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Moustafa Karame on the dhaf (drum), Origin-Transit-Destination, images by Sean Bacon Moustafa Karame on the dhaf (drum), Origin-Transit-Destination, images by Sean Bacon
photo Ali Mousawi
Origin-transit-destination commences when I receive instructions about how to get to the performance, which starts in Auburn but finishes at Casula Powerhouse near Liverpool. The sites are a 30-minute train ride apart, so I can either (a) catch the train to Auburn and then catch the train home from Casula; (b) catch the train to Auburn and later the mini-bus back to Auburn and then catch the train home; or (c) drive to Casula, catch the train to Auburn for the start, and then drive home at the end.

Our car is in its dying days, but if I don’t drive it’s going to take me about 90 minutes to get home and the show’s going to finish at around 10 on a Tuesday night. Should I risk wobbling up the M5 in my gaffer-taped hatchback or could my partner drop me off partway there and then pick me up from another train station? Our deliberations are a tiny, banal version of the discussion migrants have when contemplating their departure: who should go first, where, when and how, and how will we reconvene?

Waiting, phone-less

The live performance starts at the Auburn Centre for Community, where our mobile phones are taken from us and we are issued with badges. Some have names and others have numbers—there’s no discernible reason as to why. From here, we descend into the bowels of the building, where Khaled Sabsabi has covered the walls of the concrete bunker in scripts written with UV paint. Further in is another chamber, with three chairs in the centre. I wait and wait, expecting a performer to arrive, but none ever does. When I ask the young man who is documenting proceedings whether I should continue to wait, he shrugs and says he’s not sure but that I’m going to have to leave eventually in order to travel to Auburn. It’s a fair point so I make my exit.

Isamah Sami and audience on the bus, Origin-Transit-Destination Isamah Sami and audience on the bus, Origin-Transit-Destination
photo Ali Mousawi
By bus

Outside, I am put on the Red Bus. There are two other smaller buses and together we start winding our way through the streets of Auburn. Our charming host is Osamah Sami, who plays guitar while Ram Abdulazeez sings. We are ploughing over a roundabout when Sami asks the audience which story we would like to hear: (1) about the time he sold fireworks during the Iraq-Iran war in order to get some pocket money to buy the ‘right’ jeans; (2) the time he and his family escaped from Iran; and (3) the time that he and his friends put on a musical about Saddam Hussein and then tried to tour it to the United States. It’s a close vote, but the third story wins out and he tells us all about himself (he is a Bombers fan), his father (a Muslim cleric) and the musical they made. When they arrive in the United States, he and his friends are interrogated for more than 24 hours before being deported back to Australia, escorted by air marshals. He’s a hard act to follow but Abdulazeez’s story about his flight from Iraq is just as compelling.

Met by security

The first leg of the journey comes to a halt when we arrive in the carpark of the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. We haven’t even finished disembarking when we are approached by security, both on foot and in cars. The documenter is told to turn his camera off, as it is forbidden to film. I can’t always hear what is said, but Ben Doherty from The Guardian states that the guard tells the audience that those inside “have it better than people outside, they don’t pay tax” and that a few “take umbrage and debate his position” [theguardian.com, 14 March]. Creative Producer Annemaree Dalziel later emails to tell me that this encounter became more confronting with each night: four guards met the bus on the second night and then 10 on the third. In anticipation of this, the team brought large bouquets for the guards on the final performance but still had to leave before they called the Federal Police, as they were threatening to do.

Tales of danger

While passengers reboard the same bus, the performers rotate and two new performers join us. The first is Shakufa Tahiri, who hands out apples and tells us about planting apple seeds in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, she will never see them blossom, as she and her family are members of the Hazara minority and had to flee. She, her siblings and her mother spent two years in Pakistan while her father went ahead to Australia by boat, a decision she sees not as criminal—as the Australian government would have it—but as heroic. She is now studying Commerce/Law while her brothers are doing Engineering and IT. It’s a classic migrant success story, and I can’t help thinking that it would be so much harder if university fees were deregulated. Then Daniel Saeed tells his story of leaving Iraq, aged 13 and full of bravado: when he offers to drive the getaway car, his mother tells him not to be ridiculous. It’s a moment of humour that belies the real danger these people endured.

Daniel Saeed outside Chris Bowen’s electoral office, West Fairfield Shopping Centre, Origin-Transit-Destination Daniel Saeed outside Chris Bowen’s electoral office, West Fairfield Shopping Centre, Origin-Transit-Destination
photo Ali Mousawi
Abandoned

Here we disembark in the carpark of the Fairfield West Aldi, where a forklift zips back and forth and shoppers trundle past with their trolleys. Saeed positions himself under a large sign featuring the name of Chris Bowen, Federal Member for McMahon (which takes in Fairfield) and former Minister for Immigration and Citizenship (from September 2010 to February 2013). In 2011, Saeed, his brother and their school principal accompanied Bowen to a UNHCR meeting in Geneva, where the Minister promised that Australia would lift its humanitarian intake from 13,000 to 20,000 places per annum. This lasted for all of one year, before being brought back down in 2013. “Why have you abandoned us?” asks Saeed of Bowen and of politicians more broadly. Following this Tahiri delivers a passionate plea for the humanity of refugees, pointing out that no one would leave their home for that of a hostile neighbour if they could possibly avoid it. She finishes with a poem by Persian poet Sa’adi, whose words are inscribed on the UN’s building in New York, speaking it first in Farsi and then in English. Here’s an excerpt.

“The sons of Adam are limbs of each other,

Having been created of one essence.

When the calamity of time affects one limb

The other limbs cannot remain at rest.

If thou hast no sympathy for the troubles of others

Thou art unworthy to be called by the name of a human.”

Identity fictions

On the third leg of the Red Bus’s journey, Iraqi poet Jamal A Al-Hallaq shows us his documents, many of which are false. He held these in order to avoid compulsory military service and speaks compellingly about what it is to take another’s identity, in his case that of his brother-in-law. The man sitting next to me chuckles in recognition, having apparently used such documents himself many years ago when escaping from Eastern Europe. “But I’m clean now,” he tells me, “You have to be in Australia.” For his part, performer Mohammed Alanezi travelled with his own life jacket, only to find himself giving it to a small girl. He tells the story with a mixture of pride, resignation and disbelief.

A number or a name?

Our final destination is Casula Powerhouse, where those with names (including me) are ushered in and offered coffee and sweets while those with numbers are forced to wait and then corralled behind a belt barrier. I can’t bring myself to eat in front of them—a decision I will regret as the night wears on and hunger sets in. The cavernous foyer has three large video screens featuring a beautiful video by Sean Bacon. Predictably, there are shots of the sea but surprisingly it looks like a field of gold.

Citizenship & other tests

The first in a series of vignettes, the Right to Stay Test, a satirical addition to the Citizenship Test, takes current talk about rescinding the citizenship of naturalised Australians to its logical conclusion. Performer Tarryn Runkel administers the test to an audience member—neither has an Australian accent. Then there is a football game between Indonesia and Australia, which finishes with the Australian team chanting “Offshore! Offshore!” Both teams then regroup to deliver a version of Noelle Janaczewska’s Go for Gold, which I had just seen in Asylum (see p5). The acoustics of the foyer are difficult so some of the speech sounds are garbled, but it’s an amusing piece, all the more interesting when delivered by non-Anglo faces and voices.

Escape

Finally, we enter another room, where Shahla Shohani, a Kurdish Iranian-born performer, runs on a treadmill while her video self narrates her escape. This narrative is occasionally interrupted by snippets of news bulletins and sound bites, including John Howard’s now infamous “We will decide…” With that, we retreat to the foyer, retrieve our phones and start to find our way home. There is no applause on the night I attend but on Thursday the performers apparently lined up across the foyer to applaud the audience, who applauded them back; on Saturday, spectators walked along the line and shook hands with everyone.

Shukufa Tahiri, rally speech outside Chris Bowen’s electoral office, West Fairfield Shopping Centre, Origin-Transit-Destination Shukufa Tahiri, rally speech outside Chris Bowen’s electoral office, West Fairfield Shopping Centre, Origin-Transit-Destination
photo Ali Mousawi
Origin-Transit-Destination is epic and occasionally unwieldy, but has some striking moments. Mobile performances made by mobile subjects remain relatively rare in Australia, so for that alone director Sally Sussmann deserves praise. The brief insights into the Indonesian experience are also fascinating and I understand will be developed further in another project. The testimonial performances are perhaps the least effective element, partly because they have become such a familiar feature of the genre and partly because—as I have argued in an article in Text & Performance Quarterly—they seem to participate in a wider culture of accounting, in which migrants are constantly asked to account for themselves by giving an account of themselves. Nevertheless, there are some important differences between the testimonies performed here and those offered by Asylum.

First, in OTD former refugees tell their own stories. Interestingly, their delivery is fairly factual whereas the actors at 505 are often highly emotional; it’s almost as if the greater the distance between the teller and the story, the grander the emotional display. Second, there is a self-reflexivity to some of OTD, such as when Sami asks which story we would prefer. For a brief moment, we are forced to contemplate what we expect to hear from a refugee. Similarly, when Al Hallaq shows us his false documents, we wonder whether this confession is yet another fiction. Such destabilising gestures were largely absent from the Asylum season. Lastly, these stories are shared while travelling on a bus through the migrants’ new home turf rather than in the inner city. Sitting on a bus allows a different performer-spectator relationship to develop because we are all facing the same way: audience members have to listen without necessarily being able to see who is speaking. We are, as theatre scholar Alison Jeffers would have it, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder rather than face-to-face: a position of solidarity perhaps rather than confrontation.


Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre and Australian Performance Exchange, Origin–Transit–Destination, artists Ram Abdulazeez, Mohammed Alanezi, Jamal Al Hallaq, Zahra Alsamawi, Sean Bacon, Annemaree Dalziel, Mustafa Karami, Ali Mousawi, Paul Prestipino, Tarryn Runkel, Bec Russel, Khaled Sabsabi, Daniel Saeed, Osama Sami, Shahla Shohni, Sally Sussman, Shukufa Tahiri; Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Sydney, 10-14 March

RealTime issue #126 April-May 2015 pg. 6-7

© Caroline Wake; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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