Zaoui a reluctant celebrity

By Catherine Masters, By Catherine Masters

The sparsely decorated and usually serene 19th-century Christian sanctuary is abuzz with joke-cracking and roars of laughter.

It is dark and cold outside St Benedicts Dominican Priory in Newton, a rangy, humble building with a quiet air of benevolence, which radiates like a halo over the hum of motorway traffic at notorious Spaghetti Junction below.

Inside this echoey building this early winter's night, warmth and conviviality abounds among the guests. Gathered for dinner are various dedicated students, one bearded Algerian Muslim, one twinkly-eyed, Dominican friar and one crusading lawyer.

The chef is the Algerian, who allegedly has links to terrorists - at least, so believes the security service. The Algerian goes by the polarising name of Ahmed Zaoui who, wearing a pinny, does not look particularly threatening.

Since his release from prison in December, it has been a strange existence for the man who became a human rights symbol and inspires devotion among his followers. Ordinary people wish him well on the street. Truck drivers toot if they see him.

If the Government is to be believed, he is a threat to national security, but in the past six months he has been quietly pottering around with a group of Catholic priests and students.

Just what does Zaoui do all day? And why do they like him so much?

Tonight is Friday night dinner and discussion night, a regular fixture these days at the priory. The dozen or so young people are part of a small invasion of mainly university students brought together by Deborah Manning, Zaoui's lawyer and the lawyer at the dinner table.

They help her with the photocopying and research and help to answer emails. Some are also on the priory roster, a round-the-clock protection squad which screens the refugee's telephone calls and visitors.

If it seems over the top, Manning says it is because when Zaoui was seeking refuge in Belgium in the 1990s he was set up.

As a leader of the expatriate Algerian community there, he had an open-door policy and people flocked to his house. He got into trouble for associating with the wrong people. Manning is making sure he cannot be accused of this in New Zealand.

Tonight's discussion topic is leadership versus charisma and should be interesting, given Zaoui's reluctant celebritydom. Ironically, it is a status thrust on him by a Government which would have preferred no one had ever heard of him.

On arrival at Auckland International Airport in December, 2002, his name raised an alert and he was secretly imprisoned. The news leaked quickly. He spent 10 months of a two-year prison stint in solitary confinement at maximum security Auckland Prison, Paremoremo, the conditions a catalyst for a nationwide movement urging his freedom.

During his time in prison he was declared a genuine refugee but the SIS said he was a threat to national security. There were never any charges though, and rallies were held, a website set up with the slogan "freedom or fair trial" and musicians, notables, academics, bishops and celebrities spoke out in support.

Now, Zaoui's name is probably as well known as that of one of his main detractors, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, who keeps a running total of what he has cost the taxpayer [latest total more than $1.5 million].

But even Peters has described him as a "folk hero", albeit cynically.

Zaoui features in Dave Dobbyn's latest video, Welcome Home. Nearing the end of his captivity he was allowed a visit by New Zealand band Goldenhorse, who sang to him.

He is a professor of Islam who worships Allah and lives harmoniously with members of an ancient order of Dominican friars who worship Jesus.

These peaceful Catholic men of the cloth offered the Algerian a roof over his head when he walked free after two years of incarceration.

Zaoui was sped to the Priory on his release, sheltered from the rowdy mob outside who wanted not to attack him, but to hug him.

The Catholics are convinced he is innocent, saying peaceful links between Zaoui the Muslim and the Catholic Church go back to before the 1992 military coup in Algeria, which forced him to flee his country. He is either a wronged man of peace or a man so dangerous he should not be allowed to stay in New Zealand.

Zaoui is in the kitchen with two helpers, Sarah and Sarah, chopping ingredients for the Algerian feast he is cooking before the discussion.

A big pot of couscous is to one side and they work on honey-soaked Algerian nut sweets for later. The friars are supposedly terrible cooks (sorry, fathers) and seem happy for Zaoui to take over the kitchen.

At the dining room's round table Zaoui plays host, making sure everyone has enough to eat. The conversation belts along, interspersed with gales of laughter, and the food is demolished quickly.

Squeezed in among the young things is the only priest at dinner. Father Chris Loughnan is in his late 60s and is a giggler. He is the comedian of the four friars who live here and is prone to telling long stories which eventually make a poignant point. When he's not joking, that is.

Zaoui leans over and says to ask Father Chris about the new Pope. Father Chris obviously has a lot to say about the new pontiff, not his first choice, but diplomatically replies he is sure Pope Benedict will have a great gift to offer. He's just not sure what it is yet.

I ask Father Chris casually, "so, is Zaoui dangerous?"

He thinks seriously then says, yes, he supposes so: "Well, Steve Abel got a black eye on the soccer field." He laughs loudly at his own joke. Abel is a member of the support crew and Zaoui is an enthusiastic soccer player.

The helpers deal to the dirty dishes and the group moves to the 1970s-decor lounge, with its worn orange armchairs strangely in tune with the green carpet.

A rickety old heater is on but it is still pretty chilly in the high-ceilinged room as everyone settles to the serious business of the evening.

Zaoui pours mint tea and hands around the Algerian sweets which sit atop a prayer mat doubling as a tablecloth on the coffee table.

He suggests in an accent often difficult to understand that a person is not born with charisma but that the media and/or a crisis make it.

The discussion ranges from whether Gandhi, who was a shy young man, had it to who among New Zealand politicians has it.

Maybe John Tamihere and Winston Peters, some of the students muse, but so did Hitler, and they think this goes to show charisma is not always used for the good. The discussion goes for several hours and close to the heater it becomes stifling hot.

Another of the friars, Father Peter Murnane, has been dubbed an "activist priest" whose actions include spilling blood on the floor of the United States consulate in protest at the Iraq war.

Father Peter's faith in Zaoui has always been strong, and while the Algerian has lived at the priory he says he has had no reason to revise his opinion.

"He is a friend, oh, indeed. He reaches out to people. He is considerate. He makes splendid gestures."

An elderly man boards at the priory and Father Peter says Zaoui insisted on taking on his 92nd-birthday celebrations. "He's very genuine," says Father Peter. "We've seen that many times."

He says their faiths are in tune. They pray to the same God in the priory, just differently. Eesvan Krishnan says no one is trying to make a hero out of Zaoui.

"It's not blind faith," says the law student who has come to know him well but who has also studied all the information about him objectively.

"This whole time he has been nothing but peaceful and friendly, and the themes he has always talked about - democracy and dialogue - have been a consistent message without exception. This is not an act."

On a Thursday morning two weeks later Zaoui and Father Chris are running late for Zaoui's English class at Auckland University of Technology.

Father Chris eventually opens the priory door after several rings of the bell and goes off to get "the man". Zaoui is upstairs in his bedroom, a snug attic retreat where he has a stack of books, a laptop and a pet goldfish Yoyo, named after his youngest son, Yousef.

In a white Hyundai with Father Chris at the wheel and Zaoui in the back with his textbook open, the talk turns to the English language.

Zaoui asks what "parody" is, pronouncing it "perodi". Father Chris says it is someone who imitates someone else with a joke.

There is laughter from the back. Zaoui thinks this sounds very much like Father Chris.

The difficulty of Kiwi slang comes up now, and Zaoui says "like cheese". Cheese? It turns out he is saying "cheers".

It becomes clear how an infamous mistake could have taken place at Customs when Zaoui arrived. An inexperienced Customs officer asked Zaoui if he belonged to the GIA, an Islamic terrorist group.

Zaoui replied FIS, the initials of his political party, the Islamic Front for Salvation, which was overthrown in the military coup, but he pronounced FIS "efeeyes".

The Customs officer heard "yes" and decided Zaoui was admitting guilt, notifying the SIS, the police and 12 Interpol offices around the world.

Father Chris drops us at AUT, late, where we are met by one of the Sarahs, who giggles about "Algerian time" and escorts us to class.

Later at the priory over more mint tea, with Father Chris in attendance, I ask Zaoui the question which still riles talkback callers.

Why, when he arrived in New Zealand, did he have a fake passport which he destroyed? He says when the FIS was sweeping to power he was arrested and his passport and identity documents were confiscated.

They were never given back. After the coup he went into hiding. It was a time when anyone with a beard was suspicious, he says.

When he fled in 1993 he used his first fake passport to get into Morocco and says he had no option but to use them again.

The SIS concerns relate to his time in Belgium and France in the mid-1990s, where he was accused of criminal association. They are concerned about issues around communication and association with people overseas.

I ask Zaoui the question I asked Father Chris. Is he dangerous? "I am not dangerous. I am a peaceful man," says the man with the incriminating beard.

He talks about meetings with the Catholic Bishop of Algiers, Henri Teissier, but at this point Father Chris interjects. He edges forward in his chair and this time is deadly serious. This is important, he says.

He says Zaoui's contact with Teissier led St Egidio, a Catholic organisation based in Rome, to invite Zaoui in 1994 to take part in a conference aimed at bringing peace to Algeria.

Father Chris says the connection with Teissier is why the Catholic deputy bishop of Auckland, Robin Leamy, calls Zaoui "the bridge" between Islam and Christianity in Algeria.

And he says the Teissier connection is why the Auckland Catholics were able to gain prompt knowledge of Zaoui's background in Algeria through church links.

As I leave, Father Chris calls me aside and shows me a slightly battered poster.

On it are two faces, one of Pierre Claverie, a Catholic bishop in Algeria, another religious man keen to use dialogue to solve hostilities, and the other his Algerian driver, Mohammed Bouchiki, a Muslim.

The pair died together in a car bomb in 1996. Many people believe their deaths together is a symbol of the striving for peace between religions.

This poster hung in the priory at Newton but was taken down when, in the eyes of the priests, the real thing, Ahmed Zaoui, arrived.

It is clear a real friendship has developed between Zaoui and Father Chris. They get on "very comfortably", he says.

He notes it is interesting, too, that a lot of people have come to visit Zaoui, but not a single one of his detractors has called. He wonders if they should: "So often in New Zealand, human contact solves these crazy reputations."

I ask Father Chris again, jokes aside this time, could Zaoui be dangerous? The priest is unhesitating. "In human affairs you use a moral judgment, not a logical or mathematical certainty, and in human affairs I would trust him with my life."

Zaoui sits again in the priory lounge, but this week he has bitten fingernails. He has been biting them since the Supreme Court decision that human rights considerations in his case should be in the hands of politicians if an upcoming review upholds that he is a security risk.

Perhaps comforting him, though, is the knowledge that at least four Dominican friars will be praying for him.


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