Previously in #43 Fifty People in Stowage: Iranian refugees Maryam and her husband Benham are on a crowded boat, no more than a fishing vessel, trying to reach Australia. After several storms, the captain stops for a few days in sheltered waters near a deserted island before pushing out to sea again.
The sea stretched out endlessly in every direction. The Indonesians had surmised that this was where the maritime border between Indonesia and Australia lay. Then they dived into the water, swam to the little boat that had been tailing them since Indonesia, turned around, and left.
From that time on, the engine remained silent. The boat floated adrift. The situation was truly hopeless. They were truly lost. Maryam looked at the cockroaches crawling over her arm and she lay limply on the boat and said to them, ‘OK, I’m dying. You go, cockroach, as you please’.
‘Why don’t we die?’ Maryam asked Behnam.
People with food or water hoarded their provisions and consumed these furtively. To avoid quarrels, no one spoke.
On the tenth night at sea, someone spotted a small light in the distance. As the light grew, so did the excitement on board, for it became obvious that a huge white ocean liner was approaching them, its lights flashing, its horn sounding. Wet flares would not light up. Smokers clicked on their cigarette lighters and waved these instead. Everyone mustered all their energy and shouted and waved.
The ocean liner came nearer and nearer, all lit up like a party on water. They were so close that Maryam could make out the revellers on deck, beautiful people in beautiful clothes. Maryam was certain that they had been seen, and that they would be rescued. People shouted till they were hoarse. But the ocean liner moved past their tiny ugly boat and continued on its way, leaving everyone in a stunned, shocked silence.
Tears began to run down Maryam’s face. She thought of their little boat, filled with dirty people, unshaven men and women plastered in vomit. They were nothing. Any skerrick of hope that they might ever be rescued vanished. That night everyone sat like zombies. No one spoke. No one cried. No one prayed. One by one, they drifted off to sleep in a despair that was beyond words.
When Maryam narrates this part of the story, she raises her hands and with great vigour, flicks on imaginary cigarette lighters. There were flares, she says, but they were all wet. With her expressive eyes and her long lithe limbs, she then shows us how they slumped back into their lifeless boat when the cruise ship passed, what hopelessness looked like.
I wonder if anyone on the cruise ship saw their boat. I try to imagine what would go through the mind of a cruise ship captain who spots an asylum seeker boat. Cruises peddle dreams. Cruise ships create fantasy worlds. Normality is suspended. The passengers on entertainment decks float high above the water level where food never runs out, games amuse, and music soothes.
Imagine rescuing sixty-four asylum seekers who have been at sea for ten days, with no showers and barely any English, onto a cruise ship filled with retirees playing bingo or couples dancing in tuxedoes and evening gowns.
Imagine the smell. Imagine the awkwardness. Imagine the inconvenience.
Very early the next morning, at around 5 a.m., booming English words awoke Maryam. ‘Who are you? Who are you?’
Maryam sprang to her feet and poked her head up above deck.
‘We are refugees. We are refugees,’ she shouted.
‘Everyone stay in their places. Anyone speak English?’ asked the man in uniform from a speedboat. Everyone pointed to Maryam. Tears of joy rolled down Maryam’s face. Australian Navy officers boarded the boat. They were extremely kind to the passengers and gave out cigarettes. Behnam received one stick gratefully as he had smoked his last stick the day before. But the commander put a stop to this and said, ‘No cigarettes.’
The Australian Navy towed the asylum seeker boat and continually pumped water out. Maryam interpreted what the navy officers said, ‘We’re not allowed to take you on our boat.’ They had also said, ‘You’re dirty and maybe you have some disease’ but Maryam chose not to pass this on.
The navy officers gave the passengers some brown soggy mash with milk. Maryam wondered if the officers were sharing their own rations. Everyone ate with relish and used their fingers to scoop up every last bit. It reminded them of an Iranian dish; it reminded them of home.
‘What is this?’ the refugees asked.
‘Weetbix,’ the officers replied.
‘Must be a very good nail polish to last so many days at sea,’ said a female navy officer looking at Maryam’s red nails. They laughed together. Initially aloof, the Australian officers had started speaking to the passengers and exchanging stories. The passengers taught the officers how to play Iranian card games. The officers said that they were near Ashmore Reef and the Rescue Navy was on its way.
I am the eternal optimist, sentimental, determined to see the best in everyone. I wonder if the cruise ship captain saw the boat and alerted the Australian Navy. I ask Maryam if she thinks this is possible.
Don’t know, she shrugs. Her shrug says, this hypothesizing is unimportant; the point is that we were left hopeless in the water, drifting in the night. Hypothesizing and theorizing are the luxury of the writer in her chair, not the asylum seeker in her leaky cockroach-infested boat, adrift in the vast sea.
The Rescue Navy arrived on the fifth day after the navy had intercepted them. When they had boarded the Rescue Navy vessel, they were commanded, ‘Sit here. Put your hands in front of you.’ Their tags were checked and they were instructed to put all their belongings into a plastic bag that had their identification number written on it.
They had their first shower in days. Maryam washed herself three times and the water still ran off black. The refugees were confined to a small part of the ship. They lined up for food, dished up in plastic trays.
‘Don’t throw the plastic into the sea,’ they were instructed. The food disagreed with them and many ran to the toilets. When the refused the next meal, the cook threw the lot, plastic and all, into the sea. ‘You are refugees, you should be grateful. How can you complain?’
Maryam diffused the situation by explaining to the people in authority on the boat that they were not complaining, the food didn’t agree with them, that’s all.
The interpreter straddles two worlds, two worlds divided by the barrier of language. She can, if she so chooses, simply translate, word for word, phrase for phrase, transmitting information and concepts from one person to another, or from one group to another.
Computers are capable of translation. Facebook offers to do this for me all the time. ‘See translation,’ it offers, underlining the blue words, inviting me to click on it. It, however, also acknowledges that it may not do a perfect job. After the translation, it invites me to rate the translation.
Maryam does not simply translate. She knows that to translate everything will be to offend. So she filters. She leaves things out. She placates. She interprets.
En route to Christmas Island, Maryam spotted a boat. As it neared, she saw vacant eyed people who immediately started waving and shouting at the Rescue Navy.
‘There is a refugee boat,’ she said to an officer.
‘Nah, it’s a fishing boat,’ he replied.
‘Look at them, so many people crammed onto one boat. They are dirty. They have no food. They are helpless. Please, help them,’ pleaded Maryam.
Maryam saw two more boats like that and by the time they passed the third boat, Maryam dissolved into tears, remembering that only a week ago, she had been in the same hopeless state.
Artists interpret. They communicate what they see through brushstrokes and paint, geometric shapes or emotive impressions or detailed realism. When we look at a painting, we see the world through the artist’s eyes. He can make the night sky a fantastical sparkling dome or a man with his hands on his cheeks melt like plastic burning in hell.
Photographers interpret. They interpret by framing the picture, making decisions on what the eye of the camera will see, focusing on the point of the picture. The photographer chooses different filters, different lenses. When we look at a photograph, we see the world through the eyes of another human being.
A boat can be a fishing boat, technically. There is room for interpretation. What we choose to call it says something about the kind of human we are, or what we are becoming.
When Maryam stepped from the Navy Rescue boat onto Christmas Island, she felt the ground sway as she tried to walk on land for the first time in eighteen days. She fell. Someone offered her a hand and pulled her up.
‘Where can I make a phone call?’ Maryam asked.
‘Take your blood test first,’ said an official. Maryam collapsed and started crying. Many people were crying. Two brothers were told that their family had conducted funerals for them, thinking that they had drowned at sea.
To be continued next Friday, 10 January 2020 in Refuge #45 Christmas Island immigration detention. This is part of the serial online release of the book Refuge, a collection of true stories of refugee resettlement in Australia. Subscribe for free to receive links to new instalments in your inbox.