Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Strategist

"I want to live a happy and meaningful life"
 Elias Hallaj is well-known in Canberra’s social media circles and political scene. If you follow the #Canberra twitter hashtag you have probably come across his tweets sharing Canberra sunsets and trying to link people from different networks.

I was very glad to meet him in person when he answered my call for people to get involved in the “Hat of Many Dreams” project. It turned out, he is a man of many calls and he is juggling quite a few hats any given day: A Canberra lover, always ready to showcase its vibrant culture, activities and special nature spots. A passionate food connoisseur, running his own blog focused on affordable food. A witty and very spot-on political observer and mediator. A hands-on dad and a dedicated family man. 
He proudly – yet modestly - describes himself as “a father, husband and happy employee of the Labor Party”.
During our conversations, I was amazed how effortlessly he seemed to connect everything and “navigate” through subjects with ease, how naturally he could multitask.

As a person who spends lots of time writing, I always enjoy when I find someone who appreciates semantics as much as I do. Elias is a great interlocutor and we enjoyed a quick talk about the word “dream” and its possible meanings. We agreed to use “aspiration”, in his case, as he doesn’t consider himself much of a dreamer but rather an amused observer.

His house is full of love: 5 daughters, 2 dogs and a wife who he sees as a role model, his best sounding board and counsel. When I asked Elias what is his biggest aspiration, his answer didn’t come as a total surprise. Yet it is probably the best answer I have got to date: “I want to live a happy and meaningful life. I think I already am living this life. Yet I am trying every day to look at the ways to make it more meaningful and to induce this into my daughters’ upbringing as well. I consider myself lucky to be whom I am and to be where I am; my appreciation and love for my family keeps me going, as well as our values”.

I asked Elias if he ever had any regrets. "I try not to have any regrets but I do sometimes wish I knew as much about life, people and politics when I was 15 as I do now. I like to keep my inner child alive, it is important to have that bit of yourself alive, especially when parenting, but also in everyday life situations”.

As a migrant myself, I never try profiling; yet I cannot help but find fascinating the stories and experiences of other people when it comes to culture fusion.
Elias and his parents moved to Australia when he was only 2. His father and mother were his first role models and he considers himself an equal product of Lebanese heritage and Australian upbringing; “I appreciate both my wog and bogan influences and cherish both. When we moved, I wasn’t speaking English. By the time I finished primary school, I was a big reader and I remember going to the local Library regularly. I particularly enjoyed Asterix and Tin Tin books.
Coming out of High School, I had already signed up to be an engineer in the RAAF in Year 11 and was awarded an officer cadet scholarship to go to ADFA after finishing year 12”.

Although he finished a mechanical engineering degree Elias has developed a different career path. He had various part-time jobs at university and became involved with the Students Union and Young Labor, he also worked for the students’ paper. Aptly named “Tharunka” (Message Stick), the newspaper opened his appetite for politics and soon Elias found himself regularly volunteering for the NSW branch of the Labor Party. Before moving to Canberra he had already worked for two MPs and a Union as a Publications and Training Officer.
“Politics can be addictive – few other occupations give you a greater insight into such a range of human emotions on a daily basis. When you win election campaigns it’s euphoria, when you lose, it feels like someone died”.
Elias enjoys working behind the scenes and when I asked how he would use those hypothetical 15 minutes of fame, his answer came naturally: “I would love to tell more people why they should vote for progressive policies and support democratic change”. In fact, his current position within the Labor Party does exactly that: promotes Labor values and focuses on training programs, including overseas and international development.

Elias feels mostly at home during his walks along Ginninderra Creek and West Belconnen. I was fortunate enough to accompany him in one of his early morning walks . His love for the local culture shows, as he naturally – and proudly – showcases the beauty of the walking trails, as well as the cultural heritage. I was very grateful to learn both about the Latham Stepping Stones and the Umbagong Park Grinding Stones, which has a history going back thousands of years to the Aboriginal times. He took the time to explain to me the meaning of the name. The recent rains raised the usual water level and we couldn’t see the grooves very well.
“Can you imagine how happy and content a family would have been in this beautiful landscape when they used to live here thousands of years ago?” he asked. And we did. Within our imagination, we could see it for a few minutes: a simple life on the edge of a river, co-existing peacefully with mother nature.

Elias is also known for his food appreciation, shown on his blog, CBR Foodie. “The blog has a funny background story – I started it to learn how to use WordPress and it sort of developed a life of its own. I’d like to spend more time on it but have too many other distractions and am lucky to post once or twice a month. I do much more on twitter and Facebook as I find they are more immediate conduits for sharing”.

The food appreciation shows even in the smallest details: one of the things I have learned about Elias is that he likes to make his own hummus from scratch. I make my own too but I only used chickpeas cans, I have never really boiled the chickpeas. So naturally, I wanted to explore the subject of comfort food - is there certain nostalgia when one prepares a specific type of food? Does it make one happy; does it make one think of something specific? Why do we all have a particular dish that we love so much because it brings loving memories?
“Mum is a fantastic cook and her tabbouleh is unbeatable. When I do find the time, I like to explore food experiences. I think much of modern food culture is quite unnatural and commercially-motivated. I learnt at a young age that it’s much more important who you share a meal with than what or where you eat. You can have the best dinner in the world for less than $15 if it’s with someone you care about and whose company you enjoy”.




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