Islam's man of a million comments
Recent events have focused attention on Muslims in a way never before considered. Deborah Cameron profiles one of the Sydney community's leading lights.
Pink pickled turnip and little sprigs of mint tumble out of the pita bread as Keysar Trad hits the kerb in his big old Pajero.
He is taking a short cut between his favourite falafel shop and a cafe where the walls are lined with jars of honey and bottles of rosewater.
The wheel thumps hard. The four-year-old in front lets out a squawk. His wife, Hanifeh, sitting in the back with the two-year-old, tut-tuts at him driving, eating, talking and winding down the windows, more or less at the same time.
Pulling up at the Farouk and Chehade El Bahsa Sweets shop in South Bankstown, everyone is ready for the ice-cream which comes in about 10 colours. It is practically an insult to order one scoop of pistachio. "You must taste every colour," insists Trad, handing over a deep silver bowl and spoon.
Outside it is warm. Hanifeh, covered from head to toe in a long dark-coloured dress and headscarf, looks cooler than she probably feels. For a woman of 38 with nine children, no money to spare and a husband devoted to voluntary community work, her face is free of worry. She is even at ease with what she calls "Keysar's pet topic": a second wife.
Trad is director of the Lebanese Muslim Association and, because the times have demanded it, an increasingly well-known community spokesman. He is a refugee advocate and translator, an essayist, a spokesman on political issues, a critic of racial labelling by police, a close adviser to the Mufti Sheik Taj el-Din Al Hilaly and a calm interpreter of Islam to the nervous broader community.
He gets frustrated with the association and has quit at least twice this year but returned out of a sense of duty and an instinct that it would revert to a "no comment" approach to the media which would be wrong at a time like this. Within his community he is criticised for publicly discussing refugees, Lebanese gang rapes and Islamic attitudes.
"They say when a Muslim speaks it is an admission that Islam has a problem," Trad says. "They say you don't see them filming churches when a Christian commits a rape or a murder, so why are you letting them come to interview you at the mosque? They don't realise that the media comes anyway. They tell me - just say "no comment" - but I have a million comments. They cannot censor me. I answer the questions sensibly and we have got nothing to hide."
TRAD and Hanifeh have been through a lot. They met in Lebanon when they were both about 22. They married after three weeks and she came to live with her new husband and mother-in-law in Yagoona. Trad worked at the Australian Tax Office while Hanifeh took English classes. "I find it hard to believe these mothers who cannot understand their children's language or who are dependent on their children for translation," she says.
Hanifeh, a law student in Lebanon, worked as an editor and journalist on Arabic publications in Sydney and studied computer science after emigrating. But when her fourth child was born, family took over.
It has not been easy and they remember 1998 as their worst year when Trad fell in love - "became obsessed", his wife says - with another woman. In desperation, Hanifeh proposed marriage on her husband's behalf to the other woman. "We were having a terrible time. He fell in love and I wasn't thinking about myself," she says. But his obsession passed. "He became more compassionate after it," Hanifeh says. "God meant for him to go through this experience and it made him a better person and more emotionally aware. It knocked him off his perch."
Hanifeh was not heartbroken. A second wife would have meant divorce (though he was against it) or living under the same roof as her husband's mistress. As long as the arrangement was fair and had the consent of all involved, it would be acceptable. Hanifeh loves her husband and the children, but says she is not strong enough, physically or emotionally, for more babies.
Aware that Australian law prohibits polygamy, they know a second wife could never be official. But their religion allows a man four wives and though a lot of what they say to each other about polygamy amounts to teasing, there is also a serious thread. It was Hanifeh who first raised it, approvingly, before they married.
Trad and Hanifeh say Islam is central to their values and the most important thing they can impart to their children. A strong set of beliefs is needed to resist society's temptations. Both were raised in large devout families - Trad the eldest son of his father's third wife, and Hanifeh a middle daughter in a family of 12 - and they have accepted the same model for themselves.
Trad arrived in Australia at 13 as part of a family reunion complicated by polygamy. His half-brother who had settled in Sydney got permission to bring his mother and siblings from Lebanon. Because his mother was married, she was able to bring her husband. At the time her husband was married to two other women. One of them (Trad's mother) came along, too, with her children. The older wife divorced her husband in Australia and the patriarch lived with Trad's mother.
To Trad's regret his father, in his 60s then, did not adjust. He could not find full-time work in Sydney. "Isn't it a shame for a grown man not to have a job," he would say, even as he neared death at 80. His father eventually returned to Lebanon which left Trad - as a teenager - responsible for his mother and the younger children.
After ice-cream, the family returns to the house Trad calls "the untidiest in street". In the lounge, three couches are pushed back against walls in need of painting. Bits of jute poke out of the plaster rubbed raw by chairs. A coffee table is laid with almonds, preserved green plums, sweet biscuits, glasses of cold delicious Lebanese cordial tasting like liquified quinces, and the baby capsule bearing the youngest child cooing and kicking his legs.
Trad is opening mail and wonders whether a letter from the council might be to direct him to mow the grass. Instead, it concerns the baby's immunisations. "Give this to your mum," he tells the four-year-old who has walked into the room prattling about The Simpsons and clutching a pencil case, two colouring books and an oven mitt.
In the same post is a statement from the Public Service superannuation fund. He reads out the balance which is tiny. "Money means nothing to me," he says. The family qualifies for low-income support. Trad is prepared for more years of financial hardship.
For the children, it means few toys and a scant wardrobe. "I can see when my son needs new pants but he doesn't talk about it," Hanifeh says. "The kids don't ask for too much." Hanifeh reads the employment section on his behalf, but one of the children put it well: "Dad doesn't need a job; he needs a miracle to make him rich."
The mayhem that comes with nine children in a modest house does not faze them. Even on a school day with six of the kids at local public high and primary schools, the three youngest are a distraction. Conversation occurs against a background of slamming doors, kids yelling and toys being dropped, with neither parent worried. They wipe runny noses and finish complicated anecdotes.
"Imagine if our children grow up with good values like we are trying to give them,"says Trad, "Imagine what great people they'll be for society. I have to make sure that they are positive, contributing members. I will be happy if their sense of social justice is very strong."
Trad's faith has had its phases. It was least strong in Lebanon when he lived among non-practising Muslims who rarely prayed at mosques and did not have access to religious texts. Arriving in Australia he was advised by his half-brother to keep quiet about religion, to be careful around women and to change his name. His half-brother went by the surname Wilson.
For the first few years Trad did not talk about his religion. "People could see that my mother covered her hair; they knew that I was Muslim but I couldn't talk about it because I didn't know where to begin," Trad says.
He was gradually drawn in, especially after a 1987 pilgrimage to Mecca with his mother that he regards as his spiritual turning point. After that he prayed five times a day on schedule, even at the office.
"I was adamant that if someone could take a five-minute break for a ciggie, I could sit at my workstation and pray for five minutes," Trad said. "I was on good terms with my boss and she said it was OK. Initially people made jokes about me headbutting my head against the carpet or by flicking rubber bands while I was praying. But they were my close friends so it didn't matter. It was nothing."
Trad resigned from the ATO at the end of 1998, the year of his infatuation. It was a decision with some familiar elements for anyone who has had a mid-life crisis or considered a sea change. A decade after his Mecca visit he wanted to do religious work. He travelled with his family to Lebanon for three months and returned home to write.
Known at the Lakemba Mosque as a translator, the Mufti asked him to take a more prominent role. Trad is a natural communicator in a community that is not blessed with them and, with his Public Service background, knows the limits in political debate. (When an Iraqi acquaintance once made a colourful reference to Jews, Trad ticked him off.) Instead of being suspicious and defensive with talkback callers, politicians and journalists, he is prepared to explain.
The Public Service also made him confront some of his practices - he cropped his beard and, after a debate with himself, started shaking hands with women. "I kept saying, 'Please don't be offended' but a couple of them were honest and said that they were offended. And I thought - do I really have to be so strict?"