1 October 2022 Susannah

Oodgeroo Noonuccal & Yussef (hi-jacker)

Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Youssef

In my many visits to libraries and literary museums, I’ve seen poems written in tatty exercise books, on thick expensive paper, on the edge of a menu, on a piece of bark, and on various scraps of paper, but I have never before seen one written on an airline sickbag. The Fryer Library has such a poem – it’s a work by Australian poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal, who was known as Kath Walker until 1988 (1920 – 1993).

In November 1974 she was flying from London to Australia. The BOAC plane had stopped at Dubai airport, when suddenly it was stormed by hijackers. Over the course of the next three days, one passenger was killed and another wounded. The plane flew to Tripoli and then Tunis where those on board were finally released. The hijackers had threatened to blow up the plane unless they were given immunity in Tunisia.

During this ordeal, Oodgeroo Noonuccal tried to understand the motivations of the captors and learned that one of them had given up a career as a paediatrician to fight for the Palestinian cause. Using a blunt pencil, she wrote the following poem:

Yussef, (hi-jacker) by Oodgeroo Noonuccal

“Yussef, my son,
What do you do here,
With your dreamy eyes
That tell of moonlight
And sun
And the warm touch of a girl’s embrace?
The love you feel for children
Pours from your heart
And it’s easy to see
Since you wear it on your sleeve.
The soft lines around your mouth
Tell of endearments
You dare not speak.
Your tired eyes
Have seen blood and tears,
Fear and contempt.
I see you in the moonlight
Contented in a girl’s embrace.
But reality clouds my vision;
For there you stand,
A repeating rifle,
In your desert-strong,
Sunburned hands.”

Oodgeroo Noonuccal also wrote a poem called Commonplace during the time on board. Both poems were later retrieved and sent to the staff at BOAC. The sickbag, that you can see in the image above, is now in the Fryer Library in Queensland.

Did you enjoy this poem? Let me know by leaving a comment.

You can listen to the poem here:

or listen to John Denver singing it (with some lines added):

Aunty Oodgeroo Noonuccal
National Film & Sound Archive: Oodgeroo Noonuccal reads her poem, We Are Going in full to an appreciative audience at the Harold Park Hotel in Sydney in 1986.

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Featured image- Oodgeroo Noonuccal, http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/heroes/biogs/kath_walker.html, and poem image by Susannah Fullerton

Comments (8)

  1. Penny Morris

    What an inspiring woman to be able to write poetry in such circumstances and to have a forgiving and understanding heart.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I find it impossible to imagine writing a poem in such circumstances. A very compassionate woman!

  2. Barbara Wright

    Dear Susannah,

    I have read this poem out loud a few times. It is beautiful all the goodness that she initially she in her hi-jacker and then the final eight lines. Chilling.

    When I think about the stress that the poet would have been under, it’s simply amazing that she could think, never mind write a beautiful poem

    I have never heard of Kath Walker. I’m now going to change that by seeking out her other poems.

    Thank you Susannah, I do enjoy your poetry section very much.


    • Susannah Fullerton

      It seems the poetry section of my newsletter is one of the most popular sections, which delights me. I am so glad you have been enjoying my choice of poems. I thought this one was so fascinating – how could she even begin to write a poem in such circumstances???? And then to show such empathy!

  3. Valerie

    I would very much like to know how the subject of the poem, Yussef, felt when he read the poem, and if it changed his heart.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I wonder if he has read it? Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know his reaction.

  4. Jo Hambrett

    Dear Susannah,

    Thank you so much for sharing this poem .

    I have always been a huge fan of Kath Walker / Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s work.

    The Fryer Library is definitely on my list for our next Qld.visit.!

    Best wishes,

    Jo Hambrett

    • Susannah Fullerton

      You will love visiting the Fryer Library – so many treasures there.
      I was just so itrigued by a poem written in such circumstances.

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