Teaching an Old Dog Old Tricks

 

“Good morning, Doctor.’ The good-looking man is new to my practice. He offers a hand, shakes manfully, breaks no bones but leaves none unfirmed. His smile launches a promising relationship. ‘I’m new to Melbourne, doctor. Just moved here – for my studies.’

 

The man looks a young forty. I check his date of birth; he’s forty-nine.

‘What are you studying?’ – I ask.

‘Philosophy. Classic Philosophy, the greats, you know, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Maimonides…’

He’s won me.

 

‘I used to be a lawyer. Made some money, made a family, four kids. Now it’s time for me. Time to pursue wisdom.’

‘Share it with me when you find it,’ I say.

He smiles.

 

‘Doctor, I wonder if you can help me out. Awkward situation. I’ve left my tablets in Sydney. They’ll arrive Monday next with the family. My doctor prescribed a short course of Temazepam for sleep. Exams next week and I can’t sleep. If I don’t sleep, I’ll fail. If I fail I’ll never find wisdom.’ The winning smile again.

 

 ‘What are the tablets?’

‘Temazepam, the weaker ones, the tens. I’m scared of anything stronger.’

‘Very wise. They’re habit-forming.’

The man looks shocked: ‘Habit-forming? Really? My doctor never mentioned that. I just want enough to get me through these exams. I finish in three weeks.’

 

 

The man and I spend a little time discussing Temazepam, natural remedies, his own preference for a long hard run (‘Wouldn’t you know, Doctor, my running shoes are still in Sydney?’) The man looks up at the marathon photos that cover my walls where other doctors show their degrees.

‘Are you still running, Doctor? Marathons? Really? Amazing!’

 

 

The man leaves my room with his limited prescription, leaving behind his protestations of delight, his vows he’ll be back, how lucky our paths crossed, he’s found a disciple of Maimonides, he wants me to be his new doctor.

 

 

A couple of patients later the receptionist buzzes me and pricks my balloon: ‘That new patient, do you know what he said about you, Howard?’

‘No.’

‘”What an amazing doctor! Still running marathons!” Says you are a scholar, an expert in Greek Physiology.’

 

‘You know what else he said?”

‘What?”

‘He said he left his wallet in his car. He said he’d be back in five minutes to pay. I asked him for his Medicare card, but that was in the car too. But he knew his number, he said, and I took it down. Thirty minutes and he’s not back. I rang Medicare: there’s no such number and they have no record of that name at the Sydney address he gave. I rang his mobile. “Optus advises the number you have called is incorrect or has been disconnected.”

 

 

Three years pass. Three years are not sufficient to heal a wound in trust.

Last week a new patient registers with Reception. He presents his Medicare Card, asking a series of questions:

‘What doctors are consulting today?

‘Who will I be seeing?’

‘How long has he been at this practice?’

‘I just need a prescription. I’ve lost my tablets and my wallet too. Can I pay with my credit card?’

 

 

The relatively new receptionist was not with us three years ago. She calls me: ‘Are you with a patient, Howard?

‘No.’

‘May I come in and talk with you?’

‘Certainly.’

The young woman is shaking: ’I think your next patient is lying. I think he might be the man who came here a few years ago and lied to you to get tablets.’

 

 

A phone call to the Doctor Shopping Line at Medicare. I give the Medicare number of the new patient. ‘We suspect he’s a doctor shopper’, I say. I give the new patient’s stated name. The Medicare person confirms the validity of the card and the truth of the name given. ‘We have records of that patient’s recent prescriptions. He’s had eighteen prescriptions since March first, every one of them for twenty Temazepam tablets, each prescription from a different doctor in your area. You might like to inform the patient of these facts, Doctor.’

 

 

A Backward Country 

There’s a problem here. Police officers wander around singly, unadorned by bullet-proof vestments, no gun at their hips. I took the ferry to Gozo. No-one searched my bag or my body. Same when I entered the bank, the same at The Grand Hotel Excelsior. The same at the Biblioteca National. 

People seem relaxed. A citizen trusts her neighbour. 

The place is full of foreigners but no-one seems to care. We are just across the water from Libya and no-one is afraid. Negligent governments have not sown mistrust. Is everyone here asleep?

A backward country, this. I met Malta’s number three cop. A gentle sort of fellow, he seemed about as menacing as a powder puff. Where were their blokes who swagger around the borders and within them, like the Border Protection Force that keeps all us Aussies feeling so safe?

I went to a barber shop. Hidden up a staircase above a (not very) supermarket, and around some corners, it was a narrow establishment, its proportions little bigger than our guest powder room in my home. I hesitated at the threshold. Something faintly seedy about the joint, hard to pin down. A scent of tobacco breath mingled with barbershop smells. There were two chairs, one occupied. A tangle of odd black electric cords hung from a power point, metal implements lay scattered as if some disturbance had been and passed.
 

A young man with olive skin and a spade-shaped black beard looked up from the head he was trimming and waved me in. He was lean and tall, his black hair falling in wild waves about his narrow head. I guessed the young man might be in his late twenties. He looked lithe and coiled – Caravaggio before a brawl.

A second young man seated in the depths of the room rose as I entered. He too was tall, but better fed, perhaps a few years younger. His head was crowned with tight black curls pulled back into a pony tail, his jaw covered in a curly black spade. I thought I caught a fugitive smile. He waved me to the second chair, stood over and close to me, and raised an eyebrow. It was a question. I answered with a question: Can you make me beautiful?

I no English much.  

I pointed to my own chin, scruffy with whitish undergrowth. Zero, I said.

He nodded enthusiastically.

I pointed to my scalp, an arid garden.

Two, please.

More nodding, a big smile.

I sat back and considered. Flowing beards are all the go here, but it’s the barbers not the barbered who wear them. I looked around for a cut-throat blade, sighted none, sat back again and relaxed. The two young men were engaged in jovial conversation with a third, the customer in the first chair. I wondered what the joke was. Perhaps it was me. I listened for words I might recognise. The local language Malti is Semitic. It sounds quite a bit like Arabic, from which it traces its origins, with plenty of words similar to Hebrew which I can speak tolerably fluently. As the men conversed I sensed this might be street Malti, pretty rough and ready, perhaps untroubled by grammar or syntax. I listened some more. Lots of words were familiar, too many: this was Arabic, not Malti.

In all the flow of camaraderie and good humour, my barber man concentrated hard on my hair. His movements were gentle and deft. In the mirror my scalp rose into view from its sheddings; a wide and empty plain surfaced where I was used to seeing hairs. Two was shorter than I expected. Given the intimacy between me and the barber man, I felt we should be on first name terms: 

What’s your name?

Asraf.

My name is Howard.

Hawa?

How-wad. 

How Wad.

I nodded and grinned. Good to meet you, Asraf. 

From where you come?

Australia.

Asraf digested this: Much far.

Yes. Where do you come from Asraf?

Tripoli.

Libya!

Yes.

Asraf grinned and resumed operations.

My artist spent a lot of time and close concentration on corners and in nooks where I seldom gaze. Nostrils were explored, earholes broached, ear perimeters subject to hair-by-hair extirpation. Finally he straightened, turned, laid down his electric instrument, and advanced bearing a cut-throat blade. I felt a tremor. My misgiving derived not for Ironbark but Sinai: the biblical prohibition echoed -Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard. For some reason the naked blade is held to violate this Law while the electric trimmer is accepted – by some. I waved away Asraf’s trusty skibouk: Not this one. I like electric. After a further fifteen minutes of electric search and destroy Asraf was content there were no escapees.  
Asraf removed the tarp from my torso. I rose and together we surveyed my remains:

Shukran, I said.

How you know Arabic?

I produced my yarmulke and applied it to my naked scalp.

Asraf’s grin was huge. Reaching for his phone he leaned and wrapped his arm around me and took a photo of us both. A modest sum augmented by an immodest tip changed hands. We shook, I left and went to buy groceries next door. Exiting the grocer’s a few minutes later, I nearly bumped into Asraf and Carravaggio. They’d gone outside for a smoke. Whenever I see someone smoking I feel a pang, and I ask myself, Why? 

I waved as I passed by my friend from Tripoli and guessed the answer to Why? might lie in what he’d seen, what and whom he’d left behind. 

 

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 Princeling and the Premier

Mum has a brand new car. It’s not the Rover of Leeton days, it’s a Holden Premier. But it’s pretty fancy for a Holden – green duco with a metallic sparkle, luxurious bucket seats in rich tan leather.

Dennis’s close friend at Swinburne is Aly Ong, direct descendant of a line of Malay princes. One day Aly tells Dennis he has a date. Instantly Dennis offers Mum’s new car to Ali. Aly is amazed: ‘I can’t take your mother’s car!’
‘Yes you can.’
‘No I can’t. It’s brand new.’
Uncharacteristically, Dennis asks Mum’s permission.
‘Of course, Darling. With pleasure. Tell Aly to have a lovely evening.’

Is Aly a cautious driver? Has he a license to drive? Mum doesn’t think to ask.

At midnight Aly returns, knocks on our door looking desolated. ‘I need to speak to your mother. It’s terribly late, I hate to disturb her, but something terrible has happened.’
Night and day are one to Mum. She comes down the stairs, delighted to see Dennis’ friend: ‘Hello Aly. Did you have a nice time?’
‘No, Mrs Goldenberg… I ,mean yes. But something terrible has happened…’
Mum, concerned, her face softer than ever: ‘What, Aly? Are you alright?’
‘Yes, Mrs Goldenberg, I’m quite alright. But your car is not. I crashed your car!’
‘But you’re not hurt, Aly?’
‘No, not at all, but I’ve spoiled your lovely car.’
‘Thank goodness you’re not hurt, Aly. Come and sit down and I’ll make you some supper.’

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Singing Man

Walking to shule early on a shabbat morning in spring, walking along, swinging along, here’s my neighbour approaching, walking along, swinging along, along with Jarrah his handsome, brainless hound.
‘Hello Hugo.’
‘Hello Howard.’
We discuss the terror raids. A Sydney paper runs the headline: SYDNEY UNDER SEIGE. I wonder aloud about a climate of alarmism. Hugo trusts the government to protect the people. I trust any government to protect itself. We agree to disagree.
‘Bye Hugo.’
‘Bye Howard.’

Walking long, swinging along Meadow Street, swinging towards the park, there’s a man ahead of me, singing. He’s walking along, singing along, singing aloud, singing with sunny uncaring, his ears clasped by headphones. A brown man, tall, a head of tight dark curls, his voice ringing out in the swinging morning.
I walk behind and I wonder. What is this singing, what the tongue, what type of singing? Some droning, drawn-out notes, long phrases, thick gutturals: might be mid-eastern, might be something different..
I swing faster, draw alongside, address the singing man; ‘What are you singing?’
The singing man smiles, stops his singing, removes his earphones. ‘Listen’, he says, his accent unemphatic, possibly sub-continental. He clasps my ears with his ‘phones. Soft rushes of sibilant sounds – unaccompanied percussion – fill my ears.
‘That’s not the music, that’s just the rhythm, the backing. I make the music, my song…’
‘Is the song your own? Do you compose it?’
‘Yes.’ Another smile. “I will record it in a sound studio, make a tape and try to sell it.”
‘What are you singing about?’
‘A beautiful girl, so beautiful she shames the sun.’
‘Will you sing it for me?’
The man smiles, replaces his earphones, bursts into song, full-throated, and we swing together along Meadow Street. The singing man creates waves of sound, rhythmic, patterned. I can discern the lines, pick out sound rhymes.
It is lovely.
‘Will you translate for me?’

‘” Do not go out ino the sun, my beauty,
Do not go into the sun;
If you go into the sun, my beauty,
The sun will look pale,
You will shame the beauty of the sun”‘

‘Thank you. That is beautiful.’
‘Thank you.’

We swing together along Meadow Street. When we reach the corner, I say goodbye. ‘Good luck with your song.’
I turn the corner, heading for the park and for shule beyond.
The man calls to me, ‘Have a good shabbat.’

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.

Robert Hillman’s ‘Gurrumul’ – Review by Howard Goldenberg

Gurrumul by Robert Hillman  Publisher: ABC Books

Gurrumul by Robert Hillman
Publisher: ABC Books

If autobiography is the least reliable genre in fiction then the authorized Life sits at its flakiest edge. That this is not true of Hillman’s “Gurrumul” is on account of the slipperiness of the subject.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu emerges as shy, remote, elusive, cryptic, mischievous – an outer island in an archipelago of tongues. He does not so much emerge as submerge himself. Blind from birth, Gurrumul seems at times to be mute by choice. At others he makes himself perfectly clear to a whitefella, especially when working with his intimate collaborator, Michael Hohnen.

By book’s end Gurrumul remains hidden; only his music and the beauty of his features – a beauty we can enjoy and he can never perceive – speak to us.

No biographer could truly represent this life, (nor for that matter could he successfully misrepresent it). Wisely, Hillman does not attempt either. Instead he places the artist in his context. Chiefly that context is the complex of family (especially his bevy of aunties), community, land and Dreaming: in short, culture.

“Culture”, a term used promiscuously in conversations between the races, embodies meanings that are layered and expressed in dance, in music, in painting, in song, in storytelling and in land husbandry. The meanings are traditionally expressed obliquely, which is to say they are in part obscured. What Gurrumul does with these enfolded meanings appears to be a risky enterprise of his own, with calibrated departures from liturgical norms, a sort of jazz move in which he improvises within a theme and extends it beyond the limits of permitted custom.

Such a variation on a theme must be perceptible only to a tiny number of the millions who respond to Gurrumul’s music making. In this sense it is a secret, yet another, in  practice that skates ever along the outer edge of theunshareable.

When Gurrumul sings, whitefellas listen, enthralled. Literally, we are in a thrall, under a spell cast upon us by the spellbinding singer. We scarcely hear the words, we cannot parse them; and when we read their translations in Hillman’s book, the words in English are so simple as to appear banal: a profoundly false impression. And yet, and yet, we are transported. If beauty be truth, then truth is shown to us precisely as it is withheld. The subtlety of all this magic is clearly rendered in Hillman’s book.

To those who have read “My Life as a Traitor” and “The Rugmaker of Mazr a Sharif”, Hillman’s skill in rendering an alien culture will be familiar. It is in his later work, “The Honey Thief”, that Hillman manages to capture the artist in the act of working his art, in this case the sublime art of the Afghan (Azari) storyteller.

In the present volume Hillman attempts the extremely ambitious exegesis of the utterly untranslatable term, “Dreaming.” He succeeds, in this reader’s view, brilliantly. In twenty five years and over sixty working visits to remote Aboriginal communities, I have never felt I came so close to apprehending (I doubt any whitefella will ever comprehend) the Dreaming, as in Hillman’s “Gurrumul, his life and music.”

Hillman has succeeded remarkably in penetrating the life of art and ceremony (the two amount to much the same thing) on Elcho Island. Seven years ago while I worked on Elcho ceremony was active but off limits for whitefellas. Clearly Robert Hillman won the trust of capable cultural brokers on the island, who ‘let him in’ wherever this was permissible. In return, Hillman repays trust with respect that neither fawns nor condescends. In this his text avoids the vapid tone of comments on the book’s photographs.

Which leads me to the one regret I have about the book, a quibble perhaps, but an important one. In an important sense Hillman’s publisher subverts the author’s enterprise, which is to render in words an art that is ineffable. It is the format of the handsome volume that works against the writing. You look at the book, you find the cover images arresting – and to one familiar with the singing – quite new. The book itself cannot be held in the hand and read: it is biography in a coffee table format. You open the book, you start to read and you find yourself distracted repeatedly from the text by beguiling photographs which tell their own story quite compellingly, but quite out of sync with Hillman’s theme at any point.

Better justice might have been done to both text and photos by physically separating them.

In the end the book succeeds to a remarkable degree. Importantly, it demonstrates how, as whitefellas embrace Aboriginal culture, Australia is becoming more Australian.

Hillman’s book is bound to succeed beyond these shores as Gurrumul’s audiences around the world drink deeply in their thirst for some understanding of his life and his music.