Right wing commentators have been insidiously successful in characterizing refugees as “illegals”- a term that is both inaccurate and dehumanizing. The few images we see from detention centres reinforce the characterization of angry, defiant and confronting young men and their ‘demands’ often evoke a bristle of resentment. It has struck me that the people I know who are most strident in their denunciation of refugees are often those people who would bribe and bully their way to the top of any putative ‘queue’ if their own families were under threat.
This is the first book that I have read about an Australian Afghan refugee, although I suspect that others will follow, just as the life-stories of Vietnamese boat people and Jewish refugees have before them. The book is written in conjunction with Robert Hillman, whose book, The Boy in the Green Suit I read recently with my bookgroup ladies- indeed this too, was a bookgroup choice. It was a happy coincidence: having read the two books in close succession I can see why Robert Hillman would have been attracted to his story, but also it reinforced for me that it is indeed Najaf’s voice that we are hearing here.
I suspect (on the basis of no evidence whatsoever!) that Hillman’s contribution came in the structuring of the book, rather than in the words or sentiments uttered. The language itself is simple, and occasionally captures that shard-like truth that comes because the writer is not a native-speaker: “I did not know that I could feel this much sorrow without a body to bury”. The book is not a straight chronological narrative- and here, perhaps Hillman’s familiarity with an Australian audience and the Australian publishing market comes into play- because it starts with Woomera which is well known, albeit somewhat uneasily among Australian readers, before returning to Afghanistan and the beginning of his journey. A rather incongruous outburst of foreshadowing near the start of the book reassures us that there will be a wife and daughter in suburban Melbourne one day in the future, and the draw of the book is to find out how he gets to that happy situation. His journey through Indonesia and onto the boat does not emerge until close to the end of the book by which time you are won over by his goodness and humanity. The logistics of the financial transaction with the people smugglers is somewhat glossed over, but the journey on the small, overloaded boat is well described. Perhaps, too, this is a statement that even though the means by which refugees arrive is a red-hot issue for Australians, it is only a small part of the overall story and by no means its defining feature.
As a reader, I was aware throughout that Mazari was not of my own culture. His belief of God’s will, his acceptance of mystical explanations and the tenor of his family and marriage relationships made this plain. On the other hand, though, people obviously warmed to him as a person and there were small acts of kindness that changed the trajectory of his life. There were petty cruelties too. I am appalled by the vision of women floating in those perversely ethereal blue burkas, but had not particularly considered the plight of young boys growing into adolescence who would be hoovered up into the politics of warfare. No-one could be unaware of the civilian deaths, but seeing them played out within one family, over an extended period of time, brought home the drawn-out nature of this ongoing conflict.
You can read more about Najaf Mazari here and it makes me smile to see him there in his rug shop- I feel as if I know him. I find myself reading about Afghanistan again with more interest and it has put the human back into these reports for me. Quite an achievement.