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 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.

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.

A Good Life

A few months ago a man and I were engaged in a conversation. The talk ranged widely over the man’s new book and mine, over asylum seekers to indigenous health, then to my odd affection for running marathons. We visited the Boston Marathon of 2013 and the bombing that brought the event to a halt before I could reach the finish line.

While we talked like old friends, as occasionally happens with an engaging new friend, we were not alone. An audience of tens of thousands listened to us on local radio. Our conversation was coming to an end when the interviewer paused, mused for a moment, shot me a half grin and said: “Howard, I see you as an idealist, a person trying to do good in the world. So I want you to give me an answer to a question I ask myself every day: ‘How does a person live a good life?’”

The interviewer is an awarded journalist aged about forty, a father of young children. He smiled, acknowledging how his question had flown in and landed abruptly in a chat that had satisfied itself with surfaces. Stumbling, I gave a suitably useless answer. I groped for something wise but not too portentous and I came up with something incoherent.

Two months have passed since the challenge of that question. I realise I did have an answer. I have had it for ages. It is couched in religious terms but you could remove the divinity from it and still retain an essence that responds to my radio host. It comes to me from a fellow who lived more than two thousand years ago who had gathered an audience of his own (rather like a radio host of ancient day). His name was Micah. He distilled his understanding of life for his public, teaching them as follows: He hath shown you, O man, what is good: and what does the Lord require of thee – only to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?

Two Doctors in Doomadgee

Letter from Doomadgee

27 January, 2014.

 

Dear Australia,

 

Before I arrived the only thing I knew of Doomadgee was the name; that was the surname of the man who died on Palm Island. That name seemed compounded of doom and tragedy. But of the community itself I was glad to know nothing in advance of my arriving.

 

Steve the factotum drove me from the airfield. The aged street sign said:

 

Welcome to Doomadgee

Population 1200

 

Steve said: “More like 2000.”

I met the young Aboriginal doctor. He said: “More like 3000.”

 

A road sign said:

 

NT Border 103 KM.

 

The weather forecast said: Cloudy. Maximum 34 degrees.

That night the nurse said:” It felt hot so I looked at the thermometer on my verandah. The thermometer said: ‘52 degrees.’”

 

I said to the young Aboriginal doctor from Mt Isa, himself a grandson of respected elders of this community: “I’m the wrong doctor. I don’t have the language, the cultural currency…You are the right sort of doctor.”

He said: “There are nearly one hundred of us now. There were quite a few of us in my year at James Cook.”

The two of us spent most of Saturday together indoors. Between snatches of cricket and tennis on TV and poring over Murtagh’s tome on General Practice, he wanted to talk about religion (his new found Christianity, my old found Judaism), about work, about vocation. He asked me to name my favourite story from the Bible.

He told me his. I waited for a parable. Instead he said: “Jephtah and his daughter. I read that story and I put the book down and I said, ‘Lord, I need time to come to terms with this.’”

We spoke of our families and our upbringing, how he hankered for some city life while knowing his destiny lay in the country – on country – this country, this country his father had shown him and taught him and inculcated into him from early years; and I told him of my lifelong hankering for life outside the city while knowing my destiny lay there.

I said: “I wrote a book about my father – he was a country GP – and about my childhood in the country. And another book about my experiences working in remote Aboriginal communities. You can get copies of those books if you’re interested.”

He said: “No. I don’t read books. Only medical textbooks.”

I looked at him.

He conceded: “I did read two other books. My teacher said if I didn’t read them I couldn’t pass English.”

I looked at him again. I said: “I know you read. You read all the time – the Bible.”

Yes. Yes, that’s so. I’m always reading the Bible. But books, they’re not in my background. We didn’t have books at home.”

After hours of searching conversation my colleague posed a question. He preceded it with a statement. He said: “I want my work to mean something. I want my working life to improve the lives of Aboriginal people.” He swallowed the consonants whenever he spoke that word. He softened the ‘g’ in ‘Aboriginal’ so it was like a triple ‘n’, gutturalised. He paced and paused, paced again. He said: “I want to ask you a question. You’ve been a GP for a long time; I am just starting. What should I do? I mean what should I do now, while I’m completing my training? What particular field should I try to master? What will be most useful for Aborinnnal people?”

I offered some answers, thinking aloud, feeling my way through a variety of ideas. Eventually I said: “Any answer I give will be less important than the question.”

What do you mean?”

I mean, you aren’t asking a casual question. This is a quest. So long as you keep asking I think the quest will lead you where you need to go.”

Then I said: “You know we whitefellas do our best but we never achieve what we set out to do. I think the answers won’t come from whitefellas alone; some of the changes have to come from blackfellas. It will be like cancer – you don’t find the cure, the single thing that wipes out the entire problem; you find an improvement here, a sectional breakthrough there. So the Pearsons and Yunipingus and Langtons and the others, they’ll come up with some initiatives; and some of those will take root and some might bear fruit.”

My friend nodded hard. He said: “Exactly!”

 

***

 

On Australia Eve, the rain belted the roof all night. Australia Day dawned bright, cooler. We went down to the river. At the spillway the Nicholson flowed a kilometre wide. Warm brown water, shallow. Steve had said: “No big crocs here. Only little snappers – freshies.”

I trusted him. I waded with the younger doctor through warm shallows down to the waterfall. Everywhere we went in those shallows Aboriginal toddlers paddled, babies sat on the laps of slender young mums. The Nicholson flowed a thin caramel around and over shiny brown bodies.

The young doctor spoke to all he met. All were, one way or another, his kin. He said: “Hello brother”, and “Hello sister.”

He said, “Hello Aunty”, and “Hello Uncle.”

He knew what to say, how to say it. He found connections with strangers.

He knew his country; he was the right doctor; he had the language.

Missionary Positions 1

A STRANGER ON A TRAIN

A ten year old boy is riding the red rattler across the suburbs of Melbourne. Plastic in his being, not yet firm in himself, quite unconsciously he absorbs the personas around him. One by one and all at once, he takes them in, trying to drink their apparent confidence, their certitude.

An older man enters the crowded carriage, looks around and selects the seat directly opposite the boy. He sits down, his knees only inches away. He carries a newspaper which is rolled into a cylinder. As he sits down, the train starts to move again, and quite quickly the movement makes the man sleepy and he nods off.

Every so often the boy senses the older man’s gaze upon him, but whenever he looks up to check, the man’s eyes are closed.

The ride is a long one. The deeper they go into the suburbs, the fewer the remaining passengers. Eventually, there are only the two of them in that whole cavernous compartment – the older one asleep and the younger one all too conscious.

He is uncomfortably aware of the man’s closeness in all that space: they haven’t even spoken. And the boy feels anxious, not knowing whether he even exists to this long distance sleeper.

He’d like to move, but he thinks he might offend.

The boy wonders whether the man will know when to get off. Perhaps he has already missed his stop. Soon the boy feels anxious about this too.

The train pulls into Hughesdale Station. The boy feels the stirrings of relief – his is the next stop. It will be okay then to move away.

But the sleeper has risen to his feet. He turns for the door, then pauses. The boy feels a light tapping upon the top of his head. It is the sleeper, using his furled newspaper to gain his attention.

He speaks: Good on yer, son. It’s a credit to you.

He taps the boy’s head again, this time touching the yarmulka that sits on his crown: You keep wearing that, son – it won’t let yer down.

The stranger alights and is gone.

The boy touches the top of his head. He feels somehow annointed.

The Work is Great

After I failed to save his aged father from the march of time and a
meeting with Mister Death, I met a secret Australian hero. His name is
Don Palmer.
Don is a passionate man. He used to work for God.  His job as a
minister of religion offered good prospects for long-term employment
but the Boss was a perfectionist and Don left.
He retired and set up an organization called MALPA. Malpa aims to
create change in indigenous communities by harnessing the energies of
the young and the authority of the Elders. One of its projects is the
Child Doctors initiative, an idea that Don pinched from remote
communities in Peru, as well as other spots on the globe not well
favoured by health services.
The initiative is brilliant. I describe it in my forthcoming novel,
“Carrots and Jaffas” (watch this space): small children are selected
and licensed by elders to receive and transmit health and hygiene
messages to their peers and families.
The personnel are blackfeller kids; no whitefellers get rich, none are
overpaid in Don’s program.
Don visited Utopia – birthplace of the Aboriginal art movement that
has beautified our lives and put Australia on the world map of modern
art.
The art is beautiful, the conditions that Don saw are otherwise.
Don writes (in part):

Dear Friends

I have just returned from Utopia. The name Utopia is an Orwellian joke, surely.
What I saw is a national disgrace.
In tiny communities the sewerage is not being collected by the
council. It is thought to be as punishment for
people like Rosalie Kunoth-Monks and her mob trying to stand on their
own feet. She says this is “slow genocide”. With naked children
playing where the septic tanks spew out across the land around their
hovels it would take a brave person to say she is wrong. Except it is
pretty speedy genocide if my knowledge of the effects of hookworm is
anywhere near correct. Some children played in urine soaked t-shirts.
Meanwhile our PM appears in a
star studded media event declaring her love of Aboriginal people and
the Close the Gap progress.
Some said that the Labor party is spooked by the
mass black vote for the CLP and will shamelessly try to parade their
“sincere concern” – according to the bloke we stayed with in Utopia –
Gary Cartwright, an ex Labor politician in the NT. He says he could
not bear to vote for Labor again.

Those at the impressive health clinic are delighted we (ie Malpa) are
going to be involved.
They have been impressed with the effectiveness of the traditional
medicines that local people use.
So much so that they have started using themselves.
A meeting with the local school principal also elicited support. She
has 17 micro schools to manage.

Rosalie and her children are truly incredible. I am touched that they
are choosing our Young Doctor project to respond to the horror that
her mob faces daily. I feel confident that they will capably make this
their own and drive it through.

Rosalie is hopefully getting approval from her Elders Council on
Monday. To work well the project requires local capacity. I am
delighted to say it is there.

At the little place we stayed in  there
was a tap at the back with a thick pipe
running off it. This was the water supply for about 50 people who
lived in the grass on a fifty meter radius off the back veranda. There
was no electricity, but they would sit around fires singing gospel
songs. I wonder what they were
thanking God for?

At one point Rosalie introduced me to a Senior man with the words “His
father fought for this country.”
I quickly calculated his age and assumed she meant WWII. I said to him
“World War II, like my father?” Rosalie quietly pointed at the earth
and said “No, THIS country”.

[Interesting side bar.

My “daughter” Nora Nelson Jarrah Napaltjarri discovered that the
Supreme Court, where her mural graces the foyer floor, has been
selling a range of products using her design but without consultation
or royalties! The highest court in the NT abusing the Federal laws
about Indigenous
art! She is very cross I am helping her pursue the matter…]

Don

Don Palmer’s Malpa project runs on donations, largely from
Deutschebank, a foreign concern that is very concerned with our own
people.
If you google “Malpa – Australia”, you’ll learn more about their
projects to improve child health in remote indigenous communities. It
would be a hard old stony heart that is not moved by what Malpa does.
As you read you’ll learn more about Don Palmer, a whitefella who is
doing our job outback.

The work is great and the time is short: it is not for you to complete
the work but nor are you free to stand aside from it (Babylonian
Talmud).

I don’t believe Don would be offended if any reader of this decided to
make a donation.

Howard