By Gordon WeissMarch 8, 2012
Why would a Muslim shed his sweetheart, family, profession, nation and religion for a patch of Aussie housing commission? Our Islam in Australia series continues.
Jesus lives. In the Sydney suburb of Punchbowl.
He beats in the breast of Abdelhadi Ali*, a 40-year-old Egyptian radiographer.
When Abdelhadi was a small boy, in the dust and broil of Cairo, he wondered why he should hate his Christian teacher, who treated him and his classmates with apparent equal concern, no matter what their religion. His parents and uncles had instructed the boy that as a Muslim, he was to hate infidels, not befriend them. As a Sunni, he says he was taught that Shia Muslims were his bitter enemies, and Jews - "snakes" - were not far behind. When in their graves, their bodies would be crushed into oblivion, their souls deposited in Hell. Yet it seems that doubt, and common humanity, were early icons on Abdelhadi's shelf of life.
"I lived my life lying," he says softly while swallowing in pain. "Our identity is created by our culture. Here in Australia we are free to be what we want." But to Abdelhadi's family, his hard-won freedom is heresy, and Abdelhadi is an apostate and outcast. When given a refugee visa by Australia on the grounds of religious persecution in 2010, he tried to change his name, afraid to be found. An interviewing immigration officer told him that he no longer had cause for fear in Australia. Abdelhadi, who kept his name, points to a small computer print he made of Noah's Ark spanned by a rainbow. "But I am still lying."
Icons surround him now, symbols of childhood doubts given adult voice."You are beautiful, no matter what they say," reads a maxim, printed on A4 and sticky-taped to the wall of his tiny housing commission studio. Most icons are plastic crosses and plaster statuettes of Jesus, but there is also a figure of the monkeys of the Buddhist injunction "See no evil; Speak no evil; Hear no evil." Religious symbols, maxims and photographs crowd this sliver of monastic space in suburban Sydney, a babble of figurative voices drowning out Abdelhadi's past. "Be you, not them," reads another piece of stark A4.
Some friends who visited him in his room asked if Noah's rainbow meant he was homosexual. "Gay, I'm not and I don't care. But I took down the much bigger picture I had of the Ark. It covered the wall. So even here, I conform." There are other icons that keep his spirits up. He has a library of DVDs, "all of them about humanity, human rights," says Abdelhadi. He talks about the films that he watches over and over again, including the recent Oscar-winning film The Help, a story of black civil rights. And then, on his computer, he shows us a YouTube video of the man who tried to kill him because of his conversion.
Born and raised in a conservative Islamic household, Abdelhadi comes from a family apparently solidly middle-class. Religious teachers, professionals and academics, they are the sort of Egyptian family who in theory should benefit from a democratic system swept in by the so-called Arab Spring, where a majority voted for Islamist parties, and almost one-third of those votes went to the hardline Islamist Al-Nour party. His sisters and mother wore head dress, and some of his sisters and cousins are veiled. One of his sisters is married to a man who later took two more wives.
Abdelhadi had practiced as a radiographer in Kuwait. He made the hajj, or religious pilgrimage to Mecca four times. One day, after Friday prayers, he was taken to a stadium where a man was beheaded. "I turned my face away," he says. They told him that a woman had been stoned there for adultery the previous day. One day, back in Kuwait, he saw two colleagues, both doctors, in fisticuffs. "One was Shia, one Sunni. They were fighting about religion. So I began to read about Islam," says Abdelhadi.
He read about the bloodshed after the death of Muhammad, when the followers and family of Muhammad's grandson, Hussein, were butchered by other Muslims at the Battle of Karbala. "In the hadith (the collected sayings of Muhammad) Muhammad says that Muslims who convert can be killed. Muhammad married a girl who was only nine. Women being stoned for adultery. The testimony of a woman worth half that of a man. A woman entitled to only half the share of a man when inheriting property. I thought of my sisters with pity."
He says he also read of Christian cruelty during the Spanish Inquisition, and of Martin Luther, the 16th century German theologian who rebelled against church corruption, and about Muslim suffering at the hands of Christians. One day he saw a film about Mother Teresa, the Catholic Albanian who tended the poor and leprous in Calcutta. He had a dream about Jesus. He began to treat the Kuwaiti hospital cleaners - poor foreign workers from Sri Lanka, the Philippines and India - with greater care, bringing them food. One day he shaved his beard off. "I had to go to a barber, because I'd never owned a razor." After a period as an atheist, friendship with a Palestinian Christian led to his conversion in Kuwait.
Abdelhadi is part of a small but significant Australian community of mostly Arab Muslims who have turned their backs on their religion and culture, and often their families. Some have merely turned to atheism, but others - Syrians, Saudis, Lebanese, Egyptians and Iraqis - have recreated themselves entirely as Christians. But Abdelhadi's journey to apostasy, begun as a boy, had been long and fraught with danger. In Kuwait, he was bashed by religious thugs who tried to force him to renounce Christianity. In Egypt, his cousin - the man in the video - tried to strangle him. His fiancée abandoned him. His sister begged him to pretend to be a Muslim "and hold your religion in your heart".
On Wednesday, March 5, this year, Abdelhadi was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. Warning him against leaving Islam, his mother had said that he would get cancer. But the explanation for his disease probably lies elsewhere. During difficult procedures with children in Kuwait, while family members and other staff left the radiography theatre, he says he would often stay in the room to hold the x-ray plates in place.
"Nobody chooses their circumstances, and we should accept people for who they are," he says as he recalls his boyhood teacher. In Australia he argues with Christians about intolerance. "If your daughter chooses to be a Muslim, or your son to be gay, you must accept." Abdelhadi is studying to acquire Australian certification in radiography. He prints books of his maxims and hands them to people on the street and, until he fell ill, did community work, inspired by the examples of Mother Teresa and Christ. "Jesus was for the poor, for those who have nothing, the lowest. But I never imagined I'd become sick myself.
"I tell Muslims, don't live in fear," he says. "I can't imagine that I will live in Paradise with 73 virgins, while others will live in Hell. I don't believe that Islam is evil, but I cannot accept the stoning of women, nor Old Testament cruelty." Abdelhadi believes that the Arab Spring will usher in greater intolerance to Egypt, and that smaller communities of Shia, Baha'is, Christians and Sufis will suffer. He also thinks that immigrants to Australia should be given what he calls a values test. "You have to bring good spirits into this country. I think that Egypt should be more like Australia and Europe, and put religion to one side."
My final question about his illness betrays a last concealment, which the man who now has almost nothing left cannot escape: "I don't show it, but yes, I am afraid. But I have accepted it."
* A pseudonym. Abdelhadi did not want his real name used because of fears for his safety.