MUSLIM-FRIENDLY MELBOURNE

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Published on August 05, 2014 with No Comments

The Islamic Museum Australia is wrapped in rusted steel, laser-cut with images from Australian and Arabic history. Credit: The Islaimc Museum Australia

The Islamic Museum Australia is wrapped in rusted steel, laser-cut with images from Australian and Arabic history. <b>Credit: The Islaimc Museum Australia</b>
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In search of halal, prayer halls and an Islamic heritage.

Words ANIS RAMLI
Images MARY-ANN GOOI

Melbourne remains obstinately at the top of the world’s list as one of the most livable cities. It isn’t hard to see why. With its infectious energy and charm, and effortless warmth and hospitality, there’s really something special happening here.

Then there’s the people. There are over 200 nationalities speaking 230 different languages collectively which the city just embraces wholeheartedly. It is exactly this diversity that makes Melbourne iconic. With a people that readily accommodates the needs of a multicultural and multi-faith community, the Muslim traveller will not find it challenging to travel around the city. Moreover, having the second largest Muslim population in Australia after Sydney, Melbourne is not lacking in eateries serving halal meals and places to perform the salah (prayer).

Even before we touched down, long-time Melbourne resident, Ismawati Mohd Said, was already gushing about the various eateries we should check out. Unlike most countries where halal food often means Arabic food, Melbourne’s many Muslims have allowed for diverse halal offerings. There’s Chinese at Mama Wong’s (corner of Flinders and Exhibition Streets), kopitiam fare at PappaRich (QV Building) and Portuguese-style grilled chicken at Nando’s (various locations).

Melbourne’s supermarkets too carry various halal-certified products while the many halal butcheries around town ensure that you can easily whip up your own meal, especially if you’re staying at an apartment with kitchen facilities.

“Muslims in Melbourne come from diverse backgrounds and are spread right throughout the city, even though some suburbs have a higher concentration of Muslims than others. Because of the strength of Muslim community groups, as well as peak bodies such as the Islamic Council of Victoria, Muslims have, for the most part, been able to advocate for their religious and cultural requirements,” says Eeqbal Hassim, Senior Manager at the Asia Education Foundation (The University of Melbourne). “The fact that we have a musalla (a prayer room) at Melbourne Airport is just one example.”

While Islam permits praying almost anywhere so long as the place is clean, those that want a proper prayer place can find many available around town. The most accessible mosque from the CBD is the Melbourne Madinah, a short walk just across the Yarra River at 45 City Road, Southbank. It is run by the Mercy Mission organisation and is also their activities hub. It would be one of the best places to seek fellow Muslims and meet new Muslims in the community. Mercy Mission runs classes and counselling for new Muslims and regular Arabic, Qur’an and knowledge classes. They also have their Little Explorer activities for kids. Apart from the five daily prayers, they also conduct Jumaah salah (Friday prayers) here. If you do come for a visit, perhaps bring some English Islamic books for both adults and children as they welcome literature donation which they keep in their mini library.

There are also prayer rooms at the University of Melbourne and the RMIT University. Not so far away in Carlton, there is the first and oldest mosque in Melbourne at Drummond Street built by the Albanian Community. The imam (leader) who resides there had worked in Brunei Darussalam before and can speak a little Malay. Prayer rooms are also provided in The Royal Melbourne Hospital, The Royal Women’s Hospital and The Royal Children’s Hospital. These are called the Multi-faith rooms.

We had the opportunity to visit Melbourne Madinah and were impressed by the building. On one evening visit, we chanced upon a casual gathering among the females, discussing a particular topic of hadith, Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) traditions and sayings. We were told such gatherings are common on the weekdays to accommodate the working community, and ‘meetings’ are done to share knowledge while bonding over tea and sweet cakes.

What we liked about the walk to Melbourne Madinah was a chance encounter of the Boyd Community Centre (207 City Road). It has a lovely library with a warm and friendly children’s section, lounge areas, free wifi and internet, and the KereKere Cafe. Apart from serving great coffee and freshly-squeezed lemonade in retro tumblers, the cafe endears itself to the public with its outreach community programme. It provides training and long-term employment opportunities for young people and gets customers involved by voting for a non-profit organisation the cafe supports at the time.

Coffee, in fact, plays an important role in the life of a Melbournian. You’ll not go wrong with any cafe. As recent migrant Stephanie Sta Maria says, “There’s just good coffee or really good coffee.” So take some time off the usual sight seeing to check out the city’s many brilliant cafes. Our favourite are Brunetti (100 Queen Street) that also does amazing hot chocolate shots and Cafe on Collins (303 Collins Street), a sidewalk cafe that partially opens out into the lobby of the IOOF Centre.

On days when you can tear yourself away from the common sights of the CBD and its surrounds, head to the Islamic Museum of Australia in Thornbury. Considered by many as one of the most exciting things to happen in the Australian multicultural scene, the museum is a great example of building bridges of understanding between cultures.

The museum took about four years to complete and boasts of an architectural blend of Islamic and modern Australian design. It is the first Islamic Museum in Australia, and follows in the footsteps of the Jewish and Chinese museums in the city and is a good complement to the Immigration Museum as well. Since it opened in March 2014, it has had more than 5,000 visitors walk through its doors (as of May 2014). It’s good to note also that its Middle Eastern-Australian fusion themed cafe is run by Samira El-Khafir, of MasterChef 2013 fame.

The Museum has five permanent galleries that tell the story of Islam and Muslims in Australia and in the world: Islamic Faith, Islamic Contribution to Civilisation, Islamic Art, Islamic Architecture and Australian Muslim History. There are also temporary exhibitions. For anyone who wants to listen to the untold stories of Islam and Muslims in Australia, as well as gain insights to the richness of Islam in the world, then the Islamic Museum of Australia is a must see. For Muslims, it is a way of celebrating the beauty of Islam and the contributions it has made to the development of human society – both in Australia and the rest of the world – at a time when positive news about the faith is difficult to come by.

Eeqbal perhaps best summarised the relationship between Melbourne and Muslims as he reflected upon his growing up years, migrating to Australia from Singapore over 20 years ago. “The challenge for me was not so much about practical things such as halal food, finding mosques, or getting in touch with Muslims. Rather, as a young adolescent, it was more about identity.” Over time, he says, he felt there was less of a need to try and fit in, but more of a desire to express his individuality, which was culturally, linguistically and religiously different. Without a doubt, Melbourne’s acceptance of differences and embracing the unique has shaped it to become one of the most Muslim-friendly cities in Australia, if not the world.

Royal Brunei Airlines flies Melbourne daily.

 

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