‘Speak Arabic Brother, This Is Lakemba!’

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Racism comes in all shapes and sizes, writes Zushan Hashmi.

‘Go back to where you came from!’ and ‘Learn to speak English!’ are both phrases that many people of colour come across or experience at some point in their lives here in Australia. Particularly in instances where they might not possess a certain ‘level of English’ skills, speak loudly in a language other than English, or simply use an accent that is considered to be ‘different’ to that which is ‘normal’.

However, ‘speak Arabic brother, this is Lakemba!’, is far more astonishing to hear, and perhaps something most people never come across, or at least we don’t hear about it if they do.

Well, it very much was the slur that I was ‘fortunate enough’ to receive during the Lakemba Ramadan Food Festival a week ago.

To provide a bit of context, I was speaking in Urdu to a friend, just as a store owner was slicing up my shawarma meat (in all honesty, as a shawarma enthusiast, I can state that the service was almost as bad as the shawarma) and preparing to pack it into the pita bread, when he made the comment.

Nonetheless, being the sort of person who prefers to avoid conflict, I came to the decision that I should keep my calm and let things go. After all, the last thing this world needs is for a fight to erupt in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood in Sydney, at a shawarma stall.

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So I ignored his ‘joke’ as he seemed to perceive it, purchased the shawarma (I can’t help but reiterate how mediocre it was) and was on my way.

Unfortunately, before I did leave, what I saw and heard was far more shocking and saddening. The store owner’s son, about nine or 10-years-old at the most, laughed away at his dad’s comments – it seemed to be the most hilarious thing he’d heard all week.

Not only was this disappointing, but when my friend could not hold back and decided to ask, “How about Turkish, do you speak Turkish?”, the young boy pointed towards the other corner of the street and exclaimed “You want Turkish food? It’s on that side!”

This situation clearly demonstrated the divisions between ethnicities, languages and cultures, even within one community or group of people. Hence, there were a few keys pointers that I took away, and felt the need to share.

Firstly, it is important to understand that this phenomenon of resorting to racial slurs, is by no means exclusive to any one community. Sure, there are a number of people within certain communities who are significantly racist, but there are just as many, if not more, who are not, also within the same communities.

After all, racism is prevalent across all societies, such as the aforementioned one and often impacts people in very different ways to that of say, a majority ethnic population group implying or ignorantly accepting their dominance of their larger society.

Secondly, it would be naïve to buy into a prominent cliché within the Muslim community, that Arabs are often racist towards non-Arabic speaking Muslims, as they do not consider them to be ‘real’ Muslims, due to their lack of Arabic-speaking skills.

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It just so happened that the perpetrator in this instance was an Arab. One is perhaps as likely to find someone of Pakistani-origin, or anyone else for that matter, damaging and negatively impact other people through similar slurs and comments.

However, it is certain that this is a form of racism, which is often unheard of and seriously lacking in any form of structural discourse or with any sort of discussion around it, particularly in the West. And the wider message is that racism as a whole can often impact the children who grow up around it, in turn, helping craft and shape their views of the world.

Hence, it is imperative to understand that racism exists, even in the pocketed corners of our society, whether this may be a Turkish corner or an Arab corner, a white man or a Vietnamese woman. And it is only through accepting and recognising this that we can start focusing on educating our youth, wherever they may be from, so as to fight and reduce racism and its constructs across all spaces.

And although my dear friend, or ‘brother’ as he called me, the shawarma swindler, may never come to realise this, it is still not too late to educate his son about the repercussions of racism, and why it is such a horrid act. This will potentially allow him to grow into a finer young man with a more astute form of thinking and perceiving the world around him.

It may also allow him, if he chooses, to make shawarmas one day that are far superior to those of his father’s.

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Zushan Hashmi

Zushan Ahmad Hashmi is the Policy and Research Coordinator for the South Asia Study Group, at the University of Sydney.

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