Purchase Edition

Edition 29

Contents
Reportage

O Maker of Distances

A POEM FELL out of a folder marked Creative Writing that was handed to me by the co-ordinator of the Refugee Language Program. The author was a real poet,’ the co-ordinator, Lesley Carnus, said as she mused over the works in the folder. ‘By that I mean he was a recognised poet in his country.’

The poem spoke of a land where jacarandas sway in nights so soft they evaporate into an eternal landscape of the senses. Old habits die hard. The poet was so nervous of coming to attention that even with permanent residency, his poem had to stay unpublished. Still, over the years, the words have followed me and I have not been able to let them go:


I see the jacaranda as readily as I did

It blooms

Its purple texture balances the melancholy of a distant land

There I remember a thousand things woven into one

A little thought of distance

A little thought of longing

A little remembrance

How long!

Tell me, O Maker of Distances.

The Refugee Language Program was created in 2004 as an initiative of the Fellows of the University of Sydney Senate. The university continues to contribute to the cost of running the classes. In 2008, I was asked to join the team of volunteer writers, students, academics and alumni who taught free classes in English and computer studies to refugees – defined as people holding temporary protection visas, those on Bridging E visas and habeas corpus asylum seekers. In some cases we also accept refugees with permanent resident status.

In 2005, the language program became part of the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, housed in the rambling old Mackie Building, in Glebe. Though Mackie was isolated from the main campus (we are now in the Faculty of Education) it was cosy, in a shabby chic sort of way, and close to Parramatta Road’s many buses. On Saturdays the tiny kitchen was taken over by volunteers slicing fruit, making tea and preparing lunch, which we shared in the student lounge, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King looking down on us from posters on the wall.

 

MY INTEREST IN teaching creative writing came out of my frustration at trying to write the Great Australian Novel while I was working as a journalist in my twenties. Staring at the typewriter at night, I soon found that what had been natural when I was a child – scribbling stories, inventing worlds – was lost after years of undergraduate essay writing and churning out newspaper features. In despair at my stiff prose and excruciating dialogue, I realised I would have to approach cognitively what was once instinctive. The breakthrough came when I met the British actor, teacher and playwright Paul Thompson. My studies with him in the Playwrights Studio at the National Institute of Dramatic Art and at the Australian Film, TV and Radio School in the 1980s not only set me up for my own writing, but created respect for teaching writing, especially in community settings.

In 2007, I left with my family for Britain; my husband had a teaching exchange at an elite public school in South London. My isolation was made worse by a severe winter and a lack of connection or purpose: while the rest of the family were busy in their instant community of school and work, I wandered around Brixton and the High Streets of Peckham, Clapham Common and Bromley. At first I didn’t connect to anyone in London from 8 am – when they left for school – till 4 pm, when I collected my son. There were weeks so lonely that I was at risk of becoming one of those ladies who prattled to shelf-stackers in Tesco’s. Thankfully, I was allowed to use a private library at my husband’s school, giving me a place in the community of a British boarding school.

Back in Sydney, a few weeks before Christmas 2007, I received an email through refugee advocacy circles. ‘Refugee Language Program: Mentors wanted for conversation practice over the summer break.’ Every day throughout the Howard years, I had received calls to action from asylum seeker advocacy groups, emails I had stared at with ‘slowly boiled frog’ paralysis. But after my experiences in Britain, where the effects of global politics and displaced people were right in front of me (bon voyage, Pauline), I snapped into action.

Besides, I had come to understand just how important ‘conversation practice’ was to mental well-being.

I was assigned Soraya through the Refugee Language Program. In January 2008 we met one warm and windy day at the café near the Footbridge Theatre at Sydney University.

Soraya is a petite and beautiful Indonesian woman who was living in crowded lodgings in Rockdale, a southern suburb. She was known for her photogenic smile, independence and impeccable manners. I met her at a low point in her bid for asylum; her lawyer appeared to have vanished, leaving a stack of official letters that Soraya didn’t understand. She seemed depressed, and I was not surprised to find she had been diagnosed with moderate to severe depression and a sleep disorder. Even our benign first meeting seemed to make her anxious. She did not speak above a whisper. Her English was serviceable: ‘Forty per cent,’ she estimated wryly, ‘but I study to try to make a hundred per cent.’

I got to know Soraya very well. In the middle of the following year she moved into our attic room, where she lived for nearly a year while waiting for ministerial intervention. Her resilience was not immediately apparent from her delicate frame. As she put it: ‘try to be brave.’ A devout Muslim who prayed five times a day and studied the Koran at evening classes in Penshurst, she wore no scarf and dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. She had loved riding motorbikes in Jakarta, but in Sydney settled for driving in her little car without power steering. She studied, volunteered and worked out hard at the gym (courtesy of vouchers from the Red Cross and Asylum Seeker, a refugee resource centre in Surry Hills). She would happily drive you anywhere, anytime; she often said that if she were allowed to work, she’d love to be a taxi driver.

Every Thursday afternoon, Soraya tootled off to her voluntary work as a ‘flower lady’ at St George Hospital where she had, in 2005, received life-saving treatment for breast cancer. Now she was ‘giving back’ by arranging flowers for patients, providing talk and companionship. Soraya had a current First Aid certificate and a Certificate III in Aged Care; the nurses depended on her for tasks that would otherwise never get done.

 

AFTER WORKING WITH Soraya I joined the volunteer teaching staff at the RLP. Eventually I settled into sharing the Creative Writing class with a co-teacher, Lesley Seebold, a documentary film-maker: we continue to work as a team, splitting the Saturdays, one of us on and the other off.

One of my favourite teaching resources is a pack of a hundred cards made by Innovative Resources, part of St Luke’s Anglicare and based in Bendigo, Victoria. On each card is a single word written in a beautiful font. There is a complementary set of a hundred symbols. I spread the cards on a table and ask my students to choose three words or three symbols that mean something to them.

Moon. Circle. Empty. Jamilah was a twenty-year-old girl born in Afghanistan who had been in Australia fewer than six months when I met her. She was doing her HSC at a high school in the western suburbs. Jamilah came to Mackie with some fellow students, accompanied at first by their Australian teacher, who wanted to be sure they arrived safely. Jamilah was dressed in a hijab and abaya. She spoke so quietly I had to hold my breath to hear her. When it came time to write, her eyes shone and she covered page after page in her plain, delicate script.

‘The moon is one of my best and beautiful friend. He is so quiet and looking at me. I look at him and suddenly he takes me out of at that moment and takes me to a happy and free place. The moon inspire me of being very freedom and elation, he reminds me that I must not just belong to this life but there are some more beautiful and valuable things in my heart. Circle: My life is a circle, I spend a lot of sad and happy times at this circle and every time I feel it’s bigger because I feel my world become smaller and I have everything at my inside. I am not afraid any more of strange things. So I have good things in my circle. Empty: Strange things loss my control and make me so tired, sometime I feel empty and nothing to say or think and I let my paper be empty. I really don’t know what’s going on in myself and my life. I am just waiting and looking toward empty paper.’

Jamilah soon obtained permanent residency and went on to a university bridging course. A fellow student, Fahran, told me she had moved far away – to Campbelltown. It is not unusual for people to drop in and out of class. Some win residency and the right to intensive English classes: as our director says, ‘they leave with a warm wave goodbye.’ Others move too far to afford the time or transport fare – or, as Lesley says, ‘a baby is born to keep another young refugee at home, casual work keeps one more away, despair and depression another.’ Sometimes we put the word out: ‘We’re missing X. It’s so dull without them. Tell them we want them back in class!’ (We provide lunch and give out Coles vouchers to offset the expensive fares.)

I was about to put the word out for Jamilah when another student got a text from her. The ‘strange things loss my control’ had kept her from class.

Jamilah’s mother died when she was a baby; the family had fled Afghanistan to live for several years in Iran, ‘where women did not do anything’. Jamilah is fiercely intelligent but had known nothing but war, fear, curfews, state-enforced Islamic dress codes, and intellectual and educational deprivation. She longed for the day she could join her father, who had successfully sought asylum in Australia and remarried. But to her dismay life in Sydney, in her father’s new family, was to be lived strictly – religiously and traditionally. Jamilah was Cinderella of the nappy bucket and kitchen, looking after her stepmother’s babies. Eventually, after much domestic pain and conflict, her father read her journals, which were most eloquent about her situation. His reaction was ‘great anger’. So, when she had a chance, Jamilah packed a suitcase and walked out the door.

When we met up, at Circular Quay, I did not recognise her. Gone were the traditional clothes, yes, but also the hushed voice, the inner pain and sadness. She was delighted to be studying and setting her own goals. Her eyes shone, her youth had dignity and the vulnerability of her early months in Sydney was replaced by confidence. Her English was excellent. She was no longer hiding the survivor strength that had kept her safe through tough times, repressive regimes, political orthodoxies. Her plan was to become a social worker, to ‘help women’s suffering’.

Jamilah is the same age as my oldest daughter, almost to the day. In 1988 one baby girl got Kabul; the other got Newtown. Now they go to the same university: that’s the Australia I can be proud of.

 

SLOWLY I STARTED to understand that the students came from places and situations so bad that being held in the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, or getting deportation orders from Immigration or the thumbs-down from Vanstone, Ruddock et al, were not the worst things that could happen to you. The writings we collected on Saturdays were shards from the collapsing institutions of humankind. The weight of global chaos – persecution, warfare, genocide, tsunami, earthquake, famine, corruption, totalitarianism, torture and trauma – had fallen on our students and they were rebuilding their lives, word by word.

Antoinette was a thoughtful, grieving woman from Rwanda. Her English was perfect, and she also spoke French and various languages of central Africa. She had arrived in Australia through refugee camps, the UN and international agencies. Despite the efforts of these agencies, her husband and children remained missing.

One Saturday I brought a collection of semiprecious stones, which I spread out on the table. Antoinette saw at once the purpose of the stones, even before I had said a word. Picking up a large scolecite, she said: ‘This is Africa, my beautiful country, whose peoples suffer.’ She wrote:


My white stone is called Africa

My pink stone is for my three sons

When I hold these stones now, I long to be with my children and my husband

When I hold these stones now, I don’t know if my husband and children are still alive.

Antoinette got permanent residency and I didn’t see her until the Christmas party, when she told us her news. At a human rights function in Melbourne, the scheduled speaker had fallen through and, at the last minute, Antoinette was asked to speak on her refugee experiences. Terribly nervous, she stepped up to the podium.

The transcript of Antoinette’s speech was posted on the internet. In Paris, a human rights lawyer for three displaced young Rwandan brothers typed Antoinette’s full name into search engines. It would be some time before Antoinette could be reunited with her sons, ‘but I know they are alive!’

 

TWO MONTHS LATER Australians in the south-east were preparing for a kind of war – fighting bushfire. Thousands of firefighters were deployed around Victoria. In Sydney temperatures were warm, but in Melbourne it was the hottest day on record, 46.3 degrees; at Avalon, near Geelong, it was even hotter. The bushfires of Black Saturday became the most catastrophic recorded in Australia: four hundred fires swept across Victoria, affecting seventy-eight townships; 173 people died, 414 were injured; Kingslake, Marysville, Narbethong, Strathewen and Flowerdale were destroyed. The news was filled with images of displaced people – an estimated 7,562 of them were put up in caravan parks, community halls, tents and spare bedrooms.

The following Saturday, I arrived to find my students agitated. All they could talk of was the fires: the devastation, the children, the people trapped in cars, the animals. They talked of wanting to go down straight away, urging me to get the RLP to organise buses. A sense of purpose galvanised the class – here, at last, they were experts: ‘We know how they feel.’ At tea break they chipped in for the Bushfire Relief Fund, using their Red Cross money.

 

THROUGHOUT 2008 I met Soraya for English practice, in cafés and at the movies. I began to assist her with more pressing tasks, deciphering Department of Immigration and Citizenship documents and supporting her in casework meetings. It was most urgent to locate Soraya’s DIAC-recommended pro bono lawyer. We all met just minutes before her crucial appearance before the Refugee Review Tribunal.

After that day, I became uncomfortable with this lawyer. Derogatory comments were made about Soraya’s race, religion and motivations in seeking asylum. At best, it was disrespectful; at worst, racist and contemptuous. Most disturbing was the assumption that, as a middle-class Caucasian and fellow professional, I would share the lawyer’s speculations.

As we waited for the tribunal’s decision, I felt Soraya had not been able to present her case properly.

Over at my house, Soraya and I were in a routine of espresso caffe latte in the mornings and mi goreng for lunch. I moved my pasta jars and Bialetta over to make room for Soraya’s rice, chillies and kaffir lime leaves. We discussed her situation as we cooked and washed up.

In the 1990s, Soraya and her partner were working for an NGO called KONTRAS (Commission for the Disappearance and Victims of Violence) and they were associated with GAM (Free Aceh Movement). When her partner disappeared, Soraya was detained, interrogated and released by the Indonesian military. After hurried discussion and advice from her late mother, Soraya arrived in Australia – legally, on a visitor’s visa – in 2000. She was traumatised, frightened and grieving; she feared for her safety if she were to return to Indonesia, and she remains fearful to this day.

In 2002 she was placed in Villawood, where she spent five and a half months. During her time in detention, Soraya developed clinical depression: panic attacks, unrelenting anxiety, a bleak outlook, no motivation, low energy, sleeplessness and reduced appetite. On release from Villawood she was supported by the Red Cross, attended the Asylum Seeker centre and was given groceries every week by the Tzu Chi Buddhist Foundation. She began to study English through various free classes for refugees, including the RPL.

In January 2005, while her case was being processed, Soraya was detained by a higher power. She was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer.

Over the next two years she underwent two mastectomies, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, under the care of a heroic specialist who got around the problem of funding by putting Soraya in a treatment study. During that time, Soraya’s mother and sister in Indonesia were also seriously ill, but Soraya could not and dared not return to see them. They died without her being able to say goodbye or attend their funerals.

At home with me Soraya rarely dwelled on past sufferings. Not that she dismissed them, either. Sometimes the DIAC letters and round of appeals and tribunals got to her so much that she would weep: ‘My life has been wasted.’ The depression was always ready to take her off to her room, white-faced and blank. There were panicky days when her English would collapse, when she couldn’t remember easy, practical things. Innocuous sentences in DIAC letters would become sinister; she would examine them over and over, the statements terrifying, persecutory. My family would take turns reassuring her that it was okay, it didn’t mean anything, there was no problem; that things in the department just took time, it’s okay, okay...

Soraya always slept with the light on at night. Lesley told me of another refugee student, Mohand, a Berber activist who had been imprisoned and tortured in his country. He could not be in a room with the door closed and an authority figure standing at the front. The RLP found a home tutor, Lorraine Towers from the Koori Centre, who would teach Mohand to speak English by walking around with him in a park in Parramatta.

For Soraya, the discipline of Muslim prayers helped to calm her days and give her struggles significance. It was a hard-wrought personal faith, a staple like rice, deeply sustaining for her. Cats are halal; ours loved to sit with her on her prayer mat, possibly hoping for a feed five times a day. Eventually they acted as calls to prayer, racing up the stairs just before dawn to wake Soraya, bells jingling.

I tried to imagine Soraya in her crowded old place at Rockdale, getting herself to therapy for breast cancer, praying five times a day and attempting to make halal food in a kitchen used by fifteen people, including young men who didn’t know how to cook. Soraya was most disheartened when, returning home from St George Hospital after chemo of an evening, she’d see the state of the kitchen.

Soraya beat breast cancer; she remains cancer-free. But at Rockdale the boys were still doing terrible things to saucepans. I could see how something had to be done about that. When one of my children moved out of home, in the middle of last year, I cleared the attic and Soraya moved in.

 

WAITING IS A state of identity erosion; day by day the personality is sandpapered away by uncertainty. It is trial by emptiness, a form of psychological detention. If you have a Bridging E visa and none of its boxes are ticked, you are an unlawful non-citizen with no rights to work or study, no Medicare and no access to the public purse. In some instances volunteer work is also not allowed, presumably because you’re meant to be ‘making arrangements to depart’. To get by while you wait, you depend entirely on the kindness of strangers: the Red Cross, religious charities and individuals in the community.

At least four of my students – Joey, Ivensa, Teresa, Esther – lived like this for more than a decade. Their ‘waiting and getting by’ outlasted their detention at Villawood; it got them through multiple DIAC caseworkers, three or four asylum seeker lawyers and a procession of formidable federal ministers. These refugees were somehow able to turn their ‘waiting and getting by’ into ‘being and getting on’. I liked them enormously. Each had developed something in their characters that could not be sandpapered away by human hands. These marathon holders of the Bridging E visa sat in class, not always together – but all Indonesian, either ethnic Chinese or from Aceh.

Esther had not seen her children for more than a decade but every month she sent back money for their education from her illegal cleaning and waitressing jobs. She seemed to have no fear of Villawood or the department. The political debates of the Howard years went over her head – which was down all over Sydney, working so her girls could become doctors in their home country, where they were of a minority that could never prosper. Esther had a big tiger mother inside her. She was a home cook, frugal and thrifty, ever vigilant for gaps in the fence of opportunity. When her daughters did not prove suited to medicine, she switched them to nursing: there was always another plan.

Summer and winter, year after year, these older asylum seeker women patiently attended their churches, mosques and prayer groups; occasionally they bought Chinese moon cakes or fried rice to class. They were lovely women. They had arrived in Australia full of hope, in the late morning of their lives, and were now crossing into the afternoon of closing opportunities. They struggled to improve their spoken English; their literacy and understanding of the language was far greater than their speech implied. I remember my Italian-born mother being similar; after fifty years in Australia, her spoken English remained as chaotic as when she had arrived in the 1950s. Yet, by the end of her life, my mother – ill, housebound and chronically sad – had managed to write a novel and a collection of poetry.

 

THE REFUGEE REVIEW Tribunal ruled against Soraya. After realising that a number of important support documents had not been submitted, she lost faith in her lawyer. Eventually, Lesley Carnus found Soraya an Indonesian-speaking lawyer, Barbara Guthrie, who was working pro bono through the group Balmain for Refugees.

Despite Soraya’s case still being before the minister, she was being asked by DIAC to ‘make preparations to leave’. I was intimidated by this. Believing Soraya was only weeks away from deportation, I begged her to consider all her options. It had been a long exile in Australia: there were no grounds of appeal left except new information, un-submitted material and legal errors. Would Soraya consider going to a third country and give up hope of asylum from the Australian Government?

She nodded thoughtfully. ‘Thank you, Anna,’ she said, ‘but I will rather die.’

 

JOEY WAS PERSECUTED in his country for being part of an ethnic and religious minority. With his shaved head and bike leathers, he was streetwise, enthusiastic and confident to the point of being pushy; he would have made a great lawyer or journalist had he not been so busy surviving. Joey would roar up to Mackie on his motorbike after his night shift as a nursing aide at an old people’s home in Strathfield. Like many of the refugee students, he used to carry around a sheaf of papers in his backpack, ready to pounce on any wandering academic for advice on his ‘situation’. Joey’s English was pretty good, so he gamely decided to run his own case after being let down by a pro bono solicitor who didn’t turn up to his hearing at the Refugee Review Tribunal. Highlighted in bold among his documents was a recent Amnesty International assessment of his country: ‘The human rights situation...while slowly improving, is still problematic. Human rights violations continue to be perpetrated and the government often appears unwilling or unable to prosecute offenders.’

Joey was being cared for by the Jesuits while his appeals were considered. He had done a fair amount of time at Villawood, and called it his ‘uni degree’. He knew everyone: new male students from the Sudan, Iraq, Cameroon, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Nepal, Indonesia, China. They’d come into class, see Joey and laugh – high-fives, hugs, Hey bro, how ya doin? Joey was always willing to liven up the class with some political hip hop:

 
Welcome to Villawood

This is not Hollywood

Not even Bollywood

Though many come from Bombay

Bangalore and Beirut.

But Joey had concentration problems and could be distracted, jiggling pens and using apps on his iPhone. This could be hurtful to those telling of their escape from African militias, of a grandmother’s flight from a West Sumatran earthquake or of losing family members in the Rwandan genocide.

One Saturday, a young man arrived looking very ill. He could not settle and wandered in and out of the classroom, despite my attempts to engage him. He saw Joey’s familiar face and before long it was high-fives all round in the ex-Villawood fraternity. This gave me the idea to get Joey to be the scribe for the young Nigerian’s story.

Joey’s transcription revealed that this asylum seeker, in his mid-twenties, had for two years not seen anything of Australia except Sydney Airport, from where he was taken straight to detention at the Villawood Immigration and Detention Centre. In the last few weeks, he had been taken under guard to hospital to undergo a life-saving operation. There, his severe post-traumatic stress disorder had been diagnosed. He had then been released into the community, in the care of the Red Cross.

The young man wandered into my class in the very early days of his freedom. He had hardly ever caught a Sydney bus; had probably never done anything as ordinary as seeing the Broadway shopping centre or walking down George Street. He left saying he needed to ‘recover his brain’ and that he would try again to study next term. I have not seen him since.

 

IN CLASS I noticed that students often used the word ‘situation’ instead of ‘story’. A story has to be an insightful, coherent narrative of facts aimed at satisfying a set of criteria – the right story; the right kind of asylum seeking. A ‘situation’, on the other hand, admits all kinds of assaults on the autonomy of a human being that ultimately could not be endured. The difference between story and situation was played out in the strange case of two asylum seekers from Togo, a small West African nation with fragile democratic institutions and a poor human rights record. Ansealem and Keifer were young, well-educated Togolese men, both of them French-speaking and Catholic. They came to Sydney for World Youth Day in July 2008 and a few months later claimed asylum, which was denied. They appealed to the Refugee Review Tribunal.

Their situations were identical but their stories were told from different perspectives. Each had been jailed for activism. Ansealem, a maths teacher in his twenties, ‘had been a member of Amnesty International in Togo and politically active’. Kiefer, barely out of his teens, was involved in an African human rights organisation called Aspafrique that worked with youth in Togo. His membership and activism were verified in writing by the president of the organisation. Kiefer was a relative of a prominent figure in the Togolese ruling elite, putting him at great risk should he return; indeed, his parents had recently died in suspicious circumstances and his brothers had fled to neighbouring African countries.

A frustrated Lesley Carnus reported their story in Peace Writes, the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies’ newsletter. Under the heading ‘Same Country, Same Plane, Different Decisions’, she wrote: ‘Both men’s applications to the Immigration Department were initially denied. Both men sought to overturn this decision at the Refugee Review Tribunal; both had the same tribunal member for their hearings. Anselm’s case was believed; Kiefer’s wasn’t. In fact, a member of the tribunal even questioned Anselm about the veracity of Kiefer’s application. Anselm and Kiefer believe that Kiefer’s application was denied because he didn’t have a lawyer and because he is related to a politician in the ruling party of Togo. When Kiefer applied for Legal Aid he was denied representation as it was considered he had no chance of winning his case. He was, however, supported at the tribunal by a lawyer from Refugee Advice and Casework Service...The RRT ruled that Kiefer’s problems were "family or domestic", not political, and thus denied him asylum.’

One Saturday a student arrived who, she explained, had ‘a different situation’. Jasminda had a protection visa, as she was a police witness against persons being prosecuted for major crimes in Australia. She spoke softly, picking through the swirl of cards on the floor to find meaning: alone, numb, survival. Slowly, what had lurked in the shadows came into the light: my passport was taken away, I was made nothing...my psychiatrist, my doctors, the police, the trial...

Jasminda’s words encouraged another student to stay back to share with me something about her own ‘situation’. She looked it up for me on the internet, as she couldn’t speak of it. We shared a moment of grief, then quickly closed down Google. No need to say more: all she wanted was another woman to bear witness to her unspeakable loss.

 

AT THE BEGINNING of 2010 Soraya’s new lawyer, Barbara Guthrie, mounted another appeal to Chris Evans, on the basis of new information, affidavits from Indonesian experts, missing documentation – which, if presented, would have strengthened her case – and errors made by the hostile Immigration Department culture of the Howard years. Family, friends, health professionals, RLP teachers and academics, and even a state Labor MP senator all wrote letters of support.

Three months later the day finally came when Soraya could line up her permanent resident’s entitlement to 510 hours of English classes. Many mornings, over Italian coffee and nasi goreng, my daughter and I tested Soraya on the Australian Values and Citizenship practice papers. We also told her that she had to prepare for the Vegemite test. She was to start with a buttered cracker and a smidge of Vegemite, build up to Vegemite toast, then graduate to a cheese and Vegemite roll. This part of Soraya’s adoption of Australian cultural values is not going that well. On the other hand, we’re getting into her sambal and fried ayam, which seems to disappear from the fridge pretty quickly.

The reluctant poet of the far jacaranda is not the RLP’s only poet. There is also Mohsen, a middle-aged Iraqi academic and published poet who came to class dressed in a dark suit and carrying a leather briefcase. Mohsen had permanent residency, and lived with his wife and children among a large Arabic-speaking community in Auburn. Yet he considered himself still detained, because he lacked the sophisticated grasp of English required to continue his literary career in Australia. In class, this exacting man took the risk of writing his first poem in English:

 

WAITING

 The night prevails gloomily

This evening

My friends packed travelling bags

Prepared – randomly – addresses

Probably for meeting

Forgave the sins of conflict

Cleaned their hearts of fury

And waited for the mouth of mercy to open.

 

How long! Tell me, O Maker of Distances. 


From Griffith Review Edition 29: Prosper or Perish © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review