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Published: March 31st 2019
The women painting the hoarding were wearing headscarves. Practical, maybe, keeping off the sun. But so too were the volunteers working in the Transitional “cardboard” Cathedral. And women in business suits out for their morning coffee. And women pushing prams and out with their friends. Scarves that would usually simply ‘accessorise’ an outfit were now draped over heads, regardless of the wearers’ ethnicity. One week on from a mass shooting that horrified the world, Christchurch was coming together again, as it had done in the aftermath of the seemingly never-ending spate of earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, the prime minister’s words, “We are one. They are us,” very much alive.
This wasn’t some kind of ghoulish rubber-necking on my part, though I was painfully conscious of the potential accusation. Since planning my visa-driven long weekend away from Australia staying with a friend living in nearby Lyttleton, I’d always intended to spend that day in Christchurch, a city I hadn’t visited since 1993. Hearing the developing news throughout the afternoon and evening the previous Friday, I was shocked, in common with so many people around the world. “But it’s New Zealand! What have they ever done to anyone?” This felt closer
to home than any attack since London Bridge in June 2017 (though even that had had a tired old sameness to it – yet another atrocity in my poor old home town).
This isn’t the place to go into the whys and wherefores, nor even the horrors of the day itself, all of which have been well documented in more appropriate forums. For me, there was no question of changing my plans, and, hearing of the commemorative lunchtime prayer gathering in Hagley Park, I felt grateful, privileged to have the chance to go and show my own support for the dead, the injured, and those trying to piece their lives back together.
It was an extraordinarily dignified event. In the furthest corner of South Hagley Park, an area had been set aside for Muslim men and women to pray as they would have done in a mosque, nearby Masjid Al Noor, the scene of the beginning of the shooting spree and the majority of fatalities, still being closed for forensic examination. Further back, non-Muslims were invited to be seated and share in the prayers, an honour in itself. Joining a sombre line of people walking through
icons of Christchurch past and present
the Cathedral and a tram; scaffolding, ruins and traffic cones
the Botanical Gardens and across Riccarton Avenue to the Park, I watched people amassing from all directions, quietly drawn to this show of strength and support for their townsfolk.
The muezzin shyly sang the haunting call to prayer into a microphone at the front of the gathering. An impeccably-kept two-minute silence was brought to an end by the voice of Jacinda Ardern. Shunning either of the podia, clearly conscious that this was not a day for her to take the limelight, and wearing a headscarf, she recited an Islamic proverb and spoke briefly from amongst the gathered Muslim women. Prayers then resumed. Imam Gamal Fouda, who only a week earlier had stared the terrorist in the face himself, looked out over the 20,000 or so gathered before him, and, bravely conquering his own emotions, spoke for all: “…we have shown that New Zealand is unbreakable. And that the world can see in us an example of love and unity. We are broken-hearted but we are not broken”. Tentative applause rippled out at “unbreakable” and “not broken”; we weren’t sure if this was the right thing to do, but knew no other way to show our support. When the Imam
explained, “We are taught by our prophet, Mohamed, that you can never truly show gratitude to the almighty God without thanking your fellow man”, the applause grew and grew, peaking in response to his praise of the police force and front-line services – “You put our lives before your own every day”. The service ended with simple words of love in the Maori language, and we slowly got to our feet to disperse in the same sombre manner with which we had gathered.
At lunchtime on the Monday, I stopped at the now-reopened mosque. The floral tributes outside the Botanical Gardens had been stunning, messages from around the world, from a wide range of communities and peoples. At the Masjid Al Noor, the tributes were fewer in number but even more poignant, with photographs and messages to particular loved ones – brothers, sisters, uncles, parents, friends, team-mates, teachers – pinned up on the railings and scattered through the flowers and candles. Men and women passed me on the way into the mosque, heads high and faces passive. Such poise and strength was humbling.
Christchurch has been here before, its ravaged suffering beamed around the world, but, in 2010
the gaping hole
and 2011, it was the forces of nature that had held the city in their grasp and treated its people, buildings and surroundings with almighty disdain. A miraculous escape in terms of the human cost in September 2010 – the 7.1 ’quake struck at 4.35 am – was horrifyingly reversed by the 6.2 ’quake that hit the city one Tuesday lunchtime the following February. Phenomenally candid and at times brutal documentaries have emerged, thanks to those who realised, in the middle of the dust and chaos, that here was something that had to be captured for posterity. “When A City Falls
” tracks each of the major earthquakes of the 2010-11 period (something like five in number, though interspersed with countless other tremors), and some of the rebuilding efforts. “The Day That Changed My Life
” focuses simply on the horrors of 22 February 2011 when, amongst the many other tragedies, the Canterbury Television building collapsed, killing over a hundred people, including foreign students and staff at the English language school that occupied one of the floors. One young journalist, still dusty from crawling out of the rubble herself, and a cameraman took to the streets to document events as they happened.
the "Basilica" (the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament)
Add to this the superbly compiled exhibition at Quake City, near the still evidently hard-hit centre of town, and you might get a smidgeon of an inkling of what the city and its inhabitants have gone through. Out in one of the “red” zones – areas deemed too unsafe for rebuilding thanks to liquefaction, that ghastly purée-ing of soil and sand – and the feeling is eerie. A few people hold out, like the family resisting an airport expansion in the wonderful Australian movie “The Castle”, their houses surrounded by acres of otherwise cleared land. Lanes wind randomly through grassland and wetlands, a park – signposted and marked out by its trees and hedges – looks incongruous, and electrical boxes punctuate the pavements. Elsewhere in the city, rebuilding is underway with a vengeance. Some wonderful architecture is taking shape, and, in between, people make do and make do creatively thanks to the amazing work of the Gap Filler enterprise, creating, in their words, “installations, events and processes to make places more memorable, fun, participatory, surprising, equitable and sociable”.
This is a city that should feel like a ghost-town. It should feel sorry for itself, violated by the forces
of nature and evil. It should feel like one of the world’s helpless charity cases. But it doesn’t. Despite the events of ten days’ earlier, I left for the airport feeling oddly buoyed by the resilience of a people pulling together. Of course it’s not perfect – despite some New Zealanders’ head-in-the-sand beliefs to the contrary, Islamophobia is not a purely foreign phenomenon – but, in the words of Imam Gamal Fouda, “Our assembly here, with all the shades of our diversity, is a testament of our joint humanity”. Christchurch has lessons for us all.
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