I will never forget riding on my fathers’ shoulders. The bullet that killed him passed through my leg before hitting him in the brachial plexus. He bled to death internally. The day I was shot, the day my father died there in the short grass, was the day my brother Peter stopped believing in God and my brother Michael started.
Isn’t it odd that we say we’ve come a long way when in fact many of us hardly move at all? We pass the years in a sort of mechanical blur, never really thinking about the day we’re experiencing and how it affects the totality of our existence. We look back at weeks that have flown and years that we recall in highlight rather than detail. Ask someone to tell you about their last twenty years and chances are they’ll tell you their most memorable highlights. The rest just becomes clutter stored away in the billions of cells in our brain.
Do you want to know why our father was shot? He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He and our mother were Jews with some odd belief that the Promised Land was somehow equivalent with the land of opportunity. Adults can be every bit as naïve as children; they just express it using more complex justifications. Well, we moved there, and as far as I have been able to tell our fortunes were no more assured there than they were where we came from. People take their personalities, drives, ambitions or lack of them with them wherever they go.
The Palestinians were not in the wrong place, if history can be believed, but they were in the wrong time. The land we lived on has been in dispute since the creation of Israel, and it’s one of the locations where you’ll find those whose personalities, ambitions and luck give them little choice but to be the fringe dwellers. That was us. My father was shot, on the face of it, because he was a fringe dweller, a Jew, and an historical intruder. I think he was shot because he was a dreamer, a schemer, naïve, and as all of us are, a person facing complex karma. That’s not very Jewish of me or even very Christian or Muslim, but it is what I have come to believe.
My mother tried to follow his dream of self-improvement via luck rather than effort. She became the girlfriend of a man who was known to be quite well off. He certainly didn’t get that way by sharing it, although she managed to poke along and gather a small houseful of tacky trinkets to keep her company. I still visited her occasionally, but my brothers have long since moved on from the region and, it seems, from her.
The sharing of bloodlines is a curious thing. It can create strong bonds or none at all save that the biology of those bloodlines spreads out. I think that pretty well sums up we three brothers. We shared a common biology.
Peter lost his antagonism towards God over the years and became an agnostic. I suspect that living in a Christian country made it sort of desirable for him to do so. After the old man died we three brothers went back to where we’d come from and lived with some of our relatives there, who had forsaken their Jewishness through intermarriage. They vaguely believed in God in the same way that people vaguely believe in molecules; they are comforted in the knowledge they’re present, but don’t really think about them.
Michael was angry. I think he was born that way, if stories about him are to be believed. He hid it well, most probably not even acknowledging it himself, but it was there, seething under his skin. He saw injustices everywhere and spent so much time lamenting them he had none left to actually do anything to abolish them. By the time he’d made his speeches to anyone who’d listen, and many who wouldn’t, it was time for bed. And that’s how we grew up; in a household of benign tolerance where, it should be said, even intolerance was tolerated.
I often wondered why things happen as they do. Are we really just random molecules that float together for a while or is there a higher order and purpose? I spent my early years as a daydreamer, a quiet one, slightly peculiar but harmless. No one called me contemplative, yet that is what I was.
Would the world really be a better place if there was only one religion? I somehow doubt it. I’ve often wondered what would happen if we were all just one homogenous race; same skin colour, same eye shape, same beliefs, and same language. Some say we’d be bland, but I think we’d still find enough differences to disagree over. We need differences otherwise we’d have no way to justify atrocity.
Peter finally found his true self and I have to say I liked most of it. After high school he fell in with a really good group of people who were Singaporean Muslims. He loved their food, their ease with each other, and the connective tissue of their religion. They were good for him and to him, and I was pleased to learn of his conversion to Islam. I believed then, and still do to this day, that the very regular saying of daily prayers or meditations is good for the soul and the body it inhabits. Music is made by the space between the notes. Without those spaces, all that exists is noise.
Our contact was sporadic over the next few years. He had gone on a holiday to Singapore and really connected with the place and its people. He found wonder and excitement there, and eventually also found a nice Muslim girl. She was Indonesian, and so it came as no surprise when a brief email informed me that he was going there to teach English and to be near her. I looked forward to his emails until one day they just stopped. At first I thought he might be travelling, and then I began to worry so I made some enquiries at the embassy. Everything seemed to be fine and, while a bit hurt, I put it down to him living his life and finding many new interests.
Michael found an outlet for his beliefs. He joined the military. I was glad about that because I often thought he needed form and structure, as well as a way to channel his energy. He seemed to have found his place and was genuinely happy that the army would be providing him with the opportunity to earn a university degree. His humour had always been a little cutting, so when he made some jibes at me over my beliefs and path I took it as a sign of normality. For myself, I had found comfort in Buddhism and my simple yet fulfilling life working for a reinsurance company. Both gave me a satisfied feeling that when things are at their worst, we are at our best, and when the chance arose to move into a position at the head office in Switzerland I took it.
How far we’d come, my brothers and I. From Jewish parents living on (historically) Palestinian land to branching out into Islam, Christianity and Buddhism, and living in far-flung corners of the world. Visiting mum was a bit depressing; she was the sort of person who stole sunshine from the day, but I thought it was important to keep contact with her so that we had at least some semblance of family.
Years don’t pass in a moment; that’s just how we remember them. I celebrated my twenty-first birthday by spending three days in a silent retreat. The discipline of non-harmful thought and action is the most rigorous of all, and while I have amassed plenty of knowledge of the Way I can’t brag that I have integrated much of it. I had hoped that my silent contemplation in a quietly supportive environment would lead me to at least some form of realisation, which it did. I realised that the Higher Power creates as many ways to find it as possible. We call some of those ways religion or spirituality or naturalism, but they are only names we subscribe to so that we can discuss them, and what is not them. I left there feeling a new connection to everyone and everything.
Peter was twenty-six and Michael twenty-three when the war began. Three planes crashing into buildings and one into the ground did not make a statement and it did not offer any more solution than the war that ensued. What both acts did was to offer an opportunity to express hatred and intolerance, first by the fanatics and then by anyone with a mean bone in their body.
Michael had been posted to East Timor, a sad country that had been an outpost of the Portuguese before falling to Indonesia and being freed with the help of Australia. When the Australian troops were pulled out too early civil war followed, fanned by Indonesian interference and further waged by Fretelin. The Dili Massacre was broadcast into lounge rooms across safe countries, but the response was slow. Now Australia was back; determined that the newest country in the world would be a safe one to live in. Michael swore to God that he would be part of the solution, but the army had other ideas and posted him to Iraq.
I received a very disturbing email from Peter. He had ‘put aside’ his girlfriend in the pursuit of Allah, he said. It was his veiled comments about his ‘fateful purpose’ that worried me. There was disjointedness to his comments, and it concerned me that he asked me to renounce my beliefs and embrace Islam so that I might find the truth and cease being an infidel. I must have read and reread that email a hundred times. It was instructive in that it helped me realise that there are as many gods as there are paths to God. It was the last time I heard from Peter.
After the death of Hussein and before the coalition ‘surge’ there was a strange hiatus in Iraq. The fight continued, but the first true steps in rebuilding were also taking place. In the hope of somehow meeting up with Michael while doing some good for the country, I followed up on the company circular that invited underwriters and assessors to fly to ‘secured’ parts of Iraq to evaluate insured buildings and infrastructure and assess the risks of insuring rebuilding efforts. There were few volunteers and so I was guaranteed a place simply because there was no competition.
I spent months in Iraq, head down for security reasons as well as because there was so much work to be done. In between times I tried to locate Michael, but the military hardly advertises the whereabouts of its soldiers. Then came a farcical meeting that had me alarmed; I was asked by men who were reluctant to say who they were if I knew of Peter’s movements. I felt that no matter what I said they wouldn’t believe me, and I’m certain I was followed and watched carefully from that day. In the event my time in Iraq was to be cut short. Unbeknownst to me Peter had joined an extremist faction that hid behind Allah but knew little of His message. I learned later that he had been involved in several small-scale terrorist activities before being slipped into Iraq across the Syrian border.
Michael had certainly found his calling. I learned that he had been ‘credited’ with calling in a military strike on a ‘suspected’ terrorist cell in Fallujah. I have only been able to patch together parts of the story from witnesses who were at best unreliable and at worst, deliberately mendacious. I was told that as the strike began people poured out of the building being assaulted. Some had weapons, others didn’t, but almost all went down in a relentless salvo that filled the air with smoke and noise and blood. Rocket-propelled grenades were launched from inside the crumbling building and the coalition forces present had their own casualties to deal with.
The western side of the building had some natural protection, as it opened out into a very narrow laneway that was enclosed by high walls on both sides. Michael was there, out of position, almost as if he knew it would be the place most enemy combatants would try to flee through. That brought him face to face with Peter, who, I’m told, had blood trickling from his ears, indicating that the shelling of the house had pierced his eardrums. At least, that’s one version of events, but it goes nowhere in explaining why when he was called upon to stop, he did.
From there it appears all reports come together. My brothers looked directly at each other, raised their weapons, and without a word being spoken simultaneously fired on and killed each other. In the aftermath there were some murmurs of ‘friendly fire’ when it was found out that Peter was not an Iraqi national or even Middle Eastern, but those reports soon turned to the sensational as details leaked out of my brothers killing each other. The military then closed ranks and lowered the veil of silence.
My mother learned of the incident over the phone, when the media called and asked her to comment. She stopped answering the phone after the fourth call, and it was several days before her body was discovered. She had overdosed, her boyfriend had stayed away because of the media presence outside her door, and everyone thought she was simply avoiding them. It was only the first stirrings of the stench of death that alerted the gawkers to what had gone on inside her home.
Jehovah, Allah, and Jesus Christ. I wonder which god was served by all of this.