BY Arnold Zable
THEME LEADER Nikos Papastergiadis
SUPPORTED BY University of Melbourne, as part of the NGV Triennial – exploring the emerging intersections of art, design, science and society.
January 1970. The Cambodian–Thai border. Rucksack on my back. I set out across a barren stretch of earth, several hundred metres wide: no-man’s-land. One border post recedes, another is approaching. I am exposed, a sitting target: all is silent, bar the sound of my breath, the crunch of dirt beneath my feet. In a rush of madness, I am tempted to stop, lay down my pack and set up camp, mid distance between the two posts. Perhaps this is where I belong. Perhaps, paradoxically, this is where the madness stops. Where we are stripped of tribe, nationality, disparities in wealth and class. Stripped back to an essence, the achingly human. Beyond the reach of those who proclaim,
‘Our land uber all others. I will make you great again’.
Over the years my thoughts have often returned to that stretch of dirt. There are many no-man’s-lands today. Republics of the Stateless: gauntlets between past and future, barbed gateways to promised lands, new worlds. The flag? A pair of calloused bare feet running over raw dirt.
Run. Sense the guns pointing at your back. Crouch in the dark. Hide in barns. Burrow into the earth. Dogs are barking. Sniffing your trail. Stand by the shore, the boat is waiting, the sea lapping at your feet. Run from border to border, smuggler to smuggler. Haggle. Barter. Plead. Hand over your cash. Extract the gold from your teeth. You are a luftmensch, a ‘person of air’. You have run so far and for so long you no longer feel the ground beneath your feet.
The luftmensch enacts an epic drama in three acts. Some barely make it past the first: The Time Before. Once upon a time I had a home. Family. Friends. A neighbourhood, a gathering place. Once upon a time – a kitchen, a hearth. Then, one day, it ended. They came in the dead of night. And whispered, ‘They are here, and they are looking for you. They are moving into our town. Their planes are flying overhead; the bombs have begun falling, missiles are being launched from afar. Run for your life’.
And so, act two begins: The Rupture. Bodies are uprooted, ripped from the earth. The journey to no-man’s-land is on – stealing across borders, life-belongings stuffed into bags. In the Republic of the Stateless, residents vote with their feet. Infants are granted voting rights on the day they learn to walk.
The way forward may be blocked, and defined by barbed fences, a camp. ‘Camp’ is too vague a term. It needs adjectives to do it justice: Displaced Persons Camp. Refugee Camp. Offshore Camp.
‘No’, exclaims the inmate. ‘This is not a camp. Nor a detention centre. It is a prison.’
‘No’, replies a fellow inmate, ‘it is worse than a prison. A criminal knows the date of their release.
We are in limbo, stuck in a purgatory between sky and earth. A netherworld’.
As the months go by, you become enraged. As the years go by – the best years of your life – you go mad. And as more years go by, you become a zombie. Your run for freedom has been reduced to a weary shuffle. Your nights are endured with the aid of pills. You have been leached of identity, submerged in the ragged horde. Many cannot bear to look at you. Think about you. You remind people of something. You reawaken a repressed memory, intimations that once upon a time, your jailors themselves were in search of new lives.You are kept out of sight, out of mind. Stranded in
Suddenly, you receive the news – you have been accepted. ‘Granted’ a visa. Papers. You walk free. You are dazed. You adjust your eyes to the glaring light. You feel intoxicated, unbearably light.
And, so, act three begins: The Time After. Ah, if only it could end there. If only that lightness of the first day could live on. Alas, in act three, the time zones clash and collide. Acts one and two can re-intrude, at any time. The Time Before lingers on. You may be afflicted by nos-thal-ghea, ‘the pain of longing for the return’. An unbearable ache for your ‘once upon a time’. For the earth over which you once walked.
The Rupture, too, is not so easily done with. The wounds you thought were healed by your freedom are prised open. Flashes of memory haunt your dreams. You are back in no-man’s-land, a luftmensch again. Again, you cannot feel the ground beneath your feet.
In time, a new danger sets in, a cyclical paradox. There may come a time when you suppress the memory so completely – that you, who once ran, no longer see those who are still on the run, still interred between borders, afloat between worlds.
And there is something else, the presence of indigenous peoples – all too often, internally displaced. There is a line which returns, again and again. A chorus. A chant: they journeyed from the old world to the new, only to discover that the new is far more ancient than the old. In the new world, there are no-man’s-lands of another kind. The three-act drama is repeated anew, albeit in a different form.
Take Kim Scott. Acclaimed author. Descendent of Indigenous peoples of the south coast of Western Australia. Proud Noongar man. He writes a novel titled Benang (1999). It is set at a time when his people were being defined as octoroon, quadroon, half-caste, full blood. Identities fractured, torn apart and scattered to the winds. The narrator, a man named Harley, no longer knows who he is. He no longer feels the ground beneath his feet. He begins to rise into the air. He becomes a flying narrator. A luftmensch. He is anchored only when tethered to his typewriter, only when retrieving and telling his tale.
Scott’s narrator returns us to act one – the ‘once upon a time’ when ‘country’ embraced Indigenous roots. When earth, sky and body were one – long before the invaders arrived in their sailing ships and planted their flag on the shores. In time, they cut the ground of those who had walked the land for millennia, from beneath their feet, casting them into a no-man’s-land – within their own land.
Yet, the Indigenous people are returning. Indeed, they have never left. They have retained within them a radically different, deeply connected concept of land, another way of moving in the world, based on knowledge of Country, of ancient tracks that can be retraced over the beloved land. The cycle is broken through resistance – the epic journey from displacement to re-grounding, a returning to roots. With resistance, and re-grounding, the heaviness lifts and a lightness returns – not the lightness of the luftmensch, but the lightness that comes from walking freely upon the land.
Dr Arnold Zable is an acclaimed writer, novelist and human rights advocate. His books include Scraps of Heaven (2004), Sea of Many Returns (2008), Violin Lessons (2009) and The Fighter (2016). He has a doctorate from the School of Creative Arts, University of Melbourne, and has been a guest lecturer both internationally and in a range of Australian universities.
Image: Richard Mosse, Hellinikon Olympic Arena, 2016 (detail), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne