On the Sikh Trail


It was January 1996 and I was driving to Sydney from Queensland with four boofy young Aussie blokes. (Actually, they were three Lebs and a Bozo Aussie Mossie slang for Lebanese and Bosnians).

It was getting dark and we’d just spent five days at a Turkish Sufi retreat in Toowoomba. We’d almost reached Coffs Harbour and needed somewhere to say our evening prayers.


Just as we’d almost given up, I noticed a large exotic-looking white building with domes and minarets standing at the top of a hill. I quickly swerved the car into the side street and stopped out the front. I then realised this wasn’t what I was after.

The Lebbos, still thinking we’d reached a mosque, immediately bolted downstairs in search of a place to perform their ceremonial ablution.

Typical Lebs always causing trouble.

When they couldn’t find an ablution area, they just used any old tap. One of them was washing his feet when a rather Muslim-looking chap ran up from one of the adjoining houses. He wore loose white pants with a long white shirt and turban. He had a neatly shaped beard. The following exchange took place:

Man [in thick Punjabi accent]: Vaat are yoo doowing heyarr?

Leb 1: Salamaykum [traditional Muslim greeting]bro. You must be the Imam. What time do you guys perform maghrib salaat [sunset Islamic prayer service]here?

Man [somewhat confused]: Vaat you taarking?

Leb 2: It’s okay, Sheik. If you’ve already finished the jema’a [congregational service], we can pray on the grass. Which way is Mecca?

Me [walking with Bozo and addressing him]: Mate, go and explain to these Lebs the facts of Indian religious life.

Bozo [trying not to laugh too loudly]: Gee you Lebs are dumb. Can’t you see? The bro’s a Sikh!

The Sikh bro and I then had a brief chat in Hindi, and I explained the situation regarding prayers. He showed us the way to a more appropriate washing area and even showed us the direction of Mecca. He then invited us for dinner and to stay the night as his guest.

Seriously, my Leb mates who thought this was a mosque really need to integrate and adopt Australian values. I mean, surely Tim Blair or Tom Switzer or Piers Akerman or Janet Albrechtsen or John Stone or Andrew Bolt could tell the difference between a gurudawara and a masjid. The locals in the sleepy NSW North Coast town of Woolgoolga certainly know the difference. Their banana-growing town just north of Coffs Harbour is host to not one but two Sikh temples.

Thanks to emo

I grew up with Sikhs. My parents brought me up in John Howard’s electorate during the 1970s, back in the days when Catholics used to still get bullied for being the wrong um who knows? The bullies certainly didn’t.

For Mum and Dad, the most important thing was that my siblings and I kept our culture alive. And, contrary to certain columnists, that didn’t mean practising jihad skills on posters of the Pope. Even if that would have pleased the school bullies.

My parents wanted to make sure I could speak their mother tongue, and my Sikh family friends were an essential part of my growing up. So were our Hindu, Parsi, Sunni, Shi’a, Jain, Buddhist and Goan Catholic friends. But my fondest memories were of my Sikh uncle, a medical doctor who lived down the road.

This chap (let’s call him Dr Sahib) loved telling jokes. South Asians tell Sikh jokes in the same way as English-speakers tell Irish jokes. Sikhs were laughed at for being a little slow but always earnest and sincere. And always prepared to take the piss out of themselves.

You politically correct Westerners pronounce the word Sikh as ‘seek’. Us Indians aren’t as sensitive, as I discovered one day when I was at Dr Sahib’s place with my parents for dinner. I was hardly seven years old and had the flu. We’d just arrived when Dr Sahib offered me a glass of coke.

Dr Sahib: Irfan, how about a glass of coke?

Me: No, uncle.

Dr Sahib: Why not?

Me: I’m sick.

Dr Sahib: No, you are not. You are Muslim!

My Dad: Boom boom! That was a good one.

I didn’t get the joke until my dad explained that Sikhs were somehow different to us. Their religious men grow beards and wear turbans like religious Muslim men, and their women wear the same loose clothes as my Mum did. They even worship the same God, speak the same language and eat the same food. Their religious songs sound like our Sufi qawwalis.

In fact, Guru Nanak (the presumed founder of the Sikh faith, although regarded by many Indian Muslims as a Sufi saint) performed the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca at least once.

But apparently Sikhs and Muslims are different. Go figure.

Sikhs also cop the flack whenever a bunch of idiots decide blowing themselves up is an appropriate way to achieve political reform. Because Sikhs look more Muslim than most Muslims, they are inevitably caught up in anti-Muslim backlash. In fact, after the 7 July London bombings, the situation became so bad that many Sikhs started wearing badges that said ‘Don’t freak, I’m a Sikh!’.

Sikhs have lived in Woolgoolga since the 1940s, initially working as labourers on banana plantations. Today, Aussies of Sikh heritage make up at least half of Woolgoolga’s population and own some 90 per cent of the banana plantations. One in five kids at the local primary school are from Sikh families.

I travelled through Woolgoolga again recently. I was with my part-Punjabi partner, and we were looking for a place to avoid the NSW North Coast New Year’s Eve piss-ups. Driving down the Pacific Highway, I again encountered that gorgeous white building. I felt like I had arrived back in my spiritual home.

The following day, New Year’s Day, I found myself sitting in an internet cafe in Sawtell, just south of Coffs Harbour. I turned to The Australian‘s website and read the editorial. Entitled Haunted by ghosts of submissions past, it was based on Cabinet papers from 1976 that have recently been released under the 30-year rule. The then PM, Malcolm Fraser, had apparently received some advice about nasty Lebanese Muslims entering the country, but failed to act on it. Apparently Fraser’s relaxed immigration laws saw the arrival of thousands of Lebanese Muslim immigrants ‘which some authorities claimed, lacked œthe required qualities  necessary to become good Australians.’

My message to those allegedly conservative politicians and commentators who play racial and sectarian wedge politics is simple: go and learn about the real Australian spirit in the shadow of the Guru Nanak Gurudawara in Woolgoolga. It isn’t just the good people of the Coffs Harbour region who are able to accept men sporting turbans and beards and women in modest oriental clothing. Across the country, multicultural and multi-confessional Australia is alive and well.

Anyone unable to accept this and wishing to turn back the clock seriously needs to integrate or leave.

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.