RAMADAN OVER RACISM! An ode to Lakemba’s Night Market

CRIME CULTURE: Even until just a few years ago, the western Sydney suburb of Lakemba was regularly portrayed by the mainstream media as a no-go zone full of dangerous and violent ‘Lebos’. Crime Culture editor, Irfan Yusuf, pays a visit to the suburb that is now attracting thousands of people nightly with its ever growing annual Ramadan Night Market.

Some years back, a certain blogger for a Sydney tabloid freely available at Scottish-American restaurants across the city wrote a piece about the Sydney suburb of Lakemba. He wrote about his experience staying in a local pub room and walking up and down the main drag. He described the pub as a cultural monolith, “the last Anglo holdout in Sydney’s otherwise Middle-Eastern south-western suburb” where the only predominant race on the cultural menu speaks Arabic. Some of Tim Blair’s descriptions of Lakemba, according to one report, mirrored that of far-right groups such as the Australian Defence League (ADL).

The same newspaper frequently presented Lakemba as a hotbed for global jihad. These days, the only jihad you’ll find in Lakemba is the State MP for the area. And boy do the locals love their Jihad. In the 2019 NSW State Election, the former Punchbowl Boys High School principal scored a whopping 4.4% increase in his primary vote. Meanwhile the Christian Democrat candidate’s primary vote went down 5.7%. When it comes to the popularity of Jihad in Lakemba, Tim Blair might just have a point.

But in terms of Lakemba’s ethnic composition, Blair doesn’t have a clue. Far from being an Arab Islamic city, the largest non-Anglo group hail from the rather non-Arabic-speaking nation known as the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, a nation whose national language is written in ancient Sanskrit script and the words of whose national anthem were penned by Nobel Prize winning Hindu author Rabindranath Tagore.

What used to be known affectionately by many locals as Lakembanon has now become Lakembadesh. In fact, the local Bangladeshi community is so strong that one of the Liberal councillors on Canterbury Bankstown Council is an Aussie woman of Bangladeshi origin who doesn’t exactly dress like something out of an old Scott Morrison tourism advert. Unless, of course, if the said advert featured Lara Bingle wearing a hijab and sporting a more authentic tan.

I used to run a legal clinic in Lakemba for the Salvation Army for a few months just before Aunty Gladys decided to declare a lockdown. Lakemba and other parts of South-Western Sydney bore the brunt of Delta, with police horses and choppers and drones enforcing the draconian but necessary regulations. Gladys chose not to enforce the regs on her mates in Liberal-voting wealthy parts of Sydney. Now that she’s working at Optus, Maybe Lakemba locals should collectively switch to Telstra.

Covid meant that the Council-hosted annual month-long street party during the nights of Ramadan had to be cancelled. During this much-loved annual event, huge swathes of Haldon Street are closed off, with plenty of food on offer from across the world.

Of course, there is Bangladeshi food, including desserts sweet enough to give you Type II diabetes with a single bite. Then there is food from China (yep, those dreaded Chinese have extended their reach to Sydney before Peter Dutton’s AUKUS submarines are delivered).

There’s also Syrian shawarma, Lebanese felafel (apologies for the tautology, with further apologies to our editor Serkan Ozturk for my saying that Turks simply don’t know how to make decent felafel!), Hyderabadi barbecue, Pakistani chapli kabab and Afghan mantu. All this with potato fries on a stick and grilled camel burgers. You’ll even find traditional Aussie tucker – nasi lemak from the Christmas Islands.

Scenes from Lakemba’s Ramadan Night Market (Photos: Irfan Yusuf)

A fair few Syrian and Rohingya folk can be found making quite a killing with their beautiful dishes and amazing customer service. Social distancing isn’t a huge priority when the streets get crowded, so bring your RAT’s tests! Though I found one supermarket selling single tests for $10 each.

In this, the sacred month of Ramadan, even the local pub was doing a roaring trade. Though I didn’t see as many people lining up for a VB as they were for the camel burgers outside the pub. Two Islamic religious bookshops were also open, one of them once the subject of tabloid speculation for its alleged links to al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, ISIL, the FARC militia, the IRA and the L Ron Hubbard Liberation Front. I went inside the bookshop accompanied by a female friend who wasn’t wearing a facemask let alone a burka. The bloke behind the counter, whose beard was around one third the size of your average barista, gave us a welcoming smile. The books looked very Boko Halal to me.

A fair few clothes were also on sale. Australia is a haven of modest fashion, with even DFAT hosting Australian designers at overseas embassies. This caused certain writers from The Ameri … whoops … Australian newspaper to collapse in a collective cultural cardiac arrest. The resulting pseudo-conservative monocultural mass debate about Islamic and modest fashion lasted around 48 hours, with the designers and vendors no doubt making a bigger profit out of the trumped (or given Newscorp’s love for the man, should that be Trumped?) up controversy than the said newspaper. No suicide vests were on sale, which will no doubt disappoint the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) who invented the blasted things.

It’s pretty easy to get to the Ramadan night market, and there is bugger-all parking so leave your guzzlers at home. The Council provides free shuttle buses from various parts of Sydney. Trains are free in the month of April. The crowds will only get bigger, with people of all faiths and none enjoying the food and the atmosphere. Even the local Uniting Church had set aside part of its grounds for people to sit down and enjoy a cup of tea. And why not? After all, Christians and Muslims are both part of #TeamJesus.

The Ramadan Night Market is an experience not to be missed even for certain less intelligent scribes of the Daily Telegraph

About Irfan Yusuf 26 Articles
Irfan Yusuf grew up in Sydney and has worked as a lawyer in NSW, QLD, Victoria, Tasmania and WA. He is an award-winning author and has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Canberra Times, NZ Herald, Crikey and ABC The Drum.

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