Zaoui - politician, prisoner, poet

By Michele Hewitson

Ahmed Zaoui, who needs no further introduction, says his English isn't up to much. I'm not so sure. He gets it all right when I say, "what a lot we know about you".

He likes a bit of sport, so he leans forward, his eyes bright. "You know so much," he says. He opens his arms wide. "Nothing to hide. Ha, ha."

So let's get this one out of the way. "You are a terrorist, aren't you? Yes. Thank you. You can comment." He makes a whooping noise, like a child enjoying a game. "Ha, ha. You push me to say yes! Aaagh!"

And Deborah Manning, his lawyer, who is almost as famous as her client, says: "Michele Hewitson has cracked it. Case solved."

Obviously this is all just playing, and Zaoui could be a terrorist for all I know. But even if he is and we let him go about the country plotting terrible terrorist acts, he wouldn't get very far now, would he? Everyone knows his face and that, you would think, could make plotting tricky.

We haven't come to find out if he's a terrorist. We've come to find out why he's achieved a strange sort of celebrity. He recently made an appearance at the music awards where he sang with Dave Dobbyn.

On Thursday he launched his first book of poetry, Migrant Birds: 24 Contemplations.

There are 24 poems, one for each month he spent in prison. Bill Manhire has written the introduction.

So here is the prisoner turned poet in the lounge of the Priory offering sweet pastries he's made - but can't eat because of Ramadan - and Father Jack's scones. Would we like mint tea, or cardamom coffee? The polite answer, he says, "is both".

He gives me and the photographer a present - copies of the fund-raising cookbook: Conversations Over Couscous: Cooking with Ahmed Zaoui. There is a picture of him on the front tossing couscous. When I say he is just like Jamie Oliver he laughs.

We talk about the poetry for what seems to me to be a decent time, although he will say a little plaintively at the end: "We don't talk about the poetry!"

You can see why he might be sick of talking about himself, of trying to convince us that he is a good bloke.

But this is the odd, unspoken deal that has been struck. He has become a human rights symbol of sorts.

People want to hear what he has to say but they also, I suspect, just want to see him.

He was sent more than 2000 letters when he was in prison. I ask whether he thought he had become a romantic figure; whether some of the women who wrote were a bit in love with the idea of him. He stares at me blankly, raises his impressive eyebrows, then laughs immoderately.

"What," he says, "is the question there? This is an assessment."

What a strange life he's leading. "I can't refuse this," he says of the idea that he is regarded as a symbol. And on being a much-in-demand celebrity: "Ha, ha. I didn't ask for celebrity. When I come to New Zealand I can't prophet [predict] that. I don't like to show off. I'm not shy but I try to be humble, to make my foot in the land and to share with people. I'm not arrogant."

When he saw his family for the first time in almost three years it was on national television, via a satellite link. I wondered if he had qualms about sharing such a private time.

"But I haven't any choice," he says. "For three years I haven't seen my family. I can't refuse such a proposition ... I think maybe I was a little bothered. A little bit, not a lot. But what can I do?"

I wanted to know, although this, too, felt invasive, if he worried his four boys might come to resent him because of his absence. He tells how one of his sons "tried to express his suffering. He said to me, 'Father, if I am a God, I kill all the women'. I said, 'what did you say?' Then I realise what he thinks: that women is responsible to give birth, not man. And he wants to stop life."

Nobody talks much for a while after he tells this story.

We have a little difficulty understanding each other. This is not simply a matter of language: it is one of temperament. Much-interviewed New Zealanders can be frustratingly, blankly emotionless. And real celebrities maintain a steely resignation during the process.

Zaoui, by contrast, has a face which shows everything he's feeling. You couldn't train that out of him.

So it takes us a while. He's not quite sure when I'm doing that New Zealand dead-pan joking thing. And it takes me a while to realise that when he flares, it's not because I've made him angry.

It's because what we're talking about has sparked some deeply held emotion. He can get annoyed. When I tell him that to some it seemed a bit off that his profile involves going to the music awards, and yet we heard nothing from him on the bombings in Bali, he stopped smiling.

The Herald ran a column on this topic.

"First," he says, "I am not a politician. I am a political refugee who needs protection and my case is very fragile." Also, nobody asked him and "if I find any opportunity to condemn terrorism I will do".

He is often described as "our best-known Muslim", but "I'm not sure about this because I don't mix with the Muslim people here". He means not much, or not in any official capacity.

He was a politician and although he says now "I never put myself in the politics; people they come to push me into the politics", he retains many of the skills. He is good at staying on message. He has a terrific smile and an easy charm - an invaluable skill when it comes to campaigning.

What he is campaigning for now is his freedom, and to be able to stay in this country and to bring his family here. Almost everyone who meets him wants these things for him, too.

You suspect he is leading a cloistered life beyond the obvious fact of the Priory. He is surrounded by people who adore him. He must know, though, that there are those who don't want him here.

"Yeah, that's all right. You are in a democratic country and you can say what you like."

Nobody has shouted at him in the street. "No, I didn't meet anyone like that. You are a civilised people."

As much as we're observing him, he's having a good look back. He is intrigued by New Zealand and New Zealanders. One of his poems is called What is the Algerian for Rugby? He thinks he would like to study sociology at university.

When I ask him what strikes him as strange about New Zealanders, he thinks for a long time. He is wary of offending. Finally he says, "There's the rugby. Yeah. It is the rugby."

This is because "it is good, but maybe a little bit exaggerated. They give to rugby even more than maybe politics. In Algeria we like soccer. But not like this. I heard it is a God".

How odd he must think this is. He is too diplomatic to say so. It is "good" to be odd, he says. He was much tickled when he learned that a general election cannot be held on the day of an important footy game.

He seems remarkably cheery all round, given his peculiar life, but then I suppose a day at the Priory seems pretty good after D block at Paremoremo. His natural inclination, he thinks, is to be optimistic.

We have hovered around the topic of his celebrity for almost two hours, and then he goes to have his picture taken. He proves to be a natural at assuming the requested poses.

"Oh, you are a celebrity," I say. "Look at you."

He turns to look at me, and winks.

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