…in the morning we will remember them

At some point I lost the ability to see things only in black and white. One of the casualties was ANZAC Day, the annual day to honour those soldiers who died on the coast of Turkey 100 years ago. It was the day that the Australian nation was born. Wasn’t it? Or did it mark the start of the stretching of bonds between The British Empire and her little colony? Or was it just a failed campaign that cost thousands of lives?

ANZAC Cove

Back in primary school we were taught about bravery, sacrifice and the necessity of waging war against evil, and the nobility of those young men who died for us. The crucified man on the wall was a template for self-sacrifice and the young, tanned and wiry men in slouch hats his successors. For years, whenever I saw a sports game with fit young men I’d flash back to descriptions of the soldiers and transpose them into the old uniforms, running across no man’s land in style of Mark Lee.
As I read more I discovered a contradiction in the idea of war being against an ultimate evil. There were stories of food thrown over the trenches, camaraderie across the lines and the speech of Ataturk,

…your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Under orders young men killed other young men, but in moments of humanity they saw each other as people. This narrative echoed over and over, the soldiers victims of a stupid war that pitted them against people who could have been friends.

Graves at the ANZAC cove gravesite

Around high school I began to go to the Dawn Ceremony, wrenching myself and my dad out of bed before dawn to make our sleepy way to King’s Park. There we gathered with others in the cold, rain and occasional sprinkler malfunction to watch as wreaths were laid, speeches were given and we muttered that next year we would definitely bring fold-out chairs. Finally a trumpet was blown and 10s of thousands of people stood in silence in the dawn, as rosy hues spread across the sky and magpies called from the top of the monument, the silence broken by the Ode of Remembrance.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Lest we forget.

With each year the crowd would grow, and we ended up further and further back from the memorial. Sometimes we brought my brother, friends or visitors, but always it was my dad and I, talking about the old boys and the memories of the men who had left us a pauper’s grave and the medals that dad wore on his chest.

On ANZAC Day my mum always stayed at home to look after my sister and because she didn’t feel the same need to go as we did. I’d ask why she didn’t want to come and she’d say that it seemed to her a celebration of war that she didn’t want any part of. I’d try to explain my feelings about the day and what it meant to me, about remembrance of sacrifice and honouring the dead, but beneath this was an acknowledgement of what she said. Were we celebrating the nobility of war, and an ideal of humanity that didn’t exist outside of fiction? What was the difference between honouring the deaths of young men in the service of their country and honouring the necessity of the war that took them away? She has since said that she understands it better, remembering family and the personal remains of the war, and seems not so opposed to the day as she was in the past.
However, all the talk about the birth of the nation on the beaches of Gallipoli seemed to deny all that had come before. Even now the day of Federation or when universal suffrage was passed are vague to most Australians, but ask them about the date of a battle in a far off land and they can tell you in seconds.

ANZAC memorial at North Beach

Then this year, the day before Australia day, I found out about an event that had taken place exactly 100 years previously. On the 24th of April 1915 the Ottoman government rounded up and executed Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul and ordered the deportation of other Armenians across the country. The reason given is they were perceived as being a threat to the war effort, and over the coming years able-bodied men were massacred and the rest were force marched into the Syrian desert to die of starvation. In total, between 800,000 and 1.5 million people died. With the threat being removed, the focus could then shift to the shores of Gallipoli.
Though the genocide wasn’t caused by the Allied soldiers, there is a connection between these two events and for this year at least I couldn’t think of one without the other.

So it was with mixed feelings that I loked forward to the 100th anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli, and then realised that I had agreed to go on an overnight cruise of the Baltic on ANZAC Day (more on that trip later). So I kept the day in mind and regretted my poor planning, wishing I could have gone to the ceremony held by Australian and New Zealander expats. The day came and went, and I started writing the draft of this post on the train to Stockholm and finishing it on the way back.
Posts from friends and family flooded Facebook, reflecting on war, the past, Australian identity and family. On Sunday morning I saw a post from my mum, a series of photos from their ANZAC Day across the world. Rather than attend the Dawn Ceremony, dad stayed home and mum made pikelets. Then they went to the Blackboy Hill memorial, where my paternal grandfather had enlisted and trained before being sent off to France at the tender and secret age of 16. Then they visited his grave and left a temporary plaque in lieu of the official stone to replace the bare, iron numbers of the pauper’s grave. Then King’s Park and the pub, to while away the last hours of the day. Right now I can’t think of a more appropriate way to spend the day, in the company of family past and present, keeping the memory of those who were lost to the war alive.
The Monday after ANZAC Day, when I was preparing an activity for a student using coverage from the Australian memorials, I unexpectedly burst into tears when they showed the Perth ceremony, the familiar monument and sunlit distant hills bringing all of the homesickness I had thought long gone to the surface. I’ve now missed two ANZAC Day’s, and I didn’t really realize until then how much.

My great-grandfather

My great-grandfather

So after explaining what the day means to non-Australians and writing this post, I think that ANZAC Day is never just one thing, clear in black and white and disconnected from context and doubt and nor should it be. It’s a day for acknowledging the shades in-between black and white, and it’s a day for remembering.

Lest we forget.

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Songs of revolution, joy and home

It’s perhaps an inevitable part of the immigrant experience that you spend a lot of your time noticing other immigrants. Sometimes it’s just a flicker on the street, or it could be heading to the local watering hole for an expat get-together. Or you may even find yourself at a concert, watching performers from around the world singing of love, politics, joy, revolution and home in a mix of languages. All the things that make us lift up our feet and head out the door, and someday find a place to take off our shoes and put our feet up.

My fella and I had spent the afternoon walking around slightly dazed in the sun, savouring ice-creams and the warmth that I still can’t take for granted. When we had finished a snack at a Greek restaurant I got a message about a free ticket to a concert. Without really knowing what the concert would be, other than that it would feature Syrian and Iranian music, I said yes. Which is how I found myself in the Stora Teatern in the centre of town on a Saturday evening, as the compere introduced us to a night of music that would show us how many world class musicians there are driving taxis or living anonymously in Sweden, and the music they have to share with us. And how much joy we can return to them.

The concert was billed as a showcase of artists who have found a home, even a temporary one, in Sweden. It seemed that often they found their way here after running away from something – as with all expats and immigrants there is a reason we leave. Two had been tortured and another had grown up in a country where love songs had been forbidden for generations, and where he secretly sang forbidden songs. There was sadness in the songs, and joy but the strongest emotion that ran through all of the songs, and through the audience as the night went on, was defiance.

Naser Razzazi dancing with the violinist

Naser Razzazi dancing with the violinist

The first performer was a tall, elegant man from Kurdistan, who sang folk songs in a deeply resonant voice. Of all of the artists Naser Razzazi was the most charismatic. He had the audience in the palm of his hand each time he stepped on stage, and what sticks in my mind now, almost a week later, was his neat white mustache, tall frame and complete confidence.

Habib Mousa was another man with a presence, who sang about love and dreams, and spoke about his old homeland of Assyria. He was quietly spoken, with a powerful voice.

The next man is known as the Elvis Presley of Eritrea, who brought rock and swing to his country and then to us. Osman Abdulrahim grooved, grinned, sang and spoke briefly about the war and dictatorship he had escaped, and told the daughter of Dawit Isaak that he hoped her father could be returned to his family soon.

Elvis of Eritrea

Elvis of Eritrea

Throughout all these performances, people coming on stage to cheers and then departing for the next guest only to return a bit later, a band had played behind and around them. Drummers, a bassist and guitarist, keyboard player and a very enthusiastic violinist accompanied all of the performers. The next performer brought his own instrument, perhaps the one he’d brought to Tahrir Square 4 years ago. Ramy Essam is one of the most well known faces of the Arab Spring, who played rock music among the crowds as the revolution swept through Egypt. He’s currently living in Malmö, having been granted safe city residence, and while there he continues to write songs about the revolution. When asked how he is enjoying Sweden, he said he liked it very much, but would always want to return to his homeland and continue the fight.

Ramy Essam, face of a revolution

Ramy Essam, face of a revolution

Finally there was a young woman originally from Iran, who grew up in Sweden and seems to me to combine the two cultures. Safoura Safavi sings in a mix of Farsi, Swedish and English, her music a mix of punk, reggae and soul and very infectious. She bounced around the stage and the audience bounced along with her, even more so when her sister joined her for a duet. She sang about pretension, life in Iran and in Sweden and was joined by the rest of the performers for a final song in Farsi that brought the audience to our feet. After they had left and the calls for an encore were answered she stepped back on stage and sang a song about Sweden, as blue and yellow lights shone on the stage.

Safoura from Sweden

Safoura from Sweden

The music had taken us all around the world, through war, revolution, oppression and hope, and then in the end it brought us home.

Easter – a time of witches, feathers and eggs

The first hints I had of Easter were random people carrying sticks. There seemed nothing special about the sticks, other than the fact that people had evidently spent some time gathering them or buying them from florists. I was even tempted to break all social conventions and ask someone, but shyness held me back. What was so important about sticks, I wondered, and should I be getting them myself? I asked other expats who suggested it had something to do with regrowth, and pointed out that if they had buds perhaps they would bloom. I was a little bit skeptical about the enjoyment you could get from watching buds slowly expand, and felt sure there must be another reason, no doubt related to traditions that are mostly forgotten.
When I did some research and found out a possible theory, I wasn’t especially surprised that it had been swept under the carpet. Back in the 1800s people used to collect sticks for their children who would then whip themselves in memory of Jesus’ suffering.
I would much rather watch buds grow.

The next sign was with a flock of witches on a main street in the city. They ranged from adults to children, happily showing off their painted red cheeks and freckles, and adorned in coloured shawls and striped stockings. There were even a few brooms swinging around in the air, though no one seemed to be airborne yet. No one seemed to bat an eye at this open display of witchery and indeed it increased over the next few days. A group of older women were seen drinking in a pub, unmolested by mobs, but a majority of the witches were children skipping about town, asking for lollies. You may well ask why, in this day and age and in a country that though technically secular is nominally Christian, there are so many witches running about before Easter?
You would not be alone in wondering. Other expats shrugged and said it was a ‘Sweden thing’. Even Swedes answered me with a blank look and a variation of ‘Uh, we’ve always done that, I don’t know. It is odd isn’t it?’

Easter witches (Photo: Ulf Lundin/Image Bank Sweden)

Easter witches (Photo: Ulf Lundin/Image Bank Sweden)

So naturally I took to the internet to solve the mystery. Easter hags, or ‘påskkärringar’ have their origins in the 1600s, when it was believed witches flew on their brooms to Blåkulla to make merry and cavort and do all of the things people would expect witches to do. Somehow this has translated over the centuries to a tradition of children dressing up as witches and wandering the neighbourhood asking for treats. It is all a little bit Halloween, except for the old style costumes that seem more like village women of the past crossed with Pippi Longstocking than costume shop items.
There were also witches in shop windows, statues and figurines this time, grinning on their brooms, apparently daring people to take advantage of the Easter sales.

A shoe selling witch

A shoe selling witch

The witches weren’t the only decorations enticing people to enter and spend however. Trees, bushes and sticks across the country that were just minding their own business were festooned with brightly coloured feathers. They were hung outside of shops fluttering in the wind, sitting in front yards and in vases in apartments. All those sticks that had been budding away were now decorated, sometimes also with painted eggs and animal figurines. These eggs were often painted by children, as I remember doing years ago. Though a globe is a hard surface for a young artist, I think I created a few nice examples with water colours, crayons and dyes. We then ate them on Easter day, the pretty bits of shell flaking away to be swept up later.

Feathers in the sun

Feathers in the sun

Finally, did you think that in all this traditional symbolism that the Swedes have forgotten the most memorable part of Easter (for children at least)?
While in Australia we’re nearly submerged in avalanches of Easter eggs, rabbits and bilbies when we enter a supermarket, the people of Sweden have found another use for eggs. The tradition here is to buy an empty egg, in card board or tin, and fill it with candy. This is what my partner and I have done for the last two Easters, reusing the eggs and filling them with piles of candy for the help-yourself shelves at the shops. It’s amazing how much you can fit inside them, and conversely how quickly my partner can empty his.

Our quickly depleting stash

Our quickly depleting stash

So that’s Easter here in Sweden. Of course I missed out the parts about staying at country houses and feasts with families and eating epic amounts of fish (every day ending in g is fish day in Sweden), as that part has passed me by, but this should serve at least as an expats experience of the Easter season. Or rather, Påsk. Interestingly rather than reference the ancient of Spring, this word derives from the ancient name for the Jewish Passover. Which seems to me, with all the pagan traditions, witches, feathers and symbols of rebirth to demonstrate quite neatly how much traditions have intertwined over time, and perhaps how impossible it is to untangle them, even if we wanted to.

Vårväderstorget

As I made myself comfy on the bus on the way to work two weeks ago I got a worried email from my father, checking that I was alright. I looked around at my fellow commuters, who were reading the paper or twiddling on their phones without any sign of panic. There had been a shooting in my city and it had reached the news in Australia, but had somehow bypassed the front pages of the morning papers.
I happened to be teaching that morning, and brought up the subject with my students as they filed in.

‘We’re on the news in Australia? Really?’ Exclaimed someone in surprise.

‘Another shooting? I wonder why that one made the news.’ Commented another, blase.

‘It was gangs wasn’t it? I know someone who was shot. It’s all about drugs, you just have to know where to avoid.’ Someone else added confidently.

‘It only happens in those areas, we’re fine here.’ Concluded another of the students, as she sipped her coffee and gestured vaguely over the river.

Sleepy GBG in the morning

Sleepy GBG in the morning

Just another gang shooting, it seemed. The lid seemed mentally fixed on the topic, as if this neatly packaged the incident away. A look through reports of other incidents in the last few years revealed that the student’s comments were broadly true. Shootings were common and they did seem to happen repeatedly in the same areas. Areas removed from the centre of town by barriers of water, other suburbs and apparently of the mind. Not in my backyard.

I recalled a few weeks earlier hearing about a shooting outside a pizza shop in a suburb where I regularly drink. A local who is a friend seemed surprised that it happened in her local suburb, it being a nice neighbourhood and according to a documentary about Swedish accents, the ‘Montmartre of Gothenburg’. How could that happen here?

The week after the shooting I spoke to another of my students, and she also dismissed it as happening somewhere else. In a dissonant sort of way, the incident was both unimportant because it happened so often and because it happened outside the scope of her neighbourhood. The unspoken line was that it happened in low socio-economic suburbs, where there is usually lower education standards, higher unemployment and a greater percentage of people born in other countries. This mess of assumptions and indifference played alongside an incident just the previous day in which a man had shot his ex-partner. It had happened within 200 metres of my student’s school. This time there was no connection to gangs, rather a private disagreement. She shrugged when I asked if she was ok. Nothing to do with us.

As someone who is still an outsider in many ways, there are nuances that I miss and suppositions that I throw about the place. This I hope excuses me of offenses I may have cast in the faces of locals and aspersions I have thrown upon my adopted home. It seems to me though that you can’t find answers to questions if you don’t ask, or at least send questions into the ether.