A few months back, I wrote of a constant refrain in my life – being told to go back to where I come from. I elaborated the reasons why this particular slogan keeps recurring, why it is totally unnecessary, counterproductive and irritating, and why it should stop. This phrase taps into the deep recesses of white Australian racism and privilege, and is indicative of the level of political thinking current predominating in Australian society.
This time, without recapitulating all the arguments from that article, I wish to examine another monotonous, unhelpful and obnoxious refrain that I have heard my whole life – that I should be grateful for living in Australia. I was motivated to write about this topic, because I hope that I could clarify the confusion surrounding this subject. Migrants and refugees that have settled in Australia (and in the United States) are subjected to this phrase, not for the purpose of uplifting their spirits, but for the purpose of shutting out any identity or cultural affiliation with their native country.
Dina Nayeri, an Iranian American refugee, wrote precisely about this subject for The Guardian newspaper. An asylum seeker from Iran, she escaped along with her family to find a new life in a Western country. Her article, entitled “The ungrateful refugee: ‘We have no debt to repay'”, is a heart-rending, engrossing and powerful article about her experiences, first in leaving Iran, and also in discovering a new identity and culture in America. She relates how in 1985, in the middle of the long Iran-Iraq war, she travelled to London with her parents. Enrolling in school, she describes how the initial welcoming atmosphere soon soured, and the other English kids (boys) would physically assault her, taunt and insult her, all the while she was studying. She was advised that while this behaviour was wrong, she should be ‘grateful’ to have the opportunity to study in England. She states that:
I never went back to that school, but later, in the chatter of the grownups from my grandmother’s church and even in my parents’ soothing whispers, I heard a steady refrain about gratefulness. God had protected me and so I shouldn’t look at the event in a negative light. It was my moment to shine! Besides, who could tell what had motivated those boys? Maybe they were just playing, trying to include me though I didn’t speak a word of their language. Wasn’t that a good thing?
Three years later, the Nayeri family left Iran for good, and settled in the United States. In that country, Dina became an ‘ambassador’ for everything Iranian and Muslim – the other students ridiculed her accent, her language, her culture, her religion – even though she tried to explain that she was Christian. Whenever she was attacked, she would be told – you should be grateful you are living here in America – Oklahoma to be exact. She tried to explain that she was not – as the Americans put it – a ‘turban jockey’ or a ‘camel fucker’. These expressions were not only offensive, but misleading characterisations of Iran and Islamic society. Nevertheless, as she elaborated:
Grateful. There was that word again. Here I began to notice the pattern. This word had already come up a lot in my childhood, but in her mouth (her teacher) it lost its goodness. It hinted and threatened. Afraid for my future, I decided that everyone was right: if I failed to stir up in myself enough gratefulness, or if I failed to properly display it, I would lose all that I had gained, this western freedom, the promise of secular schools and uncensored books.
Dina Nayeri began to understand the stifling conformity of official patriotism – America is good, and that is that. Any questioning of this mantra, any residual cultural identity, had to be discarded:
From then on, we sensed the ongoing expectation that we would shed our old skin, give up our former identities – every quirk and desire that made us us – and that we would imply at every opportunity that America was better, that we were so lucky, so humbled to be here. My mother continued giving testimonials in churches. She wore her cross with as much spirit as she had done in Islamic Iran. She baked American cakes and replaced the rosewater in her pastries with vanilla. I did much worse: over years, I let myself believe it. I lost my accent. I lost my hobbies and memories. I forgot my childhood songs.
You can read her whole story here. It is a humane, engaging examination of the hurdles and pitfalls that migrants and refugees navigate when submerged in a completely new language and culture. Of course Nayeri is grateful that America opened its doors. However, her article is a necessary reminder that – and the following expression is mine – do not think you are so special for that reason.
But what America did was a basic human obligation. It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks. It is your duty to answer us, even if we don’t give you sugary success stories. Even if we remain a bunch of ordinary Iranians, sometimes bitter or confused. Even if the country gets overcrowded and you have to give up your luxuries, and we set up ugly little lives around the corner, marring your view. If we need a lot of help and local services, if your taxes rise and your street begins to look and feel strange and everything smells like turmeric and tamarind paste, and your favourite shop is replaced by a halal butcher, your schoolyard chatter becoming ching-chongese and phlegmy “kh”s and “gh”s, and even if, after all that, we don’t spend the rest of our days in grateful ecstasy, atoning for our need.
It is this aspect of ‘gratefulness’, or what Nayeri calls ‘gratitude politics’, that requires further examination, because it is directly relevant to the Australian context. I am nowhere near as articulate or intelligent as Nayeri, but I will attempt to do my best to elaborate upon the things for which I am grateful. The purpose of this is twofold: to clarify exactly those things for which I harbour genuine sentiments of grateful, and secondly to hopefully stop the incessant, monotonous mantra that I have heard my whole life -‘you should be grateful’.
With the increase in anti-immigrant, nativist politics throughout Europe, and the morbidly disturbing symptoms of decay in the American political system that Trump represents, this mantra of ‘being grateful’ has acquired new resonance. Immigrants and asylum seekers have to doubly prove their loyalty and dedication to their adopted countries, and any lingering hankering for their home country, or maintenance of cultural links with their past, is immediately met with denunciations of disloyalty. Why – are you not grateful to be here?
Firstly, let us dispense with the primary question, the one I get asked on a regular basis – aren’t you grateful to live in Australia?
My answer is:
Yes I am grateful.
Just to clarify;
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Okay, we have got that question out of the way.
Sentiments of gratefulness are not confined by national borders, state lines, or restricted to people of one race, colour, creed, ethnicity or gender. It is possible to be grateful for multiple persons, influences and cultures. Keeping that in mind, let us assemble a partial list of the things for which I am grateful.
I am very grateful to the civilisation of Muslim Spain, known as Al-Andalus, or Moorish Spain. Why? No, I am not Muslim. No, I do not practice any religion. But I fully recognise the importance of Moorish Spain, and its critical role in lifting white, predominantly Christian Europe from the sustained ignorance of the Dark Ages. In case we are uncertain as to the incredible significance of Muslim Spain – Al-Andalus – in providing a boost for the cultural and educational achievements of Europe, have a read of the following article in Telesur TV.
Entitled “Here’s how Black Muslims lifted Europe out of the Dark Ages”, the authors write of the critically important mathematical and scientific discoveries of the Muslim civilisation that predominated across the Iberian peninsula and southern France. In 10th century the capital of Moorish Spain, Córdoba, boasted having baths, hospitals, libraries and a university. London and Paris would not witness such innovative facilities until hundreds of years later.
The black Muslims of Spain developed mathematics, introducing the game-changing concept of zero. The population in Moorish lands was almost completely literate – while the monarchs of European kingdoms were barely literate. The Roman Empire, a once-mighty civilisation, was reduced to warring fiefdoms among the white European tribes and confederations. The Moorish invaders, conquering swathes of Spain, Portugal, North Africa and southern France, brought their particular learning, innovations and technology to the areas of Europe they dominated. As Garikai Chengu explains in his article ‘How African Muslims civilised Spain‘:
In Europe’s great Age of Exploration, Spain and Portugal were the leaders in global seafaring. It was the Moorish advances in navigational technology such as the astrolabe and sextant, as well as their improvements in cartography and shipbuilding, that paved the way for the Age of Exploration. Thus, the era of Western global dominance of the past half-millennium originated from the African Moorish sailors of the Iberian Peninsula during the 1300s.
Being a graduate of several universities, and a frequenter of public libraries since my youth, I am truly grateful that the Moors of Spain – black Muslims – set the standard for being an educated, civilised person.
It is relevant to note that this month, April 2017, marks a sad anniversary. Approximately 400 years ago – 408 to be exact – King Phillip III of Spain signed an order decreeing that the Moriscos, those remaining Moors of Spain who had converted to Christianity, be systematically expelled from the Iberian Peninsula; an early example of what we would call ethnic cleansing. With that order, and the subsequent military campaign to push out the formerly dominant black Muslims, a unique civilisation that served as a conduit for transmitting learning to Western Europe was decimated. The Moorish civilisation had already been purged by the wars of Reconquest; with Philip’s decree, the last remnants of the Moorish presence was to be annihilated.
There are many other people and influences for which I am very grateful. The Armenians who fled the massacres of 1915, escaping from the genocidal forces of the new Turkish Republic, found refuge in Arab countries, such as Palestine and Lebanon. An article from 2015 published in Al Jazeera explains how Armenians came to live within Arab communities, the latter opening their doors even though they faced severe privations. They performed their humane duty to those who were less fortunate – no more and no less. For that, I am sincerely grateful to the Arabic-speaking nations for their generosity.
I am grateful to those Armenians who are doing their best to contribute towards rebuilding the homeland. I am grateful to those Australians who assisted my parents in settling in this country. I am grateful to those indigenous Australians who opened my eyes to the true history of colonial subjugation and the dispossession suffered by the First Nations of Australia. So please, stop asking me if I am grateful to live in Australia, as if it is an accusatory charge, implying that I am disloyal. Instead, please suggest how we can best cooperate to improve the conditions of life for all of us.