Essay: Zohra Alyon building a mosque

Of Mosques and Men

At 5.30m, it’s still dark when we stop at McDonald’s for coffee. We have been waking up earlier than this for the past thirty mornings of Ramadhan to eat a meal before the fast begins at dawn. But today is the first day of a new month, a day of celebration and feasting after the fasting. By 8am , close to four hundred people will pack the halls of the prayer centre at Annangrove to recite Eid-ul-Fitr prayers and enjoy breakfast together.

My sister-in-law Sukayna has managed and cooked for this Eid feast every year for the past fourteen years, except one year when she was sick. When we arrive, she is cracking eggs into large bowls, counting the floating yolks. She will make a dozen thirty-egg omelettes this morning. Last night, my daughter and I chopped seven kilograms of tomatoes and green capsicums for these omelettes.

Another two hundred eggs will be fried in ghee, sunny-side up, garnished with deep-fried onions and chopped coriander leaves. Three hundred croissants, four hundred baps, twelve dozen doughnuts, six giant platters of cold sliced meat decorated with cucumber spirals, olives and feta cubes. All this will be eaten and washed down with thirty litres of fruit juice and fifty litres of chai. Kids will be let loose on the jumping castle and will cradle bunnies and chicks from a baby animal farm. Families dressed in their finest clothes will pose for free portraits, which they will post as profile pictures on Facebook. People will leave to continue their celebrations with family and friends, and a small group of volunteers will pack away chairs, vacuum the three large halls, wash the dishes, clean the kitchen and haul garbage bags to the skip bin.

It’s almost midday when we return home. I swap my fancy clothes for trackpants then collapse onto the sofa with a cup of tea.  It’s business as usual for my husband, who has always gone to work on Eid, after finishing with prayers and breakfast. When all our children were at school, they would change into their uniforms at the Prayer Centre after helping to clear up and I would drop them off in time for recess. Now only one child goes back to school and the others go off to work or uni. We sit down to an evening meal together to celebrate making it through another month of fasting, another Eid breakfast.

In May 2002, my husband Abbas bought land in rural Annangrove, fifteen minutes from where we lived in West Pennant Hills, to build his dream. Not our family home, but a mosque. In the 70s and early 80s, his parents’ home had been a makeshift place of worship. He dreamt that if he ever ‘made it’, he would build a mosque for his community.

On 1 October 2002, Abbas lodged a development application to our local council, Baulkham Hills Shire. We were living in Sydney’s Bible belt, where 65 per cent of residents then identified as Christians. His application was to build a mosque on  a five-acre block in Annangrove to service fifty-odd Muslim families from the surrounding suburbs of Castle Hill, Cherrybrook, West Pennant Hills and Baulkham Hills.

And then, on 12 October, 88 Australians were killed in the Bali bombings. Suddenly the threat from Islamic terrorism to Australia felt close to home. Australian Muslims everywhere were already navigating a scared new world in the wake of 9/11. A place of worship for Muslims was the last thing Annangrove residents wanted. A huge community campaign opposed the mosque: posters, 8000 letters, hundreds of complaint calls to councillors, and a public meeting which 700 people attended.

Abbas had lived in Australia for 28 years. English was his first and only language. He supported the Aussie cricket team, owned a computer hardware business in the Hills and voted for John Howard. But the only thing that mattered was his religion. He was the loneliest man in the Hills.

Why do locals fear this building?’ screamed the front-page headline of the Hills News on 19 November 2002. When the application was put to council by Abbas, the officer’s comprehensive report recommended approval, as it complied with council land-use regulations. Residents raised several objections: traffic congestion, environmental impact, district character changes, visual amenity, noise and public safety.

Hills News editor Col Allison reported on a speech delivered by Baulkham Hills mayor John Griffiths to almost 700 residents and supporters who had gathered to protest against the project. Griffiths urged protesters to write letters and call councillors to record their feelings. ‘Unless you get emotional, you won’t win,’ he said, adding he was ‘concerned about the girls and ladies in this community.’

The article quoted ALP Senator George Campbell telling Hills News ‘Councillor Griffiths, as mayor and lay preacher, would inflame the situation’ and asked him to apologise for the offensive insults. He urged councillors and vibrant Christian communities to defend the right to religious freedom. ‘Prejudice has no place in Australia and Annangrove residents should embrace diversity,’ Senator Campbell added.

The mayor responded to Senator Campbell by saying he was representing the sentiments of residents. ‘I was quite properly listening to my community and the comments placed into the discussion reflected the concerns and fears expressed to me. I reject the assertion that I was adding additional fears in the minds of people I represent.’

Australian Muslims were equally horrified at and scared of the terrorist acts carried out under the banner of Islam. Abbas expressed this when he told another journalist from the Hills News, ‘I can understand the concern with the current climate abroad. But not all Muslims are rapists and terrorists. I have done everything to assimilate into the Australian community. But I have come to realise that my passport is not Australian… my passport is my colour.’ He explained that the building itself would not be a traditional mosque, but a mehfil, a centre open to both men and women, to be used for prayers, as a meeting hall and for Sunday school. Most of the community members were professionals who worked 9 to 5, so the main operation would be on the weekend. ‘There will be no loud speakers on the outside. And we won’t be praying at the centre five times a day. Our presentations will be in English, and we participate in inter-faith worship. There is nothing to fear,’ he added.

In August 2003, the Land and Environment Court overturned Baulkham Hills Council’s refusal of the development on grounds that the residents’ fears were not based on fact. The court heard evidence that the ‘holy war’ had been declared against Annangrove residents who opposed the Prayer Centre, and they feared increased antisocial behaviour following several incidents of graffiti and vandalism at the site.

Justice David Lloyd ruled, in line with Baulkham Hills Council town planners, that the development was compatible with the site’s rural-residential zoning, and ‘would not have an adverse impact on the amenity of the area, including social impact.’ He added that he was an active member of his local Christian church, and the decision would have been the same if any other religion was involved.

Building on the site began a few months later, and local tensions appeared to ease.

Builders arrived on site early on the morning of 24 June 2004. A wild pig’s head impaled on a stake outside the building greeted them. They found two more heads inside the building, as well as pigs’ feet strewn across the floor. Blood and offal stained the walls, which had been recently rendered.

The site manager informed the local police, as well as Abbas. Police helped to clear the vandalism on the grounds, while the builders set to clean the inside of the building of the body parts, blood, and stench. Abbas remembers that George El Sabbagh, his builder, and a close friend, forbade him from entering the areas until the majority of the clean-up had taken place.

After this there was more security on site. When asked what effect the presence of the pigs’ head and blood had to the site of a mosque, Abbas explained that like Jews, Muslims don’t consume the flesh of pigs. Touching pigs was not an issue, and so the work continued.

Photo: Imam Hasan Centre

Non-Muslim friends often comment that the Prayer Centre looks like an RSL – a nondescript rectangular building with glass windows, flanked by a car park. It is tucked neatly between the local shops on one side, a sports field and reserve on the other. The colours of the rendered walls- clay red, deep green, and brown, were specified by the Annangrove Progress Association. There are no minarets, domes or ornate tiles, and no calls to prayer can be heard from outside. It’s a mosque without all the bells and whistles.

Much to my disappointment, from the very start Abbas was  clear that domes and minarets would not feature in our mosque. He argued that they were not part of the Ka’aba in Mecca, a simple structure with four walls, or Prophet Muhammad’s original mosque in Medina, also a building with a stone foundation, walls, and a roof made from palm trunks, leaves and stalks. In spite of this rudimentary structure, from the outset, the Prophet’s mosque served as a hub for the community to pray, educate, meet, hold court and socialise. The mosque became the place to build the foundations of Muslim communities in that era.

In sub-continental culture, there is a distinction between a mosque, where congregational prayers are held, and an Imambargah or a Mehfil, where the reason for a gathering or majlis is often to listen to lectures or religious teaching, followed by communal meals. Congregational prayers are held too, but this is not the main purpose. The buildings for these Imambargahs were often donated by the local government or a  benefactor, and adapted to have halls and classrooms. Purpose-built Imambargahs are a twentieth-century trend amongst western diaspora Shias, keen to build a community in their adopted home.

In a recent article reflecting on the hashtag #PeopleNotBuildings, Harun Khan writes:

My first experiences of the mosque showed me, very early on, that the success of this institution was due to the people, not the building. At that time, the building itself was unsophisticated, very small and the beautiful geometric tiles we see today were few and far between.

Scholar Dr Jafer Qureshi puts it succinctly: ‘Mosques aren’t just religious institutions, they’re community centres, they’re educational hubs. #Mosques are investments in  #PeopleNotBuildings’.

Whilst places of worship are often synonymous with striking architectural features – stained glass windows or steeples, domes and minarets – these statements strike a chord. The Imambargahs of my childhood in Dubai were simple buildings, with little or no indication of the activities taking place on the inside. Abbas’s recollections of majlis or religious gatherings were of those in his own three-bedroom red-brick house in the Illawarra. Our memories are of what we did inside those buildings and the people we spent time with. #PeopleNotBuildings strikes me as a return to roots rather than a coincidence.

The real vibe of a mosque can be felt with all your senses, not only the visual. It can be heard in the deep and throaty tones of the recitation of the Quran, felt in the sinking of your knees and palms in thick carpet during prostration, or the coolness of the tiles under your feet. It’s in the shared conversations over a cup of tea or a plate of biryani doused in raita. With my head in prostration, I could be praying  under a  dome or a Colorbond roof.

For Shia Muslims, the new Islamic year begins on a note of commemoration, not celebration. It’s a time to remember the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson Husayn in 680 AD. Husayn had refused to pledge allegiance to the corrupt caliph of his time and took his family and a small band of supporters on the path to martyrdom in Kerbala, in present day Iraq.

At Annangrove, the majlis are held nightly for the first twelve nights of the first month of the lunar year, called Muharram. Then almost every Saturday after, there are majlis too as the next forty days are considered a period of mourning. The gatherings are a way of collectively reflecting on the true values of Islam via a historical narrative. In 2018 we invited a lecturer of Iraqi descent, Dr Ali Al Hilli, who lives in London, and has a PhD in Bioinformatics. He has also studied Islamic history and jurisprudence.

During the lecture programs, which follow on straight after Saturday school classes are over, parents are in charge of their children. At Annangrove, there is a main lecture hall for adults and older children, and a separate  hall for parents with children to use. Parents in the children’s hall can hear and see the lecturer via a screen and speaker system.

When Abbas and I were growing up, mosques and majlis weren’t as child-friendly as they are today. I had to sit next to my mum for the entire time and recite the whole  supplication in Arabic from the prayer book, even if my eyes were glazed over with boredom or sleep. The speeches were never in English, which for Abbas, was even more painful and pointless. At the end of the lecture, you stayed for a sit-down meal or lined up for a take-home snack, depending on the occasion.

Over the years at Annangrove, we encourage and sometimes instruct parents to remain with their children. Especially for these commemorative majlis, the aim is to educate a new generation how to be Shia Muslims. Sometimes, teenagers evade the lecture and kick a soccer ball outside, hang around for a chat or are happy just ‘to iPhone’.

Tonight, I notice adults and many children in the main lecture hall absorbed in the slides Dr Ali is using to explain the science behind stem cell research and the Shia viewpoint on it. Some children write up notes as he speaks.

Next door, toddlers are being toddlers. Most are sitting next to their mothers, colouring in, driving toy cars, using iPads, or snacking. Some have gone rogue, running around the large hall or mid-tantrum. There is constant movement over the course of the two hours in and out of the hall for water or toilet breaks. When I pop in to the room, mothers will use me to discipline their child. ‘See that lady over there? She will get angry if you run around/shout/fight with your sister.’

In the kitchen, the doner kebabs arrive and the ladies are busy counting the total number. We have ordered three hundred kebabs but all halls are full, and an approximate head count says there are around four hundred adults. Plus their children. The ladies grumble good-naturedly as they slice the doner kebabs in half. They are just about ready as the crowds line up to take their snack then head home.

In the queue, people discuss the lecture, and what they’re doing on Sunday morning. Most will be back again tomorrow night for the next lecture. Some try and score two doner kebab halves, kids scramble for the pink and chocolate cupcakes to have with their milk. It’s been a long day and most of the volunteers just want to go home and put their feet up before doing it all over again tomorrow.

As I hand out the rolls, a student from  the Saturday school, in the queue with her mum, flashes her artwork at me.

‘Its colourful,’ I say. ‘Good job!’

‘It’s for you,’ she tells me.

I smile as I put it away in my bag. Last night, I had let her the choose the cupcake flavour , and she had given me an impromptu hug to return the favour.

At home, I find the folded paper in my handbag. I take it, along with my heat-bag, cup of tea and Panadols, and head for bed. When I unfold the paper, it has a blue sky, a rainbow at one end, clouds, flowers, bees. On the back, she has written, ‘You should absolutely wear a seatbelt in the car.’ The writing and spelling are impeccable, the crookedness of the line gives away that she is only six years old. Her name is written in capital letters. I realise that we share an uncommon name. Maybe that’s why we  connected in these moments of chaos. Or maybe, she was there to remind me of the highs hidden amongst the lows.