Rogan Josh and religious tolerance

Gurmeet ‘Mike’ Singh and Imam Ahmed Ghoneim discuss this weeked’s dinner.

One man is a Sikh restaurateur in Greerton, the other a Muslim cleric at the Mosque on Tauranga’s 18th Avenue.

The men live worlds apart but in the same town, and have been brought together by an obscenity - an atrocity just inside the Mosque gates a little under 1000 kilometres away in Christchurch.

On Sunday they will serve food to bring people together and to start the healing.

“As human beings, we have a responsibility to other human beings,” says Gurmeet “Mike” Singh Dhillion, owner of the Castle 91 Indian Restaurant and Bar, just off the Chadwick Road roundabout on Cameron Road.

The human beings Mike has a responsibility to is the Muslim community of Christchurch after last Friday’s wickedness that left 50 people dead, 31 in hospital and nine critical. Mike is a young man of 32 with a wife, a three-year-old and a business. His life remains intact, but he’s in disbelief at the events in Christchurch.

“I am going to host lunch at Castle 91 between 11am and 3pm on Sunday.” Gurmeet will foot the bill for the ingredients, and 100 per cent of the $15-per-head proceeds will go to the Mosque.

“We can’t do much for these people in their loss,” he says, “but we can try to do something.” He was quickly on the phone to the Mosque on 18th Avenue, perhaps the first to extend a hand to local Muslims.

“We are not like that. It should not be happening in New Zealand,” says Gurmeet. But it did. And now he wants to do something about it.

The Imam - the man who leads worship at the local Mosque - sweeps into Castle 91 restaurant, his dazzling white Glabia or cleric’s tunic flowing. “Hullo mate,” says Ahmed Ghoneim offering his hand. All very Kiwi.

“If you love this country, if you love New Zealand, then you have to be sad,” says Ahmed. “And if you feel ashamed, then I too feel ashamed because it is my land too.” He is calm, considered and reassuring.

“To me, New Zealand is still a safe, beautiful country. It doesn’t make me change my mind because a man goes and gets a machine gun and starts shooting people. However, it might make me wonder why he can get weapons likes this.”

And, says the Imam, we have to deal with it. “You are not going to bring the dead back to life,” he says. “If you are dead, you are dead.” But we are allowed to grieve, we are allowed to demonstrate religious tolerance and we are allowed to show support and respect. We can also sit down to eat and discuss it.

Originally, Gurmeet planned to serve cheaper meals so that everyone could afford to be involved, with 50 per cent of the proceeds to cover his costs and the rest going to the Mosque.

“But my wife, Samandeep, said ‘why not 100 per cent? Give the mosque whatever you get’.” And that’s the way it will be. The restaurant will foot the bill and all proceeds will go to the Mosque.

A stripped back menu will be offered to make it manageable and make it easier for the chef, featuring butter chicken, chicken korma, lamb rogan josh and daal makhini - mixed lentils simmered overnight on a low flame and finished with herbs. They’ll be served with naan and lashings of values such as love, understanding and inclusiveness – and all for $15 a head.

“Everywhere people are fussing and contributing. Everywhere and everyone,” says Ahmed Ghoneim.

There was one other major consideration for the restaurateur. “I had to go back to my supplier and get a 100 per cent reassurance the meat I was buying was halal.” Halal is food that is permissible in traditional Islamic law.

“I have been told there could be as many as 50 or 60 from the Mosque attending the lunch,” says Mike, “and we can accommodate another 50 or so. Everyone is welcome.”

It has worked before. After a flood in India, a local Indian started fundraising. “I said instead of going person-to-person asking for donations, why don’t we hold a lunch so people get something in return? Then they can share their feelings, their hurt and some love, over a meal.”     

Mike arrived in New Zealand in 2007 from Punjab in northern India. It borders Pakistan – often called the global centre for political Islam – and the region bristles with brinkmanship. The Sikh, however, shrugs it off.

“That’s politics,” he says. “But we have a big Muslim community in Punjab and it is very friendly. They attend each other’s religious festivals and cultural events like one big family.”

On Sunday, Mike, his wife and their three-year-old son Ekman will be hosting his big local Muslim family, and others, at the Castle 91 Indian Restaurant at 1339 Cameron Road,

Mike was on an afternoon break when news of the Christchurch shootings filtered through. “I was on social media and reading about something happening in Christchurch,” he says. “Then some guys steered me to the video. I could not watch it. Absolutely not. I just felt terrible.”

Ahmed, a motor mechanic, had been to Friday prayers and was on afternoon smoko when he heard the news. “It didn’t say much,” he explains. “There had been an attack, and at that stage six people were dead. I was thinking ‘who shot the people, what’s going on? I was confused.” The reality for Ahmed came a couple of hours later as the death toll mounted and the gunman was identified.

Gurmeet Singh says everyone believes New Zealand is the safest place in the world. “We don’t have those politics, we don’t have those issues,” he says. “And now one religion has been targeted and that is really bad.

“It’s all about getting people to love and respect each other, because if people don’t like each other, the result will be the end.”

Perhaps some chicken korma, some naan, some mingling at an Indian restaurant in Greerton and talk of diversity and tolerance may start the mending process.