People question whether Lakemba is safe. Some say it’s a “no go zone”. One way to find out is to explore Lakemba for myself. As the train approaches the station, my anxiety increases.
Descending the station stairs and feeling very conspicuous with my camera, backpack and clearly Anglo appearance, I take a deep breath. I am way out of my comfort zone. Over the road people are opening the roller doors to their shops. There’s a Halal butchery, Banoful Sweets, Egiptian [sic] Gifts, and Bangla Bazaar.
A Cultural Mix
Lakemba is a real mix of cultures. Many residents are Muslim (59.2% according to the 2016 census), and the highest percentage of the almost 70% born overseas are from Bangladesh (15.4%) with those born in Lebanon a low four percent.
Lakemba Shops and Community
Slowly, I start to feel more at ease. Two women cross the road side by side pushing identical empty grey strollers. Covered from head to toe in black with one hand drawing a black scarf across half their face, they are totally absorbed in their conversation.
The Bangladeshi woman in Kawran Bazaar smiles hesitantly when I enter the shop. Initially wary, she relaxes after some small talk and lets me look around.
Next door in Abou Cham Bakery, a young man puts Lebanese pizza in a fiery oven while his father looks on. A waiting customer tells me that as long as I make the bakery famous, the proprietor won’t mind me taking photos. His breakfast order is a pizza with cheese, oregano and olives.
Women here dress modestly. Words like hijab, chador, burqa and niqab spring to mind. Most women cover their head and hair. Some wear long skirts in bright colours while others are all in black. Some only wear the headscarf with modest western dress.
Feeling More Relaxed
As the scene becomes more familiar, I relax. These women are going about their daily lives like all women in Australia. Apparently, women who dress according to their Islamic culture and religion feel safe in Lakemba as they don’t stand out. Many feel less safe in other areas of Sydney.
The people I approach are friendly and happy to chat. Others go about their business taking little notice of me and my camera.
Kushboo Sweets and Restaurant specialises in Bangladeshi cuisine. The sweets, while similar to Indian barfi are different. Shondesh is made with ricotta while barfi is made with milk powder. Later, I will return to sample one.
Unusually shaped aluminium pots rest on a gas burner in a restaurant advertising Bangladeshi Street Food. A young woman tells me that the filling for a sweet Bangladeshi crepe type dessert is made in these pots. She invites me to return at night as that’s when the action happens.
Not only the women wear traditional dress. Two men wearing long white robes and kufi (skull caps) enter a nearby shop.
A family sit at a Formica table eating a traditional Bangladeshi breakfast. They drink a milky tea from a glass. Not having had my morning coffee, I decide to stop for tea, expecting it to be different. It is – it’s Malai Cha, made from brewed black tea, sugar and spiced milk taken from a large pot simmering on a hotplate. The sweet, rich and delicious cha reminds me of my trip to India last year.
Further along the road is the Tripoli and Mena Association. It provides a range of services to Arabic speaking people including reading letters, advocacy and also provides access to phones, computers and the internet. What a valuable service assisting new arrivals navigate the different rules and customs in their new homeland.
A woman wearing flowing shades of purple walks towards me. Her face is covered by a scarf and a pair of large sunglasses. As she passes me she says “Hello”.
A Community Garden
Individuals rent small numbered plots in the community garden at the back of Jubilee Park. Some plots are better attended than others. I recognise lemongrass, fennel, lots of coriander, rhubarb, spring onions, silver beet and snow peas.
The housing in this part of Lakemba consists of two storey unit blocks interspersed with workers cottages built from brick, fibro or weatherboard. Some gardens are neat and tidy with recently cut lawn while other yards are filled with junk.
Parry Park, on the other side of busy Punchbowl Road consists of a large grassed area divided by a canal as well as outdoor playing fields. The Australia National Sports Club offers Indoor soccer, taekwondo and badminton. Outside two men sit at a table peeling and slicing onions in preparation for the weekend Bunnings BBQ fundraiser.
Ali Ben Abi Taleb Mosque, otherwise known as Lakemba Mosque, stands next door to the Lebanese Muslim Association. Although I haven’t booked a tour, I hope to be able to go inside – like when I just turned up at the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque. A man hosing down fly screens in the mosque forecourt tells me to ask next door about going in.
Lakemba Muslim Association
While I wait, I look around the reception area of the Lebanese Muslim Association. A beautiful Aboriginal dot painting adorns the wall and a plaque acknowledges the original inhabitants of the land the building stands on. Recognition from one Australian minority group of another. Unfortunately, no one is available to accompany me around the mosque. I should either book a tour or come back for the open day in October.
Disappointed, I make do with photos from the outside. A passerby asks me if I want to have a look inside. He explains where to go telling me “Don’t tell anyone I told you”. As an afterthought, he asks if I’m from any organisation and says “if you can, cover your head”.
Why did I feel the need to ask permission to enter the mosque? Perhaps it’s about not knowing where to go and what to do. I have no problem entering a church uninvited.
Feeling like an intruder, I steal up the darkened stairwell. I remove my shoes put on my raincoat with its hood and enter the women’s area of the mosque. Diagonal stripes divide the purple carpet into rows. A glass partition separates the balcony from the men’s area below. This building, reportedly Australia’s largest mosque is much simpler in design than the Gallipoli Mosque in Auburn.
A woman emerges from a nearby door. She smiles and says “no problem” at my explanation for being there, takes off her boots and enters the women’s area. She picks up a Koran, and using the diagonal line as a guide to faces the correct direction to begin her prayers. I leave quietly.
Islamic Culture and Customs
There are a few charitable organisations in Lakemba which provide services with funds donated through Zakat (charity) which, like prayer (Salah) is one of the five pillars of Islam. One of the organisations I pass assists orphans in Lebanon. The other pillars of Islam are Shahada (faith). Sawm (fasting as seen in Ramadan) and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).
St Andrew’s Church on the corner of Quigg and Lakemba Street is a brick building built in 1923. The original wooden church building now serves as a hall. Muslim women with young children in strollers come and go from the hall. I assume there’s a play group in progress, but then discover that Anglicare offers free food from a mobile community pantry once a fortnight.
Shopping in Lakemba
Looking for a scarf for my upcoming Iran trip, I enter a women’s Islamic fashion shop. The assistant asks “Can I help you sister?” and I explain that I am looking for a simple colourful scarf for Iran. Being Arabic and likely from Iraq, she asks me “Can you wear colour in Iran?”. You can. While Iranian women are required to dress conservatively, many are quite fashionable within the constraints of the dress regulations.
Another customer, whose peach coloured scarf covers her nose and mouth tells me that the blue and floral scarf I have chosen looks nice. Her son is a couple of months older than my grandson. Women the world over, despite their differences, have much in common. It is just a matter of breaking down the barriers which are often self-imposed.
Entering Al Aseel for a Lebanese lunch, a man welcomes me to Lakemba. This place is really friendly. Three young women walk in chatting in Australian English. Only their faces are visible. While their dress is different, they converse and laugh like young women anywhere.
Shelves of children’s books beckon to me from the Darussalam Islamic Bookstore. I boldly enter and page through the well-known fairy tale, Cinderella. The basic story is there interwoven with an Islamic phrases and customs. Cinderella wears a hijab and there’s a glossary at the end to assist with the Arabic terms.
Behind the counter in another Islamic bookshop an electronic board indicates the time for the five daily Islamic Prayer times. Outside, a woman dressed in black right down to gloved hands seems less strange now. The more time I spend here, the less confronted I am by the different dress code. I wonder how they feel about me.
The Bee Shop
The owner of The Bee Shop, Sayed, sits outside on a chair in the sun. He chats about his honey which comes from Yemen, Ethiopia and Tasmania. Honey is important to Muslim people because the Koran refers to the healing properties of honey. The Bee Shop also sells special oils that apparently also have health benefits. Sayed insists that I taste two types of honey, one with the comb. They are quite different. Then I taste the tiniest drop of ginger oil. It has (of course) a strong ginger taste.
I buy my favourite Arabic pastry (Ladies fingers) at King of Sweets for an after-dinner treat. Next door, Al Andolos cafe is apparently the place to go for knafeh. I am keen to taste this traditional Palestinian dessert. Unfortunately, they only make it during Ramadan which is long gone. This is the excuse I need to visit the Knafeh Bearded Bakers who I follow on Instagram. They bake knafeh from a food truck at various locations in Western Sydney and accompany their baking with dance and music.
Lakemba – a Positive Experience
Lakemba has been a real cultural experience. After initially feeling uncomfortable, I soon felt welcome and relaxed into learning more about this south-western suburb of Sydney. I’ll be back with friends so they can experience for themselves a place that has been much maligned but which has so much to offer.