Alien Nation


In 1970, my Indian-born parents arrived in Australia on a boat.

Actually, it was an Italian cruise liner. To this day, at family gatherings, my father jokes about how my mum couldn’t stand the food because it wasn’t spicy enough.

They landed at Circular Quay and stayed in a hotel for a week before moving to Ryde. I was 5-months-old at the time. Within 10 years, they moved to two new houses, each within a half kilometre radius.

For my parents, the most important source of their identity was language, and they spoke the languages of Bollywood movies: Hindi and Urdu. My mum’s first friend in Australia was a Jewish woman who spoke fluent Hindi. Our family friends included Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Parsees, Jains, Pakistani Anglicans and Goan Catholics.

Ryde is in the heart of the Prime Minister’s electorate of Bennelong. When I was growing up, it was a very monocultural area, dominated by Anglo-Australians. I was one of the only non-White students in my school and few kids could pronounce my name.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

For my first few years at school, mum insisted on picking me up at the end of each day. I couldn’t understand her insistence; school was hardly 500 metres away from home. Then she told me the reason why.

We had some family friends who were Pakistani Christian. Their son had very weak eyesight. One day, as he was walking home, some bullies from his school decided to rip his glasses from his face and throw them in the bush. They then punched and kicked him to death.

News of the murder spread very quickly among the small Indian community in the area. My parents were paranoid that the same thing might happen to me. Because I was Muslim? No. Because they heard his parents say that the murdered boy was constantly being teased for being dark-skinned.

The words of the boy’s mother still resonate; ‘We came to Australia to escape persecution by Muslims. Now in this Christian country, our young boy is murdered.’

Back in those days, I was teased and abused and attacked for having dark skin. I looked different from the kids I grew up with, even though we all spoke with broad Australian accents, barracked for the Tigers, and listened to Skyhooks and Sherbet. The bullies were ignorant boys, perhaps egged on by the attitudes of their prejudiced parents.

In 1988, when John Howard made his infamous remarks on stemming Asian immigration to Australia, our circle of Indian friends was furious. One Sikh uncle declared:

That bloody Johnny Howard is behaving like a school bully picking on us migrants. He has got to be stopped. What is all this bullshit about Asians? What have we done to him?

Of course, Howard wasn’t talking about Indians in particular, but my Sikh uncle took it all personally. I can’t say I blame him.

In 2006, not much seems to have changed. Perhaps the schools are a bit stricter on bullying. But my uncles are up in arms again.

Why should they be? After all, the rhetoric today is only against a minority of ‘Muslim extremists.’

Try telling that to the Sikh family of the first person to be killed in a September 11 reprisal attack in the US. The young man worked at a service station. He wore a turban on his head and sported a tidy beard. He was shot five times by a random attacker and died instantly.

After the London bombings, I got a call from my friend Eileen. She used to catch the train from Town Hall to North Sydney and back every day to go to university. ‘Irfan, I’m scared to catch the train now. Everyone is looking at me. One guy shouted at me to go back to Iraq.’

Iraq? Eileen? At first I couldn’t understand why anyone would look at her differently. I always knew her as a fun-loving, Aussie-born nursing student who went to a posh Anglican school and enjoyed a beer with her Anglo boyfriend.

Then I remembered: one of her parents is Anglo-Aussie, the other South Indian. My friend looks kind of Middle Eastern.

Intelligent people like you and I can tell the difference between an extreme fringe and the sensible majority, but there are enough yobbos out there who can’t. We saw that at Cronulla and I don’t care what anyone says no amount of pinching girls’ bums can justify thousands of drunken and stoned dimwits smashing beer bottles over people’s heads just because they ‘look Middle Eastern.’

I find it hard to believe that some of our political leaders including the PM asked us to remember ‘legitimate grievances’ toward Middle Easterners after Cronulla. I’d love to see the PM tell that to the family of the Bangladeshi overseas students who were assaulted by the Cronulla mob. I’d also love to see him tell this to the Vice Chancellor of the university where they pay full fees.

No grievance can justify that sort of behaviour, or the reprisal attacks. Terrorists talk about legitimate grievances too.

So, pity Asian Muslims like my parents who have lived in John Howard’s electorate for decades. In 1988 they felt besieged by his comments on Asian migrants. Now they feel resentful at his frequent references to Muslim migrants. After 36 years of living in Australia, their Federal Member continues to alienate them.

But most of all, pity their observant Sikh friends, because each time Islam is attacked in the popular press, it isn’t just Muslims who feel threatened. With their turbans and beards, the good-humoured and kind-hearted devotees of Guru Nanak cop more flak than the rest of us.

John Howard insists we are not a racist country. That may be, but from time to time racism does rear its ugly head in Australia its mouth wide open and its eyes always closed and its victims are so often unrelated to any alleged ‘grievance.’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.