Essay: Paul Kelaitaon the Aerotropolis

Assyrians in the Aerotropolis

It is hard to know exactly when the suburbs change character. Going from east to west, once you’re off the motorway is probably a safe bet, or when Uber stickers give way to personalised licence plates.

The M5, the South-West Motorway, has always been my main motorway, for years citybound, now westbound. My very gay, kinda queer life with my boyfriend in the inner west when we are both westies means that the M5 is still important. The westbound journeys are almost always family-related.

At some point during a recent family lunch out at my dad’s place off the M5 and down Bringelly Road, we talked about the time Juliana Jendo, a superstar Assyrian diva, once visited our house. I don’t know how we got onto the topic but surely something about the habits of family time impelled it. It is an old family story supported by a photograph or two showing Jendo and entourage decked out in Assyrian dress. A new detail emerged in its last retelling: the visit was to film a music video right here at our house.

Imagine my shock. I Googled and was shocked again: I immediately recognised the background in the video for her song ‘Bandee’ (1993). Ultra-low-tech, the video clip is of the entourage dancing a traditional Assyrian khigga in our front paddock, mown yellow-green grass clearly not doing so hot. It is a strange kind of pleasure to watch a music video shot at my childhood home.

Cassette image for Juliana Jendo’s album Wardeh Deesheh (1993), which includes the song ‘Bandee’. Photo: John Homeh

While Jendo would be recognisable to Assyrians the world over, the other faces are familiar to me as the people who dance at weddings. The guy with the hat and the sword seems to be at most Assyrian events. I haven’t been to an Assyrian wedding for years but the last time I saw him was at an art event where there was a work about one (Kate Blackmore’s All Wedding Wishes, 2016). The OGs at the lunch filled in names of those dancing, details beyond the spectacle of wedding or music video, all of which I never knew and have since forgotten.

Sitting around the table in Bringelly, these Assyrians are my connection to that community. Bringelly is on the metropolitan fringe, about 15 minutes from Camden, 20 from Liverpool and Fairfield, and 30 from Campbelltown or Penrith. While some Assyrians live in Bringelly, if you know any, chances are they live in Fairfield, not Camden or Campbelltown, and definitely not Penrith. Apart from the relatively unknown Bringelly, these places are perceived in particular ways. Each area conjures, true or not, a different kind of person, a different kind of suburbia, a different kind of cultural make up.

The place we sit now is a different landscape entirely to the one the music video was shot in 25 years ago. It was the early nineties then and the early days of suburban development. The roads were long, houses and sheds far in the background, the landscape relatively unencumbered by fences, most trees still saplings. It is a shift that I lived through but barely registered. Trees grow slowly and are indifferent to the rapid personal drama of everyday life. Moments of reminiscence and reflection or, more commonly, old pictures reveal just how much has changed.

While most of us at the lunch knew the faces and the place in varying degrees of intimacy, my boyfriend needed some more info: who the singer is, who the people are, how they and we are all connected. Years ago, when we started dating, I still lived at home. He knew this place only in its most recent iteration. The turmoil of bringing a boy home was then still at the forefront of my mind (now it’s a little further back). If you know many queers, chances are they live, well – in reality, like Assyrians in Sydney – everywhere, but probably in the city. At least that’s a central tenet of social faith. Assyrians and queers are quarantined from each other with the stubborn shake of a head and easy evidence found in personal bias and limited networks.

So, sitting around this table of my Assyrians, the quarantine already violated, I had to do some mapping for my boyfriend. He knew no one in the video but nevertheless grasped the strange slice of refracted provincial fame that came with an actual Assyrian celebrity making a music video. The exact spot it was filmed was about 50 metres from where we sat drinking tea.

‘Everything is so different’, he remarked.

Distance still dominates but the land has been changed by more houses, more fences, bigger trees – those young ones in the video grown tall, others planted by Dad and now towering themselves. The slow tick of growth has been replaced by the intensity of development. Dad’s house is in the suburb over from what will eventually be Sydney’s second major airport.

I remember protests in the nineties about the Western Sydney Airport in Badgerys Creek – after the music video was shot. I thought planes would start landing in the fields just beyond sight someday soon. But the airport has a long and contentious political history and the first arrivals are some years off yet. Even though the Commonwealth has bought up land since 1986, the airport itself only received the green light in 2014. Since then, it has been the driver of many changes in the area, the most notable of which have been road upgrades and train line extensions.

Every time I visit my dad the roads have moved. New roads or tunnels are being built, or a new set of lights has gone up, or a detour runs me parallel to the route I had always taken. Seven sets of lights are up where there used to be none. With most visits I get an update from Dad – the latest news, the latest community consultation meeting.

Bringelly Road tunnel works before Northern Road, October 2019. Photo: Paul Kelaita.

Sometime after that family lunch, Dad and I visited the Western Sydney International Airport Experience Centre on the Northern Road just a little north of Dad’s place. Described as a lookout on the construction site, both Dad and I imagined a grounds-eye view of the airport around which so much would change. Our imagination was a few steps ahead. Opened in early September, the Experience Centre is a modest but architectural building at what is one end of the future airport. Clad partly in the rusted red-brown hues of weathered Corten steel, the building is front row to the busy action of airport-building, or at least it will be. The experience comes in two halves: the first is a room of screens and interactivity, a slick advertisement of the future of tomorrow; the second is the lookout, more interactivity in the form of virtual reality but most impressive for its floor-to-ceiling glass viewing wall. The future is tomorrow, today it is acreage.

Dad at Western Sydney International Airport Experience Centre, October 2019. Photo: Paul Kelaita.

The airport will be the core of one of Sydney’s new urban centres. They call it an ‘Aerotropolis’.

‘Aerotropolis’ sounds like a city of impossibly high skyscrapers and flying cars; a city scored to sudden changes in pitch as cars whine past buildings and each other; a place of action – of Star Wars or The Fifth Element. In short, it is a city and all the most exciting parts of it are projected into the gravity defying future. This one, however, is less speculative leaps and bounds and more a sedate process of development, of push back and progress.

On a wrong turn to the Experience Centre some graffiti was scrawled on a concrete bollard: ‘NO 24/7 AIRPORT’. I asked my dad if people are still protesting. He recounted that there was one submission to the recent round of community updates that said there shouldn’t be an airport at all. As work has well and truly begun it seemed more a need to register continued resistance than any real hope of turning back the clock.

I suspect the experience in the Experience Centre is meant to lubricate the transition. It’s a courtesy extended only for these recent changes. The surrounding areas have been changed dramatically by the human devastation of colonisation. Country has suffered its own reshaping from agriculture, smallholdings, and progressive development. The protests I remember didn’t prioritise Indigenous voices. The only voices I remember and continue to hear are those of ‘landowners’. Part of the growth-and-progress sell of the Experience Centre is the engagement of local Darug people. Smoking ceremonies, acknowledgements, and consultation have been central parts of the whole process, including planning around the more than 70 heritage sites on the airport location. And while consultation processes and policy frameworks are always laden, fraught mechanisms in ongoing colonial contexts, an Aboriginal consultation firm, Enable, has also been brought on to help facilitate the cultural and business sides of engagement.

The Experience Centre is soft-selling something that has already been bought: economic potential, jobs for future kids, a seemingly meaningful engagement of Indigenous stakeholders, the assurance that your place now will be the centre of things long after you are gone. This is meant to convince us all that this is good change.

There’s something vaguely ominous about these promises, like a countdown has started on a future that doesn’t include you. The economic, education, and employment prospects cater to science and tech industries. I would hope they just forgot to include ‘humanities’ in all their documentation. My feeling of rather thin Indigenous engagement after leaving the Experience Centre has, since looking through online documents, shown itself to be a bit thicker, but there is a needed level of scepticism that should be borne by those living on stolen land while continuing to search out, listen to, and heed Indigenous voices.

A friend once told me that when the main street in nearby semi-rural Camden got traffic lights, older residents with their walkers would cross other parts of the street in individual acts of resistance. These activists were part of a larger picture of a small town divided over change, the good versus the bad. Bucolic Camden is no stranger to at times ugly protest over perceived urban incursions, including over a proposed Islamic school (since rejected) and a Maccas (now built).

Mum’s place in Mt Annan is closer to Camden than Dad’s, about halfway between Camden and Campbelltown. Development speeds along in these areas too but where Bringelly is the future city of The Fifth Element, these areas are the future suburbs of Back to the Future II, resolutely suburban.

View of Oran Park from the Northern Road, October 2019. Photo: Paul Kelaita.

Families buy and build in the slow creep of new estates. Before 2010 when it became another housing estate, Oran Park – a suburb back southward along the Northern Road between Bringelly and Mt Annan – used to be a raceway whose roar could be heard from literally kilometres away. Now the estate ekes out space toward the future Aerotropolis, the roar of jet engines at the 24-hour airport surely not destined for the same kind of charm.

At key strategic points and within many of these new estates, shopping centres pop up and expand; they are the experience centres of the suburbs. Oran Park Podium (the shopping and town centre) has a big curved window that is just as, if not more, grand than the big window in the airport Experience Centre. The empty lot it looks out onto will soon be filled with more grey-roofed houses. Oran Park and its shopping centre plays almost no role in my experience of these suburbs outside the blur of a car window.

Moving from the Northern Road southeast along Narellan Road leads you to Macarthur Square, a slow growing beast of its own. Each of the eras of The Square’s expansion are marked in the things allowed to stay: shops, tiles, people, parking lots, buildings. By the gravitational pull of suburban shopping centres, each of these eras is also imprinted with the memory of a thousand experiences.

One café must have been there since the shopping centre first opened. When we were kids, Mum would bring us here to refuel and no doubt get a second of peace for herself. We would relish skimming the chocolatey top off her cappuccino in one of the more mundane moments of parental self-sacrifice.

The interactive stage that most often backdropped the everyday dramas of my recent past is the Macarthur Square after the restaurant precinct opened and the cinemas moved. It’s the Macarthur Square of repetitive patterns of Thai for lunch followed by coffee that raised teen friendships to adult ones; of the vague sadness that the Borders closed, even though that happened years ago; of DVDs at JB; of black skinny jeans for a second date at the Event Cinemas that used to be Greater Union.

While travelling down an escalator during a recent visit, my boyfriend pointed out that a Terry White chemist pivotal in his friend’s life had been replaced by a Strandbags. A quick snap was taken and sent to said friend.

Macarthur Square, September 2019. Photo: Luke Létourneau.

This change meant nothing to me. That chemist wasn’t one I frequented and what was central to their versions of this place was just a set piece to mine, as many of my landmarks would be to theirs. Our shared histories of The Square meet at points but have no space to grow. A place once animated by extended loitering but now only occasionally visited somehow manages to be suggestive of the place it was, still is, and has become all at the same time.

Beyond the utopic view of progress so captured in the Airport Experience Centre that commemorates but otherwise by necessity obliterates, shopping centres are places where suburban character unfolds. They have the potential to confirm or deny all that we expect of areas or of their particular kinds of people, brands, ambivalences, and hostilities.

My habitual round trip on the M5 brings me back again, a gay wog from somewhere not associated with gays or wogs who until somewhat recently always lived there. The road also leads me back to my family as they grow with the places they live, even though we are connected by more than just a highway.

I’ll drive out to Dad’s place tomorrow. My brake pads are worn so we will change them together. Meaning I’ll watch and try to learn as he does it.

This essay was developed through an SRB-WestWords residency at the WestWords Centre for Writing in Campbelltown.