Hope is a Muscle

Hope is a muscle that needs to be exercised regularly.

I said this to my friend at the start of this year. He’d been in detention for 18 months, and was beyond breaking point. At the time, we sat and drew in grey lead, with few words, and tried to remember what the practice of hope felt like.

A few months later another friend translated his words in Farsi, uttered to another Iranian newly arrived in detention, as we all sat around drawing together “You must keep drawing, and keep hoping and keep making art, and you have to do this every day.”

8 months later he’s finally free and I’m so happy I cry with relief, and I try to savour this joy as much as I can, because I have so many other new friends who aren’t free. Who have been in detention too long, and have no idea what will happen, or how they can imagine any future at all.

But today is a day to remember hope and miracles and good things, and hold onto them for dear life, because  I am so very scared that after tomorrow I will be part of a country with a Prime Minister that poses in public in his underpants. and that is the most complimentary thing I could say about him.

Today a friend and I ran a life drawing class with a group of refugees. My friend the model wasn’t naked, but she is a professional life model and artist and she devised the exercises, and they were perfect. I’m still finding words to wrap around the immense and overwhelming feelings I have about everything that happened this morning.

The hushed scrape of charcoal as the cries of the Imam in the room next door resound around our room of quiet drawers. the particular trance of concentrated joy that I know from so many life drawing classes, and I’m seeing on the faces and in the bodies of people who’ve just had their hopes stomped on by a big boot of dog-whistle cruelty. One of the participants told me how to say charcoal in Persian. I’ve forgotten it already., but I’ll eventually remember, to add to my very limited vocabulary of “Salam”, “Che Habar” and “Mamnoon”.

I spoke at the Livewire event last week. I dragged along my knitting to keep me and friends occupied during 3 hours of a 24 hour speakathon in Federation Square. Some of the speakers were total nutters, ranting away, others were really informative, most of them with depressing news. Crochet kept me sane, stopped me crying at the sad truths uttered by some of the speakers, or screeching my annoyance at the more ranty ones.

Anyway – I read some words of one of my friends in MITA, words of thanks for clothing donations by visitors, saying what a difference they made to detainees. And I spoke of the incredible network of activists, academics, religious folk, (mindful of that awful epithet of ‘do-gooders’ that smothers the quotidian good heartedness of people who show hospitality even through razor wire). I spoke about the ever expanding network of connections of people inside and outside of detention centres; volunteers who gather household goods, food, clothing and toys for refugees stranded in empty houses on 60% of centrelink, and refugees who return to the detention centres to visit their friends inside, and so many visitors, and volunteers and people who want to do something.

I forgot to mention how I’ve been amazed to see people from entirely different sections of my life in sydney collaborating together on the Refugee Art Project. This wonderful video by Daz Chandler is an example. What it shows most of all is how unspeakable and unbearable stupidity and cruelty also brings out the best in many people, and creates new connections and relationships that wouldn’t have occurred. I don’t want to sound polyannaish about this. I desperately wish none of us did have to come together over this issue. but I’m so proud and delighted and inspired to watch how people do use horror to create marvels.

I’ve got a horrible feeling that white Australians will be regarded with the same justified distaste as white South Africans during the Apartheid years. While I work on flattening my vowels into a passable Kiwi, I want to do what I can to share the stories of good intention and the work of solidarity and hospitality that so many Australians are practicing on a daily and weekly basis. I’ve even met SERCO officers who are generous, kind people.

Ruddbott policies of cruelty to refugees and everything that Abbott wants to do is directed at fragmenting and dividing society; creating an underclass of desperate, damaged people, and making the rest of us feel paralysed by fear or guilt to do anything about this. Every story of meeting, of exchange, of generosity creates connection and is another stitch in the fabric of society that we will have to work so hard to sustain in the next few years.

I ended tonight with another fabulous reflection of hope. Visiting Arizona Professor Shahla Talebi gave a talk in the Evatt room in Trades Hall tonight. She’s famous for her memoir about spending 11 years in Iranian Prison (before and after the revolution).

she spoke exquisitely, hauntingly about memories when there is no commemoration; the hauntology of bodies connected to horror, and the absolute necessity to commemorate the connection created by suffering.

It was a darker shade of the fundamental message of life affirming hope that my favourite philosophers share.

She qualified my own muddled reservations about Elaine Scarry’s writings on pain as an absolute destruction of meaning, and spoke how connection and relationality is what sustained her and other survivors of torture.

She spoke of the necessity of recalling all victims of torture, or imprisonment, of atrocity, of recalling these incidents, of keeping the dead with us in a living praxis of relationality, and of the creation of geographies of communing with the dead.

So today is the commemoration of Iranian massacres of political prisoners in the summer of 1988 – before most of my new friends were born.

The foyer of trades hall is decorated with photos and posters commemorating the 40th anniversary of another atrocity that I do carry inside of me – of September 11 in Chile. I made a joke with Shahla tonight about how I was accustomed to hear about torture from the comfort of a bed, rather than hard chairs in a hall. but yes, the strange sad intimacies of where secret sacred stories have been shared with me, continue to shape how I move through this world of wonders and horrors and grieving and hope.

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