This (taxi-driv­ing)

Life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Al­lan Fen­bury

THE racial or eth­nic ori­gin of taxi driv­ers in Perth of­ten tends to mir­ror re­cent ar­rivals. Many are African. Some are Mid­dle East­ern. A few years ago there were more Slavs. Per­haps taxi driv­ing is what in­tel­li­gent un­e­d­u­cated new ar­rivals tend to get into.

My Perth Air­port taxi driver was an African man, bush­fire black, in his mid to late 20s. Far from stum­bling in his English, he sounded very much like what he soon said he was: a one-eyed Dock­ers sup­porter. And he had an Aussie ac­cent, not ex­ag­ger­ated, laboured or feigned; more light and drawly. He had views on cur­rent af­fairs and pol­i­tics, Ju­lia and Tony, cli­mate change, drugs, vi­o­lence and pornog­ra­phy — as many sub­jects as cab and cus­tomer ever could cover in a 20-minute jour­ney. How’s this, I thought.

He was un­mar­ried, sav­ing his money, and seek­ing to im­prove his ed­u­ca­tion at TAFE as soon as pos­si­ble. In short, he was as full of Aussie bull­dust, bon­homie and op­ti­mism as any young bloke. He told me he was born in So­ma­lia in 1984 and was the el­dest of five chil­dren. He had come to Australia with his fam­ily, through the front door, in about 1995.

What his fa­ther had done blew me away. Ap­par­ently dad was an un­e­d­u­cated, ru­ral, agri­cul­tural worker with no English. How­ever, he had firm opin­ions about the busi­ness of shift­ing house, of up­heaval and re­lo­ca­tion, of em­i­gra­tion, of mak­ing it. Be­fore set­ting out on the jour­ney his fa­ther gath­ered the fam­ily to­gether and told them em­phat­i­cally, ‘‘We are go­ing to live in Fre­man­tle,’’ ges­tur­ing firmly with his in­dex fin­ger to­wards the ground.

Not Balga or Mirra­booka or Bal­la­jura where a lot of other So­ma­lis tend to set­tle? Ar­guably where the fam­ily would have wanted to go? No. They were to live in Fre­man­tle. What guts, fore­sight, wis­dom. Thus it was that this 11-year-old So­mali with very lit­tle English en­rolled at a Fre­man­tle school. The only African. Tough times. Tem­pered by that fire, and the fire that fol­lowed, came an Aus­tralian.

How many of us, I pon­dered, hav­ing to leave our coun­try for a very dif­fer­ent place (Bei­jing? Moscow?) would force their fam­ily into such a wild un­known for the long-term ben­e­fit? How many em­i­grat­ing fa­thers would even see it? What a piece of fa­ther­ing.

Perth is a small place in some ways. Sev­eral months later, wait­ing at the first set of lights ex­it­ing the air­port, my at­ten­tion was drawn to the rear pas­sen­ger in an ad­ja­cent taxi. He was a mate of mine, act­ing the goat. I re­sponded dig­i­tally, as one does, and then recog­nised his driver. He was my friend the So­mali Aus­tralian. In the min­utes avail­able I had much amuse­ment, and plea­sure, there, at the lights, shout­ing out my win­dow and re­gal­ing him with his fam­ily his­tory — he beam­ing his African smile, in­cred­u­lous, un­recog­nis­ing, all the while.

Eyes welled up. Then we got green.

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