A Guest of the Emir

Recently I enjoyed the hospitality of the Emir of Dubai. Overnight Qantas flew me from Australia to the Emir’s desert airport where I boarded one of his aircraft, bound for Malta via Larnaca. At 0720 I found my seat in the very front row of Economy. As we were not due to take off until 0750 there was sufficient time for me to recite shacharith, (literally, the dawn prayer).

 

I looked around. I saw no other yarmulkes. On the other hand, there were no hijabs either, nor keffiyehs. I pulled out of my backpack all the elaborate paraphernalia of my morning prayer – tallith, tefilin, siddur and stood for a moment, irresolute. I recalled the prayers of my family on the eve of a previous Emirates flight: ‘Dad, you can’t do all those rituals on Emirates. It’s provocative. It’s not safe. Please, Dad, don’t do it!’

 

I unfolded my tallith. Not just any old prayer shawl, this was the final gift to me of my father. Very late in Dad’s life I took him to Gold’s where he bought this tallith for me and I bought one for him. An absurd exchange? Possibly so. It was one we had ritualised over a couple of decades: at the kosher grog shop, I’d shout Dad to arak or slivovitz for Passover and he’d buy me a brace of claret and Kiddush wine. Happy to enhance the other’s observances we’d grin and embrace and bless each other.

I looked at the tallith and felt the fall of many curious eyes. I thought of Dad and I wrapped it around my head and stood, enfolded, for a few moments of remembrance. Then I showed my face.

 

Standing in my seat in Economy I realised I was providing a live show for the roughly 160 gentile persons filing slowly past my seat at the front, en-route to their own. I had more colourful display in store for them. I pulled out the small bag of royal blue velvet that holds my tefilin. These small black leather boxes, fashioned after an ancient craft, contain Torah verses meticulously inscribed on vellum. Tefilin symbolise key rememberings that are mandatory every day upon every Jew. Attached to the little boxes are long black leather thongs by which I bind one box high on my left arm and another to the centre of my forehead. The verses thus are bound to my heart and my mind.

 

 

The unfolding of tefilin, the minute and precise steps of the placing and binding, punctuated at prescribed intervals by the reciting of rabbinic and prophetic words, constitute a dance no less exacting than the mating of brolgas. Three hundred and twenty eyes took in the old choreography. 

 

Upon completing my devotions I removed one leather box, kissed it perhaps a little more reverently than usual and coiled its straps. I did the same with the second. Finally I folded my tallith. The ceremony of prayer at an end, I took in my fellow passengers. We were Filipinas, Chinese, Occidentals, and a fair smattering of persons of Middle Eastern appearance. No-one had raised the alarm, no-one objected to my sectarian display.

 

 

When at last I sat down, the man next to me asked: ‘Where do you come from?’

‘Australia. And you’re from Korea?’

 

A large smile. Surprised, happy to be recognised, he nodded. He and his wife and his volleyballer-tall daughter were heading for Malta, as I was. ‘For our holidays’, he said. And what was it that drew me to Malta? The Conference of Arts and Sciences, certainly. And yes, the marathon. But before all that I was coming to listen for the voices and hear the stories of dead Jews.

 

He Contaminated the Language

When he said he groped women, when he said he grabbed them by the pussy, when he said when you are a star you can just go right in and do those things, he fouled the way humans communicate with each other.
 

Our words flow from our bodies, through air, through cyberspace, through waves. They emerge from our embodied minds, they bear our thoughts and our feelings, our fears and joys and dreams. They connect humans as only humans can be connected – unless you include angels that sing hallelujah and God who speaks from a burning bush or a mountain top, or in the wilderness in still, soft voice.

 

Language now lies soiled, tarnished, filthied. Who can use it without tasting that distaste? Who can write of man with woman, of humans with neighbours, of differing colour or creed or country, without feeling estranged from our fellow?

 

He has soiled our prized human heritage of words. He has broken wide the bridged divides. He has strewed our ravines with contempt and vulgarity.

 

He leaves us with dance, perhaps with music. Let us dance now, let us sing without words, let us strum and hum. Let us reach out, let us flail and wail for all whom he’d estrange. Let us bring them in whom he’d drive out. For they are us.

 

The Sweet Taste of Revenge

The oldest friend of our married life is a parson. After inspiring and marrying hundreds of young believers and unbelievers and halfbelievers; and after watching their marriages fragment – fast or slow – and die, John concluded he was not a success in bringing people’s lives together. He left the parsonage and took up God’s work in a new business: in his own words, ‘I spent a year in gaol.’ The parson became a chaplain.
‘Long Bay Gaol was just like other congregations I’d worked in – lots of sinners, lots of righteous people (“I never did it… it was someone else’s fault…I was framed…”), and lots of people who couldn’t care less about religion. I didn’t mind the unreligious and they didn’t mind me. The convicted were just people, by and large. I found most of them likeable enough.
‘But a few of them were hard to like. There was one man who’d been convicted for trying to incinerate his girlfriend. She survived, horribly burned, but in the process he killed the masseuse who was treating her at the time. He was quite unrepentant, quite without conscience, but nevertheless he became one of my most frequent parishioners. He’d visit my office frequently, ostensibly for spiritual guidance. All he really wanted was the luxury of private conversation. I did not like him, but I couldn’t let on.
‘There were others in the gaol who were just as unlikeable. One was a warder, one of the ‘’screws’’, as the prisoners called them. This fellow treated the prisoners brutally. He was feared and hated. He used to visit me often and he was just as persistent, just as falsely pious and just as unwelcome as the murderer.
‘The murderer confided once how “cons” had their ways of getting back at the screws they hated most. He said, “Father, we piss in their tea.”
‘I understood how that might be. The best-behaved prisoners enjoyed the privilege of waiting on tables in the Officers’ Dining Room. That was where I ate. The prisoners prepared and serve beverages. One day I went to that Dining Room for lunch. I loaded my tray and sat at a table out of the way to enjoy some privacy. Out of the blue, bearing his own tray, that brutal fellow was at my shoulder, declaring, “Father, you don’t mind if I join you.”
I did mind of course, but I said the opposite, of course.
A prisoner turned up and asked us for our beverage order.
“Tea, white, two sugars,” said my guest.
I asked for the same. That waiter, my religious friend the incinerator, said, “Certainly, gentlemen, I’ll bring them presently.”
The con returned carrying two mugs. ‘This is yours, Father”, he said, as he laid my drink on the table. Then he walked to the other side of the table, placed the mug before the screw and said, “And this is yours, sir.” As he spoke he shot a huge wink in my direction.
‘What did you do, John?’
‘It was a moral emergency. If I remained silent I would be party to a wrong. If I spoke I would breach a confidence. I drank my tea. I watched the screw drink his.’

John’s story brought to mind my cousin’s account of certain events In Israel during the first Intifada. She wrote: ‘Consumers of a particular brand of hummus remarked on a change in the product. It didn’t taste bad, just subtly different. Closed circuit TV in the factory caught Palestinian workers wanking into the vats.’

***

Neither the hummus masturbators nor the prison micturators could have read the more recent American novel, The Help, in which a white racist woman consumes chocolate cake containing the ordure of the ‘help’ – an unfairly dismissed African-American woman.
I recount these stories to offer succour to a friend, a novelist, Margaret.
Now Margaret enjoys the attentions of a literary assassin, a relative by inheritance, a sort of outlaw-in-law. That person claims a critical authority and a mission to improve HCG by means of brutal dismissal.

The critic and the writer are destined to meet from time to time; what can Margaret do to fight back?

All the examples quoted have their appeal. The cake is of course, irresistible but time-consuming. The hummous is nourishing but beyond the resources of an unaided female. I suggest Margaret make her nemesis a cuppa tea – white, of course, with two sugars.

Dalia Died

A friend wrote the other day to tell me Dalia died.

I met Dalia in 1972 at the nursing home she ran in Wattle Glen. You descended from the bitumen into a silvan retreat, the buildings concealed behind flowering native shrubs. A quiet path led to a doorway. Through the door you entered a different world: smells assailled you, disinfectant, cooking smells and behind them, always, the smell of urine, the smell of the elderly and incontinent.

Dalia greeted you, her voice musical, her fetching smile stretched over an uneven lower lip, the more fetching for assymetry, her accent French and very pleasing. The bushland at the entry and the greeting upon entering, these redeemed you amid the oppressive smells.

Dalia moved with you from patient to patient. Almost all of them were women, aged, their men long dead, their families generally distant through geography or choice. This young doctor, oppressed by bodies that did not work, by diseases medicine would not cure, by alienating disfigurement and by disfiguring debility, by drooling helplessness, dementia, strange behaviours, this doctor nearing quiet moral panic, redeemed, redeemed always by Dalia. Dalia would proceed to the bedhead, cradle the neck of her charge, sing to the patient the glad news of the coming of the doctor: Here is Doctor to see you, darling. You remember, this is Doctor Howard. He comes to you every week.

Dalia was not alienated, never distanced. Dalia embraced her guests, kissed their foreheads, fixed their pillows, fussed over painless areas of red skin that she would not allow to break down. Dalia spoke to her speechless, apparently demented patient, as if she were wholebrained, fully alert, fully human. Only after taking doctor aside, out of hearing, away from the presence of the stricken, would Dalia allow any concession to incompleteness.
A secular person, she recognised tenderly the spiritual yearnings of her charges, old women born in an earlier age when churchgoing was a norm and a religious outlook sustaining. Poor Thelma, she weeps, she weeps because God has rejected her. She wants to die, she prays for death, and because death does not come, she believes her God will not have her in his heaven.

Now death has come for Dalia. She was ninety two years old.

Dalia left Wattle Glen and our paths did not cross again until a few years ago, when our respective writings brought us together. The accent was still there, the smile, the relentless action of her critical mind, unwilling to yield on any of her concerns. And all her concerns were for humans. I read her memoir, a work of humbling honesty, of emotional privation in Belgium in the middle years of last century, of falling in love, of the ending of love, of emotional collapse, of recovery, of growth, of a thirst for learning. Hers was a life of learning, of ever journeying in her wisdom towards greater wisdom. I thought of Cavafy’s ‘Ithaca”.

As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.

Ultimately Dalia became a therapist. I thought how fortunate were her patients, what gifts of life she brought them from her lifelong travels to Ithaca.

Dalia became a little unwell a few weeks ago, persisting in her vigorous ways until her last days. When abruptly her blood pressure fell due to a prolapsed heart valve, she asked the doctors to perform the operation they’d ordinarily reserve for one decades younger. When they explained the risk of technical success with accidental brain damage, Dalia elected to die. She accepted a trial of hero molecules for twenty-four hours; when these duly failed, she embraced morphia, chatted with her loved ones and went to sleep, rich with all she’d gotten on the way, and arrived at last in her Ithaca.

Her believer friend, the young doctor of 1972, prays his God will give her rest. At this Dalia would smile her crooked smile and pat me on the head indulgently and forgive my wishful thinking.

Robert Hillman’s Review of Carrots and Jaffas

Identical, red-haired twin boys are born to Luisa and Bernard Wanklyn, who live in Melbourne. The year is somewhere in the fairly recent past. Since we’re in Australia, the twins are naturally nicknamed Carrots and Jaffas, the only alternatives being Bluey and Ranga. Luisa, the mother, is a native of Argentina; Bernard was born in Australia. When the boys reach the age of ten, Wilberforce Reynolds, an addled one-time addict, makes an attempt to steal them from their parents. There’s a bleak irony there – ‘William Wilberforce’ and ‘Henry Reynolds’ being the names of emancipators. Indeed, Wilbur Reynolds is acting out of a grotesquely misconceived impulse to redeem a life of ratbag behaviour by making a gift of the two boys to Greta, an Indigenous woman of the Flinders Ranges who played a role in raising white Wilbur many years past. Greta’s own two sons had been taken from her in the 1950s by men with the legal authority to do so. The two red-haired boys will compensate her, so Wilbur hopes. But Wilbur manages to steal only one of the boys, Jaffas. The agony of Jaffa’s parents is matched in its intensity by the agony of the twins, each left yearning for the touch of the other.

The impression the reader will be left with after a quick reading of Howard’s novel is of a drama constructed around an appalling crime and its widening repercussions. Hearts are torn out, and in the broader community, people who hear of the abduction on the news put a hand to the head and murmur: “Dear God!” But the story told here is far more thoughtful, far more involving than that. As it was bound to be. This is Howard Goldenberg’s first novel, but two works of non-fiction precede it, “My Father’s Compass”, a memoir of Myer Goldenberg, Howard’s dad, and “Raft”, a book that records Howard’s engagement as a doctor with Indigenous Australians in remote communities all over the continent. Each of these earlier books is distinguished by the vernacular philosophy of a thriving intellect, and by a quality of observation that yields one poetic insight after another. If we speak of intensity of feeling, insight and quality of enquiry, Carrots and Jaffas is of a piece with those earlier works.

The broad strategy of the novel, in my reading, is to allow the story to unfold through five movements – Birth, Growth, Catastrophe, Healing, Reunion. With this strategy in place, Howard gives himself the liberty to riff on the themes that brace his story: the binding force of love; the rigour of grief; the perseverance of hope; the will and the wherewithal to imagine the life we hope for, and especially, what we expose ourselves to when another human being becomes more crucial in our vital life than our own wellbeing. (We might think of Bacon’s Hostages to Fortune lines: “He who hath a wife and children hath given hostages to fortune” but we should cheer Bacon up a little and subvert his meaning by saying: “Anyone who loves has given hostages to fortune.”)

Out of these themes emerge the book’s two arguments. The first establishes the enigma of individuality, taking in the sources and purpose of human individuality, and the second demonstrates the stubborn persistence of those forces in the world that oppose evil.

Let me return to love, the great emphasis in everything that Howard writes. Here is the mother of the twins experiencing the growth of love for her newly born, prematurely born children:
Luisa laughed the laughter of tenderness and body fluids, of manic collapse, of sleepless necessity.
On an impulse, or in forgetfulness or in simple exhaustion of thought, Luisa picked up both babies at once…offered each baby a breast. Both sucked….two small heads swiveled and searched, bony limbs extended, antennae into the void. One arm, flung outwards, came to rest on a brother’s shoulder. Gazes locked, spines unarched, mouths resumed sucking, smoothly, to satiety.

This conveys the growth of love of a mother for her children, and also the dependence of each twin on the other. Carrots and Jaffas cannot satisfy themselves individually; both must be satisfied together.

Later, Bernard, the father, in his quest to grasp what being the father of two children who can barely be differentiated involves, quotes from a poem on the subject of identical twins:

“The twins retain/intimate knowledge of each other,/ Theirs alone-/Of mind and body and being –/a knowledge preceding speech,/Transcending speech: Knowledge subtle as song,/Deep as the womb,/Pure as echo./Identical twins: One? Two? One?”

I wrote an endorsement for Carrots and Jaffas before its publication, and said this, amongst other things: “Howard Goldenberg’s story of identical twins, violently parted at the age of ten, reveals the hunger that dwells in all of us to stand distinct in the gaze of God.” To achieve that distinction in the gaze of God is our human struggle; to demonstrate that we cannot be packed by the gross; that we are marked with an individuality that honours, in its way, the teeming variety of life in the world. Think of Hopkins poem, “Pied Beauty” in which God delights in “All things counter, original, spare, strange…”But for Carrots and Jaffas, that struggle for originality is over at birth, or even at conception. The gaze of God is the gaze of the identical twin. The suggestion of Howard’s book is that the mystique of the identical twin is closely related to the mystery of divinity in our lives. We are unlikely ever to know what the identical twin knows, and unlikely ever to know what God knows. But one thing we can know is this: God is Himself, Herself an identical twin.

Wilberforce Reynolds parts Carrots and Jaffas. He hadn’t meant to. He had intended to steal both boys. It is a feature of acts of violence that they often do even greater harm that the perpetrator intended. Wilbur’s hope is that he will win the approval of a woman, Greta, who suffered the theft of her own two boys. In Archie Roach’s haunting song, “Took the Children Away”, Archie says: “You took the children away, The children away. Breaking their mother’s heart, Tearing us all apart, Took them away.” Those who took away Indigenous children decades ago knew that they were causing grief, but felt that a greater good justified the harm. And this is also Wilbur’s rationalisation.

My head will be right, doing this good thing…it’s the right thing to do, to bring kids, to steal them and replace kids stolen from blackfellers.

Howard makes very clear that Wilbur’s failure of imagination re-enacts the failure of imagination of those who had conceived the scheme of parting Indigenous parents from their children so much earlier. Jaffas, after his abduction, cries out in his anguish: “Run! Run back to Carrots! Run!” and we think of Leah Purcell’s song, ‘Run, Daisy, Run!’

Jaffas finds himself in the care of Greta and the white Doctor Burns up in the Flinders Ranges, the oldest place on earth. The creation of each of these characters are amongst the finest accomplishments of the novel. This Healing movement of the book sees Greta revealing to the traumatised Jaffas stories of the land, of her country, while the Doc contributes tales of scientific discoveries, of Indigenous distress, of the land as understood by a white man. Neither the Doc nor Greta know the true story of Jaffas abduction; Wilbur had spun a plausible tale to explain why he was leaving the boy with Greta. The Doc begins to suspect that Wilbur’s story is rubbish, and he wonders whether Wilbur’s real motivation has something to do with Greta’s past. He asks her, one day, about that past:

My boys, they take my two boys. Never come back. I reckon they big fellas now, fathers. Maybe grandfather. I never see them. Maybe they die, maybe they just lost….That what happen. That what they do. Steal ‘em…

But back at Jaffas home, his brother is tearing himself apart with grief, while his mother, Luisa, torments herself with stories of the unspeakable things done to other abducted twins by a certain Doctor Mengele during the Second World War. The strong suggestion is that Luisa, herself a one-time victim of hideous violence under the Junta in Argentina, will go mad if she is never to see Jaffas again. I spoke earlier of those forces in the world that oppose evil, and of their power. While Luisa is losing her mind, guarding her remaining son with a maniacal determination, Greta and the Doc are painstakingly rebuilding hope in the abducted Jaffas, mending, healing. In the oldest region of the earth, the aged (and Doc Burns is no longer a young man, nor Greta a young woman) dispense hope and love to the young.

Howard Goldenberg’s novel brims with suggestion, as a novel should. And the suggestion I want to make a big deal out of is this: that love, human love, is the finest accomplishment of the imagination. Maybe it is too easy to use a word like ‘evil’ and expect that everyone agrees about what evil is. But we do know what ‘wrong’ is. It is wrong to snatch a child from the street and drive away on some mongrel errand. It is wrong to wrench children in their thousands from the embrace of their parents on some state-sponsored mongrel errand of larger scale. It is wrong to gather people in their millions into camps, reduce their existence to wretchedness, then murder them. To do wrong requires no imagination at all; merely malice or egocentricity. To do good requires imagination. The Doc and Greta imagine the path to recovery that Jaffas might follow, then urge him along it. Their imagination stands in strong distinction to Wilbur’s crude lack of imagination.

Howard Goldenberg’s book is itself the product of a fine, creative imagination, and of a big heart. Like all such works of literary art, Carrots and Jaffas adds a welcome something to our chances in the world.
Robert Hillman is the renowned author of sixty books, including “The Rugmaker of Mazr a Sharif ” (Wild Dingo Press). His most recent works are the celebrated novel, “Joyful” (Text, 2014), and a young adult novel, “Malini” (Allen and Unwin, 2014)

Robert launched Carrots and Jaffas at the Melbourne Writers Festival in August 2014 with his speech above. 

Worst of Times, Best of Times

Ours is a world in agony. The holy is awash in profanation. Men hear the voice of a ravening god that sends them to cut off heads. Others kidnap children in the name of a god. Again the toxic cohabitation of religion with violence, the foul marriage that brought us the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and Bushido on the Burma Railroad.

In the centre of our own country the Hayes clan lives at Whitegate, a ‘town camp’ in Alice Springs. The site is ancestral land going back to a time before the counting. Last week local government cut the water supply to Whitegate. The power died there some time ago. The cold desert nights are bitter.

How to breathe? Where to find hope? Why believe in our species at all? What light can we show our small children?

Last week the International Council of Christians and Jews honoured Debbie Weissman, a veteran worker across the tribes and creeds, building frail bridges of peace. Peace has broken out in Gaza-Israel. Rod Moss, artist and writer, chops wood and hauls water to Whitegate.

The peacemakers, the hewers of wood and drawers of water: these small signs. I clutch at such as these.

New to the Country

A thin teenage boy limps into my consulting room. His file gives his age as fourteen. He accepts my offered hand and shakes, his narrow face opening into a shy smile. His English is slow, studied, like his gait. Mum, accompanied by a three-year old son, enters with the bigger boy. She is trim, confident in English, smiles readily. This reversal in facility with English is curious: more commonly the parent’s tongue limps in the new language while the child’s races ahead and translates for the parent.

I examine the painful foot which is swollen and tender at the top of the instep. The diagnosis eludes me. “I don’t really know what has made this foot sore. But I can try some treatment which I think will help.”
Fourteen-year old appears happy with this. Mum says, “Thank you.”
The three year-old wanders quietly around my consulting room, locates all its fittings and gadgets, investigates their workings and adjusts all to his satisfaction.

I guess from the family’s surname they come from Vietnam. The older boy confirms this.
I hand the boy a prescription and prepare to write a letter for him to take to his own doctor.
Mother, smiling, shakes her head: “He doesn’t have a doctor.”
“I can write a letter for your clinic and you can take your son there. Will that be OK ?”
“Yes”. Another smile.
The letter written, the family rises to leave.
Mother turns to me. “He has been here in Australia two weeks only. Until now he was in Vietnam. And we have been without him.”
“How long have you been apart?”

“One year and a half a year.”
“Did you miss each other?”
The boy nods. Mother says, “We miss very much. Now happy. Now family all together.”

She thanks me and heads for the door, then adds:”You are the first doctor he sees. Thank you for being so kind.”
At the door, the three-year old folds his arms across his upper trunk and bows.
Mother says: “In our culture that means he show you respect.”

****

Another consultation, this one in 1971. I take a phone request to visit a patient in Altona who has a fever and is unwell. I make my way to the address, which turns out to be the migrant hostel. The sun is setting as I park my car in the enormous parking area. Ahead of me in the gloom I sight squat oblong buildings that proliferate wherever I rest my gaze. All have the same design. My instructions are to proceed to “Room Number Seven”.
But number seven in which building of these many? I cannot know. (Mobile phones have not yet been invented.)
Dismayed, I look around. I see buildings that are anonymous and many. Of residents I see none. Continue reading