Hakeem Al-Araibi
Craig Foster accompanies Hakeem Al-Araibi as he lands in Melbourne (Image: AAP/David Crosling)

“You’ll Never Walk Alone” was written in 1945, for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel; it was a solid, second-tier standard covered by Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, Judy Garland and others by the time Merseyside group Gerry and the Pacemakers put out their version in October 1963.

The Pacemakers substituted the operatics of previous versions of the song for thin Merseybeat guitars, stately piano and Gerry Marsden’s reedy, accented voice; and in that frailty, the song gained a new power. It is the very point where bitter meets sweet — mournful but optimistic, a statement of implicit solidarity.

At the time, the people of Liverpool had probably the greatest concentration of pop stars anywhere in Britain, and fans of the local football club would show this off, singing the hits of the day before each game, played by the ground’s (novel for the time) DJ. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” hit number one in early November, and they started singing it before each game. To this day, they still do. Liverpool sing it when things go well, and in the depths of unimaginable despair they sing it louder.

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This is a long way of saying the sweet, faltering rendition of the song which echoed through the narrow tunnel of Melbourne airport’s international arrival lounge was a very nice touch. The Australian Council of Trade Unions put together a little choir, which gathered alongside the media, Amnesty, and Pascoe Vale players and coaches, to welcome Bahraini footballer and refugee Hakeem Al-Araibi back after two months in detention in Thailand yesterday.

An hour before Al-Araibi is due to touch down, the 18-person choir run through the song a few times as the scrum of cameras swell around them. Pissed off airport employees maneuver their carts around us and arriving tourists wonder what the hell is going on. 

In 2012, Al-Araibi was one of thousands of Bahrainis rounded up and allegedly tortured as the Arab Spring curdled into a nightmare. He fled to Australia and was granted refugee status in 2017. In November 2018, he was arrested when entering Thailand for a holiday with his wife. Australia had tipped off Thai counterparts — unnecessarily, as it turns out; an Interpol “red notice” had been issued by the Bahraini government the day Al-Araibi had applied for his Thai visa.

Al-Araibi has become a focal point for the ragged arguments around refugees in Australia. Contrasted against the faceless collective horror of Manus and Nauru, he is comprehensible; he has a long, gentle face, he plays sport, and has a narrative.

As he emerges into a vintage miserable Melbourne day — icy rain spits from the grey white dome walling us in on all sides — the choir launch into their fourth rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, but it’s more or less inaudible over the cheers, applause and the rat-tat-tat of camera flashes. Al-Araibi manages a tired but easy smile, and quickly and quietly thanks everyone who made this possible — then the kicker: “My country is Australia. I love Australia.”

Next to him, Craig Foster half smiles. The former Socceroos captain and SBS commentator has been a formidable frontman for the push to free Al-Araibi; his palpable decency, camera-ready good looks, his broadcaster expressiveness. He talks to everyone who asks and wavers only once, as he pays tribute to Al-Araibi’s wife. The weight of what could so easily have been seems to land somewhere at the back of his throat. Over his shoulder, John Didulica, the chief executive of Professional Footballers Australia starts a cheer for him (teamwork, huh?). Foster swallows it down, and on he goes. 

His energy is remarkable. When he briefly chats to Crikey his eyes are never still and he chews his lip in that wired, over-caffeinated way, but his rapid-fire commentators patter never falters. One suspects he is not done in this area — see his statement on the morning of Hakeem’s release. He won’t be drawn on Australia’s wider refugee policy just yet, telling Crikey it’s a personal interest of his, but his focus is on reforming football’s governance on issues like this (a big enough task in itself). Either way, he’d be a helluva get for refugee advocates. 

Just before “You’ll Never Walk Alone” starts in Carousel, Cousin Nettie points out to the grieving Julie “the main thing is keep on living, keep on caring what’s going to happen”. As you read this, the High Court is hearing the case of Said Imasi, who is challenging his indefinite detention at the hands of the Australian government. Imasi’s case is a Kafka story made flesh — he is the very definition of a stateless man. He doesn’t know where he was born, and has been locked up for nine years without charge, with essentially no prospect of deportation (no country will take him) or release. On it goes. 

The success of #SaveHakeem is a boon for refugee activists (“It’s so rare you get a fucking win in this area” one said as we waited) but it relied on very specific circumstances. The oncoming election has already brought sustained fear and loathing rhetoric around asylum seekers bubbling back to the surface, as the Coalition tries to hammer Labor on border security and Labor attempts to compromise its way back into government. Whether this issue is still the vote-getter it was six years ago remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Pascoe Vale FC plays Bentleigh Green SC next Friday. I suspect that, along with a bigger crowd than normal and the return of the league’s most famous defender, they might just have a new club song.

Walk on. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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