I first met Shokoofeh Azar in Fremantle about 3 years ago after reading a story she had published in the Westerly. Within 5 minutes we were chatting as if we had shared a childhood and memories we both knew we hadn’t. At one stage we cried. She said she loved India and I said I was writing a novel in which Iran featured. Connections like this are rare and when they happen I need to ask why. Which is why, when I met Shokoofeh again in Fremantle, 3 years after that first meeting, I asked for permission to tell her story.
Shokoofeh Azar is an Iranian born writer and artist. She arrived in Australia 6 years ago on a boat – and says that is the thing Australians find most interesting about her. As if surviving a boat journey defines a person for life. It is a loaded existence, charged with a larger-than-life meaning that she does not own. How I got here is not what I’m about, she says. I have stories I want to tell. I paint. I’m a mother. None of what she’s about has anything to do with how she came to be living in Perth.
She is a writer of fabulous magic realist tales and a talented artist. I know the power of her stories because that is what led me to her. In my humble stalker fashion, I tracked her down, sent her an email and asked to meet her. At the time I was writing my own novel of intersecting histories and wanted (desperately) to connect with an Iranian writer who could be a sounding board.
And in that first meeting, I tell her what I’m trying to do. She nods and tells me about travelling the Silk Road on the back of a truck. I speak of the lost boy from Abadan I knew when I was a girl. She likes Delhi, she says, with a look in her eyes that situates her there in an instant. I tell her of my desire to visit Tehran. She provides a cautionary tale about trees and blind men and women standing by street corners, but it is not a description – it is a fable. And the conversation continues in this fashion with neither of us questioning its intent. I leave with a sense of purpose and work on my novel with joy. She, meanwhile, discovers another way to tell her stories – she paints and sculpts and potters. The mythical birds and beasts she writes about are translated into paintings and bas-reliefs and visions of beauty.
When I next speak to Shokoofeh in the shadow of the asylum in Fremantle, a weak sun slants over the rooftops, and I am reminded of stories my grandmother told me. Shokoofeh’s language is steeped in the lore and myth of ‘other’ places. Her first language is Farsi; it sounds magical and lyrical to my untrained ears. When she speaks English she is translating ideas, thoughts and words that come to her from the language of Rumi and Firdaus, but also Marquez and Kundera. She reads copiously, in Farsi, and writes like a woman possessed, also in Farsi. Her first novel (The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree) is complete and waits for a publisher. She thinks it will be hard to find a publisher because it is not a story about surviving as a refugee; rather it is about surviving as a person, a political, magical, fabulous person. Her current project is about love, she says. She mentions Gilgamesh and Romeo, Shireen and Shakuntala and I remember again that this is how conversations used to happen in India, before I became Australian. Our myths breathe again, our stories resurface and our belongings straddle the cultural divide in the most unexpected conversations.
Shokoofeh’s literary page is here and this is her artist page.
While I hesitate to give more air time to a woman known best for saying things I find hard not to take personally, the fact that Pauline Hanson is back on our TV screens for another stint, compels me to write this post. I am so tired of hearing – “we are better than this.” Are we? Really? Where were we (the better ones) when I had to explain to my then 10 year old that we were indeed considered “Asian” by most Australians? We were “assimilated” I assured her. We would not “swamp” anyone, I promised. And I was absolutely positive that Aboriginal people did not eat their own babies. The average conversation most people were having with their kids in the 90s, I’m sure.
And now she’s “back.” This woman who presumes to spill her filth at a new group of Australians. I watch my TV screen again as an Aboriginal senator shakes her hand, as Derryn Hinch kisses her cheek, as the Greens walk out. So they must be the better ones. The ones who think it’s wrong to listen to someone spewing ignorant hate. I used to think my country was run by the “better ones.” By and large. Despite overwhelming cruelty towards those who dared to “jump queues” and enter “illegally.” Despite detention, despite death at sea, despite silences around abuse, I believed we were “better than this.”
Not any more.
We don’t seem to make progress towards better-ness. We roll our eyes at people like Hanson while looking furtively around to see if we can whisper, “but she does have a point.” How many people expressed concern that a Muslim woman was set alight for walking down a street wearing traditional attire and how many thought she was asking for it? We become enraged when women are blamed for wearing short skirts but reserve the right to shake our heads at those who cover themselves? And we elect, democratically, without coercion, a woman whose empathy towards the vulnerable can be measured in a thimbleful of sand.
Sure, we are better than this.
When I read Bhaswati Ghosh’s beautiful poem this morning, I was reminded that the immigrant experience, in all its complexity, diversity and richness can still be reductive on some days. It was a while ago that I wrote this poem and sent it out into the (immigrant) world, and here it is below as well as in this anthology.
A check-out chick denies me
My right to be spoken to courteously
And the waitress at a cafe
In an upmarket suburb forgets to serve me
A bank teller speaks to me
Slowly and loudly
And my name is considered
Too much trouble to be pronounced correctly
An old man tells me
To go back to where I came from
And a woman at the supermarket curls her lip
At the green-eyed man who holds my hand
An academic questions the authenticity
Of my qualifications
And a writer says gently
I’m alright because I speak English properly
I teach a class on diversity
And a student wants to know
If I believe
In white australian christian values
I walk into a room
Where people talk about bloody muslim refugee terrorists
And someone says loudly
I don’t have a racist bone in my body but –
If home is length of residency
Or accident of birth
Choosing to speak
Or silencing my
The third leg of my journey took me to the nation’s capital, Delhi. We arrived here just before the spring festival of Holi and a friend invited us to her house to experience this riotous explosion of colour, food and drink. My friend and I had been at school and university together, then gone our separate ways and countries to grow up and raise our own. And in her high-rise apartment, watching the festivities below, we remembered our younger selves tenderly. Our daughters are now older than we were in that time.
As I write this piece, Indians have just voted in their big, noisy, democratic general election. Everyone had a political opinion, usually a savvy one, about the state of the nation. A woman on the train said to me that Rahul Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great grandfather had all been Prime Ministers of India, was a joke. ‘And we don’t need a comedian to run the country,’ she said. ‘What about Modi?’ I asked. ‘Oh, he’s scary,’ she replied, ‘and we don’t need a villain either.’ And there it was – the complexities of deciding between a weak secular-minded leader and a strong right-wing nationalist leader, reduced to the simple binary of a Bollywood movie. There were other characters in the cast too – an actress from the south of India, a man who wore a cap and had ink thrown at him at rallies, the incumbent Prime Minister who had disappointed a nation for too long and the Italian born mother of the latest hopeful from the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty.
‘I am a Muslim,’ the cab driver on my first morning in Delhi said when I asked him who he would vote for. ‘For the first time I’m scared. It doesn’t matter who I vote for. Modi will become Prime Minister.’ On a different cab ride, this time to the 12th century Victory Tower built by a Muslim king, another driver switched off the engine impatiently in a traffic jam and blamed ‘immigrants’ for the state of his city. ‘I grew up here,’ he said, pointing to the ugly flyover to the right of us and the decrepit buildings staggering to the left of us. ‘There were fields here, flowers, trees – peacocks roamed here – then the immigrants came in from other states and ruined my city.’
I looked out at the Islamic buildings we rolled past, Qutub Minar, Jama Masjid, Red Fort, Humayan’s Tomb and wondered what Delhi would look like without its Muslim heritage and the tourist dollars those buildings brought in. ‘It’s good you don’t live here,’ the driver said, twisting around to flash me an unexpected smile. ‘It would break your heart.’
Posted in Books and writing
Tagged books, Delhi, history, Identity, immigrants, India, literature, memory, place, travel, writing