That's the Spirit: Al Karanouh - Coonamble NSW
Ahmad Karanouh grew up in a small town in Lebanon, so as a young father he knew there had to be a better place to raise his family than the suburbs of Sydney. Fortunately for the town of Coonamble, that’s where the aspiring businessman’s pin landed 20 years ago. Ahmad, “Al” as he’s affectionately come to be known, is now the town’s mayor as well as proprietor of a popular café that’s become one of Coonamble’s many social and community hubs. He is passionate about not only the town’s economic development potential but the value of a multicultural influence in keeping small communities strong. Al sat down with JEN COWLEY for a chat, after making her a memorably good coffee.
Jen: What brought you to Coonamble and what’s kept you here?
Al: Long story, obviously, but I was living in Sydney and wanted to bring my kids up in a smaller community like the one I’d grown up in. I am originally from Lebanon – my mum was from Lebanon and my dad was from Palestine. I’ve been in Australia for nearly 40 years.
Somehow, I ended up in Coonamble and started my little business here. That was 20 years ago, coming on for 21. I came here in 1999.
I had no roots here and knew nobody but, you know, it’s just as good as any place else to start a business. Doesn’t matter if you’re in Coonamble in the Central West or in Wollongong near the water, it’s where you feel comfortable and where you see businesses doing well. My kids seemed to be happy here. And let me tell you as well it was quite cheap in 1999 to come and live in Coonamble, I remember in Sydney I used to pay $1000 a week rent in 1999.
Jen: Imagine what you would be paying now!
Al: Exactly! But then I was paying $75 a week rent in Coonamble. My overheads suddenly disappeared and we started the business. The kids were happy, and we started doing really, really well.
Ahmad "Al" Karanouh, Coonamble NSW
Jen: Did you feel that Coonamble embraced you?
Al: There is always two sides to a coin. Yes, some have, some haven’t. Some didn’t want a stranger in a town working in a business.
So, you need to be involved in the community to become part of the community. People didn’t know me at the time (when I came here). I was new. I wanted to (take my business to) the annual rodeo, and people were upset because I wasn’t a local and it wasn’t a charity. But that didn’t worry me. I just forged ahead and I did really, really well. Then people started to know me. And then, you know, eight years later I stood for (Coonamble Shire) council and I came first! That shows you that people will change their minds once they get to know you.
Jen: You worked hard at that.
Al: Of course.
Jen: One of the things that is coming through in this project is that it’s people who acknowledge a need to be part of the community who then become the fabric of the community. Would you agree that’s been true for you?
Al: That is 100 per cent true. That’s for any community that faces tough times, and I tell you what, I’ve seen tough times as soon as I moved to Coonamble. Everybody talks about how much wheat and that you’d see thousands of trucks and all of that and then we had a flood that closed the whole. Then we had a whole wet season and then seven or eight years of drought. We had a couple of years of not bad season, then three or four years of drought. One year good, six bad. But the spirit was still there. People still thought, oh well, we had a good year last year, so we’ll have a bad year next year. They understand the kind of place they live in. They understand the kind of environment they live in. Their parents and grandparents did it all before them. They understand there are some tough times to have.
Jen: With that history tough times comes a history of getting through them – that’s what we mean when we talk these days about resilience. Is that true of Coonamble?
Al: Yes, and for people here there is a great deal of support between themselves. Take for instance the farmers – it’s not all about the farmers really but for argument’s sake – for farmers, there is great mental and moral support through times of drought. The rain dance we did here in Coonamble, for instance. We got everybody into it – 1000 people!
We do other things as a community and everyone gets themselves involved. They don’t just stay at home and feel sorry for themselves. It is another way of going forward.
Jen: Did you feel that becoming Mayor was a vote of confidence in Coonamble?
Al: It’s more so when I became a councillor, because people really thought, “That Al, he’s talking about good things there,” you know? I became a councillor first because you get elected by your peers to be Mayor, not from a popular vote. But I have the confidence of my peers.
Coffee and baklava from Al's cafe in Coonamble NSW
Jen: But to take on that role on your part shows that you have faith in Coonamble.
Al: Absolutely. I have always had faith in Coonamble. Why? Because I started more than one business in this town and they have all been successful even in the tough times. They’re still going and doing well.
Something that drives me crazy sometimes is (wondering) why don’t other people come try and open up businesses in this town? They say, “Oh, there’s not enough money or business…” Mate, it’s $150 a week rent! You get a couple of boxes of tomatoes, you make $500 bucks a week. If you really want to do something, you can do it here.
Jen: Is that one of the misconceptions – that there is no future for business in small towns?
Al: To a certain degree, people want to believe that because population (in regional communities) is always on the decline. You get kids who go away to uni, and 80 per cent of them don’t come back. You have two years of drought and you lose half of the workforce on the farms. You have three years of drought and you probably lose the rest of the workforce and the farmers themselves. And then there is no money to spend. But you have to remember one thing: there is always people living still in the town. It may not be the same number, so you have to think and adjust accordingly – you don’t start a business that’s going to cater for 10,000 people when you only have 1500 in the town, and you don’t go and open a business that is identical to somebody else across the road. You need to think a little bit outside the box. There is real opportunity for those people who are prepared to work hard and think outside the box.
(Regional towns like Coonamble) are an untapped resource, and not just in terms of customers walking through the door of a shop. These days you can do a lot of work globally if you want to, or have to, because of the internet.
Why pay $5000 a week for a warehouse somewhere in Sydney when you could hire one for $300 a week in Coonamble and do exactly the same business online as you would be doing in Sydney?
Jen: So business should embrace that technology, not worry about what the internet is doing to passing foot traffic?
Al: Yes, they should embrace it. You come to a town like Coonamble where we have a number of unemployed people and you have X-number of bodies ready to go in and work. The workers don’t have to travel far, so all the overheads become really nothing because everything is around you. Transport is here seven days a week so any company, any business could start up here as long as they are online, and sell their product or service online.
Jen: Apart from the business side of things Al, what do you love about Coonamble on a personal level?
Al: It’s a small town, and that’s originally why I wanted to live outside Sydney. It wasn’t Coonamble in particular, it just happened to be Coonamble. I wanted my kids to grow up in a place that was the same as I grew up in back at home (in Lebanon). I wanted them to grow up in a place where everybody knows them, everybody calls them by their name; where they can walk to school. A place where, if they’re getting into trouble, everybody knows whose kids they are and they would give me a call.
There are good people in the bush, and that usually makes all the difference. The overwhelming majority of people in Coonamble are great people, nice people. It’s like every other place on Earth – you have the good and the bad – but overwhelming majority are good people. You get in a bit of trouble and everyone is around you.
Jen: Coonamble pulls together when the chips are down.
Al: Absolutely. People will walk out on the footpath when a funeral is going past and they stand there and pay their respects. I haven’t seen that anywhere else. It shows that this community has care and respect. Respect is very, very important.
Jen: With your Lebanese heritage, I suppose you have seen the best of both worlds and you can see all the differences a multicultural influence can have in a town. Can you talk to me a bit about that?
Al: I can. Coonamble has been a bit behind in the multicultural domain, but it’s starting to change now. We have a few nurses who are from the Philippines and India, and some doctors and a chemist in town who are of different nationality. The same with some of the shops, and with people who are working in the town in supermarkets and the service station and other businesses. So things have started to move a little bit now towards greater multiculturalism.
And I tell you what, this is the kind of people you need in a little town. People like myself, people who come from anywhere else in the world. They will immediately think outside the box because they know exactly what they have seen along the way, what they’ve seen their home country or in a different country. In a place like Coonamble, it’s easier not to think outside the box because you get used to it. People don’t always want to change so they are happy with what they have. Then you get someone who comes here like I did and start a couple of businesses and do really well. Immigrants bring business.
Coonamble is similar to many small towns in the region, where the multicultural influence from European and Chinese immigrants has become part of the community. Coonamble had Greeks and Italians who stayed and settled here after the war. They married here, they raised their kids here. They populated the bush. The point is you need these people to come here so they keep populating regional Australia, not specifically NSW but regional Australia. We are an aging population and if we don’t keep encouraging these people to come bush, we’re in trouble.
Jen: Contrary to popular misconception, a small town can sometimes be very embracing of difference.
Al: Not only embracing but economically, small towns are a viable option. These days, to rent an apartment in Sydney is about $800-900 a week and immigrants can’t afford that. But if you get a job here, you can get a house for $200 a week and shopping is only two-minute walk anywhere in this town. The cost (of living) is not the same as in the city. They can build their life here, and after three or four years, they say, “Well we’re part of this now. We’re going to stay here.”
Jen: Multicultural communities have great spirit and that’s all part of the spirit of the bush too.
Ahmad "Al" Karanouh, Coonamble NSW
Al: Of course, it is. They attach themselves to where they live, to the town they settle in. Immigrants like to socialise with their neighbours. Immigrants tend to live in the same street for years, like I do, so I know everybody. In the one street you know everybody and so they socialise with others and start getting to talk to people and start getting involved with people and doing things in the town. That’s what you need. You need people to keep talking. You don’t want this thing where in the tough times nobody talks anymore. On the contrary, invite people to dinner or to have a cup of coffee, all these sorts of things. That helps to keep things ticking over.
Jen: You want to build that fabric when times are tough so that there’s a net ready to catch people when things go bad again.
Al: Yes, that’s the way to look at it. Absolutely. And I believe it is working here in Coonamble in particular because through the business I’m in, I know virtually everybody and I can tell on a daily basis when they walk in what’s going on, what’s happening, without them even opening their mouth. We start the conversation straight away and things improve straight away and I say, “Don’t worry about things – sit down, have a coffee.”
We started something here every Friday where all these old local blokes come in and they take up the whole middle of this café. We provide them with scones and coffees and teas and all that and they just sit there and talk about everything. Some of them work, some are retired, some are on the farm, some are mechanics. They bring pictures with them and books with them and they have a conversation every Friday. And the ladies see this and thing going on and they say, “Hang on – how come the blokes get to do this?” and so now we have ladies every Friday as well and we do the same thing for them. They take the other side of the café.
Jen: I must remember not to come in on a Friday (laughs).
Al: Between 10-12 that’s what we have here. The place is full! People catch up with things that are going on. Then you start seeing the farmers come into places like this, they see their mates and their neighbours and they start discussing what’s happening on the farm or what’s happening with the rain. All that sort of thing. It works and that’s the beauty about a little town like Coonamble. If you were in Sydney or somewhere like that? Just forget it, you just couldn’t do that.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.
Ahmad "Al" Karanouh, Coonamble NSW