Neil’s Story: A Regretful Refugee (ISIS Imprint) (2017)
In this haunting, beautifully-written autobiography of one man’s encounter with a strange and hostile culture, the author shows how Australia’s lack of empathy drove him abroad to do good works in the Levant.
It’s a unique clash-of-cultures tale, combining the innocence of Australian youth with the intricate and knowing wisdom of an ancient, sacred culture. Neil describes his formative years under the brutal Victorian regime, where he was forced into indentured servitude as an apprentice mechanic. Eventually he escaped this living hell for the promised lands of the Sunni-controlled part of Syria.
Prakash was a natural warrior for Sunni Wahhabism. A clever, good-looking lad, with no vices, he soon adopted the banner of Imam Aḥmad and spread his good works about the region, often forcefully, but always without malice. Yes, he had to kill from time to time (and again), but he never really relished what he calls ‘the necessary task.” Yes, he became a poster boy for violent jihad, what with his natural, fresh-faced Australian-Cambodian-Fijian-Indian good-looks, his sunni disposition, and his propensity to extreme violence, but the reader – the perceptive, open-minded reader – will look beyond that to see the true stem of Australian stock clambering out of Australia’s narrow provincialism into a wider, kinder, clearer, more (dare we say?) sophisticated purview of a complex world.
There’s a truly heartwarming moment when the 8-year old son of one of Neil’s comrades triumphantly holds aloft the head of a haunted, green-eyed girl. (She must have followed the wrong branch of the family – silly idolater!)
The scene where Neil and company chew kif and drink tea and Pepsi-Cola, discussing how the sword verses are to be taken both seriously and literally, will resonate with any sympathetic Australian reader interested in the ceaseless work entailed in destroying the evil, dark forces of enlightenment, and for those hankering for freedom from choice.
And we detect touches of poetry in the accounts of liberal infidels failing to appreciate the necessity of jihad as their blood spills onto the sand, or the very satisfying closure as the author’s eighth wife detonates her explosives-stocked-burka in a town square.
But this soulful tale is not just fit for the throat-slashing, barbiturate-chugging likes of “Australian Story,” there’s quirky humour to be found, too. How the reader will laugh when Neil ruefully confesses that he thought Richard Roper was a real person, from whom he could purchase industrial strength quantities of Sarin gas…
And frustration and yes, even despair, as Neil fights an unfeeling, criminal bureaucracy back home, who wishes to render him almost stateless and deny him safe passage to the place of his birth. You will cry with anger and remorse as you read Neil’s moving descriptions of the poor conditions, privation, and indifference that he suffers at the hands of these heartless, prejudiced, faceless men.
Despite some minor reservations – a virtually fully-redacted index, the absence of photographs, calligraphy which seems to date from the 9th Century – The Varnished Culture must commend this important work to readers of all ages and dispositions (as well as intel-figures, immigration officials, law-enforcement authorities, etc.)
All in all, a book that anyone who cares for diversity can’t afford to miss.
We await a review on the ABC Book Show, currently the leading booster of that hitherto-neglected genre, Reffo-Lit.