Tag Archives: China

Deadly Traffic, Jacqui Greig

Photo credit: gmacfadyen

The email blipped onto my phone as I boarded a flight from Diqing to Kunming in China’s south western Yunnan province. I tapped the little aeroplane icon and walked down the jet bridge. Later, as the Himalayas passed below, stereoscopic and horizon-wide, I read, ‘A mystery virus is sickening people in Wuhan. Stay away from markets.’ It was 14 Jan 2020 and I was on my way home to an Australia still smoke-dazed from its worst bushfire season ever. Given the many discussions I’d had with my brother, a biomedical engineer researching HIV at Massachusetts General Hospital, the email should have alarmed me. Perhaps it was getting up at an ungodly hour to reach the airport, or the brief but disconcerting concern that my visa wasn’t valid, that left me exhausted and unconcerned. I, like the rest of the soporific world, pushed the message out of my mind. The truth is that for all of us this story started long before now.

On the morning of my eleventh birthday, I had met an African Spitting Cobra and a dinosaur. To my brothers and me, the scaly creature rustling from the veldt on its hind legs with its giant claws tucked against its chest was a velociraptor. The snake, also scaly but slimmer and agile, didn’t stay; it swam off, a gold flash in the grass. The dinosaur turned its inquisitive snout in our direction and sniffed our scent on the dawn air. We three crouched, entranced as we watched the creature continue its purposeful progress. That was the first and last time I saw a pangolin. The beauty of other animals over the years: a cheetah downing its prey in a swirl of dust, the iridescent joy of a hovering sunbird, or the silver gleam of a diving otter, never dimmed the privilege I felt at glimpsing the elusive scaly anteater.

Pangolins, native to Asia and Africa, subsist on ants and termites, a preference sufficient to make them lovable. Pangolins are ant devourers extraordinaire. They possess the elongated sticky tongues of other myrmecophages and their tough, keratin-lined stomachs must, for ants, be comparable to the voracious maw of the sarlacc in The Return of the Jedi. Ant venom has the questionable distinction of being the only acid named after an animal. Formic acid packs a punch but the scaly exterior of the pangolin is ideally suited to its diet. Pangolins are the only mammals that boast of such armour which they put to good use defending themselves by curling into a tight ball and swinging their sharp tail to ward off predators. This defensive tactic accounts for their name, which derived from Malay, pengguling, means ‘one who rolls up,’ but it also leaves them vulnerable to poaching. Humans, unlike leopards, overcome it with ease and our appetite for the keratin scales which protected pangolins for millennia, now renders them the most trafficked animal in the world.

Keratin is a remarkable protein, as lustrous as hair and as tough as hooves; it constitutes rhino horn as well as pangolin scales. Despite being ubiquitous, the protein has resulted in these two animals being listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) list. This means that they may not be hunted or traded for any reason other than scientific purposes. No study has ever found keratin to have therapeutic properties.

Chinese friends explain that pangolins’ mythical appearance makes them prized. What my child-eyes believed was a dinosaur is perceived in China as a small dragon. When rolled up, pangolins resemble fabled dragon eggs.

The rarer pangolins become, the more they cost, paradoxically increasing the demand for pangolin meat. For a host to provide expensive pangolin, or other rare wild animal meat, for guests or employees shows generosity and improves face. Along with the perceived healing properties of the scales, this has skyrocketed the [1]  price of pangolins. As recently as 2018, the Chinese government, in  Implementation of the Rural Revitalization Strategy, encouraged farming of wild animals for sale in wet markets as a path out of poverty for millions of rural poor. The practice was further encouraged on Chinese television and by internet celebrities. According to Beijing University’s Professor Lü Zhi, wild animal farming is largely unregulated and many animals for sale are wild-caught ‘laundered’ animals. Particularly vulnerable are species near impossible [2]  to breed in captivity like pangolins.

It’s autumn in Hangzhou city with hawkers shouting their wares: framed red jianzhi[1], jade and silver bangles, and wood carved croak-frogs. With leaves already tinged yellow, the ancient gingko trees lining the street shade the afternoon warmth. A brisk walk uphill is required to reach my destination, the local Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) centre. Along the way, aromas of frying oil, meat and spice assail my nostrils,  smells that become an assault as I pass the local ‘stinky tofu’ dealer. Wooden benches cluster about the entrance where the TCM patients wait. Inside it is cool, cavernous, and quiet, the air is redolent of spices and dried plants: the reassuring scents of ancient knowledge. White-coated doctors staff the heavy counters where meticulous drawers, brass-labelled with artistic hanzi[2], stretch into the gloom. Atop the cabinets reside china-blue medicine jars guarding secret balms interspersed with glass jars of animal feti, snakes and pickled roots. Time is spent unravelling each person’s concern. Despite many years of absorbing western medicine, the gravitas of history and the spell of mythology overwhelm me and remind that the Western scientific approach can neglect with patients.

I ask whether pangolin scales are available. The prompt denial seems more to deflect this waiguo ren[3] than to communicate the truth. The Chinese name for pangolin scaleschuan shan ji, means ‘piercing through a mountain’, which epitomises their perceived strength and explains why they remain listed in hundreds of TCM formulations. These formulations are used to improve lactation, menstrual disturbances and arthritic pains deemed due to cold, or damp. As unscientific prescriptions go, the notion that pangolin scales act as galactagogues is no more unlikely than the advice that fenugreek, nettle, blessed thistle and ginger improve breast-milk flow than we would like to admit. The latter remedies remain touted in Australia without any corroborating trial evidence.

Zootherapy, the use of animals for healing, was a world-wide phenomenon prior to the ascent of scientific medicine. As recently as 2011, World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics reveal that 80% of people in developing nations still rely on traditional medicines for their primary healthcare. Many modern medications derive from natural remedies, humble aspirin being one of the more notable. In Latin America, 584 animal species, ranging from the slimy — slugs, snails, and worms, to the magnificent — pumas, manatees and tapirs, are listed as having medicinal properties. The most renowned TCM practitioner of the Tang Dynasty (608-907), Sun Simiao, in his ethical treatise, Da Yi Jing Cheng- The Sincerity of Great Physicians, wrote of animal usage, ‘if you kill an animal or take a life to save another life, it moves away from the original meaning…the lives of animals and humans are equal.’ Today, TCM has drifted from this principle and, though practitioners may be reluctant to prescribe endangered animal parts, the raw ingredients remain readily available in shops. It may be easier to buy a whole pangolin shell than to obtain prepared medicine containing pangolin scales. Purchasers can then simply prepare the scales for personal use. The meteoric rise of an enormous, cashed up Chinese middle class, coupled with the Communist Party’s ambition to elevate TCM to the status of Western medicine, has left vulnerable species on the edge of extinction; a precipice they were already pushed toward by climate change and habitat destruction.

On my January flight home, I was unaware the plane was tracking north-east of the main pangolin smuggling route from Myanmar into China. The poor of Myanmar, a strife-torn country with one of the largest income gaps in the world, are easily exploited by wildlife smuggling chains. The smuggling routes stretch from Mandalay northwards through the border town of Muse and the poorly policed, casino hub of Mongla, before crossing into China near Ruili. Investigators from the environmental group Sustainable Asia report that smugglers take pangolins only as far as Ruili due to stringent police road checks in China. From Ruili, transportation becomes the buyer’s responsibility. To circumvent this, many Chinese keen to sample Pangolin and other wild meat travel to Yangon in Southern Myanmar. There, a restaurant opposite the international airport openly serves these delicacies. It is possible that one of these trafficking routes, fanning out across the vastness below my plane, facilitated the transmission of Covid-19 into our world.

I hadn’t been home long before I started receiving panicked emails and messages from friends in China. People, many people, were dying, and my friends were terrified and angry. News of doctors and academics being silenced abounded. The world’s slumber was disturbed by a new, deadly, crown virus that had started in a wildlife market in Wuhan.

Neither zoonoses nor plagues are a novelty, despite the virus initially being called ‘novel’. Zoonoses and coronaviruses are devastatingly familiar to doctors and epidemiologists. In medieval times, the plague was deemed miasmic, caused by ‘bad air’. Now, the commonly accepted theory is that the plague was a zoonosis, an infection that crosses the species barrier from animal to human. The plague bacterium, aptly named Yersinia pestis, was ably assisted by fleas in its transitional leap from rats to humans. Tuberculosis came to us from cows, psittacosis from parrots, and rabies from any animal that bites. We risk disease if we live too close to animals either by domesticating them, encouraging their overpopulation or by driving them from their homes by natural habitat destruction. In the last decade, 75% of new diseases have been zoonotic; the barrier between human and animal has always been gossamer thin.

The route Covid-19 [3]  took to reach our lungs may never be fully elucidated. The market where it is believed to have started has been disinfected before reopening. However, scientists rapidly identified and sequenced the genome of the causative coronavirus, a member of the virus group that caused recent deadly epidemics like SARS (2003) and MERS (2012), and which has long annoyed us with the common cold. Bats have evolved to co-exist with coronaviruses for millennia, but humans virtually never catch the virus from bats. For this leap, an intermediate host is needed to facilitate the gene mutations that help the virus attach to human cells, which it does using its corona, or crown, of surface ‘bubbles’. For SARS, the intermediate host was the civet; for MERS, it was camels. As urbanisation destroys their habitat, bats come into closer contact with intermediate animal hosts. The market atmosphere of stressed wild animals in crowded cages further increases the likelihood of the gene leap occurring. Covid-19 shares 77% of its RNA with a bat coronavirus, while its receptors share 99% of their RNA with a pangolin coronavirus.

The road to the Covid-19 pandemic is pathed with ironies. China had, as recently as 2019, planned an outright ban on pangolin trade. Since 1989, pangolins have been on China’s level II protection list, which bans eating pangolin meat but allows scientific research and medicinal use. The elevation to stage I protection, banning all use, would come into effect in Jan 2020. After the SARS epidemic in 2003, China placed a ban on the sale of wild animal meat, but it was only temporary. China is not alone in selling wild animals in wet markets; the phenomenon is common in South East Asian and many African countries.

In the United States, repeated warnings concerning the likelihood of a pandemic were met with the shuttering of the Pandemic Preparedness Unit in 2018. The same year Luciana Borio, then director for medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council, told a symposium that “the threat of pandemic flu is our number-one health security concern”. When President Trump said on March 6, 2020 that the pandemic was an “unforeseen problem…that came out of nowhere”[4], he had never been further from the truth.

The tragic tale of pangolins encapsulates the perfect storm of the Covid-19 pandemic: the environmental destruction and climate change leave bats and pangolins vulnerable; the poverty and inequity encourage poaching to help people to survive; and the greed strips every resource from our environment at the lowest cost and sells it to the highest bidder[4] . Over [5] the years, my heart has wrenched each time I read of another border-police haul of illegal pangolin scales. I have felt grief that my children would never see this elusive and gentle creature wending its way through a honeyed African dawn. How much more I should have worried.

Bibliography

Alves, Romulo R., and Humberto N. Alves. “The faunal drugstore: Animal-based remedies used in traditional medicines in Latin America.” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, vol. 7, no. 9, 7 Mar. 2011, doi:10.1186/1746-4269-7-9.  

“CITES Appendices.” CITES Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, CITES, www.cites.org/eng/app/index.php.  

“Pangolin.” South Africa’s showcase of our collective heritage, southafrica.co.za, www.southafrica.co.za/pangolin.html.  

Devonshire-Ellis, Chris. “Covid-19 Carriers: What Do China’s Wildlife Protection Laws Say about Pangolins?” China Briefing, Denzan-Shira, 1 Apr. 2020, www.china-briefing.com/news/covid-19-carriers-chinas-wildlife-protection-laws-pangolins/.  

Friedman, Uri. “We Were Warned.” The Atlantic, 18 Mar. 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/03/pandemic-coronavirus-united-states-trump-cdc/608215/.  

Greenfield, Patrick. “Ban wildlife markets to avert pandemics, says UN biodiversity chief.” The Guardian, 6 Apr. 2020.  

Long, Marcy T., and Bonnie Au. “Pangolins Poverty and Porous borders.” Chinadialogue, edited by Jessica Aldred, Ned Pennant-Rea, Lizi Hesling, and Jiang Yifan, Chinadialogue, 27 Feb. 2020, www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/11878-Podcast-Pangolins-poverty-and-porous-borders.  

Long, Marcy T., and Bonnie Au. “Why are pangolins so prized in China?” Chinadialogue, edited by Jessica Aldred, Ned Pennant-Rea, Lizi Hesling, and Jiang Yifan, Chinadialogue, 14 Feb. 2020, www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/11855-Podcast-Why-are-pangolins-so-prized-in-China-.  

Lyons, Suzannah, and Natasha Mitchell. “How did coronavirus start? Where did bats get the virus from and how did it spread to humans?” ABC News: ABC Science, ABC News, 9 Apr. 2020.  

Qiu, Jane. “How China’s ‘Bat Woman’ Hunted Down Viruses from SARS to the New Coronavirus.” Scientific American, 27 Apr. 2020.  

Ranasinghe, Kashmi. “Going viral: how a virus mutates between animals.” CSIRO Scope, CSIRO, 7 Apr. 2020, blog.csiro.au/virus-mutation/.  


Endnotes

[1] Papercuts – a Chinese traditional art form that dates back to the 6th century ACE

[2] Chinese characters

[3] Foreigner

[4] Quotes from ‘We were warned’ The Atlantic March 18, 2020.


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The Errand, Ramona Kennedy

 

‘Have you been speaking to the police?’

Amina stood in the foyer of the station house, holding the phone a few centimetres from her ear to compensate for the shouting. Around her, uniformed police officers came and went. Others sat across from ashamed individuals, filling out wide charge sheets in carbon papered triplicate. To her left was a short concrete corridor of closed wooden doors, decorated with green paint and metal spittoons and signs that read ‘No Spitting on the Floors’. The whole place smelt of men’s cigarette smoke and inaction.

‘I haven’t had a chance to get to the police station yet.’ Who did this defence lawyer think he was, trying to extort money out of her?

Five minutes ago, Amina had stood feet apart, mouth open, shock melting into fiery anger as the female desk officer had explained Public Defence lawyers are salaried by the government and should not be charging individual fees. Amina had watched the policewoman remove a scrap of paper from under the counter, write ten numerals on it and slide it across the wooden bench. She had stepped back, taken out her mobile phone and called the number. She’d recognised the corrupt lawyer’s voice, the same one who’d contacted her at home, and greeted him with a calm edge of politeness.

‘Tell me again, how much the fee is for the defence?’ The scoundrel had been all business.

‘Two thousand, and you need to get the money to me by Friday.’

‘I can do that.’

Amina took a slow breath and allowed the evil fellow an extra second to believe the money was coming. ‘Only, I have just heard the legal services your department provides are free, and in fact I should not have to pay you even one cent for what you are doing for my daughter. Is that correct?’

And then he was shouting. ‘Have you been speaking to the police? Do not tell them I have asked you for any money or there will be trouble.’

‘I haven’t said anything to anyone.’

The police officer’s eyes were averted down. She was dipping a long calligraphy brush into a glass gluepot, pasting forms together. Her lips were pursed lightly against a smile.

Time to seal the deal. ‘So then, you won’t be requiring any extra payment from me?’

‘No.’

The lawyer ended the call.

Amina put her phone back in her handbag. Right. That was the legal fee attended to. She approached the desk officer again, holding the package of bread, dried fruit, nuts and clothing.

‘I would like to see my daughter, Rahima Ibrahim.’

‘Oh yes.’ The officer looked through a thick logbook. ‘I’m sorry but she has been moved from this station to the detention facility outside of town.’

‘How do I get there?’

‘Prisoners are not allowed visitors until they are convicted.’

‘But I am her mother.’

‘Not even family.’

‘I was told to travel here so I could see my daughter.’ She had never travelled in an airplane before. She needed the cabin attendant to help her with her seatbelt.

‘If she were still here, I would allow you to see her. But un-convicted criminals are not allowed visitors at the main complex.’

One thing on the phone and another when you turn up in person. Who was to know these sorts of rules existed? Amina indicated the goods at her feet. ‘Can I get this package to her?’

The desk officer leaned over the bench. ‘Let me check the contents.’

Amina followed her to the wooden desks at the back of the room and lifted the bundle onto the desktop. ‘It’s just food and clothes.’

‘I need to check them.’ The police officer untied the string and unwrapped the brown paper. She removed each piece of clothing and bag of food and arranged them on the desktop. Then she reordered everything into two piles. The clothes were placed in a neat pile back on the brown wrapping paper.  The fruit, nuts and bread were left where they were on the table.

‘I can make sure the clothes get to her, but she is not allowed to receive food.’

‘I was told she wasn’t eating the prison food.’

‘Prisoners on remand are not permitted to receive food parcels.’

No food. No calls. No visits. No mothers. Amina’s eyes were hot. This middle-aged police officer would also be a mother to someone, of course she would be. Amina collected up the unwanted flatbread, nuts and dried fruit into a pile. The godless and the believer share the same struggle in this world, but the believer knows greater suffering. They are left to wonder why.

The policewoman wrapped and retied the smaller package of clothes using the same paper and string and set it aside on a metal filing cabinet. She looked directly at Amina.

‘Would you like to know the circumstances of your daughter’s arrest?’

‘Tell me whatever you can.’ The only information so far was from that crooked defence lawyer.

‘Wait a minute.’

Amina watched her disappear down the green corridor and into one of the smoky rooms, heels clicking on the bare floor. She can’t be planning to catch any criminals in those shoes. Amina looked down at her own feet. She was also wearing good shoes, the sort saved for an afternoon at the department store, fondling unaffordable clothes and bags. Shoes meant for temporary incursions into the better worlds of other people.

The police officer clicked her way back out of the corridor, carrying a brown envelope. At the desk she laid it down and unwound the string from the sealing eyelet. Opening the flap, she pushed her fingers into the envelope and brought out a pile of thin papers covered in blue handwritten characters and inked red with official stampings.

While she read silently through the docket, Amina strained to pick out a few things from the upside-down scratchings.

…7.35am train…

…520g…

…female restaurant owner…

The officer looked up. Amina snapped back in her chair. Was she too obvious in leaning forward? God. Now was the time to look as complacent as possible. This could be her only chance to hear the charges.

‘Rahima was stopped when alighting at the city station. Her bag was searched and almost 300g of heroin was found. Although Rahima had stated it was not her bag, she admitted she had been given money by the owner of the restaurant to travel with the bag. When officers went to find the restaurant owner, she had left town.’

The restaurant owner? Wearing her headscarf like a true Muslim and on the side running a heroin business! No doubt the whole time saying God this and God that. God on her tongue but not in her heart. Amina wanted to pull off the restaurant owner’s headscarf and wave it in the air yelling, ‘Shame!’ She had no doubt disappeared back into her home village by now. The local police officers would either be her old schoolmates, or her brother – one of the village elders.

The desk officer packed the case details back into the envelope and rewound the sealing string. Amina was shaking, watching her work. When she looked up the policewoman was taking in the details of her appearance. Headscarf, gold earrings, flowered shirt, diamante brooch in the shape of a pomegranate flower, three-quarter length skirt, stockings and department store shoes.

‘You’ve never been to this city before, have you?’

‘No.’

‘From here, go straight back to your hotel room. Tonight, don’t go walking anywhere. Keep inside the hotel and eat at the hotel restaurant. In the morning, get a taxi from the hotel straight to the train station. It is not safe in this city for people like you. You need to get back home as soon as possible.’

 

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Ketchup, Evangeline Hester

‘Did you know that a fifth of the world’s ketchup comes from Xinjiang?’

‘Mmph?’ Jonah’s mouth was full of hamburger.

‘Ketchup,’ Abigail repeated, ‘a fifth of it is from Xinjiang.’

Jonah swallowed. ‘Huh.’ He took another bite.

When she was thirteen, in the second term of her new school in Australia, Abigail wrote a play for Musical Theatre: Romeo & Juliet style. Lu Shan, a Han Chinese boy, (sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif), had fallen in love with Parida, a Uighur girl (my child, my child, my life, my life), but the riots of 2009 had their fate star-crossed yellow on red. Huang Hua, in unrequited love, gave her own life to save Lu Shan, but at the cost of Parida’s life when the riot police turned tear gas on the crowd.

Abigail paused for breath. ‘In hindsight, it’s more like Les Miserables.’

The class blinked slowly up at her. Dust twisted through the double-glazed windows and drizzled across the carpet.

A Fascinating Story, I’d love to see it in action! 14/15.

Jonah had never come to any of Abigail’s plays, even later when they were dating. For her final HSC piece, he had promised he would be there, then didn’t have any money for the train ticket down from the Central Coast and was too embarrassed to ask his parents. He got to the auditorium in time to watch her performance through the glass window that steamed his breath.

Her monologue was about a woman who fell in love with a dying man.

‘So little has changed.’ Abigail squinted at the sky of Smiles.

Abigail’s Dad flapped his arm over the road, sweat beading on his nose. Tuk-tuks rattled past, irritated by the pair’s much-too-accurate bargaining. Tourists were better fair. Although they were tourists now too.

Do you remember do you remember do you remember

This—this was the Yok where they shopped for groceries, for caramelised rice drizzled with palm sugar. And this was the road that was gravelled all the way up to the hotel and dust thereafter that flicked mud onto your calves as you shuffled in flipflops back from the pool. And this was how it felt to ride on the back of a cherry red Songtheaw—she had never been allowed to ride them as a child.

And this, oh, this was the Mekong Centre.

She ripped through the air-conditioned office corridors, kicking up memories with the dust. Here’s the kitchenette stacked with tea-stained ceramic mugs from too many afternoons of fika. Here’s a haphazard stack of post-it notes full of names embellished with asterisks. Here’s the dozens of posters on the walls—trailing borders around Central Asia, North-East Asia, and A-Muslim-Majority-Country-in-South-East-Asia.

Ever made up a secret code when you were a child?

Up and down humid flights of stairs and around and behind and over railings and up trees, playing freeze-tag with her past.

Abigail and her father slip into the meeting room on the wicker veranda above the resort’s pool. This is the reason they are here. It is Spring Conference, like they used to go to every year, back when they were one family.

But now a large agency had pulled out of the Mekong organisation, sparking a chain of withdrawals, and now a gathering Abigail remembered being 300 was down to 30. The organisation was closing, and this was the very last Spring Conference. This was why alumni were invited. Abigail is the only alumni child present.

The Kashgar markets, like in most desert cities, were a maelstrom of colour and noise, scent and sound. Guttural cries advertised coarse bundles of work-shift coverings and silken chains bearing silver talismans. Anointing oils bearing various spicy scents mingled with the sharp odour of camel dung and dusty sweat. Melons brushed with gleaming oil leaned against plucked carrion feathers, strewn beneath hanging carcasses of scavenger birds and their prey, wrapped in dirty cloth to deter flies or perhaps to conceal the age of the flesh. Women wandering through the throng boasted baskets of desert flowers and cacti needles. One stall displayed dozens of jars each filled with a different hue and texture of sand, another claimed medicinal mushrooms of richer spirit than the standard fare. A man with no beard and a breathy accent advertised sea shells all the way from Calsorme—a popular stall for men attempting to impress their jaded wives, or perhaps longing for a world of translucent waves that moved with the moon rather than the wind.

So went the tales of Momas to their grandchildren, wrapped in grey school-coats with scarves of red tied round their throats.

 

‘And now, an old favourite of Spring Conference—Storytime with Jean!’

Smiles blossom across the room as a woman, creaking with age and good humour, settles in the wicker chair, calling the children to her.

‘Now, this is the story of a Little Princess who lived in Nepal.’ Her voice quivers with smoky enthusiasm. ‘Now, do you know why she was a princess?’

The children chortle in agreement.

‘That’s right, because her father was the King!’ Jean points to the sky with one crooked finger.

And everyone followed that finger as it drew our protagonist down steep crags, up swirled tree houses, and, most riveting, across a flooded glacial river during the monsoon.

‘So the wind was rearing up! Like a tiger! And the rain was coming down in sheets! Crash, crash! And then I said- I mean, the Little Princess said—’

The adults chuckle. This is how it was every year. Jean would always start off intending to be clandestine about the source of her story, but in all the excitement (I mean, it was a monsoon) she would forget herself, and then forget that she had forgotten herself, and then, just in time for the finale:

‘And that is the story of how I—oh!—I mean the Little Princess, got to church in time for m—her friend’s baptism.’

‘Hey Jean,’ Abigail asks her later.

‘What, chicken?’

‘Why don’t you tell any stories from Tibet?’

‘Oh, well, I’m still working with those people you know. Perhaps one day when I leave. Stories about Nepal are, you know safer because they were, oh, twenty, twenty-five years ago!’ Jean winks. ‘I’m showing my age!’

The Exodus was brief and sharp, the edge of a knife held to the throat of a culture.

The first people to leave were the foreigners. The ‘m’s and the ‘mk’s, diplomats and diplomat’s wives.

We didn’t understand that we were the lucky ones. That this was only the beginning of Tibet 2.0.

Don’t tell the Party I said that.

 

The compressed air leaking out of the plane in a soft whoosh felt familiar, but it was one of the last times Abigail would feel it in her childhood.

She doesn’t remember much about that time. Was Dad seated somewhere else on the same plane, or did he take the next flight? Did we check overweight luggage, like we always did? What was the name of the woman we gave our dog away to?

The tails of planes on the taxiway shimmer like corners of a flag.

On the last night of the last Spring Conference Abigail catches David Penrose following the timeline of photographs across the walls. His first OC was all the way back in 1983, grainy in cutting-edge colour technology, and with a full head of hair.

‘Will you stay in Xi’an indefinitely?’ she asks. Abigail thinks ‘until you die’ would be a bit brusque.

‘God, no. I don’t want to retire in China. I’ll go back to England.’

‘Do you have connections there?’

Daniel nods. ‘Some.’
Abigail’s mother got into creative writing a lot before Abigail. Not because she was interested first, but rather because she was older, she flounced straight into a masters while Abigail was ‘stuck in drama queen year 9’.

‘What is your book about, Mother?’

‘It’s about… the… It’s about the response of a extended family to childhood sexual abuse. It’s about XinJiang… It’s about Uighurs… It’s about Muslims…’ Mum turns to Ray for help, ‘What else is it about?’

‘It’s about the impact of the political power over a culture,’ he says.

‘It’s a survival story, as well, focusing on one matriarch and her family,’ she says.

‘It’s a story of loss.’

‘Loss and survival.’

‘Drugs. The impact of drugs.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Powerlessness, of being… help me…’

‘Well just, family life.’

‘Control.’

‘Isn’t it? Yeah.’

The room is decorated with framed tapestries from XinJiang that have survived half a dozen cities. Pride of place is a Dutar. Abigail knows one song on the Dutar, but she doesn’t know the words because she never learned Uighur.

Abigail’s house has three Uighur items. A skirt (too small), a tiny model dutar (from Spring Conference in Chiang Mai), and the family carpet (won in an argument). Only the skirt was ever truly hers. It hasn’t fit for years.

I—I mean Abigail—used to write poems on stormy nights two years after her father remarried, three years after her mother remarried, five years after leaving Thailand and seven years after leaving China.

She had never spent more than two years in XinJiang; she had never spent more than two years anywhere. But everyone needed a home, right? A place to long for, to miss, to call heritage to, to boast about, my child, my child, my life my life—she whispered a Uighur proverb, but she did not remember it from XinJiang, no, she had asked her mother for a Uighur proverb to spice up her story, to give it authentic flavour.

Oh, don’t tell her I told you.

‘Did you know that a fifth of the world’s ketchup comes from Xinjiang?’

‘Mmph?’ Jonah’s mouth was full of hamburger.

‘Ketchup,’ Abigail repeated, ‘a fifth of it is from Xinjiang.’

The man I am calling Jonah swallowed.

‘Huh.’ He took another bite.

‘It’s one of the reasons that China values XinJiang so much. It’s full of coal and oil and natural gas, and a fifth of the world’s ketchup.’

He nods considerately. He’s always open to learning more about my home culture.

I don’t tell him that I learned that fact this morning from a Facebook video.

 

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Time to Talk, Ramona Hester

…When they were young they would refer to him amongst themselves as dadimiz, our father, yours and mine. Now there was nobody who shared this man as father. Nobody who shared her mother. Nobody to call her sister. They had lost a measure of themselves when Mehmet had passed away. This was one more slice cut from still raw skin…

This is part of a longer fictional work set in Central Asia exploring the experiences of an extended family as they respond to the devastating consequences of childhood sexual abuse.

Ibrahim stubbed out the cigarette and finished his bowl of tea. He had been reading yesterday’s newspaper and he now folded the thin edition in quarters and laid it down on top of a pile of its predecessors beside the telephone. Then he padded into the bedroom and began rooting around in the top drawer of the cabinet for a better pair of socks. In doing this he was obeying his wife. If she were not already out on an errand she would be reminding him to change them. Even if it was just a visit to the bazaar she would be telling him, ‘And what if you meet someone and they invite you into their house? Are you going to sit on their sofa drinking tea and making small talk with holes in your socks? Those holes will be talking louder and faster than your mouth ever could.’

He peeled a sock off, sat up and pulled it over his hand. Positioning his fingertips at the mouth of each hole, he moved them about slowly, feeling the rim of each hole catch on the hoary domes of his fingertips. Three extra mouths like this would be useful. His own mouth had always been inadequate in the most important of situations. He had never been good at saying what he really wanted to say. He knew other men for whom this was not a problem. Not that they were able to speak more wisdom than he. Those men could speak camel shit and leave it at that. What control they held over their consciences! No regrets for things said or left unsaid. No room allowed for uncertainties which may give cause for pause. Men who lived their own truths and insisted that wife and family fall into step. Ibrahim had never been able to do it. In the years that it took his young wife to grow from girl to womanhood his marital situation had become clear. He was bound to a woman greater than himself. Fourteen years her senior, his headstart had at first masked this truth. He had spent the first few years trading on his life experience. But innate ability does not take much time to catch up, and he could only watch as she absorbed his hard-learned wisdom, mixed it in with her own unique insight and applied the result to a variety of opportunities that he would otherwise have shied away from. Yet his admiration for his wife had been embellished with silence. Ibrahim unfolded a fresh pair of grey socks that would cover the yellowing toenails and tough old heels of his feet to his wife’s satisfaction. Time to talk. He picked up his wallet from the bedside table, put on his shoes, coat and hat and shuffled his way down the stairs, out to the courtyard, and then down the busy street to the bus stop.

The white minibus stopped in front of him with a screech. The ticket seller pulled back on a rope and the accordion-like door folded into itself with a hollow clap. She was yelling the route number out the window like an automatic weapon, ‘Thirty-eight, thirty-eight, thirty-eight. Route thirty-eight,’ and Ibrahim responded obediently. Securing his hat on his head with one hand, he reached into the doorway, grabbed the thin metal pole to pull himself up to the vehicle from the pavement, then ducked under the narrow minibus entranceway and found himself a seat in the back row. There he readied his money. The ticket seller would do a round of the vehicle, collecting the paper fares in a large black clip and dispensing her fragile tickets from a smaller version of the same.

Miriam’s stairwell door had been jacked open with a brick and he could hear the conversation of electrical repairmen echoing down from a floor above. Ibrahim walked in without buzzing and began climbing the stairs to his daughter’s apartment door. She might not be home. He hadn’t called in advance to tell her to expect him. Truth was that he hadn’t wanted to tie himself into the arrangement. The only way that he had managed to drag himself this far towards the encounter was the possibility that it may not happen. If he had been unable to face the conversation today, if he had chosen mid-trip to shout ‘I want to get off’ from the back seat, abandoned his journey, crossed whatever road he was on and taken the next bus back home to his familiar silence, who would have known? He had not wanted to secure his daughter’s anticipation and once again be the father that failed to turn up.

At the door, Ibrahim hacked a wet, nicotine cough. By the time he had worked up the courage to curl his hand into a fist and knock against the hollow metal security door his daughter had opened it out towards him and he had to quickly shift backwards away from the out-swinging metal fortress.

‘Dadam!’ His daughter was in the middle of cooking something, decked in apron and a tight fitting headscarf to keep her hair out of the mix. ‘I knew that was you coughing in the stairwell.’

He lingered in the doorway holding his hat brim flat against his chest. Even though it was he who was coming to see her unannounced, she still had the advantage over him. She had her head cocked to the side, one hand on the door handle and the other on the door jamb. He should say something.

‘I’ve come.’ He lifted his hat from his chest in a small salaam.

‘Have you come?’ she was giggling at him. Then she swept the inner wood door wide open with one arm, lifted her other hand off the doorjamb and waved him into the apartment,

‘Come in, dadam. Come in.’

Miriam held his elbow while he slipped off his shoes, then she took his coat and hat and hung them by the door. The apartment smelled rich and sweet like wet flour.

‘Are you making noodles?’

‘Are you hungry? I’ll make you something,’ she said.

‘No child.’ He could feel her steering him towards the sofa, but he did not want to be the guest, ‘I want to sit with you inside. In the kitchen. I’ll watch, and we can talk while you work.’

He sat at the kitchen table while she washed her hands and then began kneading the dough. She worked with her back to him. He could see the muscles flex in her shoulders and back as she worked the mixture. She had grown up strong and capable like her mother. And she had married a good man, educated and kind. And she had borne Adiljan into the family. Ibrahim put a shaking hand to his lips. This beautiful woman was his only remaining child. He watched her alternately punch and fold the dough. Two children had gone, like buds snapped off the branch. Neither of them with the chance to marry and have children. Little Adiljan left living with the weight of the entire family resting on his fragile frame. Ibrahim pulled out his handkerchief to wipe his eyes. It had been his own little family that had been fragile. He had seen his wife’s fortitude and presumed that any babies she produced would somehow share the same level of resilience. As if a fainthearted disposition was something that only he could be afflicted with. It turned out that his son’s Mehmet’s courage was all external; formed from cigarettes, cars and alcohol. And Rahima’s was the false bravery that took her to places that, God help us, she should have rightly feared. So that in the end she feared nothing, not even God.

Miriam finished the kneading and placed the dough back into the bowl to rest. So far her father had been his usual quiet self. Perhaps he just wanted company and an opportunity to stop thinking about difficult circumstances. She moved over to the sink and washed the dough off her hands, taking time to clean the wet flour from around her fingernails. She would put the kettle on and cut him some fruit.

When she turned, her father’s face was dripping with tears.

Apla!’ She walked towards the first man in her life, pulled out a kitchen chair and embraced him as his shoulders shuddered in raspy sobs.

Kizim, kizim,’ Ibrahim called out to his daughter.

Miriam pulled him closer. She wanted to say, ‘I’m here with you,’ but which daughter he was calling for? Instead she leant into his torso with her full weight and offered him soft repetitions of ‘Dadam, my father.’ When they were young they would refer to him amongst themselves as dadimiz, our father, yours and mine. Now there was nobody who shared this man as father. Nobody who shared her mother. Nobody to call her sister. They had lost a measure of themselves when Mehmet had passed away. This was one more slice cut from still raw skin.

Miriam did not offer him the usual supplications to stop crying, or encouragements to stop thinking about it. He had come this way to her house and chosen to do here what he could just as easily have engaged in on his own. He had wanted someone to mourn with, and he had chosen his daughter. She rubbed his back and kissed his head as his sobbing eased off. Eventually he lifted his head from its bent position and sniffed the tears back up his nose in one noisy, wet inhalation. He rubbed his handkerchief across the bottom of his nose and wiped the back of each hand across his eyes. Just like Adiljan. How vulnerable her father was in this world. A vulnerability that Adiljan would never be able to outgrow.

Kizim.’ Her father raised his hand and stroked her hair. The cooking scarf had fallen back off her head. ‘What pitiful circumstances you have seen in your life.’

She lent forward until her forehead was touching his.

‘I wish it hadn’t been like this for you, kizim. I wish I could have given you a life without suffering. I wish it had all been different.’

Ay, dadam.’ She put her arms around him again. ‘These things come from God. They all come from God.’

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