THE Lakemba Hotel is one of the last Anglo holdouts in Sydney’s otherwise Middle-Eastern south-western suburb. Frankly, the old joint — it opened in 1928 — isn’t putting up much resistance. Most nights the bar is closed by 8.30pm or so, because by then what few customers it attracts are insufficient to cover running costs.
Still, it’s friendly and hospitable. Staffer Poppy helpfully showed me to my $50-a-night room, which is the only option in Lakemba for anyone seeking short-term rented accommodation.
There are no other hotels or motels. In fact, there are no other rooms besides number 15 in the hotel’s residential wing. All the others are taken by boarders, one of whom has been here for 20 years.
It isn’t exactly luxurious. The room has a sink, which is nice, but nothing else by way of amenities. There isn’t even a Gideon’s Bible. Instead, reflecting certain demographic changes in the area, there is a Ramadan eating schedule.
Lakemba may be only 30 minutes from the centre of Sydney, yet it is remarkably distinct from the rest of the city. You can walk the length of crowded Haldon St and not hear a single phrase in English. On this main shopping strip the ethnic mix seems similar to what you’d find in any Arabic city. Australia may be multicultural, but Haldon St is a monoculture.
This does have its advantages. If you’re ever in need of groceries at 3am, head to Lakemba, where shopkeepers keep unusual hours, particularly during Ramadan.
The food is delicious, of course. I recommend La Roche and Al Aseel, but all restaurants in Haldon St are good. If you’re unfamiliar with Lebanese food, just go for anything with the word “mixed”.
And then there are the downsides.
A few weeks ago a large crowd of mostly young men assembled outside the Lakemba Hotel. Waving black flags, the men chanted: “Palestine is Muslim land. The solution is jihad.”
I asked a non-Islamic local about that night. “You should see them when they really go off,” she said. “That was nothing.” Another non-Islamic woman said young men sometimes shouted “sharmuta” at her from their cars. She looked up the word online and discovered it was an Arabic term for prostitute.
Across the road from the hotel is the Islamic Bookstore, which bills itself as “your superstore of Islamic knowledge”. Three books caught my eye. Here’s an extract from Muhammad bin Jamil Zino’s “What a Muslim Should Believe”, a handy Q & A guide to the Koran’s instructions:
“Question 43: Is it allowed to support and love disbelievers? “Answer: No, it is not allowed.”
Well, that might explain a few things. “The History of the Jews” seems a bland enough title, but the back cover quotes lines from Martin Luther that were used by the Nazis: “The sun never did shine on a more bloodthirsty and revengeful people as they.”
The book offers this view, on page 16: “No one can deny the fact that the Jews are the worst kind of barbarian killers the world has ever known!!! The decent great Adolf Hitler of Germany never killed in the manner of the Jews!!! Surely only mad people or those who love killing infants, pregnant women and the infirm will think differently.”
It goes on and on. Another extract: “Humor and jokes are strictly forbidden by the Jewish religion.” This will come as a surprise to just about every Jew on earth.
Another must-read is Mansoor Abdul Hakim’s charming 2009 text, “Women Who Deserve to go to Hell.” Turns out there are quite a lot of them.
“Some people keep asking about the denizens of Hell and the reason why women will go to hell in large numbers,” writes Hakim in the book’s foreword before listing various types of hell-bound females, including the grumbler, the quarrelsome woman, women with tattoos and women who refuse to have sex during menstruation.
“Men’s perfection is because of various reasons: intelligence, religion, etc,” Hakim explains. “At most, four women have this perfection.”
Mix this level of ignorance and loathing with the Islamic community’s high rate of unemployment, and conflict is inevitable. The Islamic riots of 2012 ended up in central Sydney but began here in Lakemba and surrounding suburbs, where seething young Muslims formed their plans, including printing signs reading “Behead all those who insult the prophet”.
One of the men arrested in those riots was Ahmed Elomar, who was subsequently convicted for bashing a police officer with a flagpole.
His lawyer claimed that Elomar was “overcome with the occasion”. The occasion continues. Lately, Elomar’s brother Mohamed has posed with severed heads in Iraq, where he is fighting alongside fundamentalist Islamic State extremists.
Back at the pub, a staffer mentions rare moments of cultural overlap. “Sometimes the young blokes will come in here to buy Scotch,” she says. “They try to hide themselves under hoodies.”
But when the staffer sees them later in the street, they don’t return her greeting. The hotel is haram — sinful and forbidden. Those early closing hours will eventually become permanent.