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.

 

The Blood-Dimmed Tide

We have seen the great times. We who lived in the second half of the twentieth century have seen many of the great scourges of history defeated. We saw the eclipse of contagion.

 

 

Enter Penicillin, bacteria retreat. Viruses, still invisible, suddenly become preventable. Smallpox, killer of more Australian Aborigines than massacre, disappears from the planet. The Spanish Flu of 2018-2019, which killed more humans than the war to end all wars, was the last pandemic of influenza.

Louis Pasteur

Alexander Fleming

In 1946 my father, a country GP, administered what was possibly Australia’s first non-military dose of penicillin. The patient, an eight-year old boy in pneumonia crisis, was likely to die within a day. Six hours after the penicillin injection, my father found the boy’s bed empty. The child had left the ward and was found in the hospital’s kitchen scoffing down scones.

 

 

After the Shoah a world in shock vowed ‘never again’. Civilised humanity turned its back on antisemitism. A Jew living in the post-war decades walked the streets of the West free from the violence and contumely that stalked us for two thousand years.
 
We have seen the great times. Bacteria have fought back against antibiotics; they are in fact, winning. The anti-vaccination movement threatens the safety of all the world’s children. In the world of alternative facts, fear defeats trust, hate emerges from its cave. In Poland, in Hungary, a Jew knows better than to walk the streets wearing a kippah. Visiting Paris or London, and even in my home country, Australia, there are suburbs and streets where I will not wear the kippah that I wore during the decades of sunshine.

I have lived and prospered in a lacuna of time when History paused. Now it rises once again and bares its teeth. I tremble for our grandchildren.



The Mufti at the Synagogue 

Rachid Imam lives in Diamond Creek, where I used to live. We both raised our families there. In a country town of white faces there were a very few Maltese, the odd Italian and the Chinese wife of my medical partner. I was the Jew on the Main Road and Rachid was the Muslim on the hill. For many years we ran together. As we ran we’d speak of our families. Rachid told me he was the second of three brothers, the black sheep.

He spoke tenderly of his Mum, born into a Christian family, who fell in love with Fehmi El Imam, formerly of Lebanon, since 1951 a resident of Melbourne.
Rachid told me how his Mum left Melbourne, travelling to London where she applied herself to the study of Islam. There she converted to that faith, returning to Melbourne with that as her surprise gift for Fehmi. They married and eventually brought their black sheep into this world – a sheep pale enough to do the pilgrimage to Mecca with his Dad and his daughters. I greeted him with, ‘Salaam, Hajji Rachid!’
Rachid and I had been friends for years before he said with quiet pride: ‘Fehmi came here as a young scholar. The community needed a teacher. Now he’s Mufti of Australia.’
After nearly thirty years the time came for me to leave Diamond Creek. The local Methodists lent their hall for a communal afternoon tea. Rachid made a speech. He mentioned my offer to circumcise his child (how was I to know she was a girl?), he mentioned my tendency to arrive for a run before six on a Sunday morning, waking him and his sleeping girls. After he finished reminiscing he called me up on to the stage and he kissed me – twice – once on each cheek. Then he took the microphone and declared, ‘I’ll run with you anytime, anywhere, my Jewish brother.’
Some years before I met the Sheikh my elder daughter married. At her wedding I watched with delight the son of Australia’s Mufti dancing a hora with the President of the Zionist Federation of Australia.
Yesterday Rachid’s father died. 
I knew Sheikh Fehmi’s health was failing. I’d heard of his stroke, I knew his wife had died years earlier. Today Rachid and his brothers and his sister will observe the rituals of burial and receive condolences from their thronging community, from high dignitaries to the Muslim in the street. All those familiar old rituals, all those echoes of the mourning I observed with my brothers and my sister after our father died.
I met the Sheikh but once. It came about like this: my family has belonged to the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation since 1853. Like most members of that grand synagogue, I seldom attend its services, but I remain a member. Every so seldom the Congregation runs a communal cultural program. Around the year 2000 my brother asked me if I’d ask Rachid if he’d ask his Dad to join a Rabbi one evening and each would address the members on the question, ‘Do we Need to be Afraid of Islam?’

photos courtesy Destiny Magazine Melbourne Hebrew Congregation


I agreed, Rachid agreed and Sheikh Fehmi agreed. Were we foolhardy? I imagine we all heard the same challenge, unspoken, inescapable: if not us, then who? On the appointed night Rachid met me on the footpath and introduced me to his father and to his brothers. The brothers stood either side of their father. It was clear they were there to support him – and if need be – to protect him. The Sheikh wore a traditional head covering. One son wore a kaftan.
The clergy were to speak in the Social Hall. I offered to show the Sheikh the synagogue’s interior. He was interested. I found some light switches, we entered and I saw the place – a little emptier than usual – with new eyes. I took in its splendor and I sensed from the Sheikh’s reactions the Mosque in Preston was a more modest affair.
We went upstairs. The clergy were introduced to each other and to the audience. The hall was full, people were standing in the aisles, the atmosphere was intense. I saw faces I knew, some of them of people I knew to be mistrustful of Muslims. I was to be the moderator. I welcomed the reverend gentlemen and I reminded all present that the Rabbi and the Sheikh were our guests and I would insist we conduct ourselves on our shared principles of Abrahamic hospitality.
The rabbi spoke uncontroversially on the history of Jews and Muslims. The Sheikh spoke diplomatically on the principles of his faith. He explained the precept of Jihad: ‘Every Muslim must practise Jihad. Jihad, simply, is struggle. It is not warfare. It is, fundamentally, the struggle within to live a godly life.’ The voice that spoke these words was unemphatic, mild, genuine – a teacher’s voice rather than a preacher’s.


Questions followed. Mistrust found its voice. Fehmi never raised his voice. He spoke with quiet dignity. Abraham took a bruising that night at the synagogue, but his hospitality was not broken. Sheikh Fehmi’s bodyguards did not need to rise to his defense.
After our evening at the synagogue I never met Fehmi El Imam again. Later I askedWaleed Aly how the Sheikh was regarded in his community. ‘He’s a very gentle soul, widely respected, he wants a convivial relationship between the faiths in this country.’ I wondered how the Mufti avoided the sectarian conflicts of his diverse community: ‘Fehmi has been around as an Imam for some fifty years, he has an Order of Australia, he is very widely respected and highly regarded. He’s untouchable,‘ said Waleed.

    

Yesterday Rachid’s family lost a patriarch. His grandchildren lost their Jidoo. The Australian community lost a peacemaker. An asset increasingly scarce has passed. He leaves, within the breast of this infidel at least, an abiding resolve, a personal ‘jihad’ for peace and harmony. The Islamic Council of Victoria said: ‘Former Mufti of Australia, Sheikh Fehmi Naji El-Imam moved to the mercy of God this morning.’

I No Longer Know my Country

I Left Home a Few Days ago and When I Returned it wasn’t there

Australia is my home; it has been since adventurous forebears from England and France arrived in the 1840’s and 1850’s, and desperate forebears came in the 1890’s. Nowadays we might call these people economic migrants and queue jumpers.
I flew from my home country last Thursday and returned yesterday morning. I read the paper and I knew I was no longer at home. My home had gone. I might never get it back. What had changed?

Border Force to have up to 6000 armed officers

Border Force in Australia sbs.com.au

Border Force in Australia sbs.com.au

I read the headline. I didn’t understand it. This Border Force would be deployed not on the border but inside my home. Most of its officers would be armed, many already are ‘trained for use-of-force operations.’ I sat and I wondered: what ‘operations’ inside our borders do they contemplate? Against whom are they armed? Who is the enemy within?

In the home where I used to live people trusted each other. We were different and we were OK. Some of us were very different indeed: in the small country town of my boyhood a sole Jewish family lived, trusted and trusting. That family was my own. Trust was rewarded, we were neighbours, we became friends, we knew each other and we were citizens together.

In the home where I became a father I met a man who was extremely different. He was the son of a Muslim cleric who went on to become Mufti of Australia. The father worked for amity and respect between communities and became a Member of the Order of Australia. The son, a ratbag or scallywag or black sheep or white sheep, became my friend and danced at my daughter’s wedding with the then President of the Zionist Council of Australia.

All that took place in Australia, which used to be my home.

On September 11, 2001 the world changed. Three days later the Melbourne ‘Age’ reprinted an article by respected Israeli journalist and novelist, David Grossman. Grossman had witnessed the effects of terror within his own community. He wrote that terror’s greatest victim is trust between citizens. When you believe your neighbour might wish to hurt you, you cease to trust her; you cannot afford to trust. Grossman predicted in 2001 we would see that erosion of communal trust, that injury to community.

Grossman’s prophecy has well and truly come to pass. Ironically, in Australia’s case, the principal destroyers of trust have been politicians who promote fear recklessly. We have a government led by a man who acts like a boy who swoons at the sight of a uniform.
Little by little, day by day, our masters in government – as well as the odd mistress – attack trust. The headline in the paper on the day of my return to my homeland appears below another: Transfield to remain at Nauru;
and alongside a third headline: Yongah Hill detainee hurt after incident of self-harm

All of this is relegated to Page 8. In this country that used to so welcome the stranger it is no longer big news that a private corporation be rewarded (at a daily cost of $1500 per head) for its systematic unkindness to inmates. This is not news. This is policy. As is ‘turn back the boats’, the policy that hath made my name to stink upon the earth.
In this place that used to be a home a man who cut his throat in detention is hospitalised, then returned to that place of detention where he ‘is receiving appropriate medical and mental health support and care.’ In that place his doctors and mental health carers risk two years of gaol if they report on that ‘appropriate’ medical care. I know detention. I sewed my lips, I accepted overpayment and I worked as a doctor in detention.

But in the place that used to be a home nothing like this is news.

The Security Lobby

I am free. They said, you are free to go. For the moment. I’m not in Gitmo. I haven’t been rendered. Not yet. I’m taking the opportunity to set it all down.

There’s not that much to tell. Step this way please sir.

The officer in Security at SFO spoke politely. All her colleagues – in a short space I met quite a few – spoke politely. I followed the officer to an open space at one side of the XRAY scanner. Your XRAY was not satisfactory, sir. My colleague will pat you down.

Her colleague is male. He pats me down, very thoroughly from the rear. From the front he pats me down vigorously, albeit selectively. A man asks me to touch some paper. After I do so the paper is tested in a machine. Your fingers show the presence of residues, sir. For a short space we stand in silence. The silence of the officers is an interrogation. I offer my own silence in return. How will this play out? It is only six am. I arose this morning at four. What have my fingers touched over these hours? I mean, what chemicals?

The officers asked me to come this way. Politely. This way is a small room. A third officer joined us and closed the door. The smallness of the room brought all occupants closer. Opposite me, smiling broadly, the patting officer, broad and tall. A powerful man. The presiding officer slim, female, perhaps forty years of age, standing at my right, the line of fine dark hairs running along her upper lip interrupted by the fine surgical scar of her neatly repaired hare lip. The last-entered officer took up his position behind me, between me and the door.

Are these your items, sir? I looked at the items resting mysteriously on the bench behind the widely smiling Patting Officer. The items are mine. I said so.  Please open them sir. I did so as they watched and waited – for what? Explosives? Firearms? Tweezers? 

The lady pulled open a box of sky blue plastic gloves, inserted her delicate hands and groped inside my baggage. I pointed out the small velvet bag containing my ritual gear – phylacteries, prayer shawl: Those are holy. Please handle them with respect. The officers, being American, respected ‘holy’.

The groping of my backpack completed, they turned to my roll on. The gloves were pulled off and tested for residues, a fresh pair pulled on. Grope, grope: What are all these books?

They are gifts for family, books. I wrote them.

Really?

Eyebrows shot up, faces turned from my items to me; for the first time the officers – all three – reacted to the unexpected. They looked impressed. Or something. For my part I misgave: perhaps ‘writer’ equals ‘leftist’, equals ‘intellectual’, equals ‘terrorist’? Should I have said, I am a doctor? That might remind them of terrorist doctors from George Habash to the English train bombers to hapless cousin Mohammad Hanif, who wasn’t, but who owned a guilty Sim Card. 

What guilty information lies concealed in my laptop?

What traitorous phone calls hide in my phone? They wilI find I have advocated for refugees, cheats, Muslims, border violators.

 

I reverted to silence as the chief Groper resumed groping and the others seem to disengage. The silence was very silent. Only a few feet distant from this room hundreds of bootless feet passed through Security. The hall that buzzed and rang around me a few minutes ago was not heard in here. It occurred to me that just as I did not hear the world, the world was unable hear me.

 

Groper looked up. Her hand rested upon something I did not see, something I own. Do all these items belong to you?

To the best of my knowledge, yes, they do.

To the best of your knowledge.  A harder edge to the voice.  An unpleasant pause.

Sir, do you know or do you not know? Did you pack this bag? Has this bag been out of your direct sight at all?

I mumbled reassurance that made things no better, no clearer.

 

Blue gloves that had done groping touched strips of test paper. All quiet as the machine pondered my possible residues. 

Groper-chief officer straightened, exchanged a look with the tall broad man. A small movement from behind, a sensation of space encroached.

 

You can go, sir. The ritual fringes you wear set off our scanner. We see that in people of your faith. And you

must have touched something this morning, perhaps a bench in the Security Lobby. You are free to go. Have a safe trip, sir.


She Would Not Look at Me

Only three days following the fall of the twin towers the Israeli author and journalist David Grossman wrote a thoughtful piece that was reprinted in The Age. The first and always casualty of terror – he wrote – is trust. You do not trust your fellow citizen, you feel you cannot afford to. Your neighbour of yesterday might be your enemy of today. Community is the casualty.

In the happy isle in which I live and move and work, terror and war and conflict are seldom seen. Insulated as we have been we could afford still to trust – long after other communities had been rent apart into fractions and fractious factions. So it is that when I go to work at the hospital for sick children, one half of my children come from homes where the first language is not English. There is a bridge of trust between us, where we meet and work harmoniously. Fifty percent of the non-anglophone families are Muslim. The parent looks at me, sees an oldish man in a skullcap. That adult thinks whatever she thinks but receives and returns my asalaam aleikum courteously.
Sometimes cautiously, often gladsome, the adult moves towards me across our bridge of trust and we meet. Minutes later, the old man in the yarmulka is no longer an infidel, a foe: he is just a person who understands the child’s illness and who cares about that child and can help. My guest sees in the Jew a fellow human.

Now the children of Abraham are locked in cousin conflict again. My first Islamic parent identifies himself as Ibrahim. He smiles at his cousin’s greeting and returns it.
Later a tall dignified woman, taciturn, her head veiled, her face exposed, meets the doctor who will treat her child, with evident displeasure. She has no smile. Her daughter’s earache, which has been distressing, is easily diagnosed and will be readily relieved. I know I can help her and within minutes I have. The child is five years old. She does not speak,a mutism that can be explained by shyness, by a lack of English, by illness, or by family custom. But her mother, face tight throughout, spares few words and no smiles for the doctor. After I have explained the nature of the illness, its treatment and its happier future course, there is no thaw. I express the hope and the belief that the child will be soon well, insh’allah.
No smile.
There is a war.
The bridge is broken.

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?”