[First published in The Sunday Star on 17 December 2006.]
IF you want to extract the innermost secrets of an Australian, first ask them what they think of John Howard.
The resulting outpouring of vitriol (or, alternatively, provincial gurgles of praise) will last between 15 and 25 cathartic minutes, and will leave them in a passive, unresistingly limp state. You can then ask them anything you like, and they will tell you.
It was by lazy application of this technique that I learned the true identity of my taxi driver from Sydney airport. I was there in April for my sister-in-law’s wedding, and I was looking forward to eating the large prawns you sometimes get at these sorts of things; I was not, however, expecting the Comrade.
His head was shaved. His aviator sunglasses were mirrored. His moustache was the moustache of a man of substance.
His monologue began with an expression of doubt as to whether Mr Howard’s parents had been married at the time of his conception, and rapidly became not just unprintable but quite untypable. Like clockwork, however, after 15 minutes I discovered I was being motored in to Darlinghurst by none other than the head of the Lebanese Communist Party, New South Wales branch.
This was quite exciting. Growing up in the post-Emergency climate, I’d always thought of Communists as either (a) hiding in the jungle, plotting their little plots; (b) growing kailan in southern Thailand on their little plots; or (c) reigning as ping-pong champions of Kamunting Detention Centre. I’d never expected to encounter them driving well within the speed limit, and signalling courteously before changing lanes.
“Is it difficult being a Communist,” I ventured, “now that the Soviet Union has collapsed?”
He sighed. Clearly the Comrade was used to this question.
“We have updated our ideology. The problem with the Russians” – he uttered the word as though they were all somehow related to John Howard – “is that they did not recognise the realities of life. Our party manifesto recognises the realities of Lebanese life.”
“In what way?”
“We allow people to practice their own religions. We allow private ownership of property. We allow them to operate businesses, and to make a profit.”
I was confused. “You allow them to make a profit? Isn’t that just like capitalism?”
“No!” he shouted. “A little bit of profit is all right, but if they make a lot they will share it with others.”
“Of course! All Lebanese are brothers!”
Now, if there is one thing I know about Lebanon, it is that calling all Lebanese brothers depends, tragically, on restricting the definition of brotherhood to the sort of crimson-hued fratricidal jollity enjoyed by Cain and Abel.
(My roommate in university was a Lebanese Christian from East Beirut, a student of civil engineering and a gentle, scholarly violin player. One day I was bemoaning the state of Malaysian race relations, with the simmering tensions between our three main ethnicities. He smiled and said patiently, “In Lebanon we have 23 different groups. And they all have guns.”)
But I wasn’t about to dispute the Comrade’s economics. I asked him when he’d come to Australia. It turned out he’d been there since the mid-1980s.
“Did you fight against the Israelis during the 1982 invasion?” I asked.
“Of course!” he bellowed. “I am proud to say I was part of the resistance against that brutal, dirty occupation.”
“What did you do?” I asked, wide-eyed innocent that I am.
“Special actions,” he said with a wink and broad grin. “For example, there is an Israeli checkpoint; we drive up in the taxi. Three soldiers come to check papers. Okay? Okay. But when we drive away, we’ve got the Israeli officer tied up in the boot! They don’t know what happened! They don’t know where he went!” He was thumping his steering wheel in mirth.
I glanced nervously over my shoulder, half-expecting a kidnapped Zionist to clamber out from the back, blinking angrily in the Australian sunshine.
He continued, gleeful: “Or there is an Israeli officer eating his lunch in public. People all around, right? But suddenly he falls forward. One bullet in the neck! Nobody saw anything!”
By now I was terrified. This was no longer cool. This was war, and killing, and death: nothing that a childhood in Petaling Jaya had equipped me to confront.
“You did all this? You planned these things?” I stammered.
He looked at me carefully, as though weighing the chances that I might be a Mossad operative on some 20-year mission of retribution.
“Not just me, my friend. We all did. And we will do it again.”
I was silent after that, and the Comrade gracefully changed the subject to what he held to be the manifestly inadequate masculinity of the Australian opposition parties.
That was in April. I thought of the Comrade again during the deadly July-August Israeli offensive in Lebanon, and again this past week as I read the reports of sectarian political upheaval in Beirut.
I thought of the trauma and tragedy my life would have known if I’d spent the last 33 years in Lebanon, and not in this part of the world.
Not for the first time in my life, and probably not for the last, I thought of how lucky Malaysia is, and I wondered, perhaps harshly, if we have deserved that luck, or made the most of it.