Posted by: jkirkby8712 | August 10, 2011

Tuesday, 9th August 2011 – some notes about ‘The Fig Tree’

I’ve probably commented on ‘The Fig Tree’ previously, but tonight, in my third last ‘Showtime’ program,  I brought the music back to my listeners. As I commented to a friend, who sent me a text during the program, it is a CD of music that always leaves this presenter feeling quite emotional, as he listens to the music, and talks and reads about the book and Cd. Tonight was no different, and while nobody commented on the fact, there were a few moments there, when my voice was beginning to ‘crack up’ as they say, as the sadness of what I was reading, began to hit home, again.  In describing ‘The Fig Tree’, I won’t try and reinvent the wheel, but will include a combination of notes below, from various unnamed sources, about the story.

Arnold Zable is a dynamic and highly acclaimed storyteller. His books include the award winning Jewels and Ashes (1992), The Fig Tree (2002) and the novels Café Scheherazade (2001) and Scraps of Heaven (2004). He is president of the International PEN, Melbourne.   Zable was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1947, and grew up in the inner Melbourne suburb of Carlton. He attended Melbourne University and Columbia University. He has travelled and lived in the USA, India, Papua New Guinea, Europe, Southeast Asia and China. Zable speaks with passion about memory and history, displacement and community, the experience of the Jewish diaspora, aboriginal issues and indigenous education, and the multiplicity of cultures within Australia. He has run workshops for migrants and refugees, and has recently spent considerable time with refugees held in Australian detention centres. Arnold Zable lives in Melbourne with his wife and son.

The Fig Tree, released in May 2002,  is a book of true stories with an extraordinary scope. It is about family, about home, about the journeys that reveal to us who we are, and the ways in which contemporary tales reflect ancient myths. Arnold Zable begins with his own family, whose memories inspire him to travel to Ithaca, the land of Homers great voyager, Odysseus. He also weaves tales set in Athens, Thessaloniki, Poland and outback Australia. At the heart of this book is Zable’s understanding of our obligations to the wanderers among us, the dispossessed and the stateless.  One critic described the book as a ‘tender book of haunting true stories filled with memorable people, from families in both Australia and Europe. Zable tells of the lives of Jewish and Greek migrants to this country, about refugees and wanderers, about actors, singers and poets. These are stories about displaced people coming to a new home, and have a tremendous relevance to our current refugee situation. Zable’s tales of individual experience are universal stories about life and love, trust and doubt, and about the bonds within each family. The Fig Tree is a book about journeys to and from ‘home’, about belonging and feeling out of place. The Fig Tree began as a book. Inspired by the birth of his son, in it Zable retraces the steps of his wife’s family from Greece and migrants like them. At its launch, he asked some friends to perform their music. They included Melbourne’s singer song-writers Kavisha Mazella, Anthea Sidiropoulos and Costas Tsicaderis, plus Klezmer musicians Freydi Mrocki and David Krycer’.  This was the concert, I assume, which led to the creation of the Fig Tree  CD,  produced in 2003 as a companion to the book, won the 2004 National Folk Recording Award.

 As Arnold Zable himself says:   “We need to cross cultural boundaries,” he says. “We need to see that there is something that transcends. We constantly have to keep seeking our common humanity that goes beyond our cultural boundaries.”\  The result is an attempt to make the personal universal. Zable’s stories reflect experiences common to all: adventure, hope, nostalgia and pain.   “One of my favourite songs in the concert [and one of the songs from  the CD which this presenter played tonight] is Wedding Sheets,” says Zable. “To me, that song has a personal resonance, but also a universal resonance – it is one of the great songs about the migrant experience written in this country.” The song, by Mazella, tells the story of proxy brides – women who came to Australia to marry men they had never met.  “What an incredible undertaking it was. Can you imagine what it was like giving your body to a stranger? What it must have been like that first night.  “As a novelist, you want to delve into things like this, to try to imagine what that was all about.” In the song, the proxy bride is Italian. In Zable’s book she is his wife’s Greek grandmother, a migrant, who came to Australia to marry in the 1920s.  “I think it’s all too easy for subsequent generations to forget what the journey really entailed. The courage, the risks, the dangers. For some, the sense of adventure and for all too many the desperation,” he says. Zable was a political scientist before he became a writer and story-teller. His awareness of political context gives his work a conscience.  He dedicated The Fig Tree to a woman who gave birth on a sinking boat on route to Australia from Indonesia.  “Whilst, on the one hand, I tell stories of immigrants of an earlier generation who are connected to my family, this is a continuing story: what happened when that boat sank was a dramatic example of the dangers immigrants face, the courage they must face to make the journey,” he says. “It’s also to do with birth. The book is partly inspired by the birth of my son, Alexander. And here we have a woman who is about to start a new life and she never gets the chance.”  All so very relevant, still today, in the context of Australia’s refugee concerns.

One of the other singers on the CD is Maria Farantouri.  Maria Farantouri has been referred to as the “Joan Baez of the Mediterranean” by “Le Monde”. “Her singular voice is a gift of the Olympic Gods”, wrote “The Guardian”. And François Mitterrand enthused : “For me, Maria is Greece. This is how I imagine the goddess Hera : strong, pure and vigilant. I know of no other artist who has given so much meaning to the word sublime.”
  Maria Farantouri has had huge successes with her innumerable concerts all over the world and has left an indelible impression everywhere. She is considered the ideal performer of the songs and other works of the world-famous Greek composer, Mikis Theodorakis, and thus of the New Greek Song. Born in 1947, music and singing soon became a passion for Maria. After early performances with a choir, her unique contralto voice fast turned her into a celebrated soloist. She was only 16 years old when Mikis Theodorakis discovered her, announcing : “You will become my priestess.”  She sings the ‘Song of Songs’ [English sub title], and for myself, this is one of more emotional tracks on the CD –  singing of the concentration/refugee camp at Maulthausen, in Nazi Germany in World War II, and the ‘lost souls’ there. Some of the English lyrics, reads as follows, and as you listen to Maria’s ‘Greek’ singing of those words, it is difficult not to be moved to tears, the tradegy and emotion comes through her voice, and there is no need to be able to understand the actual words, the tone of Maria’s singing paints a complete picture.  Or as a more articulate critic wrote – ‘Even if you don’t understand the moving lyrics, just the music and Maria Farantouri’s voice are enough to convey a touching feeling. It is difficult to believe that a poet could be inspired to write about love in the horrible environment of a concentration camp of the WWII. It is a dream of love. The way  for a great soul to survive so much terror’.


‘Song of Songs’
by Maria Farantouri

[English lyrics]
How beautiful my love is
In her everyday dress
And a little comb in her hair
No-one knew how beautiful she is

Young girls of Auschwitz
Young girls of Dachau
Have you seen my love?
We saw her on a long journey
She no longer had her dress
Nor the little comb in her hair

How beautiful my love is
The caress of her mother
And the kisses of her brother
No-one knew how beautiful she is

Young girls of Mauthausen
Young girls of Belsen
Have you seen my love?
We saw her in the frozen square
With a number on her white arm
With a yellow star on her heart

How beautiful my love is
The caress of her mother
And the kisses of her brother
No-one knew how beautiful she is.


Maria Farantouri

Another highly significant song from the CD is titled ‘Anytime the wind can change’ and tells the story of the rescue of 700 refugees from their sinking ship by the coast guard, and their warm and joyous welcome by the residents of a small town  where there were 700 bread rolls baked for the survivors. Another emotional rendering, particularly when one thinks of the manner in which Australia is currently welcoming it’s boat people – by sending them away!!!  In general, I must agree with the words of an American critic who wrote of the CD, that ‘This is a heartbreakingly beautiful CD. It is also a wonderful affirmation of life and the human spirit, and, of course, the travails of our travels, and the joy of being welcomed in a new land’.  I was glad  to have the opportunity, through my radio station, to share that message with my listeners, described by one of them last night as ‘fantastic music’!!

After all that, I did remember to complete my Census Form tonight, probably won’t be picked up for a few days, but wanted to ensure it was ready and available. Some brief assistance from daughter, Susan, on a couple of questions concerning her – at least, we were both here tonight!!



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