Three days in Paris. 17 dead.
A satirical magazine targeted for lampooning radical Islam. Shoppers at a kosher supermarket siege killed.
This morning I came back from my run, red as a baboon’s bum after the lack of training over Christmas.
Mum dozed in front of the morning news, fresh from a night shift.
I stood as the heat prickled off my skin. The fan drew lazy circles above our heads and a lump of pride formed in my throat as I watched the morning news.
In Paris thousands upon thousands of people, Middle Eastern flags, French flags, Irish flags, American Flags, Swedish flags toted high in the air, they marched through the city. There were so many they milled like sardines, one huge united mass.
Between 1.5 -2 million people marched in Paris said the newsreader.
The three days of terror had the opposite effect the killers intended.
People who had never rallied before came onto the streets of Paris, packed their children in the car and drove from across France and Europe, marched singing and shouting and holding hands, to show that freedom of speech will never be silenced.
There will always be those brave enough to exercise their right.
Earlier in the week I had been disgusted to see several major news outlets showing an online video of the gunmen shooting dead 42-year-old police officer Ahmed Merabet as he lay on the ground, appearing to plead for his life.
What has the world come to when amateur video footage of somebody’s cold-blooded murder can be run openly on news websites with a simple ‘graphic warning’ bar.
This morning I watched footage of Merabet’s brother, good looking and devastated, lean forward into the microphone and say “for the rallies across Paris, across France, across the world, I thank you. It means a lot to us.”
I was thankful too to the people of Paris for showing Merabet’s family that we cared, that we supported his brother and his community and were aware of the difference between extremists and ordinary Muslims.
It is in the wake of real tragedy the good people come to the fore.
Last week I held my friend’s baby boy.
“It’s so weird that 16 days ago he was in my stomach,” she said, feeding him with the ease I use to make a coffee.
He squirmed his tiny arms and opened his mouth in the silent cry of a baby bird. I was struck by how little he was.
How many things could harm him! What a miracle it was that any of us reached adulthood at all.
A loaf of bread could suffocate him; a loud noise could deafen him. I felt as though a small breeze would leave him with pneumonia.
He was tiny and beautiful and would one day be a grown, talking man. Bizarre.
A reverse of these thoughts played through my head as I looked hard at the faces of the two brothers accused of shooting dead journalists, cartoonists and other innocent people in the Charlie Hebdo Magazine attack in Paris.
They were little boys once, probably bounced on their mother’s knee. I wonder if she looked into their eyes as they suckled and thought, ‘drink up little murderers.’
My bet is not.
Somewhere along the way something goes wrong. It raises, as always, the debate of nature versus nurture.
Are people born bad? With the ability to murder? My belief is that some are. But most aren’t.
I would hate to kill another human being. But I think I could do it if I had to. In a situation where I would be killed unless I killed my attacker. I could do it.
But these two brothers?
The BBC reported in their online coverage of the event:
“Witnesses said they heard the gunmen shouting “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” and “God is Great” in Arabic (“Allahu Akbar”).”
This is radicalism. It is nurture not nature at play here. And it is extremely sad.
Four of the magazine’s cartoonists were shot dead in the attack. Perhaps an indicator of the power of the pen, and of humour, to really hit its mark.
It is the cartoons in a newspaper that make me stop and think. It is the cartoons that neatly summarise the crux of an issue in a way a lengthy article cannot quite manage.
The ability for humour to hone a pincer sharp light on an issue remains long after blustery and indignant words have faded.
Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists did exactly what they set out to do: raise important dialogue around contentious issues, get under the skin enough to highlight a point, draw attention to something in a satirical and confronting way.
And it is for this reason they died at the hands of gunmen motivated by radical religion. A sad, sad day for free speech indeed.
Perhaps some of the best coverage was the BBC’s compilation of obituaries for those killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack. Well worth a read.
France lost some amazing people that day.
Another post which shows the spirit of those who fight to protect free speech is this, a resounding and powerful response from cartoonists globally – a message of unity and above all, the prevailing might of pen over sword:
Four years ago, as a brightly-dressed uni student with little real worries, but an intensely curious mind pointed at the world at large, I attended an amazing event.
My university hosted the 2010 UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Press Freedom Day.
This was a big deal. It was an annual event and this was the first time it had come to the Pacific….let alone to the University of Queensland in BRISBANE!
I was one of the volunteers who helped interview journalists and speakers in attendance and produce short podcasts for the live coverage.
I put on my best practical heels, did my hair in an elegant but forgettable manner, and charged the battery on my Zoom audio recorder.
‘Freedom of speech’ was a buzz phrase to me before that day. Something people spoke about, but something Australians didn’t have a whole lot of drama with. Certainly not on the scale I was about to discover.
I sat in a packed lecture hall, madly scribbling notes as a journalist from Fiji described going to work in a dictator-led country.
He described the military personnel marching into his office before the paper went to print each afternoon. How in the beginning they wrote truly, and in the end they self-censored so they didn’t get a bullet through their skull at 4pm in their office chairs.
It would have broken their hearts not to write what was happening in their country. Not to let the people know that what was going down in their island nation was wrong and illegal, and everybody knew about it.
That is what freedom of the press means.
Another journalist shared their story. I put my pen down and ingested every word, spellbound. They told how they had been working in an African country, in the grip of a military coup.
One day a car carrying journalist colleagues was led into an ambush, the back doors opened and the occupants gunned dead. Red blood on the white tailgate. Stifling African heat spread like an old coat over the whole scene.
They suspected their translator, though they didn’t blame him. Everybody had a family that could be held hostage to meet certain demands.
That was the problem.
This was real, and it was happening to journalists all across our globe for reporting what was really going on in countries with major political problems.
I have the utmost respect for journalism, as atrocities don’t stop until there is enough public outcry, trade sanctions or international pressure.
And those things don’t happen until the stories see the light of day. The fact some journalists are willing to die so that those stories are heard is the reason some of them are ever heard.
That night I ate my povo uni dinner (affectionately termed Three Potato Stirfry). This was a carb-friendly mix of rice, potato, sweet potato and onion, and yes, I am aware onion is not in fact the third species of potato.
I sat on my front lawn in Bardon and listened back to my recording with an Argentinean radio host.
Noisy miners were sitting in the wattle tree above the pool, mining noisily. Rush hour traffic was streaming down Chiswisk Rd, a handy shortcut to avoid the Toowoong roundabout.
I hit play and listened as his deliberate, accented voice explained that without journalism in countries like his, politicians could get away with blue murder. And often it was just that; murder.
I finished my Three Potato Stirfry without enthusiasm and went to bed thinking about who I’d meet tomorrow.
I parked a ten-minute walk from the university, far from the parking man’s vile clutches, and headed in for the final day of the event.
Today the prize would be awarded. After finishing my jobs I snagged a good seat in the auditorium.
Well dressed, like many Chileans, Mónica González Mujica took the stage, her bright silk scarf a testament to her vibrant country.
It was a day and a person I will remember for years. She received the (UNESCO)/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize for the work she did during the dark years of Chile’s military coup and dictatorship (1973-1990).
The award is named in honour of Colombian editor Guillermo Cano Isaza who was assassinated for fearlessly denouncing the crimes of drug mafia operating in his country.
I remember being very tired that day as Ms González took the podium.
As she spoke, strength and emotion resting equally on her words, I felt my physical awareness melt away. The fatigue left. Every word sunk slowly into my skull.
She spoke about the things that had happened to her during the barbaric rule of General Pinochet, the military commander who seized power after his troops slaughtered and arrested a democratically elected President and members of the new government.
The things this lady spoke about; her treatment at the hands of soldiers, what it was like living in the torture prisons of Chile during that dark chapter, had a profound effect on me.
Despite harassment, exile and eventually arrest and torture, this woman continued to publish books, articles and stories about what was happening in her country.
It is the kind of bravery that makes all your other thoughts hush. That makes your $150 parking ticket fade away to nothing.
I did not fully grasp the extent of the pain and danger she was in until I put my own two feet on Santiago soil.
Chile’s capital is bound up in history. The people are vibrant and well dressed. There is great pizza, elegant market plazas and towering, cramped apartment blocks. 17 years of dictatorship and terror had taken place here.
Above it all the Andes blink their snow studded lashes at the whole scene. If those mountains could talk they would have some stories.
Of the two university students, 18-year-old Carmen Quintana and19-year-old Rodrigo Rojas Denegri, who were covered in petrol and set alight in front of witnesses, for daring to protest against Pinochet and his soldiers.
Read Carmen’s story here: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24014543
As I walked slowly through each floor of Santiago’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights, I thought about the speech Ms González made in Brisbane years ago.
I looked at the cold metal bed before me. It was used to strap prisoners to, naked and dripping wet, to better conduct electricity through their bodies during torture.
I stood with tears streaming hot down my cheeks as I watched the video testimonial of a woman who had lived through that very torture.
“They told me to take my clothes off,” she said.
“And there was always a risk there that as a woman you would be abused in some way.
“I will never forget the sound it made as the electricity went through my body.
“Afterwards for a long time everything would bleed. Blood would come out of my eyes, my nose, my ears, my vagina.”
The death of free speech and the failure to protect the right of the press to investigate and report is somberly highlighted in Santiago’s museum.
These people were arrested for opposing a violent man who was not elected. They were tortured and mistreated for raising their voice, exercising their right.
As always however, the people who were brave enough to keep raising those voices, such as Mónica González Mujica, were instrumental in bringing enough outcry and national pressure to oust Pinochet once and for all.
He was taken out of power in a democratic NO Vote. During his regime four newspapers were shut down and opponents were ‘disappeared’.
Leading up the historic NO Vote, campaigners were harassed. It did not silence people. They continued to speak.
As I watched over a million march in Paris for solidarity this morning I was again reminded of the strength of standing up for something. Of protecting, above all else, our free speech.
Have you ever had that in-between feeling? Like in high school when the PE teacher had a stroke of genius and implemented a semester of water polo.
There we all bobbed, treading water with similar competence to the way a baby feeds itself. I was as at home in the water as a fish in the sky. Not a flying fish. Just a regular Spanish mackerel.
I rotated my legs valiantly in eggbeater kick, my nose inches above the mocking stink of chlorine, waiting, bobbing, hoping nobody would throw the ball my way. The shouts of my classmates echoed off the Fairholme swimming-pool walls.
I lifted my eyes to a beam of sunlight stabbing in through the top louvre on the western side and thought how I would always remember this moment in time; treading water, waiting.
That is how the past two months have felt to me, since returning from South America.
As I sat on my Brisbane-bound plane I realised I shouldn’t be on it. That I should have stayed over there and done all the things I wanted to do.
(Including but not limited to sleeping in the jungle with only a can of deodorant and a lighter to make a flame torch against jaguar attack, volunteering at a hostel for a few months and using my savings for nothing but surf lessons and coconuts, and above all becoming fluent in that curly language they call Spanish.)
To clarify that statement, the reason I returned early was for Christmas with my family; to meet our cousins’ two new babies and eat prawns around the pool with the extended family, which we haven’t done in years. And I am happy I’ll be here for that. It puts a huge grin across my freckled face actually.
But there is something nagging at me. I feel like Red Riding Hood – who has left the path when she shouldn’t have.
They say the difference between entrepreneurs and us normal people is tunnel vision. Entrepreneurs have the ability to look directly and unwaveringly at their goal.
The problem with my goals is there are thousands of them, all swinging their buoyant red-poppy heads in the breeze, all begging for immediate attention.
It is no easy task to distil my focus.
I am learning though, as the years creep merrily by, that we have other senses. Mostly these get ignored.
It takes discipline of perspective to listen to these extra senses. It is something you have to consciously work at. Most of the time you are giving yourself advice and signals, which you ignore.
If I have a conflict in my life, big or small, my body is aware of it before my brain consciously is. I will wake with a knot in my stomach. I will feel wound up like a coil, ready to act with instinct in a burst of action.
This is not a good thing! Success in this situation relies on the brain catching up and considering the action I am about to take.
This is knowing yourself. This is what self-discovery is all about.
Once I fired off a reply email. It was following a rather unfounded complaint to the local paper I was working at, in my undertrained and overworked position as senior journalist. I was still a green sapling in the journo world, but like most papers in regional areas, the young ones have to step up to a role often beyond their experience.
We had no editor, and the former senior journalist had just moved to a bigger newspaper….so I was it.
This is a great thing for training and character building, but it often means you are learning by trial and error.
The next morning I woke with a knot in my stomach. Lying there, looking up at the white ceiling of my Dalby house, I let my thoughts filter idly in and out of my brain like the tide.
Why was I feeling like this?
Aaaaah. The email. It was only the next day I realised I had taken the wrong tone in it. Thanks hindsight…..right on time as usual.
From this I learned. Never write back to an email involving conflict/drama straight away. Go and make a coffee. Write a draft. Mull it over.
What is sent cannot be retracted.
I think the key to life is to never stop learning. That is how the world goes backwards; when people start to think they know it all. That is how we close our minds.
Back to the other senses though…..that is one of the main things I want to get out of 2015. Learning to listen to my inner voice properly. Learning to say no to things I don’t need or want in my life, and to keep my own focus when there are a million beckoning hands on the sidelines.
My problem is I can enjoy most situations, so I am easily led to distraction.
If you have ever felt this also, you may enjoy this poem by one of my all-time FAVOURITE poets, Mary Oliver. Read it. Get shivers. Listen to yourself.
The Journey- Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
The thing is we haven’t been taught how to do this. Schools should teach quiet time of reflection. Halfway through the 90 minute Maths-B double lesson all the students should be asked to lie on the floor, close their eyes, and reflect on how they are feeling in life, what they want to get out of the week, and whether they are doing enough to keep their bodies and minds in harmony.
Instead we have to learn it the hard way: through teenage angst, overloading our poor adolescent shoulders with the worries of the world, and listening to advice from all angles from people who don’t necessarily know what you need.
We need a form of unlearning. Of quieting the outer world. Turning off the TV and sitting for a moment on the front lawn. Digging your fingernails into the grass and thinking about your name and your place in the scheme of things.
“the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,”
Oh Mary. So wise.
My in-between feeling is still there, but it is a necessary one. It’s stopped getting me down, I’ve realised I am supposed to be treading water at the moment. It reminds me not to just sit and get mouldy. It reminds me I’ve got places to be.
Thanks inner voice. I get it now.
The problem with being vague is that amusing events, weird people and small scenes of disaster tend to magnetise towards your general portion of the universe.
….as though drawn by your aptitude for not having much aptitude for things.
If a weirdo gets on a train or bus, they will inevitably sit down beside me and begin telling me their story. Tangent by confusing tangent.
If I have a simple task to complete and someone else is waiting on the other end, it will invariably go wrong.
Life is a battle!
Here is a story from the front line, for your amusement.
God Bless You Frank… Whoever You Were.
I had been working at my new job as a carer for people with mental illness. There was a sign on the lunchroom door that said “Out of my head, back later.”
The job was a fountain of bemusing scenarios as it was, but this particular day the event happened before I had actually started for the day.
I arrived at work to find my shift had been changed and I was now three hours early. Sigh.
My fuel light had been on for a couple of days and I had no dollars. Driving back to Paddington and risking an empty tank on my return to work wasn’t an option, so I set off on foot through Red Hill to kill the time.
For weeks now I’d admired the old, Roman Catholic church that stood on the hill. An austere mass of red bricks, it loomed in solid splendour above us mere mortals, just as the Catholics would have liked.
They were fond of stark reminders that enjoying sex, coveting your neighbours Merc or eating pizza on the Sabbath would send you directly to hell….without passing go, and probably after PAYING $200.
I loved old buildings like churches, and this one was grand enough to be a cathedral (by Aussie standards anyway).
I decided to sneak up to the bell tower for a pigeon’s gander across our fine city of Brisbane.
As I approached I noticed there was a mass on. On a Monday! Give it a rest Catholics.
This should fill an hour, I thought, and stepped inside to take a seat in the back row. Perhaps they would hand out wine.
Though I was an atheist, I was interested in the concept of religion, and it wasn’t often I got to see it in action.
While I waited for my morning coffee to kick in I was pleasantly lulled by the monotone drone of the priest, swathed in folds of white that dropped from his shoulders like iced waterfalls.
I gazed skyward, remembering with discomfort how hard the benches had been in Sunday school, and how rigidly Inow sat.
After a while I began to actually pay attention to the sermon. (This can take some time with the roundabout preaching style of the snow-clad).
“He was a man of many communities,” the priest was saying, “giving not only his time to his family, but also to those in the many clubs he was involved with over the years.”
So Jesus was a clubs man! I knew it. I could almost picture him kicking back at the bar of Jerusalem’s local bowls club with a jar of the good stuff, after a tough day on the green with his 12 mates.
I looked up at the Jesus upon his lofty heights on the internal arcs.
“Today we come together not to mourn the loss of Frank, but to celebrate the life that he led…..” the priest went on.
The lightbulb inside my brain also went on. Finally.
I was in the middle of a funeral.
I looked with fresh eyes at the assembled congregation, noting I was one of approximately eight people under the age of 100.
Shit. They probably think I’m a secret mistress here to argue the will.
I became acutely aware of everything in my surroundings, and tried to ignore the feeling that I stood out like an extra finger on a Simpson. One of the congregation breathed heavily and the priest looked sympathetically in her direction.
I nodded solemnly at the milestones of Frank’s life (which were remarkable and humbling to hear by the way) and considered the most low-key exit I could make.
A woman dressed in a lavender two-piece dress suit turned her head slowly to look at me.
I nodded subtly to her in a way I’d seen jockeys do at country races when other jockeys trotted past them in the warm up ring.
This was arguably not the appropriate response.
I had to get out before the procession and mingling occurred or someone would inevitably ask me, tears pooling in their earnest eyes, “And how did you know Frank?”
And I would be forced to think of an innocent way I could have chanced upon the friendship of this man in his 70s (gathering by the demographic of mourners), so as not to answer with honest disrespect, “Oh no, I don’t know Frank, I work up the road but I don’t have enough fuel to get back to my house so I thought I’d kill time here. Not kill, pass. No, shit, not pass…..um…look an eagle.”
There was a brief pause in the proceedings and I took this moment to dust off my acting skills.
Looking directly out the large door to my right I pretended I was being hailed by a fellow mourner.
Perhaps one of the aged who couldn’t lift their walker up the stairs unassisted. A friend of Frank’s who I’d met while I was over at Frank’s place….cleaning his fish tank. As I did. Each Wednesday. Yes, yes he was a lovely man, madam.
Calmly I nodded and made the motion for them to stay there, that I would come out to them.
From his position at the parapet only the priest could see the empty stairs I was signalling at.
“We would like to thank those of you who have travelled to celebrate Frank’s life amongst family and friends on this day,” he continued.
Bless you father for your silence.
I took my leave, wishing Frank well in the next sphere, and hurrying off down the road, taking several metres to extricate myself from the far-flung shadow of the great building.
“I see you child,” said the God I didn’t believe in, “I know what you have done.”
Ironically, though the remainder of my day included explaining to a lovely man with dementia that his debit card was linked to his own money, and not a scheme by us carers to replace his hard earned cash with a small plastic card, that was the most surreal part of my day.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I entered the ‘normality’ of my workplace, all the while thinking Frank seemed like the kind of guy who would’ve got a chuckle out of my story.