YOU CAN GO ANYWHERE YOU WANT
By Mohammed Massoud Morsi
He told me I could go anywhere.
He was born in Egypt. One of 11 siblings, 8 brothers and 3 sisters. Third in line, he was the caretaker of his family and after finishing his studies at the university in Cairo, he left Egypt and didn’t return.
In 1952, the Egyptian revolution, led by army colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew the Egyptian monarchy, eliminated the British presence in the country and made the Egypt we know today. He would have been drafted, had his year of birth not had so many recruits. Those of his brothers who were older were already serving and those younger, eager to join. Living in Suez, watching the immigrant ferries cross the Suez Canal, he decided to apply for a passport and at the same time, visas to the countries that were welcoming immigrants. Canada, Argentina, Australia and so forth. He got a visa for all the countries he applied for, except for Australia, as he, like myself, is dark skinned, and at that time, White Australia Policy was still in effect. This was in the mid 60’s.
However, it would be chance that led him to his final destination, Denmark. In 1967, with a long awaited passport in his hand, he got a job working on a cruise liner operating between Alexandria and Beirut. On his first trip, he met the son of the owner of Tom’s chocolate factory. Yankie bar, Ritter sport and so forth – that chocolate factory. The young Danish man, on a leisure trip with his mates, was on his way to party and gamble in Beirut, the entertainment capital of the region. Those were the days when the Middle East was a cultural playground. Without cell phones, calls were made by appointment. It was quite easy. The young man convinced him to head to Denmark on his way to Canada and give his father a note of when to call the Danish embassy in Beirut.
He left Beirut and headed north. He hitchhiked all the way. Through Turkey, through Eastern Europe, at the time allied with Russia, friends of Egypt. He went through swiftly and without delay. In Vienna, situated above a brothel, the Danish embassy granted him a visa to visit Denmark – on the spot. He was stopped in Germany and sent back to Austria. The Germans, already resentful to the influx of Turkish immigrants, thought his documents were falsified and his intention was to remain in Germany. He went back to the Danish embassy that provided him with a train ticket to Copenhagen and also a letter for the German officials, stating he was a guest to their country and should be allowed to pass.
He arrived at the central station in Copenhagen in the afternoon on the 7th of November 1967. It was dark. So dark that he initially thought it was night time. He only had the address which the young man had given him. It was cold and snowing. An elderly couple’s curiosity to the dark and tall man, lead them to take him straight to the front door of the man he was looking for. He gave the owner of the chocolate factory the note he had been entrusted to deliver. It was a Saturday. The man offered him to stay in his home and on the Monday, he asked him if he could memorise the few Danish words he had taught him during the weekend. He then offered him a job.
He never made it to Canada. He stayed in Denmark and I chose him as my father exactly 8 years later on the date. If you believe that kind of stuff that is. Today he has lived more years in Denmark than in Egypt and I, his son, don’t live in Denmark or in Egypt any more but in Australia.
The first time I visited Australia was 1999. I worked for Scandinavian Airlines as a system’s programmer and was already flying around the world as if I was catching a bus. To me, Australia was the most distant place I could contemplate and at the same time a sunny and clean society where people seemed so happy. The plentiful and tasty was abound. The streets were almost paved with gold. Or so I told myself.
A couple of years later I met my good friend Gregory Rewega, in Copenhagen. And he was Australian, born in Perth. With a Ukrainian father and an English mother, he looked at me with different eyes. Having travelled extensively, life, love, wisdom and all the things that make up our universe – he met me without preconceived opinions, confined to my chosen personified deity in the sky or the colour of my skin. I forgot all about the usual tormenting questions Danes met me with, as I spoke to Greg. I decided to visit Australia again in 2003. After all, it had milk and honey on tap.
Like many others, I bought a car and drove up the coast of WA. I was dazzled by the night sky and by the vast empty distances. However there were warning signs on my journey. Like the beginning of a relationship where one does not heed the warnings of one’s inner instinct. A police officer stopped me in Karratha, kept calling me “boy”, gave me a fine for speeding and threatened he could do more if he wanted to. An aboriginal man was pushed away as he was drinking of an outside tap in Broome. I stepped in and asked the lady to kindly give the man some water. She called the cops and I will never forget the hatred lining her face, as she yelled at us.
“PISS OFF! FIND ANOTHER TAP TO GET TO GET YA WATER YA BLACK CUNTS!”
As I stood my ground and filled an empty plastic bottle, a police car came charging down the main road and two officers jumped out. With brute force, the aboriginal man was thrown to the ground and cuffed. I ran.
I left Australia thinking I would never return. The honey had dissolved into a milk, gone sour. I returned to Denmark but I wanted to go somewhere else because I was able to. That’s what my father told me. I had already made myself a name with aid organisations and news outlets and I went to different countries covering both development and crisis work as a photographer and a journalist. I didn’t have a degree. I had replaced that with curiosity and persistence which won me many fights that otherwise could have rendered me a victim of circumstance. Denmark had been a difficult place to grow up as a second generation immigrant. The anger that followed being rejected and alienated from society led me down a dubious path of crime. It was not by choice. My wish was to use my divergent way of thinking but I kept running into an invisible wall. There were no bombs but plenty of looks that killed. Something was fishy in the state of Denmark and everyone knew it. It would take many more years before things changed, and although the treatment of immigrants has improved immensely, equality is still generations away.
I grew up in a Muslim family. My father and mother, are both Egyptians and Muslims and my sense of understanding of the religion was based on the actions of the individual. I found kindness, benevolence and empathy, the parts I could identify with. I grew up in an Egypt where women had dark long hair that touched the waist line of their miniskirts, and where gender equality was progressive, in many ways ahead of western societies. This all changed of course in the resentment of the American influence in the middle east where the voices of conservative bigots rose to strangle the hope of progress in an increasingly global world. The scenery changed dramatically and the identity crisis of modern Egypt sought comfort in the prison of conservative ideologies. My parents didn’t return and eventually I also left Egypt, and haven’t returned to live there since. The lonely path of a diaspora migrant had set its course.
Fast forward to 2009. Gregory Rewega suggested, I returned to Australia as I was looking for a change in the wake of the GFC. Airline work had dried up and working as a photojournalist had become an increasingly precarious business.
My sense of adventure and curiosity got the better of me and I decided to apply for a 457 visa through a building company that required my skills in development. It was approved and I arrived in Australia at the beginning of 2009. I wasn’t a refugee, I didn’t feel like an immigrant. I had just applied for a job that was far away from where I was. I had already worked and lived for longer periods in Cambodia, Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria and several other countries. Denmark was a base. I didn’t really feel Danish, I didn’t feel Egyptian. In reality I viewed the world in a more global perspective and I began to understand that my sense of identity was grounded in my views of life, not by a sense of loyalty to a certain group or whether I believed I would go to heaven, be resurrected or reincarnated.
Less than two months after I arrived, I was made redundant and had to leave Australia once more. I made plans to go to Aceh in Indonesia to try and track down the remains of my former partner’s family that had disappeared in the tsunami at the end of 2004. I never made it to Indonesia. I met my current partner in Broome. I still kept going but as I arrived in Darwin and was about to board the flight to Jakarta, I stopped and turned around. I bought another car and drove the distance back to Broome, chasing the wonders of a new relationship.
I still had to leave Australia, so I returned to Denmark. And it was on a trip to Portugal, contemplating the country for a potential relocation, that our son Zaki was conceived. The Danish immigration system made it almost impossible for us to have him in Denmark, so I applied for a residency to Australia. Once more, not by choice but because that was what life was asking me to do. Never had I imagined to live in the great southern land. Never in my life had I imagined the indescribable force of something larger than myself, pushing me to go somewhere. It felt like fate kicking me about to seek out an unknown destiny.
Zaki was born in 2011. I became estranged from my partner and had to resort to the family court for parenting arrangements to be established. It was my first encounter with the dogma of Australian society, entering a court room with the ideas of parenting that I had been conditioned with from Scandinavia. It was a cultural shock. In Australia, a father is not considered as important as a father in Denmark. I was easily labelled Egyptian and stereotyped as a potential abductor of my own child.
I returned to working as a photojournalist in lack of having any qualifications to suit the Australian job market, and at the beginning of 2015, having been on assignments in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza, I had had enough. I wanted to be with my son, full-bodied. I had been applying and kept applying for work as I stopped my work as a photojournalist but wasn’t called for an interview. Not once. I couldn’t pass a fit and proper test and it was impossible to deliver criminal records for the countries I had lived in. My life experience was not an asset in Australia but an obstacle. I ran into one arcane rule after the other. Rules that almost resemble the Indian cast system. In order to get a job, you have to move down the ladder until you are deemed worthy to step up.
Faced with the difficulty of integrating into my new home, I observed a pattern which reminded me of life in Denmark. The pretty, blond haired, blue eyed and smart young people went on to getting good jobs, a house in the suburbs and seemingly, a better life. The foreigners, the ugly ones, got the work they could find and an apartment on the 4th floor in squalid grey buildings where they found comfort amongst themselves. Society was on the far side of the motorway. Mix that in with our pattern of human behaviour, objectively observed in our closest relative, the Chimpanzee, and you have the recipe for resentment, alienation and conflict.
The treatment of aboriginal people in Australia is similar. Massive concrete buildings are planted on top of sacred native grounds with a symbolic note at their main entrance, calling for respect and recognition for the original owners of the land. That’s mockery. The identity crisis from rising cultural diversity is equally assuming in its nature as the Danish, almost a spectacle with the bigoted voices slugging and slaying at each other on national media.
The society itself reminds me of working in the US, and Australians born here, will say so themselves. People race to work every day, to make money with no clear purpose in sight other than to pay off their debts and buy more goods they don’t need. One would think in a society of such material wealth, there would be a banquet at the end of each day, love making, or people sitting outside with family and friends on their front porch, children playing and dancing in the street. Instead, there is nothing, no real communion, an isolation of people into their own private little world, a race to get home to darkened streets and the flickering flat screens of a mindless crowd, watching a virtual version of life on their TV. They can’t touch it or smell it or feel it and it only adds to their own resentment and hostility towards a life that is full of wishes that are ephemerally materialised as fairy dust. In fact not real at all and the result is terrible frustration. It only takes a smart Pauline Hanson to give them a way to discharge their discomfort and her actions are the exact definition of blame and manipulation.
This is everywhere in the world now. Australian life is lived in many other parts of the world.
Although the evidence is paper thin, we still ascribe to a notion that we as humans have some special place in the universe. The truth is, our behaviour is still that of the primates, grounded in past resentment, and we lack any clear vision for our future. And as technology propels us forward at an unprecedented speed, we have moved into a culture where one can conclude that expressions of understanding and kindness are far more dangerous than those of hatred.
“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.”
This is an admirable saying. Mainly because it succinctly describes what our purpose is. Or could be.
The world is changing. The way we are able to communicate is changing. Yet our educational and political systems have remained the same in the last 200 years, based on industrialism. We are still educating our children to put them to work in the future, even though our numbers are radically higher than when those ideas emerged. We haven’t even begun to face the truth of ourselves and we’re running out of time as hatred is being amplified and the destruction of our own habitat diminished to past time coffee talk. We’re in the 11th hour and there is no sign of change. Our solutions are to force children to spend more time at school from an early age and take away their childhood. We condition them to smile as they kill and we refrain from teaching them the callings that truly bring us joy. We are all responsible for this. We are all responsible for fighting each other. It’s not external to us, it roots within our very nature. It happens within us all.
As in a relationship, there are ways to improve. Instead of being defensive, the hope is to take responsibility. We need hope. We need to demand that those who are in charge of our societies, take responsibility. And it is the people’s responsibility to do so, especially in a democratic country. I embarked on forgiving the past with my former partner and embracing change. It’s a trial and a long winded and difficult one but nevertheless a change. I try my best to encourage my son to think divergently. He doesn’t attend a public school but a Steiner school.
Life in Australia is being shaped increasingly more by those who have come from a far and those who were originally here than by those who colonised it. Those who have experienced ultimate pain, psychologically, spiritually and those who have been emotionally abused are those who often, not always, contribute the most to society. The idea that most people work out of their own self-interest is not always right. The wisdom of the indigenous people of this country, clearly spoken in the simple saying, is undeniably of the opposite realm of that of the invading culture which represents the law of diminishing returns.
Living in the dominant culture with its devotion to, unintentionally at best, the destruction of its own democratic foundation, is in fact, crazy. The words of the indigenous people of this country are in fact, the hope for a peaceful and progressive co-existence. It could eventuate into a global role model. At least that is what I tell my son. With those words in mind I say to him.
You can go anywhere you want.