Sunday, June 19, 2005


Wonder Woman Takes On The Nimby's

When I was still at school, my entire family used to spend our Sunday nights munching on mum’s curries and watching 60 Minutes. I was not used to hot chillies or tabloid journalism. It was hard to tell in those days whether the curry or the stories were hotter.

It was on one such night that I saw Silma for the first time. She and her family were struggling to establish a small school in Greenacre. Her children were young. Her daughter Hanifa was a baby at the time, and the school was operating above a Pakistani restaurant in Canterbury.

The 60 Minutes story showed a whole group of neighbours telling Silma to go back to where she came from. Which I guess, in Silma’s case, means Methodist Ladies College. The neighbours were opposing the establishment of this school and were to become known as the “Nimby brigade” (where Nimby means “Not in my backyard”).

That story fired me up. I was an instant convert to the Silma school. And on Saturday 18 June 2005, as part of the audience at the Sydney Film Festival, I again became a convert.

After passing my driving test, I started visiting the Al Noori Muslim Primary School, the subject of Silma’s first struggle. In fact, I was a fairly frequent visitor. Those were the days of nascent Muslim activism, a time when I was still finding my feet in the basket-case community. Hanifa was walking by that stage.

Later, one of my siblings fell ill. She was unable to work but found an instant welcome at the Greenacre school. Her illness was handled with such grace and sensitivity, and to this day she remembers those healing days with prayers and praise for Silma.

This woman is one of my Aussie Muslim super-heroes. If Wonder Woman ever replaced her tights with loose-fitting clothes and a head-scarf, she could be one of 2 persons in my eyes. She could be the Virgin Mary. Or she could be Silma Ihram. (I would have mentioned Khadija, the Prophet’s wife, except that she passed away before the hijab was legislated).

Silma’s struggles with Al Noori came to an end. She moved on in life. Some had written her off as a spent force. Even I was tempted to do so, especially after seeing posters and flyers of her new school project at Condell Park.

But you can never write off Silma. And so it was with amazement that she invited me to see the school. “Irfan, can you act as our solicitor?”. It was an offer a young Revesby lawyer couldn’t refuse.

That would be the first of many visits on my part to the Bankstown Airport site which was to be the scene of the litigation which forms the subject of the documentary “Silma’s School”.

I had to move on from Revesby, and my career took various twists and turns. Silma followed those twists, and frequently gave me advice along the way. Her decency and integrity became most apparent to me when I spoke to her in 1999. She knew I was acting for her ex-partner in his struggles with their first school project. She never said a word of criticism even when her allies at the same school were attacking my professionalism. Her refusal to join in those attacks spoke volumes.

Then in June 2002, I fell seriously ill. I rang up the Law Society and asked for a manager to be appointed. I was hospitalised and was forced to take some 15 months off. During this difficult period, I was the subject of much innuendo and gossip from former Muslim clients who were alleging all sorts of fantastically fictional things.

During my recovery, a Nigerian friend of mine was visiting Australia. He needed some work experience and also an outlet for his unique form of cultural sensitivity training. One day he said to me: “Irfy! Man! Stop wasting your time on the bloody internet and come and join me this weekend.. We are running a TTC [train the trainers course – his title for the cultural sensitivity courses] at Silma’s school.”

I drove my friend Nurudeen to Condell Park, to the school I had last visited as a young solicitor. The first person to greet us was Hanifa. She was much taller, and I did not recognise her.

“Nuru, who was that?”, I asked the TTC Guru.

“Man, that was Hanifa”, he responded.

“What the … sheesh she has grown since I last saw her!”

“When was that?”,
the husky Nigerian asked.

I pondered on the point and answered: “Mate, I can’t remember. It seems like donkeys years”.

Nuru started teaching and lecturing. I sat there with the books at the bookstore. Silma came upto me. I was a bit embarrassed given all the rumours that were flying around. My illness and the rumours had given my self-esteem a pounding.

With some people, when they see a dog down on the ground, they kick the poor bastard. Silma is not one of them. She looked me up and down and said: “Brother Irfan, it’s so good to see you well again. You’ve lost weight”.

I felt embarrassed and started to make up explanations and excuses to answer the allegations and accusations and lies and stories. Silma would not hear a word of it.

“Brother, let them talk. Your sins are going onto their record. Thank Allah and be happy.”

Imagine my happiness some 3 years later when I first heard I had managed to score a ticket to see Silma’s school. I waited at the box office for my good friend (and former teacher at Silma’s school) Seyfi to hand over my ticket. I walked downstairs into the State Theatre. It was here that I had last seen Elvis Costello, one of my favourite musicians. But as I walked into the theatre, I could see a theatre much more packed than the Costello crowd. It seemed Silma’s tunes were proving much more popular.

This article was supposed to be a review of the documentary film “Silma’s School”. I guess I will have to write a separate review. I guess the best way to describe the documentary is that it is a summary of the struggles of a woman who has touched the lives of so many people. A woman who can generate passionate loyalty and bring together people from all different backgrounds.

Perhaps the best review of the film was made on after its screening. The Director asked if any students were present to speak about Silma. Up stood a tall, young woman dressed in a graceful headscarf. She was finding it hard to hold back the tears. So was I.

“I just wanted to say that I am a student of Nour al-Houda Islamic College. And I am also Silma’s daughter. Mum, you are a legend. We all love you so much!”

It was Hanifa. She grew up with the struggle. Perhaps more than all of us put together, she has been touched by Silma’s school.

Silma, you are a wonder woman. Your struggle against Nimby’s of all faiths has touched the lives of just about ever Muslim activist in Sydney. Your spirit and your faith have also radiated to Melbourne, Adelaide and across the Tasman. It is time to have your day in the sun. We loved the movie. But we did not need a movie to appreciate your contribution.

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