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Aug 26, 2014

'This is our community': inside the real Lakemba that Blair ignored

Freelance writer Kavita Bedford retraces Tele writer Tim Blair's steps in the western suburb of Lakemba and wonders: how much did Blair really learn while inside his hotel room for one night?

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Poppy, Daisy Bourke and a local enjoy a drink at the Lakemba Hotel. Photograph by Christopher Woe

The bar staff at the Lakemba Hotel are reluctant to talk to the media. Framed as the last white Western outpost in the Sydney suburb of Lakemba, they have spent the past week fielding calls asking for their views for radio, newspapers and television. Last week controversial columnist Tim Blair began his article in The Daily Telegraph “Last Drinks in Lakemba: Tim Blair takes a look inside Sydney’s Muslim Land” lamenting the demise of “the last Anglo holdout in Sydney’s otherwise Middle-Eastern south-western suburb,” suggesting the bar business was struggling due to the Islamification of the suburb. A suburb where he alleges it is difficult to find a word of English, let alone a symbolic copy of Gideon’s Bible.

But the hotel’s management are not thrilled with their newfound fame. “He never mentioned he was doing a story and definitely never told us it would be about the hotel or that our conversations would be part of his piece. If he had told us his true intentions — and how he rubbished us and our community in Lakemba — we would have asked him to leave,” said bar manager Rina Bourke.

The hotel is not exactly a last gasp of white Australia. Bourke, who is half-Fijian and half-Samoan, has managed the pub for the past 20 years and says the pub fits into the heart of a multicultural suburb. Her sister Daisy also works at the pub and is married to a Muslim man.

“This is a multicultural pub for everyone,” Bourke said. “In fact, a big part of our clientele is Muslim, but we didn’t want to say that out of respect to their values. There are different sects which all have different views on drinking — you can’t just lump them into one. We just treat people how we want to be treated.”

She says the bar staff did not know Blair was going to write an article about them.

“Poppy, the staffer who was named in the article, said: “I feel used … He made us and the pub sound racist.”

“The day this article hit and we saw what had been said we went straight to the Islamic leaders at the mosque to say our words had been distorted. And they got it. It is so sad because it happens so much to them that they understood straight away. He doesn’t have to live here. He can’t come in, say these false things, stir the pot, and then go back to Surry Hills. We live here and deal with the fallout of his ignorance. This is our community.”

Poppy, the staffer who was named in the article, said: “I feel used. In the same way he took parts of the Islamic verse and wrote them without their surrounding context, he took my words and made them sound awful. He made us and the pub sound racist.“

Poppy says Blair hardly left his room during his stay. “He went out for a brief wander and he came back looking very troubled. He asked us if we’d been across the road to the Islamic bookstore. He said they had all kinds of filth in there.  But we have no reason to go in there so we just shook our heads. Then after all that he only ended up staying one night.”

The article tenuously ties Blair’s brief visit to an Islamic bookstore to a discussion of the “seething young Muslims” forming their plans for the Islamic riots in 2012. The owners of the bookstore declined to comment, as each time they have tried to set the story straight with the media it backfires. A young Muslim man from a nearby bookstore told us his reaction to the article. “It’s how they sell papers. We’re used to it. People always lump all Muslims together — but even calling Muslims a monoculture makes no sense. Here people come from Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Indonesia. I am from Azerbaijan, which is technically Eastern Europe, but no one will treat me that way because they just see the beard.”

Interestingly, there is a current threat to the multicultural community of Lakemba that the article failed to mention. A walk down Haldon Street, much like the one Blair did, reveals posters scrawled with the acronym ADL, which stands for the Australian Defence League. The Australian Defence League is a registered not-for-profit organisation that incites its followers to violence and in recent months has been escalating a directed hate campaign against Australian Muslims. The ADL has fewer than 30 members, but its Facebook group has attracted over 8000 members. According to its Facebook page, “The Australian Defence League (ADL) is a human rights organisation that exists to protect the inalienable rights of all people to protest against radical Islam’s encroachment into the lives of non Muslims … ADL believes that radical Islam has a stranglehold on Australian Muslims. It keeps them fearful and isolated.”

This group came into the Lakemba Hotel a week or so before Blair did, trying to stir up trouble. A staffer told us, “They want to do things like petition for a hotdog stand outside the mosque and such. We kicked them out and told them they weren’t welcome here. But one of the things they said as they were leaving was that they were the ‘last Anglo holdout’. It was the exact same words we saw by Blair in the Telegraph headline the next week — and it made me shiver.”

*Kavita Bedford is the producer of Mapping Frictions: Stories from Bankstown, a digital storytelling site that seeks to showcase local stories

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