How A Community Celebration Can Teach Tolerance

We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We share a dream and sing with one voice:
I am, you are, we are Australian.

Bruce Woodley 1987

Yesterday, I moved out of my comfort zone and celebrated Eid with a variety of fellow Australians who happen to be Muslim and have chosen to settle here like my parents did 53 years ago.

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Dina, born in Palestine, educated in Dubai as a pharmacist has reinvented herself as a painter, interior designer, book illustrator. Her husband is a doctor and works as an emergency consultant, in much demand all over the world – at the moment he is in Italy.

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A new friend from Eritrea
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A new friend from Egypt

How do we meet and get to know people?

Yesterday, I met people who live in suburbs I rarely visit (Springvale, Keysborough, Dandenong), so they are not near neighbours. I won’t meet them at school – my children have left those years far behind, plus in Australia schools are divided into private and public and many people send their children to private schools on religious or cultural grounds. My girls went to the local public schools.

I may meet some at work because I teach in community houses, but by and large students and teachers enrol within a locality, their “neighbourhood” so that likelihood is diminished.

The majority of people I met yesterday were Islamic; I wouldn’t bump into them at church either!

So how do I reach out and make them feel welcome to their adopted country? How do they meet me and have the opportunity to understand who I am?

We have to make a special effort – that’s how we can build tolerance and understanding –  to learn from each other, and accept each other.

Yesterday, at the EID Celebration – Many Faiths, One Community – in the Allan McLean Hall, Mordialloc,  for a gold coin donation we could have:

  • A hijab demonstration and buy scarves and dresses
  • Taste Eritrean coffee and cake (the coffee heavily laced with ginger!)
  • Our hands or wrists painted with Henna
  • Watch a delightful cultural performance
  • Be part of a Guided Blessing
  • Dress up as Pharaoh and have a photographic memento
  • Have tea and coffee and a selection of sweet treats

Islamic Australians more often demonised and feared than welcomed, opened their hearts, shared their customs and celebrated who they are and what they offer to Australia.

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A Sheik and Scholar explained the meaning of Eid and where the celebration fitted in the Muslim calendar and blessed the gathering with a prayer.  Poet Anton read 2 or 3 poems in his native language of Malaysian, ably repeated in English by a member of the audience who volunteered to do so.

As a writing teacher, I’m privileged to hear so many original poems from students, but also poems that have inspired them to write. A lovely woman from Iraq introduced me to the wisdom and talent of Rumi:

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A band from Lebanon played and sang songs – some religious, others popular – the musicians famous in the music circuit of their birth country before they came to Australia.

There are two Eids celebrated in Islam, and both follow major acts of worship.  The first is Eid al-Fitr, which follows Ramadan and the second is Eid al-Adha, which follows the Hajj.

Most major religions have times that demand particular behaviour – Christianity has Lent, Advent and Christmas.

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims focus on purifying themselves, getting closer to God, and growing in their faith. They fast from sunrise to sunset, which includes refraining from food, drink, sexual intercourse, bad language, and bad behaviour.

They may read an entire chapter of the Qur’an each day (it has 30 chapters), so they finish the book in a month.The knowledge gained by reading the Qur’an encourages good deeds and greater acts of worship.

By fasting, they become more sympathetic to those less fortunate. By understanding what it is like to go without food or drink, they should become more generous and seek to alleviate hunger amongst the poor.

Ramadan helps to bring people together with family, friends, and neighbours because they break their fasts together.  The community is brought closer to God by offering more worship in the form of extra prayer services provided nightly in Ramadan.

Eid al-Fitr (the Festival/Holiday of Breaking Fast) follows. This festival lasts three days and celebrates the successful completion of Ramadan and the newly renewed spiritual cleansing and connection.

Associated with sweets of various kinds, other names for it are the Sugar Festival or Sweet Festival.  There are many different ways to celebrate the Eid, but, in general, the morning begins with the special Eid prayer. On the way there and while waiting for the prayer session to start it is common to recite the Eid Takbir.

There was a selection of sweet biscuits and homemade cake available yesterday – delicious!

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After praying people have a feast of sorts with their families and or friends usually travelling to family homes.  Typical foods vary by country/region.  In the Middle East, it is common to buy new clothes for the Eid and children often receive Eidia (pronounced like ‘idea’) which is money.  The Eidia received from family and friends comes from an adult to child.  Gifts between adults are rare and gifts from child to an adult even rarer.  Children use the money to buy toys and sweets.

In the US, Canada, Australia and the UK it is often more common to give children presents, not money. This compares with active Christian gifting practices such as Christmas.  Some people make Eid goody bags with trinkets, party favours, stickers, temporary tattoos, and candy to hand out to children after the Eid prayer. Gifts between adults or from child to adult occur too.

Visits to amusement parks/carnivals/circuses also happen more in the West than in other countries probably because immigrants and subsequent generations do not have large extended families to visit.  They spend time going out in smaller family groups and because of the often minority status of their holidays and the abundance of Christian holiday commercialisation they may feel the need to make Eid “extra special” ensuring the interest of future generations.

The children and proud parents yesterday illustrated how to keep the young involved and feeling part of their religion and culture and yet quite comfortable living in Australia.

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Tarek Yousery, a Driving Instructor in real life, entertained us all as he paraded his Egyptian background dressed as a Pharaoh, encouraging us all to be Pharaoh for a photo shoot.  Tarek promoted Egypt by ‘working the room’ while his wife helped you decide what costumes and jewellery to wear. Their generosity and good humour a definite highlight of the day.

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The queues for Henna painting kept two young, talented women busy. Their artistic brilliance and calm, good nature impressive – I can imagine their hands will be sore because the demand to be “tattooed” relentless. Some children (and adults) went back for more than one decoration. Mine sketched in double-quick time – amazing. Unfortunately, scrutiny made me realise how aged my hands were – how could I have my mother’s hands already??  I still feel young!

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A table with an array of scarves to be transformed into the hijab had a backdrop of gorgeous dresses. Alongside was a table doing a brisk trade with intricate and clunky jewellery pieces. Eid like our Christmas – new clothes and gifts the order of the day as people celebrate peace,  love and family.

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The hall echoed with lots of chatter, laughter and children enjoying the relaxed, festive atmosphere. I’d hoped for more locals to witness such an array of talent but bumped into Jenny, a woman I’ve met at various meetings and workshops concerning the environment and community. She had seen the notice down at the Chelsea Hub and was glad she had come along ‘to have a look’.

We both wished there were more people to appreciate the diversity that has made us a successful multicultural country and agreed we must have more opportunities to mix.  Perhaps if we get to know each other, the disgraceful display of intolerance at Bendigo in recent weeks won’t happen again, and we’ll not allow some politicians and sections of the media to keep us in a constant state of fear.

If we could raise one generation with unconditional love, there would be no Hitlers…Mankind’s greatest gift, also its greatest curse, is that we have free choice. We can make our choices built from love or from fear.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Lisa Sun, the Manager of Mordialloc Neighbourhood House and her committee, deserve congratulations for organising this event in collaboration with Springvale Neighbourhood House, the Victorian Multicultural Commission and Al-Emaan Muslim Women’s Support group. The more people come together and share what we have in common, the less likely we will be pushed apart.

We’ve got this gift of love, but love is like a precious plant. You can’t just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it’s going to get on by itself. You’ve got to keep watering it. You’ve got to really look after it and nurture it.

John Lennon

A big thank you to everyone who made the day a success. I felt privileged to meet so many talented and friendly people. A day like yesterday more representative of the community and Australia I love than many of the stories the media seem to enjoy flaunting. Check out Mordialloc Neighbourhood House’s Facebook page for more photos.

The next event to break down cultural barriers will be a Diwali Festival – same venue, but next month!

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