Tales from the kingdom of force

'As to men of the sea in their supplication the god sends
a fair wind, when they are breaking their strength at the smoothed oar-sweeps,
driving over the sea, and their arms are weak with weariness.' –Homer, The Iliad

'Asylum seekers Iliad' by Chris JohnstonMohan and Meena came to Australia over the sea from Sri Lanka, fleeing the force of violence. Tamil refugees and now graduates of Christmas Island, they live in Werribee with their two young children. It's a long way out of town, but Meena doesn't care; the bus comes every hour near their house, and she says that's a good thing.

A friend took me to visit them; we drove over the West Gate Bridge with the windows down and music playing, arriving on their doorstep in the late afternoon. Before going into their house, we stopped and took our shoes off; for Mohan and Meena the house, a small cream brick place, is sacred, a shrine, 'a temple', where the family lives and cares for each other. It is kept meticulously clean.

Ushered warmly in we sat down to tea and talked with Mohan about his profession as a goldsmith; after a while I left the conversation and walked out into the garden.

Out the back, Jimmy, also a Tamil and a friend of the family, was hanging out with some friends. I was introduced, and between bouts of throwing the frisbee Jimmy and I swapped stories. Flicking the frisbee my way with a well practised arm, Jimmy began to tell me about his life; he had worked on a container ship but, fearing violence in Sri Lanka, became a refugee in Australia: 'Bro, I jumped ship in Newcastle, me and my two friends, and then we headed to Sydney where people we knew helped us out.'

He spoke of a cold night, of making his way through Newcastle in the dark, the streets gloomy and strange. I asked Jimmy about his former home in Sri Lanka and he went on: 'Man, you realise people are actually dying back there!? People are suffering and dying. Last time I was there, I was carrying bodies to their graves in my arms, even the bodies of friends.'

At this moment his voice broke, and we could both, he more vividly than I, picture him carrying the dead. He could still feel the weight of the bodies in his hands and feel their wounds; they were so present that all he could do was, angry eyed, splutter small pieces of memory. But I had no recourse other than to imagination:

'In both hands he caught up the grimy dust, and poured it
over his head and face, and fouled his handsome countenance,
and the black ashes were scattered over his ... tunic.'
The Iliad

Homer's Iliad is a poem of force, wrote Simone Weil, a poem in which, at all times, the human spirit is shown modified by its relations with force, swept away, 'blinded by the very force it imagined it could handle'. A host of characters, some great and powerful, some small, are arrayed as the two battle hosts meet before Troy: Hector 'of the brazen helmet', Epeigeus 'the brilliant', Bathykles 'the great hearted' and 'the godlike' Sarpedon.

Homer weaves the stories of each in and out of his verses, but all these men are, in the end, consumed by the tides of force and sorrow. The battle passes over them as men fight for their cold bodies, even Sarpedon 'the godlike' falling in the dust. Trampled on and fought over, Epeigeus 'the brilliant', is brilliant no longer, but simply a body; force has reduced him to a 'thing'. Each character, in their fear, their bravery and their fierceness, is lost to force and, as the struggle moves on, is forgotten.

Mohan 'the goldsmith' and Jimmy 'who worked on ships' were also banished by force, like the vivid characters of Homer, snatched and buffeted by violence and suffering. As refugees who somehow made the vast journey across the Indian Ocean, they were lost in what Simone Weil described as 'force's vast kingdom', where all security, identity and everything known or understood about them was vanquished.

On Christmas Island and on the precarious journey, Mohan was no longer Mohan 'the goldsmith', but a 'refugee', something to be dealt with by people who still retained their identities:

'When Zeus bestows from the urn of sorrows, he makes a failure of man,
and the evil hunger drives him over the shining earth,
and he wanders respected neither of gods or mortals.'
–The Iliad

My first thought in Werribee — in this flat landscape where the bus comes once an hour — was of their anonymity. But once ushered into the house-temple, I saw a place where people were beginning to recover what had been vanquished. Living in Werribee, it doesn't matter that the bus comes once every hour, because, peaceful as it is, their house in a quiet street is a place where identity can be regained.

Here they can begin the long struggle back from force's vast kingdom, to locate all those things they have lost; and they will do this in unfamiliar territory. They will have to negotiate their way back, to find again a sense of belonging and identity. I am struck by the sadness that I find here, the way hope is embedded in a dark sorrow. To get here has meant a dying to the world that gave them their names and identities:

'And you were footless ... staggering ... amazed Patroclus,
Between the clumps of dying, dying yourself,
Dazed by the brilliance in your eyes,
And the noise like weirs heard far away.'
The Iliad

Weeks later I was sitting in a community centre in Flemington with two Somali-Australian girls who had been given assignments at school — 'Write a short piece about identity and belonging.' One responded that although she was born in Australia, she isn't Australian, she somehow doesn't belong. The other, who was nine when she came to Australia, said she is Australian. But her words were uncertain, like a statement of hope rather than an affirmation of experience.

As she wrote her essay, she talked to me of her early years in Australia, of sitting in a raucous and bustling playground feeling alone, without language or friends; she told me of the blow of despair that feeling alone dealt her. So how to belong? School called her to be 'hip', 'western', or so it seemed to her. But at home, a different way, based on memory, prevailed. It was easy to feel buffeted between these colliding worlds, of neither one nor the other.

So in the Iliad, Andromache weeps not only over dead Hector, but mourns also the fate of her young child, a fate which she thinks is as terrible as death; when Troy falls he too is doomed to be buffeted, swept across the sea and stripped of his memory, his identity:

'And you, my child, will go with me,
To a land where you will work at wretched tasks,
Labouring for a pitiless master ...'
–The Iliad

This is a fate from which Andromache can see no return for her son; all that was his will be lost. My friend's essay and the Iliad speak of the same trial — the task of returning from the kingdom of force, of regaining what was yours, or finding something else instead.

Weil wrote that 'the idea of a person's being a thing is a logical contradiction'. Yet, as Weil knew, what is impossible in logic often becomes true in life: people, and especially refugees, become 'things' in the narrative of politics. And so the television footage of packed boats and eyes staring at cameras with looks that murmur, 'here we are':

'We to whom Zeus
Has assigned suffering, from youth to old age,
Suffering in grievous wars.'
–The Iliad

The Iliad is a pure and lovely mirror, in which shadows and pictures of suffering flicker and come into focus. In its verses, the ebb and flow of battle and story does not obscure the human suffering at the poem's heart. Herein lies its power, for, as Weil wrote, 'the sense of human misery is a precondition of justice and love'.

Neither can the ebb and flow of politics and of our daily lives obscure the human suffering at the heart of the asylum seeker debate. To turn away from this suffering is to participate in bolstering force's vast kingdom, to become judges divorced from justice by indifference.

Of both these sorts of men, who sit
Quietly on a fence in the storm's eye,
The flood covers them equally.
–The Iliad

Ben ColeridgeBen Coleridge studies Arts at the University of Melbourne. 

Topic tags: homer, iliad, hector, refugees, tamil, sri lanka, asylum seeker, refugee, boat people, simone weil



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Existing comments

Thank you, for bringing back the Iliad to me. The horror of man to man killing. The wonder of "I have gone through what no other man on earth has gone through; I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children" and 'Achilleus wept now"; Hektor is buried . We are human, not like the gods, thank God.

Caroline Storm | 16 August 2010  

A timely article given Tony Abbot's policy of 'stopping the boats!' We see and hear little or nothing of the stories of the people involved in our media only that they are 'illegal' or 'unwanted'. we who have 'boundless plains to share' with ..those who've come across the sea...

I also wish that the reading of Homer's Illiad be prescribed reading of the politicians who want to make war - no matter how 'just' it may seem.

Joan Murphy | 16 August 2010  


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