Week in Review

In lockdown with Golriz Ghahraman (& cat)

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman on her lockdown experience.

Reading in my bubble is hard for two reasons. It causes deep and enduring heartbreak to my kitten June, who I believe takes it as a very personal rejection, though the look of indignation may be a permanent fixture for her. But mostly, reading is hard because when I’m not in meetings that’s time for the persistent booming noise of a comedian in the next room, pitching shows, recording endless podcasts, never quite at conversational volume.

So, we beat on. 

Lockdown has made me wonder about my parents, around the same age as I am now, living in a country at war and in scarcity, under US sanctions, in 1980s Iran – an example of how human crises have happened before this. For them, though, adjustment didn’t ever involve telling various highly intelligent colleagues, Ministers of the Crown, community leaders: “You’re still on mute”, “Please go on mute”, “You’re in the wrong meeting”, “Great cat!”, while trying to remember not to make sudden upward movements because from top down, it’s all pyjama pants.

Going into lockdown itself, together as a community, was a relief for me. As it was for so many in that group we’ve come to call "vulnerable" because we’re the ones most likely to suffer serious consequences from the Covid-19 outbreak. We’re the least likely to survive it. As it turned out, those of us with compromised immunity were so numerous as to be part of almost every whānau, every workplace, in every neighbourhood. We are cancer survivors, because chemotherapy kills your immunity, transplantees, we have respiratory illnesses as common as asthma, auto-immune illnesses like MS (that’s me), or just happen to have lived long enough to finally enjoy retirement age at 65 years or older.

You don’t often feel that visceral fear as an adult that you do as a kid in the dark, but I’ve felt it as this thing came closer to us in New Zealand- it was a shared terror we talked about frantically among that community in the weeks leading to lockdown. Then, finally those voices rose to the forefront- and relief came. Knowing that all of Aotearoa hunkered down for us, for all of us, is immensely touching.

So, the life at home, walking around the block, cooking dinner from scratch every night, even zooming into a head-spinning number of meetings each day, feels okay for the most part. All I seem to have retained from watching my mother cook, who, to be fair was rarely not at work at dinner time, is that cumin and turmeric fried with onions are a solid base for any meal. So, everything I cook, from stir fry to roasted potatoes, is now magically Iranian fusion, and the culinary theme of our bubble.  When it gets hard, a bit of sunlight and remembering that we’re all in it together, does help. I remember every day that I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a secure job that provides my bubble more than enough. I don’t have the struggles of parents desperately trying to occupy confined and energetic kids. And my home is warm and safe.  

I’ve been walking around with a giant grin and ridiculously keen “Hi” for our neighbours as we all calmly distance walk around each other on our streets. I think we’re honestly going to keep all the distant chat promises to have in-real-life hangs after this thing is over. That’s what I miss. Going up the road for roaring happy hour catch ups with friends I can never see often enough, because life between home and Wellington already creates a sort of distant friendship model. Also, I miss polenta chips, and food that isn’t Iranian fusion.

Family portrait: Golriz (left), June, Guy

It was interesting for me to notice my parents take to lockdown like fish to water. My dad started distancing a month ahead of the country, having paid attention to international news. He bought himself a bag of flour and rice. His garden provides ample veges all year road, lemons, and feijoas (it helps to have lived a past life as an agricultural engineer who loves tinkering with growing techniques). When he casually told us his preparations, he added “we’ve seen war, we know how to prepare”. He’ll always have that one on me. I’ll always have surviving parliament by Zoom on him. But my parents did learn decades ago to keep in touch with friends, family, and build communities that can share information and sustain relationships from a distance. It’s what refugees do. It occurs to me that our migrant and refugee communities might have important perspectives to add to our national conversation about resilience at a time of pandemic.

Those thoughts have made me look more closely at how we come out of this crisis more united and equal, both here in Aotearoa and globally.

Our everyday work as MPs jumps between fast paced decisions on gaps in the Covid-19 adjustments, like allowing for video-link parole hearings and protecting prisoner health rights, to fights to get community voices heard – for me that has gone from disabilities community need for access to information and care, to migrant workers, who are left with no social welfare support at all. This involves reading and processing hundreds of emails, tracking down advisors for help - snacking liberally on peanut brittle and bhuja mix (mercifully, we live close to what must be one of the world’s best ‘Asian’ Supermarkets for fried snacks!) helps.

For reading to be manageable in a hectic day, I love short stories, collections of essays - and graphic novels, including Art Spiegelman's classic Maus, about the rise of Nazism. It's exhilarating and insightful, illustrated unsettlingly with cats and mice. I've also loved Well Read Black Girl, essays bringing together the life experiences of women of colour authors, based on the online book club (let’s do online book clubs!). This is cathartic, funny, stinging, but so good.

Reading Aotearoa’s history also feels extra important right now, as a reminder that we have been in crisis before. I’ve gone back to Dr Ranginui Walker’s Struggle Without End, and re-read the Matike Mai Report on constitutional transformation.

Crisis work has made me more aware than ever before of the systemic prejudices that have kept certain segments of our community down. While, we’ve learned that remarkably rapid change is possible, I want that change to be lasting. That means uprooting the old prejudices, it means building fairness into our systems from the ground up. What better to inspire that work than to learn how prejudice and unfairness first manifested in our nation’s history.

Know Your Place (HarperCollins), the forthcoming memoir by Golriz Ghahraman, will be reviewed at ReadingRoom by Steve Braunias.

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