Ugly reality of vibrant neighbourhood: Inside Australia’s most Muslim suburb

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IT’S viciously hot in Lakemba, western Sydney, and three men are gathered around a table on the footpath, drinking cans of Solo and laughing their heads off.

Muhammad Nazir, 71, and Sayed Alam, 25, are teasing their friend Michael Chinappa about taking him to a nightclub to meet women, as the embarrassed 84-year-old removes his baseball cap to reveal a shock of white hair and rubs a hand over his lined face.

A stout, white man in a straw hat edges towards us to listen in on our conversation about one of Australia’s most Muslim suburbs.

“I’ve lived here 43 years,” he informs me, hovering just out of the group’s earshot. “Then, it was mostly Anglo — Greek, Polish. Now the biggest population here in Lakemba is Bangladeshi.”

In a sardonic tone, he adds: “I hate it, I’m a racist.”

I wonder if he is joking, and he responds by listing the nationalities of his former partners: Chinese, Egyptian … a “Brazilian negress”.

He continues: “I don’t like them sitting on the footpath, all the customs … I don’t like change. People scratching themselves, spitting on the footpath, hacking up … They make no effort.”

THEY’RE TERRITORIAL, VILLAGE PEOPLE’

The group at the table — a Lebanese Muslim, Fijian-Indian Catholic and Burmese atheist — look uncomfortable, and begin talking among themselves.

His words underscore how negative attitudes towards this diverse population still seep into everyday life in one of Australia’s most multicultural areas.

The new arrival introduces himself as Leigh, but won’t give his surname. “You want me to be killed?” he asks. “I can’t park my car in the street where I live. They break my windscreen, damage my car … because I’m secretary of a large strata plan and people don’t like to abide by the by-laws.”

He can’t leave the area, he explains. His home would only fetch $500,000. But he has an idea of how to improve the suburb. “Something we had in 1949, people have to pass an English language test before they come here,” he says. “It’s the single biggest impediment. They just don’t understand.

“They’re funding an indigenous dictionary for Aboriginals to speak to the doctor in their own language. The medical centre doctor is from Palestine, he has some real grievances.

“I do stick out, like a pimple on a bum. I’ve had people yell at me — look, look, an Anglo!

“One of the biggest problems with these people is they’re territorial, village people, only concerned with themselves, not the community.”

Mr Chinappa, who has directed a film about Indians living in Australia, tells his friends he just received a clean bill of health from the doctor, which he puts down to occasional short sprints. His mother lived to 110. She and his father moved from India to then-British colony Fiji as indentured labourers. “They came here on the agreement, or ‘griment’,” he says. “When Indians were treated like slaves.”

‘SOME PEOPLE JUMP IN FRONT AND GIVE YOU THE FINGER’

At Nour Al Houda, Australia’s first Islamic clothing retailer, store manager Zena Beydoun says racism is pretty rare here. “Even Christian people come to the shop, buy long-sleeve swimwear, kaftans, perfumes,” she says. “Indian, Pakistani, they’re really simple people. They try their best to laugh and communicate, even if they can’t say any words.”

She lives in Erskine Park, where her predominantly Anglo-European neighbours normally stick with a quick, “Hello, hello, how are you, bye.” But they are friends. She’ll hand out Christmas cards and boxes of chocolates over the holidays.

Ms Beydoun, who has worn a hijab for seven years since she became “more into her religion”, says people react differently to her headscarf further west, towards the city’s edge. “In Penrith, there’s huge racism,” she says. “Even when you try to park your car, some people jump into the space in front of you and swear at you, give you the finger.

Here, it’s completely different. If you break down, people will push your car to the side or come in the middle of the road and help direct traffic.”

The 44-year-old mother of six moved to Australia from Lebanon 26 years ago when she married a Lebanese-Australian. “He’s really Aussie-minded,” she says, and “doesn’t care” whether she wears a headscarf. He wouldn’t like her to wear a full niqab, which covers everything but the eyes. That’s only for the “extremely strict”.

“In Australia, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she says. “Some people look at them in the wrong way.”

Joumana Akhdar, 42, is leaving a Lebanese grocery store. She’s going home to prepare a salad of watermelon, cucumber, tomato and haloumi for her 23-year-old son, who is sleeping off a midnight viewing of the new Star Wars.

Her family are the only Muslims in their building, and are welcomed, she says. They swap presents with Christian friends at Christmas and Ramadan.

Ms Akhdar wears an electric blue headscarf, eyeliner slightly smudged in the 39C heat, and says she’s never had comments on it, despite hearing stories from others. “I’ve been wearing this for a long time, but no one tell me anything,” she says. “Everywhere is bad and good people.”

Her Pakistani neighbour wears a full veil, but “doesn’t follow the rules”, she says, neither praying three times a day nor fasting at Ramadan.

“She grew up like this,” Ms Akhdar shrugs. “They don’t have to wear this. It’s maybe up to the husband or parents … People say if you’re very, very pretty you may wear it, but I may see myself as pretty and you don’t have to wear it.”

IF YOUR KIDS SAY, I WANT TO DATE THIS WOMAN, THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN DO’

The mother of five has some strict views. “We prefer Muslim to marry Muslim, so they don’t have problems in the future,” she says, giving the example of deciding whether to send children to church or the mosque. “But if your kids say, I want to date this woman, there’s nothing you can do.”

Like many in western Sydney, she voted no to marriage equality. The seat of Watson, in which Lakemba is located, said no to same-sex marriage at 69.9 per cent, against the grain compared with the rest of Australia.

“From the beginning,” she says, “we know it was husband and wife, boy and girl, it’s very hard to change it. It’s against our religion.

“It doesn’t mean we can’t be friends if we don’t think they can marry. I knew a couple at the last place we lived, they were fine.”

Fahad Ali, founder of Muslims for Marriage Equality, believes the postal survey hasn’t helped the already tarnished image of Islam. “It’s reflected really poorly on the Muslim community,” he says. “It’s taken focus away from the Parliamentary process that led to this and the Australian Christian Lobby that was running the campaign.

“Our leaders taking the decision to support the No campaign, they’ve justified the attention it’s getting. There’s still a huge percentage of people who are not Muslim in western Sydney who voted no.”

But Mr Ali says Muslims need to accept homophobic attitudes exist, and work on changing them now the Yes vote has succeeded. “The past couple of years have not been kind to the Muslim community,” he says. “There’s some shockingly xenophobic, anti-Muslim prejudice, whether it’s Pauline Hanson walking into Parliament in a burka, or George Christensen spouting rubbish — those things do have an effect.”

Ms Akhdar laughs at the thought of the One Nation leader. “Maybe she has her own view — she’s funny, don’t you think? Sometimes she makes people laugh, not angry. I think she knows. There’s a photo on Facebook, an Arab guy wanted a photo and he insulted her, she just keeps on smiling.”

‘THE DAY THEY COME HERE, THEY LOVE IT’

Frank Gazal, owner of popular Jasmin restaurant, says he doesn’t get involved with politics, because it’s all about “flashy cars and suits.” But the 39-year-old, whose father came to Australia from Lebanon when he was nine, is pitying of Ms Hanson.

“I’d love to bring her here, have some nice food, see what it’s about. I feel sorry for those people, there’s no room for hate, should love each other for who we are.”

His words are poignant at the end of a year tinged with tragedy for the area, after a car ploughed into a classroom, killing two eight-year-old boys. The moment also showed the community’s capacity for love — in the sight of hundreds flooding Australia’s largest mosque for a funeral, and when the dead boy’s father made a Facebook video on his way to the event, expressing his forgiveness for woman behind the wheel.

Mr Gazal is rushed off his feet preparing for summer events — New Year parties, Christmas gatherings, family celebrations. “We do them all, we’re third generation,” he says. “We all get on pretty well. People say, ‘Lakemba this or that’, the day they come here, they love it.

“They come and buy the food, get spices. You can walk into a shop and find all these different things.

“The Islam fear factor, it’s totally that, we’ve got loyal customers, good people who know who we are. It’s very multicultural, people from all walks of life … It’s vibrant.”

Shop assistants Hala Mohamed, 21, and Claudia Terangi, 23, say it’s certainly vibrant, all right, directly in front of their workplace. “There’s always drama outside,” Ms Terangi, 23, rolls her eyes. “Fights, car accidents, people fainting.”

But Ms Mohamed says “people do help each other out”. She’s more troubled by demanding, middle-aged customers. “They bargain a lot,” she says. “It’s not like in Bankstown where everything is a set price, even if it’s on discount they still bargain.

“It’s in their nature. They have to try. It’s mostly Indians and Arabs.”

Ms Mohamed, dressed in a Bardot jumpsuit instead of the shop merchandise her boss prefers, is both modern and traditional. Her family is from Egypt, which she didn’t like when she visited because the men were forceful and boys threw rocks in the street.

She wears a headscarf, but is a fan of the veil. “It’s modest. I love it but I wouldn’t see myself wearing it, just because of society.”

She also voted no to same-sex marriage. “Just because it’s against my religion,” she explains. “We know that’s how they are but we don’t accept it.

“I love gay people.” She checks herself. “I don’t have a problem with it. A lot of Muslims did vote yes. They don’t care.”

Ms Terangi, born in New Zealand to parents from the Cook Islands, is relaxed about the issue. She’s taking a week off over Christmas while her co-worker takes care of the store. They swap at Eid. “I’m the type of person gets along with everyone,” she says. “We’re all just human. I don’t care being the Islander on the street.”

Ms Mohamed says the biggest issue for Muslims right now is Palestine. “It’s ridiculous. It’s all over Facebook.

“I’m not doing anything, I feel really bad, just supporting with money, giving to charity.

“It’s our holy land.”

She says she understands people worry about extremism. “I do get people are scared, if it was another race but Muslim … but because it’s Muslims, I don’t relate,” she says. In the future, she adds, “I hope there’s no racism in the world.”

Now Muslims For Marriage Equality has done its work, Mr Ali is optimistic aboutunwinding harmful attitudes. “I don’t think it’s impossible,” he says.

He believes shows like Channel 9’s hugely popular Family Food Fight “did a lot to capture hearts” and SBS’s Inside the Mosque to inform and enlighten.

Ms Beydoun reckons the media is vital, too. “TV and news make Muslims look like bad people,” she says. “Knock on any door, they will make you food, make you feel welcome.”

“Show what Muslims are like,” she says. “I think it would make a huge difference.”

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