Thursday, December 16, 2010

OPINION: Column for the December/January edition of the Crescent Times

How to make a Shaykh’s sides split

A traditionally trained Islamic scholar visited Sydney in September 2005 for a “Deen Intensive”, a funky way of saying that he had 30 ignoramuses like me sitting around him trying to learn something about their religious heritage.

The scholar was named Naeem Abdul Wali, though his American parents christened him Gary Edwards. For the purposes of this article, I’ll call him Gazza.

So Gazza needs somewhere to perform his evening prayers and to rest. Alf, a young Turkish Aussie who lived on a farm was hosting Gazza that evening. Alf and I go back perhaps 10 years. Alf had spent much of his youth as a Buddhist, before being brought back to Islam by his Aussie Sri Lankan wife who happened to have converted from Buddhism to Islam.

Alf took Gazza along to an old mansion in Auburn that once served as an x-ray and pathology lab but was now a hospice run by the followers of the Sufi order associated with the late Shaykh Muhammad Zahid Bursawi (also known as Mehmed Zahid Kotku).

Some years before, the hospice was located a few streets down. In 2001, I lived in the hospice for around 6 months.

Alf and I met up for coffee one day and decided that one of us should run for Parliament. It was the post-September 11 period, and we were sick of getting all jittery and nervous and defensive.

I was already thinking of throwing my hat into the ring for the Liberals in Reid, a federal seat that took in the Turkish heartland of Auburn. Alf encouraged me and promised to assist “whenever I could”. In Alf ’s case, “whenever I could” basically meant full-time around-theclock assistance. I have never seen anyone work so single-mindedly on a project. Alf was as convinced as I was that it was good for both of us for me to run. He insisted that we make a serious go of it.

At the time, I was living and running a little law practise from the hospice. Believe it or not, the hospice ended up being on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. My opponent was sitting member Laurie Ferguson, then Shadow Minister for Multicultural Affairs. My old mate Ross Cameron (then Federal MP for Parramatta) warned me about Laurie.

“Irfan, Laurie may look like a dill, but seriously he is no dill. Watch your back. Laurie likes to play hard. He’s a lovely guy socially, but politically he is an animal!” Ross warned.

And within a few days, I found out what he meant. I got a call from a Sydney Morning Herald journalist Pilita Clark who said Laurie had made a complaint about my not living in the electorate and telling fibs to the Australian Electoral Commission about where I lived. She asked me whether Laurie was telling the truth. My response to the journo was simple.

“Come and have a look for yourself.” 45 minutes later, she rang me again to tell me she was on her way. Alf and I quickly got the place as tidied up as we could without having a vacuum cleaner or even a broom.

Pilita was accompanied by a cameraman who seemed to enjoy the exotic surrounds of a very European bookshop. I posed for the camera in a variety of spots, including lounging like a beached whale on my mattress.

The next day, 24 October 2001, that image greeted readers of the Sydney Morning Herald. Months later, Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan was to describe the event as one of the highlights of the campaign. He cornered me at a Party meeting and politely remarked: “F**ing marvellous, Yusuf! You really showed those pr*cks, didn’t you! Absolutely f***ing marvellous.”

Here are some classic excerpts from the article that put the sufi hospice on the
front page of the election campaign …

There is a thin rubber mattress on the floor. A red sleeping bag. A phone cord
trailing across the drab carpet. A gym bag half-full of clothes, an outside toilet, no fridge, no chair and no table.

But this murky space at the back of a tiny Islamic book shop in downtown Auburn is home, insists Irfan Yusuf, the Liberal Party’s somewhat unconventional candidate for the western Sydney seat of Reid.

“Here it is,” he says, gesturing about the gloom. “I live here.”

Mr Yusuf’s Labor opponent, the longtime member for Reid, Laurie Ferguson, is not so sure, however, and neither is the Australian Electoral Commission …

Lounging on his mattress, he challenged Mr Ferguson to come down and check things out for himself. “Laurie can come here any time, day or night. Just get him to ring me on the mobile first, because I’m usually at Mustafa’s [the nearby kebab shop]. I’d be happy to introduce him to the Yusuf residence. And after that, we’ll go over and have a look at his bedroom.”

Acknowledging his rudimentary surroundings, Mr Yusuf said: “I’m a bachelor.”

“Obviously when the better half comes along, she will be insisting on some

… Mr Yusuf said: “At the end of the day, what counts is how you relate to the people you are claiming to represent.”

“The guy’s obviously desperate,” he said of Mr Ferguson, who won just under 72 per cent of the vote in the last federal election in 1998, making Reid one of the safest Labor seats in the country.”

Later, my old friend Emine, a waitress at Mustafas, told me how proud she was of me after reading the article. “It shows you are just an ordinary guy, just like all the other ordinary people in Auburn.”

But the proudest people of all were my Naqshbandi brethren. They felt their 5 seconds of fame for many weeks as the incident was widely reported in the local and overseas Turkish press. For the next few weeks, my poster was up across the wire fence that covered at least 5 blocks of a major Auburn street. It was later dubbed “The Great Wall of Irfan”.

But now, some 4 years later, Shaykh Gazza and the rest of us were on our guided tour. Abdul (a hospice teacher) showed Gazza an example of the technique being used to teach Arabic letters to the Sufi novices. But Gaz seemed more interested in what was on the back of the white plastic sheets. He turned one around and then looked in my general direction. He then showed me what he was looking at. There was my mugshot surrounded by green and black lettering and a Liberal Party logo.

“We put these to good use. There is a whole pallet of them in the other room,” Abdul said after we completed the night prayers. Gary looked at me and Alf. We looked back and him and at Abdul. Within a few seconds, we were rolling on the floor in hysterics, laughing till our sides nearly split.

Words © 2010 Irfan Yusuf

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