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Gaza fundraiser continues century old connection

Hidden in a Sydney Road building is a special work of art inspired by the Middle East

Part of the mural as it appears today. 

Andra Jackson
Sunday, November 26, 2023

WHILE the devastation that is being inflicted on Gaza might seem a world away, the Brunswick-Coburg area has had a “hidden’’ Middle East connection for a century. It is a mural depicting the Middle East that most residents don’t know about and which has been secluded in a building in Sydney Road since the 1930s.

It was painted by returning World War One soldiers from Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs who had served in the Middle East and other theatres of war, but who had also had fond memories of that part of the world that they wanted to share with people back home.

World War One veterans often had a difficult time adjusting to day to day life after the horrors they had seen and couldn’t share with non-combatants. For those ex-soldiers, painting the mural in the 1920s was most likely therapy for them. The veterans from Coburg were also offered classes in pottery production which they took up at Brunswick Technical School.

The mural was painted in the upstairs room of the historic Bates building at 400-404 Sydney Road, close to the corner of Bell Street, where in the early days you could buy the Coburg Leader newspaper for a penny. The building itself dates back to 1887 when it housed a general carriers business. It also originally contained a roller skating rink upstairs. Later it was converted into a music hall theatre for jazz concerts, cabarets and pantomimes, most likely the era when the mural was painted. It was painted on the wall behind the stage.

In 1932 Coles took over the building and it was converted into Coburg’s first supermarket. The upstairs space was used as a storeroom and the mural was forgotten, hidden from view and gathering dust.

During the preparations by then Moreland City Council for the centenary commemoration of the outbreak of World War 1 in August 1914, the council’s arts officers were alerted to the existence of the mural as well as to a long lost memorial garden at Coburg State School to the 35 “old boys” who did not return from the war. A total of 510 residents from Brunswick who signed up to serve in the war did not return and another 170 from Coburg were killed in battle.

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The mural is also a symbolic link to how the area’s population began to change after World War One.

“This was an era when servicemen and women returned from far-away lands and marked the starting point in the new wave of cultures moving moving to the area from Europe and the Middle East,’’ a memorial about the mural displayed outside Coles in Sydney Road cites. Today Arabic and Lebanese are the languages spoken in 10% of homes and Turkish is spoken in three per cent of homes in the area, according to a 2020 report commissioned for Merri-bek (formerly Moreland) Council.

The mural has been shortlisted for heritage protection with the Victorian heritage Register.

The mural has now found another life as a link for a fundraiser concert to raise money for stricken hospitals in Gaza to be held on Sunday, December 3 at Cross Street Music Hall in Brunswick.

 A stellar line up of jazz musicians and Palestinian and Middle Eastern musicians have volunteered to play to help Gaza’s bombed and depleted hospitals.

Gaza itself has an important connection for Australians. During the Second World War, Gaza was an Australian hospital base and the AIF headquarters were posted there. Among the Australian military hospitals in Gaza were the 2/1st Australian General Hospital, the 2/6th Australian General Hospital and the 8th Australian Special Hospital. There was also a Royal Air Force aerodrome at Gaza.

Northern Gaza is also the location of a Commonwealth War Cemetery for the fallen from both world wars, with 263 Australians buried there. The graves have been looked after by three generations of a Palestinian family and local gardeners. Missile strikes and power shortages are their biggest challenges. The cemetery has been hit three times in the last decade with 300 headstones damaged. It is currently closed.

The fundraiser concert is at Cross Street Music Hall, 11 to 17 Cross Street, Brunswick (off Victoria Street) on Sunday, December 3 from 4pm. Tickets are $25 or $15 concession. Tickets can be bought at the door or booked in advance. Proceeds will go to a combination of Doctors Without Borders, which has a special Gaza fund, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.

Artists performing include percussionist Ray Pereira’s group, saxophonist Julien Wilson, Palestinian singer Abdul Lateef, pianist Tony Gould, Yousef Alreemari and many more.

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