Between loaf and halal
By Tharuka Dissanaike
3 April 2017
Sri Lanka tries to shake off entrenched practices that nationalists see as a threat to local food culture
Morning bread delivery in Galle. Image: Flickr/MichelleBFlickr
(This is an essay from our April 2013 print quarterly ‘Farms, Feasts, Famines’. See more from the issue here.)
Keeping its identity and culture pure has always been something of a challenge for Sri Lanka. Legend has it that this island nation was colonised by a castaway Bengali prince and his entourage two-and-a-half millennia ago. These ‘foreigners’ ruled over its original inhabitants, establishing kingdoms in the dry north-central plains. Its history is filled with invasions from neighbouring South Indian kingdoms, and more recently, colonisation of its coastal areas by the Portuguese and the Dutch. Lastly, for almost a century and a half, the British ruled over the entire country, deposing its last king who was actually of sub-continental origin.
Keeping language, dress, food, music, dance and other cultural practices ‘pure’ under such frequently changing circumstances has been understandably difficult. Since Independence in 1948, nationalism has ebbed and flowed. In the 1950s, such sentiment took the form of a language barrier sanctioned by the government; declaring Sinhala as the national language and alienating 20 percent of Sri Lanka’s population – who spoke either Tamil or English. In Sri Lanka, Tamils and Muslims as distinct ethnic groups find themselves linguistically united by their use of Tamil. The decision regarding the national language was reversed in the 1980s, but its effects still reverberate.
Nowadays, nationalism has been defined by ethnic conflict, primarily the polarisation between Sinhala Buddhists and Tamil Hindus. But caught up in the throes of war were other minorities: Tamil Christians, plantation workers of Indian origin, and Muslims. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) demonstrated the most extreme facet of nationalism when it carried out ethnic cleansing of the ‘Tamil Homeland’ in the northern and eastern parts of the country. Many Sinhalese and Muslims were forced to leave their traditional villages during the 30-year war.
In Southasia, nationalistic sentiments are influenced by and expressed through politics, culture and religion. Forms of dress, film, theatre and books are often targeted by nationalistic movements attempting to keep religious or cultural identity ‘pure’. Sometimes, however, communities retaliate, as happened during a short spate of peace between 2002-2004, when the self-proclaimed saviours of the Tamil people insisted that their women wear saris all the time. Women in the north have adopted a more practical dress code consisting of long jackets and skirts, allowing them to ride bicycles – the main mode of transportation in war-affected districts. They refused to be strong-armed by the LTTE into giving it up.
Since the end of the ethnic conflict in 2009, there has been a resurgence of Sinhala Buddhist sentiment and nationalism, manifest in the installation of statues of Lord Buddha across the country including in the Northeast. More subtle and sometimes bizarre indications include the insistence that mothers should wear saris when visiting their child’s school and a ban on the use of Western musical instruments in school bands. Now nationalism has filtered into food. There are instructions from the Department of Education that school lunches should be of “locally grown, traditional food”. Reflecting the views of a government pining for the glory days of long-gone kingdoms, some nationalist movements can be seen taking a militant stance on what people should eat, and how.
The politics of bread
Bread and wheat flour have become unusual victims of the new wave of nationalistic fervour. Rice is the staple food and main crop in Sri Lanka, but imported wheat flour and white bread made of refined flour have become extremely popular. Neighbours in Southasia have consistently failed to understand Sri Lankans’ obsession with the European-style loaf, but wheat nonetheless makes up almost 40 percent of the total staple consumption. The habit stems from food aid donated by the United States during a famine in the 1960s. In later years, the government subsidised wheat flour because the country could not meet the demand for rice. In the late 1960s a 500g loaf of bread was 25 Sri Lankan cents (USD 0.002), while a kilo of rice cost somewhere between 30 and 60 cents.
Reflecting the views of a government pining for the glory days of long-gone kingdoms, some nationalists are taking a militant stance on what people should eat, and how
Over the past five decades Sri Lankans became hooked on bread. In both urban and suburban areas, the bread man heralds the dawn; waking up to the loud jangle of a musical horn emanating from competing bread delivery services and running outdoors to buy the morning meal has become standard practice. The ritual is repeated in the evening. Rice meals may be cheaper, but to middle-class Sri Lankans, convenience is key – perhaps even at the expense of health.
The refined wheat flour milled by multinational companies in Sri Lanka is quite unlike the wholegrain wheat flour available in countries like Nepal and India. Devoid of any real nutritional value, except for an overdose of gluten-and-sugar rich carbohydrate, white bread in Sri Lanka is a possible cause and certain contributor to the high rates of diabetes among urban Sri Lankans. One in seven now has Type 2 diabetes, though the rate drops rapidly in rural areas, denoting that both diet and physical activity are responsible. Attempts to manufacture convenient alternatives out of rice flour have resulted in expensive and exclusive products available only to the very rich.
Bread is so central to the Sri Lankan middle class diet that it has assumed a political space of its own. So when the charismatic Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga – daughter of two prime ministers – promised a loaf of bread at SLR 3.50 (USD 0.028) the masses cheered and elected her president. She also promised to abolish the executive presidency within six months of her election, but it was likely the former promise that won her the resounding victory. Both promises went unfulfilled.
Following that election, imported wheat flour was declared an essential item and became price-controlled by the government. Huge subsidies were introduced so that milled flour could be available to bakeries at a fraction of the real cost, making SLR 3.50 bread possible for a short time.. An escalation of the ethnic conflict in the north and east provided the government with the cover necessary to gradually wind down its treasury-crippling subsidies, causing bread prices to inflate.
Since 2006, bread has one again become a centerpiece of Sri Lankan politics once again, but from a different perspective. As the populism of Chandrika Kumaratunga gave way to the nationalism of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the government began trying to wean Sri Lankans off bread. President Rajapaksa’s government has promoted rice and derivative rice products as bread substitutes. It is promoting a ‘rice for all meals’ approach, instructing schools to adjust their lunch menus accordingly, restricting bread-based items and promoting local food such as rice, boiled mung beans and chickpeas – all under the auspices of the prevention of childhood diabetes.
The present government taxes wheat flour imports heavily, and has brought bread prices to an all-time high of SLR 60-65 (USD 0.5) for a loaf. The government is trying to curb outflow of foreign exchange while boosting the production and consumption of rice, and is gradually extending this approach to other imported foods. Some nutritionists and experts worry that high taxes on imported wheat, canned fish, powdered milk and potatoes could actually result in rural malnutrition. A recent article in Lanka Business Online criticises the nationalistic preoccupation with rice at the expense of cheaper foods popular among lower-income households. Canned fish used to provide a cheap source of protein to people without refrigerators. Powdered milk benefited the same group, and for the same reasons, is also over-taxed to induce self-sufficiency in dairy products.
The parliament canteen began serving pork items after nearly 20 years off the menu, but how this helped preserve Sinhala Buddhist culture remains a mystery
While the overall trend for fresh milk, fresh fish and homegrown produce is commendable in terms of national-level food sovereignty and security; the government is perhaps putting the cart before the horse. Heavy taxation has set food prices artificially high before domestic production levels could meet the demand. Sri Lanka, with a per capita income of over USD 2500, is no longer considered a Least Developed Country. However, poverty and malnutrition are still present. In a largely rural population, with very low levels of urban migration, poverty correlates to access, opportunity, education and conflict. Poorer districts have fewer roads and vehicles; higher rates of school dropouts between primary and early secondary; and higher levels of debilitating and chronic diseases. Poor farmers have limited access to land and irrigation facilities.
The recently published Human Development Index for Sri Lanka shows that poverty has declined overall, but persists in districts emerging from conflict due to long term disruption of social and livelihood assets, and in Up-country estates growing rubber and tea. Child malnutrition is a serious problem in the rural districts characterised by plantation labour and in post-conflict districts. Eradicating this chronic marginalisation and malnutrition with purely homegrown solutions may not be entirely feasible, especially given the government target to end poverty by 2016.
Food as a political canvas
While the nationalistic government is trying to force imported foods out of the Sri Lankan diet, political and religious groups have also found food and eating habits to be fertile ground for harnessing popular sentiments.
For centuries Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist communities have co-existed in the island country. Muslim villages with abattoirs and halal meat stalls stood, and continue to stand, side by side with vegetarian Hindu and Buddhist villages. Two decades ago, the term ‘halal’ generally referred to meat items prepared according to Sharia rulings. But today, due to the complex nature of the industry and demand from Muslim consumers and importers, a mind-boggling array of products – including paint brushes, coconut milk, Ayurvedic balms and instant noodles – carry halal labels ensuring that pork and pig derivatives do not contaminate the manufacturing process. Restaurants in Colombo stopped serving pork and pork products, and even multinational fast food chains such as McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut adhere to halal regulations.
According to industry sources, the halal certification determined by a group of clerics called the All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulama used to be free and liberally issued ten years ago. But it soon became a fee-levying mandatory requirement, designed to secure Muslim patronage. Muslims make up between eight and nine percent of the Sri Lankan population, and are generally engaged in trade. They are considered by many to be the ‘wealthy’ demographic, with higher purchasing power in urban areas. Over time it became common practice for concerned products to display the halal logo, as Muslim customers demanded to see proof of certification. When the practice extended from meat products to everyday items like biscuits, noodles and soft drinks, the certification began to irk other communities.
Rumblings of dissatisfaction from Hindus, Buddhist and Christians on the Islamisation of the food culture went largely unaddressed until the Bodu Bala Sena (or BBS – translated as the Buddhist Force) called for a boycott of products bearing the halal logo in November 2012. This new and powerful organisation is fighting against what it deems the “halal-isation” of Sri Lankan, and more specifically Sinhala Buddhist, food culture. The BBS takes a hardline stance on the prolific spread of halal certification in Sri Lanka, and questions why non-Muslim consumers should be forced to buy and eat halal food. The boycott, extended to Muslim-owned shops and businesses, impacted badly on year-end sales.
The ethnic underpinning of the fight against halal labelling did not escape the political area. The subject was brought up in parliament many times, where the Muslim Congress (an ally of the present government) warned that this type of ethno-religious disagreement could disrupt Sri Lanka’s hard won peace. MPs supporting the BBS’s worldview pressed upon the government to suspend the halal certification process. Soon after, the parliament canteen began serving pork items which had been off the menu for nearly 20 years. How this serves to further the preservation of Sinhala Buddhist culture remains a mystery.
Politicians rarely play fair. Undoubtedly, the halal issue will likely be used by both Muslim and Sinhala politicians to further their divisive agendas and to advance personal gain. In 1995 however, a different ‘food’ issue actually served to unify the voting masses – the promise of cheap bread. Nationalists fighting to protect ‘indigenous’ food culture will find theirs a difficult battle in a country that has openly embraced globalisation for many centuries. As I write this, I hear the jangle of the bread van; and realise that although the rice harvest has just been brought home, many Sri Lankans still wait by the roadside to buy a loaf of fluffy white bread to eat with imported red daal.
~Tharuka Dissanaike lives in Colombo and used to work as a print-media feature writer and columnist in Sri Lanka. Currently she works as a freelance consultant on environmental project development for the United Nations Development Programme.
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Shakira Hussein is an Honorary Fellow at the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies in the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne, and the author of From Victims to Suspects: Muslim Women Since 9/11.
"I'm here to address concerns that too many perky white males are contributing to a lack of diversity on our screens," says perky white male and X Factor host Luke Jacobz ("with a zee"), introducing Meat and Livestock Australia's advertisement for "the meat that doesn't discriminate" - Aussie spring lamb, of course.
Jacobz then makes way for Bengali-Australian actor Arka Das, who perkily tells us "We couldn't agree more" before striding into a typical Australian park, where an atypical (by the standards of Australian television) group of Australians has gathered for a typical Australian barbecue.
Those lining up for their helping of "the ultimate cross-cultural protein" represent a diverse array of racial and religious backgrounds, as well as a male same-sex couple holding their newborn baby, Greek trans-gender comedian Jordan Raskopoulus, a woman who communicates with sign language and an older man using a wheelchair.
Further signalling that times have moved on since the years during which footballer and "lambassador" Sam Kekovitch ranted that those who don't eat lamb and drink beer on Australia Day are "unAustralian" - and even since 2016's Australia Day ad in which a SWAT team under the command of SBS newsreader Lee Lin Chin took a flamethrower to the coffee table of a hapless vegan - the food on offer at Jacobz and Das's barbecue included a token vegetarian dish for the equally token Hare Krishna participants.
And in a display of respect to the traditional owners of the land on which the barbecue is held, the advertisement even manages to incorporate a commercial version of an acknowledgement of country. When Das prepares to serve sizzling lamb to the diverse multitude by asking "who was here first?," Aboriginal sporting legends Cathy Freeman and Greg Inglis respond with "aaah, that'd be us."
The ad attracted 5.4 million views and international acclaim, plus multiple complaints to the Advertising Standards Board of Australia from those who took offence on behalf of the nation's not-so-perky white men. This is a familiar process for Meat and Livestock Australia, which fielded regular complaints over Sam Kekovitch's annual Australia Day rants from 2005 to 2014 and then again in 2016 when more than 747 viewers complained about Lee Lin Chin's anti-vegan violence, which made their "Operation Boomerang" Australia Day advertisement the most complained about advertisement of the year.
However, the complaints about the spring lamb campaign sounded like the kind of rants that Meat and Livestock Australia had once paid Sam Kekovitch to deliver. For these viewers, the type of masculinity that Kekovitch had valorised for so many years was now being sidelined and mocked. And ranting white men are not ready to give up their rightful place at the centre of the national barbecue.
The Soldiers of Odin were white males (plus a token female) distributing food to the masses, but they couldn't be described as perky. And they hadn't set up base on a sunny spring day in a park overlooking the beach, but on a cold, damp night in Melbourne's City Square, a couple of blocks from Flinders Street Station. Dressed in black combat jackets with Viking helmets and the Australian flag emblazoned on the back, they were serving soup and cupcakes rather than lamb, but they were there to defend Australian values all the same. And as they would no doubt have pointed out, many Aussie families would have trouble affording a traditional lamb dinner these days.
Cupcakes with a side-order of racism, I thought as I read the leaflet they were distributing. "Patriotic Australians, Protecting Our Citizens, Defending Our Streets, Our Culture & Our Great Country," it proclaimed. "We are Anti Racism, Anti Nazism, & Do Not support Anti-Semitic views. We are anti Islam and anti-sharia law on our soil." Because everyone's an anti-racist these days - even (and perhaps especially) organisations whose very raison d'etre is racism.
Named for the Norse god of war, the Soldiers of Odin are the Australian off-shoot of a Finnish far-right organisation that claims to be protecting ordinary citizens against crime by conducting vigilante patrols on the streets, as well as providing succour to "The Homeless, Less Fortunate & The Elderly." Like Reclaim Australia, the Q society, the United Patriots Front and, of course, Pauline Hanson's One Nation, they also claim to be a frontline defence in the battle against Islamization and shari'a law.
I had interviewed other members of the so-called "patriots movement" at their highly publicised rallies during which they had clashed with anti-racist protestors and the police, but somehow I felt more threatened by the four Soldiers of Odin than I had by the crowds at those earlier events. Perhaps the hate-speech against my religious community sounded more sinister in the darkness and the shadows, but most of all, I think it was the cupcakes.
"Seriously, they were giving out cupcakes," I told my friends. "With love-hearts on them! It was terrifying." Because while the Meat and Livestock Association advertisement evokes a multicultural idyll in which Australians of all backgrounds unite to enjoy a barbecue together, food has also long been deployed as a potent weapon of division.
Under the Spanish Inquisition, conversos and moriscos were scrutinised for evidence of pork consumption to ensure that people were not secretly maintaining their Jewish or Muslim identity. One of the triggers for the 1867 Indian Mutiny - or, as the Indian Government prefers to call it, "India's First War of Independence" - was the rumour that the cartridges for the new Enfield rifles were greased with a mixture of beef and pork fat and hence deeply offensive to the Hindu and Muslim sepoys who had to "bite the bullet."
What we eat, abstain from eating and serve for others to eat has always held a latent potential for violence.
The surreal contrast between the dainty cupcakes and the menacing-looking men who were serving them distracted me from the realisation that the soup was likely to be the ideological as well as the culinary main course. Only later did it dawn on me that the Soldiers of Odin were probably following the precedent set by the European far-right organisations from which they drew their name and their inspiration.
In 2006, authorities in Belgium and France closed down soup kitchens affiliated with far-right organisations on the grounds that they were inflaming racial tensions by providing the needy with servings of so-called called "Identity Soup" - identity, of course, meaning pork. However, a decade later various right-wing councils in France banned school canteens from offering students an alternative option when pork was on the menu, a policy that former president Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to make nationwide if he were returned to power in 2017 (a promise that failed to take him past the first round of voting for his party's nomination).
In Australia a small group of protestors from the United Patriots Front roasted a pig on a spit during a 2015 demonstration outside the ABC studios in Melbourne after the highly publicised appearance by Zaky Mallah on Q&A. Speakers at a Reclaim Australia rally that I attended later that year in the outer Melbourne suburb of Melton gloatingly invited their supporters to join them for a barbecue in a nearby park - of course, with pork sausages as the main attraction. And in December, someone planted bacon rashers on the prayer mats in the Bankstown hospital prayer room, while Christmas cards containing bacon were sent to Sydney's Lebanese Muslim Association.
But perhaps the strangest manifestation of the weaponisation of food is the moral panic around halal certification. The "boycott halal" movement entered Australian public life as a social media campaign, became a slogan at Reclaim Australia protests and then crossed into mainstream politics when then Liberal senator Cory Bernardi succeeded in establishing a Senate inquiry into third-party certification of food. While the inquiry's terms of reference also covered kosher certification and various health campaigns' hallmarks of approval, most of the public attention and submissions received focused on the hazards (or otherwise) of halal certification.
The patriots movement denounces the halal certification of groceries with as much passion as they do other, more explicable fears. When I asked protestors at a Reclaim Australia rally to explain their "Stop Sharia Law!" placards, they cited beheading and burqas but also complained that shari'a had been smuggled into "our" food in the form of halal certification.
According to the anti-halal conspiracy theorists, the fees that companies pay in order to have their products halal certified are used to fund terrorism and amount to an Islamic tax on non-Muslim Australians. This language mirrors the campaign against kosher certification (also referred to as the "Jewish tax" or the "kosher nostra") by white supremacists in the United States. However, most anti-halal campaigners claim not to be concerned by the issue of kosher certification because they do not regard Judaism as posing a threat in the way that Islam is supposed to do.
The campaign against halal certification came as a shock to many Muslims, who were used to regarding food as a means to build bridges and soothe troubled nerves, rather than as yet another way in which we post a threat to Australian values. After all, improvements to the Australian diet are regularly cited as one of the benefits of multiculturalism, with wogs having rescued "mainstream Aussies" from the monotony of the British diet. It's by far the most popular item in the multiculturalism of consumption, some distance ahead of the full frontal nudity in European art house movies on SBS.
But as the Meat and Livestock Australia's spring lamb advertisement illustrates, diversity is far more palatable when overseen by a perky white male. While most of the dialogue (not to mention the food) is provided by a brown male, the ad opens with Luke Jacobz ("with a zee") providing the seal of approval for diversity and closes with a shot of him sprawled contentedly in the foreground, still perky and still the most prominent figure against the backdrop of diverse minions.
This wasn't enough for the disgruntled complainants to the Advertising Standards Board of Australia. "The very first thing the person says is both sexist and racist," one fumed. "The person points out that they are white and male saying that this adds to a lack of diversity. Pointing out someone's race and gender in an advertisement and then denigrating such race or gender is both racist and sexist."
The mere act of pointing out the race and gender of a white guy - perky or otherwise - is often regarded as a denigrating attack in itself, even though those of us who are not (presumptively cisgendered, heterosexual) white guys are routinely framed in terms of our racial and/or our gender and sexual identities in explicitly denigrating terms.
And both food and diversity are regularly deployed to avoid any meaningful discussion of racism. As Luke Pearson from NITV has pointed out, a quick glance at the Meat and Livestock board of directors shows it to be dominated by white males (none of them perky). It's far more straightforward to line up a diverse range of guests at a fictitious barbecue than it is to implement diversity in employment practices, let alone to critique the origins of the national day, which has formed the core of the company's publicity campaigns for the past 12 years.
Neither the Senate inquiry into the third-party certification of food nor the complaints to the Advertising Standards Board provided much comfort to the ranting white men and women of Australia. The Senate inquiry recommended the introduction of a government-led halal certification scheme to replace the current piecemeal landscape of rival certifying bodies, but found that "there is no direct link between halal certification in Australia and terrorism funding" and that it did not force non-Muslim Australians to participate in a religious ritual. Some of the submissions made to the inquiry were withheld from public release due to their discriminatory content.
Similarly, the Advertising Standards Board dismissed the case against the spring lamb campaign, finding that "overall the advertisement is inclusive and the humour is employed equally across all the races/ethnicities portrayed in the advertisement."
However, the Meat and Livestock Association's next campaign sought to acknowledge the increasingly vocal campaign to change the date of Australia's national day and to reinforce the brand's association with diversity. In what director Paul Middleton described as "one of the proudest moments of my life and career," the MLA's January 2017 advertisement was a vibrant display of nationalism that dared not speak its name. It depicted a convivial beach barbecue in which a group of Aboriginal Australians are joined by European explorers on tall ships, followed by wave after wave of settlers and migrants from around the world (including a cameo appearance by Sam Kekovich wearing Serbian national costume). The words "Australia Day" are never spoken. Rather, Cathy Freeman asks "What's the occasion?" only to receive the reply, "Do we need one?"
Aboriginal journalist and party pooper Amy McQuire tweeted, "Wow what a way to sideline the invasion, massacres and theft that January 26th represents." Others joined her in complaining about the whitewashing of Australian history and the commercial exploitation of Aboriginal dispossession. At the other end of the political spectrum, Pauline Hanson commented that: "It's bloody idiots out there, ratbags. It's pretty sad when it's basically shutting us down for being proud of who we are as Australian citizens."
However, the advertisement received a rapturous reception from those who credited it with opening up a national conversation about Australian identity, as well as allowing Meat and Livestock Australia to broaden its appeal beyond its ageing traditional customer base.
The price of inclusion, then, is a willingness to be mocked by and alongside the dominant culture, preferably teamed with a commercial incentive for tolerance. It's safe to assume that the lamb on show in the meat foundation ad would have been halal certified in consideration of the Muslim guests at the barbecue and the livestock industry's South East Asian export market.
Western Australian Liberal MP Luke Simpkins, who had warned that "by having Australians unwittingly eating halal food, we are all one step down the path to conversion," was defeated at the 2016 federal election by Australia's first female Muslim member of parliament. However, that election also saw Pauline Hanson returned to parliament, alongside three other One Nation senators (one of whom, Rod Culleton, has since left the party, and Senate) - all of whom of course regard halal food as a threat to Australia's national security and values.
If nothing else, the Soldiers of Odin and their cupcakes provided me with an insight into an aspect of the anti-halal campaign that had always puzzled me: the descriptions of physical disgust at the thought of consuming "Muslim" food. "Ethnic" food and migrant lunch-boxes have of course long been stigmatised as repulsive and smelly, but this campaign was directed at mainstream products like Cadbury's chocolates.
I had never understood the testimonies of people who described their revulsion at discovering that a brand of food they had been eating for decades had "secretly" become halal certified - even if the ingredients were exactly the same as they always had been. As one of the protestors at a Reclaim Australia rally told me, "It's hidden inside the cheese packet! You can't see it until you open it!"
What's wrong with these people? I asked myself. It's still the same cheese. But after shuddering at the thought of accepting a cupcake from the Soldiers of Odin, I could understand how the prospect of eating food that bore the label of an enemy ideology could induce a feeling of physical disgust. The crumpled plastic packaging showed that the soldiers had purchased their cupcakes at the supermarket, rather than baking them themselves or delegating the task to a female minion. They were the same cupcakes as the ones that I might buy myself, just as the halal-certified cheese was still the same cheese.
Except that the label makes all the difference. "I didn't eat the fascist cupcakes," I assured my friends. "I should have asked whether they were halal certified." Leaving aside the fact that the cupcakes were supposedly designated as food for the homeless, there are sound tactical and ethical reasons to refrain from entering into gift transactions with one's ideological foes. However, my response to the Soldiers of Odin's cupcakes did not arise from my reading on the anthropology of gift-exchanges and reciprocity. It came from my gut. Like the anti-halal panic merchants, I had managed to identify an item of food with the qualities of the person who had handled it.
A few days before the Trumpocalypse was unleashed in the United States, I encountered the Soldiers of Odin again in a setting as idyllic as the park that had featured in the Meat and Livestock Foundation spring lamb advertisement. A program by St. Vincent's Health and CatholicCare to provide newly arrived refugees from Syria and Iraq with temporary housing in a disused section of an aged-care facility in Eltham provided far-right organisations with a pretext for yet another protest in defence of Australia's citizens and values. Local residents responded to the so-called "Battle for Eltham" by decorating the town with painted butterflies, anti-racist activists held a "Welcome to Eltham" rally a short distance away, and the police turned out in force to the quiet, leafy neighbourhood.
As always, the patriots were in a belligerent mood. Mostly male, they favoured black combat jackets with Australian flag logos and T-shirts with logos such as "Stop the Rapeugees." After a series of speeches denouncing Islam, multiculturalism, political correctness and "the left," the organisers announced that some of the Marxists from the anti-racist rally had managed to break through the police lines. However, the "Marxists" turned out to be the Soldiers of Odin marching into the park in military-style formation, with Australian flags held high above their heads and chants of "Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi oi oi!" as their battle cry.
It was a relief to retreat to the civilised surroundings of the local bookshop. As it happened, I'd first visited the Eltham Bookshop to speak on a panel about Muslims and multiculturalism and had enjoyed memorable conversations with its Indian-born owner Meera Goval and her family about the old days before Partition, about the senselessness of conflict and racism - and of course about food and cooking.
I had thought that the bookshop might have been closed for the day, given the warnings about possible violence and the high police presence in the town, but Meera's husband Navin laughed. "We're not going to close because of a bunch of fascists! Would you like a cup of tea?"
"Oh, thank you! That would be wonderful."
'How do you like it?"
"Milk and one sugar, thanks."
"And a bit of cardamom?"
Surrounded on all sides by books, I sipped the delicately scented milky brew. Indian and Pakistani friends and family have served me this Punjabi-style chai in locations ranging from London to Lahore to Melbourne. Tea, sugar, spice - over the centuries, the appetite for these commodities has powered and been powered by global trade routes, imperial conquest, the brutality of slave plantations and the mobility of migration. This particular cup of tea was infused with the qualities of the person who had prepared it and the location in which it was served. It was civilisation, it was healing, it was hope.
It was the best cup of tea that I have had in my entire life.
Shakira Hussein is an Honorary Fellow at the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies in the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne. This is an edited version of an essay that appears in the autumn issue of Meanjin, out on Wednesday, 15 March.