Coonamble, Australia - "The first thing that shocked me was the way they looked. It was like something out of the 1970s, or straight out of a Western movie. I saw people riding horses and people wearing cowboy hats. And nearly every family in town had an old-school carriage that could be hitched to a horse and ridden around town."
Twenty-five-year-old Mohammad Alanzi's first impressions of rural Australia were somewhat of a culture shock. Hit hard by the recession and failing to find work in Sydney, Alanzi left the familiarity of the multicultural city and moved six-and-a-half hours away to work in the small town of Coonamble in New South Wales.
That was in late 2008. Nine years earlier, on a dark, lonely highway leading up to Coonamble, Ahmad Allen Karanouh looked out from his kebab caravan with a similar sense of surrealism. "I had people on horses riding over to buy kebabs. It was so strange. I remember seeing kangaroos running down the highway in front of me."
It was a week of coincidences for Karanouh, who, nostalgic for his own country upbringing, had recently left Sydney's metropolitan city life. "I grew up in Tripoli in Lebanon. There were a lot of olive groves, orange groves and lemon groves all around us at the time and it was very green. We used to play soccer in the fields. I remember playing marbles in the streets and volleyball in the middle of the road in front of my dad's dry-cleaning business. There weren't as many cars as there are today."
Deciding to bring up his own children in a smaller country town to give them a similar feeling of "a little place", Karanouh moved his family to Dubbo, a regional city with a population of just over 41,000.
"I found Dubbo to be a big city, and I wanted somewhere even smaller than that if possible. A couple of friends of mine told me, 'You should have a look at this place called Coonamble, 162kms away from Dubbo.'"
Karanouh's friends informed him that the annual Coonamble Rodeo, which attracted about 5,000 people at the time, was taking place that weekend. "When they told me about this rodeo event, I called and asked if I could have a spot where I could sell my food. At the time I was persistent, young and had a young family. I wanted the best thing for them, so I had to work. But no matter what I tried, they would not let me in."
The Naturalisation Act of 1903 ... basically banned all non-Europeans from citizenship. So the Lebanese were very conscious of the fact that they had to fit in.
His determination led him to find the nearest caravan park to Coonamble and propose an expensive offer of $1,000 to park his kebab van on the highway in exchange for power supply and a license to sell food for the weekend. The Coonamble Caravan Park purchased a food license to cover the whole year instead.
"People thought we were crazy. Everybody closes early in Coonamble, and I showed up out of nowhere with Al's Diner, staying up 'til 2 am on the highway in Coonamble Caravan Park right on the edge of the town. But you could get there at two in the morning and you would find 20 to 30 people from the little town, on the highway, queuing to buy food."
Karanouh started driving from Dubbo to the caravan park every weekend, and soon increased his stays to four days a week.
"No matter what day I opened it was just busy, constantly busy. Drivers who would transport goods from Queensland to Victoria transferring cattle and sheep on the big trucks got to know that we were there all the time and open, and so we became a very popular truck spot where they stopped and had their meals before continuing their journey."
So 15 years ago, Karanouh packed his belongings and became the first Arab Muslim to move into the township of Coonamble.
Last year, in another first, he was elected mayor of Coonamble Shire and its 4,030 residents after running for council elections as an independent.
Lebanese in rural Australia
Dr Anne Monsour, an Australian academic and researcher, said there is a strong historical precedent for Lebanese people living in rural Australia. "Moving to rural areas is part of a historical pattern. Initially that pattern developed because the Lebanese - known as Syrians at the time - were self-employed, and this was a way to make a business for themselves."
|Coonamble's rural landscape has attracted people of Arab descent [Neville Owen/Al Jazeera]
Old newspaper articles indicate that Syrians were present in Coonamble from as early as 1903 to as late as 1932.
"Because of the White Australia Policy there was a very strong assimilationist pressure, so people don't overtly identify themselves, certainly not as Arab. And often it was one family in the country town, so you can imagine the pressure that was on people to be like everybody else," said Monsour.
"Other legislation was also passed like the Naturalisation Act of 1903, which basically banned all non-Europeans from citizenship. So the Lebanese were very conscious of the fact that they had to fit in. They basically argued that they were white, European and Christian, and therefore suitable citizens for Australia."
But while the introduction of a multiculturalism policy after the abolishment of the White Australia Policy encouraged people to identify as different, according to Monsour, Arab Australians were not quite so lucky.
"Unfortunately for people of Arab background, that window lasted for a very short time - because then we had the Gulf wars and September 11. The thing that was very important until the 1970s, especially in country towns, is the fact that most of the Lebanese migrants were Christian. Most of them became very involved in their local churches. That was a way for them to move into the community as well."
In present-day Coonamble, the demographics reflect a different face of Australian migration.
Kuwait-born Alanzi is another relatively new Arab Muslim face in town. "I only came to do one year of work in a country town so I can save my money, go back to Sydney and buy a house. But I ended up buying a house here and staying in Coonamble. I was more comfortable here. It's the countryside - it's easier to live in. Everything is kicked back; it's not a rush any more like Sydney."
Two years into his stay in Coonamble, the local chief of the New South Wales Fire Brigade approached Alanzi.
"They were short-staffed and needed new firefighters. The captain of my station offered me an application form - so I applied, did my interview and I joined them. Nothing pushed me towards it except helping the town. They said to me that no one else in the town was interested in doing it, so I joined it just to help the community."
Barnaby Joyce, Australia's agricultural minister, said stories like Alanzi's are an example of what is great about rural Australia. "It has the capacity to create an environment where people get to know people as who they are and it breaks down social barriers. In regional areas you can't get yourself into a ghetto. Everybody's got to mix and meet other people and that forces you to understand how each other works," he said.
"Country towns are pretty good at seeing people as they are, because you are not a number in a multitude. You are an individual, clearly identifiable because it's only a small town."
Joyce recalled his first encounter with Coonamble's current mayor during the early days of Al's Diner on the highway. "I remember seeing it on the left-hand side of the road as I was driving to Walgett. It looked out of place, but I love doner kebabs so anything that looks like it sells doner kebab will probably have me wanting to get it at some point or other."
But what caught the minister's attention, aside from the kebabs, was its owner's background.
"There are lots of Lebanese in regional Australia, but most of them are Maronite. I remember wondering in the back of my mind if he was Maronite or Islamic and I thought, 'He's come to an interesting part of the world to kick off his caravan!'"
Farmers prefer to see companies coming and farming the land, because old people who have lived there for generations want to retire. These kinds of companies increase commerce in the area and keep farming alive.
Coonamble seems to be increasingly attracting diversity. That diversity includes foreign investors as well: In September 2013, Hassad Australia - a subsidiary of Qatar's state-owned company Hassad Food - purchased 25,934 hectares in the area.
"The properties will be used for both livestock and grains," said Tom McKeon, CEO of Hassad Australia. "The livestock will be principally a meat breed of sheep [the Awassi] suitable to Middle Eastern markets, with some cattle run as adjunct to the sheep. Grains will be principally aimed at wheat production with best-fit rotation crops [like] canola [and] chick peas."
Mayor Karanouh said Hassad's purchase of the property is a great thing for Coonamble, because they hire local people and they buy locally.
"Farmers prefer to see companies coming and farming the land, because old people who have lived there for generations want to retire. These kinds of companies increase commerce in the area and keep farming alive. They farm on a big scale, and because they're big companies they have the money to put infrastructure on their farms."
And in the coming months, a Lebanese-owned abattoir (slaughterhouse) - is expected to open in Coonamble, which will see at least three Arab families move into the area. "It will be well-used by the locals. The effect is huge on a little town when you have a working abattoir," said Karanouh.
Karanouh has come a long way since his caravan park days. He has since opened the town's first Thai restaurant and its first barista-operated coffee shop. But 15 years later, Al's Diner still stands proud on a main street in Coonamble, a reminder of humble highway beginnings.
"It started growing, he started becoming more successful," Joyce said. "And when I noted that he ultimately became the mayor of the town, I thought, 'Ain't that Australia!'"