Imam Zainadine Johnson presents a television show on mortality while living in Egypt.
Imam Zainadine Johnson presents a television show on mortality while living in Egypt. Contributed

Fame in the midst of two deadly Egyptian uprisings

EGYPTIAN life brought Imam Zainadine Johnson unexpected fame and put him in the midst of two deadly national uprisings.

He and his family landed in Alexandria in 2010 after an ill-fated attempt to enter Jordan.

Imam Zainadine set about quenching his thirst for Islamic knowledge.

His studies focused on the Quran and he took lessons on Islamic belief, not so much in the style of university studies but more his own curriculum.

The following year he was accepted to study at Mohammad Bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.

His family remained in Alexandria while he studied.

Imam Zainadine was visiting his family in Egypt during a mid-semester break when weeks of mass protests led to the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarek.

"It was just mayhem," Imam Zainadine said.

Prisoners were freed from jails, meaning there were rapists and killers on the streets.

There was no way he could leave his family to return to Saudi Arabia at the end of the study break.

They couldn't afford to come back to Australia so they stayed put, mainly staying inside.

"In the time of lawlessness, there were no police so the community set up a neighbourhood watch."

Men armed themselves and kept a 24-hour guard over their neighbourhoods.

Imam Zainadine utilised a Don Bradman cricket bat his mother had given his children during an earlier visit to Australia as his choice of weapon.

It was a foreign object to the Egyptian locals and a source of mirth.

"They thought it was quite funny."

He was just glad he didn't have to use it.

Imam Zainadine struggled to get a visa from the Egyptian government during the time of unrest which prompted a move to Cairo to be closer to the source of administration.

He was overheard debating Islam in the street one day by a television show crew member who asked him to be a presenter.

A star was born.

Imam Zainadine presented a weekly show about Islamic teachings on the Egyptian channel Huda TV.

It was called Living Hearts.

His duties increased to nightly shows during the month of Ramadan for the show Seeds of Change.

It was presented in English and encouraged the teachings of the Quran and encouraged people to love their religion.

"I have a very big fan base in Africa."

But growing public opposition to Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, who had been elected in 2012, led to him being deposed by the country's military in mid-2013.

"When the military coup happened, I just said 'that's it'."

Life as a Muslim was difficult.

"They hated anyone who basically looked Islamic."

Imam Zainadine had already successfully applied to continue his studies in Malaysia.

However, his Malaysian visa had not come through so he and his wife decided to fly to Turkey for a holiday while it was processed.

They left Cairo in August, two days before more than 1000 pro-Morsi supporters were killed by security forces while protesting in the city's Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda squares.

He had lived just a five-minute drive away.

"Quite a few people I knew died in the protests."

He said he was lucky to get out.

"It was just a miracle that I didn't get imprisoned when I was leaving."

Their plan was stay in Turkey for a few weeks awaiting the Malaysian visa.

But it took too long for them to be able to afford to keep staying in holiday accommodation so they ended up renting a house in Istanbul for a year.

"We began to like Turkey, it was very nice."

Imam Zainadine set up an institute where people could learn Arabic in peace, as many of the traditional countries of study were no longer safe.

They included Syria, Yemen and Egypt.

"At one stage we got up to 36 students."

But financial support for the institute was difficult to secure and after two years of hard work and struggle, Imam Zainadine closed it down.

"It was two years living in poverty, pretty much."

He could no longer afford to study in Malaysia so he and his family moved to Indonesia in about June last year.

They lived at Bandung in West Java.

"We moved there because there were schools for the kids."

Imam Zainadine tried to learn Indonesian but he never got to a point where people would give him a job.

He was contacted by members of the Sunshine Coast Muslim community about becoming an Imam for the region and after weighing it up, he returned to Australia to take up his current role.