Sun, sand and burkinis: Sydney shows its multicultural diversity on day at beach
Basted bodies pack the sand at Bronte Beach as the noonday sun beats down through a shimmering haze of sea spray. A few heads bob in the glistening waves, toddlers and their parents splash in the shallows and surfers jostle for the bigger swells further out. A man tattooed from neck to ankle promenades hopefully along the beachfront, though many are so glued to their phones they barely give him a glance.
Waves thud on to sand, children shriek and laugh – all in all, a typical Sydney summer panorama.
But Safi Ormal is not your average beach-goer, nor is he soaking up the vista on this early summer Sunday.
Instead the 30-year-old from Afghanistan is tucked into a corner of one of Bronte’s picnic huts, head bent over his English language homework. He is gently coached by his wife, 28-year-old Zora Sediqi while her father tends the couple’s baby daughter nearby.
Ormal fled to Sydney three years ago, fearing payback over the Taliban members he had sentenced to death as a young judge in Kabul. Now he works in security, he tells me sheepishly. “I’d really like to be a lawyer again, I will try my best to do it.”
The rest of the family – Zora’s mother Hafiza, her grandmother Sharifa, and her uncle Waisodeem – are setting up for lunch in an adjacent cubicle of the picnic shelter. Aromatic Afghani rice and curry are the centrepiece, which they will supplement with fish and chips from one of the nearby cafes as the afternoon wears on. We chat over a flask of delicately flavoured cardamom-infused green tea, as one or other of the group leans over now and then to help the elderly Sharifa master Snapchat on her phone.
Zora’s been in Australia much longer than her husband, arriving as a young child in 1993 when her family emigrated from Kabul via India. She’s been coming to Bronte “for as long as I can remember, ever since I was little” she says. “We’d come many days after school with my mum and cousins.”
They travel in from Matraville but some of their Afghani friends regularly drive here from Blacktown at weekends, arriving early for breakfast and staying till the evening.
“They swim, the boys put on a game of volleyball, everyone brings food,” she says.
Her immediate family is Sunni but “we have friends who are Shia and my sister in law is Shia”. In their circle, the sects mix here without rancour, she says.
Zora wears the hijab – her own choice, made against the initial wishes of her father who wanted his girls to “fit in”. She also wears a burkini to swim. Her sister has chosen otherwise: “She loves her hair, she styles it, colours it all the time.”
“It used to be just me [wearing the burkini] and I would get a few stares, but I never got harassed about it.” Now, she notes, “there are more covered up people swimming, more hijab people”.
Moving around the ever-popular picnic huts, it’s clear you don’t have to travel to Sydney’s outer suburbs to witness the great ethnic melting pot this city has become. They come from all corners of this sprawling metropolis – north Asians, south-east Asians, European tourists, South Americans and Middle Eastern families – drawn by Bronte’s perfect summer cocktail of surf beach, ocean pool, large grassy park (which unusually, for Sydney, is not separated by a road from the beach), the generous-sized public barbecues, the playground, and a shady glen to retreat to when the sun grows too fierce.
A group of young Japanese students – 20 or so in all – cram noisily into two adjoining picnic cubicles, sharing the Japanese savoury pancake okonomiyaki, with a side dish of well-singed sausages and onions. They are on a year-long language exchange program, says their self appointed spokesman, Yuki Kakiuchi.
Over the partition is an exuberant gathering of young Australian-Indians, many of whose parents came originally from Goa. Anoushka, 29, says they are sticking to more standard Aussie barbecue fare: “No Indian dishes, too hard.”
It’s her first visit to Bronte and she and husband Rajat have also noted the great ethnic diversity apparent in the park. “Yeah, we are sharing the barbecue right now, on one side is an Asian group, and the other a European group. I can see plenty of other ethnic people here,” Rajat says.
We run into 31-year-old Niro, from Strathfield, whose family were originally Tamils from Sri Lanka. He and four of his mates are cooking up halal chicken sausages and corn cobs.
Jenny Qu and her friends – students from China and Indonesia – are sizzling chicken wings and kebabs for a birthday feast and have trekked for more than hour from Narwee, in south-west Sydney, to get here.
Wielding the tongs at the other end of the barbecue is New York-based Dean Kelly, a Greek Australian (who’s unanglicised name, he informs us, would be Kostandinos Giannakellis). Using a large sprig of rosemary, he is basting huge quantities of souvlaki prepared by his mother, Beth.
He’s here for “a week in the sun, a wedding, this barbecue – and my mother’s cooking” he says, gesturing up towards the grassy slope where the clan are gathering under a large blue awning.
There Beth, the matriarch, has laid on a spread of epic proportions: the souvlaki, a Greek potato salad, couscous, coleslaw, olive and feta salads and spanikopita, and groaning trays of homemade honeyed pastries. She expects more than 100 family and friends to drop in throughout the day.
“This is the fourth year that we have done an annual barbecue at Bronte,” the 67-year-old explains, laughing. “It started with my family and friends, and it has just kept expanding – like today, I have a new daughter-in-law, and she has invited her friends.”
Walking further up the slope to where the trees begin, we find Birgitta Sharpe, an older woman reading quietly in the deep shade of a Norfolk pine, a Swedish flag planted in the grass next to her. A group of olive-skinned young men run up from the surf and fling themselves on the grass around her chair. They’re also here for an anniversary, though a more sombre one. They’re remembering their friend Sebastian, a young Swede who worked and studied in Sydney for three years before a disabling accident changed his life. Birgitta harboured him in her apartment while he tried to recuperate but he returned to Sweden early this year. A month later, they heard of his death. This week he would have been turning 26.
His former girlfriend, Mae, says “we haven’t really accepted it yet, so I got everyone together just to remember him and share stories”. She looks around: at the playground, the small children’s train doing endless loops close to the beach, the sweep of sand, sea, cliffs and sky. “This place was special for him.”
Birgitta, who has lived here for more than 40 years, nods agreement from her chair. She gazes out to the horizon where the sea mist hangs heavier now, almost obliterating the faint outline of container ships. Despite the grace note of sadness, she is savouring the day. “I enjoy Australia too much to ever leave.” Judging by the mosaic of families we have met today, their roots halfway across the world, most feel the same way.