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Ear to the ground.


If you pressed your ear to the railway line that runs east-west across thousands of kilometres of desert scrub in Western Australia, you might have picked up the reverberation of long tongues licking the lines. Desperate camels and kangaroos, affected by the acute drought at the end of last year, were drawn to the tracks because of the dew that condensed on them.

And if there was not enough dew on the lines, the animals tried the bitumen on the highways--adding to the hazards facing Australian travellers.

Australia's first Muslims

Some of the earliest travellers in modern Australia came from Afghanistan, Baluchistan and what is now Pakistan. They were the first Muslims to settle in South Australia in 1866. They brought their camels--and the feral descendants of these are today's dew lickers.

These people assisted in opening up the outback and helped to lay the overland telegraph lines from Adelaide to Darwin. The mosque they built in Adelaide in 1889 is a national monument. There was a certain amount of intermarriage with Aboriginal people and the surname `Abdullah' is not uncommon in remote Aboriginal communities. No wonder, then, that Aboriginal people have been among the more welcoming members of the community to the latest influx of Afghan refugees.

Reassuring outcry

An Australian member of parliament declared recently that Australian Muslim women should be banned from wearing the traditional chador, under which all sorts of weapons of mass destruction could be hiding.

The outcry following his remarks has been reassuring--and witty, making the most of his name, Fred Nile. `Nile be damned,' cried one observer. `Return to your source,' ordered another, referring to Mr Nile's well-known Christian persuasion. `Does he pose a veiled threat to Australian security?' asked a third.

Choir power

`Outcrying' is a valuable indicator of a healthy democracy, which doesn't always get recorded in the history books. Australia's treatment of asylum seekers has stimulated considerable outcry, although carrying it to the extreme of violent demonstrations against detention centres has not been particularly helpful.

Some are trying other ways to change hearts--and, with them, policies. Take the Port Hedland detention centre, for instance, which unlike the more notorious centres in the desert is situated in the heart of town. It drew very little attention to itself until some tear gas being used to quell inmates seeped over the fence into the primary school next door. Outcry followed.

A local Christian minister who had connections on the inside pondered how to build understanding and reconciliation with the townsfolk. She decided to train a choir of detainees to take part in the town's annual Eisteddford. It took a lot of persuading to get the authorities to agree, and the choir took part under heavy guard. Their singing moved the audience to tears and they won first prize. They were invited back the next year and won again.

Friendship gate

Neighbourliness, that's the key. In a Sydney suburb an Islamic high school was upgrading its facilities and asked the church next door whether they could use some of its space for classes temporarily. The church went into session and said `Yes'. They left it up to the high school to decide what sort of rent might be appropriate.

In the process of renovations the wall between the two establishments had to come down. As the new fence was being built it was decided to incorporate a gate between the two properties. `Our friendship gate,' declared the school principal.

No longer invulnerable

Friendship gates have an added pathos since the Bali bombing. There have been screams of recrimination but also the heaving sobs of deeply grieving communities. Australia is no longer invulnerable. It is a time to enter into the suffering of our neighbours who have long known such vulnerability.

Seven Sydney families, one of which had a son injured in the bombing, have undertaken to raise money every month for five years to help educate the children of a Balinese security guard who was killed.

from Jean Brown in Adelaide, South Australia
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Article Details
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Author:Brown, Jean
Publication:For A Change
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Feb 1, 2003
Previous Article:Partnerships for everyone. (Guest Column).
Next Article:A timely note of idealism. (From The Editors' Desk).

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