From the hard earth

Autumn Crocus
Autumn Crocus

In my garden, there is a patch of brown dirt that is unremarkable. My irrigation line doesn’t extend here so the earth starts to dry out in summer. By February fissures appear like cracks on a chocolate cake when it’s almost done. Visitors walk past it without a glance.

But sometime in March, a small, white tip pokes through the soil. From the hard earth, more delicate spears emerge and, after a few days, blossom into six-petalled blooms that transform the dirt patch into a carpet of purple autumn crocuses.

This patch is just outside my study, where I’m trying to cajole Sabah and Lamia‘s story into a work of creative non-fiction. To help me is Mark Tredinnick‘s Little Red Writing Book. On Creative Writing, he advises, ‘Write most quietly when the politics are shrill. That’s when quietness and calm and inconsequential beauty are most exquisitely needed.’

Back to my writing I turn. As I write Place of Refuge, I keep, at the back of my mind, a picture of the delicate spears, surprising in their strength, finding a way through rain-starved soil, catching visitors by surprise with colour and beauty where once was only nondescript brown dirt.

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Harmony Day Celebrations

Ethiopian Bread Basket
Ethiopian Bread Basket

Last Sunday, at the Migration Museum in Adelaide, Anette and Zaid demonstrated how to make Injera, an Eritrean/Ethiopian flatbread. They have kindly agreed to share their Eritrean flat bread and beef stew recipe here. Anette became a mentor to Zaid as part of the Fuse Mentoring program, run by Baptist Care, where new arrivals are paired up with volunteers who help them find their feet in Australia.

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Outside the cooking demo hall, under a gazebo, an articulate young lady from Congo was delivering a speech to a small crowd. She described her experience of arriving in Australia as ‘landing on the moon.’ Bryan Hughes, the Fuse Mentoring coordinator later said that having a friend is a real lifeline for new arrivals, who might have little or no English skills.

The Australian Refugee Association (ARA) and Welcome to Australia  were partners in this event. All these organisations welcome volunteers. Various other groups in Adelaide also do their bit to help new arrivals, such as holding free English classes and coffee mornings. It seems timely to put up an  information page where various refugee resettlement resources in Adelaide can be listed in one place so that resources and needs can be more easily matched. I have therefore set up a page on this blog – Adelaide Asylum Seeker & Refugee Support – where groups providing services to refugees and asylum seekers can share their contact details and say a bit about what they offer.

If we work together, we can achieve more.

Unfinished business

“You’ll send me a copy, won’t you?” said Mr Malcolm Fraser to me as we stood at the door of his office, high above Collins Street in Melbourne. I cannot remember my exact words but I said that I would work on the book – did I say work, or did I say work quickly? – and promised to send him a copy.

The book in question was Place of Refuge. I interviewed him for one hour on the 24th of September, 2014, on the topic of asylum seekers for Chapter One of the book. Yesterday, on the morning of the 20th of March, 2015, as I was completing an Arts SA grant application for the book, I learnt of his passing.

Tears streamed down my face. I was so sorry that I had not sent Mr Fraser a copy of the book; I had not finished writing it. It was a topic that was very close to his heart. In that interview, he said to me, ‘You either believe people are equal or you do not.’

Mr Fraser did not merely mouth those words; he worked resolutely on behalf the disadvantaged. He vigorously opposed apartheid in South Africa and was the Founding Chair of CARE Australia, an international humanitarian aid organisation. Throughout his life, he spoke out on topics he felt strongly about. I believe that it was his concern for asylum seekers that caused him to respond to my request for his input into the book.

I am deeply saddened by the passing of a great statesman but I realise that the best thing I can do now is to work hard on this book, drawing on all resources available to me, making it the best piece of literature possible.

The phrase ‘place of refuge’ has an impermanent sense to it. People take refuge until the storm has passed, or the war has been fought, then they return home. Farewell, Mr Fraser. I wish you peace and rest.

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Ancient civilisations meet

Lamia with pizza - Iraqi style
Lamia with pizza – Iraqi style

When I drove across Adelaide for my first interview with Sabah and Lamia from Iraq, I had fanciful ideas about 5000 years of Chinese civilisation meeting 5000 years of Mesopotamian culture. You might remember Sabah from my previous post as the playwright, who discovered, taught, and fell in love with his leading lady, Lamia.

I took off my shoes at the door, as Chinese people do (and probably Iraqi people too judging by their bare feet) and exchanged greetings, and saw that Lamia had laid out a feast on the coffee table – a three-tiered plate of nuts and Ferrero Rocher chocolates, a six pack of coke with Italian crystal glasses to drink from, three kinds of cake and a platter overflowing with fruit.

At the end of the first interview, the family invited me for a biryani lunch the following week before the second interview. I foolishly declined. I was thinking of all the cooking that Lamia would have to do. You see, I used to teach Lamia English and she used to come into class tired from all the cooking and cleaning she had done in the weekend, and I wanted to spare her that. But as I drove away, I realised what an opportunity I had squandered.

I turned up mid-afternoon instead for the second interview. This time I met their grandson, playing on an iPad. Lamia gave me a tour of their home, I saw their fruit trees, the pergola they built, and she showed me a newspaper cuttings of their youngest son who does gymnastics and Parkour. Their younger daughter, Ranin, joined us mid-way through the interview, munching on a cucumber, and I found out that she has her own personal fitness business. Some of the before and after photos she showed me were spectacular and I wondered if I should sign up. I reflected on the many similarities between our families – chess, gymnastics, guitar strumming, picky eaters – and just by observation, I thought that both Lamia and I, as mothers, spend a lot of time shopping, cooking, and serving food.

The second interview was much more relaxed than the first. In fact, we were just chatting towards the end and Sabah said, ‘We’re going off topic.’ But it was in the chatting that I dropped my writer’s hat and simply became someone making new friends. And it was in that moment that I think I got closer to understanding what it cost them to flee Iraq, and what life is like for them now.

I’ll be spending the next few weeks writing up their amazing story for the book, Place of Refuge – a collection of creative non-fiction stories of displaced people who have made their home in Adelaide.

Sabah has kindly supplied the photos below.

Lamia Alkhad on the stage
Lamia Alnashi on stage.
Chess is a favorite game in my family
Chess –  a favourite game of the family
My family in Morialta 2015
The family at Morialta, 2015

The American invasion and chess

photo Sumon
photo Sumon

“The circumstances in our country are very difficult; this difficulty comes from the Americans invading my country because everything was destroyed after the invasion. Contrary to what America said (that they came to give peace and freedom a better chance and to improve living conditions), the militia increased in our country. One of the militia is called Al-Qaeda. In agreement with men from the old government, the Ba’athist party, al-Qaeda threatened my father to kill him, after killing his friend Muayad Sami,” translates Iba.

“When did America invade Iraq?” I ask.

“America invaded Iraq in 2003,” answers Iba.

“Who was Muayad?” I ask.

“Muayad was the head of a newspaper called Parliament and my father was the second in the newspaper,” explains Iba.

I ask for the date of Muayad’s death. Iba and his parents find it hard to give me an exact date, but tell me that it was in 2005.

Lamia continues in Arabic where Sabah had left off.

“My mum says, my younger sister, Ranin, was threatened not to go to the chess club anymore and as my father said, my family in general was under threat of being killed,” said Iba.

The interview settles into a rhythm, with Iba translating for his father, Sabah, the playwright, and his mother, Lamia, the actress. Sabah describes the family’s journey from Iraq to Australia using world events as reference points, while Lamia puts me right in the scene, sometimes with a single word. When she recalls the terrible house in Jordan where they lived for a year, she raises her hands in despair, scrunches up her face in disgust, and laments in English: “Rats!” And I can almost see the rats scurrying by their feet.

When I leave 90 minutes later, I know that there is much more to discover, and make a date and time to return.

Creative non-fiction

Photo Pimthida
Photo Pimthida

Creative non-fiction is a genre defined by what it is and what it is not. It is creative; it is not fiction. What is the opposite of fiction? Fact? But if I say that I’m writing creative facts, it just sounds as though I’m lying. Creative non-fiction is the telling of true stories in a creative way.

At yesterday’s SA Writers’ Masterclass with historian and author, Miranda Richmond Mouillot, I learnt the plot points in a narrative arc: opening scene, crisis, resolution, the dark night of the soul, the sun shines again, the end. Mouillot said that the movie Legally Blond hit all the right points in all the right places.

So watching Legally Blond is on my To Do list, right after my interview with a couple from Iraq for my book, Place of Refuge, a work of creative non-fiction. I have been intrigued by little snippets of their story, gleaned from casual conversation, and I am looking forward to the chance to hear more.