Finding Common Ground


The day I first met Marlene Ross, she was sipping tea at a plastic table in a concrete inner-city backyard. It was Australia Day and a small crowd had gathered under an Australian flag in the Sydney suburb of Tempe.

As teacups danced on the table under the shadow of an incoming Boeing 747, Marlene’s drawl rose above the din, "No they never should have let the Islamicists in. It’s been a mistake." As the plane landed, I clumsily told the gathering that my name was Samia, that I was making a show for SBS about Australian nationalism — and that I’d arrived in Australia from Bangladesh 18 years earlier.

Marlene lives in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire, home of the infamous Cronulla riots, and describes herself as a "patriot" out to defend the rights of the "Australian" people with a growing group of nationalists called "Australia First". Over the next few months as we got to know each other, we bickered endlessly about the meaning of the word Australian.

"The Australians need to be recognised as a people," Marlene insisted. "You multicultural journos from SBS, you’ve got all these shows about Living Black, but why is no one interested in what it’s like to live white in this country? I want you to come with me to see what its like to live white in Australia today. I want to show you what those muzzos are doing to my Australia."

And that is how it began. My uneasy attachment to this woman whose politics I found distressing, but whose grandmotherly warmth and charisma left me hankering for more.

Perhaps I heard sincere concern in her voice when she pleaded with me never to let "them" cover me up, or marry me off. And perhaps it even struck some uncomfortable nerve buried deep inside my gut. There was a touching hilarity to her insistence that she was going to set me up with a nice white "patriot", and something very sinister about the very next moment when she uttered in a low voice: "Oh I know your type, if push came to shove, if there was a jihad or holy war, you would go with your own people."

All the hairs stood upright on my arms and a little voice inside my head — perhaps Allah — told me to get out of there. But curious about this spirited woman full of contradictions, who was convinced that her world was under siege, I did exactly the opposite.

"No, there was no racism back then", Marlene declared as she reminisced about her childhood on the West Australian coast while tucking into a slice of the chocolate mudcake she had bought especially for my visit. For Marlene, those innocent days — when hopes, dreams and undiscovered pearls shimmered just over the horizon — had slipped away and something sinister was happening right across Australia.

Apparently it all began with Muslim women in Villawood, western Sydney. Groups of burqua-clad women started booking out public swimming pools for two-hour blocks claiming that they were learning to swim. "Why couldn’t they just swim with Australians?" Marlene pleaded. And why on earth were they being forced to wear those ridiculous, full body "burquinis", when everyone else was happy with a cossie?

During hot, languid days, Marlene would sometimes venture out to Villawood by herself to discreetly watch these burquini-clad women learn to swim. "It’s just not right, the way those chauvinist Muslim men never let them out. They are chattels and I don’t understand why they’re too wimpy to stand up for themselves. This is Australia; they should be free. And white kids who are born in Australia should be free to swim wherever they want and whenever."

When she was a child, Marlene would swim upstream the Swan River until her fingers were wrinkled like prunes and her shoulders had grown that little bit broader. Her long-distance endurance was remarkable and it wasn’t long before she won races and was invited to compete in state trials for the Commonwealth Games. Instead of being her mother’s little lady, she was her father’s little swimmer.

On a still day when her baby sister Lorraine just wouldn’t stop howling, Marlene’s father sent her up the shops on an errand, with a little pouch of silver coins. With a skip in her step, Marlene returned home with her very first pair of jeans, which smelled like the new department store. Humming a tune from the latest American flick to drown out Lorraine’s thin persistent wail, she was trying on the jeans, when suddenly she felt the weight of her father knuckles against her face.

Later she could not recall what she had been sent to buy with those silver coins. But she never could forget the feel of her father’s rough fingers clutching her dark hair, so like his own, as he smashed her head against the door again and again. He said she was a slut for wearing jeans and his words were laced with booze. A busted lip, a black eye and a bruised heart later, Marlene hastily bundled together her most prized possessions, turned her back on her beloved river and ran away from home.

"What no-one ever understands," she continued on her roll about the swimming pool situation in suburban Sydney, "is that by letting those muzzos into the country and into our pools, we are turning back the clock. You know they call them ‘Ladies only’ sessions but they’ll only let you in if you’re wearing a burquini. Aren’t I a lady in my own country if I wear normal swimmers?"

Marlene believed these burquini-clad women thought lowly of women who donned ordinary bathers. Perhaps some of them do. Who knows whether someone can choose to cover up their body for the sake of modesty, without implying that women who don’t are immodest? Women the world over will continue to debate this one out.

However, it is obvious that the distress Marlene feels about these women is infused with the anger of a young slighted girl. I can’t help but feel that her anger and sadness about Muslim fathers and what they might be forcing their young daughters to wear comes from a young teenage woman from yesteryear who is still smarting from the wounds inflicted on her for wearing the wrong thing.

At one point, Marlene’s voice dipped so low it was barely audible. "I tell you what, I know for sure what I never ever, ever want to see in Australia’s future: my granddaughter growing up under sharia law. And that is what is going to happen if we keep letting them in. Those muzzos, they are dangerous."

Licking the tips of my fingers for the last chocolaty crumbs of cake, I asked Marlene why she thought Australia was poised on the precipice of sharia law and jihad. It seemed downright loony to me. Marlene heatedly responded with, "Well why don’t you see it for yourself? Come with me to Lakemba next week."

Waiting for Marlene in the fluoro light spilling out of Ahmad Chami Halal Butchery next to Lakemba train station, I felt like a traitor. A gang of her mates were attending a meeting in Lakemba with the hope of causing a stir. Catholics and Muslims were holding a "Peace and Harmony Day" — bringing together practising religious types — and Marlene and her mates were not impressed. A small girl, probably Bangladeshi, walking out of the butcher, asked her father "amra ki aj kofta banabo?" (Are we making meatballs tonight?). I drew my thin hoodie over my head, wondering whether I could hop back on the train and head home.

On spotting me, Marlene grinned conspiratorially and rushed forward to give me a hearty cuddle. When she released me I had a sticker of an Australian flag on my jacket.

When the tall, young sheikh addressed the 150-strong crowd gathered that day in Lakemba, his main message was that Australians have misunderstood sharia law. He assured us that an Islamic state and Islamic laws were nothing to be scared of.

Dismayed that he was defending religious rule, I forgot for a while that Marlene was sitting next to me. Had this man never even heard of secularism — that precious idea that religion should be kept well away from the running of a country? I was astounded that he seemed to believe he could win us over to the idea of sharia law with his straight smile and mesmerising eyes.

It was a rude realisation that what I had assumed to be Marlene’s paranoid speculations about jihad and sharia law were partly fuelled directly by clerics, like this man, standing up all over the country saying twitty things.

Afterwards, Marlene dragged me over to the sheikh and introduced me as her "young Muslim friend". I held out my hand, hoping that I could chat with him personally and ask some questions. He refused to take it, saying "Sorry sister, we Muslims don’t touch women". I grew up Muslim and I have watched with dismay as the Muslim community in Sydney — and so many of my family members all over the world — have embraced an increasingly conservative Islam in the last decade. Infuriated, I was about to make some witty retort about finding his decision not to touch women odious, but Marlene piped in before I had the chance. "Well, you, young man are insulting my culture when you don’t shake my hand, when you don’t let me give you a bit of a cuddle." She spent the rest of the night trying to touch him and give him a bit of a feel.

I sighed with relief as my train filled the distance between Marlene and me with suburbs full of people turning off their lights. With its soothing rhythms and gentle rocking the train carried me once more, further and further away from a Muslim Australia that I had fled almost a decade ago when I left home after high school.

As my train chugged closer to home, one question rattled around in my head: why had I been unable to speak back to the sheikh at Lakemba? While I stood there reeling from his insulting refusal to take my hand, Marlene had rushed in to fill the space with an impassioned defence of her Australia.

By now, Marlene would be back at her unit in the Sutherland Shire. Somewhere in Lakemba, that unnamed Bengali girl with a stomach full of meatballs, rice and saag was also asleep, with a chequered school uniform draped at the end of the bed. As I got off the train I wondered whether in my lifetime it would be the Shire girl or the Lakemba girl who would ultimately speak back to that sheikh.

This is an edited version of an essay that was first published in Lines of Wisdom: Young Writers, Old Stories, Timeless Encounters (Affirm Press).

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