Classical music is the best thing for the early morning. The presenter on the radio is speaking softly, with diction. The slow clarinet rises gently above the orchestra as the little breath of hot air clears a space in the thick frost on the windscreen. The car idles patiently, waiting for my view to clear. Outside it is still dark and the thick fog softens my headlights. From the main road the gravel tracks take me between hard grazed paddocks protected by leaning, rusty, barbed wire fences. The tandem trailer drifts behind the ute. The two empty water shuttles catch the backdraft and the trailer skittles across the red dirt. Out the rear view mirror the leafy stems of tree seedlings drift to and fro as I cut through the heavy morning mist.
The Hazari workers are already at the padlocked gate when I get there. We have been restoring the old farmland for the last month; planting trees into the hard, dry ground. They are always early. The car is a white hatchback and the men sit jammed together ignoring the discomfort and cracking jokes and laughing. Throughout the day the four men work steadily, digging holes in cracked clay with blunt shovels. I water in the new seedlings but the cracked earth doesn’t hold the water. The dry ground sucks it up into large fissures that pull the water away to someplace deeper. By 9 am we have planted a small patch of trees and the mist has burnt off. The day becomes hot and clear.
It is nice to listen to a story as we work. Ali was telling me his story as we fixed the fence to keep the sheep from eating the new trees. The job was an easy one and our actions fell into routine as his voice rose and fell along with our work. His story was like this:
I was born in Uruzgan provence, in Afghanistan.
When I was five we left Afghanistan and went to Pakistan as refugees.
It was very dangerous for us, because we are Hazaris. Our religion is Muslim, but the Taliban say we do not follow the true religion. We do not believe in hiding women. Where in the Koran does it say that? When I was five my family went to Pakistan and we were in a refugee camp for 17 years. My family are still there. Did you hear about the bomb that killed 130 people one month ago? That was on the block where my family live. It is very dangerous for my family. When I talk to my family I tell them that in Australia religion doesn’t matter. You can be Hazari, or Christian or such and it doesn’t matter. People will leave you alone. I am trying to bring my family to Australia so I am working very hard. Do you know Wagga Wagga? I have sent for a job in Wagga Wagga to work at a meat factory. It will be full time work and I can work very hard. I was a business-man in Pakistan, but I had to leave everything behind. My family had to leave everything behind twice: when we left Afghanistan, and when I left my businesses in Pakistan. I owned two shops, a grocery shop and a clothes-making shop. The police started asking for money, not just me, but everyone. So I gave them some money. Then they came back next month and asked for more money. The police in Pakistan are very corrupt. There was nothing we could do because we were refugees in a refugee camp. I had to close my businesses and started to come here. My wife is in Pakistan still.
When I left I came to Malaysia, then was in detention in Indonesia for a year. Then I took a boat to Christmas Island. It is very dangerous. Many people have died. Did you see the boat with over 100 people drowned? In Darwin I was in detention for 3 years. That is why I can speak English. When I got out I didn’t know what to do. There were some Hazaris here and people said there was a lot of work, but there is not much fruit picking this year. I can become a citizen after four years on a protection visa. It has already been two years. It is very flat here and I miss the mountains and the snow. We do not have fences like this in Afghanistan. We walk the sheep to the pastures and a boy watches over them. It has been five years since I have seen my family.
At lunch we sit in a circle. The Hazaris sit on the mats from the floor of the car to protect themselves from the sharp copper burr. Sitting across from me is Mirza, his droopy eyes and broad flat face constantly breaking into a smile and his round stomach stretching the buttons of his shirt. His friends are immune to his chuckling but I can’t help smiling along. Sitting next to me is Ali, with a serious face: a strong jawline and thick moustache – an eastern Robert Redford perhaps. Mirza has a beanie sitting askew on his head. It has the insignia of the local primary school emblazoned on the side; poverty can be conspicuous in the most amusing ways. He smiles and hands me a cup of tea with a candy and pushes the bowl of lentils towards me.
Mark had gone away on holidays for a month, and I was filling in.
“I’ve got a bit of a conflict of interest”, he’d said before heading off.
“You see, those Punjabi guys are hard workers. Because most young blokes you get around here are real lazy. But they’re boat people. And I don’t like boat people. You see it’s a bit of a conflict of interest?” It wasn’t really a conflict of interest. And they were from Afghanistan and not Punjab. It was hard to hold anything against Mark though. Especially out here. The red dirt and isolation made people distrustful. Mark wasn’t nasty, but there was something malicious that had rubbed off onto him. Sue and I had organised an Indigenous awareness day, and Mark had been there. You could see him working hard to do things right, shaking hands with an awkward smile fixed on his face. Later we’d taken a ride and we’re hailed down by a retired farmer. We got out of the ute and the old man hunkered over to us, a sour smell lifted off of his polyester clothes. His face had split into a leery grin revealing a set of black teeth, “Heard you blokes were having some Abbo day.” I went and sat in the car and turned the radio up while Mark and this tufted haired fellow leant in close to one another, grinning and nodding.
The moon was pushing up through a thin layer of red dust that hung low in the air as I drove back to Melbourne. The local news was playing on the radio. A man wearing a suit of armour and menacing folks with a sword was loose in one of the local caravan parks. I’d been staying in a caravan park and I wondered whether it was my one. I could imagine the man stepping out of one of the derelict permanent caravans, perhaps taking in some stretches, before stalking the caravan park crying out for challengers. Things sure were different out here. I was heading back to inner city Melbourne, back to my friends who where lawyers, teachers, musicians and activists; to be comfortably enveloped by my people.