Noah’s Ark – retold for realism #noah

You may have heard that Rusty Crowe is starring in a new film about Noah’s Ark – you may also have heard that some Christians have a problem with its historical accuracy and have forced it to be edited.

Yes, really.

I won’t spend any time discussing the sheer hilarity of the idea that an obvious and clear myth – which is itself an obvious and clear reboot of at least one prior Babylonian flood story – could be at all “accurate” in any meaningful sense of the word.

However, I do believe a Noah film could be shot realistically. Make it from the point of view of one of Noah’s neighbours. It’d start off with Noah being a normal, decent chap but a little quiet. After a little while, he starts being a bit withdrawn, even reclusive; you don’t see his family much any more either. When you do see him he’s furtive and glances at you sideways; he’s always hurrying somewhere, always ushering his wife or family members back inside. People start talking – is he drinking? Does he hit his wife? Then the noises start. Sawing. Nailing. Is it a house extension? Eventually something takes shape. It’s big. A barn? You go over to ask Noah what he’s doing. He’s up a ladder and shouts something unintelligible; he seems angry. You leave it for the moment.

Months later, Noah’s construction is still growing – but it’s still just framework. Noone knows what it is but noone bothers to ask anymore. It appears he’s spending all his time and money on building whatever it is. It’s too big for a barn. A marketplace? A new temple? Maybe, but of wood? Surely stone or even mud bricks would be more appropriate. You ask the local elders and merchants and priests but none have any idea what’s going on. The whole family seem to be involved now; always up ladders, fetching tools, timber, following instructions barked by an increasingly preoccupied (and dishevelled) Noah.

The thing – now called “Noah’s Folly” by the people in town – is taking shape and there’s cladding on it now. It’s shaped like a boat but there’s no rudder, no masts, no oarlocks, barely even a porthole. It’s also far too big to be practical as a river boat – you’re not even convinced it’ll float, let alone be able to manouevre downstream where it becomes shallow. The smell of pitch now fills the air; Noah’s sealing it against the water. It’s a boat after all.

Eventually curiosity, and hatred of the smell of pitch, gets the better of you. Over you go to ask what Noah’s up to; this time you’ll not leave without an answer. Noah arcs up, enraged and perhaps a little terrified. He rages on and on about how all are doomed, including you; only Noah and his family are righteous and deserving; all will be judged by God and washed from the Earth. You glance at his wife; she just looks haunted and avoids your gaze. Noah’s children don’t even look up from their tasks. Something very curious – very wrong – is happening at Noah’s house.

After a while, things go quiet. Construction appears to have stopped. No more hammering, no more smell of pitch. You think maybe it’s over and Noah’s giant boat – which must surely bankrupt him if it hasn’t already – will sit there as testament to what you now assume is his madness (or perhaps his well-known love of wine) until it rots.

But then the noise starts again – it’s different this time. Livestock. Goats, geese, camels, sheep. Maybe this boat is a barn after all! It will be the rainy season soon – maybe he’s starting a new career as a breeder and wants to protect his investments. But it doesn’t end with livestock. Noah’s even bringing creatures in from the wilderness: wolves, ostriches, even a pair of lions. All restrained (barely) with ropes. Maybe it’s a menagerie like the ones you’ve heard princes and kings keep! They keep coming, brought in by his family. You marvel at how eight people could do all this; you notice how tired, hungry and defeated they all look – all except Noah, who seems consumed, obsessed – perhaps possessed. Noah ushers or just drags all the creatures into the boat. At night you can hear them complain – has he any water or food for them? You hope the ropes on the lions are strong, lest they roam the decks in search of prey. How do they even breathe with just a single window in the top cabin? How can they not suffocate on the stench of their own waste? This isn’t constructed like any barn or boat you’ve ever seen – even in this winter weather, it must be like an oven during the day and a dank, stinking cave by night.

Noah stops bringing the animals after a while. Then all he does is stand atop his boat and watch the sky all day, as if waiting for something. He becomes increasingly agitated. After a week, the rains come – just like they always do. The river floods, just like it always does. It’s a little bigger than last year (though smaller than some you can remember from your youth) and you thank God you built your house halfway up the hillside instead of moving further down on the valley floor, like Noah (you recall asking him why during the last planting season; he just smiled and continued pushing his barrow).

The river widens and deepens as the rains continue. Eventually the water laps at the sides of Noah’s boat. He hurries his family on board, carrying what seems to be a bare minimum of supplies. The water keeps coming (it’s definitely a big one this year!) and consumes Noah’s yards, enters his house. He seems unconcerned, just watching the sky. Some of his other neighbours wade through his submerged yard to confront him; they plead with him to get to higher ground. They’re very concerned about the safety of this boat or floating barn or whatever it is. Noah curses them and spits at them. They retreat back up the hill and watch the water rise.

Two days later; nobody’s seen anybody on the top deck but Noah and the water’s a few feet up the side of Noah’s boat; you’re wondering if the pitch will keep such a large thing watertight, let alone whether it’ll float. You’re not the only one; the hillsides are packed with people curious (perhaps morbidly so) about the fate of Noah’s boat. After a few more hours of steady rain, the boat shifts a little. You hear a gasp from the assembled spectators. More rain. More water. Just before dusk, the giant craft creaks, groans, protests and is finally shifted from its cradle of gopher logs. No sound from the crowd – everyone’s just staring, breaths held. Noah’s boat is now floating. Maybe it’s seaworthy after all! Maybe Noah’s some kind of strange, misunderstood genius (though that still wouldn’t explain the animals).

As the boat is taken downstream, you hear Noah bellowing something over the sound of the rushing water and falling rain – you can’t make it out but it sounds triumphant. Then you hear a sound that chills you to the bone. A creaking, groaning sound. It graduates to a cracking, splintering sound. The vessel is visibly twisting as it’s turned by the current – as if some unseen giant is wringing it out like a large wet cloth. Cladding bursts free from the side of the vessel. Water rushes in, animals fall out. You see a lion, an ostrich, a goat, all fall in to the river. Then a man – one of Noah’s sons? Frantically they paddle and kick but more cladding and beams fall on top of them. You and the crowd are now running down the hill to the riverbank. Perhaps you’ll be able to help save one of the crew. The stricken craft, now waterlogged, runs aground on a sandbar downstream, but it doesn’t stop dead. It starts to tip over, one side dug into the sand. The weight of its own timbers and waterlogged lower decks makes it collapse in on itself. Above the roar of snapping timbers you can hear the desperate screams of animals and people alike.

When you draw level with the sandbar you see among the cracked, twisted ribs of the boat some of the dead: sheep, an ox, some people floating face down. From your vantage point on the riverbank you see Noah on a small patch of sand. As he was on the top deck he was thrown clear by the impact. He’s on his side, still moving. The wreck of the boat is forming a dam, diverting the still-rising water around him. You and some neighbours start talking about a rescue plan – how can we get across the river to the sandbar? Will the wreck hold long enough for us to bring him back? Another grisly cracking sound answers your question as the rest of the hull begins to give way. You and your neighbours rush back up the hillside and turn just in time to see the hapless Noah engulfed by the merciless grey river and the shattered remnants of his creation. You and the other villagers sit in silence as the wreckage flows beyond the sandbar and out of sight down the river. Some of it remains where it fell, stuck in the sand or snagged on the riverbank. As the rain eases and the river subsides, the full extent of the carnage is revealed. Gopherwood beams, planks and logs and the carcasses of animals and people litter the riverbank from the sandbar onward. Noah’s body is never found.

After the funerals are held for Noah’s family, the dead animals disposed of and the remnants of Noah’s vessel cleared away (and reused – it was good timber!), people start retelling the tale of Noah and his “ark”, as people are now calling it. Each time you hear the story, whether in the marketplace, the tavern or via some passing travellers, it appears to grow in magnitude. Some giraffes here, two hippopotami there. By the time you hear a version where Noah’s floating menagerie is an astonishing three hundred cubits (!) long, contains a breeding pair of every animal on the Earth, endures forty whole days of rain and spends a year afloat without any creatures starving to death, you give up trying to correct people. Yes, you were actually there, knew Noah personally and saw the whole thing unfold, but noone wants to hear that. Nobody wants to hear the truth when it’s so much more fun to tell a good story. Next thing you know people will be saying he was called on by God!

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Update 16 March 2014: Yo, Aronofsky – this is the film you should have made, brah! 😀

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A nation of reffos, desperados, scruffs & boat people – and don’t you forget it #asylumseekers

In response to this picture of a former refugee now donating his time and effort to assist the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, I posted the following comment on FB:

Part of my mob came here to South Australia on boats in 1838 (German Protestants used to get a hard time from their Catholic neighbours, unfortunately). Thinking about that while on the banks of the Torrens the other night, watching the opening gigs of the Festival, made me realise that you probably couldn’t throw a rock into a crowd of non-indigenous Australians without hitting someone with a refugee or a desperate penniless migrant somewhere in their ancestry.

Also, let’s not forget the convicts that were sent to Australia (well, not to SA) in their thousands – many of whom were imprisoned for petty crimes, sentenced out of all proportion to their offences and were then used as slave labourers, building the new colonies for the Empire under frequently brutal, inhumane conditions.

A lot of Australians seem to find it very easy to forget that the early history of their own nation was built in large part by poor bastards on boats who didn’t have a choice but to escape their homeland, or who literally came here in chains. Once that history is forgotten, it appears it’s very easy to start locking people up in inhumane camps – not even for petty crimes, but without charge, trial or conviction – all over again.

People were supportive of (they “Liked”) this point of view, so I followed it up:

It just mystifies me that people so readily forget that we were ourselves largely founded and settled by people who were escaping persecution or repression (essentially asylum seekers – many of whom had no papers and joined no queues), seeking opportunity (“economic migrants”) or were unfairly convicted, disproportionately sentenced and brought here to build a colony (essentially political prisoners – not all convict labourers were simple, starving bread-thieves of course, but to give them the same sentences as murderers and rapists speaks of a deeply warped and callous system of justice).

It wasn’t just centuries ago that this occurred either: during the Cold War we were more than happy to accept defectors from Soviet & Communist nations (no “queues” there), prior to that we accepted refugees from nations torn to pieces by WWII, after that came the first “boat people” fleeing death & ruin in SE Asia, with many Australians even adopting babies left orphaned by the tragedies of Viet Nam, Cambodia etc (including two of my primary school friends in the 80s).

John Howard/Peter Reith’s decision to demonise asylum seekers in 2001 and the Rudd/Gillard plan to offshore their summary, arbitrary and indefinite detention, now turned into an ugly, tragic farce by Abbott & Morrison, has left a stain on the nation which may take many years to fully cleanse. Even if Abbott and his vandals were thrown out tomorrow, Labor, being the architects of this secretive, incompetently-administered nightmare, could not be trusted to return to a fair system of promptly processing and humanely housing asylum seekers.

Dear World: we’re not all racist bastards #asylumseekers

The following is an edited version of my FB comment on this Grauniad story which featured video of the aftermath of recent violence on Manus Island, an Australian offshore detention centre for asylum seekers. The violence, in which one Syrian asylum seeker was killed and dozens of others wounded (one via gunshot), seems to have been instigated by PNG locals and complicit police/guards who allowed some locals who were armed into the detention centre. There are reports of rioting and protesting within the detention centre prior to the mob violence, however a full investigation has not been carried out and culpability has not been assigned. This hasn’t stopped all & sundry from the usual corners (including the Immigration Minister Scott Morrison) blaming the asylum seekers for their own injuries – though it seems worth mentioning that the only casualties of this mob violence appear to be asylum seekers themselves. Clearly our own administration isn’t above victim-blaming.

Anyone outside Australia might want to research the words “Tampa” and “children overboard” with regard to asylum-seekers. The current conservative government are just continuing the demonisation of desperate people instigated by conservative PM Howard in 2001 and eagerly taken up by the two subsequent Labor PMs (Rudd/Julia Gillard), who then built upon it to include summary indefinite offshore imprisonment.

We’re hearing language like “economic migrant” and “country shopper” and “queue jumper” bandied about openly by pollies and comment-trolls alike; the discourse has shifted far to the right with racist dog-whistles being blown in the usual mainstream rags and on the talking-heads shows every day. Anyone advocating for fair treatment of asylum seekers under the UN agreements Australia is a signatory to (and under Australian law) gets the usual “bleeding heart lefty” epithets hurled at them. Apparently asylum seekers are now a problem that we need to get “tough” on in the name of national security (“Operation Sovereign Borders”), not a humanitarian obligation that we as a country willingly entered into as part of an international community of well-resourced nations who understand the realities of oppression & war.

The issue of asylum-seekers was a political football at the last two elections, with both sides pledging to be meaner bastards than their opponents in an effort to get the votes – sorry, “stop the boats”. While the Labor scheme of summary indefinite offshore detention (in some cases for years) in barely-functional third-world conditions was a reprehensible crime against human rights (and led to numerous hunger strikes/self-harm/suicide attempts), the Abbott government’s perpetuation of it, and the endless bungling it’s perpetrated in only six months in office, have turned it into a tragic farce.

The initial protest & subsequent the violence that occurred inside the detention camp (instigated, it would appear, by PNG locals and complicit police/guards) is the end result of the deliberate campaign to make Australia the least attractive destination for desperate people, essentially saying to the world: “Do not come here. You will not be welcomed, you will be deprived, you will be humiliated, you will not be settled in Australia (or even see it), your claim may never even be processed as you languish in a tent for years, for we are choosing not to honour our agreements with the UN or our local laws.” It almost makes me glad there’s no iconic statue anywhere in Australia’s harbours promising to take care of other countries’ “poor, tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Abbott’s team now have a choice (following an immediate and thorough investigation of the murder of a man in their care – or whatever passes for same in the Abbott government): accept that a radical shift in policy is required and begin working on it immediately or double down on their incompetence, defensiveness and deflections of culpability.

There are many Australians like me who see this not as a black/white partisan issue where only the left/right have the proper solution, but as a humanitarian issue that requires a humanitarian solution – and yes, noone (in government, at least) appears to be listening to anyone but the loudest demagogues. For them, this is a game to be played for votes with the legitimate and immediate concerns of desperate people very low on the priority list (usually below “damage control” – which should almost be a ministerial portfolio in this government).

Both sides of politics in this country have failed in their humanitarian obligations. People will seek asylum here regardless of who’s in power; it’s incumbent upon whatever government we have to honour international agreements freely entered into and to honour our own laws. We’ve always been a country of both immigrants and refugees (my own German Protestant ancestry included); this about-face on aiding the oppressed (and the attendant use of them as vote-fertiliser) is unprecedented and unforgivable.