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australian life, arabian dreams

(first published in COLOSOUL, Issue 3)

March, 2006

Mentioning the Arab world can evoke a number of negative images: countries in turmoil, families shattered by war and women voiceless and suppressed. The view of occupied Iraq has become a staple of daily news and the ongoing war has triggered intense interest in the region, making it a hotbed of issues.

But for Hayley Zahara Sparkes, Iraq is not just another faraway place, seen only on television and read about in the papers. Barely two years ago, this 21-year-old Western Australian was on an aeroplane heading for Baghdad, following her husband after he was deported.

For her, Iraq is almost a second home. Even though she currently lives in Australia it is with nostalgia that she recalls her time amongst the Arabs, living as one of them.

She presents a curious mix of Australian and Arab culture, dressing up her typically Western outfits with exotic scarves and silver bangles. As the strains of some rock song float in through the window, she hums a distinctly Arabic tune.

“I just love Arab culture,” she says, toying with a scimitar-shaped pendant that hangs around her neck like a talisman. It is a testament to her deep-seated attachment to Islam: a miniature version of Zulfiqar, the legendary weapon of the Holy Prophet Muhammad and passed down to the Shi’ite Imams.

Hayley’s love affair with the Arab world began with a chance encounter on a Bunbury street. She was returning home from a Tai Chi class when she ran into Ali Kadem, a young Iraqi refugee.

“I saw this boy with long black hair, and he asked for a lighter, and I had one. Then he was lost, so I helped him get to where he was going and then he invited me to have dinner with him and his friends as a thank you and it went from there,” she says, smiling as she recalls that first meeting.

It was an event that would change her life. Intrigued, she began to spend time with Ali and his family, watching them and learning about the way they lived.

Never having been outside Australia, everything the Kadems did was mysterious and new. However, it was not just the novelty of the culture that fascinated her.

She was deeply drawn to the simplistic beauty of the relationships between the Iraqi people. The loyalty and wholehearted acceptance that Ali’s family gave her immediately put her at ease and gave her a sense of belonging.

“It was the little things that made me feel like I wanted to be a part of them. You don’t see that here… we have families but it’s different. You look out for yourself, only. With the Iraqis, everyone would help out and not even expect to be paid back or anything. Everyone looked out for each other. It was beautiful,” she says.

Beautiful. That’s a word she uses often when describing the Kadems, who became her surrogate family after she entered into a relationship with Ali. It’s also a word that keeps on popping up as she begins to explain her views on Islam.

Coming from a non-religious background, one thing that struck Hayley was the role religion played in Arab life.

“Seeing Ali’s mum praying and things like that was all new. But when I started showing an interest, he made an effort to show me the mosque and how it all works, and why they had this religion and how it helps people… It’s a part of their culture, a big part,” she recalls.

The discipline of Islam appealed to her and she enjoyed being a part of it even before she made a conscious decision to convert. As a symbol of her new faith, she adopted the name ‘Zahara’, after one of the names of the daughter of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.

At 18, she married Ali in a small ceremony in Melbourne, cementing her place in the Iraqi community. She also took up the hijaab, the traditional Islamic headscarf, and began reading the Qur’an.

However, living with the Kadem family also brought Hayley into contact with some of the less pleasant aspects of life for refugees in Australia.

She recalls with disgust the treatment of the family as they were shunted between detention centres, and the absolute apathy she encountered when trying to help them. It is in a clipped, carefully controlled voice that she talks about being torn from the life she had only just begun to live, the people she valued locked away and her contact with them limited to such an extent that she could not even see her husband without a security guard present.

The worst was to come when Ali and his family were denied asylum and had to leave Australia. She was suddenly faced with the decision of either abandoning her husband, or following him to Iraq. Disillusioned by the opposition she encountered, she chose to leave.

She still believes it was the easiest decision she made.

“Watching how they were treated, I was embarrassed to say that I was Australian. The way I saw it then was that they were the good guys and Australia was the bad guys and so it was easy for me to go to Iraq and try to live with them, a normal life as silly as that sounds being Baghdad with bombs and stuff,” she says.

Arriving in Baghdad itself was something of an eye-opener. She says she approached her journey with an “open mind”, hoping to discover for herself what was going on rather than depend on others’ accounts and media reports.

Sadly, she found a city almost ruined by the ongoing war, and the stories she had heard about the soldiers turned out to be disturbingly accurate.

She recalls her very first night, when she came face-to-face with a group of American soldiers who had parked their tanks around the car she was waiting in.

“The first thing I saw was them swearing and spitting everywhere with their tobacco and just talking shit about everything… so straight away I said no, these people are crap, everything’s right what I’ve heard,” she says, the disappointment evident on her face as she relives that particular memory. She also remembers a bomb raid taking place on the very same night, scaring her senseless even though it was over on the other side of the city.

She reluctantly admits that moving to Iraq came with its fair share of difficulties. One of the major problems she faced was the language. Her Arabic was rudimentary at best, and she was forbidden to speak English in public in case she came under suspicion. Even though she found herself generally being accepted, especially since she had actually taken the initiative to convert to Islam, there was always the fear that as a foreigner she was a target.

But despite the challenges she faced, she believes that she was truly happy. She shares one of her most poignant memories that shaped her view of Iraq.

“Hearing the Azaan in the morning and all the houses around and the water running and the kids all getting up to pray and all that, and they were all happy… all the families living together and working together and supporting each other… seeing that was a good thing,” she says.

She also recalls the strength she drew from her mother-in-law, Ban. Even while they had been in Australia, Ban had always worn the hijaab. There was nothing in her manner that complied with the stereotypical image of the Muslim woman being suppressed. In Iraq, Hayley discovered that it was just that… a stereotype, and the truth was quite far from what she was used to hearing.

“She [Ban] was a very strong woman, and she never once appeared suppressed or anything wearing the headscarf. She was proud to wear it. She wasn’t being ordered to wear it by anyone. She saw it as being positive for herself. So when I went over there, everyone was wearing it, there wasn’t anything… it was just their lives. It wasn’t strange. They were happy to wear it.”

While moving to Iraq had been a conscious decision, Hayley was not prepared for the second part of her journey. A visit to Ali’s grandfather in Qum, Iran, went awry when Iraq’s borders were sealed off by the occupying forces. The Kadem family were now stranded, illegal immigrants, barely able to survive off the meagre savings they had.

Iran offered a different view, a different set of experiences. It was in Iran that Hayley was finally able to appreciate the development of Islamic art, especially in the mosques. The pride that Iranians had in their religion was plain to see, and she found the beauty of the place mesmerising.

With the war in Iraq, she had been unable to appreciate this particular aspect of the culture, especially since half the city had already been destroyed, a fact that still saddens her.

But it was also in Iran that she began to feel the first pangs of homesickness. Still finding her way with the culture and language, she found herself clutching at the few reminders of home, even with “silly little things like toilets.

“It was interesting to go to all these houses and see a normal toilet. A little bit like me going to the radio and thinking I’d found Britney Spears for a split second and then spending the rest of the day just to find her again… even though I can’t stand her, just to listen to the Western music for a little while.”

It was a rough time. Her grandfather passed away, triggering off feelings of guilt as she was not able to make it back to Australia for his funeral. The family’s savings were running out, and Ali was under pressure to return to Iraq to find a job. But doing so would have meant leaving Hayley behind in Iran, which he adamantly refused to do.

Ironically, it was this last reason that led to the breakdown of their marriage. Frustrated by his inability to deal with the expectations and continuously fighting with the rest of the family, Ali was unable to control himself. Hayley became a target for his anger.

To come halfway across the world, only to deal with this, was too much for her. She had already witnessed her own mother’s struggles with domestic violence and she refused to follow the same cycle.

“I didn’t want to risk having to live with that for the rest of my life. So I came home… I loved him, I forgave him…” she says, and for a second her voice cracks, the first time she has openly shown regret. But she quickly composes herself and moves on. “It sort of opened my eyes a bit to the fact it could happen again. And no, I didn’t want it to happen again, so I said we’re finished.”

If moving to Iraq had been a challenge, coming back to Australia was just as difficult. Although she was glad to be home, she found herself mocked by others who heard her story. “Crazy” was just one of the words bandied around. Others would tell her, “I told you so,” in regards to Ali’s behaviour, without taking the time to listen to her explanation.

Despite what she went through, she says she does not feel bitter in the slightest. She believes that she was simply unfortunate and that she will return to Iraq. It is a dream she carefully nurtures along with her ambition to become a professional photographer.

“I want to go back, and I want to show people the side of Arab culture and Islam and everything that doesn’t get shown… I want to show the side that’s from in the culture, not from outside. I’m an outsider, but I want to show it from inside, rather than pictures of women looking far off into the sky with their scarves on and looking all sad ‘cause it’s rubbish!”

Her experiences have also left her with a completely different outlook on life. She describes herself being “young” and “ignorant” at first, but would not change anything she went through since it has taught her the value of life and the choices she has.

She has seen both sides, the fortunate and the not-so-fortunate, and she has made a decision to live life as it comes. For Hayley, taking chances is what life is all about, because who knows where they might lead.



© Marziya Mohammedali, 2001-2013