Portrait

Tasneem Chopra on the nativity. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Writer and activist Tasneem Chopra

There’s a mosque in Melbourne’s west that, when it was first built, was named Virgin Mary Mosque. Located next to a church, the choice of name was considered respectful, conciliatory. “An acknowledgement,” Tasneem Chopra says. “Like an interfaith olive branch.”

Chopra’s warm burnt-carmine eyes shine. Her sliver-thin African-continent-shaped earrings sparkle silver under the fluorescent lighting of the cafe.

Kenyan-born and of Indian descent, Chopra grew up in Bendigo, the recent site of fierce anti-mosque protests by far-right nationalist groups. One of the few Muslims in her neighbourhood, she says her early years were in many ways simpler than the childhoods of her own almost-all-grown-now kids in Melbourne’s outer western, and now outer northern, suburbs. “Middle class. Riding bikes. Catching yabbies. Debutante balls. Icy Poles. We used slang like bonzer and corker,” she says, laughing. “And it wasn’t breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was breakfast, dinner and tea.” She takes another bite of her cheese pie. They’re delicious: salty shredded haloumi wrapped in pillow-soft pastry. I followed Chopra’s lead from the menu board at Zaatar cafe in Coburg, both of us giggling at the cheese and Vegemite “Aussie-style” option.

“Our grade 5 teacher told us he gave a jar of honey to all his neighbours for Christmas. Some other kids in the class were going, ‘That’s a pretty stingy present, Sir’, and thinking it was funny. He said: ‘Christmas isn’t about presents. It’s about caring for people, and sharing what you have with the people you love.’ As a Muslim, I got it, I understood. This same teacher said to the class: ‘Who here thinks that Jesus had tanned skin and dark hair and eyes?’ I was the only one who put my hand up. He said, ‘Tasneem is the only person who’s right. Because where was Bethlehem?’ At the time, I didn’t think it was that significant, I was just thinking: ‘Yes! Ha! I’m the only one that got the answer right.’ ”

Ironically, Chopra and I are here talking because the portrait I wanted to write was knocked back by my editor. The text message I’d written several weeks back read: Can I write a Christmas portrait of Jesus, detailing his birth in a stable to a young brown Middle Eastern mother who wore the veil, and the trials and persecution he faces as a refugee? I promise it will be beautiful. The response was a kind of no: Will David Jones throw you out because of it? My editor was talking about the Christmas I was escorted from a department store for stalking – I would say trying to interview – their Santa Claus. We’d settled, instead, on a nativity kid. “Do schools still do that?” he pondered.

Chopra’s son, the youngest of her three kids, played one of the Three Wise Men in a childcare nativity just over a decade back, which is why we are talking. “As a brown Muslim boy in a post 9/11 environment, I found the symbolism potent,” she explained. “My son’s childcare teacher said to me, ‘He’s going to be a Wise Man. We’ll sing some carols, but he doesn’t have to say any lines.’ At that time, it was all about us and them… He was one of those kids that wasn’t really extroverted, so I was glad he was up there. No one else was really intellectualising it. In my own head, there were bells and whistles, and all the other parents were like, ‘Yeah, relax; my kid’s up there, too.’ It was symbolic, because of the climate, all of this nonsense about Muslims trying to ‘steal Christmas’.”

In the photograph, Chopra’s little one stands next to his cherubic little blond-haired Wise Man friend. From under a black head-wrap, his eyes peer out, widened as if in disbelief.

Chopra is a writer, activist and cross-cultural consultant. She has made intercultural understanding and social change her business: from curating the Melbourne content of the landmark exhibition Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia at the Immigration Museum, to speaking publicly on issues of concern for women and minority communities.

I ask her about mutual respect – whether her kid’s public school is as understanding of Muslim cultural observances as her son was of participating in a Christian nativity. “They have a prayer room set aside; halal food options at the canteen. The kid’s absences on the holidays… Well, they haven’t been an issue. I’d say they’re pro-diversity.”

On the kind of “wisdom” she seeks for her son now, as he fast grows into manhood, Chopra says: “I tell him, ‘Whatever you want to do, just try to be good at it. Help people – help make the world a better place, because it can be horrible.’ Because he’s a teenager, he’ll say: ‘What if I want to be a garbage collector?’ And I’ll say: ‘That’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, garbage needs to be collected. Or be a paramedic, or an engineer, or just whatever.’ ”

Before we leave Zaatar’s, Chopra tells me one more Christmas story. The tables around us are bustling with chatter and laughter: filled with locals of all backgrounds and descriptions, some in brightly coloured hijabs, others in navy or black chadors, jeans and T-shirts, workwear. Chopra is wearing an elegant black dress, hair pulled back into a stunning patterned head-wrap.

“My son’s friend, he’s about 26,” she says. “He works at Bunnings – he’s Muslim, too. They were supposed to have Santa there for the kids. None of his colleagues wanted to put on the Santa suit, because it was a hot day, and it would be sweltering in there. So he stepped up and said: ‘I’ll do it. I’ll be Santa. These kids are not going to miss out on Santa Claus just because it’s a hot day.’ These are the stories we never hear.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 23, 2016 as "Frank sense and myrrh". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.