This article was first published on the Webdiary on 21 November 2005.
On the evening of Thursday 17 November 2005, I saw one of the unsung heroines of Muslim Australia tell it as it was. The good folks at the Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre invited Nada Roude to be grilled by Anne Henderson.
The night was billed as one feisty woman having a conversation with another. In this case, Nada came out the feistier one.
Anne is one of the leading lights of the Sydney Institute, headed by her husband Dr Gerard Henderson. Anne is also an accomplished author and (believe it or not) is a strong advocate for the human rights of asylum seekers. She has an Irish Catholic heritage, and has written much on post-war immigrants and their experiences settling in Australia.
Nada was a founding member of the Muslim Women's Association, and also founded Sydney's first refuge catering for the needs of Muslim women in need of crisis accommodation. For many years, Nada worked for the Premier's Department and what was then the Ethnic Affairs Commission of NSW.
Today, amongst her other activities, Nada collects mail for the Islamic Council of NSW. Sadly, much of it is hate-mail. Nada chose not to elaborate too much on the contents of some of these letters, preferring to focus on her life and vision for a better of Australia.
Unlike the bulk of Lebanese Muslim migrants, whose arrival in Australia coincided with the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion (i.e. from mid-1970's to the mid-80's), Nada's family arrived in Australia in the early 1960's. When she arrived in Australia at age seven, Nada spoke no English but plenty of Arabic and French.
Nada commenced school in grade five. Back in those days, there were no ESL lessons in schools. Nada had to survive by relying on the extra care of her teacher, a New Zealander she remembers as Mrs Burns. Thenkfullay Nada doesn't speak Unglush un the minnar thus sintunse uz wruttin.
Nada did her serious adolescent growing during the 1970's, around the time I stull shuttung un my neppays (as Mrs Burns might have said). Those were the days when Muslim migrants didn't stand out like sore thumbs.
Back then, what counted most to Nada was surviving as the child of Lebanese migrants. She was somehow different, and spent much of her time trying to conform but also trying to educate her class fellows about her culture. She even admitted to starting a Lebanese dance group.
No, not belly dancing. Folk dancing.
In those days, Nada felt her ethnicity was the most important feature of her life as it was her greatest source of vulnerability. Those were the days when Lebanese were Lebanese, regardless of religion. Actually, in Australia, that has pretty much always been the case.
In Year 10, Nada was elected school captain. She didn't cover her head in those days, but she still stood out with her darker hair and skin colour. Nada's school principal wouldn't tolerate a Lebanese school captain, and Nada had to accept a less prominent role as vice captain. It was Nada's first experience of official discrimination.
In those days, the school authorities presumed that all Lebanese girls would just leave school and get married off to someone who wanted lots of kiddies. As such, Nada spent 6 months of her senior school, years involved in the pursuit of weaving. Her designs apparently continue to grace the wall of the office of the Director-General of the Department of Education. She ended up coming first in the state for Art.
Nada's family knew she was not going to be the orthodox Lebanese girl. She surprised Lebanese family friends by travelling overseas alone after finishing Year 12. She studied comparative religion in Malaysia, before moving to Singapore and eventually finding herself stuck at Beirut Airport with the late Al Grassby during the Israeli siege.
It was at this time that Nada decided that the only place she would ever call home was Sydney. I don't blame her. If I had to spend days being shelled by rockets and rained on with shrapnel whilst in the company of a man whose coloured ties shone more brightly than Israeli flares, I'd be calling Australia home as well.
When Nada returned from her overseas tour of universities and war zones, she made the decision to place a hijab on her head. This was also a revolutionary step, as few Muslim women identified themselves with the hijab. This didn't stop her from being a fiercely independent woman.
Nada told her story with such passion and gusto that Anne found it hard to get a word in. The only other question I remember Anne asking Nada was about her thoughts on how Muslims dealt with suspicion and hatred. It was here that Nada really showed why she made it to at least 2 episodes of Geoffrey Robertson's Hypothetical.
Nada made the important point that Muslims have always been part of the Australian landscape. Muslim involvement in Australia pre-dates the first European discoveries. Northern Australia appears in Arab maps dating back to the 11th century. Muslim fishermen regularly traded with indigenous peoples across Northern Australia. Around two-thirds of Australia's Muslim community were actually born in Australia.
Nada reminded her audience that Australia has forever been a land of migrants. She remembers the days when Indo-Chinese were treated with suspicion and hatred. She recognised that Australians as a nation are still learning to come to terms with differences in culture and language.
In the case of Muslims, the problem has become worse given that what makes some Muslims stand out from the crowd carries religious overtones. Aussies aren't exactly known for their religiosity or indeed their reverence toward the symbols of any religion.
Nada recalled a time when new Lebanese migrants would anglicise their names to fit in. Muhammad would become Michael, and Osama would become Allan. One Muslim stand-up comic from America, Azhar Usman, puts it like this:
I reckon somewhere out there, there's gotta be a guy named Haris Patel who says to his friends at work: 'If you can't say Haris Patel, just call me Harry Potter!'
But as multiculturalism really began to bloom during the Fraser, Hawke and Keating years, many Lebanese Muslims de-anglicised their names. Women starting wearing pieces of cloth on their heads, and open expression of religious symbols became the norm.
Muslim Aussies, especially recently arrived migrants, felt comfortable and accepted. I recall during the 2001 Auburn by-election, even the NSW Liberal Party started taking Muslim voters seriously. Though they wouldn't let an Aussie Mossie be their endorsed candidate. Such is life.
But then something happened. Two jets crashed into the Twin Towers, and one hit the Pentagon. People of Muslim and Sikh backgrounds were immediately implicated. Within a few days, Sydney's Daily Telegraph showed on its cover the headline "First Arrest!". Some bloke with a turban was being held by FBI agents and taken into custody.
I looked at the cover. I looked at the turban. The poor dude was a Sikh. The first person to be murdered in retaliation for September 11 was also a Sikh. In those days, it was bad enough just to be deemed Muslim.
Nada's work as a Muslim activist since September 11 has, in her own words, been just "putting out one fire after another". She says many young Aussie-born Muslims are returning to their parents' and ancestors' faith as an act of defiance. Many of these people feel their heritage is being unfairly targeted, and in a true Aussie fashion are seeking to protect the underdog.
Since September 11, more Muslims are feeling the heat. Comments made by certain politicians and media personalities are not helping in this regard. Nada resents the fact that only thick-Sheiks are being made accountable for their hate-speech but not certain tabloid columnists or Liberal backbenchers.
Nada's biggest hope is the grassroots Aussies who know Muslims through work or as good neighbours. She recalls how touched she was when her neighbour brought her a bunch of flowers and said: "I don't care what other people say. I know you had nothing to do with September 11."
Nada's prescription for the illness of social paranoia is normal human interaction. She wants people to relate to each other as human beings with human frailties, not as Muslims or Christians or Callithumpians. She made the point that all faith communities have shared problems and experiences. If people saw each other as fellow human beings and emphasised their commonalities, we would all realise that our differences are in fact a good excuse to break the ice and get to know one another.
Nada ended her speech by saying how much she wanted to have lunch with Alan Jones. Anne Henderson said she would try and arrange it. I wouldn't mind attending either. I'd love to see Nada gently de-constructing Alan's rhetoric and teaching him a thing or two about what it means to be Australian.
Words © 2005-11 Irfan Yusuf
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