x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Australian Muslims tell fables of Islam under the Sydney stars

Members of Australia's Muslim community have brought fresh vigour to some of the most poignant fables in Middle Eastern culture through a series of intimate performances.

Sean McNulty tells a story as people gather by torchlight for Stories in the Park, a celebration of Islamic literature, in Sydney, Australia.
Sean McNulty tells a story as people gather by torchlight for Stories in the Park, a celebration of Islamic literature, in Sydney, Australia.

SYDNEY // Charismatic members of Australia's Muslim community have brought fresh vigour to some of the most poignant fables in Islamic and Middle Eastern culture through a series of intimate performances under the stars in Sydney. Over a series of weeks, Stories in the Park has presented theatre and poetry in a quiet corner of suburbia to delve into the rich history of Islamic literature and folklore for an evening of reflection. The audience has been treated to rousing interpretations of romance and humour from the Seerah, 1001 Arabian Nights and tales from Rumi.

Organisers said it has been a relaxed and typically Australian way to help ordinary Muslims reconnect with their religious heritage. "We realised there wasn't an awful lot in the way of what we call halal entertainment of a Friday night. There was nowhere to take the wife and children and have fun," said Sean McNulty, an Irish-born convert to Islam and the project's co-director. "We looked at what happened in the old countries and, in the old days, one of the more eloquent members of the tribe would get up and tell a story around the campfire. There are some absolutely beautiful stories out there. We have revived a few of them and brought them to a 21st-century audience."

About 100 people braved an early autumn chill to hear the epic tale of the Battle of Uhud, a 7th-century conflict between Muslims and Meccans on a mountainside in Medina. For almost an hour a solitary voice echoed through the darkness, which was punctuated by flickering citronella candles as bold silhouettes of huge oak trees loomed overhead and the distant traffic hummed. "The atmosphere we have is almost seductive and takes you and draws you into the story. The crowd can completely give themselves to the story under the night sky and ponder the miraculous nature of these stories," said the narrator, Benyameen Issa.

"The lessons we take from these stories are all about moral progression. People sit and listen and they walk away with, hopefully, inspiration." The adventures of Moses as well as Joseph and Abraham have been particular favourites, while the gathering has also been treated to Pakistani folk tales and Aboriginal mythology. Asme Fahmi, 29, said as she sat on a rug with a friend: "It is a unique opportunity to enjoy a family atmosphere. I feel like I'm gaining profound knowledge and to hear the great stories of the past that we don't hear often enough is a valuable experience."

"There is an enchanting atmosphere here and with the lights it is reminiscent of campfire stories. The stories are enriching because the way they are told with such passion you learn something new. It is just fabulous." The verve of the storytellers has been a key ingredient to the event's popularity. Talal, an immigrant from Sri Lanka who has spent the past six years working as an IT consultant in Australia, said: "It is a time for me to reflect. Once you are under a night sky the meanings of the stories are totally different. This gives a new dimension to them. It is amazing.

"It basically gives us a break from the entire mess out there in the world. You work five days a week and this is a time to relax." For Australian Muslims, the evenings are more than simple recitations of legends but fortification during times of international crises and domestic discrimination. Zoubeida Elzahab, 29, a Lebanese-born migrant, said: "I see a lot of people who aren't Muslim come to these events and they appreciate them as much as we do. People have these preconceived ideas [about Islam] and you just want to say, 'It is not like that'. You draw strength from these stories and they give you comfort," said

The architects of Stories in the Park have established a chapter in Melbourne, Australia's second most populous city, and have ambitions to spread the word to Perth and Brisbane as part of efforts to debunk much of the negativity that surrounds Islam. "We are the current folk devils and we are rolling with it as much as we can," said Mr McNulty, a tall, jocular man. "This demystification is important. It is part of our religion to answer questions that are asked of us."

Mr McNulty said there was a tendency for sections of Australia's 350,000-strong Muslim population to adopt "a bit of a victim mentality" rather than seek solutions or to reach out to bridge cultural gaps with broader society. Stories in the Park was, he said, a good place to start. "The pictures that are generated in one's mind when you're listening to a good story are far superior to anything you are going to get in Hollywood," Mr McNulty said.