Dawn Joyce, Queensland Regional Meeting

Dawn Joyce 2Recently I watched the film The Man Who Saved the World, a true story about a Russian man who trusted his instincts rather than a computer and thus avoided a nuclear catastrophe. The film was also about the man’s personal journey, and I was in a position to confirm the interpreter was doing a rather good job, having studied Russian language, literature, history and culture in the eighties.

After the film, members of a panel spoke briefly and responded to questions. One question was: What were you doing on 26 September 1983? I was in Europe for five months, where a strong anti-cold-war sentiment was evident. One telling poster I photographed in West Germany showed the US and USSR flags merged and reproduced on each sheet of a toilet roll! It was explained that the caption “Austreten!” was a play on meaning – “Get out!” as well as “evacuate”. When Australia won the America’s Cup that year, the German people enthusiastically celebrated this tiny win against a belligerent superpower.

As a young girl, I had found it remarkable that while German sausage was consumed with enjoyment, the guttural tones of the German language were a source of ridicule: German was still regarded as the “language of the enemy”. Studying a foreign language was the accepted norm and the local high school offered French. Although my focus was science, French became my favourite subject. And a new enemy appeared: the Russians.

Stanislav Petrov

The Man Who Saved the World. Retired Soviet officer Stanislav Petrov, who allegedly averted World War III in 1983

When I first heard the protest song Russians Love their Children Too, it struck a deep chord: loudly and clearly, it was telling us that people are the same the world over, whether we view them as enemies or as friends.

In the mid-eighties, I decided to enrol in a second degree at the University of Queensland. Einstein famously said the splitting of the atom changed everything except man’s mode of thinking. Unfortunately that seemed to be epitomised in political science studies and I exited in disgust after one semester. Happily, I discovered a Russian department that was vibrant and welcoming. Australia had begun selling wheat to the USSR, but meanwhile no one at the Port of Brisbane could read the shipping documents! It was a crazy situation and I relished this opportunity to learn the language of the so-called enemy. When I visited Russia, I ended up acting as interpreter for a somewhat dysfunctional English-Korean group on tour at Lake Baikal.

A little Arabic phrasebook came in very handy indeed when I was stranded in Egypt. My editor quipped: “When all else fails, forget the script!” I later completed one unit of Arabic, but find this language quite challenging. As I work with students whose first language is not English, I try to learn at least to greet them in their own tongue; and I am ever grateful that English is the first language of the academic world.

Not everyone has a facility for languages and not everyone has a facility for peace, least of all the tortured hero of the film. But it is important that we help each other as we struggle to learn the Language of Peace. Because ninety per cent of meaning is conveyed by tone and gesture, our everyday actions can speak for us even when we say little. The language of peace also includes cultural exchanges; celebrating areas of common interest; fair trade; and generous sharing of sustainable technologies.

Peace is possible. We still have much work to do and this film is a welcome contribution to the task. The Man Who Saved the World will be in mainstream cinemas soon and I would urge you all to take the time to learn about this story of courage. The film is subtitled.

Born on Wakka Wakka land, Dawn Joyce is a freelance writer and editor. She identifies as a citizen of the world and as a Quaker Universalist.

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