Peace of cake

Muslim Converts in Austria

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May 15, 2008

 Salam Cafe screens Wednesdays at 10pm on SBS.
Photo: Supplied

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Salam Cafe aims to bust misconceptions about Muslims, writes Sacha Molitorisz.

THE format is hardly ground-breaking. As a blend of The Chaser and The Panel, Salam Cafe aims to deliver laughs via sketches, vox pops and a discussion of the day’s issues. The twist is that the panellists and interviewers are Muslim, giving Salam Cafe — which steps into SBS’ Wednesday night slot previously filled by Newstopia — an endearingly subversive edge.

This edge can be seen on YouTube, where several clips survive from the three seasons the show spent cutting its teeth on Channel 31. One clip shows a series of vox pops conducted in Frankston.

“What do you know about Muslims?” one interviewer asks a passer-by.

“Not a lot,” says the young man. “But I know that their beliefs are pretty dangerous”

“What do you think of Muslims?” another young man is asked.

“I hate ’em.”

“What’s Ramadan?” the interviewer asks a woman.

“Is that like a poppadam?”

The segment is funny but also poignant, giving an insight into the sort of prejudices and misconceptions faced by Muslim Aussies such as Susan Carland.

“Most of the misconceptions are about Muslim women,” says Carland, a regular panellist on Salam Cafe. “A lot of them are about the headscarf. I’m often asked if I have cancer. And I have a badge that says, ‘No, I don’t wear it in the shower’. People really think we’re aliens. It’s just a piece of material, like a T-shirt. It doesn’t have magic powers.

“For me, it’s very important that this show is about Muslims, not about Islam. It’s just showing that Muslims are normal people. We’re not from Planet Islam. It’s showing the human face of the Muslim community, same as Acropolis Now did (for the Greek community) in the ’80s. People will see that we won’t eat their babies.”

Since the World Trade Center attacks, Muslims have had a serious image problem. “Obviously the whole world was turned on its head post-September 11,” says Ahmed Imam, Salam Cafe’s host. “There was a lot of heat in the kitchen.”

The Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005 didn’t help. Which is ironic, given that Islam — contrary to the rantings of some extremists — is essentially a tolerant religion. “Islam says to Christians and Jews, ‘We worship the same God you do’,” says Carland. “Islam is a continuation. We feel the prophets all came with the same message.”

So here comes Salam Cafe, hoping to give Aussie Muslims an image makeover via humour — which in Australia is usually the best way to make a serious point.

“People are probably not expecting the kinds of stuff that comes out of our mouths,” says Imam. “Even (producer) Ted Robinson said, ‘When I saw the show the first time, I was laughing at what you were laughing at. I couldn’t feel any distance’. Humour is a particularly Australian characteristic, and we all originate from different places, but we’re all Australian. And the humour is probably a reflection of the new kinds of Muslim in Australia, who are comfortable living and practising their faith and joking.”

Humour also allows Salam Cafe to broach sensitive topics.

“We won’t do anything we’re uncomfortable with,” says Carland. “But then we do address some uncomfortable issues because I think to ignore those issues is even more offensive to people.”

The regulars chosen for the 10 initial episodes of Salam Cafe — to be filmed in front of live audiences in Sydney and Melbourne — are an impressive bunch. There’s Waleed Aly, the young lawyer who is a regular contributor to The Age opinion page and ABC radio.

There’s the show’s host, Imam, who is the acting chief executive of the Islamic Council of Victoria, a father of four and the son of the Mufti of Australia (Fehmi Naji el-Imam). He sees Salam Cafe as a potentially useful tool in bringing Islam into the consciousness of mainstream Australia.

“I was born and raised here in Australia,” he says. “My dad came to Australia in 1951 from Lebanon, then he married my mother, who was of Anglo-Celtic background and became a Muslim in the ’50s. The Muslim community in the ’50s in Sydney and Melbourne was incredibly small, and only since the ’70s has Muslim migration skyrocketed. So it’s a changing dynamic. Within the Muslim community there are now more parents who have grown up here and who understand the environment and significance of the cultural values.”

Then there’s Carland, who is sharp, opinionated and has a stud in her tongue.

“She has a touch of the punk about her,” says Pamela Swain, who is producing with Robinson.

“She’s like a punk mum. She’s got a bit of the rebel about her and is also a feminist. But she’s amazingly down to earth, and so Aussie.

“I can’t speak highly enough of all them. The thing that makes me really excited is they’re really young. The oldie is Ahmed Iman, he’s 38, but these are mostly 20-somethings, and that’s a generation we don’t often see on television. This show is a big ask of them, but I think it’s got great potential.”

Also on the team are Nazeem Hussain and Aamer Rahman, comedians whose show Fear of a Brown Planet, winner of the best newcomer award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, was described by The Age as “beautifully distilled fury”. Appearing beside them are Ahmed Hassan, Dakhylina Madkhul and Toltu Tufa.

With the help of Robinson and Swain, whose credits include Good News Week, The Glass House and The Sideshow, Salam Cafe on SBS will be more polished than it was in April 2005, when it premiered on the community TV channel.

The idea for the show came over a game of Pictionary. “When you don’t drink it’s just party around the clock,” says Carland. “Ahmed just said, ‘Wouldn’t it be good to have a TV show?’ We thought it would be awesome, so we filmed four episodes in a local primary school. It was all very Wayne’s World, but the Muslim community seemed to like it. Originally it was just a panel show, but then we brought in sketches.”

For the initial episodes, the title was Ramadan TV. “We deliberated for weeks over what the name should be,” Imam says. “And just like the word ‘Islam’, and the word ‘Muslim’, ‘Salam’ comes from the word for ‘peace’. And then we decided we wanted to create the atmosphere of a coffee shop. Because everybody loves a coffee shop, especially in Melbourne. So this is the Peace Cafe. We didn’t want something overly Islamic or Arabic but something where a Muslim sees the name, they know, and when a non-Muslim sees it, they might just think, ‘That’s an interesting name’.”

As far as Imam is concerned, the image problem faced by Muslims in Australia will soon pass.

“Everybody has their time,” he says. “The Italians, the Greeks, the Asians, they all had their time. Now it’s the Muslims, and probably even more so at the moment it’s the African community. It could be someone else next. The Italians, Greeks and Asians have all come through that, and it’s going to happen with Muslims, too, and hopefully this show will assist with that process. Not that we’re sponsored by the Department of Immigration.”

Salam Cafe screens Wednesdays at 10pm on SBS.

 

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