Friday, 5 July 2013

The Tram Ride Home

From the day this story is posted consider how time has moved since these two events.

It is 42 days since Adam Goodes was called an ‘ape’ at the MCG by a 13-year-old girl.

It is 44 days since Private Lee Rigby was hacked to death in Woolwich in the UK.

If you read this blog in Australia, the Adam Goodes story preoccupied the nation for about a week. With regard to the Woolwich story, it doesn’t matter where in the world you read this blog... you would have heard news about the murder of Lee Rigby.

Do you ever feel naive when the media circus, pulls out the tent pegs, packs up and heads away in search of the next story? I do. The fervent discussion on talkback radio, the collective introspection that goes with big news, evaporates as quickly as the storm brews up.

What do we learn?

What enables us to be different the next time?

I reckon it is the moments of chance learning we get that don’t make world news.

So, 41 days ago the Adam Goodes and Lee Rigby events had happened. They were unrelated, yet both race related. They were curdling in my mind as this 'chance learning' happened on the 112 tram...

My daughter Amber and I have been going to the footy for years. Her younger brother has come along with us most of that time but on this Saturday night, it was just me and her. Just like when she was little. Our team Essendon had won. We had beaten the Tigers in the big Dreamtime match at the MCG.

We walked through Fitzroy Gardens to get to our tram stop. We talked along the path. Both of us agreed that there was something unusual in the atmosphere that night. The crowd of over 80000 people had been noticeably quiet. The Dreamtime game is meant to be a celebration of the contribution of indigenous players to Aussie Rules. But something sad had happened at that ground on the previous night. Something that didn’t fit the script. That was the night Adam Goodes, an aboriginal champion of the game, had been racially vilified during the final stages of the Collingwood-Sydney game. Amber and I both wondered if that rupture, on the same ground, had placed our crowd into that subdued, reflective state.

That week, I had been working flat stick and only caught snippets of the brutal murder of a British soldier, in the broad daylight in a London high street. Having only snippets suited me, in a way, because this attack felt new. It was disturbing and hard to let in. The Lee Rigby story also brought up a familiar sense of anxiety, uncertainty. It is irrational and a bit embarrassing to say but I felt afraid. I remember feeling the same way after September 11.

We got to tram stop near St Vincent’s Hospital. Well, when Amber was six it was a tram stop. These days it’s called a Super Stop. That distinction is made because we had to top up our Myki cards. That meant I had to open my wallet. It was getting late so I scanned the characters waiting at the super stop.

There were two aboriginal women who walked up to the stop and past us. One of the ladies had no shoes. They were pretty tipsy and happy. A sad scene but their jovial, boisterous ways made me smile. There was a familiarity that didn’t feel threatening... I had seen this before.

A man was sitting right near the Myki machine... he had darkish skin too but I was pretty sure he wasn’t aboriginal. He had a vacant expression on his face. He was looking forward and not giving even any fleeting eye contact. I felt uncomfortable as I started to put my credit cards on the Myki machine to top up my card.

I’m placing myself here at your judgement but a friend of mine says that if we write, we have to be prepared to share something that we don’t like in ourselves... something from the shadows, something that might even disgust us about ourselves. This reads pretty heavy I know but put simply, I was frightened of this man. I wondered if he might be muslim. Specifically, an extreme Islamist.

Here are my irrational thought processes, my inner dialogue...

... that soldier died this week because he was a soldier. I’m not a soldier, I’ll be OK. This guy looks like he might be a Muslim. Maybe the next random attack is going to be on a random westerner. Hey that could be me. Bill don’t be an idiot. You know most muslims are not extremists. He’s not going to attack you. But then again, you never know...

So, Amber and I (and my irrational thoughts) got on the tram... with this man. We found two seats in a booth with a couple who had come from the city. The man I was frightened of took his seat a couple of booths away taking one of four seats on his own. The aboriginal ladies lit up the tram with laughter and got off two stops later.

Next our attention turned to some young blokes who also had had a few drinks. They weren’t full hipsters but tertiary students with a lot of young fella confidence and bits of facial hair... they enjoyed the mix between their intellectuality and their ripe language. They were making outlandish, bravado fuelled remarks about the young women they knew... very loudly. Their demeanour was so overconfident and so loud and so oblivious to the rest of the passengers that they were actually quite amusing. The other two people in our booth, a man and a woman were smirking. These lads were very happy for themselves. If on the other hand, my paranoid profiling of the man sitting on his own was indeed correct and he was an extreme Islamist, then these young blokes had done nothing to argue a case in support of the modesty and decorum of the infidels! They were pretty crass. In a couple more stops they were off, congratulating each other as to how funny each of them really were. This was such a typical Friday night tram ride home along Brunswick Street... a classic mix of footy crowd along with others coming back from the restaurants and pubs.

Two stops later, a lady was giving a warm hug at the stop to two friends she had dined with. Well dressed, middle aged, Caucasian and attractive looking... she got on the tram, waved and blew a few extra kisses to her friends. Another tipsy person was with us. The tram took off with one of those jolts that could throw you off balance if you were fully sober. The lady was flung in a pirouette... she did a full 180 degree turn, flung out her hand, grabbed a rail, swung again and fell, into the lap of the man I was afraid of.

“Oh, how are you?” said the well dressed, tipsy lady.

She remained on the man’s lap longer than she should have.

The man spoke in a gentle voice, “I am fine thanks, a little tired actually.”

Somehow he managed to assist the lady off his lap. She slid and slotted into the space next to him. There was room for her to create some space, move and take the seat opposite but she sat snuggled right in, in a flirty fashion. The lady looked around the tram and saw a few footy scarves adorning some of the passengers.

She asked the man, “Have you been to the footy?”

“No I have been working tonight in the city,” he replied, “I did see the score at about half time.” The man’s accent was hard to place... middle eastern maybe? Maybe not. His voice sounded kind. My fears was dissipating and being replaced by a feeling best described as foolishness.

“Oh, who was playing?” the lady asked.

“I know Richmond was one team, I go for Richmond but I think we might have been losing.” Wow. I thought. This extremist guy goes for the Tigers.

“I go for the magpies... that was bad what happened to Adam Goodes last night – are you aboriginal?” the lady asked very forwardly.

“No, I am from Afghanistan,” said the man.

“Oh, are you a muslim?” asked the lady.

The ladies questions raised a few eyebrows again. The people in our four seat booth – the young couple, Amber and I, didn’t say anything with our words but our glances at each other said, “this has been an interesting tram ride!”

The man was very patient. He answered every question the lady asked him.

We were witness to a fascinating conversation. The gentle way the man’s intuition summed up that the lady was tipsy, and meant no harm, gave her permission in turn to take the conversation deeper and deeper.

We heard her talk about a documentary she had seen that week on TV. She connected it with the murder of the soldier in London – the program was about Islamic fundamentalism.

As she spoke, you detected that the lady was qualifying as she heard more of the man’s story, “Of course fundamentalism is the same in all religions... it has tragic effects whether it is Christian fundamentalism or any other religion, not just Islamic extremism.”

“That’s right" said the man. "I am a muslim but those men in London don’t represent me. Their behaviour is against Islam... all of the big religions ask us not to hurt another human. In fact, even as a muslim man, I have been affected first hand by Islamic fundamentalism...”

And so his story was told and the lady listened. Amber and I and the couple and everyone around couldn’t help but eavesdrop. For the second time that night, the place we were in went unusually quiet...

We heard how his particular tribe in Afghanistan had been a happy group of people. He remembered untroubled times when with his tribe, there was singing, dancing and regular celebrating. Then the Taliban came. They took some of his friends, and then his brother-in-law. They learnt that all of them were killed.

When he was a teenager he came to Australia. Because of the danger... because he is now ‘Australia’s responsibility’, as he put it, he can’t go back to Afghanistan. The only way he can see his family is if they come to the border and cross into Pakistan. He had managed to do that a couple of times, we think we heard him share with the lady.

The couple got off the tram and it wound around into Miller Street.

The man kept talking and shared that eventually he wants to bring his mother and family to Australia.

Amber distinctly heard him say, “but that is a dream for the future.”

The tram got to the Gilbert Road turn and the lady said, “This is my stop, I need to get off.” She sounded more quiet now.

“Thank you” she said.

“It was wonderful to talk with you. Nice to meet you.” A simple statement of gratitude by the man.

Two stops later it was Amber and my turn to get off. We walked down the side street to our home in West Preston where we have lived in peace for all of her life.

“You just never know what you’re going to get on that 112 tram, do you dad?” Amber remarked.

“Very true Amber,” I replied.

And quietly I thought back with some embarrassment to the way I had painted the man as a potential threat. I didn’t feel frightened any more. I had heard his story.

I felt grateful to have heard the man’s gentleness. I think it affected everyone within earshot of him on that tram ride home.

All I can say is that I hope his dream comes true.

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