A Pogrom in Islamdom

2013 has been the year of the burning church. Throughout Islamdom churches burn. 

It started before 2013. For over a decade I have seen my Coptic patient from Egypt beside himself with grief and anxiety as he watches his relatives trapped in fear, paralysed like a kangaroo doe in my headlights, unable to resolve – to flee or to stay?
He sits, this large man, in my consulting room and nurses his ulcer. Gaps, lacunae of silence in the consulting room and his eyes fill with tears as the silence falls and swells.
At present Egyptian Copts burn bright and hot enough to hit our papers. Syrian Christians burn.
Elsewhere, in Iraq, the oldest Christian community in the middle east convulses. In 1991, Christians in Iraq numbered 1.3 million people; today they number 300,000 to 500,000. Catholic Chaldeans, Nestorians, Orthodox, almost all Iraqi Christians are ethnic Assyrians. Assyrians speak Aramaic, lingua franca of Jesus. From time to time I meet a Christian from Iraq in the Children’s Hospital where I work. When I address him and his family in my rudimentary Aramaic (which is, of course, an inherited language for any Jew who has ever opened the Talmud), their faces open in disbelief, in joy, in homecoming from linguistic exile.
(While liberal Christian groups turn a blind ear to the slaughter of fellow Christians there exists but one country in the middle east where, as Gabriel Nadaf, a priest, declares, “we feel secure”. Guess which country.)
Last week 34 Assyrians died in a church bombing in Baghdad. In 2010 a series of ‘suicide bombings’ (call sign of the hero martyr, history’s adolescent crying LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!) killed 58 people. There have been 71 church bombings reported in Iraq since 2004.
So much, so normal, so historically unremarkable. So much blood: thirty four here, fifty eight there. Have you seen how much blood there is in the body of but one human being? (I have. Cain did. God called to him saying: “The bloods of your brother call out to Me from the earth.”
Why bloods – in the plural? Because, explains the commentator Rashi, no-one had seen a human die before Cain. No-one knew how much blood
there was in one human brother.)
We know now about the blood of the human person. We cannot plead ignorance.
I remember another time – it was recent, only November 1938 – when houses of worship burned, when the bloods of my brothers cried out.
I remember the shameful silence of the decent civilised world. I remember the silence of churches, governments, communities in Australia
following the great pogrom that was the night of broken glass. I remember how my people was forgotten. I remember the silence.
I remember William Cooper and his Aborigines Advancement League raising the sole protest in Australia against the pogrom.
There are pogroms occurring throughout Islamdon. There is a great silence here.
Do we need to wait for another Australian Aboriginal leader to awaken this nation, to rouse its parliaments, its churches, synagogues and mosques, its noisy Boycotters, its pious Divestors, its smug Sanctioners, to cry: “I am my brother’s keeper?”

Further Deaths and a Birth in the High Arts

Peter de Vries is dead. This is sad but it is not news: he has been dead since 1993. It appears he will remain extinct. What is sadder is that none of his books is in print. You cannot buy any current edition of the works of this pre-eminent American humourist of the early post-war decades. From 1940 to 1986, he chronicled the full comedy of the full human tragedy.

De Vries found plenty of material for dark jokes in his war time military service, in his Calvinistic upbringing in the Dutch Reformed Church and in the death of his daughter from leukaemia. He transmuted grief into sobering mirth and we laughed ourselves silly. Now his books are no more.

Life is just as funny today as it was in De Vries’ lifetime. We have the media, the markets, religious institutions to entertain us. Our politicians are a joke. The pestilence that is our species still despoils the planet, continues to kill, it maims and lies still – and records its glory in the daily newspapers. The papers are on the way out, and soon or sooner the planet appears likely to kick us out too.

Meanwhile a distinctive genre of off-beat humorous fiction for which Australia was once famed has died, unlamented and unsung. I refer to the Annual Income Tax Return. In the 1970’s and 1980’s creative accountants and millionaires and gifted liars combined to create songs from the bottom of the harbour and paid no tax. How they laughed.

Nowadays the accountant is effectively a secret agent of the ATO. She shows no interest in creative fiction, steering me instead along the narrow and straitened path of maximum taxation. The tax return she creates is deadly non-fiction. She then charges me and – for all I know – receives a commission from the Tax Office. This would make her a double agent. We have here the makings of a spy story. Would that the story were fiction.

The news is not all grim. This new genre in literature, the Tax Spy story, incubates in a silence disturbed only by the sound of calculating machines at the ATO.