Vol 23 no 1, 2003
A nation trying to deal with a phoney war, the resurfacing of racism, paranoia and panic over border control and a population deeply split over its government's actions in relation to these. Artists respond to the shame of the Children Overboard episode, the Tampa Crisis, the inhuman conditions in our refugee detention centres and the 'war on terror'. We look at how easily the surface acceptance of peaceful multiculturalism and reconciliation can be disturbed by external forces. Earlier waves of boat people reflect on this situation through new exhibitions and performances. Prominent and emerging artists combine to make their voices heard.
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The Promised LandLinda Jaivin, feature
Linda Jaivin tells an imaginative story of Moses' plight to the Promised Land, imparting an additional reading to this historical tale, one very much aligned with contemporary society and the struggles of refugees seeking asylum in Australia. The story depicts the promised land as "a liberal democracy which respects human rights and international conventions as set out by the United Nations" with the story leading the refugees to the ultimate reality of this supposed liberated new land.
Moses patted his pockets and ran through his checklist. Unleavened bread, tick. Bones of Joseph, tick. Rod, tick. Navigational maps of the Indian Ocean and Timor Sea, tick. He peered ahead. The pillar of cloud was waiting. So far so good. He beckoned to young Ali, pretty Malika, handsome Morteza, old man Mustafa, clever Miriam and the others. It was time to make tracks.
He gestured around him with his rod, nearly smiting Morteza. He addressed the small mob of refugees: 'Remember this day, in which ye came out from Iran, Iraq, Syria and all those other houses of bondage, which have been called the Axis of Evil, where you were persecuted, imprisoned and tortured. For by strength of hand the Lord brought you out from this place and will deliver you unto the promised land.'
'M'ch'Allah,' said Mustafa. 'God willing.' The others nodded. Moses beckoned and the little group set off, some with little more than their family photographs and the clothes on their backs, others with hookahs in leather bags. Morteza, who was a handsome lad with a hopeful smile, approached Moses.
'Uncle Moses.' Morteza spoke shyly. 'Are you sure that when this journey is done we will be welcome in the promised land?'
Moses laughed and slung an arm around the younger man's shoulders. 'Of course,' he reassured him. 'The promised land is a liberal democracy which respects human rights and international conventions as set out by the United Nations.' He urged upon him a cigarette, but Morteza didn't smoke. 'Anyway, remember thee what the Lord told Aaron and myself the other day? "One law shall be to him that is homeborn, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you."'
'What does that mean?' Morteza shook his head.
'It means,' said Moses, 'where there is one humanity there can be no two laws. They'll treat us like we were one of their own.'
Unfortunately, Moses had been so caught up in negotiations with Pharaohs, the visiting of plagues, organising Passover and so on, that he hadn't read the papers for a while.
After many travails through rugged mountainous regions, crossings of borders with papers true and false, and journeys by foot, bus, car and plane, the small band arrived at the edge of the sea. Their fears and terrors pursued them, but Moses, who had done this before, said unto them 'Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord.' He lifted up his rod and stretched out his hand over the sea. That was just the sign that the captain of the boat was waiting for, and he brought his craft close to shore. The seaman signalled with his beacon, giving light to the people though it was night. And they went into the midst of the sea upon nearly dry ground, for Moses had with his rod indicated a conveniently positioned sandbar, and they boarded the vessel.
Looking back, they saw the sea rising behind them, hiding the sandbar once more. As the waters returned, the refugees imagined that the sea had immersed all their fears and all their terrors, the midnight knocks on the door by the henchmen of Saddam and the Ayatollah, the interrogations, the beatings by the secret police, the executions, and the mock executions, and that there remained not so much as one of them. Their fears and terrors sank to the bottom as a stone.
Miriam took a timbrel in her hand and all the women would have gone after her with timbrels and with dances, but the seas were rough and it was hard to stand upright, much less dance. Ali and then Malika threw up over the side and Malika almost lost her balance and fell overboard. After seven days and seven nights on the sea, they ran out of drinking water. The food was nearly gone as well. The boat was leaking. And the refugees began to murmur against Moses.
Bugger, thought Moses. Unless the Lord can produce one of his miracles now, we're well and truly stuffed.
At that moment, a small plane flew overhead. The men waved their shirts and it came to pass that the plane circled. Soon after it departed, a ship belonging to the navy of the promised land steamed up. As their own sorry vessel sank into the sea, they happily re-encamped upon the deck of the naval ship and rejoiced, for they were about to be delivered to the promised land.
And yet it came to pass that no sooner had they touched upon dry land than they were all delivered into a new house of bondage, that was called a detention centre. And the leaders of the promised land appointed a private prison management company as taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens and their razor wire and their roll calls, which they called musters. And the department which they called DIMA, which begat DIMIA, which begat a baffling array of case officers and tribunals and appeals processes, afflicted them with a system which worked for some and failed others. And so, though their original circumstances were no better than some who were granted official refugee status, and in some instances their circumstances were much worse, Ali, and Malika and Morteza and Mustafa and Miriam and the rest were branded as 'rejectees', and this terrible curse sat upon their hearts as heavily as though on their very heads.
And as the months passed, and became ten and twenty, Ali and Malika, who were of school age, yearned for school, and Morteza felt his youth slipping away, and Mustafa his age. Morteza began to smoke a pack a day. Miriam forgot her timbrels and danced no more. The centre psychologists put Mustafa on too much Valium, and Ali and Malika sewed their lips together in protest and in despair, and their mothers fainted and wept and struck their own heads at the sight.
The people murmured against Moses once more. But it had been a long time since Moses could hear their murmuring. The officials of the promised land had charged him with people smuggling. Alone in his cell, Moses wondered if there were any miracles left. He could not rest for wondering. Moses struck ground with his rod. A puff of red dust rose into the air and settled again onto the floor of his cell. And one evening the prison sirens sounded and there were flashes of light and darkness from the faulty fluorescent tube that lit his cell and the guard appeared to Moses and called Moses to him. And the guard said unto Moses, I will give you two tablets. But they were only for sleeping.
Moses began counting off the days by scratching marks into the wall of his prison cell. The dense cloud of lines and hatches reminded him of something, but he could not put a finger on it, until one day a distant memory drifted into his mind. A hazy vision came to him of a raft made of bulrushes and pitch, floating down a river. It was he, as a baby, who lay on the raft, the first boat child. Crikey, he thought, shaking his head. If I'd known then what was to happen, I'd have tipped my little ark right over and ended it then and there. Then he remembered something else. When the Pharaoh's daughter had found him, he cried - and she had had compassion for him.
Moses could no longer weep.
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Articles in this issue
- Artrave: Artrave
- Book review: Carpet Wars by Christopher Kremmer
- Book review: Value Added Goods: ed Stuart Koop
- Editorial: The Coalition of the Unwilling
- Feature: A Memory of Times Past
- Feature: A4 Refugee Project: Artists in Solidarity
- Feature: Afghanistan Unveiled: Refugee Artists
- Feature: Ambient Fears: 11 September
- Feature: Borderpanic: Culture Jamming
- Feature: Disorientation: Afghan War Rug, No Easy Answers
- Feature: Fallout: Quick Response to 9/11
- Feature: Gordon Bennett: Terrorism and History
- Feature: Mike Parr: Close the Concentration Camps
- Feature: Our Voices: Living with Trauma
- Feature: Pat Hoffie: Compassion and Anger
- Feature: Queue Here
- Feature: Refugee stories: Afghanistan and Iran
- Feature: Tasmania as Haven
- Feature: Terrorist Training School: PVI Collective
- Feature: The Ballet of Nothing More
- Feature: The Pacific Highway Solution
- Feature: The Pathos of Boat People
- Feature: The Promised Land
- Feature: Viet Nam Voices: Lessons of History
- Feature: Woomera: An Artist's Response
- Obituary: Santiago Bose 1949-2002
- Review: Anthony Gormley: Inside Australia
- Review: Art Built-in South Bank
- Review: Bronwen Sandland: Housecosy
- Review: Cerebellum
- Review: David Keeling: Narrative, Sweet Narrative
- Review: Discomfort
- Review: Fieldwork
- Review: Fiona Lee: Hard Copies
- Review: Good Vibrations: The Legacy of Op Art in Australia
- Review: Hotel 6151
- Review: Jan Flook, Recycology
- Review: Plans and Disasters and Modern Love Pictures
- Review: Trinh Vu: Reflections
- Review: Wild Nature in Contemporary Australian Art and Craft
- Review: William Yang: Miscellaneous Obsessions