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My Jewish aunty

By Irfan Yusuf - posted Tuesday, 5 July 2005


My parents arrived in Australia during the mid-1960s. My father had just won a scholarship to do his PhD at the Australian National University located in Canberra, Australia’s “bush capital”.

My mother was also offered a scholarship to complete further studies in Urdu. She already held degrees in Urdu Literature from Aligarh and Punjab Universities, and at least one university was prepared to foot the bill to turn her into possibly Australia's first Urdu scholar.
 
My mum had other ideas. She had a baby daughter and another on the way. She preferred to look after her new family at home so her husband could pursue his studies and a career in academia.

My mother’s Urdu was superb. Her English was another story. She struggled in Canberra, a small city with hardly anyone who spoke anything resembling Urdu. She struggled even to buy bread from the corner store. Until, that is, she met Anne.

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Anne was my mother’s age. Anne was not from the Indian sub-continent. Anne was Jewish. And Anne was perhaps the first person to play a pivotal role in my mother’s life in Australia.

Anne regarded my mother’s weakness (lack of English fluency) as a strength. Anne spoke a smattering of Hindi, having lived in India for a number of years. And she saw my mother wearing her sari and struggling to communicate.

“Assalamu alaykum!” shouted this light brown haired, white skinned woman. My mother turned around, and saw this “gori awrat” (white woman) speaking in some kind of Hindi and greeting her with a traditional Muslim greeting. They clicked.

Anne and mum made a deal. If mum helped Anne with Urdu, Anne would assist mum with English and with getting around Canberra (my mum could not drive). They would also swap recipes, and make sure all the food was kosher. Or was that halal? Who cares ... it's all pretty much the same!

Anne’s friendship with mum flourished. They were like sisters. Anne convinced mum to learn how to drive. And mum convinced Anne to learn how to put on a sari properly.

More importantly, their friendship taught them that Jew and Muslim need not hate one another. Events overseas can and should stay overseas. Real friendship can survive war and politics.

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For mum, Anne’s religious identity was not a big deal. And in India, it usually is not. Muslim and Jewish communities in Bombay and Poona lived side-by-side for centuries. Just as Muslims and Jews joined hands to defend Jerusalem from the crusading invaders centuries before that. Try telling some Palestinian extremists that their hero Saladdin appointed the Chief Rabbi of Cairo, Shaykh Musa bin Maymum (Moses Maimonides) to lead his medical team. Or that one of the first scholars in the community of the Prophet Mohammed was the former Chief Rabbi of Madina named Abdullah bin Salam.

But that is perhaps ancient history. Returning to the 1960s, Anne was present at Canberra Hospital when mum gave birth to her second daughter. Anne was one of the first to hold the new baby. Anne helped mum adjust to the second baby who was hardly 12 months older than the first one. I can just imagine the scene of these two women holding a crying baby each and trying to rock them to sleep, or feed them, or change their nappies.

Some months later, my Dad finished his PhD. They returned to Pakistan (the Islamic world's answer to Israel). Anne was at the airport to see them off. My mother kept Anne’s address and phone number and promised to write.

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

First published on Madhab al-Irfy.



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About the Author

Irfan Yusuf is a New South Wales-based lawyer with a practice focusing on workplace relations and commercial dispute resolution. Irfan is also a regular media commentator on a variety of social, political, human rights, media and cultural issues. Irfan Yusuf's book, Once Were Radicals: My Years As A Teenage Islamo-Fascist, was published in May 2009 by Allen & Unwin.

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