In 1999, Munjed Al Muderis was a young surgical resident working in Baghdad when a squad of Military Police marched into the operating theatre and ordered the surgical team to mutilate the ears of three busloads of army deserters. When the head of surgery refused, he was executed in front of his staff. Munjed’s choices were stark–comply and breach the medical oath ‘do no harm’, refuse and face certain death, or flee.
That day, Munjed’s life changed forever. He escaped to Indonesia, where he boarded a filthy, overcrowded refugee boat, bound for Australia.
Like his fellow passengers, he hoped for a new life, free from fear and oppression, but for ten months he was incarcerated in what became known as the worst of the refugee camps, Curtin Detention Centre in Western Australia.
On 26 August 2000, Munjed was finally freed. Now, fourteen years later, he is one of the world’s leading osseointegration surgeons, transforming the lives of amputees with a pioneering technique that allows them to walk again.
Finding the right voice for telling a biographical memoir, particularly in stressful and traumatic circumstances, can be a hit or miss affair. Too much emotion and the facts of a story are lost, too little and it becomes just another non-fiction book loaded with specifics.
Where does Walking Free land in this literary minefield? Well, our group, although scoring it high, generally found Al Muderis to be a little too removed from his situation and those around him. While using his professional skills to help, our readers felt he never really empathized with any of his fellow refugees and in his own mind, felt himself above their station.
It was pointed out by some that this could well be the result of his up-bringing and cultural class system.
Nobody argued this view and if honesty is important here, then the author did not fail to conform. For instance, we commented that he could of easily omitted the finer details of his escape from the hospital and Hussein’s henchmen, but instead he truthfully retold his act of hiding for hours in a women’s toilet before fleeing for his life. Not exactly hero worshipping stuff! But then his amazing work with orthopaedic medicine is and we could not help but be impressed. Some members knew staff who worked with Al Muderis while at Wollongong Hospital and all reports had been good. So, maybe a written account cannot always transfer a person’s true nature.
Everyone found the cultural history and details of Iraq very interesting and felt they came away understanding a complex and unfamiliar society a little bit better. We were moved into having an interesting conversation on refugees … their circumstances, choices and constraints and also the options we have in providing a humane and just society of our own.
We love it when a book leads us into such a discussion … if the writing wasn’t brilliant and the author’s personality not exactly to our taste, it matters little. The pay off is a friendly, supportive environment where we can all feel comfortable expressing our thoughts and opinions. And for that, Dr Al Muderis, we thank you.