a friendly country

Wipe away your tears

This will be my second account of how reading something concerning Australia nearly made me cry. Some may start to wonder if there’s something wrong with me. Those who know me well can shake their heads at how sentimental I can be.

I wear my heart on my sleeve, and don’t mind what people think. But it also pisses me off if I slip and come across as naïve. There’s a difference between being open and positive, and being foolish. In fact I think it might be one of the most important boundaries we negotiate in this world.

In this case I wonder if someone might read about my emotional reaction to Life in Australia, a government pamphlet about immigration, and assume I am completely ignorant of some of the difficult issues facing this country.

It’s been a bad few months here on that front, with a series of violent assaults on Indians actually provoking a diplomatic situation between India and Australia. The Indian media and government have portrayed Australia as a dangerous place for its citizens. Indian officials have gone so far as to issue a travel alert — as if this were a terrorist state.

It’s been bitterly ironic and dispiriting to have this go on as I settle into a new life in a country I find so friendly and welcoming. I’ve boasted to friends about how nice it is to roam Sydney and meet folks from literally everywhere, all with charming Aussie accents, and observe how they’ve integrated into a peaceful society in a beautiful place. It’s maddening that hate and misunderstanding have damned this vision in the eyes of many.

I can’t deny a lot of Aussies have attitude problems about immigrants. Just last week an otherwise affable used car salesman made a very sharp and disagreeable comment about foreigners to me and my wife. He must have somehow thought it wouldn’t bother us at all. (I wonder how he comes across to his many immigrant customers?) It was a dreary moment; and not the first time it’s happened to me.

You get this in America too, of course; and lately the French and Swiss have been at it. People are naturally suspicious of others, naturally tense about perceived threats to their ways of life. It’s important to work on changing this, but I don’t think it automatically equates to violence. Especially in a place as stable and prosperous as Oz.

I’ve been angry about the attacks, but also angry at the idea that Australians have a fundamental or unusual problem with foreigners. I would like to think the Indian media is overreacting. (And I’ve talked to at least a couple of Indians here, guys I met at my new job, who agree with me.) I think the intense media coverage, both Indian and Australian, could even be pouring gasoline on the fire. Just two days ago there were more “attacks” in Brisbane, though they may have just been muggings. What is taking place? Is it random? Is it copycat crime? Is it really somehow condoned by the society at large? Meanwhile the Australian cricket team was threatened with reprisals on its upcoming tour by an Indian nationalist party.

Sometimes it seems there’s a sinister connection between the paranoia and the violence.

I refuse to recognize either, and will stand by my vision. Australia is self-evidently one of the most progressive and, yes, friendly places on earth, and Aussies of all backgrounds should be proud of that. They’ve worked hard for it. We shouldn’t let a couple of mindless lowlives dictate the perception of life here. But of course it’s less likely to make the news when people get along.

Anyway, this is personal for me because Indian culture and philosophy have had a profound impact on my life, and I’ve found Indian friends and communities wherever I’ve been. So I guess my wife and I and our friends will be steadily counteracting the confusion and intolerance, just by being ourselves. If a few people can cause a problem, a few people can help fix it. Love is stronger than hate, or so we are taught.

Indian film composer and superstar A.R. Rahman played a concert here last Saturday to promote peace between Indians and Australians. Many thousands attended. That is a beautiful thing — you gotta love Rahman, I think Richard Horowitz was right, he is some kind of musical messenger — and it made me happy to hear about it. But, really? Promoting peace? This is not Belfast, nor Kashmir. Do India and Australia need some great reconciliation? Aren’t there much worse problems in the world right now?

Or maybe Australia’s detractors are right to take the attacks so seriously. Maybe they are symptomatic of all the war and hate we’re dealing with, and peacemaking really is necessary.

If so, a tremendous example any Aussie should take to heart was given in 1934 by the Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic. It concerns the battle of Gallipoli, which took place on Turkish soil twenty years before. Many Americans are not aware of what took place there, especially if they’ve not seen Peter Weir’s heartrending Gallipoli, which captures as well as any film the nightmare of that “great” war: the grinding horror of young men made to charge into fields of raining metal, slaughtered like insects, as battle lines were fixed in place for months. The anonymous writer of Life in Australia provides a good recap.

World War I had a severe impact on Australia. In 1914 the total population of Australia was approximately 4.5 million; yet 417,000 Australian men volunteered to fight in the war and more than 330,000 did so. Around 60,000 died and more than 152,000 were wounded by the time the war ended in 1918.

Out of this experience emerged one of Australia’s most enduring values: the Anzac ethos of courage, spirit, and ‘mateship.’

Every year on 25 April, Australia commemorates a brave but ultimately failed battle which was fought in 1915 by the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps — known as the Anzacs — and other allied troops at Gallipoli, in Turkey.

The Anzacs (together with British, French and Indian troops) landed at Gallipoli with the aim of defeating Turkey by forcing a passage through the Dardanelles and bombarding Constantinople. However, the rugged, steep coastline and the staunch defence by Turkish soldiers held them back and the Anzacs withdrew on 20 December 1915. The campaign, which lasted eight months, resulted in the deaths of an estimated 8,700 Australians who were killed in action or died of wounds or diseases.

To get an idea of the scope of this bloodshed on the Australian psyche, imagine six million Americans died in just four years of war — and nearly a million in one campaign.

Note that allied Indians were there at Gallipoli too.

The Atatürk, known then as Mustafa Kemal, was the charismatic leader of the Turkish troops the Anzacs faced in that miserable conflict. Famously he told them, “Men, I do not ask you to fight — I ask you to die.” So they did, in shocking numbers, but eventually prevailed.

Years later, as president, he wrote a tribute to the Anzacs who died in Turkey. I saw it for the first time on my friend Charlotte’s facebook page a few months ago, around the time my Australian visa was approved.

Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries: wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

I believe this text is pretty basic stuff for most Aussies, but I had never read nor even heard of it before, so it hit me all at once. Yep, sure enough, there I was, reading facebook, with tears welling up in my eyes. (Was I just tired, after working on the film festival for six weeks straight?) You go about your daily business, you live and breathe, and everything might be fine; and then once in a while something comes along to remind you of how different things could be, how much better this world could actually be.

Since I was raised by a soldier, I instinctively recognize in these words a soldier’s outlook, a deep respect for those who willingly gave up their lives — for their country, but maybe also for something that’s harder to explain. It’s a sense of brotherhood that transcends national boundaries, can even be felt for opponents in battle, so long as it’s not polluted by zealotry.

I believe this way even if I’m against the war in question. The Great War was a great exercise in stupidity, ultimately meaningless mass murder. But something important is paid forward by that kind of sacrifice (a potent, and accurate, term for the transaction). That’s why the Anzacs are so revered to this day. The fact that Gallipoli was a failure doesn’t enter the picture.

But there’s something bigger at work here. These words are officially memorialized in Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey. There are statues of the Atatürk in places of honor in Canberra and Wellington, while the beachhead at Gallipoli was renamed Anzac Cove by the Turkish government. These are small but extraordinary instances of reconciliation. I can’t think of others like it. None of King George’s generals or admirals have such tributes in America. Nowhere in the northern States is that great enemy Lee enshrined, decent and noble as he was. Nor can I think of a place in Mexico or Vietnam named for invading US troops.

It must mean a lot to the 150,000 or so Turkish Australians. (Maybe one of these days I’ll get round to asking the guys at the pizza place what they think.)

Can we imagine having a memorial in our country to the bravery and spirit of the Ho Chi Minh, or the Taliban? Maybe we should try imagining this for the future? Maybe this kind of thinking is the only way forward?

We live in a dark time. Americans are supposed to be paranoid about foreigners with bombs. Australians are supposed to be filled with all kinds of hate. Sometimes it seems like our governments and our media are fine with this state of things. Peace, love, and understanding ain’t cool anymore. It’s with redemptive examples like this that I can sometimes see out of this mess we’re in. It’s a concrete demonstration of what “peace” actually entails beyond just putting the guns down — what generosity, forgiveness, and regard for the suffering of others, are required to maintain it. It’s a blueprint.

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2 comments so far

  1. Mercurius on

    Jim, here’s my pop-psychological analysis: the xenophobic streak in Australia’s national psyche stems largely from the ‘unresolved stuff’ concerning the Aboriginal people, whose civilisation was almost completely erased following the arrival of Europeans in 1788.

    They had lived here for around 40,000 years. That’s 20 times older than the Roman Empire, and 8 times older than Ancient Egypt or China. Yet within a century of European arrival, their population crashed about 90%. Almost total genocide, primarily due to dispossession, disease, de-facto slavery (agricultural labour gangs), and the occasional massacre. Heck, they only got full citizenship in 1967.

    And lo, now modern Australians have a particularly hostile approach to “boat people” – ie. people who leave their home country and come to our shores fleeing political or religious persecution. Sound familiar?

    It is a deeply irrational fear on Australia’s part: the way many Australians talk, you’d swear that a few thousand unauthorised arrivals per year (that’s in big year) pose an existential threat to our way of life…

    …but then again, a few thousand uninvited boat arrivals is all it took to bring down the Aboriginal civilisation. So, you see, we fear that which we refuse to examine in ourselves. White Australia has never really been prepared to “own” what happened to the Aboriginal population. We’re expert dissemblers, able to rationalise how it was all ‘for the best’, that the worst effects were ‘unintended consequences’, etc. etc. All to avoid simply facing up to what happened, reconciling with our fellow Indigenous citizens, and moving on to the future.

    Instead, we are stuck in an endless loop of anxiety about ‘foreign arrivals’ because we refuse to face up to our past.

    Nations have shadows in the psyche. One could reflect on how the intellectual and spiritual descendents of the 17th-18th century pilgrims who founded America as a place where government could never hold people hostage for religious beliefs, are today holding the government hostage to their own religious beliefs!

  2. Jason Metter on

    Loved reading this, Jim.


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