Charles Dickens began one of his essentially autobiographical tales by wondering aloud if he would prove to be the hero of his own life. Reality is so dynamic and changeable it is hard for anyone to know where their actions will lead them, or how they will bear up to the challenges of the day or the year.
Those same questions tugged at me recently when I traveled half a world away from our editorial offices in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A., to Australia, to participate in a religious liberty meeting of experts in Sydney, Australia. I left Australia some decades ago as a teenager; and each time I return, the question of what I have made of my life nags at me.
The day I arrived in Sydney I stopped off at Paddy’s Market, where they sell things like kangaroo skins and souvenir hats made in China. It was crowded and noisy, with commerce yelled out in mostly accented English. I found that I was less interested in buying than analyzing the sellers. They struck me as an incredibly diverse group, and I wondered about the story of their lives.
One especially vigorous and vocal Chinese woman caught my attention. “You want to buy souvenir pens?” she pitched. I looked over the products briefly, and asked her where she was from. “I come from Hong Kong,” she answered in a voice still pitched for Mandarin but heavily accented with Australian inflections. “Where are you from?” was her bounce back.
I told her I had grown up in Sydney but lived in the United States for most of my life. “Australia is different for you now, isn’t it?” she offered. I had to admit she was right. “I go back every year to Hong Kong,” she continued. “But people are rude there. There is trouble between the Chinese in Hong Kong and the mainlanders.”
We talked more, and I found in her the same realization of the foreigner transplanted: that both homeland and new land can take on a sense of otherness. The same sense of a lost certainty, if not identity. We talked so long she seemed to forget that there were other customers clamoring to buy. Finally I had to leave, and she pushed a little bit of ribbon into my hand as a gift. “Never the same,” she said almost wistfully.
I saw them more clearly then—the exiles; the Diaspora of the market.
A man with a swarthy face and a loud voice was pitching women’s clothes to passersby. His gaze barely rested on me as I approached him. Until I asked him where he was from! “Iran,” he said proudly, but then grew cloudy as we discussed the theocracy and daily life in the new Iran. It was his homeland, but no longer his country!
Another man sat languidly in front of a pile of wares, stirring himself periodically to instruct a young helper on how to arrange matters. The language he used sounded Turkic. I asked. And yes, he was from Turkey. We talked, and I asked about Kemal Ataturk and the formation of the modern secular Turkish state. He did not seem impressed. “Turkey has changed,” he said.
Nearby a nervous-looking gentleman was using a large handle with a flat end to retrieve delicious-smelling flatbread from a half-open wood oven. I couldn’t resist; and bought a freshly baked flatbread from him. As I handed him the dollar coins, I asked where he was from. I expected him to say Turkey, but I was barely correct.
“I am a Kurd,” he told me proudly. “Are you from Turkey?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered. “But we Kurds are from many countries: Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. We have tried to have our own country, but they will not let us. The Turkish people persecute us.” I asked about Kemal Ataturk, the secularizer of Turkey, and the father of a modern nation. As with my other encounter, he was not too impressed. “Ataturk promised us a lot,” he said. “But when the state was formed, Ataturk said that our hopes of autonomy were a threat to the unity of the new country. He let us down.” There were several customers lined up to buy, even though the Kurdish proprietor showed no sign of wanting to slow his pent-up opinions. “You should visit the Kurdish area where I came from,” he said. “It is beautiful,” he added, with a sad face. I thanked him and quickly moved away to let his customers pull him back to commerce.
I realized by then a little more about the wellspring of otherness held in the minds of these citizens of the world. There are stories that may never be told or shared other than around family tables or in letters between friends and family. Letters often sent far away.
Later I stopped by a fish-and-chip shop near the beach. Such places are a quintessential icon of Australia and the beach—albeit derived from the British shops of the same, reflecting Irish preferences for a South American import! The lady behind the counter asked me about my order of chips in a soft accent that I could not quite place. “Where are you from?” I asked in a now-familiar approach.
“Egypt,” she replied in a way that made me think that she was not often asked.
“Oh,” I replied, “then you must have some knowledge of the Arab Spring situation there. What do you think of it all?”
“I am a Copt,” she said in a voice that implied that that was enough to explain things. And in a way it was. The direct antecedent to the Tahrir Square demonstrations was a January bombing of a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria and other religious violence that followed. Then, like the other shopkeepers, she warmed to my questions and began to open up about the situation in her country of birth. For her, though, the Arab Spring is ominous. She spoke freely of her fear that the Muslim Brotherhood, the now-dominant Islamist party, will eventually gain full power and restrict religious diversity. “Oh, I wish my husband were here to meet you,” she said over and over as we talked, and I told her that I edited a religious liberty journal.
Then we talked about the same model of home and adopted country that seemed to so perplex my other contacts. And of course she likes the sunny new country she and her husband had found. But she worries about its future in a post-September 11 world of religious activism. It was curious that she should bring this up. I was, after all, in Australia to participate in an International Religious Liberty Association meeting of experts tasked with analyzing the effect of secularization on religious freedom. And Australia is one of the most secular societies in the Western world.
She helped me untangle one of the more bizarre incidents in recent Australian legal happenings. I had seen the footage of the original incident, the court case, and the demonstrations on television. A police officer had stopped a woman for speeding. He had asked her to step out of the car and found she was wearing a burka. He asked her to uncover her face. She refused, and in a string of very earthy Australian profanity accused him of harassment. It went to court—and was thrown out because if could not be proved that the woman in the court was even the woman caught speeding. Then the crowd of very secular Australians jeered and jostled the authorities. I wondered how this sort of theater of religious confrontation could happen in secular Australia.
My Coptic friend had strong opinions on it. “Australians are naive,” she said. “Religion has been removed from their lives. Now the young people are moved by curiosity to investigate religion, and they are adopting some of the worst aspects of faith behavior. I am afraid they are going to repeat what I saw in my home country.” I hope not. But I see now that freedom and tolerance are just elements of what we must communicate. There must be knowledge: knowledge of history, knowledge of other religions themselves. And we must remove religion from the orbit of nationalism. As an alien exile, as a Christian, I know that while we must work to honor and support whatever society we find ourselves in, ultimately we serve the Lord of that “far country.”
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."