Comparative Monument (Ma’man Allah)—Tom Nicholson
I’ve been reading Comparative Monument (Ma’man Allah), a book written by the Melbourne-based artist Tom Nicholson. Via spare prose, research and archival photographs, it details a journey the author took to Jerusalem in 2012.
But this trip was not a holiday. Nicholson traced and researched the Ma’man Allah cemetery, an important and sacred site in both ancient and recent history. One notable feature of the graveyard that catches Nicholson’s eye is the flora: 69 Eucalyptus Camaldulensi, or River Red Gums.
It’s hard to imagine any Australian travelling there and not being taken aback by so many Eucalypts. Nicholson ran with this as a concept for creating something that transcends what many of us would reach for when we think artwork. He collected seeds from the Eucalypts dotted around the cemetery to fulfill the creation of an exact double back into the Australian landscape:
‘a comparative monument, part exile, part home-coming, a map of the cemetery grown into a forest of Eucalypts … one forest cleaving another’.
But why did I pick up this book? I have a penchant for art books like this, and I was attracted to its physical properties and the obscure way the information is presented.
It is not like the mass-produced paperbacks you would find in most bookshops or airport lounges. It’s a small hardback and has no cover illustrations or text. It is plain red, and it feels lovely.
Even more uniquely, the title of the book is printed on the spine in English and Arabic. And this curious doubling is repeated inside the book. One end moves from left to right in English, the other right to left in Arabic. The two mirror each other perfectly and meet in the middle. Flicking through and taking it in, I (rather hubristically) felt I saw myself in the book.
That may seem strange. Nicholson recalls his own memories of Barmah, back in Australia. It’s the largest River Red forest in the world, and I’ve never been there. He evokes nearby Cummeragunja, the site of the first recorded mass strike by Aboriginal workers. He details the suffering of the Palestinian and Israeli people. Vandalism; killing; ignorance; bigotry.
These stories are not my story. I am still making sense of my story. I am trying to find parallels and guidance, meaning and essence. I sensed a parallel story in the presentation of this book, and I found another within.
My mother’s family is from the western districts of Victoria, to the south of Barmah. My father’s family is from Alexandria in Egypt, to the west of Jerusalem and the Ma’man Allah cemetery itself. It is as if this book is a strange physical manifestation of me: half-Anglo-Irish, half-Arabic.
But in saying this, I don’t feel completely connected to either of these lineages. I’ve tried, and I’m not the only one who struggles with the notion of being a passably white Australian. Like many others, what I am most acutely aware of is that whatever composite parts and ratios I am, I am not of this land.
But of course, I don’t weigh this all up with great dexterity when initially flicking through Nicholson’s book. It just sits there, ambiently. It is not a noble demarcation that sets me apart from other people whatsoever. When I move through the world, my otherness is hidden. I’m unmistakably white. Whiteness gives you a certain kind of latent power that lubricates everything. And so, like most, I tune out.
This is a problem, because there is something fundamentally wrong with the way people who resemble me engage with this land, with its traditional owners and custodians. Or perhaps more accurately, we don’t engage.
Every now and again, something happens. Someone speaks out, or someone pushes back against the way things are done, and there is an engagement. Usually, the response is revealing of shameful truths about whiteness in this country. I t is an inescapable force, and it is naïve to think that the dominant sentiment of white Australia is considerate and sympathetic towards First Nation peoples, with an eye for a better future for everyone.
It is a young country, and it’s true; progress has been made on many fronts. But the foundation of this country and the majority of its short history has been violent and brutal. Nicholson alludes to this very subtly in Comparative Monument, but in a way where you can’t get away from it; clues and details are placed carefully. As one reads the book, from left to right or right to left, one can’t help but reflect on Australia when there are Eucalypts in Palestine, too. It may not be for everyone, but I suppose that is the advantage of smaller-scale art publications like these. In whatever way they do, those who come into contact with this book may be ready to find something.
I finished reading Nicholson’s book on the train into the city. Looking out the window, I saw gumtrees by the train line. At first, they were just like millions I had passed without a second thought. But Nicholson’s impressions spurred me to hone in on one lone Eucalypt.
The sight of it in the late afternoon sun just hit me. It was as if I had never seen one before. It emanated a kind of soft magical power that I hadn’t ever considered. Nicholson’s words—’one forest cleaving another’—stung me. The other trees by the train line became a blur of gold, white, green and brown. I sat possessed by a racing feeling of smallness and peace.
I got off the train at Flinders St, and made my way out to the busiest intersection in the middle of Melbourne. I walked all the way home for an hour and a half, through a slow, shuffling sea of pedestrians. I was forced to look around and ponder, first the people, and then above the buildings and trees. For the first time, I really saw those trees that I walk past everyday. They’re outside my university classrooms, on the street outside my workplace. I can see one from my bedroom window: otherworldly grey-green trees scarred with red, brown and black.
Except they’re not otherworldly—they make so much sense in this landscape. It’s me that doesn’t quite fit; I’m a superimposed normal on this land. There are things that prohibit me from feeling truly at home in this land, and maybe that is a good thing. Perhaps, the more that we feel a sense of dislocation, the more we will feel an urge to engage.
I often wonder about people who have a clear, powerful connection to the land they live in. Whether it’s Australia, Palestine or Egypt, people who are connected to custom, and to shared, resonating histories—what does it feel like?
Maybe one day I’ll understand the power of that family line. I’ll be able to trace the outlines of my own family histories and feel them, know them. Maybe I’ll be able to write about it, maybe even with the patience and deftness of Nicholson. Maybe I’ll finally do something, really engage. Until then, I look at the gumtrees, and I think of Nicholson’s words:
‘As I walk towards the Eucalypts, I hear the sound of the huge old River Reds in the breeze. It is a loud whispering from thousands of rustling movements conducted between Eucalyptus leaf and breeze, an oceanic murmur from the treetops that is an endless utterance through that quiet landscape, and makes me remember where I live.’
Nico Callaghan is a writer, editor and musician. He is currently studying the Associate Degree in Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT University, and released the non-fiction book Snakes In The Grass in 2018. He releases music as both Nico Niquo and Haji K. with Daisart (AUS) and Orange Milk (US).