Planting seeds

Summer high is always

in your ripe flesh

a taste of wild and sugar.

You set my body

clock for a full season

bite on bite. Why this is

alone my body knows, eyes

that greedy saw you

grow from flower to bud

to now. Last year

saved twenty seeds

inside their husks

that yesterday I took

a hammer to. You

did not give your secrets

with no fight. Will

any of the dozen

in this seed tray

bloom? The tree is old

and coming close

to die. The tree is

brother, sister and

even, yes, near

God. I know for sure

each bite I take

that Eve ate nectarine.

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Not just a black dog

Mako rests

Mako at rest on me

 

I’ve just finished reading on The Spinoff  Tusiata Avia’s poem, ‘Massacre”, her response to the mass murder of Muslim worshipers here in Christchurch on 15 March. Anyone who knows her work would not be surprised at the force of its attack on white racists: that is, all of us beneficiaries of historical institutional racism, through an accident of birth. As the flame thrower of her controlled anger burns me line by line, I’m reminded of the things I’ve just read in a discussion document on racism, sent to me by a close family member.

“Most white people do not talk about racism, do not recognise the existence of institutional racism, and feel personally threatened by the mention of racism”, writes Christine Sleeter. “There is no comfort zone for white people when it comes to discussing white racism. Being uncomfortable is the price we must pay”, agrees Alice McIntyre. She continues, “There is a tendency to locate racism within the individual and not think institutionally or culturally about racism”.

Living and working in London during the 1990s woke me up to racism and my own part in it, and it has made me uncomfortable ever since. But I have remained white and privileged by that whiteness, no matter what I’ve tried to do to escape from racism’s web of deceit. There always remains, however hard we work to remove it, an underlying sense that we have no race and no colour, that we are the norm, the mirror into which all non-white people must look and see that they are not us.

This may not be true in those countries, those parts of the world where whiteness is not normative (most of Africa, or China, and many other regions where whites are either visitors, tourists, or a settler minority), but for a high percentage of the world’s population – even if only mirrored against whiteness by the global white media – cultural and institutional racism is as normal as the sunshine, the rain, the wind, the air we all breathe.

My own problems, my issues then, are always seen in a context: no matter how dire, or how trivial my stresses and my struggles, it is always going to take place in the reality of my whiteness: better access to health care than many Māori and  Pasifika; less likelihood to be stopped and searched by police, than are people of colour; more likely to have representation when arrested; less like to be imprisoned; better job prospects and a longer life expectancy. That’s me. You too, if you are white.

I’m not making this up; these are statistics you can go and find online, if you care to. The question is, why? How – in the context of Tusiata’s poem, which you can read here – did such a massacre occur in our midst, if “they” truly are “us”? It happened to them, not us didn’t it? Was the shooter one of us, after all that? He hid among us, no-one questioned what he was doing, he was invisible except on social media, until he struck.

The Friday Poem: ‘Massacre’ by Tusiata Avia

I’m struggling with all this.  I go to the Linwood Masjid on Fridays when I can, and pray with the believers, but it all feels too little, too late. The report in today’s Press – on the condition of Sazada Akhter, a 25-year old Bangladeshi woman still lying in hospital, shot in the chest and abdomen as she ran, lungs, liver and kidneys critically damaged, unlikely to ever walk again, who says, “I don’t know how I can go on” – puts it all in relief.

Somebody decided she was not one of us; now one of us has just been sentenced to 21 months in jail for applauding this atrocity and distributing the gunman’s video.  This greeted me after a freezing winter’s morning as I forced myself to get up and resist the black dog that’s been hunting me since I left the university scene after twenty years of having an external identity and came home to be a house sparrow, one who has found it hard to concentrate on much, with all the institutional scaffolding removed.

I came home from a bicycle ride out there with my wife this morning, and left my bike at the gate while I went inside and turned off the alarm. As the cat greeted me and I stepped out the back door, the frost was melting on the roof of the verandah, streams of melted droplets patterning the deck. Suddenly, I was sixteen, back at the sawmill near Redjacks on the Coast, the valley frost on the roof turned to streams of water by a rising sun striking the roofing iron, icy fingers dripping over you, down your neck, as you ran the winch or revved the chainsaw.

As I walked down the drive to open the gates and get my bike, I thought of Proust, his aunt’s madeleine dipped into a cup of tisane, of memories loosened within by sensations. Having opened the gates, it was only when I was halfway back up the drive, I realised I’d left the bike behind. In the second year into my seventies, in a flick of reality, I can fly back from June 2019 to June 1965 and in the same breath, forget what I actually walked outside to do.

This is my brain reprogramming me; a new life with a black and white cat as companion, a black dog of sadness at my heels. But whatever it is, it all pales and evaporates, morning frost under the sun, as what has happened here in Christchurch rises up within me to dismantle the crumbling remains of my whiteness.

 

 

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Friday Prayers Linwood Masjid

Friday Prayers

Friday Prayers, Linwood Mosque, 31 April 2019. Image: Iain McGregor/Stuff.

A week ago I took up Muhammad’s invitation and went to Friday prayers at the Linwood Mosque. There was a small group of Christian women at the gate, also come in support, but unable to take part. There was as yet no completed space for the women to worship, so it was an all-male assembly. The women’s worship space is being refitted and security cameras fitted on the building.

Outside, as I waited for somebody to show me the way in, more and more worshipers arrived to take part, come to fulfill their need and their obligation, to begin again their life of faith so cruelly shattered by the events of that terrible day on 15 March a few short weeks ago, an eternity away, yet present in every inward tremor of PTSD.

Muhammad came over and we greeted each other; he took me inside and sat with me at the rear of the worship space. Once again, I was struck by how small it was, yet as more came and found room, bowed down, sat and waited for the Imam to begin his sermon, it seemed to expand to surround the brothers.

Imam Abdul Lateef in his long white gown and tiny cap stood before us and began to address the faithful. His flow of Arabic and English – heavily accented from his African heritage language – made it almost impossible for me to glean anything of substance, but I listened and concentrated on him, and the believers to whom he was addressing his thoughts. People kept coming.

 

He began touching his ears, his eyes and his lips, and as he did so, his English became clear enough for me to grasp what I took to be the heart of his sermon: open your eyes to those around you, open your ears to what others are saying and restrain your own inclination to hasty words. It seemed to be a call to empathy. This from a man who had on the day of the attack looked death in the face and stood up to the terrorist.

Then he was finished and a brother stood and called us to prayer. As all those around me prostrated themselves, I followed suit. Prayer is part of my life and while it felt strange at first, coming from a prayer culture in Christian churches that is far less demanding of the body, it felt good. It felt right. With Muhammad beside me, afterwards helping me back to my feet, I had joined them.

I had not become a Muslim, but I had reaffirmed my unity with fellow sojourners in this world. It’s not so hard. It takes a bit of getting over yourself and leaving all your prejudices at the door. In the light of what has happened in our midst, the question remains: did it happen just to them, the Muslim whānau in our midst, or did it happen to us all? If the latter, then what does that mean for our city, for the body of humanity in this space? How should we live henceforth?

Going back out to the road, I saw my police officer friend from Whangaparaoa, met on my first visit, and greeted her. “How are they doing in there, do you think?”, she asked. I didn’t know how to reply, but tried to reassure her that they were doing their best to stand fast and move on. One man I met was a Rohingya Muslim, an escapee from the genocide of his people in Burma, and the refugee camps of Bangladesh. What can you say? He thought he was safe here – and now, what does he think, how must he feel?

I farewelled my favourite cop with a simple, “Kia pai tō rā – have a great day” – and she grinned at me again, “I love your reo”. It’s not that hard to reach across gaps, when you see what’s on the other side. “Ramadan mubarak”, blessed Ramadan, my friends. You will need it.

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At the Linwood Mosque

Linwood Mosque

The Linwood Mosque, a former church hall.

Today it was time to take up Muhammad’s invitation and go to the mosque at 223A Linwood Avenue, a part of the city quite different from the more affluent tree-lined setting of Al Noor on Deans Avenue. The East of Christchurch as anyone who lives here knows, presents a very different picture from that of the West. Linwood, Aranui: islands of Less in the midst of More.

As I cycled through the lines of trees on the upper reaches of  the avenue, I thought of that day in March, six weeks ago, a short eternity behind us, of the man driving here then, of those he had killed and injured and those he would kill and injure again a few minutes further down the road. I put that out of my mind. This was not about him.

As I drew close, I saw two police on the footpath: one Asian, one Māori, and tethering my bike, felt safe. I asked if I could go in; the Māori officer said she would walk me down the long gravel pathway. When we got to the mosque, it was, like Al Noor, a site under repair with men at work on the side of a small building which looked to me like it was once a church.

I recognised Muhammad coming out of the doorway and when he saw me, he smiled and greeted me in Māori, “I hoped you would come, brother”. We hongied. We embraced. One of the workers was also Māori, we hongied too, I greeted him in te reo. The police officer was looked amazed, and she spoke to me in Māori; she was from Whangaparaoa way up north. She hadn’t been here for long, she’d told me on the walk down.

She apologised for her lack of proficiency in the language of her tūpuna; I told her she sounded fine to me, “ahakoa he iti, kaore e kore” – it might seem little but it was still all there. It must have made an interesting moment for her, on a day where there was a lot of standing around by a noisy highway: an old Pākehā dude speaking Māori, hongi-ing Muslims, greeted as a brother. As-salaam-Alaikum, peace be upon us.

Muhammad took me inside and we looked at the work going on; they were expanding the women’s room and laying carpet in the men’s. He showed me the washing area and explained the rituals of cleansing before prayer, and the application of musk so that they would present a sweet fragrance when bowing before God in supplication. It all sounded very Old Testament, the sorts of images anyone can find in the psalms of David.

It is easy to forget to the long, deep, familial links our Abrahamic religions of the book all share: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. How much more we have in common than what separates us, and as humans, how inextricably connected in the very heart of our genes.

As we stood and talked, I asked him what drew him to Islam: raised a Catholic, he’d found no answers in the words of the priests he had questioned, but what he found when he met Muslims was acceptance, embrace and aroha. It is hard not to love this remarkable man: Māori, Muslim, a pou in the whare of humanity – ko te mea nui, ko te aroha mō te tangata – as he lives out what I profess.

I told him that I too sought the Presence every day, that what I had felt when I met him and his Malaysian brother two days ago at Al Noor was a manaakitanga rich with aroha, and it had affected me deeply. He didn’t want to talk about what had happened to bring us together – “maybe in ten years time” – just to get on with living and helping his community come back to life.

I said I wanted to come along to Friday prayers and he wants me there too. As I left and found my shoes, he brought me a chair – “there you are, Matua” – and I let him help me. My knees were grateful. They don’t work like they once did. He hugged me again and I walked my bike down the gravel to the road.”Nobody comes here to bring flowers”, Muhammad told me,”we’re not in the heart of the city like Al Noor on Deans Avenue, and we’re so far back off the road”.

 

I said goodbye to the faithful police officers, then rode off to the Refugee Centre at Phillipstown nearby. I wanted to ask what were the needs of the Muslim families still suffering deeply, hidden out there from the busy material world of New Zealand, a highway of forgetfulness all around me, everyone moving on.

 

JPH and Mohammed.jpg

 

 

 

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They gave me their greatness

Al Noor

Muslim brothers and sisters, Al Noor Mosque, Monday 29 April.

Lee (Ngāi Tahu/Tainui), on my left; my Malaysian brother, on my right; and two sisters whose names I was not given: “As-salaam-alaikum”, we all said, “Peace be upon us”.

 

I entered the mosque.
There was no-one to be seen.
It is a very small space.
Those people were trapped.
This was a house of blood.

 

Then Lee arrived with his brother Muslim from Malaysia.
This was a space of terror.
Yet they received another stranger.
They were so lovely. They called me brother.

 

I told them how ashamed I was of Brian Tamaki’s followers.
That they did not speak for the Jesus in me.
Lee told me they invited the picketers in.
They were shown manaakitanga, the gift of aroha.
You could feel their love like an inward sun.

 

How can I be the same again?
They gave me their greatness.

 

Al Noor 2.jpeg
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Peace be upon us, As-salaam-alaikum, Kia tau te rangimarie ki a tātou.

Peace

 

Since the Friday afternoon attack on the Al Noor mosque here in Christchurch on 15 March, nothing has been the same. Whether or not we have been haunted to sleeplessness, refused to forget it, wished it had never happened, carried on regardless, named the killer or not named him – here it is. Not there it was, but here it is.

 

I drove past the mosque today for the first time since the massacre, with its sea of wilting flowers, the lone policeman with his machine gun sweltering in the early autumn heat, on my way to the Christian Superstore in Sydenham to buy a Māori-English New Testament for a friend.

 

As I drove I prayed. I’ve been praying lately, for these tragic families, wondering every day how I can help them in some small way, as many others here have done. I have begun greeting people with the blessing, “As-salaam-alaikum, Peace be upon you”, and meaning it. I passed two young women in hijabs out at the university where I have spent the past twenty years trying to understand the world, myself, and my place in the scheme of things. I greeted them thus. They looked surprised, then blessed me in return.

 

A small thing? Perhaps. If nothing else, it seems like a way of saying, I have to change, I have to show more than just tolerance, more than live-and-let-live. We have to start doing a better job of caring for each other. Yes, I have Muslim friends, one in Iran, another here, but that’s too easy, to believe that people in the same intellectual culture as me, who have adapted to the role of making no waves, are the only ones I need to welcome and support here.

 

When I arrived at the Christian bookshop, I asked a bookseller where I could find a bilingual Māori-English New Testament, was shown to the shelves, and there was my prize – Te Kawenata Hou, The New Covenant. I went to pay and the woman asked me if I spoke Māori. Yes, I said, a little rusty these days, but yes.

As she handed me my New Testament, I thanked her, “Kia ora mō tēnā, As-salaam-alaikum – thank you for that, may peace be upon you”. She looked startled, nervous, two strange sounding exclamations together – what was I saying? “It’s Arabic”, I reassured her, “It means ‘peace be upon you, it’s the same prayer used by Coptic Christians as well as Muslims”, all in a possibly vain attempt to avail her of my newfound awareness, that a language we associate with a particular faith is used by many others – like English, like Māori.

 

Kawenata hou

 

I wondered later why I’d been so attuned to her reaction. Is it just the present situation where we are discovering what parallel lives we have been living beside our Muslim brothers and sisters, or something else? Our old colonial wounds, our own tense relationship with the place and power of Te Reo Māori, our historic resistance to change? Perhaps it’s just me being hyper-vigilant, over sensitive to others, wanting to build a bridge where none has been asked for.

I was reminded that these very words – “peace be unto you” – were the words John the Evangelist recorded in his Gospel, when Jesus appears to his startled and unbelieving disciples after his death and resurrection (John 20:19). Here is a link between Christians and Muslims, that makes less of any division and more of an historic unity. This ancient blessing has deep roots in the three great religions of the book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I should be looking for more connections, in people, as well as in holy writ. I wonder what the bookseller would think of this? Her shop, after all, is full to overflowing of the words of Jesus. As-salaam-alaikum.

 

Inshalla

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Molecules sound

Tinnitus my friend, your
highwire ear-to-ear whine
is you insist, ancient
molecules: chainsaw blare

from 1965, woolshed shear,
my tractor piping high
exhaust, night shift
moon and kangaroos,

mist-bedazzled springing
furrows, ghosts of ghosts.

Old songs older than
time, time as song
and fading, pubs that
roared and shrivelled,

male balloons: your shout!
Your shout! Time, gentlemen,

please! There is no sound
in space, tinnitus.

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman

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