It’s January 1996.
My family and I were fresh off the plane from Singapore and had landed in Sydney - Asian migrants in a land of hope and possibility.
After growing up on the thirteenth floor of our tall apartment building - the norm in the land-starved country of my birth – I marveled at how much sprawling space my new home had.
Like many new migrants, we landed in Lakemba, a Muslim area with a strong Arab population.
Australia had many differences to Singapore. There were four seasons, lots of white people, and lots of different people of colour. It was also the first time I met a non-Asian Muslim.
I was 12, and it was my first day of high school.
The Arab girls in my class were so different to me. They were gorgeous, vibrant, and so very loud. Most, if not all, of them were born in Australia, and had parents who came from faraway countries like Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq.
We were the minority, and we found safety and solace in one another.
Even though I didn’t click with any of my high school Arab peers, I became close friends with Fatima, a Lebanese Australian girl from a different high school. We met at weekend Arabic school. My siblings and I were literally the only non-Arabs learning Arabic, much to the amusement of the teachers and students. Fatima’s family always invited us over to their Sunday family barbeques.
I enjoyed their famous Arab hospitality, warmth and generosity. I fell in love with my friend’s mother’s homemade ma’mul desserts (the pistachio filling, especially). But my all-time favourite was her homemade garlic sauce. To this day, my husband knows that the way to cheer me up is through garlic sauce.
My family migrated alone, but Fatima’s family came with a whole tribe of uncles, aunties and cousins. I was amazed at how close they were.
In Singapore, I had only ever met other Asian ethnic groups like Malays, Indians and Chinese. I was always a minority – there were only a few other Malay students in my primary school classes. And in Sydney, my minority status continued – this time, I was the non-Arab in my class.
Some of my classmates called me something that wasn’t a compliment “sha ab be rez” – I learned that this was a derogatory term for Asians. “Tribe of rice”. I did, and still do, love my rice. Fatima’s family was my antidote to the racism I encountered at school.
I ended up sitting in the front row of my classroom with the other Asian students. They were from Indonesia, Fiji, Pakistan and Afghanistan. We had that in common – the fact that we were not Arab. We were the minority, and we found safety and solace in one another.
When I wasn’t with my Asian crew, I was in the school library. That’s where I discovered the escape that comes with reading fantasy books. And yet, even in the books I grew to love, I could not find anyone who looked like me. Back in the mid-nineties, diversity in young adult and children’s literature was rare.
The hate-mongering so common in Australian media is so often targeted towards Muslims, is assumed to only target those of Middle-Eastern appearance
When I read the anthology Arab, Australian, Other I was seized by deep sense of recognition, nostalgia, and discomfort. Recognition, because I could relate to the human struggle to belong, to be wholly seen, heard and accepted. Nostalgia, because I miss Arab food the most when I am pregnant. Discomfort, because my people, Asians living in Australia, feature very little in the Australian Muslim narrative.
The hate-mongering so common in Australian media is so often targeted towards Muslims, is assumed to only target those of Middle-Eastern appearance. There is an erasure that comes with that, when you are Muslim, Australian, and not Arab. We are not a homogeneous tribe. There are so many different kinds of Muslim communities: the Turkish, Afghani, Indian, Pakistani, Uyghur, Filipino, Indonesian, Malaysian, Singaporean.
Now, as mother of young children living in Malaysia, my experience of being Asian is entirely different. We say ‘Selamat Hari Raya’ here, instead of ‘Eid Mubarak’. Everyone, and I mean everyone, loves rice here. Dishes like nasi lemak, nasi ayam, and nasi goreng are ridiculously affordable. Hearing the call to prayer is the norm here. There is a deep respect for honouring the different ancestral traditions, including honouring the birthing body and postpartum care.
The narrative of my faith will always be intertwined with Arabia. The Prophet Muhammed was, after all, an Arab man, who grew up in the harsh deserts of Mecca. But his message of peace, compassion and equality is relevant to my people, in this land of lush jungles and copious rainfall. Arab does not equal Muslim and Muslim does not equal Arab.
Islam came to this land through trade routes and intermarriage. And it is this love, diversity and inclusiveness still manifests in the way my faith is practised, among my people in Asia.
Raidah Shah Idil is a freelance writer. You can follow Raidah on Twitter @raidahshahidil.