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Edition 15

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Essay

Beyond pity

I FIRST MET Zarah Ghahramani on Tehran's Revolution Boulevard in June 2003, just down the road from the northern campus of the city's university. She was dressed in the tunic of all young urban women in the Islamic Republic of Iran: dark scarf drawn tight over her head, lightweight coat (pale blue this day) reaching almost to her ankles. She asked me in her accomplished English whether it would not be too impolite to inquire what I was writing in my notebook. I told her that I was gathering material for newspaper articles on Iranian politics. "I thought as much," she said without explanation, then offered her hand and spoke her name. As we walked along in the gathering dusk for a minute or more, I could only assume that Zarah had made a habit of approaching people who looked as if they might have a newspaper to report to in the West. But why? At the intersection of Revolution and Azari, where we might courteously have parted, Zarah stopped and made some comment about the rowdy traffic. Then she added that she had a few things to say about Iranian politics herself. Would I listen?

We sat at a kiosk in the Laleh Gardens not so far from where we'd met, and Zarah told her story over two hours. All around us, Tehrani mums and dads feted their children on the peculiarly flavourless ice-cream that Iranians favour, while young men in mock-Benetton tops engaged in air-courtship (the right motions, but no action) of young women dressed like Zarah. Fairy lights blinked on the garden's laurels and date palms.

Sitting hunched over the table, Zarah kept her voice low, and folded and refolded the straw of her Coke into a compact wad. She spoke with astonishing candour of her involvement in reform politics at Tehran University, where she was no longer permitted to study; of imprisonment, torture, severe sexual abuse. As I learned later, her scarf concealed the regrowth of hair shorn from her head in Tehran's Evin Prison eighteen months earlier: she had torn her scalp to shreds with her fingernails while awaiting her daily interrogations and had kept her hair short after her release while the wounds healed.

Before approaching me, she'd satisfied herself that she was not being followed and filmed. She knew she was watched. Her days and nights were vexed by the need to take care: any infringement of Iran's rigid dress code would be harshly punished, any expression of political dissent would see her returned to Evin for a very long time, or until her interrogators judged her so cowed by certain refinements of the torture she'd already endured that she could no longer imagine rebuking her government.

Her story could have been told with variation by thousands of young Iranian men, and without variation by a few young Iranian women. She'd been twenty and studying languages at university when first detained by state security agents late in 2001. Tehran University had been at that time a centre of student activism. Hundreds of young men and women had raised their voices in the streets around the campus, demanding freedom of choice in what they read, in what they wore, in what they wrote. Zarah had been one of the leaders of the protests, intense in her political convictions, but not truly aware of just how hard the other side played the game. Twenty-nine days of interrogation in Evin, much of it in a blindfold, had demonstrated to her the savagery of the regime when roused. By the time her interrogators had finished with her, she'd been prepared to confess to anything at all, and confess she had. She had worked as an agent of the United States of America; she had accepted money from anti-regime organisations in Europe and the United Kingdom; she had committed "immoral acts" with leading male figures in the protest movement; she had attempted to subvert the rule of law in Iran. Her confession was nonsense, but she signed it.

"That is what happened," said Zarah at the conclusion of her story, and she added, with a bestowing gesture of her open hands, "for you to use."

 

OVER THE NEXT two weeks, Zarah nudged me and my partner, Anni, north, south, east and west in Tehran, then took us down to Shiraz and Isfahan. She introduced us to writers, artists, movie-makers, businessmen, and to her many friends and relatives. Her account of her ordeal was confirmed everywhere. In Shiraz we visited her particularly close friend, Eva, who had shaved her head herself to satirise the regime's phobias, and to dramatise her solidarity with Zarah. Her own boldness notwithstanding, Eva was worried for her friend, and Zarah's family was more worried still. Watching Zarah indoors amongst those who cared for her, bare-headed, laughing, lampooning the regime, I could see what it was that made her friends and family so anxious. Her attachment to the liberty she craved was too intense, almost mad. Her face flashed the rage of the humiliated. Her interrogator in Evin Prison had warned her of the torments to come if she were re-arrested. One day, I felt sure, she would carry her rage outdoors to spite him, and would pay all over again.

"Come to Australia," I urged her. "Apply for a study visa."

"Would that be possible?"

"Maybe. We should try."

"Then they win," she said, and dismissed the idea.

Anni and I returned to Australia after our month in Iran, but remained in contact with Zarah by hotmail and regular calls from her friend's mobile phone. What she said to me and what she wrote made it more apparent than ever that she was living on borrowed time. And this was something she would have acknowledged herself if she could have set aside her contempt for the people who had harmed her and think straight for a moment. She spoke of her lapses from the conditions of her release from Evin, and conceded that they were becoming more frequent. She was not supposed to talk to anyone involved in anti-regime politics, for example, but she did. She was not supposed to go anywhere near the university, nor attempt to use its library, but she did. She was not supposed to sign any of the reform petitions circulating in the university precinct, but she did. My response was always a version of "Stop it!"

Then one day, a year after my return to Australia, Zarah sent an me an email to say that she wanted to get out of Iran and would accept any help I could provide. What had changed her mind? "My father," she said. He had taken her by the shoulders and made her stand in front of a mirror. "Look!" he'd said. He wanted her to see what Evin and the relentless surveillance since her release had wrought on her face and figure. She obeyed her father: she stood there and stared. But it wasn't the erosion of her beauty that had persuaded Zarah to flee to Australia; it was the grief in her father's eyes, reflected above hers.

 

AT THE TIME of Zarah's imprisonment in 2001, Najaf Mazeri was crossing the Timor Sea in a ramshackle shrimp trawler. He shared the deck with a consignment of eighty-five men, women and children, most of them Afghans like him. The trawler was, strictly speaking, the property of the people it was carrying, for although the passengers didn't know it, the fees they'd paid to an Indonesian people-smuggler included the total cost of the vessel. The sum of those fees was the equivalent of $127,000.

The joint owners of the vessel only become aware of their status as informal title-holders nine days into their voyage from an anchorage off a beach on the southern coast of Java. They had been led to believe that the derelict trawler would convey them a short distance to a much larger and newer vessel somewhere out in the ocean. This vessel was never found, and the trawler's taciturn captain frankly declared he had no knowledge of its existence.

Najaf's journey to Australia began in the northern Afghan city of Mazare-Sharif in March 2001, a few months before his Timor Sea voyage. By the age of thirty-one, he had survived a rocket attack on his house by themujahideen forces opposing the Russian invasion of his country, casual, indiscriminate shelling by the Russians themselves, and a relentless Taliban vendetta against his tribe, the Hazara. He had witnessed the last few seconds of his younger brother Rosal's life as the boy succumbed to a shrapnel wound that had left a hole in his mid-section through which the earth on which lay was visible, and the death of a beloved older brother, Gorg Ali, felled one quiet day by a single shot as he was gathering honey from the family's beehives. Najaf himself had recovered from a shrapnel wound that had torn the quadriceps of his left leg.

The prospects of Najaf remaining alive in Mazar-e-Sharif were poor once the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. Talibs were killing young Hazara males pre-emptively to forestall any rebellion by their sworn enemies. Acting pre-emptively themselves, Najaf's relatives and friends gathered three thousand American dollars, borrowing from money lenders, selling livestock and emptying their pockets to pay people-smugglers to convey their favoured son to Australia. If Najaf found safety, the family's bloodline would survive.

 

NAJAF ARRIVED IN Australia knowing that he would have to argue for his right to remain; Zarah, after the expiry of her study visa, knew that she would be obliged to argue the same way: "Where I come from, the state has the right to imprison, torture and kill people it dislikes. It dislikes me." Both invoked treaties and statutes, studied definitions and made their case. The argument prevailed for Najaf; Zarah, three months after her application for a Temporary Protection Visa, is still awaiting a result but has met with a sensitive and sympathetic response from Immigration thus far.

Despite her argument with Iran's regime, Zarah had expected to live her entire life in her homeland, regardless of who governed it; for Najaf, any life remote from his kinsmen was inconceivable until menace made him think again. Australia was not a deeply meditated destination for either; its unnewsworthiness was an attraction of sorts. As to what they would do in Australia if they were permitted to stay, neither had much idea. Make a living if possible, yes, but beyond that it was all vague. Certainly there were no plans to radically redefine their lives, no plans for any crowd-pleasing embrace of a foster fatherland – Aussie Zaz, Aussie Naj. Their resettlement strategy was one of minimal change, as far as possible. They had, after all, entered Australia the way one might enter a sanctuary: at the gallop, exhausted after so much dodging and weaving, grateful to have doors swing open. A certain period of grateful prostration follows admission to a sanctuary, but the more persistent mission for Zarah and Najaf was to live the lives they had already imagined, only more securely.

Impediments to the refugee's mission vary from nation to nation, culture to culture. In Australia in the twenty-first century, the resettled Muslim is up against what appears to be an orchestrated program of state-sponsored harassment. At regular intervals, one government minister or another offers views on the psychology, philosophy and priorities of Islamic militants, often followed by suggestions of ways in which the community's "good Muslims" might help isolate the "bad Muslims". Ministers use every opportunity to remind the electorate that "bad Muslims" have no idea of where to draw the line, feel licensed to cut the throats of their promiscuous daughters, amputate the hands of robbers, apply the lash with reckless abandon and stone young women to death for the sin of having been raped.

Further advice is offered to a third category of Muslims – those who are good, but not good enough: they are advised to take a long, hard look at themselves; to stop abusing their women; to stop listening with any sympathy at all to Islamist rowdies and firebrands; to learn English quickly, and in general to make a greater effort to assimilate.

Reminding us of how poorly people fare under strictly applied Sharia law, which is part of the official harassment, is rather like declaring one's total disgust with Herod's slaughter of the first-born. Very few Australians are likely to mount a defiant defence of Herod or of Sharia law. Why mention it and its sanctions at all? These government sermons are presumably addressed to the non-Muslim majority of the Australian electorate, to establish the "bad Muslim" as the common enemy – the "other". It can't hurt to identify yourself (as often as possible) with those who abhor the slaughter of the first-born.

Najaf's and Zarah's experience of Australia has been shaped by this climate of harassment, but not entirely in the way that might have been expected. Najaf has had scant experience of anti-Muslim disdain, and Zarah none at all. It has been their well-wishers who have pressured them to play down the more evident features of their heritage. And no well-wisher has been busier than me.

 

ONCE RELEASED FROM Woomera early in 2002, Najaf was free to take up his craft of rug mending. He lived cheaply in a share house in inner-Melbourne, travelling by public transport to the premises of carpet merchants. He'd sit cross-legged, plying a curved needle to frayed rugs and torn kilims for up to fourteen hours a day. His mastery of his craft and his knowledge of the rugs of Afghanistan were recognised as exceptional. He'd woven rugs himself in Mazar-e-Sharif after a long apprenticeship, and his feeling for wools and dyes and the quality of loom-work fascinated his patrons. The level of ignorance about Afghani rugs amongst Melbourne's dealers at first surprised, then appalled, Najaf. He assumed that only the most studied and conscientious of people would ever set themselves up as sellers of fine rugs. Much of what his employers sold was uninspiring – rugs made of poorly cured wools, dyed with cheap chemicals that aged badly, the patterns over-expressed – but he also came across fabulous works that entranced him. When shown a perfect rug, he passed his arched hand lightly over the surface again and again, testing the touch of the wool against his sensitive inner-palm. Then he would turn the rug over and study the naked weave, moving his head left and right like a snake charmer mesmerising a Cobra.

Najaf's wife Hakema had farewelled him from Mazar-e-Sharif with no great conviction that she would ever see him again. The villages and cities of Afghanistan are full of tales of husbands, sons and brothers who set off, as in a folk tale, to find their fortunes and are later reported shot, imprisoned or drowned in the ocean.

Soon after leaving Woomera, Najaf telephoned a friend who relayed his message to another friend who finally told Hakema and Najaf's now two-year-old daughter Maria that Najaf was alive and that he'd discovered the land of Australia, right where it was supposed to be on the map. Najaf hadn't been permitted to send this message (innocent though it was) from the detention camp – a prohibition designed to prevent any clandestine communication between terrorists. Now letters were written, prospects discussed: the government of Australia was probably going to let him remain, Najaf wrote, and within three years he would be able to bring his family out. And what news of the new land? A friendly place, certainly. Australians liked Afghani rugs – an excellent thing.

Najaf was able to open his own rug shop in 2004, a small place in High Street, Windsor, next to an Indian restaurant. He imported rugs directly from Afghanistan through the agency of a friend in Mazar-e-Sharif, stipulating that the rugs must be of the highest quality. Clients were impressed with his wares, but more impressed with his sense of beauty; he spoke of his rugs – of the best of them – as if they expressed the poetry of a people. His clients became his friends – friends (such as me) who worried aloud what more poorly informed Australians might make of his Afghani attire. Our concern followed the periodic censure of the "bad Muslim" by the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, the parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, the Attorney-General or the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

After each of these ministerial sermons, Najaf was encouraged by his nervous Australian friends to project himself as one of the Prime Minister's "99 per cent" of worthy Australian Muslims, not one of the small number of bad guys occupying so much of the government's time.

Hakema and Maria, now six years old, joined Najaf in Australia in June 2006. Hakema was a little shocked at her husband's new, Western look, and encouraged him to grow his beard once more and return to a traditional style of dress. And so he did, to the distress of his Australian friends. He watched the news, The 7.30 Report and Lateline on the ABC each evening, preparing himself in case a government minister had another rush of blood to the head. He became adept at reading the body language of prospective customers who wandered into the shop, he with his menacing beard and Hakema at the back of the shop in her equally menacing veil. "Don't worry," he would say, amused and patient, "I am not a fundamentalist."

 

WELL BEFORE ZARAH left her homeland in 2004, it had been claimed that Muslims of a certain sort were capable of drowning their own children on the high seas, if that was what it took to gain entry into Australia. Further revelations established that this dire practice was a local political concoction, but some Australians – perhaps many – remained persuaded that, under the right circumstances, Muslims would sacrifice their children.

Before she left Tehran, I kept Zarah well informed of the toxic anti-Muslim atmosphere building in Australia. My indignation tended to override my judgement. After all, I lived in an area of Melbourne where Muslim women from a dozen countries went about their business traditionally garbed and I'd never witnessed a single incident or insult. If I'd thought about it a bit longer, I would have realised how capable these women were of looking after themselves. I might have reflected on my own experience of living and travelling in Muslim countries, and recalled the wit, humour and cool mockery of male posturing that I'd noticed often enough amongst Muslim women.

Without intending to, I was contributing to Zarah's anxieties about the reception a young Muslim woman, a citizen of the pariah state of Iran, would meet in Melbourne. This had the perceptible effect of nudging her along a path she would have negotiated herself, but with more care and reflection. Her spiritual allegiance was divided between the Muslim faith of her father and the Zoroastrian faith of her mother, but preparing for her journey to Australia, she opted for Zoroastrianism.

Still severely traumatised by what she had endured in Evin prison, Zarah's attempt at recovery in Melbourne was hindered every time a government minister censured Australia's Muslims. She had enough political savvy to discern the government's strategy and, left to her own counsel, would have coped nicely. But she had to contend with both my pique and my concern:

"Did you see that stuff on the news? Costello?"

"Of course, Robert."

"Don't take any notice of him. It's crap."

"I know."

"What he said, that's not what all Australians think."

"Yes, I know."

"Still, better keep an eye out."

"An eye out?"

"You know, just be careful."

"You want me to be careful?"

"Yes."

"Okay. Careful of what?"

My concern for Zarah extended to her wardrobe. I was most relaxed when her choice of clothes matched that of every other casually dressed young woman on the streets of Melbourne: low-cut jeans, broad belt, simple top. Then, perversely, I began to worry that she looked too much like every other young woman. When we went to meet publishers to discuss a book we'd written together, I almost suggested that she wear a head-scarf with her jeans.

I was not only unwittingly amplifying the government's invidious message, I was on the verge of suggesting that Zarah perform the unspoken obligation of all immigrants to Australia: to be exotic and different – "colourful", in fact. We have come to approve of the exotic complement to the Australian way of life; we attend the festivals of colourful newcomers, celebrate their enrichment of our cuisine, endorse their right to be a little bit different. But we ask them, the colourful newcomers, to accept that we are not interested in changing anything. Colour is fine, but we want it as ornament, hundreds and thousands sprinkled on a blancmange, the blandness beneath untouched.

Najaf told me of a time in the Woomera Detention Centre when anxiety over his wife and baby daughter, still in Afghanistan, reduced him to despair. He wandered about the camp looking for a place where he could suffer in privacy. He had only one shoe; the other had been left floating somewhere on the Timor Sea. It was spring in the desert, but spring that year was unseasonably cold. He settled against a brick wall, drew the grey blanket from his bed around his shoulders and, without thinking about it at all, began to sing a shepherd's song of Northern Afghanistan:

Let us go to Mazar, oh my beloved

Let us see the red flowers bloom,

The red flowers of Mazar

Go tell my sweetheart her lover has arrived!

She is a daffodil. A buyer has come to take her.

Go tell my love that the unending days of love have arrived,

For her sweetheart has come, her true love has come.

Come, oh my beloved!

My desire for you has made me mad

Your wine-coloured lips have made me mad

But while I wait to drink from your glass

My heart is full of fear.

The place Najaf had chosen was under the balcony of the office where immigration officers spent the day. As he sang, one officer, then another and another strolled out on to the balcony, attracted by the song. Before he'd finished singing (the song repeats its final five lines as a chorus and can go on for some time), six people were standing on the balcony, smiling down at Najaf. He grew self-conscious and stopped singing.

"Go on!" one of the officers called.

Najaf waved his hand and shook his head.

"Go on! You sing beautifully!"

"Finish," said Najaf, employing one of his twenty words of English.

"Sing it again!"

"Finish," Najaf repeated. He got to his feet and went in search of a more genuinely private place. He walked on his one shoe, his blanket still drawn about his shoulders.

 

I HAVE NOW retreated from my insufferable supervision of Zarah's resettlement in Melbourne; I have stopped worrying about what Najaf wears, says and does. The Damascus moment came for me a few months ago when Zarah asked me about the term "thought police", which had appeared in a newspaper article on the war in Iraq. I summarised Orwell's 1984, and the conversation led to a discussion on torture – a subject Zarah knew more about than the average person. When I spoke of Room 101, Orwell's vision of the ultimate hell, Zarah nodded and unconsciously put her hand to her head – an associative mannerism she has whenever the subject of interrogation comes up. "We have one in Evin," she said, and went on to explain that the chamber had been established by Savak, the Shah's secret police, and was preserved by Iran's present regime. I waited for her to say more, but she didn't. "You didn't go there?" I eventually asked, and Zarah laughed, not with mirth. "I'm sitting here talking to you, aren't I?"

In the days that followed this conversation, I thought of Zarah in her tiny cell in Evin Prison – a prison the size of a city. I thought of her seeking a way she could rest that spared her back and shoulders and arms, where the lash had landed, that spared her bruised legs and ribcage. A few floors below, Evin's version of Room 101 was awaiting her, for all she knew. Her great hope was that she would be asked to confess and sign a document of some sort. At her final interrogation, the document was offered but, before agreeing to sign, she suggested to the interrogator that he simply have her killed. The interrogator declined.

What did I think I was doing in trying to shield a young woman with such wherewithal from the foolish bluster of our politicians? I should have been thinking of the grit and anger and spiritual ambition that Zarah had brought with her to Australia. I should have been thinking, too, of Najaf's daring and intelligence, not his wardrobe. I had to concede that I had adopted a version of the Australian multicultural conceit: genial assimilation. A cynical reworking of that conceit informs the repeated rebukes of Muslims, but even in its uncorrupted form – expressed as a collage of variously pigmented folk singing We Are Australian – the conceit adds to the sentimentality sloshing about. It does not add to the nation's vigour.

The vital life of any nation, I have come to believe, is better served by the arrival of immigrants who take a look around and decide to change things, just as they may have wished to do in their first homeland. Or, if they are happy with what they find, well and good. At least let them be free of the pity of people like me.


From Griffith Review Edition 15: Divided Nation © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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