A few weeks ago, I finished a night shift at Fox Studios, and called a taxi to take me home. It was cold out in the dark behind Stage 6, the occasional spotlight only serving to emphasise the emptiness of the lot. As time trickled by, restless and irritable, I decided to write a poem. I figured it would at least make the time pass, and the tactic worked: when I was done, an hour had passed. Still no taxi. An angry phone call later, another was sent, this one showing up with alacrity. I slouched in to the passenger seat, greeted warmly by an older Arab man who had altogether too much energy for a 1am pick up in this dead place.
I knew as soon as I saw the driver that I would soon be doing the ancestry dance with him. This is a habit of every Middle Eastern man I’ve met. The way it begins may differ with each individual, but the gist is the same.
‘What is your name?’ he asked, his English accented but clear.
‘Omar,’ I said, reflexively using an Arabic inflection, even though it usually leads the next question to be asked in Arabic, where I’ll stumble, knowing enough to explain my limitations but little else.
‘Omar,’ he said, sounding it out. ‘Arabic, yes?’
‘Yes.’ I sighed. ‘But I can’t speak it.’
Ahmed – not his real name – did not seem surprised by my fragmented grasp of our shared mother tongue. I knew what was coming next, and answered it before he could speak.
‘I’m Turkish on my father’s side, Lebanese on my mother’s.’
‘Ah!’ Ahmed seemed delighted. ‘This is a beautiful mix. Turks and Arabs hate each other, you know. Where they meet?’
‘Here.’ I shrugged to indicate the country. ‘In a club in Concord.’
‘True?’ He shook his head, baffled but pleased, I thought.
‘How long have you been doing this?’ I asked, relieved to be able to change the subject.
‘Only since 7pm,’ he said.
‘Sorry, I meant how long have you been a taxi driver?’
‘Nearly 15 years,’ he said. He explained that he was from Jordan, but had come here via Detroit, where he’d studied for an engineering degree. He’d briefly found work in his chosen occupation, but when his initial contract ran out and there was no more such work, he became a cabbie.
‘I have family, you know,’ he said. ‘Was good money, not like now. Is easier for you, you born here. You speak like them.’
I laughed. ‘It’s still hard.’ Studies have shown that people with Middle Eastern names have to apply for twice as many jobs as those with Anglo names. I have to get into a room with employers before I can demonstrate my accent-free English, my Australianness, and I often don’t get that chance. I didn’t say any of this to Ahmed; it wasn’t a disadvantage competition. We just had to listen to each other, and he was listening.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘Is still racism.’
We lapsed into silence, the road flashing beneath the headlights of the car, the streets vacant. After a few minutes had passed, he shifted in his seat.
‘Do you follow politics?’ he said.
I tensed – cabbies talking politics almost never turns out well – but nodded. He launched into a ramble about his favourite program on Al Jazeera, the name of which escapes me now but which, he told me, has a meaning approximate to parallel lanes. Two people from different points on the political spectrum are brought on the show and argue for a while, moderated by the host. It sounded a bit like an Arabic version of Crossfire.
‘This is a good program,’ he said. ‘The man who runs this show is a very smart man. He makes good choices.’ I found it interesting and illuminating that the focus of his admiration was not either side of politics, but the man who navigated the divide, who entertained differences.
Ahmed went on to tell me that I’m lucky to have a Turkish citizenship to fall back on if I need it.
‘I don’t know if you notice,’ he said. ‘But they talk about White Australia a lot now.’ Of course I’ve noticed, I told him. People of colour who don’t pay attention to politics, to the world around them, risk losing their rights, their lives. I didn’t tell him, however, that I don’t have Turkish citizenship – much to my father’s dismay. It’s hard enough being Australian, dealing with the accumulated shames and agonies of our history, our government’s awful actions toward other people. I don’t know that I can bear the weight of another passport, can carry the burden of another coastline and its attendant responsibilities. This is a personal choice I still struggle with, or least, it used to be.
Which brings me to the law just passed by our parliament allowing the government to strip dual nationals suspected or convicted of terrorism of their Australian citizenship. It was only in the offing when I was taking my drive home with Ahmed a few weeks ago, but his fear and anxiety had me thinking of it even then. He already thought that given everything he’d heard in the media, it was becoming unsafe for him and his family here.
‘They afraid,’ he said. ‘Yesterday, I drive old English man, here his whole life, and he say “we need to have another Crusade soon”. Where, he not say.’
I tried to reassure him – foolishly, I now realise – that the ‘white’ Australia stuff is just fearful nonsense, that we’ve heard it before and little comes of it.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘But history repeat itself.’
People, politicians especially, fail to take this into account – that their rhetoric does not exist in a vacuum, that hundreds of thousands of Muslim, refugee and immigrant Australians hear anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, anti-immigrant messages every day, and their certainty of safety erodes. Their certainty of belonging fades.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this new law is about terrorism. It isn’t. All it has done is make Australian identity conditional, where before it was immutable. Now it doesn’t matter if you were born here – if you have ties to another country, and you engage in activities that the immigration minister of the day finds disagreeable, your identity could be stripped from you. You don’t need to be convicted of anything, nor does this occur within the judicial system: the decision is at the discretion of the minister in question.
With a single stroke, we now have two classes of citizens: those who will always be able to call this place home, and those who won’t, who have one foot out the door. Or to put it another way, we have put people in parallel but unequal lanes, moderated by a government with a dreadful track record of human rights abuses. The precedent has been established, and who knows how far it will go? How long before it applies to all Australians? This, too, is an option being considered – that Australian citizens with no secondary citizenship could be denationalised – but we are assured this new law will not be used except in rare circumstances. Either way, we have placed extraordinary power in the hands of the current immigration minister, Peter Dutton, and his successors. Despite the frightening extra-judicial range of this law, what is especially concerning is how this fits into the pattern of zero responsibility exhibited by our elected officials.
Typically, when a citizen commits a crime, it is the role of their government to punish them. Now we’re saying ‘not our problem’ and casting them off into the unknown, which in and of itself is a cowardly refusal to deal with people we are accountable to and for. This cowardice is endemic in our culture today. When refugees and asylum seekers come knocking at our door, we say ‘not our problem’ and lock them up in other countries, going to extreme lengths to prevent them from entering Australia, and to ensure they prefer to stay in war zones or areas where they are actively persecuted and tortured. Our actions have made war and torture preferable to attempting to come to our country, and all because of deep prejudice and cowardice.
Go to fight in another country? You’re not our problem. Suspected of terrorism, funding terrorism, or ‘indoctrinating young people’? You’re not our (poorly defined) problem – watch out, priests of all religious creeds. Fleeing war and torture, death and mayhem? Not our problem. Curiously, the ‘not our problem’ mantra ends when it comes to our military becoming involved in the Middle East. Then, suddenly, we are all part of this beautiful human race and we must send our men and women, our guns, planes, and bombs to help them. How can we not? It is a moral imperative! This is war, after all. It’s our problem. And yet, we lack the courage to face its ugly consequences.
In troubled times, we often hear words of unity. We can’t let this divide us, (some) politicians and public figures will tell us. We have a great multicultural nation, they say. We are stronger together than apart. They speak, in essence, of the social compact. We live together, we pay taxes together, we eat and we die together. These are nice words, even true words, but what are words without intent? Without action? It is to their actions we should look, and after this bill, we can be sure that words are all they’ll offer, even as they chip away at the bedrock on which we all stand. I wish I could point reassuringly to some concrete action we could take, but the sorry reality is that in Australia today, when it comes to issues of nationality and immigration, we only have one lane to drive in – and it is taking us in the wrong direction.
Image credit: Robert S. Donovan