What do we have in common?

SamAntonioPhotography Cambodian Children
SamAntonioPhotography Cambodian Children

“It’s bad to say goodbye in my language; instead, we say ‘see you later’,” said the Aboriginal lady to me, teaching me an Aboriginal word, which I have sadly forgotten.

“The Chinese word for good bye, zàijiàn, also means ‘see you again’,” I said.

“In Malay, they say ‘Selamat Jalan‘, which means ‘have a safe journey’.”

“You speak Malay?” I asked her, astonished.

I have met many Australians who speak Bahasa Indonesia and I studied the language for one year, in Year 12, driving my teacher insane with my Malay words and phrasing. But I had never met an Australian who spoke Malay.

“We lived in Penang for a few years, where my husband was a pilot at the Australian Air Force Base. My son jokes that he looks Italian and eats kangaroo lasagna with chopsticks.”

We laughed. We had started off the conversation as two strangers, but parted as two people who had found some things in common.

I have been reflecting on language commonalities these past weeks as I transcribed my interviews with Sabah, Lamia and Iba, from Iraq. I had a thrill of recognition when I understood some of their Arabic words: jiran (neighbour), haiwan (animal) and mustahil (impossible). Iba tells me that I am pronouncing ‘mustahil’ wrongly, because Arabic does not have the ‘h’ sound I enunciate; instead they have two different sounds, which my ear has not been trained to hear, which I therefore have trouble pronouncing.

I recognised those words because they are Malay words. This is not surprising; Malay has absorbed words from many other languages, among them Arabic.

In the late 19th century, Sir John Lubbock wrote this in his book ‘The beauties of nature and the wonders of the world we live in’: What we see depends mainly on what we look for.

It occurred to me that if we look for differences, we will find many; if we look for commonalities, we will find those too, but I think that for us to live together peacefully, productively, in friendship, rather than enmity, in peace, rather than in war, looking for commonalities gives us a better hope for a better future.

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Slow cooking the story

Boys in Baghdad
Boys in Baghdad. Photo by Chatriwala.

I tried to write Sabah and Lamia’s story but nothing worked. I tried to imagine what it was like in their home in Baghdad but I could not conjure up sounds or smells or faces or places. I tapped into my imagination but found nothing there that was remotely Iraqi. And why would there be? I am Malaysian Chinese.

So back to the drawing board. Back to transcribing the interview. Close my eyes. Listen to their voices. Off to the library. Borrow (almost) every book on Iraq. Google Map Baqubah, Baghdad, Amman – satellite view, map view, photos.

Arnold Zable, writer and story teller, said that good story telling (both fiction and creative non-fiction) is about imagining. If the writer is immersed in the story, he or she will be able to bring the reader along. Imagining is sensual – see, feel, hear, taste, touch, then recreate the scene in prose.

My fast food approach to writing – quick and expedient – failed miserably. My inner landscape needs more work. Imagining is like cooking up a good stew, you really need to take care to brown the meat in batches – don’t overcrowd the pan, take time to sweat the chopped veggies over low heat, add the spices and fry till fragrant, pour in the stock and slowly simmer till the meat falls off the bone, the sauce is thick and rich, and the smell of dinner wafts from the kitchen to the dining room to the lounge and eventually fills the whole house.