Saturday, February 03, 2007

Met A Girl

A week or two following the screening of Pickles, SBS showed Veiled Ambition which introduced us to Frida, an Australian-Lebanese Muslim woman, who was intent on cornering the retail market in formal wear for women. She first opened a shop in Melbourne, catering to Muslim women, because she was insistent that wearing the hijab need not be any reason to abandon fashion principles. Unfortunately that conviction didn’t prove profitable enough, so she began to import American Prom dresses to cater for a broader range of women.

Meanwhile, Frida was newly married to Albert who was living in Sydney, and each of them spent time travelling back and forth. She went to Sydney to visit her family and see her husband’s progress on their future home, which they were building across the road from her in-laws. He went to Melbourne to hand out pamphlets at a Bridal Show to attract people to the Fatimah Boutique’s display—Frida noted that people stayed away when she, resplendent in her hijab, stood in front of it. Then Frida got pregnant and had a gorgeous baby boy, and still her incredible humour, ambition, energy and conviction that anything was possible didn’t flag.

During the filming, the Cronulla riots took place, so we got the opportunity to see Frida’s response to the ugly Australian nationalism of that event. She simply stated that there wasn’t any more she could possibly do to demonstrate her allegiance to Australia, but the despair in her voice was evident—this, after an earlier part of the documentary, filmed before Cronulla, where she had proudly shown off a roast chicken and vegetables she’d made as evidence of her assimilation into Australian life.

As part of the globalisation schedule, I also caught a couple of episodes of The Closet Tales of Australian Fashion, a series on Australian fashion designers who were launching into international markets as the only way of keeping their businesses viable. I have an ambivalent relationship with fashion. On the one hand, the sheer artistry of designers like Akira Isogawa is only to be admired. He creates such beautiful garments. And there’s nothing wrong with creating beauty for the world; it’s uplifting, even if I will never be able to afford his clothes. Here, too, I think of another SBS series, Fashionista, that was hosted by Lee Lin Chin, which highlighted a whole range of glorious fabrics and designs—from singlets sold at market stores (more my budget), through to exclusive boutiques of imported designer ware. Lee Lin Chin was obviously the most perfect presenter, with a genuine interest in fashion evident in her quirky sense of dress—a fact that the designers she interviewed seemed to appreciate.

On the other hand, I can’t not think that fashion is an industry, much of which exists on the back of exploited migrant and third world labour. I find this more than troubling. It’s so wrong. I’m caught between admiring a perfectly pleated shirt, and recognising that it was probably made by someone with not very much in the way of decent working conditions nevermind negotiating rights, lest they lose their only source of income. I’m aware that even as someone on a low income in the first world, I am infinitely better off than anyone on a low income in the third world. I am in a position to make decisions about what I purchase. I still have such a lot of choice.

The fact of my privilege has been brought home to me as I’ve watched a few documentaries on Sudanese refugees over the last month. Two of them were written and presented by British journalist Sorious Samura. In the first, Living with Illegals, Samura made the journey an illegal immigrant would from Morrocco to the UK, and in the second Living with Refugees he travelled with a Sudanese family to a UN refugee camp in Chad. If you follow those links, you’ll find a more detailed description of the programmes.

The genius of this kind of film-making to my mind is that we get to see a Western body go through these hardships, which makes the viewing all the more visceral. I’m speculating here, but perhaps it is a more difficult task to empathise with the lean, sinewy bodies of the African refugees while sitting comfortably on the couch eating dinner in front of the television. When one of the women that Samura is travelling with in the second documentary states that he is fat and she can’t fathom why he is complaining of hunger, when everyone around him is so skinny and clearly, far more in need of food, well there’s something about that charge that is difficult to counter. It’s an uncomfortable fact.

What is not difficult to understand are the stories of murdered and lost family members that many of the people Samura met had after surviving years of civil war. Again, in the second documentary, there was one man who spent his time walking from refugee camp to refugee camp, searching for his family. In the first documentary, one man eventually made it into England by clinging to the underside of a moving truck. It was apparently his third or fourth ‘successful’ journey to the UK and it turned out to be his third or fourth deportation as well. He was desperate to find secure work and freedom from poverty and war for himself and eventually his family, and the UK held that promise in a way that Sudan hadn’t for many years.

It was appalling to see what happened when Samura and the family he was travelling with in Living with Refugees finally arrived at the UN refugee camp in Chad. They had to register in order to receive any food, and this was not a simple matter. It seemed to involve an inordinate amount of bureaucracy. They couldn’t just walk up to an administration section and declare they were registering. They had to rely on the graces of the representative of the section of the camp that they happened to arrive in. Communication was difficult, if only because there never seemed to be any forthright answers to questions, just endless fobbing off and obfuscation about what exactly was required. For days the new arrivals only survived on the charity of other refugees who shared their meagre food rations, which were sometimes riddled with pestilence.

It was only in another documentary, one shown this past week, Ayen’s Cooking School for African Men, that the long term consequences of the state of refugee camps became apparent. This documentary was the story of Ayen, who in her work with Sudanese refugees in Australia, came across a houseful of Sudanese men, who had a fridge full of food but were lying about lethargically because they had no idea how to cook. Ayen decided they needed to know how to cook, and began attempting to teach them. It was a difficult task because there are major cultural taboos, connected to notions of masculinity, against men cooking. They were fearful that they would never attract a wife if they cooked in public.

There was a lot that was fun about this documentary—such as the suspicion of prawns identified by the Sudanese as ‘insects’—but again there were moments when all that fell away. Ayen spoke about the ‘lost boys’ (the fate of girls isn’t elaborated), those children who were born and raised in refugee camps, never knowing the everyday rhythms of Sudanese life. Part of the cooking classes involved cultural instruction in the form of anecdotes of life in Sudan. Then there was the moment when one of the newly arrived refugees was asked about the situation he had just left. He became visibly upset and said he didn’t want to go into details of the atrocities he had witnessed.

He said that he thought he might have to get some counselling, because ‘it makes you crazy’.

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