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Speech at the launch of Armageddon: two men on an Anzac trail

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17TH AUGUST 2011


It is a great honour for me to be here to officially launch the book - I might even get a copy of it. I gave away my copy of it today to a visiting Muslim Arab journalist from the Jerusalem Post. I thought that was quite a combo.

How has this come about - my involvement here? As Louise said my father was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Jerusalem. My grandfather was born in Aleppo in Syria. Paul was very interested in my family history when he wrote Beersheba, there was an element of synchronicity in the fact that the Member for North Sydney was a commander in the charge of Beersheba. Paul and Mike documented his involvement. After he had helped to take Beersheba it was my grandfather that who was charged with rebuilding the town. There is a great deal of family history there.

What I found extraordinary about this book is the melding of the current with the past. That is so important for a whole range of reasons, but it makes me reflect on two stories that I am involved with here.

The first is the Hokeidoon, that occupies almost a lift out section of the book. The Hokeidoon is a building that my grandfather owned in 1914. He was a Catholic Armenian. He went to Ottoman Jerusalem to be a spy for the Catholic Church. He put the building in the care of the Armenian church and after the war, when he went back to claim it, they said possession is nine-tenths of the law.

I went to Syria with someone who is familiar to you, Ross Cameron, and Michael Photios in 1998. We had a meeting with the Vice President of Syria, Vice President Khaddam. Michael Photios said ‘Do you know Joe is Syrian?’. I looked at him in shock and horror and said ‘Where are we going here?’. He (Photios) said ‘The church took Joe’s building off him all those years ago and never gave it back.’

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Vice President Khaddam said ‘We will get the papers and give it back to him’. By that stage family folklore was that the building was as large as the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney. But it was a very awkward diplomatic moment and the ambassador was in a sweat.

I never saw the building. I was telling Paul and Mike this story. They went in search of the Hokeidoon, because our family name was Hokeidonian. The Hokeidoon is the family building. They rang me in the middle of the night - we had just had a young baby - and said ‘We have found it!’. I said ‘I don’t really care, I am happy for you guys.’ Bowers sent me the photos and it turns out that it is now being used as a shop for womens’ lingerie. Which is not a very profitable line I would have expected in Syria. There are photos of it in this book.

The second thing that struck me was a wonderful photo that Mike took of a number of people in the famous Jordan River. In 1998/99 I went back with my father on a journey in his footsteps. In Bethlehem he showed me his orphanage, because just after he was born his father left the home. My grandmother couldn’t afford to have two children so she took my father - who was the youngest one - to an orphanage. I walked in those footsteps with my father. We went to the Jordan River and we stood at the Jordan River - Anthony Albanese and Leo McLeay were there - and he said ‘I stood on this spot right here on the 3rd of August 1948 and I spat on the ground and said “I am going and I am never coming back”’. This was the Jordan River separating the West Bank and Jordan and he said it was the best thing he had ever done. It meant a very different life for me, and for him. At the age of 21 he came to Australia. In 1998 he crossed the Jordan River and said the Allenby Bridge hadn’t changed. It was exactly the same as he remembered it, a timber bridge. The ‘Grand River Jordan’ of biblical proportions is basically a creek.

There are dynamic photos in this book that clearly illustrate the change overtime. The worst change I have seen is the rise of President Assad in Syria. Paul recorded it in his Sunday column, but what is happening in Syria is an affront to every human being with an ounce of dignity in their spirit.

President Assad is a butcher and it is an affront to me that we are not more active as a nation in standing up to butchers wherever they may be located. There are more than 300 Australians buried in the soil in Damascus. All those years ago they died for a belief that we share today. A belief in democracy and freedom and the integrity of the individual. President Assad is demeaning the legacy of our diggers. It is so vitally important that we stand up to the tyrants of today. Australians - as documented in this book - so courageously stood up to the tyrants in years past.

Therefore, whatever this book does, it makes history contemporary. The lessons of yesterday are the lessons of today. If good men and women do not stand up for the principles that these people died for then we are worthless. Whether it be in Syria, or what happened recently in Egypt, or any of the other countries that are involved in the Arab spring, it is so vitally important that the principles that endured in the past be protected - no matter what the challenge may be today.

We must protect those key principles that define us as good human beings.

That is the great achievement in this book, it is a fine book. It has magnificent photos - as you would expect Bowers to take. It has great words - as you would expect from Paul Daley, but what it does is make history real. It makes it contemporary. It has many lessons for all of us. But most importantly it should be a guide to the values that endure today, as they did many years ago.

It is my great pleasure to launch Armageddon, a book that makes history real, it makes it live and, hopefully, it will in some way, will reignite the spirit that the ANZACs died for all those years ago.

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Authorised by Joe Hockey, MP Level 6, 100 Mount Street, North Sydney

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