Africans in my Lounge Room

Trudy ushered them in, the two-and-two-thirds doctors from Africa. Tall, beautiful and young, each greeted us in perfect Hebrew: ‘Shabbat Shalom’, a peaceful Sabbath. Three smiles of perfect teeth lit our room on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

First and oldest was Tom, thirteen years a doctor, eight months in Australia on a Bridging Visa. Next came Afia, with 18 months’ experience in Ethiopian hospitals and I don’t know how much time in refugee camps. She too holds a Bridging Visa. Last and youngest was Oprah, the vulgar fraction: she has completed four years of medical studies in the Congo. Her birth country is Rwanda. I did not prosecute her with enquiry about her double expatriation. Like the other two, Oprah subsists in Australia at the pleasure of the government. That means the kindness of Mister Morrison.

All three understand fully they can be evicted from this land of asylum at which ever moment Mr Morrison’s kindness might run out. As none of the three came by leaky boat they have the right to work. If they can get work. Trudy brought the three to us to help them find work. I had invited two august medical friends, superbly connected senior people in their fields.

We sat down and talked. Tom outlined his situation. In his early thirties, married, experienced in hospital medicine and a recognized expert in immunisation in third world countries, he is permitted to work here as a doctor only under supervision. At present this distinguished professional works as a medical menial, washing incontinent bodies in a place for the aged. Tom makes no complaints about the red tape, he is grateful to be here, willing to go anywhere – to the outback, to the western suburbs – he just wants to use his training. Can we help him find work? This expert in immunisation – he is just back from Geneva, where he was summoned by the WHO to a conference – with his rich experience of tropical disease would be a gift to a hospital or a tropical medical school or an immunisation project or in policy in any of our tropical zones.

Afia, aged twenty-seven, came to Australia by invitation, to attend the recent world AIDS conference. She applied for asylum with her husband, a chemical engineer who is also looking for work. They too will go anywhere. Afia wants to be a GP. I pictured our large communities of people from the Horn of Africa with Afia as the needed human bridge of cultural understanding to bring these many to safety. I saw the many Aboriginal communities crying out for GP’s.

Oprah has been here for a few weeks. Trudy has given her shelter. Oprah wants to become a nurse. In this country nursing is university course and monumentally expensive. However asylum seekers can pursue TAFE studies at no cost. Oprah managed four years of a medical degree; nursing will not be beyond her grasp. She’d be able to train as a State Enrolled Nurse at TAFE and from that platform gain employment and support herself while studying at Uni. I work with numerous African nurses, highly appreciated in the outback, where the barriers between the African and the whitefella are as nought compared to the gulfs all must cross in indigenous health.

There was little talk of the revolutions, the wars, the massacres; there was scarce mention of refugee camps; there was no complaint, no sense of entitlement, no pity of self, no cries for the families left behind. None of the three had met the others until Trudy brought them together on Saturday and coached them in the Hebrew greeting on our doorstep. Afia, Oprah, Tom, three islands in this distant country, three shimmering humans simply happy to be here, eager to work, to stand up, to make their way.

Theirs is an old, old Australian story. I saw the Reffo, the New Australian, the Boat Person, the Gold Rusher, the survivor of the Shoah, the Balt on the Snowy Scheme, the student from Tiananmen Square. I saw my wife’s mother, a child fleeing Danzig in 1938, I saw my Grandpa arriving here alone, aged thirteen, a stowaway escaping the Ottoman police in Palestine.

There we sat – three young Africans, three old Australian doctors and one good citizen. An atmosphere quietly joyful, of welcome guests meeting grateful hosts, a current flowing back and forth of appreciative respect. A meeting, in short, of human people.

The next morning my wife and I happened to have three guests for brunch. One of the three, an old friend, works with survivors of torture; the second is a classmate from medical school whom I knew is a shy blonde, now President of the World Psychiatric association; the third is her husband, a distinguished gastroenterologist, now practising in Addiction Medicine. Our refugee advocate friend, his face ravaged, spoke of the horrendous week just past in which the Minister of All Prerogatives (Mister Morrison) sold the freeing of 103 detained children in exchange for numberless others, both adults and children. These others are offshore, in another country, beyond the borders of Australian conscience.

My wife and I told our brunch friends of the Africans in our loungeroom. Five Australians, all thoroughly unexceptional in our impulse, in our wish to help, spoke with eager seriousness of people, places, organisations, of contacts, of opportunities and of need. Nothing new, nothing unusual transpired. Five Old Australians, descended from New Australians, animated by memory and self recognition, each saw ‘mon frère, mon semblable’. I read in Sunday’s paper of the endless tides of Libyans escaping likely death, arriving in Italy where the locals, quite overwhelmed, yet see what our Morrisons and Abbotts and Gillards and Shortens will not: they see the human face and they give the arrivals succour.

In the few days since this human weekend I have tried to reach beyond my customary postures of anger and self-righteousness, to grope for understanding of my hard Government, of my soft Opposition, of my fearful fellow citizens in the electorate. I can only surmise that, somehow, at some time, my representatives and my fellow citizens have lost something they used to see – the image of the self in the face of the other.

An afternoon in the loungeroom with guests like mine might change everything.

The Eve of the Eve of Yom Kippur

The house, emptied now of the insurrection that is a bunch of grandboys on school holidays, is quiet. These are the peaceful moments when the house exhales, the pulses slow and thought recovers.

Tonight is the night before the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, our Sorry Day. What am I sorry for? For what need I atone? Almost all my sins are those committed in words: I am sorry for the words shouted in anger at my grandrats, sorry for careless slights and unkind witticisms, sorry for speaking faster than my thinking.
And as this blog consists of words, I should search them.

I wrote (in How we Killed Leo) unkindly of Mister Scott Morrison. Elsewhere I have written uncharitably of Mr Shorten and Mr Abbott. All of these public people have private families who would feel wounded when writers such as I play the man instead of attacking the issue. I referred – wittily I felt – to our homegrown press baron as Murd. I should wash my mouth out. I am sorry for the hurt I have done those men and their families.

I remain sorry – and ashamed – that we Australians choose representatives who follow our baser instincts instead of those who might lead us and inspire our finer selves.

In the person of the successor in Sydney to Cardinal Pell, we might have found such a leader. On the morning after his accession the new archbishop spoke like one repentant for wrongs, transparent in confession, compassionate towards those hurt, and creative and courageous in his declared resolve to seek out his brother clerics in the Muslim community, ‘to find ways we can work together to heal our community’. This on the very morning we all read of the arrest of one Australian suspected of plotting to kidnap and behead another – any other – Australian.

A few weeks ago a Jewish democrat, tirelessly active in the struggle to improve our policies towards refugees, shared with me a bright new idea. “Howard,” he said, “Instead of attacking politicians I want to mobilise members and leaders of all of Australia’s faith communities to work together with government to create some softer policies that will be less cruel in their effects on those already here and kept in limbo.” Many, many are the Australians who wish our practices were not so harsh. Many are ashamed. Many have raised voices – as I have – in rancour. What I heard now was the echo of the quiet wisdom of Petro Georgiou, former Member for Kooyong, the man who spoke softly to a hard-faced Prime Minister and brought some humanity into policy.

As the prophet said, “Come, let us reason together.”

So Foul and Fair a Day

Howard at the Boston Marathon 2013

Howard at the Boston Marathon 2013

When I solicited funds as a charity runner in the 2013 Boston Marathon I promised to write a report on the race and my donors’ ‘investment.’ The moment the race started I started to compose my report. The mood was light, the crowd a united force of love, the events and sights all affirming a shared humanity. This would be a report of smiles. The serious counterpoint would be the 26.2 long miles.

At 2.07pm the mood changed. After that the playful response would feel profane. But I did promise a race report.

I slept on the matter. The evil was great and real, certainly. Real too was the goodness. Both demand to be written.

***

Does any runner sleep well the night before a marathon? I don’t. To prevent dehydration on race day I drink plenty through the previous day and every cupful demands its exit through the night. I am excited, nervous, a kid before his birthday party. Boston, after all, is to marathoners as Wimbledon is to tennis players. An enormous privilege, unearned by any effort of my legs, paid for in thousands of donated dollars.

The playful mind must be carried by legs that are 67 years old. Some prudence surfaces. The sixty-seven year old prepares methodically. The experience of forty past marathons insists I vaseline my second toes (which always blister), my armpits (which chafe), my nipples (which bleed) and my private bits (none of your business).
To prevent my shoelaces untying over the distance I double knot them: a trivial detail? No, not in Boston, for it was at the start line of one Boston Marathon back in the seventies that the favourite, noting his arch rival’s single-knotted shoes, bent down and double-tied them.

Continue reading

When Charlie Met Johnny

Charlie was a prince

A prince to the palace born

When they called him a quince

It made him quite forlorn

Johnny was a teacher

To the pulpit drawn

Became the Jews’ chief preacher

A boon, a goad, a thorn.

“Charlie” is the heir apparent to the British Throne. Unlike other princes and princelings, Charles ventured to speak publicly on a variety of matters that were either contentious or odd, thereby putting the contents of his highly individual mind out onto the nature strip for vultures, scavengers and predators to feast on. And they have. Charles might not have been the first royal to be odd or suggestible or randy (wooing Camilla with, “I want to be your tampon”) but he had the misfortune to belong to the first generation of his family that faced unbridled mass media. Continue reading

A Man Does Not Go To The Rock Twice

0600. The rock squats, silent, a massive cupcake among the grasses. Moment by moment the light changes: dark gives way to deep blues, to a steel blue, now to a primrose glimmering. All is quiet, still. Life suspended, the plain broods, foreknowing sunrise.

0621.The rock as image is too familiar. The rock as concrete reality forbids familiarity. I emerge from my small car, and regard the great terracotta thing before me: after all these years its immensity, everfresh, astonishes me. My car winds its way to the carpark. At every bend the rock changes; every aspect surprises and evokes the overpowering question: what immortal hand or eye? My question and the custodians’ questions are the same as Blake’s. The very greatness demands a myth.

I glance at the steep wall at my side and the slope flings my gaze up, up, upward beyond my range of cervical extension. The human neck cannot accommodate the reality; only if I lie on my back can I take it in. The human ant needs a postcard.

0623. Time to start: I am alone, the sole ant. The base walk used to be nine kilometres in length. Now it’s 10.6 kilometres. The rock hasn’t grown but the people who manage the Park have decided to keep us at a distance. And I need to finish my circuit by 0730: time to start.

Every one of my 67 years finds voice and protests in my lower back as I shamble into movement. I intended to run but for now this hobbling is the best I can do. The gravel path underfoot is soft and red. It cushions and retards. Slower going and harder. But with only a hundred metres behind me slow going and aching back are forgotten. The rock compels, demands all attention, with its folds and bends, its clefts and pits, its elegant curves, its sweep and breach, its sudden secret shades and sulci.

That face – those many faces – prefigure every expression of humanity. The rock gazes down with idle incuriosity, here it is a pockmarked teenager, here a gaunt pensioner, now a lady, elegant in her long dress that falls and sweeps and moves gracefully in concert with my passing. The rock shows the many faces that are human faces: here is calm, here inscrutability, here obduracy.

Three great gouges side by side at great height, these are eye sockets, empty: what is this sight that sears her eyeballs?  The rock gazes out at our killing fields, at Crusades and Inquisition, at Babi Yar, Rwanda, Cambodia, at Holocaust, at the Armenian Genocide. The rock’s eyeless sockets see all. She has no tears. No mouth here, no words.

0630. Right on time the sun comes up, shining, burning directly in my eyes as the rockface heads me due east. The wind comes up too, blowing hot hard warnings of today’s forty degrees: you step outside from your cooled habitat, you breathe, your palate dries and you gasp. The second breath confirms the first impression.

For now the hot headwind is welcome: an early headwind promises a following wind in the later stages when I’ll head west and home.

But the sun, this sun, this blaze, this interrogator’s light right in my eyes: son of man, why have you come?

My innocent run is no longer blameless.

Son of man, what business have you here?

What? Why? What do I seek – peace? Innocence?

The light glares: What gift do you bring?

Consciousness. It is all I have.

The bright light relents, winking now, filtered by thin foliage, broken by gentle rises and bends.

At this point the run might become a chore; the vista is relatively unremarkable, the rock radiating yesterday’s stored heat, the glare, the difficult going underfoot, the headwind – all might sap a runner. Instead the mechanical affair of placing one foot before another feels charged, significant. Plod, plod, breathe, breathe, the ordinary is transmuted. It is said of William Blake that he took a visitor outside, directed him to look at the midsummer sun and report what he saw. “Bright sunshine”, said the visitor. Said Blake, “I see hosts of fiery angels surrounding the Throne, singing Holy, Holy, Holy.”

I feel fires in my throat. I sip my iced water. But first I recite the customary blessing over the water, an act in which this mortal congratulates his Maker on His good idea in creating and providing the mortal with water. Water never tasted better. Like everything it is charged, touched with the sublime.

I have passed twenty minutes alone in the company of Uluru, an uncommon privilege. At my left, hidden in the scrub, is the village of Mutitjulu. Its people live in the lee of immensity. Daily they awaken to the view of deep terracotta that earlier was mine. At sunset, fire flames from the rock’s margins, the rock purples. Echoes follow me – another place, another colour scheme:

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

Around the bend now, heading south, the greens and greys relieve the eye. I can’t complain of sameness. More faces in the rock, caves that grimace, bluffs that lower, red rock that slopes down towards my feet, down, down, a slow, shy approach. The rock is within a metre of my shod foot. To step on it a profanation. I do not walk this rock. Not now.

Around another bend and another, tracing waving folds, the rock shapes here are emphatically, anatomically feminine. Inescapably feminine. Curves that flow, flow, ineffably graceful, to deepening clefts, soft in the gentling light. These mother forms beckon, embrace, call me home.

My old legs move fluently, easily. They swallow the miles. My mouth burns, it sends messages – drink, drink – messages you receive only when it’s too late. Above me rockmouths gape toothlessly, vast, cavernous, inaccessible. My eye searches the sheer face; only a mountaineer equipped with hammer, piton and ropes could reach those high hollows. But in their depths ochreous markings, patterns, declare themselves; these impossible deeps are painting sites.  No white foot might imaginably intrude. Good!

Nearing the beginning of the end, here is the Mutijulu pool, a cool, shaded dell between three high surrounding walls. Its waters are permanent. But no, not so today, not in this heat. I gaze amazed at  naked sands. Even dry they keep their cool, concealing water close to the surface. This dryness is a mirage; at all hands the growth is green, tender, silvan.

0715. Nearer the end and I am not alone. Cars pass on the bitumen that runs unseen, parallel to my path. Above me the rock has mouths with calcific projections, teeth that do not smile at what passes below. I look ahead: there, formicating on the slope, scores, hundreds of whitefellas climb hand over hand along a chain that will take them to the top. They will climb Uluru, they will conquer, they’ll be able to tell everyone.

At the top they’ll see the pits and gullies, the moonscape no-one below imagines, the scales and plaques of red; and the smallness of humans below.

I know what they see. I know the climbers haven’t seen or haven’t understood or haven’t cared what the owners write on the notice: Anangu do not want you to climb the rock.

I am not happy to see them climbing. It seems disrespectful. I feel it as if it were a personal sIight. I know and I care about it because I too have climbed the rock. A quarter of a century ago, I drove up, leaped from my car and ran up the slope. I did not see the notice. Hubris sped my feet: I would conquer Uluru; I would do it at the run, I would not stop.

Of course I did stop – after only fifteen metres – stopped and gasped, ran again, stopped, fought a breathlessness I had not known before. I made it to the top, saw how small we are and descended. I do not climb now.