Sunday, noon: I’m sitting with friends beneath a huge old mulberry tree, its green providing us with shade. The suffocating haze of bushfire smoke which had been blanketing Sydney is mercifully absent, enabling this picturesque moment: a Christmas lunch between three couples, one with a newborn, the other with a baby only a year old lolling about on the grass, and lastly, myself and my partner. They’re all eating ham, I’m eating lamb cooked apart. My phone buzzes, and I look down at an email from a stranger titled ‘Head in the Sand’, accusing myself and all Arab Muslims of being deluded. We deserve the vitriol directed at us by conservatives, we are every bit as violent and backward as claimed. I mention it in passing to the table, shrugging it off. I feel comfortable enough to do this as four of the five other adults present are First Nations mob. Jake, a Wiradjuri man who grew up in Mt Druitt, says to reply to the stranger with ‘Ayri Feek’—an Arabic fuck you—and I crack up. A minute later, another email arrives, telling me to leave my ‘adopted’ country if I hate it so much. In this imagining, I suppose one can only be a natural son of Australia if you’re white.
Monday, early afternoon: I’m in Canberra for my last speaking event of the year, a poetry reading at ANU. My mate Emad, a thin Leb with a bushy black beard, drives me to my campus accommodation in his station wagon, and on the way we burst open, spilling fragments of family history, our struggles within white institutions, our frustrated desires. It is so terrible, and wonderful, that we can only be ourselves with ourselves. I’m only stopping to drop off my bags before we get lunch, but Emad steps into reception with me: ‘they have mad free apples here,’ he says. As I check in, he grabs a fresh apple from the fruit bowl on the reception desk and the white receptionist flashes him a look of disgust I feel even from a metre away. When I mention it to him later, he says, ‘You saw that too? Thank God. I swear I think I’m losing it sometimes, it happens so often.’
Monday, nightfall: After my event, I sign some books and seek out Emad, who is lurking in a corner with a plate of figs and fruit. He looks at me from behind his beard, which adds decades to his features, and says to me in Arabic that my poetry made him want to weep. An old white American man and an old white Germany lady choose this moment to come up and express their appreciation, too. The man marvels at how ‘you can really hear Western Sydney’ when I read, and how it vanishes when I speak. The woman says ‘no, no, it’s not that, it’s this confidence the Lebanese have, where do they get it? It’s nothing like other migrants’. She clarifies that she means darker migrants, dismissing Arabs as ‘white’, and the American man, perhaps fearing he was being outdone, tells us that when humans were leaving Africa—’we’re all African you know’—there were only Neanderthals in the Levant and it was that encounter which produced Arabs. Maybe that has something to do with it. Emad leaves without another word, and I follow as quick as I can.
Tuesday, morning: we’re driving back to Sydney. The day has been labelled ‘catastrophic’, one of several catastrophics in the past few weeks. Emad’s not worried. It’s abstract to him in a way Arabs being killed across the world isn’t: he says, ‘why should I care about them when they never care about us? They kill us every day.’ I think about the emails from that stranger, how they linger still in my mind, how corrosive racism is over time: a slow attrition of the soul. For both Emad and I, what’s occurred in the past 48 hours are utterly trivial moments of casual racism. Our families have suffered far worse, as have the both of us. It is because of this that I know that he will be thinking about those trivialities as much as I will: we know in our bones the spectrum of violence that springs from ugly rhetoric, we know the body count on which casual jokes and slander rest, we know their names. We know how easy it is to laugh the first time off and the second, how hard it is the third and fourth, how over the years you feel yourself becoming one long callus, becoming callous with resentment. Should I have responded? is a question I ask myself half a dozen times a week, every bit as often as I chastise myself for being silly enough to have responded when, inevitably, something slips through my guard and breaks my skin. It’s never worth it, I tell myself nothing changes.
Tuesday, later: Around 100kms out from Sydney, we see a grey pall of bushfire smoke covering everything. Emad is stunned. ‘This is fucked, bro.’ We have to crawl back into the city, slowed by smoke. On social media, there is a spike of alarm: buildings are being evacuated in the city. The fires have been raging for weeks, destroying 2.2m hectares of bush, over 700 homes, killing several people, and an uncountable amount of animal life, but it is the poor visibility in Sydney, the terrible air rated magnitudes worse than ‘hazardous’ that dominates media attention. Photos of a vanishing Sydney proliferate. People can’t believe it’s happening even as it happens to them. It occurs to me that to live in a racialised body, in a white supremacist society, is not unlike being in the choking grey haze of bushfire smoke: you are hyper aware that somewhere your people are dying, that the flames are coming closer, and that racist politicians and their followers will deny any of this is real right until their last ashy breath.
Wednesday, early: The smoke eases, carried off by the wind to choke another city, and the narrative shifts. Sometimes I think we are too bound up by story, that we’re so busy reading the world we are forgetting to live in it. I meet some Arab-Australian authors and friends to discuss a project where we will conduct research in Lebanon. I have never been to Lebanon, my mother’s land. Neither has Mohammed. We were born and raised in this colony, which will forever see us as ‘adopted’, as migrant. Later, I meet a queer Morroccan-French Muslim artist, and he tells me the racism here is intense, and that it is so bad in France, too. It’s so bad everywhere. His short film is about escape: a man in a cinema waking up to a new world. Dreams within dreams. A man arrested by narratives.
Thursday: the conservative party in Britain wins a majority in the UK election, an election often framed by a narrative of anti-Semitism in the Labour party. Little was said of the overt Islamophobia manifest in the Tories: a recent poll found that 37% of Tories view Muslims negatively, and 67% agree with the statement that ‘Islam is a threat to their way of life’. Meanwhile 45% of the population agreed. As for anti-Semitism, which should never be understated, 7% viewed Jewish people negatively—this was enough to be problematised into an ongoing scandal, even as the more widespread anti-Muslim sentiment remains largely ignored. It seems it is not enough for the populations of the West to brutally pulverise the Arab and Muslim world with an endless succession of drones and bombs and soldiers, somehow the narrative force of Islamophobia is such that it can justify any amount of violence abroad, with the violent perpetrators forever cast as victims. Will the fear that enables such catastrophic harms ever subside? Or will it only stop when we are all dead?
I have to admit to you I do not know how to beat Orientalism and Islamophobia. Smarter minds have tried and failed, including the man who popularised the phrase, Edward Said, who thought literature could save us. I’ve tried with poetry and with essays, with rage and with love, I have done it a thousand times before and it has mattered not at all. Still, the narrative I have been gathering threads for all my life demands to be told. It seems not to care about the audience at all. It says, deep in my stupid monologuing blood: consider for example the Scanlon Foundation report that found 41% of Australians hold negative views toward Muslims, or the One Path report which looked at five News Ltd papers over the course of one year (2017) and counted 2,896 articles associating Islam with violence.
Consider Trump’s Muslim ban, and how the so-called ‘West’ has dropped 95,000 bombs on Arab and Muslim-majority countries in the past three years alone, how no amount of destruction, murder or horror perpetrated by America and its allies seems to count as ‘violence’. The bloodshed spilled slides right off the white duck’s back. Consider the troubling reports of concentration camps for Muslims in China, the lockdown of Kashmir and ongoing oppression of Muslims in Modi’s India. Consider the genocide of Rohingya Muslims. Consider the ongoing horrors in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and particularly in Yemen. Consider Saudi Arabia’s atrocities, how it makes a mockery of the word ‘Arab’, the idea of a community. Consider Christchurch, the terrorist attack by a white Australian man that killed 51 Muslims as they prayed, and the massive rise in discrimination and violence against Muslims in Australia, particularly hijabi women.
Consider that I don’t remember the last time I felt safe, and perhaps you don’t either. Isn’t that strange? How normal it is.
Friday: My favourite day of the week. I train with my friend Mohammed until we are soaked in sweat, staggering in the sun, and afterward we cleanse ourselves, then go to the mosque to pray. It is cool under the arched dome, but the ancient fans attached to the pillars rattle and whir to give us extra breaths, to ease what heat remains. All around us, humanity. Black Muslims, Arab Muslims, Southeast Asian Muslims, White Muslims, old and young, fathers and their children, in full cultural dress, in their Chicken Express uniforms, all of us in our socks on the plush red carpet as the kids run and laugh between our bodies, oblivious to the solemnity or else, enacting their own kind of prayer, if joy can be said to be holy.
As I line up to my spot, I think of the stories too often ignored these past few weeks, and which don’t ever seem to make a dent against the media machine arrayed against us: Muslim Aid Australia donated 438 hay bales and 190,000 litres of water to the drought-stricken town of Stanthorpe in QLD, a group of Muslim men from Lakemba drove several hours to Willawarrin Hotel to hold a free BBQ for bushfire victims, (and have since returned to do it again), the Australian National Imams Council reported that Muslims had raised over $270,000 for people impacted by the bushfires. I think of how charity is one of the five pillars of Islam, and how it shouldn’t matter whether we are charitable or not, we fundamentally deserve the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. I think of the stranger who emailed me, and wonder which of us truly has our head in the sand.
I think of how the word ‘apocalypse’ has been haunting this past decade as we witness these extreme fires and our cities are smothered in smoke that warps the sun into a malevolent eye. Honestly, I am bored of the word, or at least the Hollywoodesque understanding of ‘apocalypse’ as a single disastrous event: we seem to be waiting for the tsunami, or comet, or volcano eruption, or nuclear disaster to trigger the end of the world. What none of us appear to be reckoning with is the idea that the apocalypse, having begun long since, might last for the entirety of our lifetimes; that we could live through this slow worsening, the poisoning of sky, water, land, and mind as the world heats up, resources become more scarce, and violent conflict spreads. Ask yourself: what will you do if things don’t get better, and also the world doesn’t end? Who will you show up for, and how?
When the imam calls ‘Allahu Akbar’ I echo him, bow my head, and pray.