Maria wound her way through Raga City’s wide pedestrianised streets and plazas, dodging cyclists and a swarm of small children racing unsteadily on little push-scooters, until she came to the thick high stone wall that encircled the city. She climbed a stair and emerged on the battlements, high above the city, and made her way into the gatehouse, where her friend George was doing a gatekeeper shift. She found her friend standing with his back to her, gazing outward into the desert.
Maria joined her friend on the parapet, and followed his gaze.
Beyond the city wall was the protest camp: a ragged collection of caravans, tents, and ramshackle shelters built from corrugated iron sheets or wooden pallets. The largest structure was a pavilion that served as a church, underneath which a minister stood at a makeshift altar delivering a sermon. Fifty or so worshippers listened raptly. A huge banner stretched between two trucks read “Rage against Raga”. Two smaller banners underneath it read “Save the children of Raga” and “Jesus saves.”
“It always surprises me to see the hubbub down there, when it’s so peaceful inside,” Maria mused.
George turned. “I didn’t see you there.”
“I snuck up on you,” Maria said, and held out a flask. “I thought you’d like coffee.”
George’s eyes widened in appreciation. “I love you,” he said, taking the flask.
“You love coffee,” Maria replied with a grin.
Her gaze moved past the gatekeeper to the desert below, where a car was pulling up. A figure emerged from the vehicle and set off up the slope toward the gatehouse. Maria’s smile became pained. “It looks like you’ve got a live one.”
“Bad timing,” George said. “Sorry, I would have loved to take a break and chat with you a while, but duty calls.”
“I’ll hang around,” Maria said, “for a little while, anyway. This one might get through quickly, you never know.”
“You never know,” George echoed.
The man was in his fifties, dressed in jeans (despite the heat) and a work shirt, and carrying a day-pack. He was mildly out of breath as he extended a hand for George to shake. “Hi, I’m Marley, I guess you’re the person in charge here?”
George shook the man’s hand. “George, pleased to meet you. I don’t know about ‘in charge’, but I’m looking after the gate at the moment. Have you travelled far today?”
“Just drove up from Cedarville, not too far. I’ve heard so much talk about this place, I decided I’d better come out here and see it for myself.”
“Well, you’ve probably already heard, I’ve got to talk to you a bit before I can let you in, it’s the same for all our visitors.”
George waved the man into the Gatehouse, out of the sun. The little room contained several chairs, a hammock, a large cooler, and a table with several mugs, a packet of cigarettes, and other odds and ends. “Pull up a chair if you’d like. Can I offer you a glass of water?”
“No, no, that’s alright.” The man remained standing, so George did as well. Maria lingered in the other doorway, the inner doorway, half in and half out.
George began his spiel: “You’ve probably already heard that we’re a community here, and we’ve got our own rules, our own ways of living. This is private land, collectively owned by the community, and that means we get to decide who gets invited in and who gets turned away. Our land, our rules.”
“Right, right,” the man said, nodding.
George said: “So, you understand, we don’t invite just anyone in. We welcome people who share our beliefs and want to live as we do.”
“Right,” the man said.
There were a few moments of awkward silence, as each man seemed to wait for the other to say something. Finally George said:
“So, since you’ve come all this way, shall I take it you’re wanting to come and visit Raga City for a time, and live according to our rules while you’re here?”
“Right, right,” the man said. He’d been nodding the whole time George had been speaking, and Maria thought he looked impatient. As if he was waiting for George to get to the good part.
“Well I’ve heard all about you folks,” the visitor added, ” I’ve heard that you’re all for peace and love and all that stuff, and I’m all for it. Peace, love, freedom, all of it.”
“Well, ah, good. OK.” George said. “So. What happens now is that I’ll tell you about how we live, and if you want to live with us and follow our ways, you’ll be invited in. And if you decide it’s not for you after all, well, no hard feelings, and I’ll wish you all the best.”
The man nodded and said: “Right.”
“So, any questions so far?”
“I have one question, actually,” the man said. “My question is – so you have your rules, and yes I have heard of your rules, I’ve got a pretty good idea of them already, but the thing is – you’ll ask me to promise I’ll obey your laws, but supposing I don’t? Supposing you let me in and then I go in and I break some or other rule that you’ve got – what happens then?”
“Ah, well that’s an important question, and I was coming to that,” George replied, lapsing into the sing-song tones of a person reciting a spiel they have given many times before. “The thing about our rules is, they are actually quite hard to follow. They seem simple at first, but that simplicity is deceptive, and in fact most people find it practically impossible to follow our rules a hundred percent, even people who have been here a long time. Because what we are asking people to do is to behave differently from that way from the way they’ve behaved all their lives, to change their habits. That’s not an easy thing to do, believe me. So we’re actually very forgiving when people break our rules. The one thing we absolutely require is that everyone tries to follow the rules, in good faith, to the best of their ability. And when we make mistakes, we are expected to learn from them and grow.”
The visitor fixed George with a look of mild incredulity. “And that works?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” George replied.
“I have to say I find it a little hard to believe that,” the visitor said.
“You have to remember that people who come here want to follow the rules,” George elaborated, “otherwise they wouldn’t come.”
“But,” the visitor objected, “surely you must get some people who don’t really want to follow your rules, who just say whatever you want to hear in order to get in, but then just do what they like.”
George nodded. “Yes, you’re right, that does happen. In that case we ask the person to leave, and if they won’t go the security team comes and takes them out.”
The man raised his eyebrows. “You use violence?” he asked, in an accusing tone.
“Our security teams have a lot of experience dragging people out without hurting them too much,” George said dryly.
“Uh-huh,” said the visitor.
George continued his spiel: “We make decisions by consensus – that means that when we do something that affects everyone, we make sure that everyone agrees, and no-one is the boss over anyone else.”
“Uh-huh,” the man said, still nodding.
George went on: “Everyone’s needs looked after regardless of ability to pay, and resources are shared according to need. There are no private companies, and no advertisements. Our values are co-operation, respect, kindness, and an active ongoing effort to challenge societal prejudices. We don’t allow any kind of sexism, racism…”
“Right, hold up, hold up a minute”, the man said, holding up his hand as if to physically staunch the flow of words. “Go back a minute. You said something about, what was it, no private companies, and no ads?”
“That’s right,” George said.
“Well that’s communism,” the man declared, in the angrily triumphant tone of a person who believes they have just won an argument.
“Yup,” George agreed amiably.
The man sputtered. “But – look here now, young man, haven’t you considered that you are violating basic freedoms? Our basic, fundamental freedoms, that this country was built on.”
“Ah, well I don’t quite know how to take that,” George replied, “I don’t believe we’ve violated anyone’s freedom, so-”
“You don’t allow companies!” The man exclaimed. “Or ads! That is a violation of freedom, and it’s wrong. You practice communism, and you have children in there. Children being indoctrinated into communism!”
The man was red-faced with rage. Behind him, Maria rolled her eyes, but she was careful to angle herself so that only George could see her.
“Well I don’t see it that way- ” George began.
“And you want to tell me about your rules!” the man continued. “I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say that everything goes in your little commune. Isn’t that right? Fornication, homosexuality, atheism, and, and all manner of perversions, probably. Anything goes! And you’re going to tell me that I’m not allowed to speak the truth, to say that it’s wrong. Everyone in there is headed for hellfire and damnation. You call that freedom?”
“You’re free to not come in,” George pointed out.
“You think you’re so smart,” the man said. “You’re a fool. You don’t understand that communism can never work. You say you want to live without leaders but you don’t understand that domination is natural and human. Have you ever thought about that? Your little ‘community’ will never work!”
“We’ve been doing fine for a few years now,” George said mildly.
“You listen to me, young man. You’re telling me that you have homosexuality and fornication, crimes against God. You don’t know what freedom is!”
Maria had heard enough, and stepped forward to intervene: “Hey hey hey. Gentlemen, I don’t think this is useful-”
The man ignored her, and shook his finger at George. “You don’t know what freedom is!” he shouted again.
George replied calmly: “OK fine. Freedom is a complicated concept. Why don’t you tell me then, in your view, what freedom is.”
The visitor glared at George for a moment, then declared: “Freedom is loving your country, and doing God’s will!”
Maria broke in: “OK, that’s enough! George, this, ah, gentleman obviously does not really want to come in, he’s just here to argue with you. This conversation is pointless, and it’s almost time to close up for the night anyway.”
“Oh, I don’t mind talking,” George began, but the visitor interjected:
“No, no, don’t you worry young lady, I’ll be on my way. I wouldn’t go in to this – this place if you paid me!”
With that the visitor turned and set off down the stepped path. George watched him go.
“You have the patience of a saint,” Maria declared. “Honestly, I could not do that job. Most of them don’t have any intention of coming in. I mean, it’s easy enough to find out what our rules are, people don’t have to actually come here to find that out. They come just to have an argument. There was that woman last week who wanted to say horrible things about gay people. Honestly. There is a whole world full of places where you can be abusive towards gay people, and she had to come here, because it’s the only place where you can’t? And she refused to leave and had to be carried out, screaming the whole time. We shouldn’t bother having gatekeepers you know, it’s a waste of time. We could have some kind of application process to weed out the ones who aren’t serious.”
“I think it’s important to engage with them,” George said mildly.
“Well, you really are a saint,” Maria said. She heaved a sigh of deep frustration. “Look at that lot out there – some of them have never even tried to come in. They just want to hang around outside the gate, and complain. And even the ones who do come up to talk to the gatekeeper, half of them really want to come in, but half just come to argue. I don’t understand it. If they hate us so much, why don’t they just go live their lives, and leave us to live ours?”
“They get something out of it,” George mused, “there’s something here that draws them here. Even though they disagree with everything we stand for, there’s something here that fascinates them.”
“Maybe,” Maria said dubiously. “They hate us, though.”
“Yes,” George agreed. “Even so.” He stretched. “Shift’s over, I’m going to lock up for the night. I’m starving, do you have plans for dinner?”
“Oh I was going to tell you, a few of us are going for dinner at Chris’s. It’s Italian, pasta. You’re invited.”
“That sounds fantastic,” George replied, “just give me a minute.”
Maria waited while he pulled down and locked the shutters, hefted the heavy iron bars into their sockets across the gate, padlocked them, set the alarm, and finally locked the gatehouse inner door on their way out. They climbed down the stair and walked, arm in arm, into the peace and safety of Raga’s streets.