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

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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’

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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.