opening conversations

Political/socially progressive chat shows like ABC TV’s The Drum often uses the expression “we should have a discussion on such and such a topic”. But I am so aware of how homogenous Australian, especially Sydney, culture is. A friend of mine once remarked that Sydney people, for instance, really only associate with people from 2 or 3 surrounding suburbs.

Today, I visited my Middle Eastern barber in South Newtown for a crew cut. The guy who cut my hair was a young, chubby Lebanese guy; previously when I was there I had asked him about things back home. In the 80’s as an international telephone operator I had worked with the Beirut exchange under what was clearly harrowing conditions for them.In Sydney a supervisor came up to me asking if a piece of paper left at a previous position (we were rotated around the room) on which I had scribbled some notes was mine. I thought I had committed some indiscretion, but she identified herself as Lebanese and wondered why an operator should be practising the written Arabic alphabet; (admittedly rather childishly, she said). I said I was doing Arabic 1 at Sydney Uni; among the gems I was asked to translate into Arabic by my English lecturer was: “I hit the man whose hand was in my pocket”. This encouraged me to abandon the course.

I asked my barber about different cities in Lebanon; apart from Beirut there is Jouni; he was not sure and his colleague next to him sarcastically said the I seemed to know more about his homeland than he did. Ouch. Today he seemed confident, admitting that some days he ran the shop.

Further up King Street was another Middle Eastern barber; I was talking with him one day and with an embittered tone he said that the people of Newtown do not know what poverty really is; that suburbs further out are where you find this; even 2 suburbs away are shops that would support his observation. I would, in fact, go further; among the young professionals, the hipsters and the comfortably retired, are a group who play like Marie Antoinette, at being poor. Today, I passed a cafe where a young man was having breakfast of coffee and avocado roll; a top knot was on his head, all painted bright green; he looked like a sadhu, as if he had just come from an Indian festival.

I am coming to my point belatedly; as a member of the LGBTIQ community, I might interrogate all these different people and get their opinions on how they see me fitting into their world vision (heaven knows, I slightly loudly used the word “gay” in a conversation with my friend at my local pub and eyebrows were raised).

The people I would ask if possible would be my local General Practitioner who is Egyptian Coptic. I am currently intrigued by a Lebanese music group Mashrou’Leila, whose lead singer is openly gay: (I’m a sucker for smouldering, dark eyes). His song El Hal Romancy seems to be about a young woman disappointed with the prospect of her marriage: she throws herself off a building in her white gown, in a way similar to James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful. Fasateen and Sawsun are also intriguing and problematic: the former shows a couple of men from the band in a woman’s wedding dress; all seem constricted by societal? pressures. Sawsun, meanwhile, begins with a heart rending interpretation of the song Ne Me Quittez Pas, or If you go away. But, among the Facebook comments, are a number of righteous toned remarks that “sawsun” means prostitute; perhaps the song is a re-working of the Proustian infatuation.

I am not sure I have the courage to ask a Lebanese barber to discuss this while he holds a razor to my throat. No seriously, his job commitments would preclude in depth conversation, anyway. My GP seemed similarly unwilling; his work schedule consisted of 15 minute sessions.

But my point overall is that we call for conversations, yet there are so many societal sensitivities involved. I think we need the cosmic benevolence of a Dalai Lama to bridge differences.



About anton veenstra

tapestry weaver, fibre artist, gay/qr activist, multiculturalist
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