Beyond the Edges
From inside the train, you can see that Sydney has changed. Streets, riddled with abandoned businesses. Old signage that says Taylor’s, crooked and rusting along the edges. A racy nightclub I’d only been once where people on molly would “kick on”, as the Aussies say.
Without brash power suits, dawdling tourists with high-held smartphones, and tattoo-covered, bearded hipsters sipping their overpriced almond lattes, Sydney’s remnants of an old world. Commercial debris and falling foot traffic. Lockdowns sparked a city exodus, with many escaping to neighbouring coastal towns.
Phone vibrates. An alarming message from my sister about rising political tensions back home causes my insides to flutter.
‘Are you getting off?’ a man resembling a human mosquito, glaring at me.
I’m blocking the doors.
His face. A portrait by Picasso. An assemblage of obscure, accentuated characteristics: dark beady eyes, thin lips and hooked nose are so distracting that I’m just standing there, dumbfounded and speechless.
I can’t stand people who lack self-awareness. Feel like a hypocrite, but.
‘Sorry,’ I mutter and jump off, making way for the angry stranger.
Central Station looks even grimmer early evening, being a place where Sydney’s homeless congregate.
Walking across the platform to the exit, a man with a cigarette hanging from his lower lip yells out, ‘Hey, you have a dollar?’.
The man holds out an open palm with a yellowed index finger, his moistened cigarette barely alight. I stand in a quandary and say in the sincerest tone I can muster, ‘I’m sorry, mate, I don’t have any cash.’
Walking away, he growls, ‘Fuck ya, go back to where you came from, you fucking Arab.’
I stop dead in my tracks. The first winds of rage accelerating through me.
Before turning around and retaliating with a history lesson on Iranians being Persian and not Arab, an afterthought steers me to pity him instead.
Walking around the periphery of Central. Depressing. The building’s main façade, a terracotta-coloured sandstone, is laced with clusters of the homeless.
Right near the clock tower, a woman there with a weather-beaten face is feverishly shuddering from cold, her shoulders painfully arched and contracted.
Stark images of a repressed past rush to the fore.
An overcrowded, unnamed boat with a wheezing motor. Designed to hold a small fisherman’s crew but cramping hundreds. Frail ones, mainly malnourished women and children, slurring speech, forgetting who and where they are.
Once the uncontrollable shaking stops, it’s trouble.
As the irreversibility of fate sinks in, heaving loved ones ramp up, sobbing without taking breaths.
Underneath a ragged, dirt-stained blanket, the homeless woman’s narrow eyes hint sadness.
Digging pockets I didn’t even know I had for coins I know aren’t there, I stop.
Until a pungent cocktail of stale clothing, cigarettes and urine that had dried over the course of a day or two hits my nostrils.
‘Follow me.’ she says.
Her short, blunt asymmetrical hairstyle frames her face.
I probably look at hairstyles more than other men. This pronounced attentiveness to hair stems from my childhood when my eldest sister, educated as an architect, had unintentionally grown a hairdressing hobby into a lucrative home business.
The memory recalls Tehran’s wealthiest socialites queueing for their weekend pampering sessions. While eavesdropping on women’s tittle-tattle and exploits around who’s getting married to who, I taste saffron edging its way from the kitchen. Spying from around the corner, a younger, pretty one with a face the shape of a heart catches my eye. A frantic urge to make her my girlfriend evaporates my usual shyness. I spot a plate of aperitifs nearby, so, as a way to get to know her, I clumsily ask her something arbitrary like where can you get the best Halva (Middle Eastern fudge) in town. Replaying my fervid, boyish face exasperated by those fumbled words causes me an inward shiver of embarrassment.
As we’re walking through the corridor, the receptionist smiles, ‘Are you new to the focus group?’
‘Yeah, it’s my first time.’
We find ourselves in a bare room with high ceilings, making its occupants, a handful of people, seem smaller than they are.
The focus group’s facilitator, a square-jawed woman, forces scarlet-painted lips into a smile, ‘Welcome,’ she says with a childlike voice.
It’s the type of voice used to build instant warmth, an attempt to kill the awkwardness often found between strangers.
On the edge of a semi-circle beside a woman with a pixie-blonde haircut, I steal hint of perfume. Woody undertones of patchouli carrying me to childhood. Family weddings. Dozens of boisterous aunts and uncles wearing perfumes that match dominant personalities. You wouldn’t think that the overpowering combination of poignant fragrances would create a harmonious balance of scents. But it worked, just like a hall full of my loud relatives screaming over the top of each other somehow transpired into a good time, and not a headache.
‘As diverse community members, let’s get introductions from each of you tonight.’
From a forty-five-degree angle, you can see the rough edges of the facilitator’s nose, large featuring a prominent hump, giving her the air of an old-world Byzantine emperor.
‘Alex, let’s start with you.’
The blonde woman isn’t conventionally beautiful with features both masculine and feminine but uniquely striking. Her face is a bit longer than the ideal ratio, but strong, defined cheekbones compensate for length. A straight nose, yet prominent. An eye colour that is hard to place: a greenish-grey-blue. Features aren’t delicate but majestic and statuesque, a dignified beauty not defined by perfection but by the harmony between light and dark.
‘I’m a late millennial. Old enough to know what life was like pre-pandemic, but young enough to spend my life savings on smashed avo toast.’
She cheekily presses her hearty lips together in a way that makes you wonder whether she’s delivered this line before.
A puzzling anecdote. Confused about savings and avocado-toast. It’s something culturally specific, maybe.
Others chuckle. A black guy with purple hair erupts into waves of laughter in an overly enthusiastic, horsey way, overexposing teeth.
The facilitator’s mouth stretches into another fake smile, revealing her tight, Botoxed face.
A quick search on my phone about spending life savings on ‘smashed avo toast’ finds a news article about a millionaire real estate mogul advising Australian millennials to spend their savings on a house deposit rather than weekend brunches.
‘I’m originally from Serbia. I fled the war with my family in 1994. We were refugees.’
Hairs on arms, neck, stand on end.
It’s the night I fled Iran.
Authorities after me. Tears welling up, even my mother, who rarely cries, her eyes too, glassy, ‘Go now before it’s too late.’
Leaving the house, tears are replaced with adrenaline that fuels me from connecting with the shonky smuggler on the streets of Tehran to the shores of Indonesia.
‘I was only five years old. I lost family during the Yugoslav wars.’
Cold silence penetrates the room so quickly that the ticking from a dusty, white plastic clock hanging on the wall, which I hadn’t noticed until now, becomes audible.
Flashbacks ravage my mind. A cinematic exhibition of another life.
The lower slopes of the snowcapped Alborz Mountains hugging the city. A chaotic jumble of concrete, traffic and air pollution. Steamy nights with the girl I had made my fiancé but had ruthlessly abandoned not due to a change of heart but dangerous circumstance. Her slim, hourglass figure had a following of envious women and lustful men wanting to take her from behind. Snaking hands around her petite waist above the curve of her backside would always get me hard.
‘What a treacherous journey.’
The facilitator has a habit of talking in a shrilly voice, diluting any sense of sincerity.
Sweat’s trickling down my spine, making my shirt glue to my back.
‘Poppy, let’s hear from you.’
Oh, thank God.
Farsi or English, talking doesn’t come easy. Being in the spotlight heightens my self-consciousness. Often, my body lifts off, words echoed by another entity, and me, just a mere onlooker. My own voice becomes foreign, distracting. I’ll falter, lose words mid-sentence.
‘Heyyy, I’m Poppy,’ he stretches his vowels in classic queer vocal timbre while brushing fingertips over his elaborate hair with such precision that it almost seems like a choreographed movement.
‘Umm,’ he says, puckering his mouth, ‘I mostly grew up in Australia, smaller towns, not the friendliest places for a black gay guy.’
You can’t help but look at the outlandish figure from head to toe. His platinum purple afro is styled into a quiff, creating the illusion of a headpiece. Muscular arms are shirtless and chest bare, framed by a fitted black vest.
Underneath, skinny leather pants tucked into sturdy boots with a leopard-print tongue.
This stylistic extravagance could be seen as hyper-confidence, but, somehow, it feels like a veneer masking vulnerability.
‘Eskander, you’re next.’
Shit. Blank faces waiting for me. C’mon, just talk, man.
‘Hi. I’m originally from Iran.’
‘I’m a computer engineer.’
‘Back in my country, I had written an article about politics, and the Iranian government saw me as a threat to their regime.’
‘So, I fled persecution.’
Some eyes, wide, bleeding empathy. Others peer out at me, incredulous. The rest canvas a confused jumble of sentiment.
‘I arrived in Australia in 2018 and was in detention before they released me on a temp visa.’
‘I have an IT business. It’s doing okay,’ I shrug.
The blonde woman. Immersed, listening with her head cocked to one side. Her gaze. Like we’re the only ones in the room.
A burning urge to speak brews painfully gnaws my insides: I want to share, connect, but only with her.
Hard not to imagine how the rest of them perceive me now, though.
Asylum seeker. A label casting someone as inept, uneducated, or, at its extreme, criminal. Ironic because I might be more educated than some people in this room. My knowledge of English can sometimes be more advanced than some native speakers who don’t know much about tenses and verb conjugation. Yet my visa determines everything about my standing in society. Don’t have basic rights, like, access to healthcare or work that isn’t exploitative.
As a one-dimensional human, my life before Australia doesn’t exist. Talk about an identity crisis.
‘It’s been challenging for people in your situation, especially since COVID.’
Your empathy is a lie.
The facilitator. A bad actor, preoccupied only with appearances.
Looking at her fake, gawking head makes me retract inside.
I do my censored spiel.
‘I’m grateful for Australia, a good country that has given me a new beginning.’
Unlocking my shoebox apartment. Here come the usual regrets. Tormenting me each day as I walk through the door.
If I’d known that my fate would corner me on this island continent, would’ve I poked at the Iranian government or surrendered to a stultifying existence? How I answer that really depends on the day you ask me.
This space, supposed to be home.
Bleak white-washed walls with a secondhand outdated blue couch pushed against it, a cheap IKEA pedestal that serves as a coffee table, and a small television.
Such a contrast to the decadent mahogany wood furniture sets and richly-layered Persian carpets back home.
Thinking about importing rugs again. Not particularly passionate about such enterprises. But I’ve seen Australians paying ridiculous markups for something that’s an everyday commodity back home.
I fix a basic meal, quintessential to single men from the Middle East: Lebanese bread slathered with hummus and whatever I happen to have in the fridge that day: fava beans, some pickles, and a spoonful of tabbouleh.
Biting into my slapdash roll, I call my sister.
Little voices, nieces and nephews, laughing in rhythm in the background. The cadence of children inducing my homesickness.
‘Is the situation getting dangerous?’ I ask.
‘Look, it’s getting worse, but Farhad is making sure that we’re safe, for now.’
Farhad’s useless, but.
I’m silent, taking another bite from my roll. Hummus spreads outside the corners of my mouth. I roughly wipe it off with the back of my hand, leaving traces of a floury residue on my face.
Annoyed. She dramatised things again.
She senses irritation. ‘Sorry, jiger.’
I relish it when my sister calls me ‘jiger’, which in Farsi means ‘liver’. A term of endearment that you’re everything to someone and they can’t live without you.
I soften, ‘I’m going to get the family out. Once I get my PR.’
I have a stronger maternal bond with my sister than my mother. Personality dynamics. Compatibility.
My sister. Open, warm, and feminine. Her affection is infectious.
My mother. Astute, pragmatic, and a carrier of the family’s burdens. She’s the family’s compass. Her affection is spoken through actions creating good ripples for generations to come.
My father. The family clown, always cracking jokes and making people entertained, but not a man of action.
My parents. Quite the odd couple, nested in Iran’s traditional culture. They’re not traditional, but. People commented that father let mother do whatever she wanted. You could say we live under a matriarch. Our family’s unconventionality pairs more with the west.
Stepping out to have a cigarette, my sister’s voice rattles on about our younger sister’s negligent attitude until she shifts the spotlight on me, forcing me into a more active role in the conversation.
‘My baby brother, our guiding light. I’ve always known you were special, Eskander.’
Taking a drag of my cigarette, I fight inner turmoil. While my sister’s hopeful outlook instils hope that I desperately want to capture and keep, she’s naïve to the complexity of Australia’s immigration system.
Blind to what it means to be an asylum seeker, she doesn’t grasp even a slither of what my life is like here. Living on the fringes, beyond the edges of society, I’m a nobody.
A long windy road before I can help.
I’m quiet. Don’t want to leave her hanging, hysterical about the future.
So, I do what I always do; I keep her flame alive.
‘Yasmin, I’m working on it.’
Rebeka Selmeczki writes from Sydney. By day, she works for an organisation that supports refugees in media and communications. As someone who arrived in Australia as a refugee minor with experience across intergovernmental organisations (UNHCR), not-for-profits, think tanks and tech startups, she is passionate about societal issues, and the refugee cause is close to heart. Her work has appeared in The Kaldor Centre, The Music Trust, The Interpreter – Lowy Institute, UNHCR, and others. With a recently obtained Master of Arts in Creative Writing, Rebeka is a new and emerging writer in fiction.