Baraka Challenges Us to Change Our Priorities

moon over Mordi

On February 29, I attended a screening of the 1992 film BARAKA to raise funds for Wildlife Victoria after the devastating bushfire season.

The date is special because it is a leap year and according to Google, this is a lucky year with a spirituality website suggesting, a year “when energies are higher and filled with enthusiasm, optimism, love and compassion. It is a great year to search for spiritual wisdom.”

And considering Australians are facing a climate catastrophe, a coronavirus outbreak, the aftermath of a horrific bushfire season, ongoing drought, and poor economic outlook, luck is much-needed and wisdom always worth seeking – spiritual or otherwise!

It would be nice to have a competent government that fostered optimism and enthusiasm for the future but achieving that needs work and an early election! Meanwhile, if you are not a climate denialist and you believe in social justice like me, please keep raising your voice in whatever way you can.

I saw Baraka a long time ago, but the advertised conversation scheduled after the film captured my attention because it was about “designing the future with hope and humanity” – two principles omitted from many concrete jungles we call cities and media full of gloom and doom.

The film, like a good book, needs to be absorbed and savoured in stillness. It’s like an epic novel or saga with layers of meaning to be digested and reflected upon.

Deep concentration – not a quick glance or speed read – the MC asked us to relax, be drawn into the music and visuals, be still, absorb, listen and watch … be in touch with emotions and senses, enjoy a transformational experience.’

The lights dimmed, the film rolled, I became completely immersed in the visuals and incredible soundtrack. The atmosphere calm and comfortable in the recently renovated Capitol until ironically, someone turned the air conditioner up or forgot to adjust it to the vagaries of Melbourne’s recalcitrant summer.

Luckily, the film was almost over and it was panel time so the discomfort wasn’t too much of a distraction.  

It was then the turn of the two presenters to provide the promised hope and information. To represent the current generation’s ideas for tackling the climate emergency.

To offer man-made solutions to man-made problems.

baraka panel 2.jpg
Design Hub Gallery curator Fleur Watson with climate change and resilience researcher Lauren Rickards and speculative designer Ollie Cotsaftis

BARAKA – Ron Fricke’s Guided Meditation On Humanity

A breathtaking journey across 25 countries on six continents, Baraka is a sublime reflection on the beauty and the chaos of the world. The film brings together spectacular imagery with no plot, actors, script or narrative, transcending nationality, identity, place and time. The result is a meditative panorama of our natural and human landscapes ­– a visual survey made all the more urgent and affecting given today’s climate emergency.

As much a technical masterpiece as it is a conceptual one, Baraka was shot entirely on 70mm with a custom-built computerized 65mm camera. Taking 30 months to complete, with over 14 months on location, the making of the film was a feat within itself.

Baraka quickly became a cult classic for its unique non-linear, non-narrative approach to documentary and its astonishing footage that jumps from the elating to the disturbing. The awe, harmony, destruction and rebirth of nature merge in cycles. Ultimately we are looking at humanity’s interconnectedness and our relationship to the environment.

Promotional blurb

Ger camp Mongolia

When writing, the importance of techniques such as metaphor and simile are important to improve poetry and prose, and so it is with a film. A picture replaces a thousand words especially if revealing a powerful metaphor, and there were many in Baraka.

Music to evoke mood and soundtrack using percussion to great effect are important aspects of cinema and in Baraka, it kept pace with the sweeping and varied scenes of the natural world and cities. Percussion and natural ‘noise’, especially when industrial scenes of production lines, manufacturing and mining activities filled the screen segued seamlessly from panoramic or close-ups of mountains, oceans, deserts and green plains.

Superb cinematography and editing drew us into each scene. Memorable close-ups of the faces of animals and humans, the zooming into the natural and human world’s rhythms.

Time-lapse photography provided scenes of people commuting on foot, by train and car before switching to herds of animals, marching insect lines…back to the expressions on the faces of train travellers in Tokyo … reminding me of writing poetry on peak hour trains to and from the city…

the grey army poem
Published  reflecting on Melbourne, Poetica Christi Press

Have We Forgotten the Value of Stillness?

Baraka is full of juxtapositions – we see Japanese men in a pool following a bathing ritual, crowds of men and women bathing in the Ganges – close-ups of people relaxing, luxuriating in the relaxation and purification of water, not much different to a family of baboons in a hot spring high in the mountains, ice on the baboon’s fur melting crystals as he closes his eyes… his stillness mesmerising.

A Shinto priest surrounded by fast-paced traffic and busy shoppers in Tokyo walks one foot in front of the other, heel touching toe,  as if on a tightrope or narrow ledge, snail-paced, a bell in his hand chiming with each slow, deliberate, step,  no deviation from the path or the rhythm.

I remember Donne’s poem, ‘For whom the bell tolls… ‘ It tolls for thee…

No drones in 1992, yet the visuals are stunning, probably from a helicopter or aircraft but each vein, artery, vivid colour stands out:  of mountains, rocks, snow,-laden fields, trees, shrubbery and humans…

There are painted faces, tattooed bodies, jewellery made from natural items adorning naked or semi-naked bodies dancing and performing rituals indoors and outdoors, in continents across the globe.

The camera visits temples, mosques, synagogues, churches – and most of those performing the rituals or leading the service are male (has the power balance changed?).

In a Buddhist temple, the maroon-robed, adolescent lamas chant as old women sweep the courtyards and surrounding streets and old men slowly sprinkle oil.  I remember visiting Mongolia... 

In an orthodox Christian church, an old woman garbed in traditional black sits beside a table of candles, as if in servitude,  while the priest walks ceremoniously towards an altar agleam with ornate gold and silver. He stops to pray

… and the camera focuses on another priest in another country, walking through cloisters to kneel and pray by an unadorned tomb …

There are scenes of the Hajj where hundreds of thousands of Islamic devotees make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, a journey connected to the time of Abraham and requiring certain rituals, including walking counter-clockwise seven times around the holy Kaaba.

In Cambodia, we see rows of men in an arc following the lead of a chief/guru with a painted face. He chants and moves his hands and arms in various poses. The men emulate his loud laughs, chants, alternately sitting and standing. Their behaviour is reminiscent of a Maori haka, a ceremonial dance or challenge with vigorous movement, stamping feet, rhythmic shouting and specific facial expressions.

Australian Aboriginal dancers around a campfire sing and act a story after being painted by women who then stand and sway in the background. Females playing a supporting role or performing their own rituals in the shadows mirrored in Kenya and Nigeria…

The film spans 25 countries with a focus on first nation peoples and their connection to the natural world and the rituals that have grown or been created.

The lifestyles of first nation people have been disrupted by industrial development, yet many retain cultural rituals. (Or they did in 1992!)

In South America, tribal children peep from the jungle, behind trees thousands of years old, and wide-eyed watch as a gigantic saw screams and fells trees.  We are still destroying the Amazon rainforest at a horrendous rate.

In cities, descendants of those tribes peep through bars in pigeon-coop-sized apartments huddled in ramshackle confusion, on the side of city hills. Children peep through barred windows on the slum buildings protecting them from falling to their death. Families being contained, exploited … still… the cost of the Rio Olympics to Brazil’s poor in 2016...

native american proverb -FB

“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil, set off a tornado in Texas?”

The Butterfly Effect

Cities – each building bigger than the last…

From caged people to caged birds, automated conveyor belts as thousands of hens lay eggs. From the cruelty of egg farming to chickens, checked, painted, beaks seared, thrown into chutes one by one and suddenly, there are lines of workers, clocking on and clocking off, jammed tightly on production lines…

Like the tobacco factory in Indonesia, women and girls, making cigarettes, one by one, rolling and clipping the tobacco, shaping the cigarette for a well-dressed, suited businessman to smoke as he joins the line of commuters crossing a Jakarta street…

While in India, at Hindu funerals on the Ganges we see funeral pyres, some can afford a decorated raft, others a homemade stretcher on the banks of the river. As the camera zooms in on a smouldering corpse, I steal a glance at the young lad sitting next to me. He’s ten, perhaps eleven and with his dad and is completely absorbed. I watch those grieving on the screen, the charred remains of their loved one and close my eyes for a few moments as tears sting – being a voyeur uncomfortable and sad.

But what of the crowds of women and children trawling through gigantic rubbish heaps salvaging anything that can be used, eaten, sold, repurposed. They don’t have a choice in lifestyle or of avoiding unpleasant death scenes.

Ragged and dishevelled, the scavengers move amongst bulldozers, smouldering fires and industrial shovels. The scene somewhere in India but it could be the Philippines, Nigeria, rural China… places where reports of populations exploited in this way fill the news cycle.

First Nations sovereignty – the film revealed that the people most affected are often those least responsible for the damage to the earth. A combination of approaches will equal climate justice.

We have a climate emergency as Greta and others warn our house is on fire!

quote from Black Elk.jpg

Learning to Live on the Anthropocene

Anthropocene – the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

We have created an extinction crisis and must act now.  We must accept and appreciate the human impact and population on the natural world and change our behaviour.

Lauren Rickards is a human geographer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University Melbourne, where she co-leads the Climate Change Transformations research program of the Centre for Urban Research. Lauren’s research examines the social, cultural and political dimensions of the human-environment relationship, focused on climate change, disasters and the broader Anthropocene condition. A Rhodes Scholar, Lauren is a Lead Author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forthcoming Sixth Assessment Report and a Senior Fellow with the Earth Systems Governance network.

Lauren studies how the earth functions and is now starting to dysfunction.

For Australia, this summer of bushfires a stark wake-up call. Fears, scientists thought we had decades to deal with, are here, and we must deal with the crisis.

Here are links to recent articles about the magnitude of Australia’s bushfire crisis:

Lauren said, Baraka, made the familiar strange and makes us face up to what we regard as normal. We must start to think differently. We must not accept the view of politicians like our Prime Minister who talk of ‘the new normal‘!

drought.jpg

 

For example, bushfires are now strange and more threatening to generations brought up reciting Dorothea Mackellar’s poem about an Australia ‘of drought and flooding rains’.

‘You live in the bush. You live by the rules of the bush, and that’s it.’  These were the reflective words of Mrs Dunlop upon seeing the blackened rubble of her home, which made headline news the morning after the first, and most destructive, fire front tore through the Blue Mountains in New South Wales on 17 October 2013 (Partridge and Levy, 2013).

While seemingly a simple statement, it goes right to the heart of heated public and political debates – past and present – over who belongs where and why in the fire-prone landscapes that surround Australia’s cities. Bushfire is a constant and ongoing part of Australian history, ecology and culture. The love of a sunburnt country, the beauty and terror of fire, and the filmy veil of post-fire greenness described in the century-old poem ‘Core of My Heart’ (Mackellar, 1908) are still apt depictions of Australian identity today.

Yet longer fire seasons and an increase in extreme fire weather days with climate change add both uncertainty and urgency to Australia’s ability to coexist with fire in the future (Head et al., 2013).

Geographical fire research in Australia: Review and prospects Abstract

Download the pdf: Geographical fire research in Australia_ Review and prospects

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Man has an obsession with fire – in the film we see various religious rituals involving lighting candles, lanterns, bonfires. Purification and burial rituals. There are shots of the sun, moon, stars juxtaposed with the fires out of control on the oil fields of Kuwait, and the explosions caused by bombs.

The foundries, crematoriums, mining and other industrial sites, and cities lit up… but also the horror of the Holocaust gas chambers, mass burials, destructive bombings.

We are able to control combustion, we have electricity because of coal but fossil fuels now need to be made strange.

Our relationship to the military-industrial complex where atomic weapons and stockpiling nuclear weapons are seen as normal must be challenged.

The film depicts soldiers on the Chinese and Russian borders protecting piles of weapons, then pans to row after row of USA military planes…

As he witnessed the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, a piece of Hindu scripture ran through the mind of Robert Oppenheimer: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. It is, perhaps, the most well-known line from the Bhagavad-Gita, but also the most misunderstood.

UK Article August 9,2017

The general notions about human understanding . . . which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of, or new. Even in our own culture, they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find is an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of old wisdom.’

Oppenheimer, quoted from F. Capra, The Tao of Physics.

  • chemicals
  • atmospheric aerosol loading
  • ozone depletion
  • ocean acidification
  • the equivalent of an atom bomb a week in our oceans
  • planetary boundaries transform our approach to growth
  • biodiversity loss
  • great acceleration of climate change and mother earth becomes deeply unfamiliar
  • the threat is here and people already suffering

UN scientists warn that roughly 1 million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction due to human activity. It would be the first mass extinction since humans started walking the earth and has dire implications for the survival of our own species. Already, humans are losing key ecosystem services that nature provides, including crop pollination, storm mitigation, and clean air and water.

“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Prof. Settele. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

The IPBES’ 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services comes at a critical time for the planet and all its peoples. The report’s findings – and the years of diligent work by the many scientists who contributed – will offer a comprehensive view of the current conditions of global biodiversity. May 6, 2019

Climate Anxiety Exists Now

Lauren suggests we must:

Stop.breathe.think.connect.act

In Baraka you see people following this path, people meditating, pushing back against some of the technology and damaging changes.

We too must question technology of the future – it may be shiny and bright but not normal – Lauren refers to the common symbol we see of a pair of hands holding up the earth. She challenges that image: Let us remember –

the planet holds us up not us holding up the planet.

We need to pierce the politics of denial. Do not accept climate change as the new normal!!

We must move from the idea of a shareholder to stakeholder, not capitalism but a system where the environment is the shareholder.

I think of the endless debates people have about whether climate change is real and wonder how anyone can still be a climate denialist. Then remember a meme doing the rounds of social media and sigh:

recognized experts meme

Bio Cities Living Architecture – Beyond Green Design

The next presenter was Dr Ollie Cotsaftis, a post-disciplinary and speculative designer whose practice sits at the intersection of the human evolution, the built environment and the realm of creative biotechnologies.

His research addresses climate resilience and social innovation in speculative urban futures. Ollie is also the founder and creative director of future ensemble studio, the co-founder of Melbourne Speculative Futures—the Melbourne Chapter of The Design Futures Initiative—experiments with new ideas through his visual art practice, and most recently started a column on speculative and critical design for the This is HCD network.

Ollie wants to answer the question – How do we build our cities and stop the concrete working against us and reconnect with nature?

  • Bio Cities, Living Architecture – Beyond Green design
  • Architecture that is organic
  • Architecture that is sustainable
  • Architecture that is alive

He referred to information from the Bureau of Meteorology that shows temperatures will increase and have been increasing over the last 110 years. The slide courtesy of the CSIRO, July 2019.

temperature slide.jpg

 Ollie suggested we Google action architecture climate change for a wealth of information from people who agree the climate is changing therefore so must architecture.

Carbon dioxide causes global warming. Buildings emit almost half of the carbon dioxide in the USA and that has to stop!

One of the most well-known architects of our time, Bjarke Ingels said: “If we can Change the Climate of the World by Accident, Imagine What we can Achieve by Trying”

Bjarke has become one of the most sought-after architects. In 2019 alone, he and his team completed as many as 13 projects, including large-scale undertakings such as Copenhill, a zero-emission waste-to-energy plant. The innovative solution is the first of its kind in the world: utopia turned reality.

90% of Melbourne’s energy is still based on oil, gas and coal. The CBD is very expensive to live regarding energy use. Ollie has been involved in an experimental project to convert a high-rise corporate building into a sustainable residential alternative.

385 Bourke Street – Hope For The Future

385_Bourke_Street_2017

385 Bourke Street (also known as the State Bank Centre) is a high-rise office building located in Melbourne, Australia. It is the former head office of the State Bank of Victoria and Commonwealth Bank of Australia. It is located on the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets.

The lower levels of the building are the Galleria shopping centre. Major tenants in the building are Energy Australia and Industry Superannuation fund UniSuper.

Photo and this info from Wikipedia

Built in 1983 it had poor energy efficiency. The owners have spent $2.5m for an energy retrofit to transform it into a residential building. The side exposed to the sun had solar panels fitted to capture that energy.

  • Panels have been put on the outside of the building’s upper floors facing the sun and are red because that is the colour that captures the most energy from the sun.
  • There are plants on window sills, in walkways, on ledges.

Researchers are working all the time to improve battery storage options and rechargeable batteries.

There is a micro bacterial rechargeable battery (MRB) not commercially available yet but in 5 years (just like the development of the OPVs) these could be available and embedded in buildings.

385 Bourke Street has been transformed from a carbon positive corporate tower to a carbon-negative residential tower.

The experiment has proven it is possible to transform energy inefficient city buildings into sustainable alternatives –

  • Extrusion
  • Extension of OPVs
  • Cross-section MRBs
  • Affordability is an issue and more information will be available during Melbourne Design Week march 12-22, 2020 and on April 24, where there will be a full presentation at the NGV.

Ollie wants us to think of different perceptions.  A level of awakening needed and the ability to question how we do things differently. to have –

  • Speculative ideas and consider their future
  • Speculative visions of the future

How do we move from object and service (a building) the individual to a collective way of shaping the city?

Shareholders should be the community of the city.  Even change shareholder to stakeholder, not viewing through a capitalism lens but a system where the environment is the shareholder.

A combination of approaches will equal climate justice

First Nations sovereignty important to recognise – Baraka revealed that the people most affected are often those least responsible for the damage to the earth. 

  • Inequities revealed in 1992 and still happening today
  • Environmental and economic problems caused by historical violence inflicted on first nations people – their lifestyle did not cause these events.

  • We have to face the enormous depths of problems created by history and recognise it is getting harder to predict the future and impact of technology because change happens so fast

Who moved the earth into this state of catastrophe?

It is a slow emergency on a geological timescale but for us now there is a sense of urgency. Baraka shows the disintegration of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the reclaiming of the ruins by nature – through a variety of lens and focus you can lose track of hours and time but you get a sense there is a trajectory we are heading on…

Let’s learn from those who have lived with the earth, let them lead us to repair, restore and be on a better path. In Australia, we must listen to our Indigenous rangers about land management.

An emerging crisis implies a window of opportunity.

Organisations like Wildlife Victoria are helping creatures get through on the short term but also building bridges to an eco future and looking longterm to be positive towards a sustainable future for our wildlife.

In urban settings, we have architects and designers transforming buildings from one function to another. Considering adaptive reuse.

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When a bushfire season like the one we have just experienced is so catastrophic, we can be blinded by the vastness of scale which is on the level of global plastic pollution and recycling and the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.  It’s easy to miss a lot of slow violence to the earth not necessarily making headline news:

  • Soil degradation
  • land theft from First Nations peoples
  • Poisoning of water and land
  • Species extinction

Ollie explained the city of Jakarta is sinking – water is being drained from tabletops and the city is drowning and must be relocated.  What about the buildings left – will they just rot or will they be reused and repurposed? This is a project to consider under the banner of a speculative future.

  • Can we program a building to degrade itself after a certain lifespan?
  • Can we adapt buildings to our needs?

Principles and ideas shared globally, not just western canon and ethics which has been a problem when everything is Eurocentric or Western-centric.

When tackling projects, cooperation needed around the world between countries and cultures with shared questions.

  • Is this anticipatory?
  • What can go wrong?
  • What are the different scenarios?
  • Have we included everyone and everything to be affected?
  • Are we doing it for the right purpose?
  • Is it the right thing to do?
  • part of the world’s problem is too many design groups are white-centric – we must share principles rather than some grand narrative of design

Greed has led to the Climate Change Catastrophe

How do we go about overtaking and replacing greed and accumulation of wealth as a motivation of the people in power?

  • Law must come into it – positive changes can be imposed by regulations and consequences
  • Often environmental laws are inadequate but even those must be enforced
  • We can funnel channels of greed – eg. You’ll lose money in fossil fuels but make money in renewables
  • We must question fundamental ideas – the shareholder model our society uses feeds inequity
  • We can slow down economic activity – bigger and faster and more luxurious is not necessarily better
  • Change the architecture of our streets to encourage more walking, more sedentary use, more shade, more trees, more places to sit and contemplate, communicate, converse…
life is in acho
a Facebook meme with a great message

Rosa, Memories With Licence – a template for other writers?

rosa front cover.jpg

It’s lovely to have a book signed by an author and although I couldn’t get to the book launch because of another launch, a friend kindly picked up a copy of Ros Collins’ latest book, Rosa by Hybrid Publishers.

The blurb announces the memories of Rosa are presented ‘with a deliberate overlay of lies and licence.’ The boldness of this statement, a little confronting, especially since the book is labelled Memoir – defined in the dictionary as a narrative or biography written from personal experience.

However, as a teacher of Life Story writing, I’ve lost count of how many times class discussions have debated the concept of truth in relation to the reliability and perspective of our memories, coupled with the attendant fear of causing hurt to someone still alive or even tarnishing the memory of someone deceased.

A memoir is considered ‘Creative Non-fiction’ and who is to say the emphasis is not on the word creative, which can be interpreted as ‘having the quality of something imaginatively created’ or ‘containing misleading inventions designed to falsify or conceal the facts’! 

… memoirs depend on memory and, despite being the subject of philosophical investigation going back as far as Plato and of plentiful scientific research since the mid-nineteenth century, memory remains an elusive topic. How does it work? Can our fondest memories of childhood and loved ones really be reduced to molecular activity in the neurons of the brain? Will medical science one day be capable of eliminating the traumatizing memories that can paralyze us, and implanting happier memories in their place? Are memories the cause of the biographical continuity that bolsters our belief in personal identity? And how accurate are memories even among the healthiest of us? Does it make sense to base our present-day attitudes and emotions on recollections of our past experiences?

Robert Atwan, Creative Nonfiction, Issue #55, The Memoir Issue

rosa back cover.jpg

In her introduction, Ros uses softer words to explain how Rosa differs from a previous book about her life, it is ‘much more personal… freely written’ and she admits to ‘taking liberties with the truth’.

There is still a lot of family history included in Rosa – she revisits Solly’s Girl (2015), a book that was as ‘accurate as my memory would allow’ and written as a companion piece to her now-deceased husband’s Alva’s Boy (2008). An acclaimed writer, Alan Collins wrote short stories and books about his Bondi childhood.

Ros Collins writes to entertain as well as inform and her conversational style with well-researched detail has produced wonderful stories revealing scenes of Anglo-Australian-Jewish life probably unfamiliar to many readers, and which I found fascinating.

Memoir with a little fiction, or fiction with a little history? It’s hard to say, Memories with licence.

Although of a different generation, there were historical references, organisations and events I recognised. They triggered memories, especially involvement with the labour movement and the Australian Labor Party and various campaigns in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

The divisiveness of the Vietnam War, the election of the Whitlam Government and the opening up of educational opportunities for older women, which Rosa took advantage of. ‘The Palestinian Debate’ which still causes angst and the trade union campaigns to improve conditions for Victorian teachers that raised the ire of Premier Henry Bolte.

quote from henry bolte.jpg

Rosa ticked several boxes in the list of why I read books: for enjoyment, to be immersed in a different world, to learn something new, to encourage me to seek more information and to reflect on the human condition.

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Ros is a woman of many accomplishments with several great achievements as a qualified librarian, yet, there is no pretentiousness when she explains her journey to becoming a director of a Jewish community library at fifty-seven and her vision of a national Australian-Jewish library. 

With dedication, commitment, and tenacity she created the successful ‘Write Your Story’ program whereby the eclectic members of the Jewish community can access funds and help, and write their memoir.

‘Most memoirs -so far, more than 140 have been published, the largest such series in the world – are related to the Holocaust; eventually, as generations pass away, the stories will become more Australian, less European.’ (p122)

Her involvement with the community library for thirteen years followed by twelve years cataloguing the Yiddish library:

‘She brings the boxes of shabby books home to catalogue… A little pamphlet, held together with rusty staples; cheap yellowed paper, crumbling to pieces; no cover; a grey, grainy author’s picture.

… a first-hand account of how his village was destroyed during the Holocaust – most of the Jewish community died, locked up in the synagogue and then set on fire – he hid in a barn.’

Ros is reduced to tears translating the story for her husband – such is the power and importance of recording and sharing stories.

‘I couldn’t even find the village in the atlas, it’s been erased by some thoughtless publisher. It’s Yiddish, only a few people will ever find out what happened; there’s just my catalogue entry to provide a link.’ 

Her husband responds, ‘Libraries are important. This is your contribution.’ (p124)

Ros has catalogued and encouraged the recording and publication of so many stories of the Jewish diaspora and so it is fitting and fortunate, she decided to share her own life story and reflections – albeit with several references to her husband’s story and books. She has added a creative flair to her memories.

love bookmark.jpg

The deep love and respect Ros has for her parents, husband Alan, her sons and several close friends mentioned in Rosa shines like a beacon. There is no malice in any of her memories but there is a theme of regret.

Ros repeats several times how she wished Alan had been more open and honest about his feelings – not for her but the damage done in his childhood and the guilt he carried because his mother died in childbirth. Ros also regrets not having a closer relationship with her own mother.

‘The missing mother. Rosa had always been aware, but when she first read his stories she’d never put it all together in her mind, never ‘joined the dots’, done the whole ‘lit-crit’ exercise. Perhaps it would have led them to deep and meaningful discussion and enriched their relationship if they’d talked about his emotions, but then, she reflects, he’d only have turned it into a quip, slid away from the subject with a bit of banter.  (p156)

We learn about their unconventional courtship in London and Rosa’s decision to migrate to Australia as a ‘ten pound Pom’, their determination to build a home – physically a house and financially a business but also emotionally with children – three sons, plus later, a teenager, ‘the Boy’, a fostered child described but not named.

‘The six-year-old and the five-year-old took the view that they had now acquired an older brother, but for the three-year-old, the Boy represented an heroic Superman figure; their relationship became very special and the rift, when it came, was all the more painful.’ (p89)

A family disagreement and period of estrangement always difficult to write about, the temptation to omit or embellish to justify an action. In Rosa, it is deftly handled although Ros did give herself a ‘memory with licence…’

The use of dialogue to good effect, the attention to detail and use of senses to describe food, flowers and situations – techniques writers keep in their toolbox – Ros uses all of them to produce a good read.

Italics for non-English words and terms but also for emphasis and reflections in her voice. There is a flitting backwards and forwards to weave all the family stories and people together along with their place in history without rupturing the fabric of the overall story, which is why I believe others writing their life story could use Rosa as a template.

Our memories don’t all come in a linear or chronological fashion and from my experience in writing class piecing together short stories is a natural way of collating memories and weaving the threads together.

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Ros is a proud secular Jew yet is determined her grandchildren will know the family history but does not want them to be weighed down by the Holocaust.

Throughout the book, the workings of family, worship, differences in synagogues, sects, customs and the politics of ‘those of Jewish persuasion‘ Alan’s wry remembrance of the phrase often used in the past, are explained and placed in historical as well as an Australian context. The knowledge and explanation of beliefs and practices, I found invaluable.

‘For many non-Jews, the Shoah, the Holocaust, is just another part of the war: Hitler had plans for something called the ‘The Third Reich’, and, by the way, he also intended to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews.

For Jews, the Holocaust is the war and Israel is our miracle: In every generation from Pharaoh to Hitler they have tried to destroy us; never again!’

Remembering is a solemn duty, as is recording and researching. Jewish literature wrestles with stories of survival, heroism and of course the complexities of the Middle East. Museums and memoirs multiply. Al, fifth-generation Australian and Rosa, second-generation English and ‘more British than the British’ do not exactly fit the norm for Melbourne Jewry, which is home to one of the largest communities of Holocaust survivors in the world. She thinks: We’re a perfect example of how deeply embedded the history is in our psyches even though neither of us was directly involved. (p117)

writing quote

Ros relates a speech husband, Alan made at a Shoah commemoration event at Melbourne’s Holocaust Museum where he painted a picture of 1930s Sydney and his father:

a devout xenophobe with a particular focus on Jewish refugees who told him; ‘not to mix with them’, ‘Jew-hating out-of-work Australian labourers’ and ‘well-meaning policemen who called me Ikey.’

The older audience members nodded sadly in remembrance. (p118)

The more we share our stories and make a habit of listening to others the more tolerant society we will become – I hope!

Ros explained Alan finished his talk, given over 30 years ago at the Holocaust Museum thus:

So I write about what I know which is what it is like growing up and living and dying in this country where thank God, patriotism and zealotry are negligible and when a letter arrives with OHMS on the envelope it doesn’t contain an imperative to pack your bags. (p73)

Ros reflects in 2018 that she ‘doesn’t quite share his belief in the fundamental goodness of Australia, and long ago she cast off her allegiance to England…(p73)

Considering incidents of antisemitism and some appalling statements and decisions from our political leaders, there is documented evidence racism is on the rise, and as a migrant myself, I worry about the direction Australia is headed.

Therefore, a book like Rosa that ‘flings open the windows and doors‘ and invites us to learn about a world of cultural habits and rituals often misrepresented, misunderstood, or unknown is one to grab for the bookshelf.

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In the final chapter, aptly titled Rose Garden, Ros discusses the Jewish section of a cemetery and thoughts sparked by physicist/musician/celebrity Brian Cox’s remarks on television …

…belief in some form of afterlife ‘feels right’ or more precisely, the alternative, that after death we are nothing but a bag of chemicals from which ‘nothing has left, yet what is left is not longer me’ somehow ‘feels wrong’…

The central question is, can you build a time machine? The answer is yes, you can go into the future… Going back in time, or returning to the present, would be slightly trickier, however…(p183)

Rosa harks back to childhood and a fascination with Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and repeats a conversation she had with a grandson.

‘Where will you go when you die, Grandma?’

‘Well I’m not absolutely sure because no one comes back after they die, but I think I shall go on a journey.’

‘A long one?’

‘Probably.’

‘What will you take with you?’

‘I think I can take my memory. Clever people now think it might be possible to travel through time – backwards and forwards.’

‘Oh, I’m sure you can Grandma, I once read a story like that.’

‘So did I, darling!              (p185)

Many of us can identify with this conversation, fear of or concern about dying common.

The conundrums, worries and questions of life wax and wane as we live and age, but writers continually reflect on the significance to the big picture, as well as the importance of those near and dear. Who do we love and how much do we matter to them and they to us?

It doesn’t matter what your background, race or religion as we near the end of our life most of us have failing health, increased vulnerability, and wonder how and in what manner we will die – and then what?

Rosa explores the distant and not so distant past, the present, and voices curiosity about the future. Ros has written a wonderful legacy and future descendants will understand their family’s Jewish history, current festivals and rituals, even if they choose to rationalise like she often did: The significance lies in the fact that we are together around the table, never mind the calendar.

Ros Collins was born in 1938 and after supporting her husband’s writing endeavours began to write short stories and now has two books to her credit – an inspiration indeed!

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Exploring the Richness of our Multicultural, Multi-Faith Community in Kingston a Bus Ride Away

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I’ve taken a long time framing this post because of recent events and the adversarial way many parts of the media cover topics such as religion, refugees, and immigration and the resultant ire, ignorance and irritation that inevitably results, particularly on social media.

Ignorance is a keyword here – if more people moved out of their comfort zone and made the effort to learn, mix, communicate and appreciate each other’s contributions to the tapestry of society a lot of angst and misinformation could be avoided.

We are lucky living in Melbourne because there are myriad opportunities to access and enjoy what a multicultural community offers. We can live together in peace and mutual respect aware of each other’s contributions.

I’ve attended two enriching events recently, provided by the Kingston Interfaith Network to appreciate the diversity of our community.

It’s heartening to know there are people actively working to breakdown barriers and challenge bigotry and I’d recommend the annual bus trip the Network organises to visit various places of worship.

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Religion & Politics Can be Discussed With Civility

I first learned about the great work of the Kingston Interfaith Network when I attended an art exhibition at St Nicholas Church, Mordialloc and became reacquainted with parishioners I knew.

Along with many baby boomers, I grew up with family traditions of attending Sunday School and church but it never translated as ‘blind faith’.

Both parents were immersed in church life in Scotland; they continued this involvement in Croydon when we migrated.  I drifted away from organised religion in my teens and only returned to be part of a community as a young mother, to eventually drift away again.

None of us chooses the country, culture or community we are born into and the idea that there is a ‘true’ religion or ‘master’ race seems ludicrous and irrational.

sunset

I’m grateful for access to education and several fine teachers at high school and university, to have continued that education by travelling, accessing wonderful books, films, and essays and appreciating the contribution of others to a pool of general knowledge more easily available now through the worldwide web.

I know I’m not alone among my peers questioning human existence, our relationship to the natural world and seeking meaning to life – a journey that will end one day and that day is getting closer –

I recall the pithy words of a good friend, ‘We all die and one day we’ll discover whether there is a God or life after death!

In the meantime, I intend to enjoy the journey, learning something new every day, look for the joy because focusing on social injustice and world conflicts convinces me we are stuck in Groundhog Day! (“a situation in which events are or appear to be continually repeated” )

John Lennon’s Imagine is often played to a compilation of visuals – technology leaves nothing hidden! We see the horrific death toll of the two world wars, the partition of India and Pakistan, the euphemistic ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the Vietnam War, the Biafran/Nigerian War, the Middle East, Idi Amin’s Uganda … oh, how Lennon’s lines resonate with generation after generation …

 Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, Above us only sky… Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too…

There is never a shortage of up-to-the-minute footage of conflicts – the world seems to produce tragedies at an alarming rate.  For many people, their religious beliefs and being part of a community helps to make sense or at least alleviate some of the fear and pain.

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A meme doing the rounds of Facebook also strikes a chord –

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Many Beliefs One Community

The Kingston Interfaith Network ‘celebrates the commonality and diversity of our spiritual communities’.

Their vision:

  • encourage understanding and respect between people of all faiths and cultures
  • affirm spiritual and religious freedom
  • work towards peace, compassion and equality within our local community

In my writing classes, we have some wonderful discussions while sharing knowledge regarding human needs, the importance of belief systems and what form these may take whether philosophical or religious.

Discussion, reflection and sharing information and experiences important for writers to understand and create characters regardless of the genre but also for citizens when we have the current Australian Parliament discussing the introduction of religious freedom legislation.

  • Since 9/11, the constant stirring of fear and misinformation about Islam looms large.
  • The Royal Commission into Abuse of Children in religious and other institutions with many still quibbling about compensation to victims has shattered the trust and appeal of several churches, especially the Catholic Church.
  • Stories about cults or gurus ripping off or abusing vulnerable people are rarely out of the news.
  • The Israel Folau controversy started a debate about freedom of speech in the context of workplace contracts and religious beliefs.

Any Interfaith Network has its work cut out!

In Kingston, the Network engages with the community by being involved in:

  • Celebrations
  • Events
  • Gatherings
  • Learning and Education
  • Community consultations and representation

I worked for the Uniting Church, Hotham Parish until daughter, Anne was born in 1986 and was fortunate to work with Rev. John Rickard who was a strong believer in ecumenicalism and social justice. A pharmacist before ‘getting the call’, he was a great boss – understanding, compassionate and down-to-earth.

I saw the church from a different perspective. Working closely with Hanover Welfare, the church raised money and provided services to people in need in the community, they also owned houses in Curzon Street and ran a kindergarten.  ‘The church’ can be a landlord, employer, business entrepreneur,  owner of private hospitals and schools. Practicalities to be dealt with that many don’t associate with theologians.

Another learning curve occurred in 2004 when I was commissioned to write the history of St Aidan’s Church and subsequently published The Little Church On The Hill for their Centenary.

The Chelsea/Carrum Anglican community influential in developing and providing youth services, fellowship groups for women, raising money for much needed social services and encouraging the arts but there were internal conflicts, debates about policies and implementation, and adapting to a world where Sunday was no longer sacrosanct.

Talking about the Christian faith my comfort zone but I still treasure a necklace made from a leather strip with the tooth of a moose blessed by an elderly Iroquois Indian when I visited their village in Montreal, Canada 1976. She wanted me to be safe on my travels.

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Westall Library Poster promoting World Book Week promoting equality and respect

World Book Day 2019

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Kingston’s World Book Day was hosted in conjunction with Kingston Council’s Interfaith Committee, established by Council to provide a conduit between Kingston Council and the faith communities within local areas to encourage open communication, interfaith dialogue and partnerships and to address the needs of the local communities.

 World Book Day theme for 2019 was Interfaith in the Libraries.  Kingston’s Interfaith Committee chose to deliver a book donations event to Kingston Libraries to further support an interfaith dialogue within the community.

Invited to write religious affiliation, I wrote Humanitarian. Nobody baulked at the label, with some attendees commenting they wished they had written that rather than nominating a religion or leaving it blank.

A warm welcome epitomised the evening with many groups taking the opportunity to display the books attached to their Faith and donate them to the library. The buzz of conversations filled the room, people browsed the books and I met acquaintances from past involvement with community groups and Mordialloc Writers’.

There were printed sheets from a variety of religious groups within the Network summarising their core beliefs, sacred texts and laws, places of worship, branches, practices and festivals, origin story, morals and ethics… in no particular order here are the sheets I picked up:

  • The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) (aka the Hare Krishna Movement)
  • Catholic Church (Christian)
  • ECKANKAR (This means Co-worker with God -founded 1965, main temple Minnesota USA
  • Judaism
  • Baha’i Faith
  • Sufi works and practices: The Whirling Dervishes, the poetry of Rumi, the works of Ib Arabi…
  • Islam
  • Zee Cheng Khor Moral uplifting Society Inc (known as DEJIAO in Chinese)
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons)

My knowledge of some of these groups minimal – and to know they worshipped in Kingston and felt welcome at the event is a testament to the religious freedom we already enjoy. (Note to Federal Government don’t fix what’s not broken!)

Fast forward to the annual bus tour I joined recently…

A Journey of Discovery

Kingston Interfaith Committee runs a bus tour once a year to places of worship to provide an opportunity for the public to learn about different faiths. Tour participants see different places of worship and ask questions in a respectful and supportive small group environment. There is no cost and a light lunch is offered by the Council.

I have been wanting to go on this tour for many years but work or other commitments meant I missed out. I was thrilled to join the 23 other participants (some followed the community bus in their own cars)  on August 7, leaving from the Council Offices at Mentone.

Guided by Elisabetta Robecchi, Community Development Officer, Social Development, we visited four places of worship.  There were people from Glen Eira and Casey communities. The only person with an outward sign of religious affiliation was a Sikh gentleman from Monash who told me most councils have these tours with some providing several a year. He had been on a few tours and generously shared his knowledge.

The places visited change each time so it wasn’t surprising to find some people had toured before, but most were first-timers like me – and what an eclectic group we were!

Elisabetta shared the two group photos taken at a mosque and Orthodox church.

We set off a bit late because of the difficulties of participants finding all-day parking – so for future reference:

  • use public transport like me, or plan ahead as to where you will park in Mentone and prepare for a walk to the meeting point!
  • Also, wear comfortable and easily divested footwear – most places you visit require removal of shoes.
  • Plus slip in a headscarf or make sure your jacket/coat has a hood for the places requiring women to cover their head.

Our itinerary:

  • Shri Shiva Vishnu Temple, Boundary Road, Carrum Downs
  • Masjid Westall, Indonesian Muslim Community Cultural Centre, Clayton South
  • Lunch at Westall Hub
  • St George Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, Heatherton
  • Turkish Islamic and Cultural Centre, Keysborough

Shri Shiva Vishnu Temple

Hinduism is one of the oldest surviving religions in the world, with an unbroken succession of seers and teachers. It is practised by millions of people living in the vast subcontinent of India and in many other places where Indian migrants have settled, including Australia. 

And although it is an ancient religion it continues to evolve and form new branches. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) represents modern India and is a religious personality who was loved throughout the world.  He preached truth and non-violence and his attempts to reform India’s religious-social tradition of caste legendary as is his fight for India’s independence from colonial rule.

You don’t need to travel to India to immerse yourself in Indian culture and learn about Hinduism.

First impressions of the Hindu temple and grounds is one of spaciousness, then lushness – the garden flowering and emerald green grass plentiful. Driving in from the road you see the Cultural Centre first, and around the corner, you release an audible gasp at the magnificence of the temple barely glimpsed from the road.

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Inside, after removing our shoes, the first thing you notice is incense thickened air. A sign requested no photos but apparently, our temple guide (a deacon) gave approval and Elisabetta shared this one she took.

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Priests were attending to devotees so I chose to switch my phone off and instead purchased a very informative book about the history of the temple and details about Hinduism, including festivals and beliefs. An incredible bargain at $5.00.

The huge area seems cavernous but there are different sections with mini enclosures holding statues of various deities. The air heavy with incense and burning charcoal and within moments I felt my eyes sting. It was obvious couples and families were worshipping with the three out of the six priests on duty.

A young couple prayed with a priest by a fertility deity (?). The priest ladled into our cupped hands, the concoction made from fruit and flowers and signalled us to drink. The nectar tasteless to me, stirring memory of drinking kava at a ceremony in Fiji. There was a small open fire like a mini BBQ but generating plenty of smoke. The fire alarm constantly beeped because of its copious smoke and from a couple of similar fires.

I had a fleeting thought of what could happen if there were sprinklers!

Our guide explained there are gods (deities) for Education, Fertility, and Birth etc. Planets match your birth sign and some gods look after you. He explained about puja or pooja, a prayer ritual performed by Hindus to one or more deities in devotional worship.

Prayers can also be offered to host and honour a guest or to spiritually celebrate an event. It may honour or celebrate the presence of a special guest, or their memories after they die. A table with baskets of fruit (oranges, apples and bananas) for $15 and a well-stocked kiosk is just inside the entrance. the deities require offerings.

A temple is a busy place with chanting in Sanskrit and the buzz of conversations plus people moving across the polished floorboards and around the perimeter where cabinets or shrines hold statues of the gods. The black, grey, or gold figures often draped with pure silk gowns and scarves.

We walked past a cabinet that appeared to have a Nazi sign scrolled on glass doors – and a member of the group asked the significance of this, which remains an important symbol in Hinduism.

The swastika represented something entirely different for thousands of years before its appropriation by the Nazi Party, and for many, it is a sacred symbol.

Versions of the design have been found in prehistoric mammoth ivory carvings, Neolithic Chinese pottery, Bronze Age stone decorations, Egyptian textiles from the Coptic Period and amid the ruins of the Ancient Greek city of Troy.

Its most enduring and spiritually significant use, however, can be seen in India, where the swastika remains an important symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Despite the explanation, one of our group whispered, ‘Try going down Carlisle Street with that on your car!’ A reminder that in a multicultural society we have to be even more diligent learning about other religions and beliefs and be perceptive to differentiate when a symbol should provoke instant repulsion and condemnation and when it is used in context of worship.

The etymology of the word “swastika” can be traced to three Sanskrit roots: ‘su’ (good), ‘asti’ (exists, there is, to be) and ‘ka’ (make). That the collective meaning of these roots is effectively ‘making of goodness’ or ‘marker of goodness’ shows just how far the Nazis dragged the swastika away from its Hindu association with wellbeing, prosperity and dharmic auspiciousness.

The symbol, normally with its arms bent towards the left, is also known in Hinduism as the sathio or sauvastika. Hindus mark swastikas on thresholds, doors and the opening pages of account books – anywhere where its power to ward off misfortune might come in handy.

… it was Indian religion and culture that was the original source from which the National Socialists derived the swastika.

In Buddhism, the swastika is thought to represent the footprints of the Buddha. It takes on a liturgical function in Jainism, and in Hinduism, the clockwise symbol (the swastika as we know it, with the arms pointing right) and the counterclockwise symbol, the sauvistika, pair up to portray opposites such as light and darkness.

http://theconversation.com/how-nazis-twisted-the-swastika-into-a-symbol-of-hate-83020

The scent of flower petals mingled with fruit and incense and oils. I missed a lot of the explanations because naturally our guide spoke without amplification and my hearing is not as good as it used to be. Fortunately, the book I bought, published to celebrate a special Consecration Ceremony in April this year, is full of detail about Hinduism, the temple, the hard work and cohesion of the Indian community.

The Hindu Society of Victoria (HSV) was founded on Saraswathy pooja day in 1982 at the initiative of some Hindu migrants from Sri Lanka. Hindu migrants from India, Malaysia and other countries enthusiastically joined the Society. The topmost priority for this new gathering was to probe ways and means of realising a traditional Hindu temple. Prayer meetings were held on the last Saturday of each month at the Migrant Centre in Prahran. Poojas were performed to the pictures of deities by Sri Raman Iyer on these occasions. On 21 June 1984, this society was officially incorporated and referred to as the Hindu society of Victoria (Aust) Inc.

The HSV decided to buy a plot of land and build a temple… bought a block of land of 14.35 acres in Carrum Downs on 14 April 1985… made up of a bank loan, interest-free loans from devotees and donations. Bhoomi Poojah was performed at the site to invoke the blessings of the Almighty. Since then Thai Pongal Festival was celebrated at the site but prayer meetings continued at the Prahran Migrant Centre.

… there was a prolonged debate about the choice of deities to be installed in the temple. Eventually, the Management Committee decided to build a Shiva Vishnu temple facilitating devotees from all sects of Hinduism….

Building works started in October 1990 and Nagarajan Sthabathy and a team of 8 artisans arrived in November 1992… The Granite and Panchalokha Vigrahas and other artefacts required were crafted by well-known artisans in India. The Granite Vigrahas were sanctified by a special pooja at Kanchi Mutt.

Additional six artisans were brought from India in Jan 1994 to accelerate the temple construction… completed, with the erection of the raja Gopurams and consecration on 25 may 1997. This temple has become an inseparable part in the spiritualemancipation of the Hindus of Victoria. It has also become a must-see icon to all Hindus and non-Hindus in Australia…

Arunachalam Mahendran

Traditional Hindu temples are not just places of worship. They function as a place of learning, foster the arts and encourage social interaction. The Cultural and Heritage Centre opened on 5 May 2012, includes a wedding hall, restaurant with industrial-scale kitchen, library, Hinduism classrooms, museum and conference hall that can accommodate 200 people.

The Hinduism classes for children also offer Bhajan, Yoga and meditation for all ages. The centre hosts ceremonies on auspicious days, Hindu weddings, and a cafe open to the public, which operates six days a week.

A children’s park with playground equipment and an enclosure with peafowls and chicks as well as surrounding gardens with attractive flowers, trees, and lush foliage ensures a relaxing family-friendly environment.

The sign in the garden reads: Nature is Gods vesture. The universe is the ‘university’ for man. Do not pluck flowers treat nature with reverence.

We put on our shoes and joined the ever-patient bus driver after thanking our hosts for their welcome and farewelled the first place of worship for the day.

Shri Shiva Vishnu temple is one of the iconic Hindu temples outside the Indian subcontinent providing a spiritual and cultural legacy for future generations.

Whether you practice Hinduism or not, a visit will add to your knowledge and understanding, and appreciation of the wealth of talent immigrants bring to Australia.

Masjid Westall, Indonesian Muslim Community Cultural Centre

We travelled to Westall for our next visit to learn about Islam, a religion that has suffered the most backlash and bigotry in recent years despite Afghan cameleers being present in Australia since the early nineteenth century.

The first camel drivers arrived in Melbourne, Victoria, June 1860, when eight Muslims and Hindus arrived with the camels for the Burke and Wills expedition.

sign masjid

The word islam means ‘surrender’ and specifically implies ‘surrender to God’. A ‘muslim’ is therefore simply ‘one who surrenders’.

In the Muslim sacred text, the Qur’an, the story of Islam shares a common tradition with Judaism and a common Biblical origin when God (Allah) created the world. Chosen prophets spread the essential message of surrender to the One (Allah).

Muslims recognise all prophets including Moses and  Jesus, Rama, Krishna and Buddha but the Prophet Muhammad is the vehicle whereby the Qur’an, the final protected Word of God was revealed.

Islam is the world’s second-largest religion with over 1.8 billion followers. They make up a majority of the population in 50 countries. We mainly hear about conflict in the Middle East but devotees extend all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the borders of China although the birthplace of this compelling faith was Arabia when it was a semi-nomadic and semi-urban civilization.

Islam is the most adhered to religion in Indonesia and in a 2010 estimate, 87.2% of the Indonesian population (225 million) identified as Muslim making Indonesia the largest Muslim population in the world.

At the Masjid Westall, we were greeted by two deacons who were generous with their knowledge and time. From the outside, the building is not imposing and doesn’t look like a mosque but once we removed our shoes and went inside the calmness and decor confirmed it was not ostentatious but a place of worship.

According to the 2016 Australian Census, the combined number of people who self-identified as Muslim in Australia, from all forms of Islam, constituted 604,200 people, or 2.6% of the total Australian population, an increase over its previous population share of 2.2% reported in the previous census 5 years…

… there are now 604,000 people who identify as Muslim in Australia. In addition, the Census reports that 1,140 of the Muslims in Australia are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.

After a welcome prayer and blessing, the deacons let us wander freely and ask questions rather than give a formal guided tour. There are 3 Indonesian mosques in Victoria, and they do keep in touch with each other and share Imams, some are students from Saudi Arabia. The mosque is Sunni, the major and orthodox branch of Islam.

Islam hasn’t escaped the fate common to other religions: sectarian divisions. There are sub-sects, but the two main branches of Islam are Sunni and the Shi’ite. They spilt over the question of the line of succession from the Prophet Muhammad.

Muslims pray 5 times a day and a digital clock has the prayer times. During the day up to 5 people will come and pray because most are working – perhaps a taxi or truck driver if nearby, maybe students and teachers from Westall Secondary next door, or others ‘just passing’.

Sundown prayers and Fridays attract the largest number with up to 50 regulars. After Christchurch, many non-Muslims visited to offer condolences and support and prayed in solidarity. The mosque provided hijabs for them but because we were only visiting and not participating we did not need to cover our head.

We all commented on how luxurious the carpet felt beneath our feet and the room was spacious even with a section for the women and children curtained off. There is a library, also a study corner and out the back a kitchen and communal area where crafts and toys are stored on shelves.

Our two gentlemen guides had set up a table with nibbles and tea and coffee – most hospitable and welcome. One deacon tried but failed to get his pictures up on his phone to show me the crowd of well-wishers who came to the mosque after the horrific events in Christchurch.

No question went unanswered and cameras worked overtime. Several people stood with the Imam’s arch in the background, others were fascinated by the displayed prayer times and mentioned seeing taxi drivers pull over to pray.

I remembered a tale of two young men…

In 2013, flying to Italy via Borneo and London, I sat between the pair. One was returning to Egypt for a holiday after being in Australia most of his life, the other, a student returning home after finishing studies at Queensland University.

The young Egyptian/Australian struggled out of his window seat to diligently adhere to the prayer times – there was a prayer mat aft, available for passengers – and throughout the flight, he read the Qur’an.

He confided in me that he had become more devout because of prejudice at work and all the things said about Muslims in the media. He felt he had to learn more about his faith (his parents and sister weren’t devout) and his origins – hence the trip “home”. He seemed unworried about the fall-out from the ‘Arab Spring’ and the ongoing sporadic violence.

The young student, returning home to his family and Muslim country didn’t bother praying and read a popular sci-fi novel in between discussing general topics ranging from history to politics and poetry. He confessed he’d love to return and work in Australia because he loved the freedom to choose his lifestyle and the climate.

I’ve often wondered what happened to these two young men – did their future turn out the way they wanted?

A little more enlightened about Masjid Westall and seeing Westall Secondary College and surrounds for the first time we set off for our lunch stop at Westall Hub – a place I’d never visited before the intergenerational project last year and one I’ve visited twice in the last four months!

I thought about the fuss in Bendigo about the building of the mosque and cultural centre and reflected on how many people would have driven or walked past Masjid Westall with no idea there is a welcome within if ever their curiosity needs satisfied.

Breaking Bread often Breaks The Ice!

Kingston Council hosted a lovely lunch at the Westall Hub providing a chance to sit and make conversation, get to know each other and share observations.

Ann, a retired accountant, introduced herself on the bus by saying, ‘I know you, I was on the Australia Day Committee that approved your Citizen of the Year Award.’

‘That was a while ago,’ I replied, ‘You have a good memory.’

We shared our interest and curiosity about the tour. Ann, a practising  Catholic was born in Lithuania; her mother could speak seven languages and because of this Ann understood Russian. Four of the people on the bus were chatting. ‘They’re speaking Russian and probably don’t realise I understand what they were saying,’ she said with a smile.

At lunch, a lady sat down beside me, ‘Do you remember me, Mairi?’

‘When I saw you, I thought you looked familiar, but I can’t place you.’

‘I’m Honey, you came to my library and ran a couple of wonderful writing workshops.’

‘Honey! Of course, that was a long time ago – how are you?’

A small world, indeed. The phrase ‘six degrees of separation’ springs to mind. Almost two decades have passed since I ran workshops at Springvale Library. I cherish the letter of appreciation from Honey and the opportunity she gave me to improve workshop skills.

I was not a ‘big name’ author yet she gave me a chance and a paid gig!

There was only one young person under 30 travelling on the bus but a Samoan family followed in their car a father with his son and daughter who could be teens or twentysomethings.

Chatting at lunch, he was pleased I’d been to Samoa. He new Aniva’s Place where I stayed. I told him about climbing Mt Vaea and paying homage to R L Stevenson’s tomb and we discussed the contribution RLS had made to Samoa, which explained why he was so revered.

He said, ‘His greatest achievement was uniting the chiefs and teaching them to negotiate and achieve independence.’ 

I mentioned how much new history I’d learned when in Samoa. I had forgotten they had been a German colony and about the peaceful surrender to the British during the war.

My great grandfather could speak German and he was an interpreter for the German/British negotiations,‘ he said and confided his Scots ancestry – family names being Crichton and Williams!

We talked a little more about Samoa and how surprised I was at the number and variety of churches in such a small place as Apia. Religion is important to Samoans and there are many rituals, including traditional Sunday feasting.

(A later discussion with his daughter and son ranged from the problem of feral dogs to their relief Folau was Tongan, not Samoan!)

Our conversation ended with a quiz – he asked, ‘What one word did Samoa give to the English language?’

The answer,  ‘Tattoo.’

My final lunchtime chat was with Dr Dinesh Sood who said, ‘I used to be a practising Hindu but now I’m a scientist,’ and a lady who used to be Russian Orthodox professed to ‘being an atheist and humanitarian‘…

I said we were an eclectic bunch.

quote about keeping faith in self

However, what I remember most about the lunch stop happened outside when I went for a walk after spying two galahs on the power lines cuddling up to each other. They looked like a heart and I thought, what a great photo opportunity.

I walked to the edge of the car park and as I aimed my camera, I heard a distressed chirrup. I looked down and a seagull sat on the nature strip with an obvious broken wing, begging for help.

What to do?

I returned to the Hub and asked at reception for help and a wonderful young woman responded immediately, ‘I’ll get a cardboard box and rescue it.’

True to her word, she sprang into action. I watched from the bus in trepidation when her initial effort to pick up the bird caused it to scurry lopsided across the busy road. Wielding her jacket, she persisted and as trucks and cars roared past, I fretted for her safety.

‘Please be careful,’ I  murmured …  miraculously, the bird and rescuer made it the other side, escaping further injury. She scooped the seagull into her jacket and returned to safety when the road was clear.

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St George Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, Heatherton

removing shoes

The third visit for the day introduced a completely new church to me and again the obligatory removal of shoes.

 

We were met by the priest and a warm welcoming committee. There was a powerpoint presentation, also two short talks on the history and origins of what devotees regard as the first church where the name ‘Christian’ applied.

It began in Antioch, with St Peter, after the death of Christ and surviving persecution the faithful travelled to India.

The first family practising this branch of Christianity arrive in Melbourne in 2006. Since then the number of families has reached 200 and within a decade they have raised the money to build their church and also donate thousands to charity.

(They gave $20,000 to the Kerala flood victims among other causes. A generous effort for a small congregation!)

A group of dancers performed a traditional dance of celebration about a reluctant bride being convinced the wedding is a good idea!

The costumes, music and performers a delightful treat and afterwards many took advantage of the opportunity to ask questions and join in discussions. I was fascinated by the striking curtains and altars – the furthest away can only be entered by the priest and designated elders, the smaller one is open to all.

Having St George and Jacobite in the name intrigued me – as a Scot, Jacobite referred to supporters of King James II of England or of the Stuarts claim to the throne. I know many Christian churches use different versions of the King James Bible as their sacred text but never realised one incorporated Jacobite in their name.

The mythology of St George predates Christianity and any stories I learnt as a child about his Christianity – light conquering darkness – were set in the 10th or 11th century, hence him becoming the patron saint of England. The origin story of this church interesting and proves religion is full of surprises.

Later, delicious and sumptuous afternoon tea made some of us reluctant to get back on the bus. We were farewelled with an unexpected gift and will certainly remember our visit!

Turkish Islamic and Cultural Centre, Keysborough

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Our final visit for the day was another mosque and one I’d seen from the highway many times. The imposing building flying the Australian flag and one with the symbol of Islam – the star and crescent moon.

Outside, we were warmly welcomed by a teacher from an Islamic school and several students with an open invitation to ask questions and let the students be our guides.

After removing our shoes and covering heads, we sat and listened to a welcome speech by the Imam and a young female student. The Imam’s mobile phone rang, ‘Excuse me, could be Jesus calling,‘ he said.

I love his sense of humour! In fact, laughter and smiles a significant part of the day in all the places we visited.

After the phone call, he continued with his explanation of the Five Pillars of Islam: Shahadah (Creed), Salat (Prayer), Zakay (Almsgiving), Fasting and Pilgrimage (Hajj) and a brief history of the mosque and fielded questions before inviting us on a tour.

The art and woodwork stunning inside the mosque. Most of the artisanship done locally, some imports from Turkey. The ceiling magnificent, the chandelier adorned with a Qur’anic verse in Muhammed’s favourite colour, green.

Oh, I didn’t know he was Irish,’ I quipped and my young guide laughed. She pointed out the balcony upstairs where women worship and explained the delicacy of the stencilling on the ceiling and how time-consuming the job was for the artist.

The colours, designs, placement of artefacts, windows, doors, balcony – all hold symbolic meaning. There are three places where the imam can preach depending on the number of devotees. There is a beautiful raised staircase with detailed carving and inlays.

One of the young students sang a prayer and it reminded me of being in R L Stevenson’s house in Samoa and the young guide singing a verse of his favourite hymn. Another memorable experience was being alone in the church at Hermannsburg Mission, Central Australia and Jan Cornell, the leader of the group I was with sang to test the acoustics.

The unaccompanied human voice raised in a song of praise can be truly beautiful.

Our visit coincided with one of the regular prayer times and the Imam excused himself to attend to several men waiting to pray. We sat up the back in silent contemplation.

I don’t know what the others were thinking but as I watched the prayer ritual it struck me how vulnerable these men were and how trusting. They didn’t know any of us but believed they were in a safe space just like those worshippers in Christchurch and many other places where people have been attacked.

Their trust, vulnerability, and devotion humbling.

We trooped outside for the last few photographs and the bus journey home. If there are different places on the list, I look forward to joining another tour.

No one tried to convert me and I had no epiphany, just interesting conversations and experiences to mull over and deposit in my memory bank.

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