Mohammad and the Otter


Barb as a promising young journalist


‘This heat. Bad for business’, says the Chinese lady in the 24/7.
‘Sure you sell alota drinks, but you loose alota chocolate. Winter better. Nobody want to eat a lot in this heat. Shame. Shame.’
I am buying a small can of tuna. It is a ticket to an exclusive festival performance down by the River Torrens in Adelaide, the City of Churches in the festival year 2008.

Some record consecutive number of days over 35 degrees have elapsed. It’s so damned hot the railway lines have buckled.

Hindley Street at 5.30am: The time of day when a person in recovery crosses paths with those still suffering addicts, numb and stumbling home cradling a warm vodka cruiser, acrid cigarette smoke halo – these fallen angels remind me that ‘alcohol gave me wings, then took away the sky.’
Just like the caged eagle in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ that dismayed and confounded those with lives not blighted by alcoholism.

Last year we buried Steve J. Spears and Mary MacLeod. And 69,000 others.

Piccaninny dawn. The Adelaide Festival Centre’s a ghost ship like the Marie Celeste. Blank, wide windows waiting for the people to arrive, like eyes waiting to open.
Then I saw her, thin as a cello string, arched liked a fishhook, eyes like headlights, grey and tawny, the little feral festival cat darting among the sparse greenery; surprising, fierce, sensual; my first live performance of the day.

I crack open the tuna.

The fountain spurts water green, yellow and red. Go, wait, stop.

The piss elegant old rotunda smudged with street lights evokes long ago party Popeye trips fuelled with white wine and hash. Merrily down the stream . . .

Where exactly did the cops drown Dr George Duncan? Is there a memorial? Is it still a gay beat? I hope so. I was uneasy with the gay politic in the Don Dunstan play ‘Lovers and Haters’. Does ‘blackface’ have a ‘pinkface’ equivalent? Did ya hear the one about the dead poof, the drowned rat?
Don’s mandarin, Len Amadio, still Sir Humphreyesque, and the urbane arts guru Anthony Steel AM, agree it’s a mystery why Don Dunstan has yet to attract the attention of a biographer of the stature of say, David Marr.

The pedal boats— blue, red, orange and green —are tethered for the night like caravan beasties. Indigo sky seeps into the coppery water turning it blue. Then bubbles break the smooth surface and up pops a brown furry head, a whiskery face. An otter? Except I’m in Adelaide. Otters are from elsewhere.

The Fez Bar – aka the Persian Garden – is stacked away. A lone sleeper has found purchase on the riverbank under his blue sleeping bag, trainers neatly beside a bottle. He’ll need an eye-opener shortly.

The first notes of Adelaide’s dawn are the piping swans, plovers, welcome swallows, wood ducks, seagulls and black moorhens that look like plump usherettes. The otter-that-is-not, surfaces again and more agile than Bathboy from Le Cirque dances along a chain and lands gracefully on the pedal boat bow, breakfast in his teeth. Bigger than the grey cat this handsome agile water rat.
Pinkish dawn changes the water to a deep green colour. Hard to believe the banner headlines: ‘Driest in 40 years’ and ‘Hottest since 1934’. Ask the poor horses racing in today’s scorcher at the roastcourse for the Adelaide Cup? It is barbaric.
The track winds round the river for these lucky locals and into a grove of soft swamp oak and rushes. The eucalypt oil is strong in the early heat and dancing at my feet like some tiny black and white ballerina is a Willy wagtail. Perfect.
My fingers touch the bark of these wide old trees – art you can feel and smell with impunity – as good as anything at the splendid biennial up at the gallery where the mallee roots and bleached coral mark the landscape’s grave.
This side of the weir is the appearance of lushness, a lie found out when you cross the ornate wrought iron sluice gates where the water on the other side is as thick as spit. A city of two rivers.
Adelaide Establishment has some pretty spruce rowing sheds on the site of the ancient Kaurna hunting grounds and you wonder if while we’re all busy saying ‘sorry’ the city might restore the musical name of the river. Karra-wirra-parri. River of the red gum. Instead it bears the name of the man who created a system of securing land titles. The first premier of South Australia, Robert Torrens.
You pass the city’s coat of arms: yellow red and blue, the lion and the kangaroo with the motto: Ut Prosint Omnibus. United for Common Good. A fine sentiment.
Driest in 40 years – hottest since ’34.
Some of the local chaps are working on their shots near a sign assuring the casual observer that the links are watered from the river.
Then it hits you: The birthplace of the ‘stolen generations’ is putting green number three.
There’s a little metal fella on a big round rock, a ringtail possum and some history about the black fellahs who didn’t have the Torrens title going for them.
“Wanti nindo ai kabba. Ningkoandi kuma yerta?”
“Where have you pushed me to? You belong to another country”.
The plaque tells the story of Piltawodli, or ‘possum home’ which was a Kaurna settlement on 14 acres back in the 1830s. Before it was a golf course.
In 1845 the Kaurna children were taken to an English-only ‘Native School Establishment’ on Kintore Avenue and soldiers destroyed their homes at Piltawodli.
The children became the first of the Stolen Generations.
Ut Prosint Omnibus.
The sun has arrived and splashes Adelaide’s splendid hills with golden light just up from the tents pitched for Writer’s Week where Germaine Greer declared God was dead.
It’s 9am and already it’s over 30 degrees.
I hail an air-conditioned cab and drive around with Mohammad, a refugee from Iran who spent five years in Baxter detention Centre before getting his visa.
He can never return to his birthplace. He misses his family and his community. I ask him if he finds acceptance in Adelaide.
‘You want the truth?’
‘Nobody say anything in ordinary life but you feel it underneath. You feel the difference. People know me as Metta or Mattie not Mohammad, as you see written on my i.d.
One night recently I had a passenger, he was little bit drunk, and as he getting out he say – ‘Mohammad, go back to your brother.’
‘My brother, I say? I have no brother.’
He say, ‘Your brother Osama bin Laden’.
He looks at me with sad eyes. Another victory for Little Johnny Howard and King Alcohol in the City of Churches.
I tell him I am reading the Sufi poets Rumi and Hafiz. He lights up.

I Have Learned So Much
So much from God
That I can no longer

A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,
a Buddhist, a Jew.

The Truth has shared so much of Itself
With me

That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel,
Or even a pure

Love has
Befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash
And freed

Of every concept and image
my mind has ever known.

From: ‘The Gift’  , 1320AD






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