Saturday, November 21, 2020

Ministering Angel

Unexpectedly full house more/less at Glassmerchant, brunches the reason. Crickey! The old dame partly hidden among the foursome by the kitchen was sighted last of all in that group of retirees. Well-to-do clearly. In his late-seventies, sir had just insisted on settling the bill with a patrician half-wave, pacing across to the register in his silver, almost-disco gym shoes. Totally new, or perhaps only worn from the car to the restos. His lady would give the former Foreign Minister here a terrible fright laying eyes upon her. Doppelgänger to the max, 7-8 years her senior. Second thoughts, factoring the skin & hair treatment, perhaps 10-12 years. Shortly thereafter, once the other pair who had been treated had taken their leave, the wheelchair was suddenly revealed. Disco hub bent to lower the footrests and soon the lady was wheeled out. Car? Skiing? The pool or bathroom?? They suffered too, the rich; softening for them only went so far. (The sole justice in life, Bab used to say, death.) The line was drawn however at the former FM with all her tasteful jewellery, attire from a particular Sydney designer, the hair & skin, — in which guise all the various positions delivered at the international forums with utmost unction. It had been a horrid show to endure even in only glimpsed newsfeeds. At the same time the principled lady had stoutly upheld the standard for the white middle-class prof fem. Pitilessness. Nothing but pitilessness would be reserved for her kind at the final tribunal…. Four younger gals in the end booth against the wall dressed to the nines/tens in conservative unattached/childless dowdiness, celebrating what the balloon they had raised at their table displayed: 40 fetched by the one ensconced facing outward later opening the boxed pressies. You did need a break from the street-wrecks outside the grog shop beside Faisal’s in Footscray, muttering to themselves as they leant on the garbage bin. But certainly there had been no signing on for this on the other side of the river. Unavoidable pillar to post battering back in the old town. Nearing the first quarter after noon. Op Shop for shoes first of all, then sushi & bread from the Ruski baker, where a couple of words in the language would be produced like the balloons from the old circus pistols. That little round there you had signed for. Before making off an ABC update telling of the Ethiopian airstrike on the Tigrayan U. A final push on Mekelle was underway, the Ethiopians reported. 30,000 refugees had already fled to Sudan and the fighting now had reached near the camps in Northern Tigray that held 100,000 earlier Eritrean refugees. UNHCR had 4,000 crossing the border daily, half of whom were children. Few of the men at Faisal’s, veterans of the long war of independence, wanted to talk about the unfolding disaster, at least not with the white guy, however pleasant and familiar. The path needed to be beaten there in the morning nonetheless before the market. (The former Oz FM had reminded of the other too, the recent Minister of the Environment in Singapore: late-50s, reddy dyes, lashes on stalks, glittering pendants and into the bargain good reason to suspect sculpting. Holding the eco-justice portfolio and saving the planet for us both.) 

….Come the morning at the coffee machine Faisal did in fact offer some broader context to the conflict: there had been the former US close cooperation with Haile Selassie, and then in more recent time, especially with Abiy, the Chinese supplanting. More deadliness still.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Drips & Drabs (Email reply)

Saw reference to it in the newsfeeds, but not the visuals until now. Eight years in the steamy tropics slap bang on the equator never saw $5 dyes run anywhere. Not ever, not the merest drop. Ordinary joes, rough sleepers, costermongers, deliverymen had all held up firm the same. Can't understand it. Isn't the aircon laid on thick in those media rooms? Musta been the lights of the cameras trained on him like a rabbit in the crosshairs maybe. Did Giules get so het up inside with the Venezuelan connection, Maduro & Soros, he sprung the leak like that and couldna stop oozin? Trumpet's fix held up so well over the whole of the four years. Really hard to understand it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Total War (Tigray)

One of the benefits at these stripped down African places was no muzak, no funk, no artwork, fliers &etc. The Muslim Eritrean in particular carried almost no decoration, providing an unusual kind of refuge.  

And a guy coming into a cafe with a transistor hadn’t happened anywhere the last thirty years at least.

Election Day up in the north; here there seemed to have been a real war declared somewhere. A new war, with no apparent advance notice, no lead up.

War? Where?

Only slowly the man answered, as if he had been pressed to own up to something untoward. Ethiopia.

The guy at the table behind with the radio, sitting with this compatriot he had to be, said he was Ethiopian.

The man was not from Tigray himself, but from the east, the Somali border region. In fact looking at him he had been guessed to be Somali; not one of the regulars at Faisal’s, or his brother Fausi’s place.

Mid-forties and older than the companion who kept quiet, the one holding the radio in hand for the pair of them.

Ethiopian; not identifying as Somali-Ethiopian, as some did in the borderland. (The third largest group in the country were Somalis, though far smaller than either the Amharic or Oromo.)

The book being read was appropriate and especially timely then, even though it dealt with a war of another era—the mid ’30 attack by Mussolini’s forces.

The Shadow King, recent Booker shortlist. It was one of those rare books you persevered with despite the conventional, overblown prose. Airport fiction really that might make a movie were it not for the setting.

You read for the history and the granular cultural matter, Wikiped on hand for filling in the gaps. In one paragraph passing references had turned up such buried items as the Italo journo wiring back home who had bought himself a 12 y.o. Eritrean girl. After she had been used up, as used to be said, the girl was sold on to a general. 

In the Wiki listing the man concerned, Indro Montanelli, who went on to become a notable historian and opinion writer for a major newspaper, slipping around in his politics like so many of that generation, and not only that generation, once Montanelli was quoted referring to his child sex slave as “a small animal.”

This was Africa. The reminder lagged a little that it was also the time of racist lynchings and murderousness in so many locales.

Years later in Milano Brigate Rossi had attempted to assassinate Montanelli.

In the same paragraph another of the mentions of reporters turned up the US journalist who had first interviewed Castro up in the Sierra mountains in the early phase of the rebellion against Batista.

Faisal at the cafe didn’t know Montanelli, but added his own grandmother had been married at the age of ten. Children, however, Faisal was quick to add, did not come until the grandmother was nineteen.

109m population; second largest in Africa. Could be explosive, worse than Yemen, Iraq or Libya, commentators suggested. Just last year the President Abiy Ahmed had won the Nobel Peace Prize, largely for finally managing to bring the war with Eritrea to an end and beginning normalisation. Mixed Oromo and Amhara, brought up by his mother and like his wife, despite the name Abiy was Christian.

The Tigray region that bordered Eritrea and was resisting rule from Addis was another small component of the Ethiopian nation state, but with outsized wealth and former influence.

On the footpath in Irving Street someone with prior knowledge had already scrawled ABIY MUST GO! In the days later the same had cropped up on shop shutters elsewhere in Footscray.

In Melbourne the numbers of Eritrean and Ethiopian were equal, no sign of trouble between them to date.

In 1935 the Italians had gone down through Suez to Masawa, the Eritrean port, forging south toward Addis from there. A few short years later of course they would take the shorter crossing to Montenegro; (in the European theatre the Italians had needed to wait on Hitler’s lead). Dondo Nikola, who married Bab’s younger sister, had lost a sister of his own in a Partizan bombing of one of the occupier’s lorries. Selling the produce on the coast with a companion from the village, the girls had caught a lift with the obliging foreign gallants. Great Aunt Jane settled down on the waterside at Kostanica had lost a cat to a guardpost near her house. A short while before the zabari, frogs had attempted to buy her handsome gato. Having been refused they simply stole her. It was well known the Italo predilection for frogs extended to cat meat too.

Most of the men at Faisal and Fausi’s cafĂ©s had had their grandfathers conscripted into Mussolini’s army, mostly willingly it seemed. Tensions across the Horn on that territory went back numbers of generation through successive Ethiopian overlords—Yohannes, Menelik and others were mentioned. 

It had always been a pleasant surprise how much friendliness and intermingling had occurred between Christian and Muslim Eritreans, then also the Somalis, Sudanese and the others into the bargain.

Not unexpectedly given Faisal’s nature, his grandfather had preferred prison rather than fight against his brothers over the other side of the river in Ethiopia. Later he and men like him were transported to the warfronts in Libya and Somalia.

Tribal leaders had been bought off by the Italians, Faisal suggested, selling off their fellows. Other men suggested enlistment in the fight against Ethiopians was perfectly willing. In the online potted histories pre WWI army service was said to be one the chief income sources for the male population of Eritrea.

1935 when Shadow King opens was the year before Lazar went up to the house at Savici with his older brother and brother-in-law seeking a wife. Six years later during the Italian occupation the couple parted after the elder brother’s ruse to get himself and his brothers out of harm’s way there on their hill at Bijela. Uncle Jovan had been drawn into interpreting for the Italians. A former gendarme commander was automatically marked by the Red Partizans.

Never to return to their home the brothers, leaving their bones in the foreign land. Immigration. Australia. Melbourne. A rupture that is a whole other long story. 

Smallest incidental and tangential fragments from the era and the region were valuable, even from a theatre of war many hundreds of kilometres south. The brothers would travel through the Red Sea coming out, right past the Eritrean port of Masawa. 

The murderousness was possibly even worse, and possibly much worse, in Libya, Somalia and Ethiopia. And all the new friends of the last twenty years from Eritrea had, like our Croat Slav compatriots, come from families who had “collaborated” with the Italians in the assault on their neighbours. Fuller comprehension of political movements and events had been a necessary lifetime study. The late German and Italian attempts at empire. The earlier “successful” English, Spanish, French, Dutch and Portuguese. The current American. Threads brought together. One had been a political animal from the outset without too much consciousness earlier. From early childhood there were only ghostly memories of men gathered around the kitchen table sitting close in conversation; replicated in the Eritrean cafes.

Marking the blunt, bald prose in the book with squiggles continued to the end pages. One needed to be better than that. And the outrageous blurbs from Rushdie, the NYT &etc.


Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Window On the World

Raindrops on the tin overhead. The heat blast of yesterday had unexpectedly passed. Better close the roof window, even little drops would damage the plaster. Early morning the light in that window had lit up a square of cumulus cotton ball like a lightbox, succulent blue and puffery like a dream vision, Renaissance era holiness. Sleepy-dopey it could not be ignored and got a second, longer look. Now fetching the rod for the window the kitchen window below on the lower level held a number of vivid flowers that had again sprung from those sharp grass fronds in the garden. Unlikely repeated offerings there not much regarded at their earlier appearance only a few weeks ago; now too they would pass within days. Mistaken attempting to seize anything of this world, you ought know you old Zen man you.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Character Study (Huong)


In brief. Lad a Viet either born or arrived early years in HK. Late thirties. Keen to learn the new language, particularly slang, not standard textbook; and that was quite apart from the formal competence required for his PR test. Commonly approached the former teacher/writer at table in order to show off his most recent acquisition. “When I go to the market I like to haggle.” Managed the spelling too. “After work I like to take a pizza.” As if that was something. “I am happy like a pig in mud.” Returned the more common, colourful alternative, in shit, occasioned some unpleasantness to the ear, frown across the brow over the top of the mask. Distasteful. Nonplussed the man. Explanations fell short. Undaunted however finally. Are you a piss...? Pissed? Pissot?!... No, pisspot. It was difficult for the migrant newcomer to distinguish vulgar. In recent years the categories had also become confused. Certainly not a middle class lad this; that was not the problem. It was common in Asia, shrinking from blunt, coarse language. A foreigner did not easily get to first base with the practised, roughhouse exponents. Earlier the chap had brought out a new large dishcloth to a compatriot at the table served a bowl of soup, young lady in white Dixie dress tight at the bottom and hanging on long straps. Unfolded she could place it over her front as he indicated. Part of the character. (Huong in Footscray was straight & simple, minor pretentiousness only.)

Monday, November 2, 2020

Race That Stops a Nation

ABC gal in her emerald green dress & heels on the morning reporting from Brighton Beach. It was unclear how she had gotten onto the sand and how she'd get herself back into the car. Aided by camera & sound men presumably. With the public prevented from attending the race this year thought had been of the gardens & parks filled with picnickers in their operatic & catwalk wear. The beaches had failed to enter calculations. Yesterday Williamstown Beach had been crammed with sun lovers, social distancing out the window and dangerous/tricky navigating on the bike path. Convertibles & thundering exhausts had added fizz to the festivity. With four “doughnuts” in a row now—zero new cases or deaths—the partygoers could be expected to celebrate to the max on this great day. (On the morrow the Democratic celebration up in the north would draw far less interest here, though if they were asked a good proportion of race-goers could be expected to favour the incumbent.)



NB. Cup Day is a national holiday in Australia, the race held at Flemington in Melbourne. The last number of years the AFL football Grand Final, always staged pre-Covid in Melbourne, had become a Victorian public holiday.


Thursday, October 29, 2020

Goats & Monkeys!

Near seven months now down in the old town no lady had laid a glove on you. Not since the late sexual awakening in teen years had anything like that deprivation occurred. How could it possibly have been endured earlier? How did the unpartnered young manage currently? A Canadian medico some months ago had suggested sexual union might need to be practised without kissing. Well, there had been some of that in March too; on Ni’s last visit up on the equator we had managed pretty well with that curb. Luckily, the gals up north seemed to be missing more or less equally, it seemed. Here the fantasies flipped around in the usual way in the cycle of visions and memories, with the new goatee more and more featuring. The goatee had come about of its own more or less, a product of quarantining up in the 4 ½ star hotel on Macquarie Street, Sydney, at that earlier time when the government was picking up the tab. Change of clothes, showering, shaving and much else had fallen away through that fortnight. By the end of the term, voila! incipient moustache and rather fetching Arabic under-chin goatee. All unintentional, though clearly the latter at least had derived from the near decade among the Malays. Whatsapp video calls with the gals had drawn compliments, pleas indeed in a couple cases to keep the look and not return to the buzz cut. You might too wonder how you had coped earlier at the desk without. In those days there could not have been any stroking along that line of bone at all. How deepest cogitation had proceeded then was a question. Twisting the strands, stroking, pulling, fluffing up and out—there was an abundance of option. It was still undecided how far to grow it; to date there had only been a couple of proper clippings. Over the weeks too a fixed hope had arisen of some dalliance ahead involving the strands. Ni, or Rina perhaps, possibly even Era or Sugi; once she had returned from UAE maybe even Umairoh might be tempted. (Every indication in the messaging Umairoh had regretted her earlier resistance and was now ready to rock.) Oddly, the one you loved particularly never entered the fantasy realm; only uncertainty reigned in that quarter. Fair chance one of these other gals—without hint or direction of course— in the rising fever would seek out the goatee and ruffle, caress or give sharp little tugs perhaps. Something, some strong kind of instinct, gave hope. It would be a sudden venturesomeness like so much else that had been received from so many quarters in that region. Many of the gals’ fathers and brothers had beards of one sort or another; husbands and earlier partners. It was a fair chance; some kind of logic involved. In old Montenegro it may have been similar. Grandad Rade, Bab’s father, had employed the dire warning, Ne diraj mi brk, Touch not my moustache. The moustache was high honour and pride; mess with that there was no going back. Yet in the night when the children were asleep, when the wind blew over the thatch and the wolves howled, you wonder what liberties may have been granted the young wife, the former widow taken from grandad’s clan of Ivovic cousins around on the ridge, in the love play on the hay bundles.