merest of nods.

‘My granddaughter wants to buy the BEYONCE tee-shirt.’

Movement now as a slim arm emerges from behind the slight torso. Between two fingers of the hand at the end of the arm sits a cigarette.

The confessed employee inhales deeply and silently.

No verbal response. Perhaps we have visited her workplace during her sabbatical.

‘Can you help us?’

The Queen of Sheba points her cigarette over our heads. We turn and look up and backward for the shirt. We cannot sight it. 

We gather we have made our visit at a time when the spirit of enterprise is not active.

Ellie, richly amused, decides she can be happy without beyonce.

Instead, chuckling, she takes photos of the the tee-shirt in the display.  
At ‘Abulafia,’ the Palestinian bakery in the ancient port city of Yaffo, men in pious black yarmulkas queue to buy pastries from Palestinian men in tee-shirts.

In Hebrew and English the shopkeepers wear tee-shirts reading, ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.’ Others wear shirts that read, ‘Headquarters of Israel-Palestine peace.’ As shopkeepers the peacemakers are indistinguishable from Jewish Israelis in their generous disdain towards customers. My wife, an attractive grandmother, speaks a clear and correct Hebrew. The bakery boys affect not to understand her menu enquiries. One shrugs and directs Annette to his colleague. He too affects non-comprehension. He winks at his colleague and turns away from Annette, his face closed.
When a second customer approaches, Annette’s two refuseniks compete to serve her. This newcomer is forty years Annette’s junior. 
Now I try my luck. ‘A toasted pita please, with salad filing.’ The man I address does not look in my direction. Like a magician, he flicks an unseen cigarette from nowhere into his mouth. Exhaling dragon-like he grunts something indistinguishable. I look around, find myself the sole customer and ask, ‘Pardon?’


Harif is the Hebrew term for shrewdly intelligent. In fast food places it means, ‘spicy.’

‘A little, please.’

This is the second time I have spoken the P-word. ‘Please’ gives me away as surely as it betrayed Annette. Despite our better than serviceable Hebrew, we have revealed ourselves as that least assertive of all tourist species, the Anglo-Saxon.

A second smoker materialises, slides my pita into a toasting oven, smoking all over my lunch in transit.  

Moments later, seated on ‘Abulafia’s’ dusty stone steps we enjoy our smoke-toasted borekhas, pitot, and pastries. Too hot to handle, ridiculously inexpensive, memorably good.