Phil’s Story – My Neighbour Alex

I like to mow.
In fact, the term ‘grass obsessed’ has been known to be bandied about in our house. Ok, I’ll admit it:
‘My name is Phil and I’m a lawnaholic I love to mow my lawn’.
But… in truth, that’s not quite accurate. It’s not the actual mowing itself I crave, it’s the beauty created. Every three days I indulge myself and embrace the sensuality of that freshly cut grass perfume, those razor sharp trimmed edges and the sheer joy that comes from the sight of a topographically uniform green velvet, with just the slightest nuance of lawnmower tracks. It’s the best feeling a man can have wearing a pair of boots, your oldest but most comfortable shorts and a pair of ear muffs. Ah… Buffalo bliss.

Now, a man’s home is his castle and Australia is renowned for its wide open spaces and vast acreages stretching to the horizon and beyond. My Buffalo masterpiece does not qualify as acreage, and not even hectareage – if such a thing existed – by it is definitely meterage… sort of. Beyond the rendered front wall and letterbox, in the Council owned no man’s land lying between property boundary and kerb, my lawn oasis flourishes – a total of three metres in length but just half that in width. Don’t laugh, as wise men but fewer women say: “size isn’t everything”. I do have two sections of impressive, if modest sections of lawn, equally proportioned, one either side of the driveway. Jewels they are my pieces of jade – small, green and precious.
‘What the hell do you do out there all day Phil? Every time I drive by you’re working on that postage stamp lawn of yours. Jeez, what are you doing mate, cutting it with a pair of bloody scissors?’
Now there’s an idea…

Lawns. That’s how I met Alex.
The night before had been windy and nature being nature and trees being trees I awoke to find a sprinkling of trespassing leaves on my hallowed turf. At first light, like a Buddhist monk attending a Japanese sand garden in a state of Zen, I could be seen gathering the offenders. My recently moved-in neighbour from two doors down wandered up. He introduced himself as Alex.
Neighbourly niceties and small talk followed.
That’s when Alex said something that caused me to stop arresting leaves to pause, turn around and consider this new guy in his late thirties from down the street with the beaming, welcoming smile.
‘That’s a really useful tool. What’s it called?’
‘A rake.’ I replied.
I pondered this for a moment. Not surprisingly, this was the first time I had ever been asked that question.
‘Alex… I’m guessing you’re not from around here’.

And indeed he wasn’t. The boy from Jordan who had immigrated to Australia on a business visa via the USA had grown up surrounded by desert and snow covered mountains, not Australian beaches and backyards. I learnt that there is not a great deal of couch or buffalo to be tendered in the Middle East.
But I recognised it… even that first day… that green glint in Alex’s eye. A sure sign of Buffalo fever. This is a man who could learn to grow and appreciate a lush lawn.
Lesson 1: ‘Alex, you can tell a lot about a man by his lawn’. Thus spoke the grass sage.
And so it began, a mentor-disciple relationship based on the most Australian of masculine aspirations – great grass. Mr. Miyagi may have told the Karate Kid “wax on wax off” but I advised Alex “aerate and irrigate”. Over the last three years I have revealed the secrets of Shirley’s 17, Dynamic Lifter and together one summer Alex and I stood shoulder to shoulder as we battled the common enemy of all good lawn men – army grubs.
We have shared some memorable horticultural moments. The grass path to nirvana is often beset with weeds. The entire neighbourhood still talks about the ‘top dressing’ incident.
Whether it was sheer over enthusiasm or a misplaced decimal point I still don’t know, but both Alex and I were equally stunned to arrive home one day to find that a small tip truck had deposited – appropriately enough for a gardener originally from the Middle East – a pyramid of rich, dark soil on Alex’s lawn.
Mouths agape, we gazed up at the towering pile of nutrients. Alex ventured:
‘Guess I ordered too much. What do we do now?’
‘We can’t leave it here Alex, it will kill the grass in a few days. Start spreading mate’.
So we top dressed Alex’s backyard, we top dressed my backyard, we top dressed both our lawns at the front, we top dressed our neighbours front lawns. Like a colony of ants, surrounding neighbours began to appear with wheel barrows. “Free top dressing’ is a call to arms heard by gardeners for kilometres. Finally, we stood bent over, exhausted and laughed as we filled the last wheelbarrow and unearthed Alex’s resilient green lawn. Needless to say, Alex was very, very popular with all our green thumbed neighbours that year.

And then there was the ‘painting’ incident.
Alex and wife Kate had contracted a painter and his crew to refurbish their home. Now: lions and hyenas, wolves and deer, tradies and lawn men all are sworn natural enemies.
Tradesmen will blithely park their vehicles upon, mix up their chemicals over, wash out their brushes into a defenceless lawn without a care in the world. Forgive them for they know not what they do. Philistines. Perhaps predictably, in response to such a violation a verbal altercation ensued and this rapidly escalated into a heated argument. Attendance by the boys and girls in blue to calm the situation was required. But do not be alarmed, in the end cool heads prevailed and the priority safe guarded after a thorough watering, the lawn was fine.
Born in the desert living by the sea. My neighbour loves anything to do with the water. Whether it is on his balcony overlooking Port Stephens or working at his cafe business on the marina at Nelson Bay, Alex is never far from the sea. Fishing, boating and jet skiing are all passions.
‘Come on Phil, let’s go for a run on the Jet Ski’.
‘Yeah… why not.’ Famous last words.
Alex often surprises me. I did not realise that as a middle aged man I could squeal like a teenage school girl. I never knew that about myself.
But a ride on Alex’s supersonic Jet Ski revealed to me my full voice range potential – yes, I can reach shrill level when encouraged by fear mixed with exhilaration.

Each and every Christmas Alex and I, our wives and adjoining neighbours gather together to share food and drink, talk politics, life, local gossip… and of course lawns. As a young boy growing up in Jordan, Alex’s first business goal was to save for a pair of fancy new shoes – very expensive. Father was not impressed. He achieved that goal, bought those shoes. Reflecting, Alex confided that he has had a ‘thing’ for shoes ever since. Funny how some events dropped into the pool of our childhood ripple through the rest of our lives.
Last year Alex became an Australian citizen. I heartily approved, he qualified as by now he had a thorough understanding not only of Buffalo but Couch and Kikuyu as well. It struck me that Alex’s story is the Australian story in microcosm. A land of people with the courage and hope to venture far from home in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Whether it is this generation or six or more generations past, we are for the most part immigrants from afar in search of something better. The businesses started, the people met and loved, the jobs created and the valued contribution made ripple through our culture, our society and far into our future.
Life is a collection of memories. Last neighbourhood get together, Alex commented:
‘Phil, I don’t understand half the words you use… but I do like hearing you talk’.
Rhonda: ‘Well Alex, that’s another thing you two have in common. Phil likes to hear himself talk too.’ We all laughed.

This Christmas will be different.
Last Friday Rhonda and I attended Alex’s funeral. He had battled cancer for the last three years, a rare form of intestinal cancer, and early last week Alex lost the battle. A husband, brother, and son – now gone.
I mow Alex’s lawn and trim the edges – I think of that first time we met and smile – the rake. He would not wish to see his lawn neglected and neither would I. A small gesture, probably silly on my part, but it’s all I can do.
Alex (Raed) Katisat was laid to rest at Anna Bay cemetery, overlooking the blue waters of the Pacific that he had come so much to love. Born half a world away, Alex’s journey through life had brought him to Australia, had brought him to his wonderful and loving wife Kate and brought him into the lives of all of us who knew him.
The boy from the desert – my neighbour and my friend Alex now at rest by the sea.


Postscript: As one of a series of interviews undertaken with new Australian citizens, Alex was interviewed by a Newcastle radio station. Follow this link to hear Alex talk about his life experience.