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Sara Saleh’s guide to Sydney

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In Sara Saleh’s Sydney, the equivalent of a late-night Maccas run is manoush – the Lebanese version of pizza.

Her go-to is Banksia Bakery, which is open all night during Ramadan and does an “incredible cheese and zaatar mix”.

I have asked Saleh, an artist and activist with Palestinian, Lebanese and Egyptian heritage, to share her favourite places in Sydney, something she said she was excited to do.

As well as the Bankstown Arts Centre where Saleh started out as a poet and secluded beaches such as Resolute in Pittwater, most of Saleh’s landmarks involve food. With Saleh as your guide, a Sydney food safari would feature everything from Egyptian street fare to Uyghur food from western China.

In her younger days, Saleh was scornful of the idea of Sydney being a happy melting pot where everyone can bond over delicious food from around the world. She calls the concept, which erases racism and ethnic tensions, “foodwashing”.

Saleh still thinks food is political – the debate over the origins of hummus is particularly pertinent to someone with a Palestinian background – but at 35, she has more time for the idea that food can be a gateway between cultures.

“Food is culturally significant, it brings people together, and I think it’s a labour of love – and, in my family, personally, it’s a love language as well,” Saleh says.

“I don’t want to underestimate that and its impact on me and on having a place where you sit and have these conversations: the kitchen that has been a place of subversion for decades, where there’s conspiring, and there’s drama, and there’s talk and there’s laughter.”

What Saleh’s recommendations have in common, besides delicious food and the ability to eat halal, is that the vibe is more “Grandma’s kitchen” than fine dining. Many are little more than a hole in the wall.

Saleh’s day job is human rights lawyer, but she is also a writer. Her poetry has been anthologised widely, and her debut novel Songs for the Dead and the Living was published on Tuesday.

The story is about a woman born in Lebanon with Palestinian ancestors who were displaced from their home when the modern state of Israel was formed. When the civil war hits Lebanon, she flees with her family to Egypt where she meets her husband, and later emigrates to Australia.

The migration route is the bones of Saleh’s own mother and father’s story, but Saleh says the rest is fiction. She explores difficult topics such as misogyny and violence within the Middle Eastern community, and the discrimination that Palestinians face in Lebanon.

She describes the book as a “love letter” to the cities of Beirut, Cairo and Sydney. But she admits it’s sometimes more of a love-hate relationship as it can be difficult to be a Muslim woman in Sydney, feeling unrepresented in mainstream culture and simultaneously feeling a responsibility to understand the Indigenous history of the land.

Saleh lives on Bidjigal country, also known as Beverly Hills in south-west Sydney. I’d expected to be eating at a Lebanese or Palestinian restaurant in Bankstown, but instead Saleh has brought me to Marrickville in the inner west. I won’t reveal exactly where I live, but let’s just say I’m on home turf.

Saleh rarely eats Lebanese food in restaurants since she cooks it at home and eats it at her mother’s house. Her top pick was Koshari Korner, a food truck selling Egyptian street food on the side of the car park in the Addison Road Community Organisation. There is seating under a gazebo, with colourful tablecloths and wall hangings.

Saleh chose it partly because she is friends with the owner and loves the food, and partly because Addi Road is special to her. The sprawling community hub is where she attended her first play as a first-year student at the University of Sydney, and where she later hosted her first community event, a Muslim film screening and Q&A. She is a regular at the Friends of Hebron fundraising trivia night, a hub for the Palestinian community in Sydney, and frequents the Palestine Free Trade shop.

When I arrive at Koshari Korner, the Herald photographer Nick Moir is already sitting at a table with the Addi Road head honcho Rosanna Barbero and other staff. They’re all waiting to say hello to Saleh, and coax me to join them.

She arrives and after a round of hugs, I eventually manage to peel her away for our one-on-one interview, with Saleh laughing at what must have seemed like a “big fat Arab wedding” (referencing the 2002 rom-com My Big Fat Greek Wedding).

Saleh usually eats the eponymous koshari, a mixture of fried rice, noodles, brown lentils, chickpeas and a zesty tomato sauce. We decide instead to share a mixed plate that promises “a bit of everything”, including koshari, on the condition that I eat the falafel. She is, she says, “a bad Arab” who doesn’t like falafel. We also order a hearty lentil soup, which comes with fried pita bread.

he met her husband through food, in possibly the most right-on meet-cute I’ve ever heard: they were both volunteers delivering festive food to Muslim detainees in Villawood Detention Centre for Ramadan nights.

They were both in so-called LGAs of concern during the 2021 Delta lockdown – Saleh took her Sunday morning runs to the soundtrack of helicopters circling overhead, while her partner was confronted by soldiers on the streets of Auburn. Fortunately, the rules allowed couples to visit each other, and the pair are now married.

Sara Saleh’s guide to Sydney

Koshari Korner, Marrickville (Egyptian)

Taste of Egypt, Bankstown

Apandim Uyghur Restaurant, Burwood (favourite for Uyghur)

Tarim Uyghur Handmade Noodles, Auburn

Banksia Bakery (Lebanese manoush)

Armani, Parramatta (Lebanese, especially the shawarma)

Al Aseel , Greenacre (Lebanese)

Misc., Parramatta Park (especially for brunch)

Bankstown Art Centre

Sweatshop Literacy Movement

Friends of Hebron Trivia with a Cause, Marrickville

Palestine Free Trade Australia shop, Marrickville

Resolute Beach, Pittwater

Bicentennial, Centennial, Sydney and Parramatta Parks

Saleh was born in Australia but picked up a North American accent when living in Dubai from age eight to 16. Her father had a job opportunity and parents wanted Saleh and her three younger siblings to experience living in the Middle East.

Saleh is the first to criticise the consumer culture that prevails in Dubai, but found it frustrating to return to Australia and have people ask her if she used to ride a camel to school. She came back to Sydney on her own to live in one of the colleges at Sydney University soon after the Cronulla riots when tensions between some of Sydney’s Arabic and white communities were high.

She did not yet wear the hijab, but she did not drink alcohol, which made her an outsider in the college scene. Being the eldest child of immigrants with all the weight of expectations that entails, she was hyper-focused on proving herself through academic success, and wishes in hindsight that she had taken more time to relax and enjoy herself.

I ask how she understood her identity when she was growing up, and we segue into a conversation about representation on screen and Ms Marvel, the superhero whose alter ego is a Muslim Pakistani-American high school student. One of the writers for the Disney+ show was a guest on a poetry retreat that Saleh recently hosted near Wisemans Ferry.

Saleh says her cynical side believes diversity on screen is purely about corporate profit, but she also realises that would dismiss or erase the diverse writers, actors, directors and producers pushing for representation behind the scenes. Saleh says she has benefited from a similar trend in publishing.

Saleh says she leaned into her Palestinian identity in the past, feeling a responsibility to use her voice when many family members in the Middle East cannot.

Saleh visited the Palestinian occupied territories in 2017 on a study tour with politicians and journalists. She was the only person of Arab appearance in the delegation – everyone else was visibly white – and although they were all Australian citizens, she says she was treated differently to her companions. For example, she says at multiple checkpoints she was detained while everyone else in the group was allowed through, and she also had a gun pointed at her, which happened to no one else in the group.

Saleh says the lengthy imprisonment of journalist Peter Greste raised the issue in Australia, but it was not a one-off. She recently wrote an endorsement for The Shape of Dust by Lamisse and Hazem Hamouda, a book about a daughter’s quest to free her Egyptian-Australian journalist father and the minimal support he received from the Australian embassy as a dual citizen

Our lunch stretches over two hours, but Saleh eats slowly, in part because I keep her talking. While I wait for her to catch up, I order an iced tea and then a hot chocolate with rosewater, and answer her questions about my family background and travels to the Middle East including a wedding I attended in Syria before the civil war.

“When I say ‘big, fat Arab wedding’ you know exactly what I’m talking about,” she exclaims.

Article link: https://www.theage.com.au/national/nsw/when-food-is-a-love-language-sara-saleh-s-best-hole-in-the-wall-eats-across-sydney-20230822-p5dyk8.html


2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000

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