We were united by our difference as much as our communion. Whether in a mosque or a church, a park or a classroom, a shopping mall or a living room, there was beauty shared in suffering, memory and joy, writes Beth Doherty.
BY Beth Doherty
It was nothing if not a paradox that the greatest dream of my heart was birthed out of the most flawed theology. I can’t even say where I learnt the lessons of that punitive bible. It certainly wasn’t the good book that sat gathering dust on my parents’ bookshelves. In fact, somehow at age 19 an unfamiliar heavy tome’s pages wrapped themselves around my shoulders like the feathers of a dead bird.
My compulsion to “do good” was initially the result of misunderstood obligation – it was about atonement, finding beauty from ashes.
In order to be saved, I needed to become a saviour. I needed to pay it forward, blot out my afflictions and wipe the slate clean.
For better or worse, it was this that took me to the demountable building that Tuesday night in 2002.
With the title “community support for refugees”, there were practical things to be done in that building and beyond its corrugated iron walls.
This mission would take me to the faded grey couches from St Vincent de Paul, to the laundry room of a tiny government house, standing beside two girls of my age who wrung out their brothers’ socks by hand when their donated washing machine stopped working.
It took me to the shed where I beheld intricately-carved Persian adornments that would remain there, untouched, as Mehdi, their creator took up a paintbrush and ladder instead to support his family.
Shqiponja (known to us then as Pippi because none of us could get our mouths around the Albanian) was chatty and outgoing. While her brother Agron was the official family spokesperson, Shqiponja was the baby, whose face was light and bright as the morning sun. She bounded up to us like an excited puppy, a stark contrast to her older siblings who had worldly gazes, penetrating and intense. Agron bore the responsibility of translating, shepherding, and organising their family of eight. At 20, he wore the burden with fatigued pride and resignation. Just three years earlier, their village in Kosovo had been pillaged and they were airlifted to Macedonia, eventually to be given a safe haven in Australia.
Meanwhile, off the coast of West Papua, Samira was in the deepest panic. On one arm was two-year-old Amir, a dimpled cherub with a bowl haircut. Flailing on the other, Ismael, a curious, intelligent four-year-old with the chiselled features of his father, Mehdi. The waves were crashing and the shore an impossible line on the horizon for Samira, who did not know how to swim. In that moment, her heart screamed a silent prayer, and a force she did not know somehow led them to safety.
Months later, lining up for the portable bathrooms inside the dusty South Australian detention centre, the anxious storm continued inside Samira’s mind, though the waves of the sea had subsided. Thoughts of Tehran filled her mind, silhouettes of black-caped women, fearful to show even an ankle in case the Pashtar, the guardians of modesty and virtue, might see this erotic flesh. As she had become adept at doing, she pushed away these thoughts and stood with Ismael in the line for the bathroom. She no longer sported the “Chador” but rather a simple scarf. This new dusty land was dry and cracked. It had a permanence, but a desolation too. And her heart continued its silent, anxious scream.
“Can I get you something? Do you want Turkish coffee?” asked Agron, an eager look in his eyes. He and his whole family were excited by my visit. The thick, strong coffee was poured into glasses and heaped with spoons of white sugar. I relaxed into the couch. It was okay to be here.
I had scrupulously wondered if it was correct to visit them. I wanted to do things right. Was I breaking a boundary? Was our friendship to be limited to Tuesday nights in the demountable church hall?
It wasn’t. It was to become so much more.
“Come with us, we want you to meet some people”, said Valdete and Saranda, Agron and Shqiponja’s sisters.
These Albanian princesses had slowly woven their way into my heart over the preceding months. Every Tuesday night they and their siblings would descend upon the demountable church building in their old Toyota, to share food and knowledge. Over just a few short months, they became an even closer part of my friendship circle than people I shared religion with.
We left the tiny house and walked along the road. We reached a fence, and beheld a small vegetable garden. Out of the back door came Samira, followed by a curious Amir and chatty Ismael.
An AFL footy flew around as Ismael showed us his tricks. In just two years, he had the most Australian of accents and was a passionate fan of an Aussie football team.
Kisses on both cheeks abounded. Familiarity and warmth exploded in broken, accented English.
This was a friendship that would span over a decade. Months of separation would be followed by table fellowship. We would drive across cities to see one another, and our reunions always brought the same response, a sense that while everything had changed, the friendship endured. We were united by our difference as much as our communion. Whether in a mosque or a church, a park or a classroom, a shopping mall or a living room, there was beauty shared in suffering, memory and joy. Whether threading eyebrows, trying on clothing, sharing food, or filling out Centrelink forms, there was an intimacy even in our difference.
Our eucharist never boasted wine. It wasn’t even spoken of. But there was soft bread, unleavened and salted. It would come from the oven and be wrapped around mouthfuls of rice with saffron and sultanas, lamb infused with tomato, okra, chick peas and fried potato.
It was all of the best of the Bible and the Qu’ran. Of bridges not walls. Of Albanian, Iranian, Australian. And it was good.
This article was awarded joint second place in The Good Oil 2017 Young Writers’ Award, post-school (18 to 35 years) category.