This isn’t the only time I’ve planned to leave Australia, though it has certainly been the most contested. My mother says fate has something to do with it. I was young the first time; I was only 19.
The dream was to work in motorsport, a fantasy sparked after watching the B-grade film Catch that Kid. The movie featured a much younger but already sullen-faced Kristen Stewart, and that guy from High School Musical who wasn’t Zac Efron (Corbin Bleu?). The film was picked out by my younger brother, Yasseen, in our local Blockbuster knock-off. It was part of a short-lived family tradition of hiring a movie once a week, for all the family to enjoy. Yasseen’s choices were often eccentric at best, but this movie introduced me to the world of go-karting, and the idea of driving fast. I fell in love with the sport, and with the high school musical guy who was not Zac Efron (Corbin Bleu). My parents were less in love with the idea of funding a career driving fast, so I turned my attention to a more realistic option: designing the cars. To design, I needed to move to England.
I needed to move to the not-London parts of England. How does a Sudanese-born, Australian-bred teenage Muslim woman with no contacts in motorsport get a job in this industry in the not-London parts of England? Well, the cool kids call it ‘the hustle’.
In practice that meant ‘talking to every-one with even a vague connection to England’. This was generally a fruitless exercise, save for a chance encounter with an engineer from the British Institution of Mechanical Engineers. This man had only the slimmest connection to the world of motorsport, but I knew he would be my way in. My small talk got me nowhere, but my connections to Rotary succeeded where my conversation skills failed. I procured his card and then emailed him once a month, every month, for the better part of a year. Eventually, through sheer frustration perhaps, he put me in touch with a motorsport design company offering an internship.
It was the dream gig. I packed my life, my savings and my parents’ worries in a bulging suitcase. My new home was to be Shoreham-by-Sea, tucked between Portsmouth and Brighton. Shoreham, as it was known to the locals, reminded me of the town featured in Midsomer Murders, but I was not going to let such a minor detail dissuade me. This was exciting! Impress them enough, I thought, and you’re in, on the doorstep of a career you have always wanted. Designing and building machines that would go fast. Yes!
My first day at Ricardo was the best half-day of my life. I walked past two McLaren F1s, my favourite car at the time, on the way to the office. The hallways were filled with the delightful sounds of English accents. My new boss was friendly and had already set up a project on renewable car design for me to work on. My bottom had just warmed the seat when my phone rang. It was a lady from administration.
‘Hello love.’ Oh, her accent. So joyous!
‘How can I help?’
‘We were just wondering if you could bring us your work visa?’
My stomach dropped, slightly. ‘My what? Oh, I thought you’d deal with the visa situation?’
‘Oh no, love, sorry. You are here on a tourist visa. You need a work visa, and we don’t have anything to do with that. If you don’t have a work visa, you’re not going to be able to work here, unfortunately.’
Her voice was chipper. Her English accent, moments ago, seemed so enchanting. Now it began to sound like shards of glass, forcing their way into the cracks appearing in my seemingly flawless plan.
‘Oh well, that’s okay then! I can just work for free, you don’t have to pay me …’
‘Oh darling. In order to be on the premises you need to be an employee. I’m sorry, we’re going to have to escort you out.’
And that was the end of that. It appeared that in order to apply for a work visa I would need to fly back to Australia. My measly student budget wasn’t going to cut it, and my parents saw it as a sign from above, not a mistake they would fund fixing. My first attempt to leave was a false start.
• • •
My second attempt seemed more promising. Returning from England, my mind turned to a job where I could save money for an eventual opportunity in motorsport. A job that involved adventure was preferable. What better option for a young Queensland engineer than a role on the oil rigs. Schlumberger, the oilfield services business, seemed to have all the answers. A great record in gender equality (or so they said), the best technology in the business, and all the location options. You’re an impressive graduate, I was told, so you can choose where you want to work.
The list they provided was exciting: Argentina, Malaysia, Indonesia; offshore locations in places I’d never been to or ever imagined working in. Indonesia won out, partly because I’d be close to my parents (who weren’t convinced by this ‘oil rig’ thing), but mostly because Indonesia was a majority Muslim country, and all the food would be halal. A girl has priorities.
The departure date was soon after my twenty-first birthday. I was faced with a dilemma: throwing a going-away party and a twenty-first, entirely without alcohol. Many of my non-Muslim friends hadn’t partied without alcohol in their adult lives. I knew it was a big ask for them to stay sober, particularly at a twenty-first. Many of my friends were also engineers, and drinking was part of their identity: in my first lecture at university we were told ‘if you don’t drink beer, you can’t be an engineer’.
My salvation was to do things the Sudanese way: mountains of food. A hall was booked, a lamb spit borrowed and jumping castle hired. I fed my friends drunk, announced my departure, and waited for my flight details to arrive. Two weeks from my presumed start date, I sent my supervisor an email, enquiring about details. In typical oil field fashion, everything had changed. Sorry! the email sung. ‘Visas are tricky to nail down and you’ve just missed out. You will now be starting in Alaska in October.’
Alaska was one step too far. My family was fresh with Sarah Palin anecdotes, and my mother was adamant she was not letting me go to the ‘middle of nowhere, where there are racist people with guns’. I was also jobless and penniless. I couldn’t wait until October.
What other options were available? Roma. Not Italy, but western Queensland, in a newly acquired company called PathFinder, a department with no other women, and a town that was only six hours drive from my parents’ house. My father? Delighted. Me? Devastated. I bought an Akubra hat and acclimatised. Bull riding, deep-sea fishing, dirt bikes, cattle. Asking a former farmer how many head of cattle he had, I quickly learned that question was an invasion of privacy, an indirect enquiry about this man’s bank balance. Once he’d calmed down though, Gaz was happy to introduce me to Robbo from down the road, who had a healthy farm and was looking for a wife …
It would be two years before I made the move to another oil and gas major. Again, the promise of an overseas posting was made on hiring. It was my (verbal) condition on taking the role: six months in Perth then a posting on a rig in Malaysia. Choice.
Six months rolled by, as did a cold Perth winter. Home, for the time being, was a studio in Fremantle: beautiful for the ocean views, but too far away from town to have any friends. I refused to buy a doona, seeing it as an investment that was more than my six months required. I watched the 2014 World Cup on my laptop, shivering and curled up in bed, wrapped up in colourful headscarves that were not appropriate rig-sanctioned work-wear.
I was glad to be leaving, as the weather crept towards doona. The movers were coming on Friday. On Thursday, I checked in with my supervisor. His tone was careful, careless. Scottish. Oh, sorry, we should have let you know earlier … At that point I tuned out. Thwarted, again?
My mother wondered if this had something to do with a radio appearance I had made a few days earlier. Had it caused consternation in the organisation? It couldn’t be that. Surely my technical work, which had received only positive feedback, was all that mattered. We lived in a meritocracy, I reminded her. It was just bad luck the plans for the rig had changed and that visas were difficult to come by.
March 2016, and the song of my year is by the Propellerheads: ‘It’s all just a little bit of history repeating …’ It was a double promotion, a reward for passing my technical exams. I would supervise my own rig, in offshore Brunei. The visa was secured, the flights booked, and I was on my way … Then: ‘Yassmin, we will need you to return to the office before you leave, urgently, thank you.’
Leaving, this time, had coincided with the publishing of my memoirs. Memoirs that did not mention said oil major’s name, but made them uncomfortable enough to dock my promotion, reduce my ranking and formally discipline me. I was out of control, non-compliant. Brunei would have to wait. Fate was not quite ready for me to leave.
The same company offered me a position in London in April 2017. Perhaps this time I really would be gone. But April rolled around too soon. The furore around a certain Q&A appearance involving Jacqui Lambie had left me unsure, and I had personal matters still to resolve. Leaving would have to wait a few months more.
• • •
If I am honest with myself, every time I tried to leave and failed, part of me was quietly relieved. There was always something that drew me back to this sunburnt country in which I never saw myself reflected. I had always had unfinished business: whether it was running Youth without Borders, a new city to explore or service on a board, council or sports team. But this time, the sixth time in as many years, is the first time I feel free to go. How do you leave a country that has abused you? Quietly, or with feeling? By the time it came to it, nothing I did happened without a splash.
In June 2017 the sunshine in East London was tanning the little strip of my forearm bared, defying traditional hijabi norms. I was here on business. In Shoreditch, a nail technician, applying a bright yellow gel to my claws, asked me if I was ‘that lady who yelled at that white politician’. I smiled. Here nobody really knew who I was. You should move here, another friend laughed, when I explained the reaction to the video in Australia.
That phrase bounced around my skull. What did I have left in Australia? I landed back in Canberra and spoke at a small event. There was a photographer in the front row, the camera flash a little too bright. The next day, the papers reported that I had attacked democracy. Later, someone in a position of importance suggested I move to an Arab dictatorship. What did I have left in Australia? Maybe it was time to leave.
I resigned from all positions, the first time I would be without a board or council position since the age of 14. Twelve years of board experience is not bad for a 26-year-old, but how to read papers while backpacking is not something they put in the guidebooks. I expected I would feel empty, a shadow of my former self. Who was I, if not the young brown Muslim woman who had more board positions than prospects for marriage?
I expected to feel changed. I did not. If I am honest, by this point the tanks were empty. There was nothing left with which to feel. How are you meant to feel about a country that has abused you? Do you turn away and not look back? Tell the country they don’t know what they had, that you deserve to be treated better, that there are many other countries in the ocean? What do you do when that country is home? Do you make home elsewhere? Or do you just make peace with what home has become?
‘Public opinion’, which never really matches the opinion of anyone I know, says I am ungrateful towards Australia. Some say that I have more support than I know. Others reckon that I should have stayed. I understand why people think that. I would probably have thought the same thing, had I not been in my shoes.
I leave Australia different to the person I would have been, if I had left any earlier. My mother says it was meant to be. She says that Allah needed me to go through this experience. That I was being prepared for something. That I need to be who I am now for what lies ahead.
I believe in fate, so I believe that there is truth. Leaving is how I fight what is too big for me to face front on. When a large, powerful force comes up against a small, passionate dissenter, a face-to-face confrontation will always favour blunt, brute strength. One of the most effective options the dissenter has is to disengage and find another angle of attack, one that favours her, the smaller, nimbler actor.
When the game is rigged, perhaps you’re playing the wrong game. Leaving, for me, is not an act of giving up. Leaving is strength.
It is reclaiming my time. It is choosing the game I want to play.
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