'Sydney’s Muslim Land': a local's perspective


Zeynab Gamieldien

Local resident Zeynab Gamieldien.

Local resident Zeynab Gamieldien.

I was born and raised in the Canterbury-Bankstown area. Over the course of my relatively short life, I’ve seen my fair share of sensationalist news articles and poorly edited video packages on my local area, featuring the standard shots of women in niqabs walking past ‘exotic’ grocers as bearded men scurry inside. But yesterday’s article in the Daily Telegraph entitled ‘Last Drinks in Lakemba: Tim Blair takes a look inside Sydney’s Muslim Land’ really did manage to set a new bar of awfulness in the already awful climate of representations of Muslims in mainstream media.

Blair opens his article with a lamentation of the impending demise of ‘one of the last Anglo holdouts’ in Lakemba, the Lakemba Hotel. He remarks that the characteristic which sets Lakemba apart from the rest of Sydney is not its multicultural flavour, but its Middle-Eastern ‘monoculture’. He adds as a helpful aside while ‘all the restaurants’ in Lakemba serve great food, the bookshops are full of scary material, going on to provide several quotes from three books he happened to spot amongst the hundreds on shelves. The image of one entitled ‘Women Who Deserve to Go To Hell’ is then featured alongside that of a male mannequin placed outside a clothing shop, whose drawn-on, black texta beard  is captioned as ‘crudely Islamified’. Add in a few images of Halal butchers and a shot of Australian Mohamed Elomar allegedly holding up a severed head in Iraq, and you get a complete picture of what the suburb of Lakemba is all about.

Or not. It’s difficult to even begin to unravel the long line of fear-mongering stereotypes and tired clichés which underpin this article.  But one can only try:

1.)    ‘Muslims are all Arab’


The title of the article suggests that it offers an insight into a ‘Muslim land’. But elsewhere Lakemba is also rather confusingly referred to as a ‘Middle-Eastern south-western suburb’ and being akin to ‘any Arabic city’. Never mind the fact that not all Muslims are Arab, or that the most populous Muslim country in the world is actually our neighbour, Indonesia, or the fact that in 2010 the Pew Research Forum statistics indicated that 62.1% of Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific and only 19.9% in the Middle-East and North Africa.

2.)    ‘But all brown people are the same, aren’t they?’

According to the 2011 census data on languages spoken at home in the State Suburb of Lakemba, languages categorised as Indo-Aryan, in particular Bengali and Urdu, far outnumber Arabic. This is reflected in the mix of restaurants and grocers along Lakemba’s main street, the obvious indications being shops such as ‘Bangla Bazar’ and ‘Ekush-Bangladeshi Thai Chinese Restaurant’ alongside the few Lebanese restaurants referred to in the article. But this kind of diversity isn’t of the type people like or understand. Because there are varieties of brown people in Lakemba, they all become essentialised into one big fat lump of ‘monoculture’.

3.)    ‘Muslims don’t know how to speak for themselves’

Despite offering a ‘look inside’ the suburb, Blair doesn’t appear to have actually engaged in conversation with any Muslims at all in ‘Sydney’s Muslim Land’. Instead, he bases his many observations on street signs, food samples and three books he picks up which he says ‘caught my eye’. When he does decide to get some information on what the suburb’s Muslim residents are like, he goes straight to two non-Muslim locals who give their opinion of what they think Muslims are like. This is reflective of a recurring trend of representations of Muslims in mainstream media: they are spoken to and about constantly, but never allowed to actually speak for themselves.

4.)     ‘It’s okay though, they have good food!’

Ah, the racist’s fall-back. After all, no one who likes a kebab could possibly be racist, could they? Blair claims to somehow know that ‘all the restaurants’ in Lakemba serve good food, despite the cuisines on offer ranging from Pakistani to Indonesian to Moroccan and thus impossible to canvas into a single culinary entity. He then offers the handy tip that if you don’t know what to order in a Lebanese restaurant, just go for something with the word ‘mixed’ in it. Plus, the ‘unusual hours’ of Lakemba grocers during the month of Ramadan render them super-convenient.

As laughable as this is in the context of the real fear generated by these types of articles, it points to the existence of a more insidious, everyday racism in which diversity is only tolerated in the form of offering new and ‘exotic’ culinary tidbits to sample.

Within hours of the publishing of the article, a Facebook page entitled ‘The Crudely Islamified Mannequin Man’ was set up to commemorate the many achievements of the stoic bearded mannequin so prominently featured in Blair’s article.

One of the page’s creators, Will Scates Frances, stated that he created the page “as a satire of the kind of reporting that turns Lakemba into a scary place of Islamic people who are so scary that they don't even have enough voice to be quoted in an article about 'them'”. At the time of writing, the page has over 700 likes, and the hashtag #TeamMannequin is trending on Twitter. Last drinks, or last laugh? You decide.

Zeynab Gamieldien is a resident of Canterbury-Bankstown and a blogger at lovehaqtually.wordpress.com.


  • Ok, but Lakemba does have" women in niqabs walking past ‘exotic’ grocers as bearded men". That is a choice of presentation to the host community that recent immigrants have chosen. Turkish Muslims have lived in Australia for over 90 years without any of the fuss that offends you. On the contrary, they have been exemplary citizens. I can't remember Islam being an issue until it showed a militant face and complained about hostility from the host community (Australia). There is an issue here and it is insufficiently addressed by Muslim leaders. Swift and unconditional condemnation of Islamic nutters (i.e. zealots for the caliphate or sharia law) would go a long way to addressing some of the problems identified in this article. Jews condemn Israeli interventions in Gaza. How about louder and more timely condemnations of ratbags from Muslim leaders? That would cut the ground from under the feet of hostile journalists.

    Date and time
    August 19, 2014, 7:25PM
    • The article in question revealed some alarming content in the books in the bookstore. Women going to hell, anti-Semitic and praising Hitler. Very disturbing. The sight of people chanting for Jihad in the streets is enough to give anyone chills.

      Rich Culture
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 7:45PM
      • Don't worry Zeynab. Most of us know that the likes of Blair and Bolt represent the views of a fringe minority. I will continue going to Lakemba to get a decent feed and be greeted by generally friendly people. I grew up with many Muslim friends in Hurstville and work with a few colleagues who are Muslim and without any exageration I have the highest regard for them. Well behaved, modest, genuine, honest and the least superficial people I have encountered. No doubt a reflection of the teachings of your faith. I am usually LNP leaning but I am disappointed in the language coming out of Abbott and his team Australia garbage pandering to the likes of those who profit from divisiveness. Instead of coming out to condemn Blair yesterday he condemn those who already consider themselves Australian to be part of Australia and accept it's values.

        Piped Piper
        Date and time
        August 19, 2014, 7:48PM
        • I think the moral of the story is, just say, "No!" to the Terrorgraph...

          on a train
          Date and time
          August 19, 2014, 8:11PM
          • Its ironic that on the SMH website this story is the scroll above a story on another Muslim group saying we will drown all of you in blood!.
            I am sure the author of this article must recognise the fact that non muslims are scared of the fact that muslims overseas are committing atrocities that make the Cronulla riots seem like a non event.
            As long as the current religious muslim leaders are left as the spokespeople for all muslims there will be problems.
            Why can't muslim professionals in business and in general local government have more say?
            Why can't women from this religion question the different interpretations of Islam?

            Joe Blow
            The Burbs
            Date and time
            August 19, 2014, 8:22PM
            • we all need to introspect what we choose to brand others with!!

              Date and time
              August 19, 2014, 8:32PM
              • Tim, you're supposed to be a reporter - too difficult to actually talk to one of the Muslim locals? You could at least read Zeynab's blog - it may surprise you.

                HAL 9000
                Jupiter Mission
                Date and time
                August 19, 2014, 8:34PM
                • This article is rather self-contradictory. Once I saw that it was a rebuttal piece I went and read the article to which it refers before finishing here. Most of the world would see Islam as a Middle Eastern religion, just as when you use mention of Catholicism, your first thought is of Italy (after all, it is the Roman Catholic Church). So when I read the article, I didn't feel the authors was attempting to tar everyone with the same brush so much as to paint a picture for his readers.

                  After pointing out that 62.1% of Muslims are from the Asia-Pacific region, you then go on to point out that there are many of those races represented in Lakemba, too. So perhaps it is possible that they are all Muslims, is it not? Either way, your second point tends to refute your first and you reinforce that when talking about restaurants later.

                  You also give Lebanese people special mention for some reason, which seems strange to me as my understanding is that there are many Lebanese Christians in Australia. It seems you may be guilty of the sin of which you accuse Tim Blair, or is it that you know that all the ones who live in Lakemba are Muslims?

                  Anyway, I just wanted to point out how easy it is to see prejudice where I am sure none exists. I think Mr Blair's article was reasonable, given that it's focus from the start was the local pub. I also think you have made some valid points but, at the same time, I believe over-reacted to a reasonably well balanced piece of journalism.

                  Date and time
                  August 19, 2014, 8:35PM
                  • I didn't think Daily Life would publish an article defending a religion that is inherently misogynistic. Cultural relativism may make us feel all warm and fuzzy, but women's rights in Islamic countries are appalling. Take Saudi Arabia for example: women can't drive, women haven't yet got the right to vote, women cannot walk alone without the company of men in public, women who are gang raped by men can be convicted for "adultery". In some other Islamic countries, women's clitoris' are cut off. If women try and leave Islam, the punishment under sharia law is death. These are all facts but don't take my word for it, read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's autobiography about women's rights under Sharia law, a book for which she is has received death threats for.

                    This article is like a gay magazine, publishing a story how "not all Catholics are bad". And whilst that may be certainly true, because indeed not all Catholics are homophobic, nor are all Muslims advocating for the misogynistic policies aforementioned, let's not kid ourselves what the religion itself at its core teaches. And in countries where Islam is dominant, women's rights are diminished.

                    We should be scrutinisizing Islam and indeed all religions that preach intolerance and advocate regressive policies for women.

                    What the?
                    Date and time
                    August 19, 2014, 8:42PM
                    • I must admit I find this piece a bit odd in the context of the "awful climate of representations of Muslims in mainstream media".

                      I was driving home a few weeks ago listening to ABC 702, which can hardly be accused of sensationalism. It was 6 pm and the hourly news bulletin came on and I counted 7 segments, of which 5 were in relation to Islamic issues. Namely:

                      (1) ISIS capturing more territory and threatening to engulf the capital
                      (2) Report on Australians fighting for ISIL in Iraq and Syria
                      (3) Local story
                      (4) Story about a woman in Pakistan who was murdered by her father and brother in an "honour killing" as she wanted to marry a man who her family did not approve of.
                      (5) Report on Boko Haram in Nigeria and progress in trying to free kidnapped schoolgirls
                      (6) Local story
                      (7) Progress on case against Lebanese man who married a 12 year old girl

                      Now, this could mean that the media here, including ABC, is exaggerating so-called
                      Islamic issues". Or it could mean that Islam has some serious issues to face.

                      As a non-Muslim I grieve more for the tens or thousands of innocent Muslims who have been killed this year alone by their fellow Muslims in sectarian warfare (shia against sunni) and in countless terror attacks in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Pakistan, Nigeria, Sudan, etc etc. Thinking about the horrors faced my Muslims every day at the hands of their fellow Muslims is far sadder than any article in the Terrorgraph.

                      Ultimately the only people who can bring true peace to the Islamic world are Muslims. Over to you Zeynab.

                      Date and time
                      August 19, 2014, 8:50PM

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