Roots will be with you always
- BY:GHASSAN HAGE
- From:The Australian
Source: The Australian
I WAS heading to a birthday party in western NSW with my wife and daughters when we drove past Bathurst. My grandparents had arrived there in the late 1930s and opened a clothing factory. My mother went to school, then began helping her parents run the factory. She has good memories of many years spent zigzagging NSW in the family Studebaker as she delivered clothes to shops across Bathurst and as far afield as Lithgow and Young.
But in the mid ’50s, when she was 30, she left Australia for Lebanon. I’m not sure if she did so specifically to find herself a husband but she says she was introduced to my father – an influential gendarmerie officer at the time – fell in love and stayed.
Although I never visited Australia as a youth, Bathurst was a familiar name to me. It was often on my mother’s lips.
It was the sender’s address of the many large boxes that came by ship to Beirut’s port; inside, among many other things, were those furry koala and kangaroo toys that were everywhere in our house. These clearly marked our household’s Australian connections. So did the distinctness of my mother’s accent when speaking English. I remember Carla, the blonde German-Lebanese neighbour, and the secret object of my passions in my early teens, asking me: “Why does your mother always say ‘aahy’ instead of ‘eehy’?”
But far more important to me than the stuffed toys or the accent were the pictures of my grandparents in Bathurst that my mother kept in her drawer and that I took out and examined carefully every now and then. It was primarily these photos that constituted the portal through which I stared to imagine what life in Australia was like.
The adventures of Sandy and his friend Hoppy the kangaroo in my favourite French comic journal, Spirou, helped extend my imagining. Courtesy of the excellent drawings of Willy Lambil, the series’ Belgian creator, Sandy and Hoppy were my first introduction to images of the Australian outback and its culture, albeit in a European, cliched way.
Sandy and Hoppy’s adventures happened in various places, although mostly somewhere on the border between Victoria and NSW; Poursuite sur la Murray was the title of one suspenseful adventure. Yet, somehow, these drawings fused with the family photos to create my own particular idea of Bathurst.
When I finally came to Australia during the Lebanese civil war, I lived in Sydney but visited my grandparents in Bathurst.
By then, they were old. The clothing factory was no more and all that remained was a frock shop that my grandmother kept going to make a few dollars that she spent during short telephone conversations with what was referred to, quite obscurely to me, as the bookmaker. Soon after I arrived, my grandparents sold the Bathurst house and the shop and moved to Sydney where their children could look after them.
Despite having visited the Bathurst house several times, I had no memory of it 25 years later when we stopped on our way to that birthday party in Cowra.
This is not surprising as I spent much of my first couple of years in Australia in a state of almost total detachment from reality.
My most distinct feeling was of living in a state of suspension produced by an acute sense not only of displacement but also of directionlessness. As a kid I dreamed of what it was like to be in Australia, but never with a desire to live there. Australia was simply not in a zone where I envisaged my life would unfold. In the back of my mind was a pre-Galilean image: the Earth was flat and soon after people got to Australia they would start falling off a gigantic cliff.
So, when my parents insisted I go to Australia to escape the civil war and continue my university education, I felt I was positioned at the edge of the universe with no task other than to wait … for whatever.
This made Australia, for me, a transitional space unsuitable for purpose of settlement or long-term planning: what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls a space of “zero social gravity’. For Bourdieu, if one has no interest in the social reality in which one exists, then reality in turn fails to impose itself on one’s senses and fails to pull one in. Reality loses its importance and, because of this, it loses its consistency, and even the materiality of the physical environment diminishes. This was certainly the way I experienced Australia to begin with, and more so Bathurst. It did not really leave much of an imprint in my mind. I did not particularly miss anything about Bathurst when I stopped visiting. But on that day, on our way to Cowra, my wife Caroline and the kids were eager to see where Teita (Granny) grew up.
So I tried to locate the house, remembering that it was towards the Mt Panorama side of a long shopping street.
Indeed, with Mt Panorama in sight, it was not hard to locate what to me clearly looked like the house. Next to it, I was almost certain, stood my grandmother’s old frock shop. Nonetheless, I still had some doubts, and when we all got out of the car I was still trying to convince myself that I was not mistaken about it all. That’s when a woman came out of the shop, locking the door behind her. She was about to go down the street but she noticed us all standing there.
“Are you looking for something, love,” she said.
“Is that the Debs’ house?” I replied. (Debs is my mother’s maiden name.)
“Well, yes,” she said, “but it hasn’t been the Debs’ house for a very long time.”
She inquired a bit more and I told her my mother had grown up there. She said she remembered her, then asked: “Would you like to go in and have a look?’
“Yes, thank you,” said Caroline, before I had the time to say anything.
And so we all went in and looked around. I could not remember a thing, not the house’s layout, not the shop’s interior – although we were told that nothing had changed – not the furniture, nothing. I was a bit disappointed. The woman even showed us some garments that were still there from “Mrs Debs’ time”, but I was unaffected.
Then I went to the back yard, and there something quite spectacular happened to me. The back yard was unkempt. There was no lawn but a chaotic entanglement of high and low vegetation. Nonetheless, there, amid the chaos, I could discern three unmistakable forms: a fig tree, an olive tree and a pomegranate tree, the holy Mediterranean trinity, or one of them at least.
At the very sight of them a complex web of emotions as wild as the vegetation that was before my eyes welled in me.
I glimpsed a moment in my past when my mother, sitting on a long chair in front of our beach house to the north of Beirut, was telling someone the story of how my grandmother had an argument with my grandfather because she felt that he was wasting his time insisting on planting these trees.
I am not sure why the sight of the trees affected me so much, especially since, even though I had no memory of it, I must have seen them before in my early visits.
Perhaps because I am pulled by the social gravity of Australia, now that I am as seriously immersed and interested in Australia as can be. Or perhaps simply because I am older, more existential and more appreciative of whatever memory and feeling comes my way.
But the thought of me on my way from Sydney to Cowra, standing in the middle of this back yard in Bathurst, next to a couple of trees that my grandfather has planted more than 50 years ago, was awesome, as my teenage daughter would say.
Roots, routes, Lebanon, family, the cosmos, Heidegger and much more, all came racing into my mind.
But among all of the above there was one feeling that was particularly discernible and that I want to highlight here: next to these very Lebanese trees, planted by my very Lebanese grandfather, I stood there feeling rooted here, feeling more Australian than ever. What was surprising about this feeling was not its paradoxical nature. Rather, it was how non-paradoxical – or to use the equivalent of paradox in the emotional realm, it was how non-ambivalent – this feeling of rootedness in Australia was.
The Lebanese trees did not make me feel Australian and Lebanese, although I do feel both at many moments of life. Nor did they make me feel torn between my Lebaneseness and my Australianness. They simply made me feel, as I said, more Australian.
Reflecting on this, I came to understand that this was because it was not the trees themselves or the presence of my grandfather in Bathurst that made me feel rooted there. If I had seen those trees simply as Lebanese trees on Australian soil, I probably would have felt nostalgic to Lebanon. But this was not the case. Nor did the trees represent a memory of my grandfather that would have carried me to the time when he lived there. What seemed to me to have been crucial to my experience was the memory of my grandfather planting the trees. It was the practice that symbolised a specific relation to the land that made me feel rooted. And the trees stood there as a metonymic extension of that practice and that relation.
Now, despite the elevating feeling that overwhelmed me, I knew Australia’s history too well to forget that I was in a town that was at the heart of the white settlement of Australia. I was also in a back yard: as quintessentially Anglo a mode of marking and shaping and rooting oneself in the land as can be. So I was well aware that others have come at different times and through their practices, rooted themselves in this space. And, of course, I am too politically correct, and proudly so, to have missed the fact that my Lebanese trees and the Anglo back yard in which they were planted were both on Aboriginal land.
So I was fully conscious at the time – indeed at the moment I was experiencing a high, admiring my grandfather’s trees – of the colonial histories of violence, domination and appropriation, of heroism and overcoming, of resistance, defeat and perseverance that marks the land on which these trees have grown.
But, again, this awareness did not diminish the sense of rootedness they infused in me, for this was not – nor could it afford to be – a possessive rootedness that claimed monopoly over the space of its emergence.
It is this open, non-exclusivist, rootedness that allows for a superposed multiplicity of roots that I want to highlight.
Roots have a bad name in certain intellectual circles. They are associated with stasis, conservatism and narrow mindedness. There is no doubt that roots can be experienced this way. Some people end up burying themselves in their roots and their rootedness becomes a territorial and a claustrophobic one.
So there is certainly a good reason to capture the negativity that is part of such a conception of roots.
But there is no reason to universalise this. For many people, a greater sense of rootedness does not mean a sense of being locked in the ground, unable to move. On the contrary, roots often are paradoxically experienced like an extra pair of wings. And this was exactly how I experienced my trees. I felt them propelling me.
It is important to stop and fully comprehend what propelling means here. When we are pushed by a force, it can make us go forward. The same goes with a force that is propelling us. Yet there is one important difference: when we are propelled, the force that pushes us stays with us.
There, it seems to me, lies the importance and the power of the roots that I am referring to: they are not roots that keep you grounded, they are roots that stay with you as you move. They are of the same order as the “with” we offer someone when we wish them: “May God” or “May the Force be with you”. It is a Heideggerian withness that gives strength to our being.
I want to emphasise this mode of rootedness and its positive character because in it I glimpsed not just a way of being rooted but a mode of belonging that can stand in opposition to the narrow territorial way of being rooted I have referred to earlier, and that has often generated sadness and paranoia.
The latter inherits colonialism’s exclusivist mentality, which operates with an either-or logic: either my roots or yours, either this land is mine or yours, either you belong here or there, either you are sovereign or I am.
The experience of rootedness that I found so uplifting seems to offer a path to a different mode of belonging.
But this is not an anti-colonial belonging, which pits the belonging of the colonised against that of the coloniser while conserving colonialism’s either-or logic.
Nor is it a post-colonialism, which prematurely sees colonial culture as something superseded. If anything, it is a supra-counter-colonialism: it counters colonial culture from a space outside of and beyond it. This is what some theorists today refer to as the event: that which comes from an outer plane and carries with it multiple possibilities of transforming the existing.
Given the many dead-ends that various forms of multiculturalism have led to, it is important to look for, and from, such a novel space to rethink the interaction of cultures within Australia. It is an important challenge that was elided by the “Help! Our core values are in danger” brigade that the Howard government represented. And it would be a mistake if the Rudd Government is to continue to shy away from it. For let there be no mistake: Australia’s future culture will be plural. And there is no other way forward but to think about how all of us can learn to embrace it in its plurality.
Ghassan Hage is future generation professor of anthropology and social theory at the University of Melbourne.