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Islamic New Year celebrations underway with food and positive actions

Wurood Albayati with her children Arwa (Year 7) Mustafa (Prep) and Ali (Year 6) Alshomali
Wurood Albayati with her children Arwa (Year 7) Mustafa (Prep) and Ali (Year 6) Alshomali.

ABC Far North: Anna Hartley

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In Wurood Albayati's home country of Iraq, millions march in honour of famous martyr Imam Hussein after Islamic New Year.

The march is one of many important traditions that mark the first month of the Muslim calendar, known as Muharram.

But in Cairns in far north Queensland, where you can count the number of Shi'a Muslims on one hand, it's hard to honour traditions in the same way.

Muharram facts

  • Muharram started with Islamic New Year on September 21
  • It is the first month of the Islamic calendar
  • It will continue for 29 days until October 19
  • It is the holiest month after Ramadan

"It can make you feel empty … I miss it," Ms Albayati said.

"It's really frustrating because you can't do the ceremony, but you can adapt."

Ms Albayati and her family moved to Australia four years ago after her husband got a scholarship to complete his PhD in Queensland.

Her adaption of traditions centres around one thing everyone knows and loves — food.

A photo of a traditional dish of rice and chicken in a pot cooked by Mrs Albayati for Muharram
This year Ms Albayati made biriyani, a chicken and rice dish packed with dried fruit, nuts and spices.

ABC Far North: Anna Hartley

"I also write a note of what people like Che Guevara or Mahatma Gandhi say about Iman Hussein so they know what he is about."

This year she made biriyani, a chicken and rice dish packed with dried fruit, nuts and spices.

Community learns more about Muharram

Ms Albayati's neighbour, Anna Ling, looks forward to the time each year when she gets a knock on the door to see her friend with a delicious meal in hand.

Wurood's neighbour Kate Ling smiling at the camera
Kate Ling looks forward to her neighbour's visits during Muharram.

ABC Far North: Anna Hartley

"I've known them for three years now," she said.

"Every year they bring food to other people. She brought a proper cooked meal and a note.

Ms Ling agreed Australians, especially in regional areas, often didn't know much about Muslim culture.

"I'm sure it's quite alienating so [this custom] is a good way to meet people," she said.

"Wurood is a really nice person and [going door to door] is a really positive thing to do."

Combatting negative stereotypes with positive actions

Ms Albayati said adapting to Australia did not mean locking herself inside and remembering Bagdad.

"I just go out and be friendly because [Islam] is about loving people and living in peace and harmony," she said.

The mother of three said she has adapted Muharram traditions to suit her new surroundings in an effort to combat negative stereotypes.

"There is good media and bad media but most people here have a corrupted idea about Muslims," Ms Albayati said.

"It's our responsibility to make it clear that it's just like any other religion, we have good guys and bad guys.

"I always tell my kids, you represent Muslims so let people know who you are by your actions."

A photo of Dr Zia-ur Rehman speaking at a lectern in Cairns Mosque
Dr Zia-ur Rehman leads regular Sunni sermons at Cairns Mosque.

ABC Far North: Anna Hartley

Why the 10th day of the Islamic calendar is significant

There are many important days during the first month of the Islamic calendar and traditions are different for Shi'a and Sunni Muslims.

Ashoura is marked on the 10th day of Muharram.

While fasting and reflection is a key tradition for Sunni Muslims, Ms Albayati and her family used the day to mourn.

She said Ashoura was sacred for Shi'a Muslims because it was a day to commemorate of the death of the grandson of Muhammad.

"Shi'a and Sunni Muslims agree the death of Imam Hussein was a tragedy," she said.

"But the response to tragedy is different. We use his death to express our grief each year at every injustice in the world.

Dr Zia-ur Rehman, a Sunni Muslim, delivered a sermon at Cairns Mosque for Ashoura.

He said Muslims had been in Cairns since 1900 with many members of the mosque being third or fourth-generation far north Queenslanders.

"In the Muslim culture celebration of the New Year is different to Western culture who have a big celebration with music and dance," he said.

"The Shi'a brothers and sisters mourn this month. Sunni Muslims want to commemorate Muharram by trying to follow his footsteps instead of mourning, but I try to look at the uniting factors rather the dividing factors.

"We think about why we are here and pray for betterment of all of society."