This Is Not Who We Are

I doubt there is a New Zealander anywhere, of any political persuasion, who would argue with the words from New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – “this is not who we are”.  New Zealand was chosen by a madman because, by killing here, he could make the point that nowhere was safe. Our goodness was our vulnerability. Our goodness is the reason for our hurt. But I reject the idea we should retreat into darkness. I see no reason for New Zealand to become less welcoming to refugees. I do not believe we should arm the police or change our open, generous society because one lunatic took advantage of our compassion.

I guess I feel particularly hurt today because I have a couple of mates who are Muslims. Eyad came to live in New Zealand as a refugee from Syria. I met him when I was coaching in Saudi Arabia. I managed to get him special permission to train with me. Until then he had been denied access to my public Saudi swimming pool because of his Syrian nationality. I convinced him that he would never face that injustice in New Zealand. After yesterday I know I lied. Now he cannot pray without wondering whether he will leave the mosque alive. I am so sorry Eyad. All I can ask is that we agree with the Prime Minister, “this is not who we are.” Our life must not change. You must swim as you always have. You must study engineering as you do. You must pray as you always have. One madman must not change the goodness we enjoy.

Another Muslim mate is Eyad’s older brother Yamen. He also trained with me in Saudi Arabia. He is a dentist and still lives in Jeddah. This morning I had a WhatsApp message from Yamen. It said simply “We stand with New Zealand”. Makes you think doesn’t it? New Zealand had just been the scene where 49 Muslims had been murdered for being Muslim and he still stood by us. I know he will be concerned about his little brother in New Zealand. I imagine his emotions will have changed from admiration for the opportunities available to Eyad to deep concern. But still he found room to feel for our country. Thank you Yamen. Rest easy. Your brother is safe. This is not who we are.

And to Eyad and Yamen’s mother and father I apologize for the concern you must have for the safety of your son. I must tell you about Yamen and Eyad’s mother and father. They escaped from Syria because of the war. Their father got a job as a doctor in a local Jeddah hospital. When I was in Jeddah I trod on a nail walking to the pool. My foot became infected and the concern and attention given to me by Dr Masoud probably saved my foot. But his concern did not stop there. He instructed his sons that I was not to be allowed to walk to the pool ever again. I asked him why. The walk was good for me.

“David,” he said, look at yourself in the mirror. Have you seen your white Scottish complexion? We have lived in the desert sun all our lives and no sane Arab walks for an hour in the midday sun in Jeddah”.

He was right and was probably the reason I survived so comfortably through a year in the oppressive heat of Jeddah. His wife and Yamen and Eyad’s mother is a genuine, sincere and gentle women. I have often joked and asked the two boys how such a lovely mother could end up with two sons like hers.

But in addition to the Masoud family there was Loai, Mohamad, Talal, Dena and a dozen others I count as friends. In fact Talal was one of the world’s best pool managers. When I was due to arrive in Jeddah he was convinced my name, David, meant I was certain to be Jewish. One look at me when I walked into his office corrected that impression. He laughingly told me about his forecast and for the next year insisted on introducing me as the Biblical King David.

Loai was a good swimmer – probably the best Saudi Arabia has had. Before being coached by me he lived in the United States and had trained with Dara Torres coach Dennis Lober in Florida and Mark Schubert in California.

Dena is Saudi aristocracy. Her husband is the son of the man who nationalised Saudi oil and formed the huge oil company, Aramco. Dena is a dentist and a competent triathlete. I got to know her as a result of helping her with her swimming training. Her hospitality toward me was welcoming and sincere. I had dinner at their home on a couple of occasions. It was a fascinating look inside the life of the very, very rich in Saudi Arabia.

The point I am trying to make is that in my experience Muslims do not deserve the pariah label handed out by Trump. They are mates of mine, good and honest people. Jacinda Ardern is right – they are us.

Of course there are many things about Saudi Arabia I do not like. Their human rights record is a disgrace. However my sense of national superiority took a huge blow yesterday. Unbowed but humble we need to accept that our country has been the scene of hurt for many delightful and very blameless Muslims. For that I am genuinely sorry. This is not who we are.

0 responses. Leave a Reply

  1. Swimwatch


    Be the first to leave a comment!

Comments are closed.