Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land – a poet’s memorial to a forgotten crime

… they were standin’ on the shore one day
Saw the white sails in the sun
Wasn’t long before they felt the sting
White man, white law, white gun
Solid Rock, Goanna 1982

The Great Australian Silence

Archaeologist WEH Stanner wrote in 1968 of “the great Australian silence – it was almost as if there was a “cult of forgetfulness”. And indeed, white historical memory is like a sieve. Give it a good shake and only the big chunks are left. For a long time in Australia, the story of our frontier wars was not one of those. But in recent decades, an ever-widening crack has let the light in.

The first hairline fissures appeared in the early years of settlement as a small number of humanitarians voiced their concerns, although not with enough impetus to cool our pioneer fervour. Henry Reynolds, acclaimed historian of the frontier wars, quotes one such: ‘How is it our minds are not satisfied? What means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?’

I touched upon this paradox in a review I wrote of historian Peter Cochrane’s novel The Making of Martin Sparrow: – Martin Sparrow’s Blues:

“The country into which most characters venture is not, as we now acknowledge, an empty land. It was a peopled landscape, a much revered, well-loved, and worked terrain, its inhabitants possessed of deep knowledge, wisdom and respect for “country” … 

… Whilst many colonists, particularly the soldiery, regard the native peoples as savages and inflict savage reprisals upon them for their resistance to white encroachment, others, in the spirit of the contemporary ‘Enlightenment’ push back against the enveloping, genocidal tide with empathy and understanding …

… “It’s the first settlers do the brutal work. Them that come later, they get to sport about in polished boots and frock-coats … revel in polite conversation, deplore the folly of ill-manners, forget the past, invent some bullshit fable. Same as what happened in America. You want to see men at their worst, you follow the frontier”. “I don’t reckon we’re the Christians … We’re the Romans. We march in, seize the land, crucify them, stringing ‘em up in trees, mutilate their parts”.

… They knew in their hearts that this ancient people and its ancient ways are helpless against the relentless tide of the white man’s mission civilatrice. “It might be that the bolters have the ripest imagination, but sooner or later, an official party will get across the mountains and find useful country, and the folk and the flag will follow, that’s the way of the world. It’s a creeping flood tide and there’s no ebb, and there’s no stopping it. No amount of … goodwill”. 

At Bellingen’s  Readers and Writers Festival in July 2019, we attended a powerful “conversation” between Reynolds and indigenous activist and academic Marcia Langton. Reynolds reminded us that these wars raged for decades from Tasmania in our far south  to Queensland’s far north. It was a story of vicious raids and reprisals.

In August 2019, in a piece called The Frontier Wars – Australia’s heart of darkness, I wrote:

“Australia at the time of first settlement, and particularly on the frontier, was a brutal, violent place. It was colonized by soldiers and convicts, most of them young men chock-full of testosterone and aggression, bitterness and prejudice, greed and ambition. The conflict, which in Queensland, endured  into the last decades of the 19th Century, was a war of conquest and extrajudicial killings – or more bluntly, murders. The subdued territories were patrolled  by the native police – effectively paramilitary forces. The wars were waged by an outgunned people on the one hand, and, on the other, what were effectively robber bands raised and provisioned by the local magnates and squatters intent on seizing, holding and expanding their often enormous landholdings. There were to be no ceasefires, no parlays and no treaties. And no recognition of indigenous rights. None were ever on offer – not that that would’ve made a difference”.

We have come a long way in a short time; but we’re not there yet. There exists still a darkness at the heart of our democracy that we struggle to come to terms with; and in these divisive days, it doesn’t take much to reignite our “history wars” as we negotiate competing narratives and debate the “black armband” and “white blindfold” versions of our national story.

‘A sorry place’

We live in heart of the Tarkeeth Forest which lies between the Bellinger and Kalang Rivers in Bellingen Shire the mid north coast of New South Wales. Traversing the ridge just north of us is the east-west Fernmount Range Trail. In the days gone by, it was an ancient highway called the Yildaan Dreaming Track and Trade Route  which linked the plains beyond the Dorrigo massif to what is now the seaside town of Urunga, known then to the Gumbaynggirr people as a “place of plenty”. The first people would descend the spurs on the north and south flanks of the range for fishing and ceremonies on the riverside. The Tarkeeth Forest contains areas of significant indigenous culture, recalling song lines and stories of the Dreamtime, places of ceremony, of birth and burial, and of atrocity.

We have been told that the Gumbaynggirr regarded Bellingen and its environs as a “sorry place”, one of discrimination, expulsion and worse. But Bellingen Shire is just one of many places that have a dark history of which most  residents are unaware.

Three historic massacre sites committed against Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung people of the Coffs Clarence region have been recorded on the Aboriginal massacres map, created by University of Newcastle researchers. have been listed near Bellingen, modern day Coutts Crossing and near Seelands and Ramornie. [See below]

The scenic Waterfall Way linking Armidale to the coast is a drive we never get tired of as it winds along riverside meadowlands and climbs through world heritage rainforests to the Dorrigo Plateau with its windswept escarpments, clear creeks, and just off the beaten track, magnificent waterfalls, landmarks like Cathedral Rock, and stunning views. But, in the words of activist and academic and Ambēyang man Callum Clayton-Dixon, this highway conceals signposts to a bloody past. [We republish his article below]

One of these signposts points the way to north of Point Lookout on the New England Tableland, where, jutting out from the plateau and dropping in sheer cliffs into the thick rainforest below, is a place once known as Darkie Point.

Judith Wright was the first white Australian poet to publicly name and explore the experiences of its Indigenous people. Through her poetry, and especially in her later histories, Wright sought to confront the violence in Australian settler history and to re-imagine it through the eyes of the first Australians. Her words breathed sorrow and compassion into the early encounters between settlers and Indigenous people, evoking the tragedy of the Australian frontier. Her love of the New England highlands was bound to a creeping uneasiness about its past. As Billy Griffiths wrote in in his story of archaeologist Isabel McBryde, she lived in “haunted country.” In an early poem, Bora Ring(1946), she mourned the passing of a dynamic world:

The hunter is gone; the spear
is splintered underground; the painted bodies
a dream the world breathed sleeping and forgot.
The nomad feet are still.

She lived on New England  tablelands and camped at Point Lookout with her father, as he had with his mother. “She remembered being mesmerized by the splendour of the cliffs, the mystery of the thickly forested valley and the “the great blue sweep of the view from the Point to the sea.” But she saw a darkness here, too. To the north of Point Lookout, jutting out from the plateau and dropping in sheer cliffs into the thick rainforest below, is a place once known as Darkie Point. It is just north of Ebor and the scenic Waterfall Way linking Armidale to the Coast via Dorrigo and Bellingen.

Wright’s father told her the story of how it got its name: how, “long ago,” a group of Aboriginal people were driven over those cliffs by white settlers as reprisal for spearing cattle. Their sickening plunge was re-imagined in one of Wright’s early poems, “Nigger’s Leap, New England”, published in her first collection The Moving Image (1946). The story was later revealed to be an “abstracted and ahistoricised” account of a documented event. It was, in fact, August 1852, that scores of Aboriginal people were chased to the edge of a cliff, shot and pushed over. Some in this day and age may be offended by the use of what is now a forbidden word – but Wright chose it specifically for its shock effect, commemorating as it does what was then a forgotten crime. “Did we not know”, she asks, “their blood channelled our rivers, and the black dust our crops ate was their dust?”

In her short story, On Reading Nigger’s Leap, Teacher and writer Anne Vince asks her class – and  us, her readers – to imagine what Wright did describe in words words:

‘Local aborigines were driven over the falls. Stockmen from neighbouring stations rounded them up like cattle and beat them to the cliff’s edge. Mothers leapt, leaving their babies clinging to shrub roots. Some tried to hide their children in the burnt out husks of the giant gums that used to grow around here. After a while the riders would release their dogs…There is such a silence my words falter before tumbling forward. I have to breathe deeply to continue, to remember … How do we know this? Hard evidence. Skeletal remains at the bottom of the cliffs – and, yes – they are human remains. And, of course, oral history… Judith Wright had heard these stories.’  [We republish Vince’s story below]

© Paul Hemphill 2021 All rights reserved

Nigger’s Leap, New England

The eastward spurs tip backward from the sun.
Nights runs an obscure tide round cape and bay
and beats with boats of cloud up from the sea
against this sheer and limelit granite head.
Swallow the spine of range; be dark. O lonely air.
Make a cold quilt  across the bone and skull
that screamed falling in flesh from the lipped cliff
and then were silent, waiting for the flies.

Here is the symbol, and climbing dark
a time for synthesis. Night buoys no warning
over the rocks that wait our keels; no bells
sound for the mariners. Now must we measure
our days by nights, our tropics by their poles,
love by its end and all our speech by silence.
See in the gulfs, how small the light of home.

Did we not know their blood channelled our rivers,
and the black dust our crops ate was their dust?
O all men are one man at last. We should have known
the night that tidied up the cliffs and hid them
had the same question on its tongue for us.
And there they lie that were ourselves writ strange.

Never from earth again the coolamon
or thin black children dancing like the shadows
of saplings in the wind. Night lips the harsh
scarp of the tableland and cools its granite.
Night floods us suddenly as history
that has sunk many islands in its good time.

‘On Reading “Nigger’s Leap” by Judith Wright’ by Anne Vince

Judith Wright knifes the scab off an old, unhealed wound.

In the classroom I explain that this poem is set in their own backyard – at the local falls – where three generations ago white men, squatters and landowners alike, regularly went ‘hunting’ and it wasn’t for kangaroos.

A snarl sweeps across the pig-shooter’s son.  ‘Supposedly,’ he interjects.

I’m stunned. Not because it’s the first time I’ve heard four consecutive syllables from this boy – it’s the ferocity of the denial. There’s a history here, a hint of blood knowledge.

Under this remark I can hear the lazy slam of a fly screen door, the indignant scrape of a chair rasped over cracked, worn lino.

‘Yeah…’ drawls another student. Then another. The heat in the room builds. Even the incessant flies hesitate. ‘Well…?’

A sea of sun-scorched faces, eyes ready to pass judgment, stare.

To gather my thoughts, I glance outside. Massive cumulus clouds the colour of dark bruises roil and tumble over each other, mocking the scrubby horizon, piling higher and higher in the expectant sky.

I have to be careful. These are children well versed in suspicion. I know anything I say will make it back to shoddy verandahs and the town’s single, stainy-tiled bar.

I want to tell them their disbelief makes them complicit but that would mean slipping a fingernail under that lino, scraping at the decades of dirty reasoning and the trampled effort of surviving in a place like this.

The class waits – a collective held breath willing the relief of a reply.

I look at their hands. Some of them are men’s hands, thick-knuckled from weekend labour or cutting horses in low rent rodeos. Most of these students are already helping shoulder the burden of overgrazed, drought-stricken farms, riddled with dieback. They are tough kids from decent families who believe they’ve been given the whole country for their own.

‘No,’ I finally say. ‘Local aborigines were driven over the falls. Stockmen from neighbouring stations rounded them up like cattle and beat them to the cliff’s edge. Mothers leapt, leaving their babies clinging to shrub roots. Some tried to hide their children in the burnt out husks of the giant gums that used to grow around here. After a while the riders would release their dogs…’

There is such a silence my words falter before tumbling forward. I have to breathe deeply to continue, to remember.

‘How do we know this? Hard evidence. Skeletal remains at the bottom of the cliffs – and, yes – they are human remains. And, of course, oral history… Judith Wright had heard these stories.’ This is what I tell them.

I don’t tell them that swimming one afternoon in the dark pools of the falls, just as the sun slanted shadows through saplings at the water’s edge, I met those shrill, anguished spirits. I don’t tell them of the high-pitched keening and tortured wailing that filled my ears each time I dived, or of the roaring bush silence that greeted me when I emerged, clean-skinned and gutted. I don’t tell them how I choked, sick with sudden comprehension as I lay on the hard granite, resisting the pull of those blood channelled ghosts to join their sway and wander in the waters far under.

Now, Slessor they will understand. White man’s words. White man’s war.

They are excused by the bell.

To me it is the sound of alarm

Myall Creek, New England

At Myall Creek Station near Inverell, in 1838, twelve armed and mounted stockmen rounded up 28 unarmed Wirrayaraay people – largely women and children – and, without provocation, hacked them to death. This story, the Myall Creek massacre, is relatively well known because of John Plunkett’s heroic prosecution of the stockmen – several were hanged for murder – but numerous other, similar incidents in the area are less well known. These include the follow-up murder of thirty or so remaining Wirrayaraay men and killings of sometimes hundreds of people at sites such as Slaughterhouse Creek, Waterloo Creek and Terrible Creek.

Few locals know that Dangar Falls in Dorrego,  Dangarsleigh, and Armidale’s Dangar Street were all named in honour of Henry Dangar, a squatter known for his role in the attempted cover up of the atrocity, and for trying to pervert to course of justice in the subsequent trial.

We recently republished extracts for William Lines’ Taming of the Great South Land regarding the eradication koala and other wildlife in the earthy twentieth century. Here is what he had to say about Myall Creek and other massacres.

The Myall Creek Massacre

Most squatters abhorred the Aborigines. They resented their “wandering propensities”, their independence, their pride and their unwillingness to accept the hierarchical authority Europeans equated with enlightenment. For 50 years Aborigines the civilisation Europeans

had sought to impose on Australia, Their inclination towards independence of action and refusal to accept the values of the invaders invaders greatly exasperated the British. Their disdain for European habits marked them as barbarians and supplied the Europeans with an antithesis – civilisation versus barbarism – highly useful as a rationalisation for aggression. To counter aboriginal resistance, the squatters appealed to the government to clear the land. When the colonial authorities equivocated,  the squatters adopted at their own solutions.

At mile Creek, 650 km north of Sydney, shortly before sundown one day in June 1838, a group of mounted stockmen with muskets, swords and pistols, rounded up 30 or 40 aboriginals encamped at a sheep station. The Horseman roped the men, women and most of the children together and force them to march 4 kilometres into the bush. The untied children, crying, followed their mothers, who carried those too young to walk. One of the stockmen snatched up an untied boy of about seven ( a favourite of his), placed in behind a tree and told him to remain there until later. The child, however, ran back, crying “no, I will go with my mammy”. He was then fastened with rope to the adults.

A few days later the station manager became curious as to the whereabouts of the Aborigines previously camped in the area. The hovering at Eagles, hawks and other birds of prey, directed him to a spot where he discovered the mangled and half burnt remains at least 28 people. For the most part, heads was separated from bodies, and fire marks appeared on the disjointed limbs. Charcoal and burnt logs indicated an attempt to efface all evidence. The manager, however, recognise 10 to 12 small heads he took to those of children, and a large body which he believed belonged to “Daddy”, an Aborigine know for his remarkably large frame.

When the government laid murder charges against the men responsible, squatters and the press screamed in outage at the absurdity of indicting civilised man for the deaths of creatures on the lowest rung of creation. A few of those associated with squatting have not killed aboriginals and they continued to declare their right to clear the land of an inferior race. One squatter boasted that he “would shoot a Blackfellow whenever he met him as he would a mad dog. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Once juror explained:

“I look to the blacks as a set of monkeys and I think the earlier they are exterminated, the better. I know well [the accused] are guilty of murder, but I, for one, would never consent to see a white man suffer for shooting black one”.

The government eventually obtained a conviction at a second trial. Before their execution , the seven condemned men acknowledged their guilt but stated in their defence “that in destroying the Aborigines, they were not aware that they had violated the law, or that it would take cognizance of their having done so, as it had been so frequently done in the colonies before”.

The Myall Creek massacre became notorious, , Not because of the murder of the aboriginals but because of the conviction and punishment to the murderous. It was only the second and the last time in Australian history that Europeans were executed for the murder of aborigines. Henceforward squatters acted with impunity; the Myall C Creek trial only encouraged them to be more secretive and thorough. One recommended that, where the firearms failed or became too obvious, poison in the form of strychnine or arsenic mixed with flour be given to the aborigines.

Squatters believed that the £10 license fee and entitled them to the exclusive one of their use of the runs – a right which justified the violent expulsion of the original residents. In February 1840 the Whyte  brothers took up their Kooning-wootong run in the Western District. A month later they hunted down an aboriginal group suspected of stealing 127 sheep and killed between 20 and 30 of them. Although the Whytes admitted to the killings, the government failed to prosecute, and a month later the brothers pursued and killed members of another group of aborigines. In 1841 a party of seven settlers shot dead 51 aborigines on the banks of the Glenelg River near the South Australia-Victoria border, for abducting 50 sheep. Long after, according to a local squatter, the bones of the men and sheep lay mingled together bleaching in the sun at the Fighting Hills.

Taming The Great South Land – a history of the conquest of nature in Australia, William J Lines (Allen and Unwin 1991) p78-79

What to do with  signposts to New England’s bloody past?

View at Medium.com

By Callum Clayton-Dixon: The names of various creeks, streets, parks, and pastoral properties across the Tableland hark back to New England’s violent colonial origins. In this unprecedented time of truth-telling, is taking down these symbols of past injustices enough?

Majors Creek, near the village of Ebor, named for squatter Major Edward Parke.

Travelling along Waterfall Way, not far from the village of Ebor, you’ll drive across Major’s Creek, and nearby there’s a signpost for Major’s Point Road which takes you towards Major’s Point bluff. These places were named after Major Edward Parke, who took up Guy Fawkes Station in the mid-1840s. Ebor itself has a Major Street, and a Parke Street. Parke, an ex-military man, acquired a reputation for his brutal treatment of local Aboriginal people. A profile of the New England district published by the Singleton Argus in 1883 referred to how Parke “established such a reign of terror…that for twenty-five years no Aboriginal would approach his run, although through it ran their favourite and most prolific fishing streams”.

“The name of the gentleman in question is held in awe by the darkeys till the present day, and to mention it is sufficient to induce any stray Aboriginal to make back tracks to the nearest shelter.” — Singleton Argus, 12/12/1883, p2

The Darkie Point Massacre illustrated by Narmi Collins-Widders

Just east of Major’s Point is Darkie Point. According to the well-known pastoralist P.A. Wright of Wallamumbi Station, this particular bluff was the site of a massacre —in August 1852, a large group of Aboriginal people were chased to the edge, shot and pushed over. An article about the history of the Dorrigo Plateau printed in the Dungog Chronicle in 1932 talked of Edward Parke’s involvement in this atrocity: “A great number of them were shot by Major Parke and other residents of the district who had joined the chase”. It’s likely that Michael Clogher of Bostobrick Station, a former convict and constable with the New England Border Police, was involved in the Darkie Point massacre as well. That same month, Clogher led a posse of settlers “in pursuit of the natives” on the Aberfoyle run, and “followed them to Paddy’s Land, where they shot down as many as they could”. Joshua Scholes’ account of this incident appeared in a 1923 issue of the Uralla Times; Scholes was a long-time resident of the Tableland “with a wealth of knowledge of the early days”. I suspect Clogher’s Creek at Nymboida is named after Michael Clogher, who was also notorious for terrorizing Aboriginal people; he would ride into camps brandishing his cavalry sword, and apparently didn’t hesitate to use his pistol or carbine.

“The name [Terrible Vale] was derived from one of the men working on the place in the early days and known as ‘Terrible Billy’, being a terror to the blacks.” —Uralla Times, 03/05/1923, p2

Terrible Vale, south of Uralla, took its name from William ‘Terrible Billy’ Stephenson, the head stockman during the mid-1830s. Elizabeth Gardner’s history of the Station documents a story “passed down through some people who worked on the station…that a large number of Aborigines were killed near the creek on Terrible Vale”, and it was Terrible Billy who shot a great many Aboriginal people there. Then there’s Macdonald Park in Armidale, which is named after the district’s first Crown Lands Commissioner George James Macdonald. Commissioner Macdonald commanded the New England Border Police, and over the course of two days of skirmishing on the Beardie Plains in March 1840, his troopers shot dead nine Aboriginal warriors and wounded a tenth. In reporting this to his superiors, Macdonald justified the slaughter, claiming that it had been “absolutely necessary…to check the boldness and daring of their attacks”.

Dangar Falls, Dangarsleigh, and Armidale’s Dangar Street were all named in honour of Henry Dangar, a squatter known for his role in the attempted cover up of the infamous 1838 Myall Creek Massacre, and for trying to pervert to course of justice in the subsequent trial. On the Macdonald River run — named after Henry Macdonald, Station manager there in the mid-1830s — colonists poisoned local Aboriginal people by giving them milk containing arsenic. This is, in all likelihood, why a waterway on the outskirts of Bendemeer is called Poison Swamp Creek.

Most New Englanders would be completely oblivious of the horrific history to which these signpost names point. Why? Wilful ignorance in some cases. Complete denial in others. Most have no idea because they’ve never had the opportunity to learn about it. But the thick fog of the great conspiracy of silence is lifting as the push for truth-telling advances. Bolstered by the global Black Lives Matter movement, calls for the removal of statues and place names honouring those who contributed to the violent colonization of Aboriginal lands and lives are gaining momentum. However, there are a whole raft of questions and issues that arise from this crucial conversation.

What, if anything, should replace these symbols of past injustices? Plaques acknowledging the atrocities committed by the likes of Major Parke? Memorials recognizing the pain and suffering endured by Aboriginal people at the hands of the New England colonial project? Or monuments to the warriors who laid down their lives to protect kin and country? After all, the massacres, the poisonings, and the campaigns of terror were often carried out in response to our ancestors’ fierce resistance to the invasion. Their courage and sacrifice must also be remembered.

And what shall replace names like ‘Macdonald Park’ and ‘Dangar Falls’? One of the most common suggestions has been to use words from the local Aboriginal language (Anēwan) for this purpose, thus paying respect to the traditional owners, and contributing to the revival of our ancestral tongue. But symbolic acts alone aren’t enough, nowhere near in fact. Symbolism has to be, in my view, accompanied by commitments to real change, tangible change.

The savagery of Parke, Clogher, Terrible Billy, and their ilk was foundational to the development of New England as a thriving pastoral district. So were government agents like Commissioner Macdonald, overseeing ruthless police repression, and administering the carving up of the Tableland into hundreds of stations. We have to go beyond statues and signposts to conversations about redress for the protracted dispossession and decimation of Aboriginal communities. Substantial reforms to the education system are, of course, a given. Let’s talk about the return of stolen lands. Let’s talk about reparations. And it’s vital that these conversations (and the actions they give rise to) take place locally, as well as at the state and national level. Truth and justice, from the ground up — a shattering of the colonial status quo, not a tinkering.

Callum Clayton-Dixon is an Ambēyang Aboriginal man whose people come from the southern end of the New England Tableland in New South Wales. He is the author of Surviving New England: A History of Aboriginal Resistance & Resilience through the First Forty Years of the Colonial Apocalypse (2019), and a PhD candidate at the University of Technology Sydney, working to develop a dictionary and grammar of his ancestral language.

The Colonial Frontier Massacres Map

The Coffs Coast Advocate reported  in November 2019, how stage one of the project has recorded 172 incidents across Eastern Australia between 1788 and 1872.  About 97% of people killed in these massacres were Aboriginal men, women and children Massacres became more violent, systematic and calculated over time. The average number of Indigenous deaths increased over time, before declining in the 1900s, but massacres continued up to 1928.  At least 65 massacres of Indigenous people were in retaliation for the killing or theft of livestock, or theft of property

Darkie Point, Bellinger River, near Ebor  

Ten people were killed at Darkie Point on the Bellingen River in May, 1841 with settlers and stockmen using firearms and muskets to attack a local Baanbay Aboriginal tribe in an act of reprisal. The narrative by the Colonial Frontier Massacres research team reads.  “Following the brutal murder of three shepherds on Eldershaw’s outstation in the north eastern part of New England and the taking of 2000 sheep by Bundjalung, Eldershaw organised a ‘pursuing party’ of ten men (including Eldershaw, three neighbours and six stockmen) … ‘Well mounted and accoutred’ and set off with ten days provisions for the south branch of the Clarence. According to Eldershaw they shot the entire group – ‘a great number’ in daylight.’

Orara River, near Seelands and Ramornie

More than 20 people were killed on the Orara River, near Sealands between April 1, 1841 and April 30, 1841. The attackers included colonisers, a government official and settlers and stockmen. “In response to stock theft, from Ramornie station, CLC Oakes of Clarence PD swore in stockmen as special constables to surround a Bundjalung (Ngarabal? speakers) camp at night and at daybreak charged and killed indiscriminately Aboriginal men, women and children.” A man named Lynch was later charged with the stock theft.

Kangaroo Creek, near today’s Coutts Crossing

An estimated 23 Gumabynggnir people were killed on November 29, 1847. “In February 1848, Crown Lands Commissioner, Oliver Fry, was told by a stockman and an Aboriginal man at Grafton that squatter Thomas Coutts had poisoned 23 Aboriginal people by offering them flour laced with arsenic at his station at Kangaroo Creek.” Fry set off for Kangaroo Creek Station to investigate. He found human remains, but they were too decomposed for analysis. Coutts was arrested and taken to Sydney where he was bailed for 1,000 pounds, but was discharged in May for lack of evidence.

Sawt al Hurriya – remembering the Arab Spring

Ten years ago, people across the Middle East and North Africa rose up in protest against their corrupt, autocratic and repressive rulers, demanding freedom and democracy. Tyrants were toppled or feared that power was being torn from their grasp as millions of demonstrators surged through the streets, chanting that “the people demand the fall of the regime”.  

Myth and memory often embellish the stories and the glories of oppressed people rising up against the power, but when we recall these oft-times forlorn hopes, from Spartacus to the Arab Spring, it is difficult to imagine ourselves, in our relatively comfortable, free and democratic countries, in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consequences of heroic failure.  We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:

Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.

As Patrick Cockburn writes in a gloomy opinion piece in The Independent,

“There was nothing phoney about this mass yearning for liberty and social justice. Vast numbers of disenfranchised people briefly believed that they could overthrow dictatorships, both republican and monarchical. But …the dream of a better tomorrow expressed by herself and millions during the Arab Spring in 2011 was to be brutally dispelled as the old regimes counter-attacked. Crueler and more repressive than ever, they reasserted themselves, or where they had fallen, they were replaced by chaotic violence and foreign military intervention.

… none of the kleptocratic powers-that-be intended to give up without a fight. They soon recovered their nerve and struck back with unrestrained violence. … across the Middle East and North Africa, rulers used mass imprisonment, routine torture and summary executions to crush dissent. Repression not only affected places where the Arab Spring had been at its peak, but spread throughout the region, which is home to 600 million people, as frightened rulers sought to stamp out the slightest hint of dissent in case it could become a threat to their regimes …

… Could could the Arab Spring have ever succeeded against such odds? The question is highly relevant today because oppression by regimes, aptly described as “looting machines” on behalf of a tiny elite, is no less than it was in 2011. Even more people now live crammed into houses with raw sewage running down the middle of the street outside while their rulers loll on yachts anchored offshore.”

We published the following piece just over a year ago. Little has changed since them – if anything, with the world distracted by the pandemic and the US and its allies – and also  adversaries, indifferent if not complicit, the situation has gotten much worse. 

In Egypt, the grip of Egyptian strongman Abd al Fattah al Sisi has tightened. Civil wars rage still in Yemen and Libya exacerbated by outside interference (see Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East). Syria’s misery continues with the regime almost but not quite on the verge of victory, and the Kurds betrayed by the Trump administration and defeated by Turkish forces and their Syrian mercenaries. Lebanon, which avoided the fate of other Arab countries a decade ago, although enduring the influx of millions of Syrian refugees, in the wake of a winter of protests, economic meltdown and political paralysis, and the explosive destruction of Beirut’s port and environs, is on the edge of an abyss (see our Lebanon’s WhatsApp Intifada).

All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly”.

Sawt al Hurriya – Egypt’s slow-burning fuse

In That Howling Infinite, 9th October 2019

Déjà vu

Last month saw the death in exile of former Tunisian strongman, dictator and kleptocrat Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and the resurgence on 20th September of Friday street protests in Cairo and smaller Egyptian towns – and around the world – against the corruption and oppression of Egyptian strongman Abd al Fattah al Sisi and his military cronies. Predictably, some three thousand people have been arrested – protesters, prominent activists, journalists, lawyers and politicians, including Islamist and leftists alike and dissenters in general. These have now been added to the tens of thousands that have already been incarcerated on conspiracy and terrorism charges, largely without trial.

it appears to be an indiscriminate backlash, The Independent’s Bel True writes: “… according to rights groups and people I’ve interviewed, among those haphazardly rounded up are children who were out buying school uniform, tourists holidaying in Cairo, human rights lawyers going to court to represent clients, confused bystanders, young men popping out for evening strolls, visiting foreign students and street vendors. All are now swallowed up in Egypt’s notoriously opaque justice system”.

The protests have for the moment been contained, but with a third of Egypt’s population below the poverty line (and that’s a government figure – it’s very likely much higher), about one-third of the total under age 14 and sixty percent under 30, one can’t help feeling a hint of déjà vu. It is hard to keep one hundred million people down with just a strong arm up your sleeve.

Meeting with al Sisi in New York, US President Donald Trump praised him for restoring order to Egypt. At this year’s G7 summit in Biarritz, Trump had referred to the Egyptian president  as his “favourite dictator”, a comment that was met with stunned silence from American and Egyptian officials. Boris Johnson has likewise found a friend in Al Sisi. Tru quotes a British-Egyptian filmmaker: “There is a misconception that Sisi is a partner in stability which allows governments, particularly in Europe, to turn a blind eye to his behaviour: as long he keeps buying weapons and submarines and power stations”.

The Voice of Freedom

In our relatively comfortable, free and democratic countries, it is difficult to put ourselves in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consequences of potentially heroic failure. We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:

Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.

The courage of the of the Egyptian protesters – for brave they are indeed For having experienced six years of brutal and vengeful military regime, they are fully aware of the consequences of their actions – reminded me of an exhilarating song and video created by a young Egyptian and his friends, celebrating the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that precipitated the fall of practically president-for-life Hosni Mubarak eight years ago last February. Sawt Al Huriya (The Voice of Freedom)), went viral on YouTube after its release on 11 February 2011, the day before Mubarak’s departure.

Bur first, let us revisit those heady days and the doleful years that followed.

Remembering Tahrir Square

The self-immolation in December 20111 of young Tunisian Muhammed Bouazizi was the catalyst for the pent-up popular outrage that led to the heady days of January and February 2011, with the green of the Arab Spring fresh sprung from the soil of the economic and political bankruptcy of the Arab Middle East.

The fall of longtime dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, was precipitated by the yearning of their oppressed and impoverished people, and particularly the young, for freedom, justice, dignity and employment, and an end to endemic corruption, nepotism and brutality; for a society in which there were jobs and a decent living, where you could save up enough money to get married, where you didn’t have to bribe corrupt officials for everything from traffic fines to court decisions to business permits to jobs, where you could be arbitrarily arrested and/or beaten up or worse for speaking out against the government, the system, or just…speaking out.

Egypt had only known a handful of military rulers until Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, following weeks of protests centred around Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

When elections were held a year later, Mohammed Morsi, standing for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, emerged as president. After decades of repression of the Muslim Brotherhood under Egypt’s military rulers, Morsi promised a moderate agenda that would deliver an “Egyptian renaissance with an Islamic foundation”.

A year later, he was gone, replaced by Abd al Fatah al Sisi, his own defense minister, who threw him in jail and cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, putting hundreds of its members in front of courts that sentenced them to death in mass trials. 

His year in office was turbulent, however, as Egypt’s competing forces struggled over the direction the country should go in. Opponents had accused him of trying to impose an Islamist agenda on the country and mass protests began on the anniversary of his election. After more than a week of spreading protests and violence and talks with Sisi in which Morsi reportedly was prepared to make concessions to the opposition, the army announced it had removed Morsi and taken control on 3rd July 2013.

Morsi’s supporters had gathered in Cairo’s Rabaa Square before he was toppled, and there they remained, demanding he be reinstated. On 13th August, the army moved in, clearing the square by force. More than a thousand people are believed to have been killed in the worst massacre of peaceful demonstrators since China’s Tienanmen Square in 1999.

Whereas Hosni Mubarak died in pampered confinement, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only elected president, was held in solitary confinement for six years, and died in June 2019 after collapsing in a courtroom, the place where his face has been seen most often, behind metal bars, since he was removed from power. See: Nowhere Man – the lonesome death of Mohamed Morsi 

Morsi’s fall led to a military regime more brutal and corrupt than any that preceded it, and with full support from the US and it’s European allies, and of the Egyptian elites, has consolidated the rise and rise of the new pharoah. Al Sisi and other US supporterd and armed Arab autocrats have transformed an already volatile Middle East into a powder keg. 

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only elected president died  in June 2019 after collapsing in a courtroom, the place where his face has been seen most often, behind metal bars, since he was removed from power in 2013

The Arab Spring failed because its youthful vanguard were not prepared for the next stage. In reality, it only occurred in Tunisia and in Egypt. Like the Occupy movement in the west, it lacked coherent leadership and purpose, and in the end, unity against the forces of the establishment that were mobilized against them. But the young, inexperienced idealists were no match for the experienced activists of the Muslim brotherhood, the apparatchiks of the established political parties, and the cadres of the mukhabarat, the military, and the “deep state” that were able to hijack and subvert the revolution.

The Arab Spring was effectively over once the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators had departed and the counterrevolution had already begun – in Egypt particularly with the electoral success and later putsch of the Ikhwan, and finally the “tamarrud” or “rising” of the fearful and conservative middle classes that ushered in military rule.

 The great unravelling

The Tunisian and Egyptian risings were followed rapidly by the outbreak of insurrections in Bahrain, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. These were more sectarian and tribal based, with less reliance on social media, and while media chose to consider them as part of the Arab Spring, in reality, they were not.

This was transformed into a long, hard and bloody winter., and eight years on, the wars of the Arab Dissolution have dragged the world into its vortex. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations.

And they led to the virtual destruction and disintegration of these countries, the ongoing dismantling of Iraq, and an expanding arc of violence, bloodshed and repression from Morocco to Pakistan, extending southwards across Africa into Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudans, and their unfortunate neighbours.

Tunisia alone has held on to some of the gains of its “Spring”, but there it is often a case of two steps forward one step back. Nevertheless, the country is holding ostensibly free and fair elections as I write. Elsewhere, the misnamed Arab Spring entered into a cycle of protest and repression little different from earlier unrest, and also, as in the past, foreign intervention. And the story has still a long way to run…

Civil war and economic desperation propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism filled the vacuum created by crumbling dictatorships and vanishing borders, unleashing atavistic, uncompromising and vicious Jihadis against their own people and coreligionists, and onto the streets of cities as far apart as Paris, Istanbul, Beirut, Djakarta, and Mogadishu. In Syria particularly, but also in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, outsiders intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to these wars a forlorn hope.

All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly”.

See also in In That Howling Infinite, A Middle East Miscellany

 The voice of freedom

Against this a back-drop of the revolution despoiled, hijacked, and betrayed, I share the song created by Seed Mostafa Fahmy and his friends and the video they shot in Tahrir Square during the demonstrations. “In every street in my country, the voice of Freedom is calling!”

Sawt al Hurriya

I  went (to go protest), vowing not to turn back.
I wrote, in my blood, on every street.
We raised our voices, until those who had not heard us could.
We broke down all barriers.

Our weapon was our dreams.
And we could see tomorrow clearly.
We have been waiting for so long.
Searching, and never finding our place.

In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling.

We raised our heads high into the sky.
And hunger no longer mattered to us.
Most important are our rights,
And that with our blood we write our history.

If you are one of us,
Stop your chattering,
Stop telling us to leave and abandon our dream.
Stop saying the word, “I”.

In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling.

Brown Egyptian hands
Are outstretched amidst the roars (of the crowd)
Breaking barriers.

Our innovative youth
Have turned autumn into spring.

They have achieved the miraculous.
They have resurrected the dead,
Saying: “Kill me,
But my death will not resurrect YOUR country.
I am writing, with my blood,
A new life for my nation.
Is this my blood, or is it spring?
In color, they are both green.”

I do not know whether I smile from happiness,
Or from my sadnesses.
In every street in my country,

The voice of freedom is calling.

(Translated by Egyptian Seed Mariam Bazeed.)

Sout al-Hurriya
صوت الحرية

Nezelt We qolt ana mesh rage3
نزلت وقلت انا مش راجع
I went out and said I would not return

we katabt bedamy fe kol share3
وكتبت بدمي في كل شارع
And I wrote on each street with my blood

Sama3na elli makansh same3
سمعنا اللي ما كمش سامع
We heard what was not heard

we etkasaret kol el mawane3
واتكسرت كل الموانع
And all the barriers were broken

sela7na kan a7lamna
سلحنا كان احلامنا
Our weapon was our dreams

we bokra wade7 odamna
وبكره واضح قدمنا
And tomorrow was clear ahead of us

men zaman benestana
من زمان بنستني
We’ve been waiting a long time

bendawar mesh la2een makkanna
بندور مش لاقيين مكانا
Seeking but not finding our place

fe kol share3 fe beladi
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country

sout el houriya beynadi
صوت الحريه بينادي
the voice of freedom is calling
……………….
rafa3na rasna fe elsama
رفعنا رسنا في السما
We lifted our heads high (in the sky)

we elgo3 maba2ash beyhemna
والجوع مبقاش بيهمنا
And hunger no longer bothered us

aham 7aga 7a2ena
اهم حاجه حقنا
What’s most important are our rights

wenekteb tarekhna be damena
ونكتب تاريخنا بدمنا
And to write our history with our blood

law kont wa7ed mnena
لو كنت واحد مننا
If you were really one of us

balash terghi we t2ol lena
بلاش ترغي وتقولنا
don’t blather and telling us

nemshy we neseeb &elmna
نمشي ونسيب حلمنا
To leave and abandon our dream

we batal te2ol kelmt ana
وبطل تقول كلمه انا
And stop saying the word “I”

fe kol share3 fe beladi
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country

Sout El-7ouria beynadi
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling
……………..
spoken poetry at 2:14:
ايادي مصريه سمره
Dark Egyptian arms
ليها في التمييز
knows how to characterize (against discrimination)
ممدوده وسط الذئير
reached out through the roar
بتكسر البراويز
breaking the frams
طلع الشباب البديع
the creative youth came out
قلبوا خريفها ربيع
turned it’s fall into spring
وحققوا المعجزه
and achieved the miracle
صحوا القتيل من القتل
awakinging the murdered from death
اقتلني , اقتلني
kill me , kill me
قتلي ما هايقيم دولتك تاني
killing me is not going to build up you regime again
بكتب بدمي حياه تانيه لوطاني
I am writing with my blood another life for my country
دمي ده ولا الربيع
is this my blood or the spring
اللي اتنين بلون اخضر
both seem green
وببتسم من سعادتي ولا أحزاني
am i smiling from my happiness or my sadness
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling

Over the sea to Skye

Many’s the lad, fought in that day
Well the claymore did wield;
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Culloden’s field.

There are many folk songs that we are convinced are authentically “traditional”, composed in the days gone by an unknown hand and passed down to us by word of mouth and then, perhaps, by broadsheets and handbills, rustic kitchens and Victorian parlours, until finally pressed into vinyl during the mid-twentieth century folk revival. And yet many such songs were indeed written by poets and songwriters of variable fame. One such is The Skye Boat Song. 

This famous song is one of many inspired by the Scottish Jacobite Rising against Protestant England’s rule in 1745. It recalls the journey of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, “Bonny Prince Charlie”, from Benbecula to the Isle of Skye as he evaded capture by government troops after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The Jacobite Rebellion was sparked by many political, cultural and economic factors. but essentially, it was a dynastic civil war. 

He was aided in his flight by minor aristocrat Flora MacDonald who was subsequently arrested for her role and consigned to the Tower of London, but later amnestied. She married an army captain also named McDonald, and they later emigrated to the American colonies. Her captain served with the British forces during the American War of Independence, and as a result, their property was confiscated. They relocated to Canada and soon, after, returned to Scotland.

Flora and Charlie

Songwriter and philanthropist Sir Harold Boulton, 2nd Baronet composed the lyrics to an air collected by Anne Campbelle MacLeod in the 1870s. According to Andrew Kuntz, a collector of folk music lore, MacLeod was on a trip to the isle of Skye and was being rowed over Loch Coruisk (Coire Uisg, the “Cauldron of Waters”) when the rowers broke into a Gaelic rowing song “Cuachag nan Craobh” (“The Cuckoo in the Grove”). MacLeod set down what she remembered of the air, with the intention of using it later in a book she was to co-author with Boulton.

It was first published in 1884 Around 1885 the famed author Robert Louis Stevenson, considering Boulton’s lyrics words “ unworthy”, composed verses “more in harmony with the plaintive tune”. Purged of Jacobite content, these mentioned neither Charlie nor Culloden.

Boulton’s is the one that endured, along with the sentimental perspective Bonny Prince Charlie

Charles Stuart was the “Young Pretender” to the Protestant Hanoverian English throne that once belonged to the Roman Catholic Stuart clan, who after the bloody failure of the ’45 rebellion, fled into exile in France. And that’s where he remained, although his last resting place is in the crypt of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome – an ironic ending for this could’ve been champion of Catholic hopes.

He had many romantic and rousing songs written about him. But in reality he wasn’t the dashing, gallant leader that the songs portrayed and that the Scots and their Celtic Irish allies yearned for. He was an indecisive and vacillating leader, who thought himself much cleverer and popular than he actually was, and when the going got rough, he got going – and left the the Scots and Irish who supported him with blood and treasure to the tender mercies of the Sassenach foe.

But historical fact has never dimmed the popularity of the song. It is often played as a slow lullaby or waltz in many and varied contexts including soundtracks (including Highlander), pipe bands and weddings. It entered into the modern folk canon in the twentieth century with renderings by singers as diverse and indeed betimes idiosyncratic as Paul RobesonTom Jones, Rod Stewart,  Esther & Abi OfarimThe Corries and Tori Amos. James Galway and The Chieftains recorded an instrumental version, as did The Shadows, whilst Roger Whittaker whistled it as comedic crooner Des O’Connor sang.

We much prefer the version presnted below sung by the Choral Scholars of University College, Dublin, an amateur, mostly acapella bunch of Irish students. These young folk formally audition for a scholarship with the ensemble. There is little glamour or artifice, no fireworks or vocal gymnastics. Plainly dressed, they look like folk you would pass on the streets of Dublin or Galway.

Below that is a link to British film-maker Peter Watkins’ acclaimed film  Culloden (1964).

See also in In That Howling Infinite, a discussion about another famous Jacobite song:  Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody. This song is presented below.

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye

Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclaps rend the air;
Baffled, our foes stand by the shore,
Follow they will not dare.

Many’s the lad, fought in that day
Well the claymore did wield;
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Culloden’s field.

Though the waves leap, soft shall ye sleep,
Ocean’s a royal bed.
Rocked in the deep, Flora will keep
Watch by your weary head.

Burned are their homes, exile and death
Scatter the loyal men;
Yet ere the sword cool in the sheath
Charlie will come again.

 

The agony and extinction of Blinky Bill

In 1991, Australian publishers Allen & Unwin, the Aussie buyout of the antipodean subsidiary of the venerable British publisher that gave us JRR Tolkien, published an original political and environmental history of Australia: William J Lines’ Taming The Great South Land – a history of the conquest of nature in Australia.

It was, and remains, an eye-opener and a page-turner. All our past, present and future environmental hotspots are covered. Squatters and selectors,  rabbits and real estate, hydro and homosexuals, uranium and aluminum, environmental degradation and deforestation, and the trials of our indigenous fellow-citizens who who up until a referendum in 1967 were classified as fauna and excluded from censuses. 

Behind many of the names that are attached to our suburbs, our highways, our rivers and our mountains are the names of dead white men who were aware of, even witnessed, and were often complicit in “dark deeds in a sunny land”. Perhaps I shall write more on this at a later date, but meanwhile, the following is what Lines has to say about our iconic wildlife, and particularly, our endangered koalas.

At the beginning of white settlement, it is believed that there were millions of koalas across Australia. But their’ perennial paradox and their doom has been that they and humans covet the same habitats – good land and good soil. We have always sought to acquire, clear and develop the land they like for timber, for farmland and for development. Research by the World Wildlife Fund has shown that eastern Australia is one of eleven deforestation hotspots in the world, the only OECD country on the list.

Lines writes that at the turn of the twentieth century, state governments were less concerned with planting trees than with “how to kill a forest quickly”. “Elsewhere in Australia, “settlers regarded native animals an obstacle to development, the equal of native trees. The morality of development sanctioned virtually unlimited increases in the quantity of humans and tolerated virtually any decrease in the populations of other life forms – except animals directly useful to humans, such as sheep and cattle”. 

Settlers and professional hunters therefore shot anything that moved in the bush. Around the turn of the century, encouraged by an international demand for fur – primarily for the fashionably consciousness in Britain and the US – hunters began killing large numbers of koalas. In 1908, 58,000 koalas passed through the Sydney markets. In1924 over two million were exported from the eastern states. By the late twenties, the total total nationwide is reckoned to have been about eight million. 

By the end of the Great War the koala was extinct in South Australia. Other native animals survived, however, so in 1920, SA removed the brush-tailed possum from the protected list. Within four months, hunters trapped more than 100 000. As a consequence of hunting and habitat destruction, over 70 percent of native land mammals in South Australia are now extinct, extremely rare or uncommon and endangered.

In 1927 the Queensland government declared open season on possums and koalas. The eradication of wild animals, the government believed, promoted closer settlement. Despite widespread protest the government persisted the slaughter, and within months 10 000 trappers disposed of over one million possums and 600 000 koalas – more than the total number of koalas which remain alive in the whole of Australia today. The carnage caused the virtual elimination of koalas from Queensland. 

Four years later New South Wales declared open season on possums and during June and July 1931, hunters and trappers brought over 800 000 possum skins to market. To avoid offending the sensibilities of city nature lovers, merchants marketed possum as chinchilla and koala skins as wombat. 

Efforts to protect the koala have and remain a matter of “one step forwards, two steps back”. To burnish their dubious environmental credentials, governments broadcast their good intentions, announce inquiries and censuses, and then withdraw discretely in the face of all-too-friendly fire from political and industrial interest groups and their lobbyists. A WWF scientist has remarked that ”drop bears have more teeth than of the (National Koala Conservation and Management) Strategy”. It was not just on the Big Rock Candy Mountain that the cops had wooden legs and the bulldogs, rubber teeth.

In her masterful and lyrically beautiful “Fathoms – the the world in the whale” (Scribe 2020), – the Sydney Morning Herald called it a “a marvelous work of haunted wonder” – Australian author Rebecca Griggs notes how we earthlings anthropomorphized the leviathan of the deep as the symbol and indeed monument to our fall from environmental grace and our quixotic hopes for a return to Eden. Writer and author Stephanie Wood attaches a similar symbolism to Australia’s iconic marsupial in a well-written feature on our koalas’ dire straits. We reproduce this in full below. 

“Whenever people are upset about protecting animals, it is usually because they’ve got a financial stake in not doing so”, she writes. Echoing Griggs, she asks: “if we can’t save koalas, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to save ourselves”.

See also In That Howling Infinite: Losing Earth – Tarkeeth and other matters environmental

Featured photograph: In the thirty years we have owned our property in Tarkeeth Forest, much of which has been designated primary koala habitat, we have heard koalas in the surrounding forest, but , we have never seen one – until the day after Christmas last year. Meet Chrissy Dunggir (that’s Gumbaynggirr for koala).

How good were koalas?’: A national treasure in peril

Dwindling habitat. Climate change. Mega-bushfires. Koalas face dire threats, yet politicians continue to obfuscate.

Stephanie Wood, Sydney Morning Herald 6th February 2021

A koala in a tree on Kangaroo Island, South Australia: “They were lying defeated on the ground, desperate for water. Usually they’d be doing all they could to get away from us.”

Kangaroo Island, South Australia: “They were lying defeated on the ground, desperate for water. Usually they’d be doing all they could to get away from us.” Ricky Carioti, Washington Post/Getty
Every summer for a decade now, the curious photos have surfaced: a koala gulping water from a firefighter’s bottle, a koala drinking from a watering can, another on its belly trying to slurp from a swimming pool. By late 2019, images were popping up daily: a koala clinging to a bike as a cyclist tipped water into its mouth, another drinking from a pot of water while a dog stood nearby. In northern NSW near Moree, one was photographed in the middle of a road after rain, its curling pink tongue licking a puddle.

The comments came from around the world: “OMG, so cute” and “How adorable!”

But there was something unsettling about the images; koalas don’t drink water, they get the moisture they need from gum leaves. Don’t they? Even scientists and koala experts who knew the species was in peril were unlikely to have realised just how portentous the images were.

In spring 2019, the fires started.

There was nothing cute about the new images, which came in a flood. Koalas with bandaged paws and scorched ears nestling in laundry baskets in a wildlife volunteer’s lounge room. A huddled koala trying to drink from a Kangaroo Island dam, the charred carcass of another nearby. A woman stripped down to her bra running out of a blaze near Port Macquarie holding a koala in her shirt; if you watched the video, you heard the koala mewling in pain as the woman doused it in water.

As the imagery spread and the world’s attention focused on this devastating escalation of the koala crisis, the animal became a global symbol of environmental grief and fear. Prayers and messages of love rained down. So did money. Port Macquarie’s Koala Hospital created a GoFundMe account with a $25,000 goal and got nearly $8 million. From Kazakhstan to Kentucky, people sewed mittens for burnt paws. A cosmetics firm made eucalyptus-scented, koala-shaped soap to raise funds. A little boy in Massachusetts moulded the marsupials in clay and his parents gave one to every person who donated more than $50 to the cause. A friend in London couldn’t stop crying. “You’re not looking at koala pics again, are you, Mum?” her daughter asked.

At the time of white settlement, it is believed there were millions of koalas across our continent. Two centuries later, before the 2019-20 fires, the most authoritative study available estimated 331,000 koalas remained in the wild nationally, 79,000 of which were in Queensland and 36,000 in NSW. But koala counting is a notoriously difficult exercise and the 2012 study, led by University of Queensland conservation biologist Dr Christine Adams-Hosking and drawing on the research of a number of koala experts, noted that in Queensland, population estimates ranged from 33,000 to 153,000, and in NSW from 14,000 to 73,000.

But if the numbers aren’t firm, one thing is: even before the fires, koala populations had been declining precipitously. Studies carried out in 2020 by Dr Steve Phillips, principal research scientist at environmental consultancy Biolink, found that in the past two decades, Queensland had lost half its koalas, and NSW a third. Experts are still trying to tally the full extent of Black Summer’s carnage but University of Sydney research found 61,000 koalas nationally and 8000 in NSW were injured, displaced or died during the fires.

We did this. Since settlement, our needs have always trumped those of koalas. We needed the land their trees were on. Sometimes we shot them to eat. In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald in June 1851, the author noted that Aboriginal people called the creature a “kola” and settlers described it as “the native bear or monkey”. It was an animal with a “singular aspect”, he wrote, “its appearance is a sort of caricature upon gentlemen of the legal profession with their wigs on. It is said to be good eating, but is not frequently met with …”

“The response to the majority of recommendations were ‘Support in principle’ or ‘Noted’, which to me is saying, ‘We’re doing nothing’.”

We wanted their furs. From the late 19th century to the end of the 1920s, hunters slaughtered up to eight million koalas nationally to supply a voracious international fur market. Most went to England and the US, where they were described as “wombat fur” and often became part of that Jazz Age wardrobe essential, the fur collar wrap coat. By the late 1930s, the animal was considered extinct in South Australia and critically depleted elsewhere.

Still we wanted more: more land for farms and tree plantations and highways and developments of massive houses with manicured gardens. Developers saw dollar signs, their bulldozers kept moving. With all that came fast cars, feral animals, family pets and disease. A submission from a koala activist in northern NSW’s Ballina to the NSW parliamentary inquiry listed in wretched detail the fate of some local creatures: “Healthy breeding female, hit by car”; “Female, dog attack, dead”; “Male, retrovirus, ulcers in mouth and throat, hadn’t eaten for probably [two] weeks, maggots down throat while still alive, found sitting on a road after a storm”.

Above all else, our insatiable needs have led to the greatest threats koalas face: climate change and its handmaidens, more extreme droughts and bushfires. But despite the international spotlight the 2019-20 fires threw on the urgency of the species’ plight, one year on, governments have taken little meaningful action to protect the marsupial and its habitat.

The NSW Environment Minister, Matt Kean, says he wants to double koala numbers in the state by 2050 but in January his government announced it would fully commit to only 11 of the upper house inquiry’s 42 recommendations designed to protect koalas. Conservationists and koala scientists were horrified. “It’s really disheartening that the response to the vast majority of recommendations were ‘Support in principle’ or ‘Noted’, which to me is saying, ‘We’re doing nothing’,” Port Macquarie Koala Hospital clinical director Cheyne Flanagan says. “In koala circles, everyone’s disgusted.”

Meanwhile, for months through 2020 the koala became a political football after the Deputy Premier and National Party Leader, John Barilaro, staged a failed rebellion against his own government over koala policy. The result of the subsequent political wrangling was that, by the end of the year, policy to protect the species was weaker than it had been at the start.

Experts also point to the federal government’s shilly-shallying. Key national measures to protect the koala are either out of date or yet to be completed. “The koala was listed as a vulnerable species by the federal government in 2012; seven years later, we’re still waiting for a national koala recovery plan,” says Biolink’s Steve Phillips.

And what of the three billion other animals killed or displaced by last summer’s fires? One million lumbering wombats. More than 100,000 echidnas. Millions of kangaroos and wallabies; bandicoots, quokkas and potoroos. A terrible number of birds, lizards and frogs. The uncounted pretty beetles, butterflies and bugs. Well, it’s hard to spare too much emotional energy for a frill-neck lizard. But a koala … we can mourn a koala.

Scientists who study other species despair at the attention the koala gets. But a koala is emblematic; we feel in our bones that it says something important about us as Australians. “Koalas are woven into the narrative of Australia,” says Danielle Celermajer, professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney and the author of the recently released book Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future. Dr Kellie Leigh, a koala scientist in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, offers an anthropomorphic explanation for why they have such a profound place in our psyche. “The whole thing about koalas is the head shape, with the forward-facing eyes and the big round head that instinctively reminds people of a human baby,” she says, adding that mobilising resources for koalas is not a single-species approach.

“They get people engaged in conservation who otherwise wouldn’t be.” The koala is also an “umbrella species”, depending on a broad range of habitats which are home to many other species. Put measures in place to protect koalas in the wild and other creatures will also be saved.

Given that fact, perhaps we should ask an inverse question: if we can’t save koalas, what can we save? And if we can’t save koalas, can we save ourselves?

A rolled-up towel serves as a tree-trunk substitute for this sedated koala during ANU research into the impact of bushfires.
A rolled-up towel serves as a tree-trunk substitute for this sedated koala during ANU research into the impact of bushfires. Micheal Weinhardt

Kellie Leigh names many of the Blue Mountains koalas she studies after gods “because we’re on the Mount Olympus for koalas … we’ve had Medusa, Mars, Athena”. The Greek mountain is the home of the gods and famously biodiverse. The Blue Mountains is – was – home to a surprising and remarkable population of koalas.

The mountains were long thought not to be propitious koala habitat, although records show there were at least some in residence. In a letter to the Sydney weekly The Catholic Press in 1921, a reader described a “shooting expedition” to Hazelbrook, during which her uncle shot a koala. She added that at one time, her family had kept at their Paddington home in Sydney four “tame native bears”, which had been captured in the mountains. After a month, one by one, they died. The last survivor sat in a backyard peach tree crying all night until the family decided to liberate it and “one evening at dusk we took it to Bellevue Hill”. The fur trade was believed to have knocked out any remaining in the mountains.

In 2013, during the devastating Blue Mountains bushfires, three koalas were seen emerging to seek water around the town of Winmalee. Another climbed a pole in a backyard near Mountain Lagoon. “It was like, ‘Hey, there are koalas … they haven’t been on record for a long time, what’s going on?’ ”, says Leigh, executive director of the not-for-profit Science for Wildlife, which in 2014 started to survey koalas at five sites in the mountains.

This koala, named Medusa, is being monitored by Science for Wildlife in Kanangra-Boyd National Park in the Blue Mountains in NSW.
This koala,Medusa, is being monitored by Science for Wildlife in Kanangra-Boyd NP, the
Blue Mountains, NSW. Dominic Lorrimer

Their significance could not be understated: they were largely within national park boundaries so developers could not get near them, they seemed to be breeding like rabbits and, most importantly, a study with which Leigh was involved found they had the highest genetic diversity within a koala population of any in Australia. Darwin 101: genetic variation individuals in a species allows for its adaptation to changing environmental circumstances and so ensures the survival of the species. Leigh dared to hope that the Blue Mountains koalas might one day help recolonise the broader World Heritage area.

Photo: Eddie Jim.

But genetic variation is of no assistance to a koala in the event of a mega-fire. In late October 2019, Leigh’s teams were surveying sites in Kanangra-Boyd National Park and in the Megalong Valley when lightning ignited a blaze 100 kilometres or so to the north. That fire, dubbed the Gospers Mountain fire, or “the monster”, would become Australia’s largest ever. In the days that followed, it raced in from the north, licking up Leigh’s survey sites in the south-east Wollemi National Park and on Newnes Plateau. Leigh pulled her teams out of the bush.

She floated an idea with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service: could she attempt to rescue some of the koalas at the Kanangra-Boyd site? “At the 12th hour we got a ‘yes’. ” Within two days, a Victorian climbing team had flown in and volunteers had started to track the radio signals coming from the koalas’ collars and scour canopies for creatures without collars. Two days after that, 12 koalas had been temporarily moved to Taronga Zoo.

It was a small triumph in a great tragedy. Only one of Leigh’s study sites – in the Lower Blue Mountains, near where residential areas were protected by firefighting efforts – was unaffected by the fires. She estimates that 80 per cent of the mountains’ koala habitat was burnt and perhaps 1000 animals died, and is now madly working to assess what koalas remain and what potential there is for them to recolonise. “It totally changed this little picture of hope we had,” says Leigh. “It was like, ‘Okay, it’s not a source population any more.’”

Koalas rescued from bushfires returned to their native habitat

Pockets of optimism remain. In November, I followed Leigh and a VHF signal along a ridge line within the Kanangra-Boyd site looking for Kali, one of the 12 koalas which had a Taronga Zoo holiday. The lovely hum of the bush in late spring: rising warmth, birdsong, a darting dragonfly. Only months ago, soon after the 12 were rescued, fire raced through here; the trees are blackened still and there is a subliminal scent of something burnt. But the young epicormic shoots are lush and our feet crunch over new bracken fern and lomandra grass. And there, high in a narrow-leaved peppermint gum (Eucalyptus radiata), is Kali.

“Kali” is the Hindu goddess of death and destruction but is also associated with motherhood and rebirth. There could not be a more appropriate name for this creature half-concealed behind branches above us. Leigh “pouch-checked” Kali for a joey when she was rescued and was surprised not to find one. “I was like, ‘That’s unusual, she’s having a year off breeding.’ ” When Kali was returned to the wild in late March, a joey was in her pouch, that bonus baby peeking out now from her position snuggled on her mother’s back.

Leigh has tracked Kali for nearly four years. “If she was a person, she’d be sitting there with a crocheted rug and a cup of Earl Grey tea watching over the kids,” says Leigh. “She’s a homebody; she breeds every year, has a joey every year and doesn’t go far; she has one of the smaller home ranges of those we have tracked.” But for a homebody, Kali is a rule-breaker, as are the other koalas on the mountains.

Koalas are generally known to like trees on richer soils, but the mountains are sandstone country. Generally, the rule is that they live below 800 metres in altitude, but two of Leigh’s sites, including Kanangra-Boyd, are above 1000 metres and often white in winter. It was not thought that the silvertop ash (Eucalyptus sieberi) was a food source but here, they eat it delightedly. Additionally, the Kanangra-Boyd population is one of only two NSW koala populations to be chlamydia-free. “So it seems to be, or was, a thriving, growing population in an area that’s above the climate envelope for koalas, using tree species they shouldn’t,” says Leigh. “Yeah, they’re just a bunch of rule-breakers.”

The story of Kali and her compatriots is just one of dozens of koala stories to have emerged from the fire grounds. Taken together, they shed some light on the challenges of saving the species: there are hundreds of stakeholders working in the field, from wildlife rescuers to scientists and multiple points of disagreement; the science is dense but there are still big gaps in knowledge about the creature; and, depending on where they live, koalas have varying behaviours and face different threats.

Some of the most gut-wrenching images came out of Kangaroo Island, where tens of thousands of koalas are believed to have died from a pre-fire population of about 50,000. Evan Quartermain, head of programs for the Humane Society International Australia (HSI), travelled to the island to help with rescue attempts. “They were lying defeated on the ground, desperate for water. Usually they’d be doing all they could to get away from us.”

But it was a tragedy of animal welfare rather than species decline. In the late 19th century, three koalas were put on French Island in Victoria’s Western Port in an attempt to rescue the species from the fur trade’s devastation. Descendants of those koalas were later used to repopulate areas in Victoria and South Australia, including Kangaroo Island. But despite a widespread misconception that the island’s koalas can be used to replenish depleted mainland populations, they have issues resulting from inbreeding. “Their genetic diversity is very low,” says Sydney University associate professor and ecologist Mathew Crowther. “They’re a very bad source population.”

Additionally, before the fires, koala numbers on the island had ballooned to the point that they were putting unsustainable pressure on the environment. Some proposed culling. Likewise, in parts of South Australia and Victoria, introduced koala populations breed so prolifically that they put untenable pressure on native vegetation. In 2015, The Age revealed that wildlife officials secretly culled 600 koalas in Victoria’s Cape Otway area. The animals were starving as a result of over-population.

The complexity of the subject matter is matched only by the confounding nature of koala politics and bureaucracy across federal, state and local levels. Federally, there’s a National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy but it’s out of date: it was developed before the east coast koala population was listed as vulnerable in 2012 and does not take into account updated predictions about climate change. “Drop bears have more teeth than the strategy,” conservation scientist Dr Stuart Blanch from WWF-Australia says.

Similarly, a recovery plan to bring koala populations back to health, a legislative requirement that followed the koala’s 2012 vulnerable listing, was to be finalised two years ago but remains undone. In June last year, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that the government had been waiting on the states’ draft plans. In November, Ley announced an $18 million koala package, which will include a national audit of populations, health research and habitat restoration. But within days, 23 conservation groups had signed an open letter slamming the audit as a diversionary tactic and a waste of money. Research scientist Steve Phillips agrees. “It’s garbage … The numbers don’t matter, it’s about the rate of change that’s occurred. We already know what that rate of change is and the science is very strong that the animal is very clearly on a trajectory towards extinction.”

Meanwhile, the skirmishes that occupied the NSW government through 2020 showed the complexity of legislation governing environmental planning policy over koala habitats at a state level and the extent to which conservative ideology plays a role in the debate about saving the creature.

In September 2020, NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro threatened to move his MPs to the crossbench over the State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) that, among other things, increased the number of tree species identified as koala feed and habitat trees from 10 to 123. Many described his move as a “dummy spit” but, seen in context, it was more understandable: since 2016 the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party has grabbed the heartland state electorates of Orange, Barwon and Murray and the Nationals are struggling to remain relevant. In claiming the policy was an assault on landholders’ property rights, Barilaro was appealing to his base (two-thirds of NSW’s koalas are on private land). He backed away from his threat but the political wounds were deep: a week or so later, the Nationals MP for Port Macquarie, Leslie Williams, defected to the Liberal Party. In a statement, Williams said her community rightly expected that policy should overshadow politics.

Related Article: Bushfires  Storms, tornadoes and explosions: Bushfires are getting stranger. How?

Dashcam Captures Speed Of Bushfire.

The machinations continued through spring as a bill amending the Local Land Services act (LLS), which regulates native vegetation management on private land, was passed by the lower house of Parliament but blocked in the upper house when Liberal MP Catherine Cusack crossed the floor to vote with Labor, the Greens and other crossbenchers. She told the chamber that she had never seen “such poor integrity of processes” which had “zero to do with protecting koalas”. She said: “It is to try to patch up a political disagreement … Far too many mistakes have been made already, many buried in regulatory complexity. But the trends, the science and the outcomes are very clear. We are failing, and this bill cannot possibly assist.”

During the state’s hottest November on record, the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, sacked Cusack as parliamentary secretary for voting against the government and announced she would scrap the SEPP and revert to its predecessor – a weaker, 25-year-old koala habitat policy – until a new one was developed.

Kellie Leigh, at right, surveys the koala population in Kanangra-Boyd National Park, NSW.
Kellie Leigh, at right, surveys the koala population in Kanangra-Boyd NP, NSW. Dominic Lorrimer

Kellie Leigh’s koalas might be rule-breakers but, mostly, koalas and people like the same habitats: good land, good soil types. “We always want to develop the land koalas like, that’s where we can grow our vegies and crops,” Leigh says. According to WWF international research, eastern Australia is one of 11 deforestation hotspots in the world, the only OECD country on the list.

Multiple koala experts I spoke to for this story noted that despite layers of bureaucracy and multiple koala plans and strategies, the hard decisions needed about the most important measure to save koalas aside from reversing climate change – habitat protection – are still not being taken. Port Macquarie Koala Hospital’s Cheyne Flanagan notes that the NSW government is taking some positive steps, including the development of a new koala strategy due to be released this year. But she says legislation to protect koala habitats is not tight enough.

“It’s still rape and pillage and open slather with regards to removal of habitat,” she says. NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann, who chaired the upper house inquiry into koalas, says that successive governments have made koala protection policies “complex and overlapping, but ultimately there’s hardly any of it that actually stops koala habitat being cleared”.

Meanwhile, Evan Quartermain from the Humane Society International Australia believes there is an untold element to the habitat loss story: “It’s the cumulative effect of smaller developments … death by a thousand cuts.” They don’t get much attention but they’re happening everywhere, all the time. Often, what is lost is the critical “corridors” koalas need to travel across the land.

But the overarching threat to koalas is climate change. Ahead of a firefront that ravaged the NSW Southern Tablelands in January 2020, more than 40 koalas were rescued and taken to the Australian National University for sanctuary. Scientists were appalled to discover that most were starving to death. “They were in that condition because of the extreme heat and the drought that set up those conditions for the fire to happen. The climate was killing them before the fires even got there,” says Dr Kara Youngentob, an ANU ecologist. Youngentob says she has now seen eucalypts, trees adapted to one of the driest climates in the world, dying from moisture stress. “Before this past summer happened, I had a hard time believing that eucalypts could get that desiccated … [they] can’t handle the type of climate they’re now experiencing.”

Conventional wisdom has long been that koalas don’t need to drink water because gum leaves provide all the moisture they need. But a new study led by Dr Valentina Mella, a research associate from the University of Sydney, captured koala drinking behaviour in the wild for the first time: researchers observed koalas licking water running down smooth tree trunks during rain.

Usually, koalas get enough hydration from gum leaves. A scene like this in Gunnedah, NSW “really tells you there’s something wrong”, says a researcher.
Usually, koalas get enough hydration from gum leaves. A scene like this in Gunnedah, NSW “really tells you there’s something wrong”.Kate Wilson

So what should we make of all the photographs of koalas drinking from humans’ water bottles and bird baths and pools? “That is very incredible behaviour; that really tells you there’s something wrong,” says Mella, who has preliminary data showing the moisture content of eucalyptus leaves is declining. “No wild animal would approach a human unless there was something to get from it … these animals can’t find water anywhere else.” (Experts caution against giving koalas water from a bottle because when they tip their head back to drink, water can get into their lungs, potentially causing aspiration pneumonia.) Youngentob says when koalas in the care of ANU during the fires drank a lot of water, it was an indication they’d sustained physiological stress. “Drinking is kind of their swansong,” she says. “When you see a koala drink a lot, it’s on its way out.”

“It’s about climate change … these extreme temperature differentials that are just beyond the koala’s ability to adapt to.”

Sometimes people try to tell Biolink’s Steve Phillips that the decline in koala numbers is primarily due to disease. “Oh, bullshit!” he replies. “Every time I see somebody try to hijack the koala conservation argument and mention disease as one of the driving factors, I go, ‘No, no, no.’ It’s about climate change, and the drying out of the landscape and these extreme temperature differentials that are just beyond the koala’s ability to adapt to.” Phillips has seen the climate envelope for where koalas can survive shrink dramatically. During surveys in the mid-1990s, he found thousands of koalas in the Pilliga forests of north-central NSW. He returned in 2019 and surveyed 108 sites. “We did not find one single bit of evidence of koalas being alive.” East of the Pilliga, the “koala capital” of Gunnedah had a koala population of nearly 13,000 in 2012. Phillips says that, by 2019, estimates were that about 90 per cent had gone. “This wave of extinction moving through from the west has taken out the Pilliga animals and now looks like it’s going to take out the Gunnedah population.”

What he says next makes me shiver. “I could go out into the Pilliga at night 15 years ago and drive along the road with a spotlight and see four koalas and three brushtail possums and a couple of ringtails and possibly a carpet snake and various other things. Now I can do that and I see nothing.” A night in the Australian bush, and there is no life.

Kellie Leigh releases Lakshmi and her joey, Ra, in Kanangra-Boyd National Park in NSW in March last year. The koalas had been evacuated to Taronga Zoo to escape the Gospers Mountain fire.
Kellie Leigh releases Lakshmi and her joey, Ra, in Kanangra-Boyd NP in NSW March2020. The koalas had been evacuated to Taronga Zoo to escape the Gospers Mountain fire.Ian Brown

Why do we place so little value on the glorious, pulsing, sweet-smelling beauty of our landscapes and the creatures rustling within them? Why do we argue with what scientists tell us, scientists whose research is not published until it has undergone rigorous, peer-reviewed assessment? Why do we imagine things will go on as they always have?

Is it about greed and self-interest? HSI’s Evan Quartermain observes: “Whenever people are upset about protecting animals, it’s usually because they’ve got a financial stake in not doing so.”

Is it about priorities? Kellie Leigh’s mad scramble to save some of the Blue Mountains’ koalas was done without assistance from authorities. “All the firefighters were out protecting people and property,” she says. “There were no resources for wildlife.” Firefighters call it “asset protection” – protecting people and property.

“Whenever people are upset about protecting animals, it’s usually because they’ve got a financial stake in not doing so.”

But we diminish ourselves and imperil our own future when we take such a narrow, short-sighted view of assets and self-interest. Professor Danielle Celermajer wants people to recognise “we’re all earth beings … We are woven in relationships with other earth beings: animals, rivers, forests, rainforests, gum trees.” She rejects the idea that humans are in a different realm. “It’s a very pernicious fantasy we continue to indulge that everything else can go but we’ll be okay.”

On November 30, The Guardian published a story noting that international lawyers were developing plans for a crime of ecocide: criminalising destruction of the world’s ecosystems. On Twitter, Matt Haig, the acclaimed English author of the 2016 book Reasons to Stay Alive, posted a link to the story with the comment: “Ecological destruction is ultimately self-harm.”

The day before The Guardian story was published, a video of a koala under a lawn sprinkler in Bowenville, near Dalby in south-east Queensland, travelled around the world. “Even the koala bears are coming up with ways to stay cool there,” a perky TV presenter in Oklahoma City said. “That’s pretty cute.”

Dalby’s average maximum November temperature is 30.6°C. In November 2020, the maximum average temperature was 33.9°C. On November 29, the day the video of the koala under a sprinkler was shot, the thermometer hit 38.5°C. Watch the video. The koala is guzzling from the sprinkler head.

In December 2019, as an apocalyptic haze of smoke blanketed Sydney, thousands of people marched through the city demanding action on climate change. An image of one person’s placard pinged around social media: “How great were koalas?”

Tangled 2 – Libya’s bloody circus rolls on

UN-sponsored talks have produced a new interim government for Libya aimed at resolving a decade of chaos, division and violence by holding national elections later this year. But with myriad factions loathe to surrender influence they already hold, and with foreign powers invested in local allies, the new government may rapidly come under pressure. The appointment of a new government may also do little to change the balance of military power on the ground, where armed groups rule the streets and factions remain split between east and west along a fortified front-line.  

Some Libyans have been critical of a process which they view as being managed from abroad and which they fear will allow existing power-brokers to cling to their influence. “It’s just a painkiller to portray Libya as stable for a while. But war and tension will certainly come back sooner or later so long as militias have power,” said Abdulatif al-Zorgani, a 45-year-old state employee in Tripoli.

“Déjà vu all over again”

A year ago, In That Howling Infinite published Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East Back then, Libya held poll position for its multitude of active players and, to use that Shakespearean script note, “voices off”. A year on, borrowing again from the Bard, there are continuing “alarums and excursions”. 

Libya has long been a jigsaw puzzle of competing interests –  tribal versus urban, Islamist versus secularist, revolutionary versus old-regime, localist and regional players, Middle Eastern and European – all prepared to tear the country apart for in pursuit of their own political and economic interests – which include, as is often the case, oil and gas. Their contortions get more and more torturous. 

It was reported year last year that that more than 1400 Russian mercenaries had been were deployed in 2019 by the Wagner company, a Russian military outfit headed by a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, had deployed in Libya to assist warlord Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army in its push against Libya ostensibly internationally recognized government. It was joining troops hired by Haftar’s backers, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and included mercenaries from Sudan’s brutal Jamjaweed militia – aided and abetted by several EU members and French, Italian and sundry other arms suppliers. 

Wagner’s sell-swords included a good number of Syrians – sundry rebels and jihadis left high, dry and unemployed by the Syrian regime’s ongoing ‘reconquista’ – which is, as we know, bolstered by the Russian military – including Wagner’s fighting men, who include in their number many Muslim Chechens from Russia’s subservient neighbour. 

When Haftar’s offensive stalled outside Tripoli, Libya’s capitol, last June, it was reported that more than a thousand of the Russian and Syrian mercenaries had been  pulled back from the front lines and taken planes to who knows where. This “retreat” was precipitated by a Turkish military intervention that has helped block an assault on the capital. 

The Turkish contingent is comprised of numerous specialists and advisers, artillery and aircraft, and a contingent of, surprise surprise, hirelings drawn from the same battered battlefields of northern Syria. Those same jihadis and rebels in Wagner’s pay. 

Many Syrians sell their services because it is the only way they can feed their families in the war-battered economy of the regime’s Syria, and the besieged enclaves of the disparate rebel forces. It reported that these mercenaries, zealous and reluctant alike, have also been deployed in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh during the recent brief but bloody war between Russian-backed Armenia and Turkish-supported Azerbaijan. Recruits on both sides in both conflicts are reportedly complaining that they are not being paid what they were promised nor on time. 

Haftar spend time late last year in Egypt conferring with his patron and mentor, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, over possible next moves. There is speculation now that whilst Haftar’s backers are becoming increasingly disillusioned with his martial abilities, they are reluctant to relinquish their influence in this politically and economically strategically area leaving the field to an ambitious Erdogan. They may, indeed, be surreptitiously looking around for a new dance-partner. 

As COVID-19 infections continued to rise, and as Turkey and Russia vied for influence in this strategically important corner of the Mediterranean, there were incoherent mumblings that the that the USA might be about to throw its MAGA cap into the crowded ring, This did not however eventuate, and there are indications that the new administration may be reluctant to involve itself in torturous proxy wars involving disreputable Arab and other despots. 

Nevertheless, Libya’s nightmare continues. As American baseball wizz Yogi Berra once said, “It feels like déjà vu all over again”.

In That Howling Infinite, see also; Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East and A Middle East Miscellany

Here is a good  analysis of this unwinnable civil war:  The citizens of Libya are suffering – All sides have to take the blame for this bloody stalemate

© Paul Hemphill 2021.  All rights reserved

Facing the music – no partying in Palestine

It’s a crash course for the ravers – it’s a drive-in Saturday!  David Bowie

Apparently, it’s party time in Dubai as the potentially impecunious emirate lowers its COVID19 guard and stands down its morality mukhabarat to lure champagne Charlies and Charlottes from plague infested England and its new-found Israeli tourists to raucous hootenannies in the casbah. Pandemic restrictions be damned! We’ll vaccinate the lot – well, most of them. The occidental groovers and grifters will get their shots before the lowly South and South East Asians who constitute the majority of the Emirates’ expatriate workforce.

Business is business, and why not? In our democracies, it is our right to hire a DJ, bring in the booze and throw a party, inviting all our friends and neighbours. We’re even willing to defy lockdowns and social distancing and risk hefty fines to assert our right, nay, need to be crowdy and rowdy.

Young folk in less liberated and licentious lands should be so lucky. As the story we publish below by Israeli-Arab writer and Haaretz editor Rajaa Natour illustrates, identity politics, cancel culture, and the right to take offence are not the exclusive preserve of the so-called “woke” leftists of the west and their particularistic adversaries on the right. When nationalism, secularism, religiosity, and identity collide the door is wide open for intolerance, misogyny and  ignorance.

When travelling through the Middle East and studying Arabic, there are two words that you learn quicksmart: mamnu’ and muharam, ممنوع و محرم. They both mean forbidden, prohibited, “don’t do it!”. The first is the voice of secular authority enforced by police, soldiers and officials; and the second is a religious edict determined by spiritual leaders and enforced by social custom and quite often, self-appointed vigilantes. Islam as a faith observes no separation between the divine and the secular in human affairs, and in Muslim societies, the dividing line is sometimes slim to nonexistent, the one reinforcing the other – with unfortunate consequences for perceived transgressors, as Palestinian musician Sama Abdelhadi found out when she organised a dance party in a remote location, and incurred the wrath of the straighteners, the patriarchy, and, so these would declare, the Almighty.

A crash course for the ravers

A video clip of a dance party hosted by a celebrated female DJ at a what is reputed to be a holy site quickly goes viral on social media, infuriating many Palestinians who claim that the party-goers are debasing and desecrating the sanctity of the shrine, of Word gets out in real-time and the party is gate-crashed by a posse of young Palestinian men who violently expel the revelers. Arrested by the security forces of the Palestinian Authority, the DJ  is at first accused of desecrating a holy site, later with violating COVID19 regulations, and is remanded in custody for 15 days.

Natour writes: “When a prophet who is the earthly apostle of the divinity, religious taboos, and a misguided Muslim Palestinian crowd join hands, it’s a lost cause, becoming a Gordian knot. A desecration of a location is directly linked to a desecration of the divinity and, accordingly, as is always the case, the defilement and disgracing of the divine requires punitive measures. And so the second act begins as the wounded Palestinian-Muslim masculinity delivers its punishment. God and his defenders will not rest until blood is shed. This time it was the blood, or more precisely the freedom, of Sama Abdulhadi … But (the) arguments are fatuous. There is no link, historical or religious, between Nebi Musa and the defiled location – its desecration and the violation of the sensibilities of many Muslims, are all imaginary. The intent is to turn an  imaginary violation into something real, and a tool in the service of political-religious interests.

The Nebi Musa shrine, by the way, is named for the Prophet Moses – old Moshe is holy to all three Peoples of the Book – and he is reputed to be buried there. The biblical record – which was later borrowed by Christianity and by Islam is clear that Moses did not enter the Promised Land, but rather, expired on a high place overlooking Canaan on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea – the town adjacent to the archaeological icon of Petra is called Wadi Musa, ‘the valley of Moses’.

Palestinian political leaders (male) cooperate with the demand to issue a moral-religious condemnation of secularism in principle and particularly secular culture. The Palestinian Authority has even suggested a commission of inquiry – a roundabout way of kicking the can up the road. But what bothers the public, it would seem, is not the cultural gap between techno music and Palestinian culture, but rather, it neglects the Palestinian narrative and is therefore not legitimate.

Then Israeli Arab politicians (male) get involved, presenting the violent expulsion of the revelers from the Nebi Musa compound as a national act of heroism, turning the violence and the disqualification of cultural events that have taken over internal Palestinian discourse into a political issue, an oppositional and subversive one.  Palestinian secularism is framed as an enemy of Palestinian nationalism that must be silenced.

Then another change occurred in the Palestinian political-cultural discourse. Palestinian secularism, already labeled as inimical to Palestinian nationalism, became an agent of other agendas, in this case, the occupation. This wasn’t merely a struggle between secularism and religiosity, it was the disqualification of secularism as a political alternative before it became a cultural alternative. It was therefore necessary to portray it as a betrayal, to kill it so that religion could grow on its ruins.

Natour concludes: “The people who broke into the party at Nebi Musa represent the same masses who objectify and harass women, who persecute and mock the Palestinian LGBT community, who legitimize the murder of women. These are the masses who will soon burst in, wielding clubs, into the Qasr al-Thaqafa cultural center in Ramallah, without needing to resort to any religious pretext any more”.

Sama Abdulhadi (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP)

The Left’s Palestinian paradox

It is one of the great paradoxes confronting the Palestinians’ western, predominantly left-wing sympathizers. Whether these are advocating one-state or two-state solutions, they declaim that their preferred model, whatever or whenever this comes into being, will be democratic, pluralistic and if not entirely secular, then at least, tolerant, egalitarian and non-discriminatory, respecting human rights and social justice. This, alas, is wishful thinking.

Residents of the Israeli occupied territories and of Gaza are divided on the character and complexion of their hypothetical Palestinian nation state. A majority are long accustomed to authoritarian leaders, the traditional zaim (boss or strongman), and cleave to their Islamic faith, family and clan loyalties, and their conservative social structures and strictures. This is reflected in the ideological schisms between the secularist and radical elements of the Palestinian national movement and its more religious and indeed fundamentalist adversaries. And it would appear that among Palestine’s opportunistic, unelected, often corrupt and predominantly male political elite, nationalism has donned Islamic garb.

It was not always thus. Once upon a not too distant time, the national movement was predominantly secular. Western-style intellectuals and leftist groups played a preeminent role (as it was with most Arab nationalists back in the day, with Christians playing an influential part). Political discourse was premised on the idea that the conflict with Israel and Zionism revolved about territory, human and political rights and “the return” of refugees to their former homes and lands. The goal of the national struggle was to replace the “Zionist regime” with a democratic, secular state where Jews, Christians and Muslims could coexist in peace, or failing this, with the militarily powerful State of Israel unprepared to dissolve itself, a Palestinian State within the borders of the former Jordanian West Bank and onetime Egyptian ruled Gaza.

But the ascendancy of Islamist movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad and their I found on the Palestinian “street” transformed the debate, and the vision of a democratic and secular Palestine is challenged by calls to expel all Jews (the settlers, hundreds of thousands of them, and the IDF) and to establish a state based, ideally, on Shariah Law. And this appeals to an increasingly dispirited, disenfranchised, impoverished, conservative and religious Palestinian street.

Whilst the national movement increasingly abandons its former left-wing, democratic and secular ideals, there is nevertheless sustained broad support for the Palestinian cause among the western left – a broad constituency of mainstream socialists and social democrats, and also the acolytes, partisans and naïfs of the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Many on the left now tolerate developments in the West Bank and Gaza that are at odds with the liberal, enlightened world-view they ostensibly champion, including free elections, freedom of speech and association, religious freedom, human rights, gender equality, and LGBTQ rights.

There has been muted criticism of the actions and rhetoric of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and what could be interpreted as tacit support for their corrupt, incompetent and authoritarian rule. The rationale is that if it wasn’t for the occupation, things would be democratically and economically hunky-dory; and there is a tendency to blame only Israel when violence erupts whilst ignoring the dynamics at play in Palestinian domestic politics and the internecine conflicts that dominate them (again, if it wasn’t for the occupation etc.)

© Paul Hemphill 2021.  All rights reserved


For more on Palestine in In That Howling Infinite, see Visualizing the Palestinian Return – the art of Ismail Shammout; Children of Abraham; Ahed Tamimi – A Family Affair; Castles made of sandand O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…On the Middle East generally, see: A Middle East Miscellany.

And so to the full story …

For Palestinians, only God is a DJ

Rajaa Natour  Haaretz , Jan 21, 2021 11:10 AM

The arrest of Palestinian DJ Sama Abdulhadi after she played a set at the Nabi Musa complex wasn’t merely a struggle between secularism and religiosity

Again and again the voices rose, decisive, mechanical, brutal, leaving no room or time for bewilderment: “Get out! Everybody, out, now.” Amid the shrieks, one young voice, angry and bellicose, stood out: “Get out or I’ll blow up the world.” The organizers countered the threats with a limp, apologetic response and stopped the party on the spot.

The shouters weren’t Trumpists invading Capitol Hillin Washington. They were ten young Palestinians from Jerusalem who violently broke up a party that took place on December 26 in the Nabi Musa complex.

The complex features a mosque and other buildings too and is located in the Judean Desert, south of Jericho and east of Jerusalem. These hotheads went there after one of the revelers posted young Palestinian men and women dancing, drinking and smoking on Instagram.

 Nabi Musa shrine, the West Bank Dec 2020. Ammar Awad Reuters

In the first act, a video clip was disseminated on social media, quickly going viral and infuriating many Palestinians, who claimed that the party-goers were debasing and desecrating the sanctity of the locale. Obviously, when a prophet who is the earthly apostle of the divinity, religious taboos, and a misguided Muslim Palestinian crowd join hands, it’s a lost cause, becoming a Gordian knot. A desecration of a location is directly linked to a desecration of the divinity and, accordingly, as is always the case, the defilement and disgracing of the divine requires punitive measures.

This is where the second act begins, in which the wounded Palestinian-Muslim masculinity delivers its punishment. God and his defenders will not rest until blood is shed. This time it was the blood, or more precisely the freedom, of Sama Abdulhadi, a popular 29-year-old Palestinian DJ who was mixing the music. She was arrested by the security forces of the Palestinian Authority, at first accused of desecrating a holy site, later with violating Palestinian Health Ministry regulations. She was then remanded in custody for 15 days.

Abdulhadi was born and raised in Ramallah. Her musical trajectory began with the studying of musical production in Jordan. At the same time, in 2006, she started recording music, mainly light dance-pop. Towards 2008 she discovered the wonders of techno, and the genre became the focus of her musical work. The result was two techno albums, which she released under the label Skywalker. In 2011, she was accepted to the acclaimed SAE Institute sound academy in London and became a sound technician.

Abdulhadi was born and raised in Ramallah. Her musical trajectory began with the studying of musical production in Jordan. At the same time, in 2006, she started recording music, mainly light dance-pop. Towards 2008 she discovered the wonders of techno, and the genre became the focus of her musical work. The result was two techno albums, which she released under the label Skywalker. In 2011, she was accepted to the acclaimed SAE Institute sound academy in London and became a sound technician.

 

Abdulhadi has lived in a number of cities around the world and has performed at highly-acclaimed clubs in Europe, at festivals, and on the largest and most popular online techno music broadcasting platform of them all, Boiler Room. According to Abdulhadi, the party at Nebi Musa was part of a project designed to promote local tourism through techno music.

Nothing helped Abdulhadi, not being a Palestinian woman committed to her people’s struggle against the occupation, not her cultural contribution to the global techno scene, nor even her argument, backed by documents, that she had the approval of the Palestinian Tourism Ministry. The latter retreated after the Palestinian Ministry of Religious Affairs condemned the party, supported by widespread public pressure, and ultimately denied that it had approved the event.

The story didn’t end there. It was kept alive, mainly by male Palestinian leaders, who also capitulated and cooperated in turn with the demand to issue a moral-religious condemnation, which was primarily a castigation of secularism in principle, particularly secular culture as embodied in techno music.

One interesting argument used against Abdulhadi was that her techno music is not part of Palestinian heritage. But what bothered the public was not the cultural gap between this music and Palestinian culture, but the gap in narratives: this music doesn’t tell the familiar Palestinian narrative, therefore it is not legitimate.

Many Palestinian public figures condemned and denounced her actions. Among these were the Ministry of Tourism spokesman, Jarees Qumsiyeh, Hamas spokesman Abdul Latif Qanua, Jericho Governor Jihad Abu al-Asal, and others. Yet others did not make do with mere condemnation. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh promised to punish those responsible and immediately established a commission of inquiry. Many people were angry, condemning the event and demanding retribution, but their arguments focused on religious aspects.

But these arguments are fatuous, as there is no link, historical or religious, between Nebi Musa (i.e. Moses) and this location. Thus, the defiled location, the desecration that occurred and the violation of the sensibilities of many Muslims, are all imaginary. The intent was to turn this imaginary violation into something real, making it a tool in the service of political-religious interests.

And then came the third act, involving among others the Knesset member Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List. It was the most dangerous of the three acts in terms of politics and culture. Odeh and others presented the violent expulsion of the revelers from the Nebi Musa compound as a national act of heroism. They turned the violence and the disqualification of cultural events that have taken over internal Palestinian discourse into a political issue, an oppositional and subversive one. Moreover, they presented Palestinian secularism in all its aspects as an enemy of Palestinian nationalism, thus making it imperative to silence it. Regrettably, this discourse has taken wing on social media.

And then yet another change occurred in the Palestinian political-cultural discourse. Palestinian secularism, already labeled as inimical to Palestinian nationalism, became an agent of other agendas, in this case, the occupation. This wasn’t merely a struggle between secularism and religiosity, it was the disqualification of secularism as a political alternative before it became a cultural alternative. It was therefore necessary to portray it as a betrayal, to kill it so that religion could grow on its ruins. The people who broke into the party at Nebi Musa represent the same masses who objectify and harass women, who persecute and mock the Palestinian LGBT community, who legitimize the murder of women. These are the masses who will soon burst in, wielding clubs, into the Qasr al-Thaqafa cultural center in Ramallah, without needing to resort to any religious pretext any more.

 

That was the year that was – a year of living dangerously

Last December, when we wrote our review of the year that was ending, fires were ravaging Eastern Australia, and civil unrest had broken out across the world, from Hong to Chile, Beirut to Bolivia. Calling it The End of the Beginning, we wrote:

“We enter a new decade with an American election that will focus our attention; Britain’s long farewell to Europe; an end, maybe, to Syria’s agony (accompanied by renewed repression and victor’s revenge); the rise and rise of China and the geopolitical challenge it presents to the senescent “Old World”. And that is just a few things we have to look forward to”.

As they say, “be careful what you wish for”, or more prosaically, when men make plans, god laughs.

This was a year unlike any other in my, dare I say it and invite the evil eye, long lifetime. It started so well with the abatement of our smoky, fiery Black Summer, and then the rains came. This was the year optimists hoped would be one of 20/20 vision: progress on tackling climate change, perhaps, and end to the entertaining but scary presidency of Donald Trump, a cure for … well everything.

But it was to be the year of the virus. By year’s end nearly eight million people will have been infected and almost two million will have perished, with the US recording more than any other country – by New Years Day, its death-toll will very likely exceed its dead in World War II. Economies have been shattered, livelihoods threatened or destroyed, borders closed, cities, towns and homes closed, locked-down and isolated.

In its turbulent and divisive election year, the death of George Floyd at the hands of – or more specifically under the knee of a policeman, painted a brutal portrait of the implacable indifference to black life that defines American policing. It reopened America’s long-festering wounds of racial and social injustice, white racism and vigilante violence. Rather than douse the flames with water and retardant, The White House reached for a can of petrol. The Black Lives Matter Movement, like #MeToo in recent years, an incendiary spark ignited protests around the world, showing that police violence, injustice and inequality do not belong to the USA alone.

Armed protesters on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, demanding the reopening of businesses

Whilst most of the world had entered into a kind of limbo, awaiting the vaccine that will end our travails and reopen our countries and indeed, the wide world, others dropped down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that alternatively deny that the pandemic exists or that it had been deliberately created and spread by mysterious and malevolent cabal that seeks total control, like some villain from an old James Bond film or an Avengers movie. Social media has enabled a veritable eBay of ideas and explanations where the isolated and excluded who do their own research and follow the breadcrumbs into the Matrix can buy one and get four free.

On a saner but nonetheless destabilizing level, denizens of the so-called “cancel culture” had a field day exercising its democratic right to be easily offended by demanding the deplatforming, defenestration and demolition of persons, ideas, careers, and monuments. Long-dead slavers, imperialists and generals bit the dust; JK Rowling and Nick Cave got a serve, the latter for devaluing that “cancel culture’s refusal to engage with uncomfortable ideas has an asphyxiating effect on the creative soul of a society”; and an episode of Fawlty Towers was temporarily committed to the naughty corner. 

In the cold-blooded, brutal real world, there was no abatement in the wars and insurgencies that have been grinding on years now in Africa and the Middle East, whilst an old conflict over blood and soil broke out anew between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Donald Trump’s much touted “deal of the century” that would reconcile Israelis and Palestinians was revealed to be no more than a shifty and shitty bribe, whilst US-brokered “peace” deals with a bunch of autocracies who had never gone to war against Israel are but smoke and mirrors that like Kushner’s Peace to Prosperity plan throw the unfortunate Palestinians under the bus. It is as if there is, beyond the planets COVID, Conspiracy and Cancel, a parallel universe of misery and carnage, power games and proxy wars.

Meanwhile, China, or more precisely, the Chinese Communist Party, having let loose the virus, has taken advantage of the world’s distraction and confusion by pressing forward in its quest its political, military and economic predominance. Uighurs, Mongolians and Tibetans face cultural extinction whilst in Hong Kong, the flame of freedom flickered and went out. Sooner or later, something is going to give – what some pundits perceive as President Xi’s impatient recklessness will be followed by a reckoning.

Michelle Griffin, World Editor with the Sydney Morning Herald provides a brief but excellent run down of 2020: The 2020 Pandemic – our year of living dangerously. And on 2020 as the year of “cancel culture”, the reflex response of the easily offended, here is 2020, the year we finally broke our culture. Both are well worth a read.

Time during 2020 has been elastic and confused. On 21st December, The Guardian asked readers to sum up how they felt about 2020 in one word – and likewise their feelings for 2021. As of Xmas Eve, the standout words were respectively (a) shit, fucked and challenging and (b) hopeful and better. My poll responses were “fascinating” and “unpredictable”.

The year ahead?

Our year in review

And so to our review of what In That Howling Infinite published during the plague year. Curiously, deliberately or by mere circumstances, nothing about the plague.

The year began with the fires and smoke abating here on our Mid North Coast, though raging still in southern New South Wales and eastern Victoria. Inspired by an early Cat Stevens song, we opened with a light, nostalgic history of the first the schools of the Tarkeeth, where we live.

Before we knew it, Australian Day was upon us. Normally, the weeks preceding our national day see social and mainstream media, posturing politicians and personalities and cultural warriors of all our tribes caught up in argument and invective about its meaning and significance. This year, however, things are unseasonably quiet. As a nation and a community, we were perhaps too preoccupied with Australia’s unprecedented bush-fire crisis to wage our customary wars of words. Elizabeth Farrelly asked what it means to be Australian: “As the fires rage on, bringing little but anti-green and pro-coal propaganda from our governments, we have a choice. We can go on pretending that exploitation is a sustainable way of life. We can pursue this culture of denial, where truths about nature, climate, women and Indigenous peoples are held in contempt. Or we can smarten up” … It was Australia’s choice – survive by respect or die by stupid.

February saw the first of several cynical and futile attempts by the international community to resolve the morass of the Libyan civil war. In Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East, we pointed out that Libya was not the only quagmire of outside powers and their local proxies. Then there the Trump administration’s “deal of the century”. Intended to end half a century of conflict between Israel and Palestine, it was the beginning, dead in the water: Clouded Vision – no peace, no plan, no Palestine, no point.

The unfortunate Palestinians were viewed more sympathetically in a retrospective of the life and work of one of Palestine’s most celebrated artists: Visualizing the Palestinian Return – The art of Ismail Shammout.

The ominous drumbeats of the novel coronavirus we now know as COVID19 drew close and closer during January and February, and by mid March, it was all on for young and old. A tiny but loud minority protested that all a cod. It was to misapply Bob Dylan, “just a dream, babe, a vacuum, a scheme babe that sucks you into feeling like this”.  With enough being written about the pandemic on mainstream and social media, we took the pasty now very well traveled with The view from the grassy knoll – the resilience of conspiracy theories.

The onward March of the “Conspiratualists” merged by midyear with anti-lockdown protests in otherwise rational western democracies, the violence on America’s streets following the death of George Floyd, and the anticipation of open war between rival militia in the Land of the fearful – home of the heavily armed. As the US descended into a social and political division as contagious as the coronavirus, the calls to right historical wrongs led to the demands that statues of morally dubious long-dead white be torn down led to Arguments of a Monumental Proportions.

It was time for In That Howling Infinite to retreat into history, with The Bard in the Badlands 2 – America’s Shakespearean dreaming, a sequel to an earlier piece on America’s historical fascination with William Shakespeare. The lockdowns and self-isolation of the pandemic’s first wave saw people going out less, homeschooling, drinking more (and sadly, in many instances, beating each other up more. But many of us were also avidly FaceBooking, Tweeting and Zooming; and also binge-watching Netflix and Scandi-noir and reading large books.

In Bad Company – how Britain conquered India, we reviewed The Anarchy, the latest in a long list of excellent histories of the sub-continent by Scottish scholar and longtime resident of India, William Dalrymple – the daunting and depressing story of the rise and fall of the British East India Company, a quasi-military industrial complex that earned the misleading sobriquet The Honourable Company.

Flashman in the Great Game

Just in time for the lock-down, Hilary Mantel gave us the finale of her magisterial and magnificent Wolf Hall trilogy – The Light and the Mirror. In That Howling Infinite took up two themes that threaded through all three books. We know how the story ends, but are fascinated with how Mantel takes us there. Taking as it theme the golden bird-boy flying too close to the sun, Beyond Wolf Hall (2) – Icarus ascending asks the question “could Thomas Cromwell have avoided his doom?” Beyond Wolf Hall (1) – Revolution Road reviews Cromwell’s legacy, the Protestant Reformation that changed the course of English (and British) history.

Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis as Tom and Hal

Fast forward from the life and dangerous times of Henry VIII to the present, and Netflix’ release in November of the third season of The Crown, a sumptuous soap that beguiles even ardent republicans. The latest serve, highlighting the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher and the salacious pas de trois of Charles, Diana and Camilla, is deliciously seditious. And there was an entertaining Australian interlude, as described in The Crown – the view from Down Under  even if it was actually filmed in Spain.

In August 2020, the largest man-made explosion since Hiroshima and Nagasaki rippled the heart out of Lebanon’s capital. Over two thousand tons of illegal, combustible, unstable, and almost forgotten ammonium nitrate went up in a fireball that resembled an atomic blast. Social media shared memes and messages, hearts and flags, and “we are all Lebanese” profiles. Expatriates and others wrote and spoke about the country’s present turmoil and fears of a return to the bad old days. Many shared  videos of songs by Lebanon’s national cultural icon, Fairuz – most particularly, her poignant Li Beirut, which she wrote during the civil war as a tribute to the city’s timeless beauty and the suffering of its people people. O Beirut – songs for a wounded city presents Fairuz’ songs, and also Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani’s famous O Beirut, Mistress of the World, and Khalil Gibran’s iconic Pity the Nation.

And finally, as this strangest of years was ending, we published a frolic that has been several years a’making. A cowboy key – how the west was sung takes us on a leisurely jaunt through some of those grand old songs, films and musicals that have shaped our more pleasant perceptions of America.

Happy New Year.

Our reviews of previous years: 2019, 201820172016; 2015

Androids Dolores and Teddy enjoy the Westworld view

A cowboy key – how the west was sung

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze,
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees,
Send me off forever but I ask you please,
Don’t fence me in.
Cole Porter and lyrics by Robert Fletcher and Cole Porter.

Outlaw songs and cowboy gothic

“An old cowpoke went riding by one dark and windy day …”

In his informative and entertaining Way Out West series, in The Immortal Jukebox, British blogger and music chronicler Thom Hickey reminds us that the Western Writers of America declared Ghost Riders In The Sky the greatest of all Western songs.  I’m totally with Thom  here. Written and recorded in 1948 by Sons of The Pioneers alumni Stan Jones, it is probably the best of a glorious herd. The lyrics echo the Seer of Patmos’ four horsemen of the apocalypse …

Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel
Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel
A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky
For he saw the riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cry

It’s as far way from “Whoopee ti yi yo, get along little dogies” as Kansas is from Oz.

Stan Jones also wrote the haunting and evocative theme for John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece, The Searchers. It is a quixotically existential song

What makes a man to wander?
What makes a man to roam?
What makes a man leave bed and board
And turn his back on home?
Ride away, ride away, ride away

The Searchers is regarded by many to be the best ever western, and many modern filmmakers pay visual homage to it – recall Kill Bill and Westworld. I would argue that it is the second best, after Clint Eastwood’s redemptive avenger saga The Outlaw Josie Wales –  which also had a memorable song, the corny Rose of Alabama, which would not be in Thom’s or anyone’s else’s cowboy song pantheon.

The Searchers and Kill Bill

And there’s Marty Robbins’ fatal fight for the affections of flirtatious Feleena at Rosa’s cantina in the West Texas town of El Paso. Yes, El Paso of 1959 is up there near the summit. It’s a crowded peak, with these songs tussling for space alongside a swag of worthy contenders.

Western movies provided irresistible opportunities for city songwriters to try their hands at moralistic cowboy carols. These included the Tin Pan Alley ring-in written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and sung so well by Gene Pitney: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Those who tamed the wild west had cleaved to an ambivalent moral code …

But the point of a gun
Was the only law that Liberty understood
When the final showdown came at last
A law book was no good

From the moment a girl gets to be full grown
The very first thing she learns
When two men go out to face each other
Only one returns

The cowboy hero faced many challenges in his lonesome quest – none more so than Marshall Will Kane in Stanley Kramer’s showdown classic High Noon (1952) with its iconic theme song written by Ukrainian-born Dimitri Tiomkin and sung by the Chicago son of Sicilian immigrants Francesco Paolo LoVecchio – known to us as crooner Frankie Laine.

Oh, to be torn ‘tweenst love and duty
Supposin’ I lose my fair-haired beauty
Look at that big hand move along
Nearin’ high noon

The song is iconic. But rather than platy it here, here is something completely different – the Ukrainian version performed by a shadowy, iconoclastic Australian combo:

Frankie Laine became a master of the genre with a swag of hits, including Gunfight at the OK Corral, Mule Train, The Hanging Tree, Cool Water, and Rawhide.

And on the subject of films, let’s never  forget the luminous, numinous, pulchritudinous Jane Fonda as Cat Balou on that “hangin’ day in Wolf City, Wyoming”, serenaded outside her death cell by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kayes as celluloid Earl Flatt and Lester Scruggs.

 Pancho was a bandit, boys –  outlaw chic

There is a multitude of latter day tributes to the genre. Many have tried their hand, and many have given us songs that endure. One is most certainly the mysteriously poignant, mariachi fever-dream Pancho and Lefty by the doomed Texan troubadour Townes Van Zandt, a song that has been covered by Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan. Townes later said that when writing the song, he had in mind President Nixon – figure that one out (as Neil Young did when he declaimed in The Old Campaigner that “even Richard Nixon has got soul …”).

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel,
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel

“Dying outlaw’ ballads are a breed of their own, ranging from the maudlin and admonitory “take a warning from me” Streets of Laredo, to the syrupy Seven Spanish Angels sung so beautifully by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson:

There were seven Spanish angels at the altar of the sun
They were praying for the lovers in the valley of the gun
When the battle stopped and the smoke cleared
There was thunder from the throne
And seven Spanish angels took another angel home.
Troy Seals and Eddie Setser

Bob Dylan gave us an outlaw Romeo and Juliet on with Romance in Durango, not one of Desire’s outstanding tracks, but what a grand chorus.

No llores, mi querida, Dios nos vigila
Soon the horse will take us to Durango
Agarrame, mi vida, Soon the desert will be gone
Soon you will be dancing the fandango

El Paso, Pancho, Durango, those attendant Spanish angels it is passing paradox that notwithstanding America’s ambivalent relationship with its Latino demographic, a Hispanic mystic permeates so many gorgeous songs!

Cocaine canyon bad-boy Warren Zevon, never lost for a cowboy and rebel riff in his outstanding gothic oeuvre (think, his ingenue Frank and Jessie James and his ruinous Play It All Night Long), and his ballad of how two-timing Jeannie needed “a shooter, a shooter on her side”.

Neither songs’ protagonist came out alive. But not all our trigger-happy troubadours end up with a bullet or a noose. The Everly Brothers sent a Message to Mary from a cold cell where the failed stage-coach robber was doing a long stretch, advising Mary that she ought to court a better beau; and Marty Robbins’ would be lucky enough to be spared at The Hanging Tree.

Bob Dylan’s wonderful Blood on the Tracks included the cowboy-noir ballad Rosemary, Lily and the Jack of Hearts, a characters-driven saloon story of payback and pay-dirt which would not be out of place in decadent Deadwood and wired Westworld.

And, of course, there are the songs to the cowboy’s best pal, his Four Legged Friend. Roy Rogers blazed this equine trail, with that very song about his photogenic palomino Trigger. St. Leonard of Montreal, who had aspirations once upon a time to join a cowboy band, has given us his lyrically gorgeous paean to the pony and its desolate rider with the Ballad of the Absent Mare:

Say a prayer for the cowboy
His mare’s run away
And he’ll walk til he finds her
His darling, his stray

And from the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s Lyle Lovett calling up both Roy and Trigger and singing of how “… we could all together go out on the ocean, me upon my pony on my boat”.

And Lee Hazelwood, “the wayward guru of cowboy psychedelia” and onetime mentor of Nancy Sinatra (yes, he wrote The Boots Were Made For Walking – all over you), with his Great Plains drawl and his hankering for the outlaw Bad Girl who’d “took my silver spurs, a dollar and a dime, and left me cravin’ for more Summer Wine” with its “strawberries, cherries and an angel’s kiss in spring”. He was the inspiration for a kind of cowboy gothic that saw urban roustabout cos-play with Wild West dress-ups and bad-boy cowboy noir that found its apotheosis in the cover of the Eagles’s Desperado.

Emmylou Harris’ beau, Carolina coast-born Gram Parsons, who brought the Byrds eight miles down to the Sweetheart of the Rodeo,  pioneered “country rock”, Hes went on to muster Keith Richards into the rockabilly ambiance of the Rolling Stones’s Devils Banquet, and on the brink of stardom, he exited on an overdose at the Jericho Tree Motel, close to the primeval vegetation that provided the title for Irish band U2’s excellent album – but that is not part of this story.

As big as all outdoors

Lost my heart in the Black Hills
The Black Hills of Dakota
Where the pines are so high
That they kiss the sky above
Sammy Fain, and Paul Francis Webster

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,
There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,
The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,
An’ it looks like its climbin’ clear up to the sky.
Oh what a beautiful morning, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

It was inevitable that cowboys should infiltrate that most American of theatrical excess, the musical. And the contributions of the great musical songwriters – many of them urban Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe – have endured with countless outings on screen and stage. Oklahoma gave us songs  “as big as all outdoors” with the title song, its standout ballad Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’, and the hand-clappin’, foot-stompin’ The Farmer and the Cow Man  (“Territory Folks should stick together”). Seven Brides For Seven Brothers brought the backwoods to the city with its retelling of the old tale of “the sobbin’ women who lived in the Roman days (“… least that’s what Plutarch said!”) and songs like Wonderful, Wonderful Day, Bless Your Beautiful Hide, and Goin’ Courtin’. The rags to rodeo soapie Annie Get Your Gun gave us Doin’ What Comes Naturally and Anything You can Do. As they say, “there’s no business like show business”, and any excuse for a barn dance, shindig, hoedown or hootenanny.

My personal favourite is Calamity Jane. Doris Day could not be further from Robin Weigert’s foul-mouthed, drunk of Deadwood, but boy, could she “whip crack away” as she drove the Deadwood Stage into town. And didn’t we all yearn for “the Black Hills and the beautiful Indian country that I love” – notwithstanding the brutal irony that the seizure of that Indian country was the prelude to the annihilation of the Plains Indians.

Musical movies give film stars with terrible voices a chance to let it all hang out. Paint Your Wagon, was brought painfully and rib-ticklingly to life on the big screen by Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, who were not, to borrow Leonard Cohen’s word, “born with the gift of the golden voice”. Gruff Rod Steiger’s darkish Poor Judd is Daid  in Oklahoma gave Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris license to break out in dubious song in Man of La Mancha and Camelot. There is something evocative and timeless about Lee’s croaky I Was Born Under a Wondering Star: “wheels were mean for rollin’, mules were mad to pack; I never saw a sight that don’t look better lookin’ back”. One can’t help but like it.

And whilst we’re breaking out the corn that sometimes is “as high as an elephant’s eye”, I have to admit that I have also always had an inexplicable affection for Tony Orlando’s melodramatic, latter-day revenger tragedy and El Paso clone I Did What I Did For Maria, and the overblown, whip-crackin’ Legend of Xanadu by that peculiar British band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch (the video is below – very cowboy cosplay and “all a bit Zorro”). Which brings us ineluctably – to the irreverently awful, bowdlerized Rawhide by the strange Scottish The Chaps (as in blokes or cowboy leg coverings?) and Sting’s eminently forgettable Cowboy Song. Here’s Tony grooving it with the dolly-birds during the decade that fashion forgot. And we never did find out “what he did to Maria”.

My cowboy days

How many Aussies of a certain age did not thrill at the Banjo’s ballad of the bushman that is almost our national poem:

He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,
The man that holds his own is good enough.

Though I was immigrant and a townie, I had my ‘cowboy’ days. I was not a good rider, but I loved the craic. Not a natural like Adele. When we first met, she kept four horses and looked after a whole riding school of them, bringing them in bareback riding, stock-whip cracking, a proper jillaroo. ‘Western pleasure’, it was called. No jackets and jodhpurs – it was cowboy hats, boots and blue jeans – before helmets and Occupational Health and Safety. I rode her gorgeous chestnut quarter horse called Twopence, and she, a handsome palomino named Trigger (of course). A riding accident put me in hospital – and I never rode a horse again. See In That Howling Infinite‘s The Twilight of the Equine Gods.

My riding days are over, but as this post will aver, I am still into westerns, and as a onetime musician myself, I have, in days gone by, penned songs in a cowboy key.

The Ballad of The Drover’s Dog is twin to iconic Australian poet Henry Lawson’s Harry Dale The Drover, that wistful if overwrought tragedy of the homeward bound stock-man who, along with his faithful hound, comes to grief in the flooded creek. Playing at a pub in Pontadawe, in South Wales, we sang the story of Bluey, the brave blue cattle dog. As ever, the audience took the song seriously albeit sardonically. But this time it was different – knowing smile flickered across many faces. Afterwards, folk came up to us and asked if we heard of Swansea Jack. Read the notes that accompany the song. Greater love hath no dog. Inspired by Henry, this story references council by-laws governing Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach.

From The Ballad of The Drovers Dog, it is only a hop, step, and a boot scoot to that song that dares not mention its name, a rollicking cross between The Man From Snowy River and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, It is likewise loosely based on a true story, as is Capricorn Cowboy. We were doing a gig in cairns, in the tropical far north of Australia, against a backdrop of frogs and cicadas, street noise and broken and breaking glasses. One of the floor singers was Henry, a wannabe country & western singer. And country music of the cowboy variety is a thread that runs through most of these songs and stories. Three quarter time, regardless of the subject matter. I Still Call Mongolia Home, notwithstanding its title and subject matter, is a cowboy song through and through, dedicated as it is to The Duke himself. And Summer Is The Time, a Viking saga that meanders all over the map , resolves into a finale that would not be out of place in Oklahoma! Well, sort of. Listen to it and also the story of Henry below.

My Cowboy Days with Twopence & Trigger

Postscript – a cowboy like me

Americans love their outlaws and really love them running wild, and if that means going out in a blaze of glory, so much the better. We recall the closing camera pan of Bonny and Clyde, and the fade to sepia freeze-frame ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In part, this is because the world’s most powerful country, and indeed, as recent history has shown, most libertarian, cleaves to its foundational “don’t tread on me” and “us against them” identities. In the American noir series Justified, an inept backwoods criminal declaims “he who is not with us – is not with us!”

But it is not only America, the land of the free and the Boogaloo Bois. England has its perennial and ageless Robin Hood – “age cannot wither nor custom stale” his infinite screen resurrections (there’s another on the way in 2021). And aren’t we still fascinated by those East End bully boys, the Kray Twins, DownUnder, the ghost of Ned Kelly haunts our ethos still, alongside those our famed and favoured bushrangers Captain Lightfoot and Ben Hall.

But the fascination with the cowboy is much more than outlaw chic. It is a deep and colourful repository of folk memories and foundation myths where fact and fiction coexist. During the closing scenes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the journalist says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. And it was always thus. As German cultural scientist Ulrich Raulff’s captivating “micro-history” Farewell to the Horse, “Like love and the stock exchange, our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking, sacrificed to our faith and blind to known facts…This is why historical myths are so tenacious. It’s as though the truth even when it’s there for everyone to see, is powerless – it can’t lay a finger on the all powerful myth”.  [See: The Twilight of the Equine Gods]

The sad irony is that even as these songs, films and musicals were being created, the world of the cowboy was fast disappearing. Films such as The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid saw its protagonists exit in a blaze of bloody glory. But the reality was more poignant: a slo-mo and allegorical lone rider heading into the sunset for one last time, an American archetype that is lost forever, as country singer Ed Bruce tells us in The Last Cowboy Song, the end of a hundred year waltz”, the video illustrated with a fine gallery of old photographs that recall Frederic Remington’s iconic paintings.

An Oklahoman friend reminded me of the famous Chisholm Trail, the rout for arduous cattle drives that traversed her state from Texas to Kansas. And there it is in Ed Bruce’s song too, together with references to Lewis & Clark, The Alamo, Custer’s Last Stand and other American epics. I had visions of visions of Rawhide and a young Clint Eastwood, but I also recalled our own  Long Paddock, the “travelling stock routes” where stockmen would walk their cattle to market over hundreds of miles exist today largely as tourist drives. Like the cowboy, our “drover” is a precious but passing of artefact of historical iconography.

We all get that cowboy vibe, the idea of a life lived on the edge. Though long “civilized” and sedentary, we harbour atavistic folk memories of running wild and free – from the law, from the tax man, from ‘civilization and its discontents‘. Even Taylor Swift has got the drift – albeit as image rather than actual.

© Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

 

For more posts on matters America in In That Howling Infinite, see My Country ’tis of thee, and on music, Soul Food- music and musicians.

O Beirut – songs for a wounded city

When venerable and remarkable cities are hurt, we feel their pain. The world felt it when Sarajevo was besieged for four years; when New Orleans was flooded by Hurricane Katrina in 2005; when the heart of the antique city of Aleppo was destroyed in 2012, and when Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral was burned in 2019. And there was also Palmyra, the “Queen of the Desert” ( see In That Howling Infinite’s The Tears of Zenobia, 

So too with Beirut, once hailed as the “Paris of the Middle East.

In August 2020, the largest man-made explosion since Hiroshima and Nagasaki ripped the heart out of Lebanon’s historic capital. Over two thousand tons of illegal, combustible, unstable, and almost forgotten ammonium nitrate, the stuff that brought down the Alfred C Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995 went up in a fireball that resembled an atomic blast. Hundreds perished and thousands were injured, whilst the port and its adjacent neighbourhoods, a crowded inner-city of apartments and cafes, were devastated. Lebanon’s people, already roiled by economic ruin and political paralysis, the trigger for months of civil unrest (see In That Howling Infinite’s Lebanon’s WhatsApp Intifada) and the chains of COVID19, blamed their corrupt and incompetent rulers and the archaic sectarian dispensation that kept them in power. Caught up in the cogs of Lebanon’s crooked system, the search for the perpetrators, justice and closure will grind on for years. Meanwhile, the dead have been buried, the wounded will recover, limp on or succumb, and the psychological damage will endure.
When the port went up, many Beirutis were cast back into what must have seem like a time tunnel, a harrowing vortex of memories and traumas inherited from the fifteen-year long civil war – a conflict that has left wounds that ache still (see In That Howling Infinite’s Pity The Nation (there is an extract from this at the end of this post).

Social media shared memes and messages, hearts and flags, and “we are all Lebanese” profiles. Expatriates and others wrote and spoke about the country’s present turmoil and fears of a return to the bad old days. Many shared YouTube videos featuring songs by Lebanon’s national cultural icon, Fairuz – and most particularly, her poignant Li Beirut, which she wrote during the civil war as a tribute to the city’s timeless beauty and the suffering of its people people: “From my heart, peace to Beirut, and kisses to the sea and to the houses, To a rock shaped liked the face of an old fisherman”.  Listen to it below, and to a lovely cover by a young Lebanese teenage – and yes, the tune is indeed Joaquin Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez.

Beirut-born Fairuz, already a renowned singer and songstress, celebrated and adored throughout the Middle East, chose to remain in her home-town throughout the civil war. But whilst she continued to tour the world as a performing artist, she declined  to sing in Lebanon, refusing to be seen to be as taking sides in the political and sectarian conflict. As a national, unifying and consoling figure, she sang Li Beirut in a charity concert for the victims of the explosion, and for the wounded city itself.
For much of the past year, I have been refreshing my Arabic under the mentorship of Ya’rob, a Syrian and former refugee from America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. Working on my reading, I have spent time translating Arabic songs and poems into English – primarily Syrian poet Nizār Tawfīq Qabbānī, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, and Fairuz herself – and English poems and songs into Arabic for the benefit of my teacher – these have included my own, WH Auden, and Leonard Cohen, and even Redgum – in a study of Australian icon and bad boy Ned Kelly, I translated Poor Ned!

And lo’, here was Qabbani’s poem Ya Beirut, Ya Sit al Dunya – O Beirut, Mistress of the World, a bitter soulmate of Fairuz’  Li Beirut.

Nizār Tawfīq Qabbānī was a Syrian diplomat, poet, writer and publisher. He is considered one of the most revered contemporary poets in the  Arab world and is acclaimed as Syria’s National Poet. His poetic style combined simplicity and elegance in exploring themes of religion and Arab nationalism, and controversially, in the Middle East, of love, eroticism and feminism. It may say something about Arab culture, and it’s moralistic constraints, that Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish used his craft to navigate similar waters – although   never have had the opportunity to have had an Israeli lover like his contemporary (the inspiration for oud master and jazz great’s Anouar Brahem in his excellent The Astounding Eyes of Rita.

Ya Beirut, Ya Sit al Dunya was was published in 1978, three years into the fifteen year long Lebanese Civil War. In it he eloquently and emotionally described the malign impact that the Arab world was having on Beirut, a beautiful and historic coastal city that for centuries has been a cultural and economic entrepôt between east and west.

In Arabic, the title can read O Beirut, Lady of the World, But figuratively, it could be seen to imply that the city was indeed the “mistress’ or prostitute of the Levant, used and abused by many outside powers. “We confess, he wrote,”that we were envious of you, that your beauty hurt us … that we offered you a dagger in place of flowers … that we hurt you and exhausted you, that we burned you and made you cry, that  that we weighed you down with our sins”. Fairuz was less brutsl but no less angry when she asks of her city: ‘how did its taste become the taste of fire and smoke.  “She has became alone at night, alone with the night.”

Contemplating Ya Beirut, I was reminded of Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran’s famous poem, Pity the Nation, published posthumously after his death in 1931, a sardonic and incisive commentary on the politics of his time and his homeland. It is chilling in its prescience with regard to contemporary politics in the Middle East and indeed, much, much closer to home in our liberal democracies wherein ‘populism and post-truth, allegations of ‘alternative facts’ and fake news’ are ubiquitous and duplicitous, and where, in a milieu of fear, anger and loathing, intolerance and ignorance appear to be on the rise. See In That Howling Infinite‘s Pity the Nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion. It came as no surprise that in the Age of Trump, onetime beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s clone, also titled Pity The Nation, was circulating widely in anxious progressive circles.

I reproduce each of these poems and songs below, in English and also in Arabic. As I was working on this post, I recalled a song by Bruce Springsteen that echoed them in their blend of bitterness and optimism – My City In Ruins. Indeed, the play-out of Bruce’s song, “Come on, rise up!” is almost identical to the last part of Qabbani’s poem: “Rise from beneath the rubble like the almond flower in April. Rise from under your grief. Rise!”  So I’ve reproduced Bruce’s song too, with a video thereof.
© Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

Qabbani’s and Fairuz’ are presented in the original Arabic; the translations are a blend of my own and the work others that I believe best reflect the imagery and intent of the writer. The Arabic versions of Gibran’s poem and of Springsteen’s song are my own, word, grammar and narrative-checked by Ya’rob. He also checked the English translations for faithfulness to the original text.

“That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves?”  Friedrich Nietzsche, The Parable of the Mad Man

O Beirut, O Mistress of the World
O Beirut,
O Mistress of the World
We confess before the One God
That we were envious of you
That your beauty hurt us
We confess now
That we gave you no justice, no mercy
That we misunderstood you and were not sorry
That we offered you a dagger in place of flowers
We confess before the just God
That we hurt you and exhausted you
That we burned you and made you cry
That we weighed you down with our sins
O Beirut
Without you, the world is not enough
We know now that your roots run deep within us
We know now just what was done by our hands
Rise
Rise
Rise
Rise from beneath the rubble
Like the almond flower in April
Rise from under your grief
Rise
The revolution is born in the womb of sorrows
Rise from beneath the rubble
Rise in honour of the forests
Rise in honour of the rivers
Rise in honour of the rivers and the valleys
And of humanity
Rise in honour of humanity
Rise O Beirut
Rise
The revolution is born in the womb of sorrows
O Beirut
O Beirut

 يا بيروت
يا ست الدنيا

يا بيروت
يا ست الدنيا
يا بيروت
نعترف أمام الله الواحد
أنّْا كنا منك نغار
وكان جمالك يؤذينا
نعترف الآن
بأنّْا لم ننصفك ولم نرحمك
بأنّْا لم نفهمك ولم نعذرك
وأهديناك مكان الوردة سكيناً
نعترف أمام الله العادل
بأنّْا جرحناك واتعبناك
بأنّْا أحرقناك وأبكيناك
وحملناك أيا بيروت معاصينا
يا بيروت
إن الدنيا بعد ليست تكفينا
الآن عرفنا أن جذورك ضاربة فينا
الآن عرفنا ماذا إقترفت أيدينا
قومي
قومي
قومي
قومي من تحت الردم
كزهرة لوز في نيسان
قومي من حزنك قومي
إن الثورة تولد من رحم الاحزان
قومي من تحت الردم
قومي إكراماً للغابات
قومي إكراماً للأنهار
قومي إكراماً للأنهار والوديان
والإنسان
قومي إكراماً للإنسان
قومي يا بيروت
قومي
إن الثورة تولد من رحم الاحزان
يا بيروت
ا بيروت

Pity The Nation

Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.
Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave
and eats a bread it does not harvest.

Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.

Pity a nation that despises a passion in its dream,
yet submits in its awakening.

Pity the nation that raises not its voice
save when it walks in a funeral,
boasts not except among its ruins,
and will rebel not save when its neck is laid
between the sword and the block.

Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox,
whose philosopher is a juggler,
and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking

Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpeting,
and farewells him with hooting,
only to welcome another with trumpeting again.

Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years
and whose strongmen are yet in the cradle.

Pity the nation divided into fragments,
each fragment deeming itself a nation.

Kahlil Gibran, The Garden of The Prophet (1933)

رحم على الامة

ارحم على الأمة المليئة بالمعتقدات والخالية من الدين
ارحم على الأمة التي تلبس ثوبا لا يحاك
وتأكل خبزا لا تحصد.
ارحم على الأمة التي تعتبر المتنمر بطلاً
ويعتبر منتصرها رائعا.
ارحم أمة تحتقر الشغف في أحلامها
لكنه يخضع لها عندما تستيقظ.
ارحم على الأمة التي لا ترفع صوتها
إلا عندما تمشي في جنازة
وتفتخر فقط بين أطلالها
ولن تنقذ نفسها عندما توضع رقبتها
بين السيف والكتلة.
ارحم على الأمة التي فيها رجل الدولة وهو ثعلب
والفيلسوف مشعوذ
فنه من الترقيع والتقليد
ارحم على الأمة التي تستقبل حاكمها الجديد بصوت عالٍ
ويقول وداعا له بسخرية
فقط للترحيب بآخر من خلال الاحتفال الصاخب مرة أخرى
ارحم على أمة حكماؤها أغبياء السنين
وأولئك الذين لا يزال رجالهم الأقوياء في المهد.
ارحموا الأمة منقسمة
وكل قطعة تعتبر نفسها أمة

To Beirut
Fairuz

To Beirut,
From my heart, peace to Beirut
And kisses to the sea and to the houses,
To a rock shaped liked the face of an old fisherman
She is wine from the spirit of the people
From its sweat, she is bread and jasmine.
So how did its taste become the taste of fire and smoke

Glory from the ashes of Beirut
From the blood of a child held in its hand,
My city has extinguished its beacon,
She has closed her door,
She has became alone at night
Alone with the night.

You are mine, you are mine.
Oh, embrace me, you are mine
My banner, the rock of tomorrow, the waves of my travels.
The wounds of my people have blossomed
The mothers’ tears have blossomed
You, Beirut, are mine
You are mine
Oh, embrace me
You are mine.

 يا بيروت

فيروز

لبيروت
من قلبي سلامٌ لبيروت
و قُبلٌ للبحر و البيوت
لصخرةٍ كأنها وجه بحارٍ قديمِ
هي من روحِ الشعب خمرٌ
هي من عرقِهِ خبزٌ و ياسمين
فكيف صار طعمها طعم نارٍ و دخانِ

لبيروت
مجدٌ من رمادٍ لبيروت
من دمٍ لولدٍ حُملَ فوق يدها
أطفأت مدينتي قنديلها
أغلقت بابها
أصبحت في المساء وحدها
وحدها و ليلُ

لبيروت
من قلبي سلامٌ لبيروت
و قُبلٌ للبحر و البيوت
لصخرةٍ كأنها وجه بحارٍ قديمِ

أنتِ لي أنتِ لي
أه عانقيني أنتِ لي
رايتي و حجرُ الغدِ و موج سفري
أزهرت جراح شعبي
أزهرت دمعة الأمهات
أنتِ بيروت لي
أنتِ لي

Tell me, tell me about my country
Fairuz

Tell me, tell me about my country,
Tell me, O breeze blowing through the trees before me
Tell me stories of my family and of my home
Tell me a long story about me and my childhood sweetheart.

O breeze blowing through the laurel garden,
I beg you, come and play with me in my house
Tell me if he still remembers me in my country
Does he wait for me in the evening in my country
In these few hours happiness, tell me,
Habibi, tell me.

I beg you, tell me how are the olive trees
And the boy and girl in the shade of the windmill
And the almond trees and the earth and our sky
It is our our country, and our love
Blooms in these ungenerous times
Habibi, tell me

احكيلي احكيلي عن بلدي

فيروز

إحكيلي إحكيلي عن بلدي إحكيلي
يا نسيم اللي مارق عالشجر مقابيلي
عن أهلي حكايي عن بيتي حكايي
و عن جار الطفولي حكايي طويلي
يا نسيم اللي مارق عا أرض الغار
حلفتك تجي تلعب عندي بهالدار
خبرني ان كان بعدو بيذكرني
ببلدي و عالسهرة ناطرني
بساعات الفرح القليلي حبيبي إحكيلي
حلفتك خبرني كيف حال الزيتون
و الصبي و الصبيي بفيي الطاحون
و اللوزي و الأرض و سمانا
هو هني بلدنا و هوانا
زهر الأيام البخيلي حبيبي إحكيلي

My City In  Ruins

Bruce Springsteen
There’s a blood red circle
On the cold dark ground
My city of ruins
Young men on the corner
Like scattered leaves
While my brother’s down on his knees
Tell me how do I begin again?
My city of ruins
My city’s in ruins
Now with these hands
With these hands, I pray Lord
With these hands
I pray for the strength Lord
With these hands
I pray for the faith, Lord
With these hands
I pray for your love, Lord
With these hands
I  pray for the strength, Lord
With these hands
I pray for your love, Lord
With these hands
I pray for your faith, Lord
With these hands
I pray for the strength, Lord
With these hands
Come on, rise up
Come on, rise up
Come on, rise up
Come on, rise up
Come on, rise up

مدينتي في اخراب
بروس سبرينغستين

هناك دائرة حمراء بالدم
على الأرض المظلمة الباردة
مدينتي الخرائب
الشباب في الزاوية
مثل الأوراق المتناثرة
بينما أخي على ركبتيه
قل لي كيف أبدأ من جديد؟
مدينتي في الخراب

مدينتي في خراب
الآن بهذه الأيدي
بهذه الأيدي أدعو الله
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل القوة يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل الإيمان يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل حبك يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل القوة يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل حبك يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل إيمانك يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل القوة يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
تعال ، انهض
تعال ، انهض
تعال ، انهض
تعال ، انهض
تعال ، انهض

Postscript

Lebanese author Dominique Eddé has written: “We know more or less what constitutes Lebanon, but we don’t know how it works. If we had to send into space a country capable of containing the world, Lebanon would fit the bill. If we had to send one that did not contain what is needed to make a real country, Lebanon would also be the answer”. (See Lebanon’s WhatsApp Intifada

In April 2015 In That Howling Infinite  published a piece on Lebanon’s’ fifteen year long civil war. Named for Khalil Gibran’s iconic poem, it was entitled Pity The Nation.  It ran thus:

The Lebanese Civil War broke loose forty years ago this month. A cold war fuelled, by aggregating hostility between the Palestinian refugee community, a militarized state within a state, and their reluctant Lebanese hosts, became hot with deadly clashes between Palestinian and Maronite militias. Sects, clans, families, and the political parties and militias that gathered about them, went for their guns, the hounds of hell were loosed, and the massacres began.

In a Levantine echo of the Thirty Years War that raged through Western Europe from 1618, cities were destroyed and the countryside ravaged as armies, militias and gangsters fought over the fallen body of a divided and devastated land. Muslims fought Christians, Sunni fought Shi’a, Maronites fought Orthodox, Druze fought Muslims and Christians, communists fought nationalists, and Palestinians, at one time or other, fought everyone, including other Palestinians. And all changed partners and enemies in a bloody danse macabre that was at once mediaeval and mid-20th Century in its savagery.

This Hobbesian “war of all against all” drew in outsiders. Syrians, who during the course of their intervention, changed allies and adversaries as their political and strategic aims and interests mutated, and ruled the country until, implicated in the assassination of popular former prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, beat an undignified retreat (whilst never quite relinquishing the levers of power). Israelis, threatened by guerrilla attacks in the Fatah land of southern Lebanon, ostensibly invaded Lebanon to destroy the Palestinian military machine, and as the midwife in the birth of the Shi’a Hezbollah, waded with eyes wide shut into a quagmire that many have viewed as their Vietnam. Americans and French, who intervened with the aim of separating the warring sides and pushing them towards a ceasefire, departed in the aftershock of Hezbollah bombs that killed hundreds of their servicemen. And United Nations Blue Berets who serve and die still in the hostile borderlands.

The war raged for the next fifteen years, staggering to an end in 1990 after claiming over 150,000 lives and destroying the lives of tens of thousands of others, including over 100,000 permanently handicapped. Nearly a million souls fled their homes, and some 76, 000 remain displaced to this day, now forgotten in the midst of the new and greater Syrian diaspora, whilst tens of thousands emigrated permanently. There are still some 17,000 “disappeared” who may be either still in Syrian or Lebanese jails, or more likely, in one of hundreds of unmarked graves scattered across this tiny country.  

 

The Crown – the view from Down Under

Having luxuriated in series one to three of The Crown, the fourth is deliciously seditious – particularly if one is a republican – and an Australian republican at that. 

Pheasants and peasants, dead trout and salmon, trekking the wilds in tweeds and wellies, and the stalking of a wounded stag. When Uncle Dickie gets blown to smithereens, it feels like some karmic comeuppance. This is even before we get to witnessing the making and breaking of “the people’s princess” in what transpired to be a fractured fairytale. 

There was plenty for us antipodeans to enjoy in an episode ironically titled Terra Nullius, a phrase that is particularly potent in our ongoing “history wars”. The Australian scenes were actually filmed in Spain, but never mind. There was Richard ”Cleaver Green” Roxburgh as our larrikin Prime Minister, the late Bob Hawke, remarking that Princess Di had set back the republican movement for decades. The “silver bodgie” is cast as as an impatient republican, but in reality, he did not forcefully agitate for a republic during his early years in office.

On matters Australian, series four offered up a couple more events that have contemporary echoes. 

During the royal couple’s trip to Australia in 1983, Diana tried and failed to scale our iconic Uluru – it was called Ayers Rock in those days, the site of the tragically famous “a dingo are my baby” saga. Our government has only recently conceded to the wish of the traditional owners that climbing the sacred megalith be forbidden – to the chagrin of many, and the joy of many more. 

There is also the presence of Sir Martin Charteris, the Queen’s private secretary. Though long gone to his maker, and retired well before his fictional appearance, his name and reputation have been brought into critical review with revelations of the role he played in our Governor General’s dismissal of Labour Prime  Minister Gough Whitlam on Remembrance Day 1975 – an event that resonates still nearly half a century on. Whilst it has been shown that Queen Elizabeth did not have foreknowledge, it has also come to light that Prince Charles gave retrospective encouragement to Sir John Kerr, who was enthusiastically pushing for the Crown Prince succeed him as Governor General.

It is said that Australians’ affection for Wills and Kate has an impact on republican sentiment DownUnder similar to that of Princess Diana – though The Crown’s unflattering portrayal of Prince Charles, fresh on the heels of the release of “the Palace Letters” might lead folk to contemplate that when Her Maj goes to meet the saints, will we Aussies might declare that “it’s time!”?

For further reading on Australian history and politics in In That Howling Infinite, see; Down Under and The Frontier Wars – Austrtalias Heart of Darkness

Call yourself a Republican?  Then why are you bingeing The Crown?

Jacqueline Maley, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 November 20207

The television show The Crown presents a unique dilemma for republicans. How can we maintain our disdain for the monarchy, our assurance of its irrelevance, while we are bingeing on its depiction, lapping up every detail of its costume, marvelling at the strong hairline of Princess Margaret and delighting in Diana? Even the corgis who have walk-on parts compel us with the sureness of their stride.

As a friend of mine put it in our defence: I don’t like murderers, but I like watching shows about serial killers. Tolstoy knew how interesting unhappy families were, and there is plenty of personal misery in the fourth and latest season of The Crown, even though the only person the creators give us any sympathy for is Diana, Princess of Wales.

The power of her celebrity, two decades after her death, defies gravity. We only really want to watch the show because of her – the scenes which just feature the self-absorbed, self-pitying Prince Charles are the only ones that drag.

This mirrors the central problem of Charles’ life – the public was never very interested in him. What he doesn’t understand, at least according to the show (yes, I know, I know, it’s fiction), is that nobody is actually obliged to find him interesting.Advertisement

The Real Life Charles is reportedly very cross at the characterisation of him as a cruel husband who moons around Highgrove enunciating his pretentious gardening philosophy (“There will be no straight lines, Mummy,” he tells the Queen when she comes to visit).

I find myself straining to care when I read articles where “sources close to the prince” tell us such-and-such an event never happened that way, or that the depiction of Charles as smug and insecure is mean. So what? Fiction portrays truth far better than documentary, and that is the genius of the show.

Illustration: Reg Lynch
Besides, the most outlandish parts of the story are all true – the fact that two of the Queen’s first cousins were locked away in an institution for life because their disability might have caused people to believe the royal bloodline was “tainted”. The fact that a princess was so unhappy before her wedding that she tried to disappear herself through the misery of bulimia. The fact that the Queen’s children have to make appointments to see her.

I remember reading a defence of Kate Middleton – who was accused of not welcoming her sister-in-law Meghan Markle into the royal family – in which it was indignantly stated that Kate had even invited Meghan to her home once. This sort of weirdness is the second-generation iteration of Diana’s loneliness – in the show, the breeding mare/child bride Diana (she was 20) has been chosen to provide an heir, then locked in a palace to learn the rules. 

She is the key to the monarchy’s survival, yet when she rings the Queen, and her fiance, over and over, neither will take her call.

The Crown S4. Picture shows: Denis Thatcher (STEPHEN BOXER) and Margaret Thatcher (GILLIAN ANDERSON). Filming Location: Rothiemurchus, Scotland Gillian Anderson plays Margaret Thatcher in season 4 of The Crown.

In a recent essay on the pandemic, British novelist Zadie Smith writes that “suffering is not relative; it is absolute … it cannot be easily mediated by a third term like ‘privilege’.”

This sums up the Diana dynamic perfectly, and explains why millions of people loved her, or thought they did, for her vulnerability and her sadness, even though it was attended by servants and played out on the plump couches of Kensington Palace.

Here is another partial defence for republican viewers: the locations. Who is not dreaming of salmon-fishing in the Icelandic wilderness, walking the beach sadly in Mustique, a la Princess Margaret, or roaming the highlands of Scotland on a jolly hunting party (maybe minus the animal suffering)?Advertisement

The scenes of Balmoral, when Margaret Thatcher comes to stay with her husband Denis, are a fascinating portrayal of the clash between the low-born, broom-sweeping neo-liberalism of Thatcherism, and the fusty conservatism of Establishment Britain.

The Windsors look down on the shopkeeper’s daughter who doesn’t know how to dress properly for hunting. Seen through Thatcher’s eyes, the royal family are a ridiculous tribe with funny costumes and arcane habits.

Thatcher’s partially-sympathetic portrayal should be more controversial than Charles’ unsympathetic one. The bleakness of Thatcher’s Britain is shown but not focused on, and the only victim of her recession we see is Michael Fagan, the intruder who famously broke into the Queen’s bedroom in 1982. Fagan tells Liz “the system” is broken and complains about PM Maggie. The Queen is sympathetic and they have a moment together before he is whisked off by security.

Emma Corin as Princess Diana  in an episode of The Crown  about Charles and Diana's tour of Australia.
                                                         Emma Corin as Princess Diana

But nothing happens, because the monarchy can’t make a material difference to any of its subjects’ lives, not that many of its members have shown an inclination to do so.Advertisement

Then there are the sons – Charles is self-pitying, Edward is a bullied boy turned bully, Andrew is charming but spoiled (perhaps a future series will explore the protection racket the royal family ran for the prince who refuses to answer police questions about his pedophile friend Jeffrey Epstein).

The Queen’s children, Diana, and even the Queen herself, all desperately need the validation of popularity, usually via the medium of the press, because it’s too sticky to get involved with one’s subjects personally. They are all jealous of the attention the others are getting. They all believe their misery to be worse than others’.

That, finally, is what the show brings out – how needy the royals are, and perhaps that’s the best republican take on The Crown.

That the act of divesting ourselves of the monarchy, when it eventually happens, will feel less like unshackling from a colonial power, and more like shaking off a clingy partner: the relief that comes with the end of a relationship you have simply grown out of.