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.


The first sentence


‘Trying to write before you’re ready is like trying to squeeze toothpaste out of an empty tube,’ I wrote in exasperation after I allowed yet another day to pass without making a start on Sabah and Lamia‘s story.

There is so much pressure to write that amazing first line that will get one publisher to publish the book, and then at least one thousand people to buy it. Who can write such a magic sentence? Certainly not I.

But then, ‘A Writing Life’ by Annie Dillard became available as an audio book through my local library and I heard these words: When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it and it digs a path you follow.

And so Dillard enables me to start and I start with this very ordinary sentence: I first met Lamia when she came to my English class at TAFE.

And from that humble beginning I wrote the first four hundred words. Four hundred words that I might eventually erase, but at least I have started, and can continue writing the next sentence, and the next, and see where it leads me.

Concentrate on the words on the page, says Dillard. When you chop wood, aim not at the wood, but at the chopping block, so concentrate on the words in that sentence on that page, not on the grand vision. The grand vision will change as I write, and the finished product will probably be vastly different to what I had in mind at the beginning, but that’s OK. After all, I am only a curious scribbler, not a clever scribe, and I’ll go where the story leads.

Reality check


‘You no-good scribbler. Yes, I know who you are. I have seen your columns, God help us. I have read your foolish stories, may my enemies be so clever.’

And so, I am chided by Laizer – a Holocaust survivor in Arnold Zable’s book, Cafe Scheherazade – as he upbraids fellow book character, the writer Martin Davis. Poor Martin, someone else had just asked him: ‘My foolish child, what do you understand about the past? You did not live there, may my enemies have such luck. What do you know of such things? You were born here, in Australia, in a fortunate hour…’

I am not Martin, I was not born here in Australia, but the question remains: What do I know of such things?

As I savoured my first cup of coffee yesterday and watched the bees fuss over the flowering basil, it was so quiet that I could hear the clock ticking. In the stillness and peace of the moment, I wondered if I would ever be able to write about bombs falling, people throwing together belongings in a matter of hours, and families fleeing with only what their cars can carry.

That night I dreamt of Iraq. My arms jerked. I was disoriented. And then I was awake. ‘High Tea in Mosul’ lay on my bedside table, my last thoughts shaped by O’Donnell’s words before I drifted off.

Could I be getting closer to being able to write about what happened?


I raided my local library and met Australian reporter Lynne O’Donnell.

That is, I read her book.

‘High Tea in Mosul’ is the result of O’Donnell’s encounter with two Englishwomen in Mosul shortly after the  Americans invaded Iraq in 2003. O’Donnell writes: ‘The landscape is breathtaking – mountains of untouched ancient forests; deep valleys sliced with rivers painted blue by the peerless sky; lush and sweeping plains that fatten sheep through winter and are burnished throughout the searing summers with the yellow and gold of wheat and oilseed rape.’

I read this and thought: She was there.

How am I ever going to write like that?

George Orwell. Photo Vera-Broadbent
George Orwell.Sketch by Vera-Broadbent

In ‘Finding George Orwell in Burma’, Emma Larkin (a pseudonym), comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter if Orwell had visited a particular place, because Orwell himself said that a writer’s skill lies in the ability to imagine what a place was like, or how someone else felt, or how events unfolded – imagine, imagine, imagine. (I am paraphrasing from memory, because I also borrowed that book from the library. I hope to get my hands on it again, and will post a quote here, or confess that I’ve misquoted as the case may be.)

I am interviewing displaced people who have settled here in Adelaide for my book Place of Refuge. In order capture the essence of their stories, I try to see people and places through their eyes and to do this, I need to cultivate a rich and varied landscape within me, a landscape of places far distant, places I have never visited before.

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.

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.