Bathed in sweat, I wake before the explosion. I slowly register the four walls of my room and the dark stain on the ceiling in the outline of an egg, just visible in the morning light.
In the shower, water cascades over my head and shoulders, down my back. I wonder whether I should write to Saraiya about the dream. She might worry unnecessarily. On the other hand, she might be reminded why I can’t return. I open my mouth wide under the warm stream. It fills with water and overflows, down my chin, neck, chest and abdomen. So much water.
On the boat, there was only a sip for each of us every few hours. We huddled together against the elements, against the glare and fire of the sun, the ferocious wind, the stinging spray of the sea. During the day, we longed for night. But when darkness fell, the cold, the emptiness, the relentless rocking took hold of our imaginations. The crest of each swell became the spine of a whale. Below us, sharks circled. At any moment, a monster from the deep might drag us under with a muscular tentacle. There was the human stench too, sweat, piss, shit, vomit, and something worse than all of those: fear.
When we made landfall at last, we laughed at our sea legs in the soft sand. We stumbled and limped. Lucky steps.
I lather my face with generous handfuls of Gillette Foamy Lemon-Lime Shaving Cream and stroke my cheek with a plastic razor. It’s like paring fruit, the scent tangy and fresh. My beard falls in dark twists.
I rinse in the basin, towel off and survey my face. There’s a small cut on my chin. I press a piece of toilet paper to stop the bleeding. The rest looks fine.
Without a beard, I look fierce, though Saraiya tells me I’m a handsome man. My forehead is wide and my cheekbones high. Above the bit of toilet paper, my lips look naked. I imagine kissing Saraiya. I can almost feel her in my arms, the softness of her response.
The paper bag from the chemist’s sits on the table unopened. Next to it, a large needle, a spool of heavy black thread, a porcelain bowl with a pink and white design. I toss down an envelope addressed to me, one with a symbol in the corner like an old time fable: a kangaroo and an emu stand in a tree with a star blazing overhead. This makes what’s written inside official, irrefutable, incontestable, final.
I bought the pink and white bowl for a dollar at St Vinnie’s in West End. It’s the kind of thing my mother would like, but Saraiya would tease me mercilessly about it. The first sign would be the dimple in her left cheek, then her mouth would curl into a merry smile.
‘It’s so pretty, Zazay. Where did you find such a pretty bowl?’
She’d exaggerate the word ‘pretty’ and tilt her chin. The dimple would deepen. I’d be so taken with her loveliness, I wouldn’t be able to form an answer, but would stand there like a dumb fool, simply glad for her attention.
I tear open the bag and pour the alcohol into the bowl. As the liquid settles, the pink and white pattern is distorted. I thread the needle and struggle to make a small knot. My hands shake at first. I drop the needle into the bowl and push the thread in too. While it soaks, I spread out my prayer rug to face northwest. I’m not a religious man, but I pray anyway.
I reach for some books from the shelf, taking my time, holding them in my hands. There’s Judith Wright and Les Murray because my English teacher says you can get the best feel for a language from its poets. There’s The Fatal Shore to understand Australian history; Orientalism and The New Voices of Islam to understand what’s happening in my own country. The truth is I haven’t read any of them. It’s enough just to get through the newspaper. I stack the books into a sturdy tower and prop up a mirror, fiddling until the angle is right.
I pinch the flesh of my lower lip and quickly jab the needle through. The burn of the puncture is nothing next to the sting of alcohol. It fills my nose and brings tears. I taste blood. I concentrate on these other sensations and the throb of the wound fades. Turning my upper lip out, I direct the needle and jab again, slowly pulling the thread through my flesh. Lower lip, a centimetre or so over, stab, pull tight. Upper lip from the outside, stab and pull. Again and again and again. Seven holes. While I wash the blood from the wounds, the needle hangs there like a dead man from a noose. I knot the thread and cut the needle free.
At the end of George Street, in the shade of Parliament House, I spread my prayer rug and sit cross-legged.
It’s crowded with university students rushing to classes, lecturers and researchers, tourists, workers, mothers with young children and, I hope, one or two state ministers.
There are a few stares, mostly covert. I hear a man ask his friend, ‘What’s that about?’
The friend shrugs, ‘I dunno.’
I look straight ahead, past the rushing legs and unseeing eyes. I have a good view of the Botanical Gardens. There are flowering frangipani, towering Norfolk pines, giant figs with roots like walls, some big enough to house a family, much bigger, in fact, than my apartment in West End. There’s a small pond surrounded by thick bamboo. On the other side, a busy street. But you’d never know. The pond is serene, quiet, a world away.
I concentrate on the tops of the trees. I spot a mass in one and wonder. Is it a nest? A large bird? A sleeping possum?
I’ve written to Saraiya about the possums. When I first arrived in Brisbane some months ago, I found myself in the Gardens after dark. I sat on a bench eating grapes from a bag. A possum climbed down from a nearby tree. As it approached I tossed it a grape, which the animal picked up and ate with delicacy. It came closer. I tossed another grape. Soon, other possums arrived, climbing on the back of the bench and even on me, taking grapes from my hand. I promised Saraiya I’d bring her here when she joined me in Australia. We’d bring whatever fruit was in season: apples, ripe mandarins, cherries.
I leave earlier today, crossing the Goodwill Bridge at morning rush hour. Cyclists whiz past; joggers pant; men and women with briefcases and iPods walk to work. I’m enveloped by a group of students. Snatches of conversation rise and fall: long sighs about exams and papers, excited exchanges about the summer holidays, the gentle ribbing of flirtation. The student closest to me, a young man with loose curls, speaks with low-key determination about a job prospect after graduation. I wonder what it feels like to be him.
I break away and move to the rail. Their words float behind them and find me.
‘Did you see his mouth? It was sewn shut.’
‘I saw him yesterday, sitting at the George Street entrance.’
Below, a CityCat approaches from upriver, serenely cutting through the muddy water. I told Saraiya we’d take the CityCat from West End all the way to Portside. Assuming an authority I didn’t feel, I wrote, ‘It’s the best way to see the city of Brisbane. The skyline seems to change every day. More buildings than you can count going up so fast. `Not anything like home. Just the opposite, in fact.’
I look towards the city. So much is happening inside the office buildings. It takes a lot of effort to thrive and grow. A lot of effort to live in peace. Behind every window, there’s a person working hard, contributing something that makes Brisbane prosper.
They seemed to think, though, that there’s a tidy one-to-one correlation. That if surnames are common here, they are common everywhere. That records of births, deaths, marriages are everywhere kept in neat files and housed in strong cabinets, just like here. They believe that such records always, everywhere exist. That since the buildings that hold such records here have not been bombed, they cannot be a heap of rubble anywhere else.
Because you cannot produce the papers that add up to their one hundred points, you are denied an identity. Without an identity, you are denied humanity.
You even begin to doubt your self. You can’t love your parents quite as much, or your children, or your precious wife.
I’m certain the mass in the tree is a nest. To keep from thinking of my hunger, I invent stories about the species of bird that inhabits it. I populate it with cawing, shrieking young, and wait for a parent to arrive with food. But none comes. After many hours of watching, I conclude the nest is abandoned.
My eyes drop and I notice a woman on a bench on the other side of the walkway. She’s looking at me.
She’s wearing the kind of clothes Saraiya would like to wear. At least, Saraiya would fervently tell me she wishes more than anything for a pair of jeans so old, so worn and familiar, so frequently washed, that the material at the knees would shred.
‘The freedom of that, Zazay, is all I desire. To wear what I like, when I like, and not to be judged. Even rags if I want.’
‘What about me, Saraiya? What about desire for your husband?’
‘Oh, my husband.’ And she’d roll her eyes dismissively.
But I’d detect the dimple, if only the smallest peek, and my spirits would soar.
I try to imagine it’s Saraiya across from me, Saraiya playing a joke. It’s her feet in the canvas shoes, crossed at the ankles. It’s Saraiya who wears the shredded jeans and the singlet and the short-sleeved blouse, unbuttoned. It’s Saraiya who pulls her hair up off her hot neck. The clutter of necklaces and cuff-like bracelets all chosen by her.
The woman stands and stretches, rearranges herself on the bench, and again rests her eyes on me. Not Saraiya. Still, there’ssomething about the young Australian woman that reminds me of her: a softness in her gaze, a steadiness, a willingness to understand. I see the questions in her face. I can only answer with my eyes.
What I crave most is sugared almonds. We served them at our wedding along with many other shirnee khoree. I make a list of the festive ‘sweet eating’: halwa-e-swanak, sheer payra, firni, goash-e-feel, shoal, many kinds of jellies and fruits. I can taste the sweetness.
I’ve written to Saraiya about the West End markets: ‘We’ll wake up early and walk there from our apartment. So many things to buy. Fruits and vegetables, so large and so fresh. The apartment is small and not so good, but it’s in the centre of everything and we’ll be happy there. There is a funny mark on the ceiling in the shape of an egg, but it only looks that way when you are lying in bed. Anywhere else in the room, it’s just an ordinary stain —’
A security guard interrupts my thoughts.
‘Move on. No loitering. You can’t stay here.’
I ignore him, close my eyes in silent resistance. My other senses are sharpened. I feel a crowd form. I hear whispers and comments, but I can’t make out the words.
The guard tries again. ‘You’re going to need a permit to stage a protest.’
I feel someone move closer. And then a voice: ‘What makes you think it’s a protest?’
I peer out from under my closed lids. It’s the young woman from the day before.
‘He’s sewn his bloody lips together,’ the guard responds.
‘I thought this was a free country.’
‘Well, you still need a permit.’
I unfurl the rug. The hunger pangs have mostly gone, but I’m thirsty. So thirsty. Each night, each morning, in the shower, I stand under the stream of water and let what will flow into my mouth. It’s never enough.
My mind wanders. I think of the days in the desert after we first landed. We’d been given instructions. There was a track, a well, a day’s walk, and then the town. We would show ourselves to the authorities, and they’d process us. A simple word, ‘process’. We had no understanding what it meant. Or how long it would take.
The Australian woman appears. She unfolds a small rug and sits, cross-legged, next to me. Under her breath, she says, ‘Don’t worry. I have the permit.’
It’s not her words that move me. It’s her face.
With a permanent marker, she’s drawn a jagged line across her lips, a perfect imitation of the black thread in mine.
I write to Saraiya: ‘I’ve been walking a lot lately to the Botanical Gardens, thinking always of you.’
I don’t tell her about the letter.
‘There is a place I like to sit, where I have a view of a pond. The water is inky black, reflective. It’s sheltered by rustling bamboo and spiky water grasses. There are lily pads too, some even blooming. Most days, there is a white heron who comes, walking on spindly legs that seem to turn back on themselves. Awkward and at the same time gracefully beautiful. These gardens are an illusion, a green corner trapped in canyons of glass and steel. The bird doesn’t understand it doesn’t belong here. Or that it is free to fly away.’
I write more, a long letter today, full of endearments, even though I feel weak and lethargic. I fold the letter and stuff it into an envelope. Today, I don’t bother to address it, but toss it into the drawer with the others before I leave for Gardens Point.
My friend, the young woman, brings the newspapers. There’s a picture of us in the Courier-Mail. Under the photo, it reads: QUT students join mystery protester.
It’s true. A few others have joined us. Identical lines drawn across their lips. We sit together in silence. Other students pass by with the same marks, drawn in solidarity.
‘We’re in the Australian too,’ she whispers proudly and points at the article. The headline reads: Brailled Lips: Silent but Full of Meaning.
The police have arrived. They linger, assigned to watch us, but they keep apart and say nothing. I feel no fear. This alone is a marvellous thing.
The young woman sitting alongside me smiles at me with her eyes. I’ve begun to call her Niki, partly because it’s an Australian name, but mainly because in my language it means ‘victory of the people’.
A Chinese woman in the detention centre told me that in China all protests must be done in silence. Those who have missing family members arrange to meet in a park on a Sunday. Huge crowds form. Many carry a lunch and a thermos filled with tea. It’s a protest that resembles a picnic — anything else is too dangerous. Each carries an A4 description of their missing loved one, a simple list of vital facts, occasionally a photo, always the date last seen. Some have been missing for decades.
When I heard this story, I was shaken. I too know many who are missing. When you hear these stories about someone else, you know the ending. That the person is gone. They will never be seen again. When it’s about you, though, you hope. It’s the only thing you can do.
The crowds have grown. Every second person has marks drawn across their lips. Some carry signs that say: /\/\/\. Other signs read: Why?
I never expected such kindness. I never imagined it was possible. I’d like to tell Saraiya. She would be so happy to know about the generosity of the people of Brisbane. To know how well I am treated here. I compose a letter to her in my head, but the tears rise up. I look instead for the heron by the pond. I can just glimpse the white of its feathers hidden in the foliage. It is still and composed, impassive.
I catch the eye of someone who seems familiar. From deep in my murky consciousness, I summon his face, try to recall. And then I remember. He was one of the students I overheard speaking that day on the Goodwill Bridge. The young man with curly hair. He has also traced the marks across his mouth in thick ink.
I raise my right fist to my heart. Hard. He returns the salute.
I’m not thirsty anymore, though I know I must drink. I’m growing weaker, too. Yesterday, I overheard someone say, ‘Three minutes without air, three days without water, three weeks without food.’ Each evening, each morning, in the shower, I force my mouth under the needle pricks of hot water. My tongue is swollen and there is a spiny burr in my throat past which nothing can go.
I spread the prayer rug, and for an instant it seems to be the takht on which I sat on my wedding day, waiting for Saraiya to be brought to me. She was veiled, but I felt her smile under the heavy cloth. We were given a taste of sharbat; then they painted our hands, joined us together for life, and threw handfuls of sugared almonds over us. Sugared almonds, symbolising prosperity, fruitfulness, happiness.
The young man with the curly hair arrives.
‘Listen to this.’ He places earphones in my ears, switches on an iPod. It’s an ABC report.
For the last week, Zazay Jalaluddin . . .
I’m surprised they know my name and look up at the young man in awe.
. . .a twenty-eight-year-old immigrant from Afghanistan has spread a prayer rug on the ground outside State Parliament House in Brisbane and sat there in silence until nightfall. His protest must be silent because he has sewn his lips together. This fact has roused the Brisbane community. Not only have students from the nearby Queensland University of Technology joined the sit-in, but mothers pushing prams, workers on their lunch breaks, tourists, business men and women, even the elderly, have come in growing numbers each day to pay tribute to this troubled young man who has become a symbol of unpopular government policy. In solidarity, many have taken to drawing lines on their mouths to represent the thread that binds his mouth closed.
What he’s protesting is unknown, but it almost doesn’t matter. In fact, the mystery makes the protest more powerful. It forces us to examine each of our policies, all our rules and regulations and, perhaps especially, our behaviour towards immigrants.
‘Pretty awesome, huh?’
I take a taxi, too weak now to walk. The expense doesn’t matter anymore.
The driver is from India. The card by the meter says his name is Kailish Rangarajan.
He speaks to me in the rear-view mirror.
‘I’ve heard about you from the news. I want to say I support you. One hundred per cent. What you are doing is hard, but right. Fighting for justice. And my friends support you too. We speak of it — your protest. We believe in it. All the city believes in it. Like Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Nonviolent resistance. It’s not for cowards. And now with Obama elected, maybe the world will really change. I have hope again —’
I fade in and out, my consciousness lurching from bright awareness to a slowed-down, anaesthetic sense of the driver’s monologue and the movement of the taxi as it follows the river and the looming shadows of tall buildings as we enter the city.
We pull up at George Street. With a broad smile, Kailish Rangarajan says, ‘No charge. For justice.’ And he gives me a thumbs up.
Niki is already there standing with a crowd of other students. She rushes over to help me.
Under her breath she says, ‘This can’t go on much longer, you know. You have their attention. They’re listening now.’
I lift my index finger.
‘Okay. One more day.’
She takes a water bottle from an esky and hands it to me. I put it to my lips, grateful that some of the cold water finds its way into my mouth. The rest wets my shirt, but it feels good, cooling in the breeze.
A crowd has formed, the largest yet, students with the marks drawn over their lips, many holding placards, a general protest. We all feel injustice over something or another.
I look past the crowd into the Gardens. Watching the moving patterns of light on the lawn, framed by leaning trees, shaking leaves, is something like going underwater, where everything is clouded, weightless, shifting. I look for the heron, but the crowd is in the way. There are so many. So many moving legs.
They’re coming for me. Their voices are behind me, but not far off. There’s a jagged gully ahead, and I run for it, hoping to fall below the edge of the horizon. Crouching, I creep along, hug the hardscrabble earth, hold my breath. Rough hands pull me from the ditch. I’m beaten with sticks and the butts of guns and hard boots. They drag me to the village, summon a crowd, make an example of me. The crowd is made to shun me, to jeer and curse; then applaud when the militants drag me to the common well and shove me in.
I fall slowly. There’s enough time to wish I’d fall on my head, fall unconscious, fall to the oblivion of an instant death.
For a moment, there is only pain and the hollow silence of the well. Time stretches. I think of my boyhood. Of my mother and father. Of Saraiya’s sweet face. Then, something hard and round falls from above, returning me to the present. I reach for it in the dark. It fits in my palm. A heavy, textured, egg-shaped object. It isn’t unexpected. There’s time to caress it, time to be grateful. ‘It’s done,’ I think with relief. Then, a contradictory thought arises: ‘The well will be poisoned.’ I wait for the explosion.
The sound I hear comes from far away, like a whisper.
‘You fainted.’ She puts a water bottle to my lips. Niki. Most of it falls down my cheek and neck, but some of it passes through the threads. I drink what I can. ‘I’ve called an ambulance.’
Shaking the old dream from my mind, I nod. Niki’s right. I’ve said what I needed to say. I pull the envelope from my pocket. The paper is crinkled and discoloured from being carried next to my body. The place where the seal is has frayed and is torn slightly: it looks as if the kangaroo is falling out of the tree.
I begin to laugh, but the sound that comes from me is more like a low growl. Saraiya will never know anything about this, I promise myself. Never.
If we are reunited, if she asks about the scars on my lips, I’ll say, ‘You’ve forgotten your husband again, my dearest? My lips have always been this way.’ Then I’ll kiss her and kiss her and kiss her again.
There is noise and movement. Medics. They take my pulse and my blood pressure. There’s a pinch in my arm — a needle for an IV. They lift me on a stretcher.
I imagine the pond with its fringe of grasses, shadows absorbed by dark water. The heron is there. I imagine it takes off, long legs stretched out behind, wings flung wide open to the sky, rising upwards above the city streets.
They roll the stretcher to the ambulance. Niki and the man with curly hair hover close by. Though my arms are strapped, I point to the envelope in her hands. She squeezes my hand.
As they close the doors of the ambulance, from the corner of my eye, I see Niki and the curly-headed student huddled together, reading the words I know by heart: The documentation in support of your application on behalf of Saraiya Jalaluddin is insufficient. Her visa to Australia has been denied.
So easy to see why this fascinating story won such an esteemed award.