What Saleh’s recommendations have in common, aside from delicious food and the option to eat halal, is that the atmosphere is more reminiscent of “grandma’s kitchen” than fine dining. Many are little more than a hole in the wall.
Saleh is a human rights lawyer by profession, but she is also a writer. Her poetry and debut novel have been published in numerous anthologies Songs for the dead and the living was released on Tuesday.
The story is about a Lebanese-born woman of Palestinian ancestry who was expelled from her homeland during the founding of the modern state of Israel. When the civil war reached Lebanon, she fled to Egypt with her family, where she met her husband and later emigrated to Australia.
The migration route is at the core of Saleh’s mother and father’s story, but Saleh says the rest is fiction. She examines difficult issues such as misogyny and violence within the Middle Eastern community, as well as the discrimination faced by Palestinians in Lebanon.
She describes the book as a “love letter” to the cities of Beirut, Cairo and Sydney. But she admits it’s more of a love-hate relationship at times, as it can be difficult to be a Muslim woman in Sydney, feeling alienated from mainstream culture while feeling a responsibility to honor the country’s indigenous history understand.
Saleh lives in Bidjigal Country, also known as Beverly Hills, in south-west Sydney. I was expecting to eat at a Lebanese or Palestinian restaurant in Bankstown, but instead Saleh took me to Marrickville in the inner west. I won’t say exactly where I live, but let’s just say I’m at home.
Saleh rarely eats Lebanese food in restaurants as she cooks it at home and eats it at her mother’s house. Her first choice was Koshari Korner, a food truck selling Egyptian street food at the side of the Addison Road Community Organization parking lot. There is seating under a gazebo with colorful tablecloths and wall hangings.
Saleh chose it, partly because she is friends with the owner and loves the food, and partly because Addi Road is special to her. In the sprawling community center she attended her first play as a freshman at the University of Sydney and later hosted her first community event, a Muslim film screening and question and answer session. She is a regular at the Friends of Hebron Fundraising Trivia Night, a meeting place for the Palestinian community in Sydney, and frequents the Palestine Free Trade Shop.
When I get to Koshari Korner, this is herald Photographer Nick Moir is already seated at a table with Addi Road boss Rosanna Barbero and other employees. They are all waiting to greet Saleh and persuade me to join them.
She arrives, and after a round of hugs, I finally manage to pull her off for our one-on-one interview, during which Saleh laughs at what must have looked like a “big fat Arab wedding” (referring to the 2002 romantic comedy). My Big Fat Greek Wedding).
Saleh typically eats the eponymous koshari, a concoction of fried rice, noodles, brown lentils, chickpeas, and a spicy tomato sauce. We decide instead to share a mixed plate that promises “a bit of everything,” including koshari, on the condition that I eat the falafel. She is, she says, “a bad Arab” who doesn’t like falafel. We also order a hearty lentil soup served with fried flatbread.
She met her husband at dinner, in perhaps the nicest way I’ve ever heard: they were both volunteers delivering celebratory food to Muslim detainees at the Villawood Detention Center during the nights of Ramadan.
During the 2021 Delta lockdown, they were both in so-called LGAs, which was a cause for concern – Saleh ran to the soundtrack of helicopters circling overhead on Sunday mornings while her partner was confronted by soldiers on the streets of Auburn. Luckily, the rules allowed the couples to visit each other and the couple is now married.
Sara Saleh’s travel guide to Sydney
- Koshari Korner, Marrickville (Egyptian)
- Taste of Egypt, Bankstown
- Apandim Uyghur Restaurant, Burwood (Favorite Uyghur Restaurant)
- Handmade Uyghur Tarim Noodles, Auburn
- Banksia Bakery (Lebanese Manoush)
- Armani, Parramatta (Lebanese, especially doner kebab)
- Al Aseel, Greenacre (Lebanese)
- Other, Parramatta Park (Brunch Special)
- Bankstown Art Center
- Sweatshop Literacy Movement
- Friends of Hebron Trivia with a Cause, Marrickville
- Palestine Free Trade Australia shop, Marrickville
- Resolute Beach, Pittwater
- Bicentennial, Centennial, Sydney and Parramatta Parks
Saleh was born in Australia but learned a North American accent while living in Dubai between the ages of eight and 16. Her father had a job opportunity and the parents wanted Saleh and her three younger siblings to experience life in the Middle East.
Saleh is the first to criticize Dubai’s consumer culture, but found it frustrating returning to Australia and being asked if she used to ride a camel to school. Shortly after the Cronulla riots, when tensions ran high between some of Sydney’s Arab and white communities, she returned to Sydney alone to live at one of Sydney University’s colleges.
She wasn’t wearing a hijab yet, but she didn’t drink alcohol, which made her an outsider in the college scene. As the eldest child of immigrants with all the expectations that come with it, she was very focused on proving herself through academic success and in hindsight wished she had taken more time to relax and enjoy.
I ask how she understood her identity growing up and we start a conversation about screen representation and Ms. Marvel, the superhero whose alter ego is a Muslim Pakistani-American high school student. One of the Disney+ show’s writers was a guest at a poetry retreat that Saleh recently hosted near Wisemans Ferry.
Saleh says her cynical side believes diversity on screen is all about corporate profits. But she also recognizes that doing so would ignore or obliterate the diverse writers, actors, directors, and producers who push for representation behind the scenes. Saleh says she’s benefited from a similar trend in publishing.
Saleh says she has a history of committing to her Palestinian identity and felt an obligation to speak out when many family members in the Middle East cannot.
Saleh visited the occupied Palestinian territories in 2017 as part of a study tour with politicians and journalists. She was the only person of Arab appearance in the delegation – everyone else was visibly white – and although they were all Australian nationals, she said she was treated differently than her companions. She says, for example, that she was held at several checkpoints while everyone else in the group was allowed through, and that a gun was also pointed at her, which happened to no one else in the group.
“It was really hard because it was personal and humiliating and undignified,” she says.
Saleh is also half Egyptian. Politics in Egypt has become increasingly authoritarian, which is why I am asking about the situation there. She sighs heavily, clarifying that it was a “sigh of resignation and frustration at the situation, not the question.”
“My father grew up very political in Egypt and was punished for it by the state, and that is one of the reasons why he left the country,” says Saleh.
“My grandfather, who was a journalist in Cairo, actually said to him, ‘I know you want to get involved in politics, but it’s dangerous.’ Please don’t do this, you will only get into trouble. You must be safer. Get out’.”
A PhD in engineering was Saleh’s father’s ticket to Australia, and he channeled his passion for politics into conversations around the dinner table.
Saleh says journalist Peter Greste’s long detention raised the issue in Australia, but it was not an isolated case. She recently wrote a recommendation for The shape of the dust by Lamisse and Hazem Hamouda, a book about a daughter’s attempt to free her Egyptian-Australian journalist father and the minimal support he received from the Australian Embassy as a dual citizen.
Our lunch lasts more than two hours, but Saleh eats slowly, partly because I keep her talking. While waiting for her to talk to me, I order iced tea followed by rosewater hot chocolate and answer questions about my family background and travel to the Middle East, including a wedding I attended in Syria before the civil war have participated.
“When I say ‘big fat Arab wedding,’ you know exactly what I’m talking about,” she exclaims.