BOOK REVIEW: Finding My Place, by Anne Aly

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Suresh Rajan reviews Anne Aly's 'Finding My Place', the inspiring autobiography of Australia's first female Muslim MP.

IN THE INTERESTS of proper disclosure, it must be said that I am a big fan of Dr Anne Aly and I have been a friend of hers for the better part of over 20 years. I was also grateful for the receipt of this book just prior to the time I was part of a function that “roasted” Anne. My co-roasters on that night were Alannah MacTiernan and Wayne Swan — both heavily involved in the Labor Party in this country. I mention their presence as an indication of the esteem with which Anne is regarded in political circles.

When I first knew Anne, she was a visitor to the Ethnic Communities Council of WA. She was an employee at the Office of Multicultural Interests. Her role was that of a Policy Officer. Unfortunately for her, she came up against two of us who have a finely developed sense of human rights and fairness, and a sense that we express our views in no uncertain terms. As was customary at that time, visitors to the ECCWA left, often dabbing at their eyes with tissues, as they bawled their hearts out at the unfairness and bluntness of our expression.

Importantly, Anne did not allow this first experience to colour and skew her perceptions of us. We continued to interact in this space and became allies and friends. She would often help me out when I needed someone of Islamic faith to assist me with training programmes I conducted with government departments in WA.

Whilst I knew lots about Anne and her career post-OMI and, at the time, she was a research fellow at Edith Cowan University, it is probably fair to say that my knowledge of her earlier life was patchy at best. So I tackled this book with enthusiasm and started to read it on a Friday night. By Saturday afternoon I had worked my way through the entire book. That gave me lots of material for the “roast”, but it also gave me an insight into the background of this girl that went to form the spine of incredible resilience that she has.

Her story is one of difficulty. It is also a story of hope and fight from a person who I have come to love for all the reasons I am an advocate for — multiculturalism and integration into Australian society. One part of the story of which I was not aware of is that behind the strength and public bravado Anne displays is a personality that hurts when she is confronted and vilified.

The scene at the café where she bought herself a coffee, soon after the September 11 attacks and the vitriol directed at her because of the fact that she was of Islamic faith, are so well relayed in the book. The hurt that she felt, the anger she had, but also the sheer futility that she felt at trying to deal with the issue without publicly blurting out her anger. Going back to the office and crying from the pain she felt was graphically conveyed. And, in my humble opinion, was the formative seed of an idea that would see Anne ended up being the first Australian Muslim Woman in the Australian Federal Parliament.

It is without question that her background has formed her spirit and toughness. The failed violent domestic relationships, the fractious and fractured relationship with her brother, the cultural and emotional strictures placed on many of us by our upbringing have all contributed to the making of Dr Anne Aly. They created a person who became Australia’s foremost authority on terrorism issues. In a field of study and practice that is so incredibly gender and ethnically biased that makes her success even more remarkable and her status in that field was confirmed by her meeting with President Obama at the White House.

There are a few constants in Anne’s life. The most important of those are her sons, Adam and Karim. I have known Adam for some years, but have not had the pleasure of meeting Karim. Anne was an archetypal “helicopter” Mum. She was protective of the kids, not only from the parent figures in their lives but from the world at large. Some of the things she did to survive as a single parent with two boys are conveyed in the book, not as a means of gloating, but simply as a means by which others may take heart and forge a path for themselves.

In the last few chapters of her book, another constant arrives in the form of one Dave Allen. The story of Dave talking to Anne’s Mum about his intentions towards Anne reminded me of how much our divergent cultures actually have so much in common. Everything she wrote about her Mum could have been written about my Mum. But Dave’s handling of Anne's Mum was highly amusing. However, what is readily apparent in Anne’s description of her life with Dave and in Federal Parliament is the grounding that he provides. Dave is there, whenever she turns and whenever she may stumble.

Anne’s book is a beautifully told narrative. It is an easy read and one I would recommend very highly to many cohorts of people. Students at schools reading it will learn what hard work, resilience, bouncing off a canvas every time you got decked, developing a hide (publicly, anyway) and having a commitment to succeed are all about. Young Muslim girls will learn all of those things but also develop a commitment to their own religion. People from an ethnic minority will learn how to deal with detractors and any would-be politicians will learn to deal with any type of adversity.

Anne’s time is now and it is far from even close to finishing.

As she herself puts it:

“I’m not ready – not even close to being ready – to leave the Parliament to the arseholes. I don’t know if I can make the kind of difference I want to make and I don’t know if that’s going to frustrate the shit out of me. I don’t know if I’m going to have to leave my brain at the door or under the seat, but I’ll fight bloody hard not to.”

Let me assure you, Anne, your time is far from over. Already you have made a heck of a difference to all of those many people of Islamic faith that aspire to one day become like you. You have made a difference to the lives of people who were/are terrorists. There are some stories in the book of Anne’s interactions with the terrorists (such as Junaid Thorne), which I would recommend highly, as it gives you an insight into her approach to dealing with these issues.

You have made a difference to the lives of many others. Please don’t stop doing that. And I am certain that Dave, Adam and Karim will all vouch for your ability to make a difference to people’s lives.

Finding My Place, by Dr Anne Aly (Harper Collins Publishers, January 2018), RRP $11.99

Suresh Rajan is a former president of the Ethnic Communities Council of Western Australia. He is a regular contributor on the subject of multiculturalism to media in Perth and has been for many years.

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