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  • A sporting chance | Seven last words | Dutch (er, Russian) courage

A sporting chance | Seven last words | Dutch (er, Russian) courage

A sporting chance
East Timorese in Australia

A staggering number of religious and human rights groups as well as local government people joined forces several years ago to try and convince the Federal Government to grant permanent residency to Australia’s 1650 East Timorese asylum seekers. Most of those seeking a change in status fled to Australia after the Dili Massacre in 1991. Their state of ‘limbo’, which has been a roller coaster of emotions, came to a head in 2002 when they discovered the Government’s reluctance to grant them a permanent visa. They have been drip-fed information over the years telling them that their category was unusual and it would be considered down the track. But as deportation notices began arriving, agitation and fear in the East Timorese community grew and led to a massive public campaign.

By the end of 2003 the Federal Government had granted permanent residency to about 800 of the 1650 East Timorese people, living in Melbourne, Sydney and Darwin. The new Immigration Minister, Senator Amanda Vanstone, has used her ministerial discretion to grant more people permanent residency. No such certainty as yet for several hundred others.

Most of the activists who have been agitating, writing letters and pleading with the former Immigration Minister Mr Ruddock for almost a decade, believe the December decision is due largely to the intensity of the community campaign, known as Common Sense For East Timorese—Let Them Stay. The campaign, which had been running informally for several years, was drawn together by Melbourne’s City of Yarra in 2002 because of the threat of deportation facing so many of its community members.


Several ‘agitators’ flew to New York recently to receive the United Nations’ 2003 Golden World Award in recognition of the success of the campaign. The gala dinner was attended by several people (at their own expense) from the Yarra City Council, which took up the baton for the East Timorese people and has not stopped arguing for the rights of the several hundred still awaiting determination. Also at the award dinner in New York was the ‘front man’ for the East Timorese community and the Let Them Stay advocacy campaign, Fivo Freitas. Fivo, 29, came to Australia in 1999 and was one of the 800 people granted permanent residency in December. He has become a strong voice for his community over the years, speaking to anyone who will listen.

The campaign was one of six worldwide to be short-listed for the 2003 Golden World Award representing a specific program area of interest to the United Nations. Fivo participated in many of the events organised as part of the campaign, including a highly-publicised 10th birthday party for many of the children from the East Timorese families who came to Australia after the Dili Massacre. The party illustrated how embedded in Australian life and culture most of the families have become. Many of their children were born in Australian hospitals, have only ever been educated in this country and play cricket and football for suburban Melbourne teams.

Fivo also accompanied a cricket tour, called It’s Just Not Cricket—Let The East Timorese Stay, to Canberra last year to play against a Federal Politicians XI on the grounds of Parliament House. The junior team of young cricketers known as the Croca Roos (crocodiles and kangaroos) was made up of East Timorese children from the City of Yarra and many of their supporters. The young sportsmen wanted to show politicians, particularly the cricket-loving Prime Minister Mr John Howard, that the team members were all young Australians who love the game. Many of the children in the team were born in Australia after their parents fled Dili.

Ironically, one of the junior cricket tour’s organisers and Executive Officer of the Melbourne-based Good Shepherd Social Justice Network, Christine Carolan, won a Centenary Medal last year for ‘voluntary service as an advocate for East Timorese Asylum Seekers in Melbourne’. It seems that Common Sense For East Timorese—Let Them Stay campaign participants are being applauded on national and world stages, but the East Timorese people at the centre of the campaign are still waiting, desperate to find out what their future holds.  

Rosie Hoban

Seven last words
AUSTRALIAN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

It was late March, with Easter promising and a new seasonal crispness in the air. Perfect timing for the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) to program the newly commissioned Seven Last Words, with music by Georges Lentz and words by a royal flush of Australian writers—David Williamson, Thomas Keneally, David Malouf, Peter Goldsworthy, Dorothy Porter and Michael Leunig. The reader—his bass voice throwing to the gods of the Melbourne Concert Hall with the ease of Ivan Rebroff—was Jack Thompson.

The seven last words—Jesus’ from the cross—have been a staple for composers for centuries. Perosi, Schütz, Haydn—all have interpreted the words in their times, translating them, as music can, with a transcendence equivalent to the source.

It’s characteristic of the ACO, and its galvanic artistic director, Richard Tognetti—who seems to play his Guadagnini violin mostly on his toes—that the orchestra (16 members for this occasion) should try a new, 21st century rendering of the words, or variations on them, for this concert. Characteristic, too, that the ACO should choose Australian writers. The result, for the audience, was an immediacy—these writers speak in tones we recognise, precisely—and a realisation, again, of the dynamic potential of words with music—how exciting their intersection can be.

Lentz’s Seven Last Words are orchestral (mostly string) meditations, or reflections. And the ‘words’, for this concert, were personal poetic takes on the scriptural fragments, ‘Father forgive them; they know not what they do’; ‘Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise’; Woman, behold thy son! Behold thy mother!’; ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’; ‘I thirst’; ‘It is finished’ and ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’

Lentz did not readily accept the commission. Born in Luxembourg, and raised in ‘a predominantly Roman Catholic environment’, he was intimate with the tradition. Christ’s Passion, he writes ‘is still for me the most powerful narrative about the human condition.’ But he was also hesitant, inhibited by doubt, and anxieties both religious and musical. It took a poem by the great German, Friedrich Hölderlin, to spur—or release—him into composition. Among Hölderlin’s own ‘last words’, and written at a time when the old poet was thought mad, the poem translates, says Lentz, something like this: ‘What is God? Unknown, yet full of his being is the face of the heavens … The more a thing is invisible, the more it wraps itself in strangeness.’ Lentz found a recording of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger reading the poem ‘in a brittle old voice in the 1960s’. ‘So many meanings of last words,’ remarks Lentz.

So that is the complex provenance of the music, and the beginning of an explanation of its form. But only a beginning. The music itself—sheets, or curtains of sound that peel into silence, stutterings, breathings on strings, percussive beats, skittering notes, cosmic shudders (Lentz refers to a love of astronomy, of Aboriginal dot paintings)—is layered and mysterious, evocative without ever being programmatic.

The words, poems and prose poems, are variations, excursions. Read between each musical movement, they provided both springboard and platform for the music. And the writers themselves seem to have been more liberated than bound by their commission. They range, and sound so like themselves.

David Williamson: ‘Sorry Jesus, but I think they knew exactly what they were doing … ‘/… “Do unto others as you would have them do to you”, was without any doubt, the most threatening moral maxim the powerful, the messianic, the corrupt and the indifferent had ever been confronted with.’

Or Tom Keneally, with the rhetorical tang of Herman Melville’s preacher in Moby Dick: ‘My thirst hangs, a thunderhead of absence, above deserts, above the least village, the dark streets of the assassins; and the lit rooms where narrow men consign the humble lives to furnaces.’ 

Or David Malouf, seriously playful in his ‘Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian’: ‘Soul, small wandering one, / My lifelong companion, / Where will you go / —numb, pale, undefended— / now the jest we shared is ended?’

Or Dorothy Porter, personal, intense: ‘I am here, / ninth hour, / I am here / stripped and shivering.’ Or Peter Goldsworthy, with his analytical mystical mix: ‘At first I thought this world a dream, / whether Yours or mine I couldn’t tell. / My mind could find no footholds / in its firmaments ...’

And, finally, Michael Leunig:  ‘It is finished. / So let us share …’

The drama of the concert was subtle but powerful. Jack Thompson sat, monumental, as the music shed around him, but then he would stand, as though on steel springs, and speak.

The ACO’s performance was lithe and exact—perfectly cued to the words, their meaning and the meaning of the music. What more can one ask, or say? Except that before Seven Last Words they gave us apposite Brahms, Beethoven and Bach, glorious, and gloriously played.


Morag Fraser


Dutch (er, Russian) courage
Travels through Russia

Winston Churchill once described Russia as ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. Like the quote itself, the former USSR is a region that rarely makes sense to the outside observer. Despite the initial culture shock, there is no doubt the 9289 kilometres from St Petersburg to Vladivostock are filled with enough chaos and mystic tranquillity to satiate the thirst of any adventure-craving backpacker.

Western stereotypes paint Russia as a land of cloak-and-dagger politics run by a network of spies—the freezing cold Siberian steppe as the backdrop for what is perceived as continued Cold War sentiment. However, while there’s no fooling anybody about the cold, there is no doubt that Russia is looking to a brighter future.

Travelling on the descending escalator into the former nuclear bunkers that now make up the St Petersburg and Moscow metro systems is an excellent time to ‘people watch’. The traditional hard, stoic faces dominate, but upon closer inspection, sparks of colour, life and culture exist. This is, after all, the country that boasts the Bolshoi Theatre, Hermitage Museum and imposing Soviet monuments.

In people as well as place, Russia is a land of extremes. The streets of Moscow are full of the sounds of thumping nightclubs, bustling shopping centres and majestic churches.

Out in the Siberian Far East, the middle-aged owner of a Soviet-style coffee shop laboriously hand winds his antique gramophone for his customers listening pleasure. He then looks at them quizzically, eagerly gauging their responses to his treasured music.

Burger-munching, money-grabbing corporate giants are yet to spoil the sparsely populated villages of Siberia and it remains a place where small town feeling exists. The intimate hospitality shown by Russians in these locales is a far cry from the heavy military presence and fast-paced life on the streets of St Petersburg and Moscow.

It is sometimes easy to forget that the epic train route covers almost one-third of the globe—making it the longest train route on earth. One of the primary pleasures of the experience is simply sitting back and watching the world pass by the frosty-edged window.

However, the truly unforgettable moments come from interaction with other Russian passengers. Breaking out a pack of cards can start conversations that make for hours of cultural exchange. After just a few hours on the train, the commotion of Moscow is a memory. Endless steppes sweep past the window, sprinkled with tiny wooden huts and minute industrial towns. Train stations are few and far between. Despite the monotony one might expect on a week-long journey, sights take on a fairytale quality thanks to the blanket of pristine snow.

The trains are run by a legion of carriage conductors, commonly known as provodniks, (or if female, provodnitsas). These are more than just ticket inspectors. A handy friend to have in a foreign country, these people are the experts on the where and why of Russia. Charmingly, they also don’t shy away from inviting you into their premier carriage for an intimate dinner. Just beware of the vodka bottle that is placed on the table next to the bread loaf,  suggesting the two may be consumed at equal rates.

To the delight and devastation of many Russians, the legend about ‘vodka terrorism’ is completely true. Many travellers fall victim to the infamous gesture of a flick of the finger to the neck, symbolising the next round of drinks. For fear of appearing rude by refusing a glass, this young traveller bypassed the social dilemma by pouring excess alcohol down the side of her trousers when her overly zealous host turned a blind eye!

Travelling in this part of the world is an extreme challenge. Just when you think you have it all figured out, something is bound to surprise you. But that’s the nature of extremities—there’s always one extra mile to go.    

Kate Stowell

This month’s contributors: Rosie Hoban is a freelance journalist; Morag Fraser is an Adjunct Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University and Kate Stowell is a second-year journalism student at RMIT.

 

 

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