Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Azerbaijanis

The Azerbaijanis are on the move. Gold teeth glowing in the blue and yellow lights of the courtyard.

Flash, dubious personas for the men, like a dodgy gathering of The Usual Suspects: a pin-stripe suit on a five o'clock shadow; a vinyl black jacket on a bushy moustache; a fur, oblong hat perched jauntily on wily grey eyes.

As for the women, my god! They're big, busty and brazen, broad-arsed as barns and loud-voiced enough to fill one or even two of them, with dark-ringed eyes and a no-shit readiness to do business day or night so shoo! The women wear grey cotton raincoats and black scarves in sloppy deference to Islamic dress codes, but there's a Western trashiness to them that won't be suppressed: a polka dot handbag, a splash of peroxide blonde hair and red, red lips, a whole way of walking that suggests these women shop to kill and it's best you stay out of their goddamned, hotsie totsie way.

The women also know a special whisper that makes all the hotel cats come to them. But they don't give the cats anything when they arrive. Still they whisper and seduce them, time and again. What bitches!

Loud as foghorns, jolly as a trading fleet, the Azerbaijanis converse across the hotel courtyard by yelling. Yelling from flat to flat, yelling from upstairs to downstairs, yelling to each other at their tables over chai. Their communication verily eats the word 'hearty'. Manifests the adjective 'beefy'. Not talking, yelling. Always bellowing, the hotel reincarnated as their import-export factory, booming to mercantile actions and the law of being heard.

Around the courtyard are their spoils. Thousands of plastic coat hangers wrapped in bundles man-high and higher - mostly red in colour, followed by a little orange, and some luxury stock in a rare baby blue. Boxes of something marked 'whitener' that is probably bleach. Giant-size, lumpy sacks of cloth and cotton for clothes-makers. And a few large electric heaters for the exclusive warmth of limited purchasers back home.

Every night a bus arrives. Every night a bus departs. With different communities of Azerbaijanis, mobs of shopkeepers who all seem to know each other and bargain with each other and help each other out. After a few weeks you notice a rotating pattern of personalities, of familiar faces yelling their way back into your world.

They load their booty onto the hired buses for their return trip. Night after night, out front the Hotel Gilano on Ferdosi Street in Tehran. The pavement is chock-full with their boxes and sacks and human industry, everything squeezed onto the vehicle, till the people ferret and push their own way in like human plugs. A job well done.

Among them I have been given one friend. The man in the sharkskin suit.
He always has a cigarette loosely at hand. Eager, hurt, dark eyes, straining, hinting at an intelligence that evaporates into the open bafflement he expresses about his life.

'You are from Australia? I have a brother in Toronto.'

Toronto is in Canada.

'Yes, yes, yes,' he says, like there's no difference. 'He is a dentist.' And then he whispers. 'But I have much trouble getting a visa. My brother try for me.'

There's an implication I can help. But I just nod sympathetically. I feel embarrassed and ashamed. Again and again on our travels through India, Turkey and Iran, we encounter people who ask why it is so easy for us to visit them, and so hard for them to visit us.

Visa. That magic, dirty word: 'visa'.

One obvious reason why they can't get an Australian visa is their desperation to get out of here-and run like hell into the Promised Land. Wherever the hell it is. But even the rich or the studious,
the genuine holiday makers, find it very difficult to leave these countries. You feel privileged, elitist, to be standing in their home when they cannot visit yours.

'Yes, I have trouble with my visa.'

I act mystified. Put the blame on strange, contrary, distant Canada. 'Hmmm...'

'When do you go to Istanbul?' he asks. 'I go to Istanbul soon.'

The inference is that perhaps we will meet there. But I just go 'Hmmm…' again. I'm a real sphinx tonight.

And then Sharkskin shakes my hand passionately. 'Australia is a good country!' And that's where our conversation ends, more or less, because it seems to be all the English he knows. This is tragic for me. Because we have the same conversation, pretty much word for word, every night. Till I dread the sight of him.

The dentist brother. The visa. The conflation of Toronto, Canada and Sydney, Australia - anywhere out of here will do, he seems to be trying to say. Istanbul. When are you going to Istanbul? His curiousity is frightening and urgent.

His greetings to me are always happy, keen, wishing me all the best. I start to feel like a brother, like his brother - but also as if I am a man already in another country, even while I'm still in his country - and that he can only watch me helplessly, a fool of fate from behind some invisible window pane between us.

One night he finally varies the content a little. I get the feeling he has been studying his book of English phrases. Out of the blue, he turns and says to me, 'Azerbaijanian people are very stupid,' and waves his hand dismissively at the rest of his group. Then more sadly he adds, 'They are very poor.'

At the next table a big woman prepares snacks for her typically moustached husband: bread, pickles, tuna in a can. Perfect food for a cat, perhaps, but not today - nor any other day. They offer for us to join them in the meal. And we accept.

I now realize why every single garbage bin outside every single room is knocked over and spilled around the halls of the hotel. As if drunks have been upending rubbish constantly around the premises every night.

Each evening the Azerbaijanis put their finished snack tins out. And each night the cats go absolutely mental, teased into fury already by the whispers of women.

You would think this might invoke some change in the system. But the Azerbaijanis still have their pickles and tunas every night. And the hotel still has their plastic bins set outside their rooms. And the rubbish-strewn morning still comes, stinking of fish.

The funny thing about Sharkskin is how cheerily he greets those people he has whispered to me, or tried to suggest to me, he is somehow apart from. He greets them with love. Heartily. In a big loud voice that tells me he is definitely one of them. He laughs with them as they approach the table we have now joined. And calls out across the courtyard. And loads up the buses busily. And dreams and schemes secretly like each of them. Melancholy and aware of the world's bad luck, its short straws, but still getting on with what has to be done here: the talking, the eating, the working, the bus. Part of a dark-eyed Azerbaijanian mystery, a rhythm, a commerce.

But that's all philosophy and speculation and maybe a little romantic bullshit from me too. Sitting here among them with a tuna and pickle roll. All of a sudden I sneeze like a cat - 'tchew!' - and a woman says, I think, whatever the Azerbaijanian word is for 'bless you'. Then another woman at the next table starts quietly laughing-and laughing - and laughing - which makes her husband laugh, till he throws up his hands because he can't stop. I sneeze again and pretty soon the entire courtyard of Azerbaijanis is laughing and I get the feeling sneezing is like farting. By the time I sneeze a third time, people are almost falling from their chairs with laughter, and we have joined them, roaring with tears.

- Mark Mordue

* Extracted from Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip. Photo taken at an early 20th century fruit market in Urmia Persia. Image retrieved from US Library of Congress via Wikipedia

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Atticus Rosary

“Star more.” “New town.” “Donal town!” “Ray fern.” “Sendral.”

My son Atticus recites the names of railway stations as we move through Sydney’s inner west towards Central’s Platform 19. At two and a half years of age he’s still too young to get them perfectly right, but he catches the carriage announcements in his ear, looks up and purses his lips with the sweetest calligraphy God ever gave breath to.

I realize we’re at the beginning of a ritual, a train journey to the city from our new home in Lewisham that he will make, back and forth, as he grows older. For some reason I start to imagine him as a young man, the stations carved into him as firmly as the recitative steps of a rosary. His places. His way into the world and back home again. Come back, my son, I find myself whispering, as if I am already in some future life watching him from above, come back, my son, to me.

I remember how important this journey was when I first moved from Newcastle to Sydney in my early 20s, to live in somewhat crazed inner city share-houses around Redfern, Newtown, Stanmore and Petersham. The same rail line coincidentally (or perhaps not) that we are travelling now.

Macdonaldtown Station always held the most power over me: bare and windswept and open, with horizon views that seemed to go all the way to the city’s smudged end. Here was a place where great dramas must have happened. Like a stage for Shakespeare and all his openness to elemental turbulence, a perfect setting for an avant garde production of The Tempest that I’d love to direct myself.

At night, of course, this bereft-looking station could be a scary and lonely place, where it felt as if the whole dark world was watching, much as you might have felt you were watching that same world once upon a time in the day. How vulnerable and glad I would feel when a city-bound train swept me into its stale, bright lights and shunted me away from the emptiness.

Not everyone found Macdonaldtown to be so grand or beautiful or imminent with stories. Someone tried to paint the whole station pink in the mid 80s, a brave effort that was 90% completed before security officers forced “the vandals” to scuttle. Something in me is still inspired by the noble whimsicality behind this action, that peculiar way people have of using an absurdist protest to colour our sense of community (in this case quite literally).

I must add I’m not alone in this affection for Macdonaldtown Station. Not that long ago I opened the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald to see a letter from a Martin Stott of Petersham. Under the heading ‘A timetable marked by years, not minutes’ (SMH Letters,, Stott wrote with feeling about the plane trees he’d watched grow from saplings amid the gravel, sleepers and graders. The fact they’d recently been bulldozed away prompted him to write, “I know my life was happier for 20 years watching those trees live and grow, not by seeing how quickly I got to work.”

Those made of sterner or more practical stuff might find such sentiments laughable, but the fact Stott found time to mourn the loss of the trees indicates something valuable and worthwhile at work in his sense of what a city can be - and what we can be within it when we get lucky and find ourselves an anchor or two of unexpected beauty to identify with.

So yes, the trees are gone. But the wonderful thing is that Martin Stott holds them alive inside of him. And isn’t that what our lives are so often about?

Think of the way we can’t go to certain places without feeling the ghost presence of who we once were. Who we kissed, the arguments we had, the moments of revelry, our old selves traced into familiar territory and still, to this day, standing there waiting like a photograph on our heart as we revisit our hometown or find ourselves on a street where we used to live.

In moments like these the past is stronger than the present – indeed, it can be so strong it overwhelms us with feeling, and even drives us away from where we stand. What’s that great Bob Dylan line? “I’m branded on my feet…”

Place names can be a little like this too. All of us know of places that aren’t designated on any map, yet are spoken of freely in the common parlance of a community. Lovers’ lanes, surf hangs, local bars… their official or non-existent names often melt into our daily conversations, our more intimate histories and take new shape.

My home bus stop back in Newcastle, for instance, was known as ‘the Gully Line’ when I was a boy. The name was a hangover from the days of the tramlines, which were closed down decades before in the 1940s. And yet my grandmother practically tattooed the phrase ‘Gully Line’ onto me every time I walked out the door. No chance of me ever not knowing where I lived or getting the wrong bus. Back then you could still see old tram tracks right where I jumped off, poking through the bitumen. The name itself is gone now - like those vestigial tram tracks too - with only a few locals like me aware of its traces hidden beneath the smooth black tar of the present.

All this makes me think of the way home is not so much a place, as a map of how we move and relate to things around us. A few years ago I was reminded of this in a conversation with the Australian historian, Peter Read. We had been talking about the significance of ‘the road’ in Australian culture, how certain roads follow Aboriginal movement patterns, and how repeated travel along these ‘paths’ can have unconscious corollaries to the Dreaming movements that once inspired them.

Making too much of this unconscious force would have been foolish, and certainly hard to prove - much as the idea of a metaphysical hum beneath the road, beneath the land wherever we are, appealed to my sense of healing and identity about who we might be or become in Australia.

Read preferred to focus on something more ‘solid’, if that’s the right word. Something as simple as a family road trip to explain his own thinking about place and movement and belonging: “It’s clearest for kids,” he told me, as he spoke of ritual journeys and how they shape us. “This is where you smell the holiday place for the first time as you get nearer to it, this is where you stop for lunch, this is where you say hello to a statue, the little bumps along the road you thought you’d forgotten, where you have a milkshake… it’s the way-stations along the journey, like jewels on a necklace.”

It is in this often humble way that stories of place rise up before our eyes and beneath us, and make their deeper claims upon us. The German film director Wim Wenders has a lot to say about this in terms of how we actually go about telling stories today, and more critically the manner in which Hollywood transplants stories onto places with little regard, in the main, for the resident culture - let alone the physical truths of the landscape it is colonizing with its ‘dreams’.

Wenders spoke about these notions in a talk entitled In Defence of Place at the Museum of Contemporary Art here back in 2003. The lecture launched an exhibition of his photography, stunning five-metre panoramas of car yards, deserts, Buddhist priests, cowboys and stone. As slide-show images flashed behind him Wenders discussed his love of landscape and his appreciation for the power of journeying – as well as a willingness to improvise scripts and grow his films out of these dual energies in everything from Kings of the Road to Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire, Until the End of the World and Buena Vista Social Club.

“We all suffer, in this 21st century, from an insane amount of exchangeable images and exchangeable stories, and a terrible withdrawal from first-hand experience,” he said. “It leads, slowly but steadily, to an ongoing loss of reality, and to the loss of belief once more, in the story-telling capacity of places[his emphasis]. According to the indigenous people of Australia places die if they are not kept alive, and so do we, along with them. In my book, they're damn right.”

It’s why we’re so lucky to have poets like Robert Adamson so lyrically connected to the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney, Tim Winton summoning up the beaches and fishing towns of Western Australia, the Aboriginal art phenomenon of the Northern Territory pulsating with desert energy, the Hill End painting movement still calling to us after all this time and somehow marking us with a sense of history, our cinematographers and their very particular sense of light in the world, musicians like Paul Kelly, Tex, Don and Charlie, and Powderfinger all painting the country and our lives in songs, even the urban heat and night force that somehow crackles out of a wild Dirty Three instrumental and feels utterly Australian. These artists seem to know our stories of place as well as how to ‘create’ or call them up – not just for us, but amazingly enough, in us.

In Aboriginal mythology, the Dreaming ancestors called the world into being by singing out names. I’ve always thought it promising that such thinking means we are living in a country, a landscape, quite literally woven out of stories and song. There’s an obvious parallel in the Bible, in John 1: 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God.”

Whatever you believe, it’s a fact we make our world up all the time, every day we pass through it. And that it too creates us as we respond to it. Understanding this reciprocal sense of place and why it matters feeds who we are. If we also feed it, name it, acknowledge it. As seems to be the case today. Here now. With my son. Rattling towards the city, looking out the wide windows of a grubby silver train, calling out the prayer of motion and connection: “Star more.” “New town.” “Donal town!” “Ray Fern.” “Sendral.” Home.

- Mark Mordue

* Story first published in Sydney Morning Herald Summer Herald January 5th, 2007