The seventy-first, seventy-second, seventy-third, seventy-fourth, seventy-fifth, seventy-sixth and seventy-seventh cups of nun chai

30.03.12

In the remote north-west of Australia it is not every day that someone arrives with a pot of hot salty tea and invites you to share it over a conversation in memory of 118 people who died in Kashmir in 2010. Chris looked down at the pot of simmering pinkness and hesitated, “I’m only used to drinking one kind of tea.”

“It’s not going to harm you.” I smiled, “Trust me,” but I was also very nervous.

For the past year I have been living 200km away in Gija country, but this was Miriwoong country. I knew these people, though not so well. I felt unsure and wondered who would be interested in sharing these cups of nun chai. But when I came out of the kitchen, there were seven women waiting at the table with their cups in hand; Frances, Angelina, Philomina, Kitten, Agnes, Louise, and Peggy. I poured the nun chai, and things began reasonably well.

I spoke carefully about Kashmir’s story. I spoke about my friends. I spoke about the place. I spoke about the political history, the conflict over land, and the idea of freedom. I spoke about the tear gas canister that killed Tufail Ahmed Matoo on the 11th of June in 2010. I spoke about the protests that followed. I spoke about the 118 people who lost their lives that summer. I spoke about the international media’s indifference. I spoke about Cups of nun chai as a refusal to let that loss of life pass by as part of the normality of occupation.

Chris’ mother Peggy sat closest to me. Her gentle eyes listened deeply to what I said. The tea cooled a little and Frances said, “It’s time to think about this loss of life. Let’s drink.” Seven women tasted salty tea from Kashmir, it swirled in seven mouths and fell, with a story, into seven stomachs.

Chris drank his like it was medicine—with a forceful commitment to finish the cup despite the fact he didn’t like it. Angelina took his cup, filled it and began to drink her own. The ladies all agreed that the nun chai looked a little like a cup of chocolate milk. When Peggy heard of the medicinal benefits it offered a sore throat she drank more. I told everyone about the different breads that normally accompany nun chai. “I know how to make good home-bread,” added Agnes.

In this part of Australia, three phases of colonisation are known locally as the ‘killing times’, the ‘station times’, and the ‘alcohol times’. The violence of the ‘killing times’ forced most of the Aboriginal population to leave their countries in order to take up work on the cattle stations that were owned by the white settlers. Hence the ‘killing times’ brought about the ‘station times’. During this period many of the older women, like Peggy, Agnes and Kitten, grew up under conditions akin to indentured labour, doing domestic work on these stations. It was here, each day, that these women made ‘home-bread’. Different to damper, which is made with bi-carb soda, home-bread is made with yeast.

In the late 1960s, the Australian government passed legislation that demanded Aboriginal station workers be paid equally to that of their white counterparts. While this was done with the intention to improve the lives of Aboriginal people, it actually brought about the second-displacement of Aboriginal people from their country. Pastoralists forced their Aboriginal workers to leave the stations as they could no longer ‘afford’ their wages. At this confusing moment of mass displacement and citizenship the ‘alcohol times’ began, and still continue today, tearing apart the social fabric of this place.

“Did you have nun chai with the Gija mob?” asked Frances. I began to speak of the similarities between the East Kimberley, or for that matter all of Australia, and Kashmir. These were landscapes beset with sites of massacre and horrific histories of occupation that continue to shape the present, albeit in varying ways. Though vastly different both these places are embedded with experiences of war and trauma that remain largely unrecognised. Despite this, life persists in its own quietly defiant and beautiful way.

Agnes suddenly spoke up, “These people in Kashmir are like Aboriginal people.” Agnes’ words resonated with the politicised phrase We are all Palestinian. Frances later pointed out that last century we should have been saying We are all Jewish. There is an intuitive sense of solidarity that comes about through collective suffering and struggle; Agnes spoke with the brave amity that emerges in the face of injustice.

 

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