Rumana was a sari-clad, olive-skinned woman who presented to my western Sydney practice. She had arrived months earlier to live in a one bedroom flat in the Sydney suburb of Lakemba to find that the husband who sold himself as having a lavish, high status life in Australia was in fact a taxi driver renting in one of the less salubrious suburbs of Sydney. While touted as the Muslim capital of Australia, Lakemba could also be considered an Australian version of London’s Brick Lane where the latest wave of new migrants settle. Being the only psychiatrist from my ethnic group, Bangladeshis arrive from all over the city, often expecting free or subsidised treatment mixed with a far greater grasp of the Bengali language than I can offer. Most report physical complaints such as headache or dizziness, for this is a more culturally acceptable way to communicate psychological distress in non-Western cultures. Rumana herself was far from low status however, wearing gleaming golden bangles to compliment her American accented English, learnt from a prestigious, English medium school in the capital Dhaka. She complained of intractable headache but was referred by her GP in the hypothesis that it was anxiety. She rued her choice that she felt pressured by her extended family to marry down in order to obtain a migration visa and lamented that otherwise lowly men from Australia had little to strive for, given they could pick off the top tier of women in their ancestral lands with the promise of a permanent visa alone, a trend I observed in many other ethnic groups, particularly some Pakistanis and Lebanese.
A lawyer calls to tempt me with the possibility of a terrorism related case. ‘It’s hot stuff.’ he tells me, comprising a client in the high security section of Sydney’s Long Bay jail. ‘Sunnia-Shia shit.’ I attend the jail soon afterwards, endure an hour of bureaucratic delay, have retinal scans and am then led lackadaisically by a turbaned officer who carried tens of keys, which he shook to produce a high pitched ringing tone. I conduct the interview in a poorly lit room with a thin, snake-tattooed Lebanese man who last worked as a tree lopper for his brother’s business. ‘I didn’t mean to hit him, but he owed me money.’ I asked him what he knew about Sunnia-Shia differences and he noted that it had something to do with Mohammed, but didn’t know much else. ‘Why did you hit him then?’ I inquired. It emerged the wrangle began in an adjacent Oportos when the assault victim allegedly failed to reimburse my client for a Bondi Burger meal. The victim made a passing reference to the possibility that Shias, the background of my client, were ‘Kafir dickheads’. A scuffle ensued, multiple phone calls and the organising power of social media was activated before nine people reconvened at the local station for an organised brawl. My client noted he didn’t even get to eat the Bondi Burger.
I fly to Grafton, on the banks of the Clarence, known for the oldest regional jail, now being rebuilt into a mega incarceration facility. I pass its construction in attending my first client, a muscular Aboriginal man in a Yankees cap who was sent to me for a workers compensation claim around alleged harassment. The man, who had no prior qualifications, was hired by a local agency to help form a support group for Aboriginal alcoholics. He had filed for bullying because his boss did not allow him to attend what he considered a ‘cultural camp’. He asked me if I had any ‘blackfella’ in me, but did so jokingly recognising my South Asian appearance. Softly spoken but full of resentment for his employer, he thought he was entitled to engage his activities elsewhere that utilised his traditional skills. When pressed whether taking leave to be paid several thousand dollars a week to help identify sacred sites for a mining company constituted a cultural camp, he was convinced it did. ‘I was using my traditional skills to help the community.’ He left the interview believing I was likely to support his claim, saying he could tell from my background I knew about racism.
I return home; my mother’s looking after our daughters. My blonde haired, fair-skinned, power-suited wife struts in soon afterwards. We sit to eat, my wife having long, reluctantly accepted I eat with my hands when consuming Mum’s food as a token throwback to my roots.
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Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist
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