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yabby dabby doo

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 13-Feb-2008

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 15

Wordcount: 877

A yabby’s fight to survive provides food for thought

Elizabeth Farrelly

It is a beautiful spring morning in Barcelona. The air is scented with salt and cigars, strawberries and old hemp, the Ramblas already lined with buskers channelling the madness of Miro, Gaudi and Picasso. It’s just February, way too early, actually, for spring, but we’re not thinking global warming.

We’re thinking breakfast, exploring the succulent options on offer in the Mercat de la Bouqueria (organic paella, calamari with crispy artichoke, champagne with fresh Catalan pastries).

Wondering, for the umpteenth time, why Sydney sent the only decent produce market it had to death-by-suburbia.

Our nine-year-old pulls us to a seafood stall where crabs, crayfish and razor clams are sold still gasping, twitching and bubbling.

We stare, touched. Then turn away, still hoping to enjoy breakfast. But too late. The nine-year-old – who, like most of her peers, casts herself as the great saviour of nature from humanity – has extended an emotional commitment to a red-and-black marbled yabby that is determined to cheat destiny by clambering, earnest as Shackleton, across the pipi-topped ice floe on which it is stranded.

Can’t we buy him? Can’t we take him back to our hotel, keep him in the basin, take him to a lake, or the sea? Can’t we save his life somehow? Please, mummy? please? There are tears now.

This matters, this yabby-life, more than anything, and I am tempted to accede, but somehow I find the moral strength to explain the world’s truths about train timetables and quarantine laws and short yabby life spans.

And, overarching all of that (I’m still hoping vaguely to salvage that champagne) there’s the “even if we saved this one there’d be the thousands more, tomorrow and tomorrow”, which leads to the “importance of recognising other cultures and beliefs”. Like the belief that creatures’ lives count for nothing? Even that, mummy? (this delivered with full nine-year-old indignation).

Well, yes, even that.

Back in London, meanwhile, where we will soon return, the good archbishop is weathering the same storm, on a rather different scale, as he insists that Britain must eventually allow sharia law. It is important to distinguish Rowan-the-Williams from that other Rowan, Atkinson, but the bishop and the Bean do have the odd thing in common, beyond just looking gormless.

Principal among these is the tendency to do something really well-intentioned but really, really dumb, then regard the ensuing uproar with a bemused, “what, me?” kind of innocence.

And on the surface you can see the archbishop’s point. Pluralism is the flag we live by, a natural outgrowth of the freedoms of speech and belief that underpin not only everything we love about Western culture but everything that has made it successful. For any sceptics here, the prescribed remedy involves checking out the Spitalfields or Brixton markets, where dozens of languages, cuisines and coutures mingle in the shops, stalls and streets with every appearance of harmonic profusion.

But law is different. Law isn’t just another aspect of culture. Shall we do sharia or Western tonight, darling? – like shall we have Indian or Thai? The difference is it’s not optional, and if it is optional, it’s not law.

Every kid knows the essence of law is its equal and implacable application to all. And while you might tolerate vileness in a national dish or anthem, the same tolerance cannot extend to institutionalised intolerance. Pluralism must tolerate much, but not that.

So the example of the Beth Din, trotted out by the archbishop’s damage-control bomb squad, doesn’t run. The Beth Din is a system of rabbinical courts set up by British statute over a century ago to resolve disputes – often but not exclusively property disputes, mainly but not exclusively between Orthodox Jews. It is an arbitration system that anyone can use, though few goyim do, where the British court, as final arbiter, will cheerfully overturn a Beth Din finding in case of conflict.

The archbishop’s defenders claim a similar gentleness for sharia law in Britain. Forget your images of “beheadings, floggings, stoning and amputations” says Riazat Butt in The Guardian. Think of straightforward matters like divorce, inheritance, commerce and marriage. One sharia council in London, running since 1982, says marital disputes are 95 per cent of its caseload. Nice simple marital disputes. Hardly even dispute material.

But that’s sophistry, and not only because of the purgatorial nature of divorce. Voluntary law is as nonsensical as partial law is wrong. If yabbies would only volunteer for a slow death on the market ice, both the trawler’s net and the vendor’s eagle eye would be surplus to requirements. The net – the entire legal system – is necessary only to enforce what we don’t do naturally. Because, like brave little Shackleton yabby, we all want to be the one that got away.

But if he escapes, and I hope he does, Shackleton might consider scuttling down the Ramblas to Barcelona’s Maritime Museum, where his namesake’s original icy struggles are on show.

It’s part of International Polar Year, but he’d better get cracking, before the only meaning left in “polar” is something to fight over. Like sharia law within Westminster.

Say, where’s that champagne?


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