I’ve started watching Big Brother again, and you can all get fucked. I’m into it. It’s the appalling Bondi house party I was never cool, hot or dumb enough to be invited to, but the devolution’s now being televised so y’all can take your contempt in suppository form while I set my DVR. Like most people, I’m aware that reality television was invented by the CIA as a form of interrogative psycho-torture for use on terrorists in rendition, and that like all diabolical military inventions, was subsequently adapted for use against the general population (e.g. the internet, nuclear weapons, James Blunt). Nonetheless, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Big Brother format. When it first appeared on our screens around a decade ago, it was a genuine shock. The unvarnished idiocy, inarticulacy and emotional incontinence suddenly beamed into our homes was of an order not generally seen outside of Friday night work drinks, and it was compelling. Someone had figured out how to put the weekend on television, crammed onto a discarded set from Blake’s 7 (as renovated by Bryn Edelstein) and elongated for months so that we goggle-eyed ghouls could watch a group of tiny minds pushed to the point of mental and emotional collapse. This was the Tour de France of voyeurism.
Of course the novelty of the thing wore off pretty swiftly, as the plunge in ratings after the second series attested to. The casting directors’ decision to scrape through the bottom of the barrel and start recruiting contestants from the fungus growing underneath it obviously hastened the process. But this season, it looks like Channel Nine’s reboot has gotten the pH balance right in the Dreamworld hot tub, having cast an entertainingly combustible bunch of housemates articulate enough to express their mediocrity, different enough to have salient traits, and most importantly, stupid enough to want to be a part of the show. It’s also helped that most of them have either developed tortured crushes on each other, or started sleeping together, sometimes at the expense of significant, enraged others on the outside.
Psychologists (and Sartre’s ghost) must yawn long and loud at all of this, as group behavioural experiments of this type have been conducted for decades, albeit without cash giveaways and live evictions. But the heightened emotional state that this claustrophobic, intellectually-deprived environment produces in the contestants is what keeps eyeballs affixed. The housemates, deprived of books, the internet or any other means of stimulation, perspective or privacy for weeks on end quickly descend into a manic state, wherein they’re apt to become hysterically distressed over any perceived slight or sideways glance, let alone when their newfound paramour is evicted from the house (despite the soulmates having only met a fortnight ago). One contestant recently burst into tears because she was the last to choose her costume for a group karaoke performance.
So how, then, can we possibly comprehend the story of Dr Munjed Al Muderis? As a young Iraqi doctor working in a major Baghdad hospital in 1999, he was on duty when a detail of Saddam’s military police stormed into the building and told surgical staff to cut off the ears of a truckload of army deserters and draft dodgers parked outside. The order had come directly from Saddam, who felt it more humane to have these horrific mutilations performed under anaesthetic. When the head surgeon refused, citing his Hippocratic Oath and moral commitment to “do no harm”, he was summarily executed in the hospital car park. Realising that this fate awaited him too, as he knew he couldn’t be a party to such barbarism, Dr Al Muderis exploited a fleeting moment of confusion to hide in a female toilet, where he stayed for the next five hours hoping and praying to avoid detection. When the soldiers finally left the building, the “operations” having been completed by other terrorised staff, Dr Muderis snuck out of his toilet cubicle and fled across the border to Jordan, guessing correctly that the Iraqi secret police would be lying in wait at the house he shared with his parents. Eventually making his way to Malaysia, but unable to stay because of that country’s status as a non-signatory to the UN Refugee Convention (Iraqi nationals are only legally permitted to remain there for 14 days), Muderis took the decision to undertake a perilous boat journey to Australia, having come into contact with a people smuggler through some acquaintances in Abu Dhabi. He soon found himself the lone doctor aboard a rickety boat jammed with 150 asylum seekers (as opposed to the 50 he’d been advised of) sailing towards Christmas Island and tending to three women in the late stages of pregnancy, while other passengers vomited and pissed over one another from seasickness, with no room for most to sit down. The boat’s Indonesian skipper abandoned ship as soon as they reached international waters, climbing into a frigate that pulled alongside, and advising them to stay on a straight course to reach Christmas Island in 36 hours.
Intercepted by the AFP and escorted to Christmas Island, where they briefly experienced humane treatment and decent facilities, Dr Muderis and his fellow asylum seekers were five days later transferred to WA’s infamous Curtin Detention Centre where they were subjected to repeated physical and verbal abuse, as well as negligent medical care and unlawful detention in police custody. Previously described as a “living hell hole”, the centre was recently closed for budgetary reasons, with the government crowing that this was indicative of the success of its border security policies. When Dr Muderis arrived however, conditions were grim, with detainees living in tents, surrounded by poisonous snakes and with no change of clothing or protection from the searing heat. A woman from the Department of Immigration greeted them by saying they were “very unwelcome”, and that “Australia doesn’t want you”. During his 10 month stay in detention, Dr Muderis – referred to only by his processing number, 982, written in permanent marker on his wrist and shoulder – claims he witnessed detainees being arbitrarily beaten by guards in small detention huts known as “dongas”, and was himself placed in solitary confinement in a high security donga ironically referred to as ‘the hotel’ (on account of its bed and air conditioning having been removed) where he was kept for up to 22 hours a day without exercise, after being falsely accused of inciting a breakout. He says this was the one point at which his spirit almost broke, as he learnt that people who’d lied about their backgrounds and qualifications were being processed ahead of him. Violence and riots often erupted at the centre, as detainees grew frustrated with the long delays in processing, and because of his education, Muderis quickly became de facto liaison between the guards and detainees.
After finally being released from Curtin and granted citizenship, Dr Muderis managed to get his medical qualifications recognized relatively quickly (no mean feat) and soon got his first job in the health system. Today, he is one of the country’s most respected orthopaedic surgeons, and is a world-leader in osseointegration, an alternative method of attaching a prosthetic limb to an amputee’s body, in which implanted material integrates with living bone. He has used this revolutionary technique to give Australian and British soldiers who’ve lost legs to IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan the chance to walk again and lead more mobile lives. He says his interest in this technique, and in surgery generally, was inspired by seeing The Terminator as a kid.
Today, Munjed says his experience in detention feels like “a comic book” or “a movie” – a surreal, “fascinating” experience. He says he didn’t think things like this could happen to a human being in a western country, but today he remains remarkably unscathed mentally by his experiences, and bears no ill will towards Australia. Indeed, he serves as a volunteer in the RAAF (in a medical capacity), and believes that detention is an essential part of the immigration process, in order to weed out false claimants and undesirables. He thinks the current process needs to be overhauled however, so as to expedite processing and prevent undue mental strain on genuine refugees waiting to learn their fate. The only mental scarring he’ll admit to is still not feeling comfortable looking at barbed wire, or green coloured fences.
By his own admission though, Munjed is “a very strong person”, a self-evident truth considering how he’s emerged from his experiences. His story is sui generis, no doubt. But what of the lesser minds and constitutions trapped in detention? What must it be like for those who can’t stand up for themselves, or call on inner reserves of determination and fortitude in the way that an educated surgeon from a patrician Iraqi family could? What of the mandatory detention of children in offshore processing centres, a practice recently described by Australian paediatricians as child abuse? How can we have such visceral evidence of what it’s like to be detained, and the mental stress it generates, if only via a handful of pampered, inane Big Brother contestants, and yet have so many people remain unmoved by the plight of those escaping true horror, confined in sub-human conditions without access to swimming pools, sun loungers and “sanctuary rooms”? How can a large chunk of the population gasp and “aww” at fatuous infatuations and people being told their dog has died, and yet still be comfortable with a brutal, unjust, untelevised version of the same show, where the only prize for having escaped one trauma is to have another one of unspecified duration visited upon you?
But we all know the whys and the hows, don’t we? It’s too depressing to articulate them. Maybe the only hope is Big Brother Villawood, or Survivor Nauru? Maybe some of us just can’t empathise until it’s televised.
Footnote: I interviewed Dr Munjed Al Muderis as part of my (occasional) day job. Some of the quotes attributed to him are from that interview.