Arab-Australian Literature is having a moment.
A few months ago, the poet Omar Sakr walked away with a Prime Minister’s Literary Award for his stunning collection, The Lost Arabs (UQP, $24.95), and Randa Abdel-Fattah launched her Coming of Age in The War On Terror (New South Books, $34.95). A few weeks ago, writer and activist Sara Saleh won the prestigious Peter Porter poetry prize for her poem A Poetics of Fo(u)rgetting. A few days ago, I launched Sara Haghdoosti’s debut novel, Sunburnt Veils (Wakefield Press, $24.95) at an in-conversation event at Readings.
In a few months’ time, I will be savouring Sara El-Sayed’s Muddy People (Black Inc, $29.99). In a few weeks’ time, the lawyer-turned-artist and advocate Amani Haydar will release her hugely-anticipated memoir, The Mother Wound (PanMacmillan, $34.99), which weaves the personal and political implications of violence against women via her recollections of her mother’s murder at the hands of her father, and her grandmother’s death in Lebanon as a result of an Israeli airstrike. A few days from now, as part of an effort to read more Palestinian writers, I will be moving Mohammed Massoud Morsi’s The Palace of Angels (Wild Dingo Press, $32.95) to the top of my reading pile, and pre-ordering Amal Awad’s The Things We See In The Light (Pantera Press, $29.99).
And right this minute, I have Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Other Half of You (Hachette, $32.99) in my hands.
To be able to measure these releases in the months, weeks and days of just one year is the stuff of my dreams. I can scarcely remember a time when I could rattle off the names of Arab-Australian writers and journalists in quick succession, and with such excitement and pride. When I embarked on my own journalistic career more than ten years ago, it was a lonely and isolating experience that temporarily drove me away from my calling. I’m not sure I’ve recovered from time served in unrelated jobs, too scarred by the whiteness of the industry and too weak to fight against it.
Somewhere along the way I found creative writing, quite by accident. Publishing my debut YA novel in 2013 led me to the works of the above-mentioned writers whose experiences of otherness in this beautiful but flawed colony mirrored my own. I cringe at my first book often, if not always, but feel great affection for the path it led me on, and its recurring reminder that not every accident is a bad one.
Which brings me to The Other Half of You, though you’ll have to read it to the end to understand why. It’s Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s third novel. His first, The Tribe, earned him a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist accolade; his second, The Lebs, got him a Premier’s Literary Award and made him the youngest ever, and first Arab and Muslim, shortlistee of the Miles Franklin. The Other Half of You picks up where The Lebs finished off, with main character Bani Adam now well out of his Punchbowl Boys High School circle. He is studying an Arts degree (making him the first university-educated person in his family), saving his friend Bucky from numerous existential crises, putting in hours at his father’s disposal shop satirically named Cave of Wonders, and boxing at the local PCYC in Belmore, where he glimpses a future that has the potential to undo his past. It’s hardly the stuff of drama, but this is where Ahmad’s masterful storytelling is at its best: making magic out of the mundane.
The story is addressed to Bani’s son Kahlil—his little White Wog, as Bani calls him on the opening page. The Other Half of You sees Ahmad draw on his own experiences to depict Bani’s turbulent if not truly hypnotic love life. It’s a love life bound by the rules and regulations of The Tribe, which allow him to drink, gamble and avoid prayer, and still get a big house and a bigger wedding, on the proviso he never dilutes the sacred Alawite Muslim bloodline, traced back to the Prophet Mohammed himself, by marrying an outsider.
Instead, Bani, our young Arab Muslim protagonist with a head full of romanticised notions about love learned from the great writers he has read, falls in love with a hairy, tomato-faced, wife-beater-wearing ‘wood worshipper’ (Christian) from a housing commission block in Glebe, bringing, as his father says, ‘shame on the House of Adam’.
While such a statement sounds like another Lebbo exaggeration, I can testify that it is in fact, far from it. Ahmad’s no-holds-barred approach to writing demonstrates as much, but my lived experience meant that I too can relate. I found myself nodding along furiously, reading passages aloud to my husband and seeing so many of my own experiences within its pages. I was close in age to Bani when I too transgressed the rules of my Lebanese Maronite family and fell for an outsider. Some 15 years later—despite our (Alhumdulilah) happy marriage and beautiful children—I am keenly aware of my difference in the clan, and still trying to extricate myself, and my family, from such sentiments of shame that are probably long forgotten.
And it is in Ahmad’s attempt to extricate Bani from such shame that we are led to the story at this book’s heart. ‘I was so tired of these people threatening me’, Bani thinks as he lets another family phone call go to voicemail. To negotiate family, tradition and faith is a story worthy in its own right, but here it is made richer by Ahmad’s eloquent reflections on young love, with Bani in ‘half agony, half hope’ over Oli, the untidy, cardigan-wearing girl who brings the White gaze to Bani’s days. Their time in the bookstores and op-shops of the Inner West remind Bani of his otherness, and both casual and overt racism from her former flames, friends and acquaintances permeate the budding relationship that costs our hero so much.
Ahmad’s flair for description means this cost is laid bare upfront. In one of the most relatable lines of the book, Ahmad depicts the role that Arab parents have in the lives of their offspring: ‘I feared my dad,’ Bani reflects, ‘not like I feared barking dogs and child molesters, but like I feared the sun, which gave me life, and could just as easily incinerate me.’ He explores Bani’s family’s insular views both tenderly and critically, never subjecting them to reproach but nonetheless highlighting the absurdity of the fact that they would rather drive out their own flesh and blood, condemning him to misery, than compromise on some rules. And yet, the affection with which Ahmad writes them is still palpable, most obviously when Bani’s long-awaited return to the now-empty marital home is softened by the presence of his mother, who we discover had checked on him every night armed with pillows, blankets and food for her wayward son.
Most importantly, Ahmad doesn’t spare Bani, writing candidly of time spent in a brief but unsatisfying practically-arranged marriage and the affair that launched an alternative life path. In some other text, the judgement for the cheating male might come hard and fast, but reading this story is akin to reading some great tragedy, and Ahmad makes it impossible to take sides. Bani’s young bride, ‘a child trapped in a grown woman’s body’, is portrayed as a no-hoper with literally no aspirations beyond being given permission by her young husband to wear the g-strings that her father had banned, and sitting at home watching re-runs while Bani forges, albeit tentatively and fearfully, a relationship with someone foreign. I can’t help but feel for them both as they embark upon their marriage on an uneven playing field. Bani, the young man who yearns for the kind of love that ‘grinds [us] to whiteness’; and Fatima, barely an adult herself, taking on the duties of wife. It says so much that Bani cannot fathom her desperation to change her name from the sacred Fatima, after the prophet’s daughter, to Chanel, a motif of the western capitalism and consumerism that has enveloped the Lebs of Western Sydney.
It is thanks to this sense of compassion for two young people that I can finally ponder what it might have been like for my parents when they escaped the war-torn familiar for the peace of someplace foreign. The fact that they too, like Bani Adam’s parents, set their sights on somewhere new, and expecting that the customs and rules of old would not be at all affected, seems truly baffling. But I now know that for all its merits, Australia was never going to completely safeguard their culture, rituals and traditions. After all, you can’t head into a lion’s den and emerge from it unscathed, can you?
These tense questions and negotiations have been a recurring theme in Arab-Australian literature. We have told our stories of otherness and belonging. And now, as Ahmad heads into new territory, free at last to navigate subjects like love, romance and marriage, albeit with a richness that only the culture of our heritage could bring, I wonder if the push-and-pull has been worth it. These stories are something to savour and enjoy, triumphs over adversity, the happy accidents that are disturbing the usual trajectory of the quintessential migrant narrative.
Sarah Ayoub is a freelance journalist and author. Her work has been published in The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney Review of Books, Marie Claire, Griffith Review, ELLE and more. She appears regularly at schools and writers festivals, and has just completed her PhD examining intersectionality and transculturalism in the interventionist ethnic narratives of Australian Young Adult Literature.