I’ll begin with recent events and work back to a little about my life, which has led me to the conclusions I’ve reached and the reasons behind the things I do. Rather than say too much about myself, I prefer to share observations I’ve been fortunate enough to make through personal experiences. I’ll begin with a recent encounter.
Members of the Newcastle Muslim community were privileged to have the opportunity to meet Bishop Bill Wright, Father Brian Mascord and other members of the Catholic diocese. Although there wasn’t a large attendance, word of the event was passed around and Bishop Bill’s very thoughtful words were warmly received.
This visit was highly valued in times that have proven more than “trying”. Negative media coverage leading to verbal abuse and attacks, especially on women who are more identifiable than men, has obviously created a sense of fear among the Muslim community. This visit from the Bishop was a great comfort to our community and gave me a sense of pride in my involvement in multi-faith programs.
Fear isn’t restricted to the local Muslim community; frightening images of violent crimes against humanity are a constant theme in the media, leaving people of all faiths wondering what is happening, and creating fear and division. Simple things like Bishop Bill’s visit and sharing tea together help to break down that fear.
I was born in Newcastle and as a child, living near the ocean and watching cargo ships come and go, tales of faraway places and people of different cultures always fascinated me. I had an uncle, an anthropologist and linguist, who travelled extensively. Drawing on his colourful stories, of which I never tired, I could envision other ways of experiencing life. Growing up I reflected a lot on life, both the material world and the inward spiritual world. These thoughts, whether conscious or subconscious, led to my saving up to travel to South Africa at a young age.
South Africa was under apartheid rule, which was quite a shock to my system. Although I had heard and read about it, to actually see and experience it was quite confronting. Such injustice was difficult to comprehend. After a year I slowly travelled up the east coast to Kenya. An image of pristine rainforest comes to mind with the warm hospitality of local communities all along the way.
Travelling the hard way, village to village on local transport, I often had the pleasure of being exposed to the elements of nature: strong wind, gentle breezes, scorching sun, light showers in the heat of the day or the night sky alive with bolts of lightning and thunder. I felt a much greater awareness of the presence of God. Growing up in a family which was not religious, I realised later in life that I was always searching for a spiritual home.
I bought a deck class ticket on a ship called the “State of Haryana” and travelled 12 days from Mombasa to Bombay (now Mumbai). The ticket cost US$50 and it was the ship’s final journey before being scrapped in Chennai. It was the early seventies and there were many travellers on these routes so it was much safer than the same journey today.
On arrival in Bombay, in contrast to the serenity of many of the places I visited on the east coast of Africa, I was thrown into chaos. An ocean of people, loud noises of all kinds, aromas of spice, smoke, cows and no place to hide, were the immediate images that greeted me. But then I saw people of all faiths and cultural backgrounds co-existing peacefully, each respecting the other. The chaos turned to peace and I saw that everything was as it should be. I observed that the temples, mosques and churches were vibrant and alive with activity.
I made a couple more trips to India and South-East Asia and it was during this time, after a long search with many experiences and much contemplation, I embraced the religion of Islam and became a Muslim.
I finally settled and married in Kashmir, a valley in the top of the Himalayas, where I spent the following 22 years. In 1976 Kashmir was a very peaceful place, tourism being the main source of income. However, in 1989 an armed struggle was declared which led to a proxy war. My husband and I ran a business as well as raising five children.
Life was very different at first. As a traveller I am grateful to all the amazing people I met along the way, who have taught me so many lessons to help me through life. But as a traveller I was always “passing through” which meant I could observe from the outside. Now I had settled in a culture so different from the one I had known. I could now observe from the inside. I found that so many of the little things were done differently from the way I had always known. Many things seemed to defy gravity and science as I knew it, but somehow, in an unknown logic, it worked. As time passed I started to realise that the same outcome could be achieved using a different process. It led me to understand that there were many different ways to do things and my arrogance had hampered my ability to see this.
This revelation may seem insignificant but it opened my eyes to the fact that difference and diversity are to be celebrated.
Along with everyone else in Kashmir, our family endured seven years of war before returning to Australia after the death of my husband. I was lucky to have such a refuge when many are still trapped in the realms of war.
Currently, I am the Vice-President and spokesperson for the Newcastle Muslim Association, which represents the Newcastle Mosque and the local Muslim community. This community is made up of people from many different cultural and lingual backgrounds. Part of my work is to help to dispel myths and misconceptions about Islam and to separate and define the differences between cultural and religious practices. This is a practice used in reverse as well, allowing the Muslim community to adjust to life here and dispel their own misconceptions about our non-Muslim brothers and sisters in humanity.
In my life there have been many inconsistencies and challenging times, with the one constant in my journey being my evolving relationship with God and the consequence of a faith that has given me strength beyond my human comprehension.