Photos by Jenny Evans.
It’s 5.20 am, and bleary eyes mingle with muted excitement in the Parramatta headquarters of ICE (Information and Cultural Exchange), a non-government community arts organisation. Twenty of us have deprived ourselves of sleep for The Calling, a mosque, church and temple mini-bus tour of western Sydney.
ICE’s initiative (with Sydney Festival) is part liturgical mystery tour, part experiential exercise in comparative religion, and part insight into how architecture and music interact with worship.
Places of worship can seem forbidding to those outside the faith. We take the plunge when playing tourists, but on home soil any curiosity is easily squashed by the presumption we are unwelcome. Somehow entering the house of another’s faith can seem like sticking your uninvited nose into the privacy a bedroom.
The upshot is that the sheer foreignness of a mosque to non-Muslims or a Hindu temple to non-Hindis can be polarising; and all those vague, unnamed inter-faith suspicions nettle the mind as a rash does the skin. Through this wariness The Calling cuts a cheery swathe.
Everyone receives an iPad and headphones, and as the bus trundles off we listen to Jacinta Tobin firstly offering a welcome to country on behalf of the Burramattagal people and then singing the gospel song Royal Telephone. The contrast with the passing frightfulness of Parramatta Road’s furniture stores and fast-food outlets is marked.
First stop is Auburn Gallipoli Mosque where the vice-president, Ergun Genel, warmly greets us. The Omer Kirazoglu-designed striking dome with two needle-sharp minarets standing like sentinels on either side are in the classic Ottoman style, and opened in 1999. Genel explains the mosque’s functions and the essential tenets of Islam, with its emphasis on submission to the greatness of God. The Imam, Musa Celik performs the early-morning call to prayer, and its not-be-denied urgency and insistence is unmistakable, even with no Arabic. From a purely musical perspective it is a highlight of the adventure.
St Mark’s Anglican Church in Granville was, like the mosque, built in stages amid funding problems, and, also like the mosque, serves an ethnically diverse community. The famed architect Edmund Blacket (Sydney University) died during construction and the pocket-sized neo-gothic building was completedby his son, opening in 1882. Stunning stained-glass visions of the saints are joined by a couple that are rather more kitsch. The corrugated iron-covered bell-tower, meanwhile, looks like an improbable migrant from the outback. The rector, David Wong, welcomes us, and we are entertained by two gospel songs from bass baritone Eddie Muliaumaseali’i, whose mighty voice billows around the sandstone walls, accompanied by Ruth Kliebert on an antique organ.
Harris Park’s Yeshe Nyima Centre sees Tibetan Buddhism happily making its home in the modesty of an ordinary Victorian terrace. Felicity Lodro offers a charming welcome and leads two of her colleagues in some chanting, before inviting us to participate in a meditation exercise. Although we learn little of the tenets of Buddhism this is our only active participation on the tour, and we all seem pleasantly tranquillised.
Mays Hill’s Murugan Hindi Temple is perhaps the most visually striking destination. Here our guide, the elderly and softly-spoken Dr Rubamoothi, introduces the temple’s various deities while priests go about their rites and people worship. The many idols seem confronting, but by keeping one’s ear close to Dr Rubamoothi one gradually absorbs the metaphors that lie behind the deities, and the philosophies lying behind the metaphors. We are then treated to a performance of classical Indian Bharatanatyam dance by Aruna Gandhi, combining strong mime elements with typical rhythmic sophistication.
Throughout the journey the iPads provide extra information and music, backed up by little talks from ICE’s Jonathan Wilson, Richard Petkovic and John Kirkman. Remarkably the five-and-a-half hour program (including delicious Lebanese breakfast) runs on time.
They hand out gongs for much less than what ICE does here. If community cohesion is the name of the game in western Sydney – and only fools think otherwise – what could be more important than breaking down the barriers of mistrust and ignorance surrounding the various religious faiths, and introducing people to unfamiliar creative endeavours? The only shame is how few can experience it during Sydney Festival – and it’s is already sold out. This should be run year round.