Arabic is the second most spoken language in Sydney and Australia is home to one of the world’s largest Middle Eastern diaspora communities. Here we find out more.
In the suburbs of Sydney, not far from the congested urban arteries that lead to the famous Harbour Bridge and the iconic curves of the Opera House, the words ‘habibi’ and ‘shu’ have infiltrated the local vernacular. They are terms of endearment for the young people in souped-up cars circling the blocks around suburban malls on Thursday nights. Along the streets huge billboards are posted, emblazoned with the photo of Egyptian singer superstar Tamer Hosny promoting an upcoming concert. It’s not a scene that usually springs to mind when we think of Australia’s most populous city.
Rudyard Kipling’s oft uttered saying ‘East is East, West is West and the twain shall never meet’ loses salience once you enter the city and, for the many Middle Easterners who have made Sydney their home, cultures collide to give way to a melange of exciting possibilities.
Two thirds of Sydney’s population live in the Western suburbs because of an ever growing populace that needs to be accommodated away from the touristic hotspots of the central business district (CBD). Precisely where the west starts and ends is a guess best left to the proud residents who encompass a range of classes, ethnicities, professions and dispositions; however a large percentage of this population holds its roots somewhere in the region Brownbook calls home. Indeed, in New South Wales (Sydney’s state), which is the same size of the Gulf region geographically, Arabic is the second most spoken language. However, this is not something new. Arabic-speaking communities have been in Sydney for generations. They were even here during the racially segregated days of the White Australia policy at the turn of the 20th century when only those with white skin were deemed eligible to settle in Australia; considered a ‘worker’s paradise’ at the time. It is assumed the Lebanese hawkers were the first to come to Sydney during this time and they quickly established a reputation for being an entrepreneurial community as they travelled to far flung country towns within the state setting up shop and making themselves at home.
Today the Lebanese diaspora remains the largest in terms of numbers and most Arabs who have risen to influential positions in society come from this community. As a result, they bear the brunt of any media panic regarding people from the region – something that is fuelled by a TV show following the criminal lives of a local Lebanese family.
Yet, beyond the cliches and facile stereotypes lies the unique diversity of those who come from the MENA region. The constant new waves of business migrants, students and refugees have added a vibrant cultural energy around their localities making them at once global, cosmopolitan and parochially homely. City names such as Tripoli, Kirkuk or Baghdad adorn shop-fronts and if you take a stroll in Auburn for example (a suburb 19 km west of the CBD) your senses are bombarded with Ghada’s homemade . A short ten-minute drive down to Bankstown and you will be intoxicated with double apple fumes emanating from the cultural edifice that is Titanic – a haven for shisha smokers including myself – and, at literary events as well as in Arabic newspapers, there is a special economy of social relations where old friends are united and political debates are re-opened. As Jock Collins and Scott Poynting note in their seminal publication The Other Sydney, ‘the western suburbs are the heartbeat of great cosmopolitan city,’ and this is certainly embodied in the longevity of cultural enterprises such as the Arab Film Festival of Australia growing from a local theatre in Parramatta to a nationally recognised festival that now tours major cities.
Arab Australian visual artists have also been responding to unrest in the region with expected ingenuity: staging creative marches, fundraisers and exhibitions to stay connected with the tumultuous feelings experienced in their homelands. In fact, in the popular Club Arak, which caters to the Arab audience, on the night of the fall of Hosni Mubarak, revellers danced to the beats of freedom and house remixes of Om Kalthoum; ‘Arabness’ in Sydney is a lived performative experience. By this I mean, it takes place not just in dancehalls or the weekly weddings in ethno-specific churches or mosques, but also subtly in the mundane rituals of thousands of Arab households where beaming TV satellite provide a nostalgic dose of comfort.
As Sara Ahmed (a professor of cultural studies) simply puts forward – ‘to be comfortable is to be so at ease with one’s environment that it is hard to distinguish where one’s body ends and the world begins.’ For me that moment came when I met Uncle George in his jewellery workshop. Uncle George came here from Cairo via Port Said to Melbourne and eventually moved to Sydney in the late sixties because it had a ‘pulse.’ His manual competence is flawless as he juggles telling me the latest dirty Egyptian joke and having a sip of Arabic coffee in between bouts of neatly rolled cigarette puffs. George’s workshop instantly transports me to Khan el Khalili’s diminishing splendour, he’s a character straight out of a Naguib Mahfouz novel and there’s plenty more like him. If you want to meet them you can just pay a visit to my home; the place I am now calling Arab Sydney!
Since it started in 2001, the Arab Film Festival has been a major event on Sydney’s cultural calendar. Showcasing stories from diverse Arabic speaking cultures to Australian audiences, the event attempts to address the stereotypes of Arab culture. Here we interview the directors and ask them to give us a guide to their city:
Please introduce yourself
FA: I’m Fadia Abboud – one of the directors of the Arab Film Festival in Australia. I’m an Arab Australian; I was born here after my parents migrated from Lebanon.
MZ: My name is Mouna Zaylah. I am a proud Arab Australian with strong roots in Lebanon. I am a cultural producer working with communities on a range of creative projects in the suburbs of Western Sydney.
Explain your involvement in the film festival
FA: I had my first short film in the first Arab Film Festival, when it was called the Sydney Arab Film Festival in 2001. A few years after, because I was working with one of the founding organisations, ICE (Information & Cultural Exchange), I was asked to help put on the next festival. Although I’m not one of the founders of the Arab Film Festival, the reason it was started is still the reason we put it on now. There are very few places people can see Arabic language films – or Arab stories made by Arab people. Our festival is one of those places, where misrepresentations are challenged and Arab stories are celebrated in all their complexity, diversity and beauty.
MZ: I have been involved in various capacities over the last ten years in the growth of the festival. The festival landed in the lap of Fadia and myself in 2006 where we both assessed the needs and committed whole-heartedly to the growth and sustainability of the festival. It has been a challenge but we are both proud of our achievements. The key to the success of the festival has been our eagerness to share Arab stories with the rest of Australia.
Tell us about the Arab diaspora in Sydney
FA: Australia is a country made up of mostly migrants and has many cultural pockets splattered all over its major cities. Arabs have been migrating to Australia since the late 1800’s so there are many people that are ‘integrated’ and don’t know a word of Arabic and then there are people that are newly arrived and don’t speak English. So the Arab Australian identity is as diverse as the Arab identity. Arabs have been depicted very negatively in Australia, particularly in the last ten years, and this has contributed to the way we identify. Not having positive images of yourself on small or large screens contributes to these stereotypes and cultural cringes.
MZ: There are three words to describe the Arab diaspora in Sydney – proud, loud and strong. The negative stereotypes by the media often brings communities together – sometimes to address the stereotype and other times for the sake of reconnecting. The Arab Film Festival is a major event in Sydney that actually unites people to celebrate the beauty, to bond, and to connect.
What is your favourite district of Sydney and why?
FA: Parramatta. It is where I grew up and where the Arab Film Festival is. Actually it is the centre of Sydney and these days has excellent cafes and lots to do on the weekend – you can catch a ferry from the city. The Sydney Festival in January has a whole 10 days of stuff especially planned for Parra – so there’s no place like home.
MZ: The Western Sydney Region as a whole is beautiful to me and is my favourite in the world. It is home to over two million people – the most diverse region in the world. Its mountains, rivers, bushland and urban environment take your breath away. In Fairfield (the suburb I live and raise my family in) over 70 different languages are spoken, while Auburn is home to people from over 100 nations.
Where’s the best place to go at the weekend?
FA: Sitting in parks with coffees and cakes or going for a swim at the beach is the best way to spend the weekend. The best spot is the women’s rock pool at Coogee. It’s off the main beach hidden away so women can feel comfortable to swim and sunbake – no men allowed!
MZ: Yarra Bay, Lapérouse – a beautiful bay rich with indigenous history – overlooking one of the missions, and where many indigenous elders lay to rest. It’s a peaceful area and is very family friendly for both the young and old.
FA: Sumalee Thai, underneath The Bank, a bar in Newtown. It is a beautiful open air spot, with my favourite red curry barramundi and prawns… yummm.
MZ: Al Jannah Restaurant in Granville – the best charcoal chicken shop in the country – the line is out the door. Followed by ice cream and sweets at Hadla’s in Bankstown. These are the places that buzz with young people, families and friends.
Complete this sentence: You haven’t visited Sydney until you have…
FA: been to the Blue Mountains and seen the Three Sisters. A great little escape from a busy city.
MZ: climbed the Harbour Bridge, breathed in the fresh air and taken in the view.
Illustrator: Joseph Kai