Confronting. Controversial. Unrelenting. Edgy. When The Lebs, the second and most recent novel by Michael Mohammed Ahmad, was published a year ago it was amid a flurry of these adjectives from (mostly) white reviewers and interviewers. One descriptor that did not fly so readily from their keyboards, however, was ‘coming of age’.
In film and literature, a coming-of-age story is one in which the protagonist makes the transition from adolescence to early adulthood, much as Ahmad’s Bani Adam does by the end of the novel. Just why The Lebs didn’t seem to fit this bill is embedded in the pages of the book and wedged firmly between its lines. ‘Coming of age’ like all genres signifies familiarity, universality, something we can easily recognise and even more easily identify with. This fast track to empathy is not the world Ahmad constructs, nor is identification with Arabs in general, let alone the ‘Lebs’ Ahmad paints, something white Australians are likely to do.
The breathlessness that greeted the release of the novel centred on Ahmad’s unflinching depiction of the hyper-masculine misogyny of the young men who ruled Punchbowl Boys High School round the turn of the century, complete with a fondness for violence equalled only by their dislike for education. Sheryl Arkle, host of the Better Reading podcast and herself of Lebanese heritage, opened her interview with Ahmad by telling him, ‘I certainly couldn’t put it down but I can’t say I enjoyed it. I found it very, very confronting.’
This not uncommon attitude did the novel and its author a great disservice, for Ahmad’s novel, as well as being a defiantly blunt indictment of the fruits of Australian-style racism—which I’ll return to a little later—is a deep dive into that rarest of creatures in Australia’s cultural and media landscape: the minority within a minority. You don’t know how much you crave authentic representation until suddenly you get it.
Like the author, protagonist and narrator Bani Adam—whose name also apparently went over many literary heads for it is not an Arab name at all but a phrase meaning literally ‘child of Adam’ but figuratively ‘everyman’—is an Alawite Muslim who came of age in western Sydney amid the notorious ‘Skaf gang’ rape trials and the seismic aftershocks of 9/11. This means he lived in the shadow of both white society and the Sunni population that dominates Islam demographically and ideologically.
‘Back then Omar did not know the difference between Alawite, Shi’ite and Sunni,’ an older Bani narrates about a childhood best friend. ‘He didn’t need to know, he was Sunni and this meant that he was normal, just like Aussies are normal, never needing to question their existence.’
That I can readily relate to so much of Ahmad’s tale, despite its unsentimental focus on less-than-sympathetic Muslim males in a micro-culture I had only vague awareness of and even less interaction with, is a testament to how those of us from backgrounds that are excluded from whiteness cannot separate our experiences of gender from those of our assigned race and culture. As much as Western feminism insists gender is the primary locus shaping the lives of women, there are times I identify more with my ethnic and cultural background than with my gender. Reading this book, as well as Ahmad’s previous offering The Tribe, is one of those times.
Unlike Ahmad, who was born in Alexandria—the Sydney suburb, not the Egyptian city—but raised in Lakemba, or ‘Lebkemba’, I grew up in the inner west, my war-refugee parents having landed here when I was two years old. There they stayed, even as the inevitable gentrification sent their neighbours as well as their own adult children scattering all over Sydney’s endless suburban sprawl—and in my own case across the world and back again.
This was back when Marrickville was still populated by Greeks, Lebos (not Lebs but Lebos), Vietnamese and a smattering of working-class whites. These were the years when every second front yard had a fig tree or a grape vine and the hot-enough-to-fry-an-egg footpaths of Sydenham and St Peters were coated an alarming crimson from those bloated mulberries that had somehow escaped our greedy little fingers, fallen and been crushed underfoot. These were the days went adventure meant hopping on the 422 from Tempe Depot to Newtown to gawk in awe at the orange-haired and mohawked punks who strode down King Street like they owned it. Well, they did back then, and to our young eyes they seemed so grown up. It feels inexplicably melancholy to look back now and realise they were all but children themselves.
The inner west was not a coveted address during this era of Reeboks followed by MC Hammer pants followed by flannel shirts; long before the arrival of deconstructed coffee and white refugees from the shire so desperate for a cultural experience they flocked to share in ours only to kill it in the process. And though we had a rough reputation of our own, the daily violence of which Ahmad writes was a world away from me.
This is partly because I’m a woman from a slightly older generation, having graduated almost ten years before most of the events in the book. My own school, Tempe High, in its original incarnation before it became a language school and then a selective school, was a disadvantaged school. That was its full name, Tempe High Disadvantaged School. Of course, ‘disadvantaged’ was a euphemism for ‘underfunded and populated mostly by children of first-generation immigrants of whom little academic achievement is expected and in whom even less money is invested’. In such circumstances, we were, I’m sure you’ll be surprised to learn, not exactly a joy to teach. But while we ended more than one substitute teacher’s day in tears, we didn’t throw makeshift projectiles or bring weapons to school.
Do you see, yet, what representation can do? How it can unleash memory that would not have been given space to rear its sepia-hued head otherwise? This is how shared experiences intersect to bring more creativity into the world; nothing comes from nothing. Like Bani, I’m an Alawite, from the tiny sect of Islam that few Westerners would have heard of if it didn’t happen to be the one that the Syrian president hails from, and how’s that for some heavy cultural baggage? I have heard white people mocking Alawites as ‘the white South Africans of Syria’ and have seen us rendered powerless to challenge this image, a unique brand of oppression projected onto us, as if damning us somehow absolves Westerners of their own role in the unholy mess that is the
About a decade ago, when I was still waitressing for a living, I worked briefly with a white Irish Catholic man, a few years older than me, who happened to be an amateur historian of Islam, having studied the religion for most of his adult life. Benevolently but enthusiastically infatuated with Alawites, the—in his words—mysterious sect that, after centuries of persecution came to regard being invisible as the key to survival, flocking to the Syrian coastline and the mountains
of northern Lebanon. His face went kind of slackjawed when I told him what I am. Then his eyes widened and he regarded me nervously, perhaps wondering if I was winding him up.
‘I can’t believe I finally got to meet one,’ he kept repeating for the rest of the night, shaking his head at me in wonder every time we ran into each other over the dishwasher or at the bar, as though I were a leprechaun or a four-leaf clover. ‘An actual Alawite.’
Of course, The Lebs doesn’t go into that side of our story but that’s the beauty of authentic representation—it didn’t need to. That will be for another one of us to tell. And when we do it will be partly because Michael Mohammed Ahmad opened this door for us with what The Lebs did so well: the self-deprecating quips barely noticed by most readers but that mean so much to those of us who come from that world, drawing as they do on the perception of Alawites as heretics, a perception that both reflects and perpetuates the sect’s preference for secrecy and seclusion.
‘The weddings we attend are filled with men drinking alcohol and non-hijab-wearing women in skimpy dresses,’ Bani admits at one point. ‘That’s why we need to keep our identities secret—Sunnis don’t consider us real Muslims and there are too many of them for us to take on.’ What a small revelation to see these details of our contradictory lives in print for the first time. What meaning.
‘The notable difference between black excellence and white excellence,’ writes Claudia Rankine in her article ‘The Meaning of Serena Williams’ (New York Times Magazine, 25 August 2015), from which this essay borrows its title and purpose, ‘is white excellence is achieved without having to battle racism.’
That Ahmad is battling racism as well as the usual travails of writing screams out not only from the pages of his own work but also from the lines of those reviewers who appeared to rate his novel not on its literary merits but on how much of him they thought they saw in its more contentious words.
‘White men can’t review our work,’ Ahmad says bluntly. ‘[They] can’t read it and say, “Let’s look at language, let’s look at style” … they get swept up in it.’
I am sitting with Ahmad, novelist, scholar and founder of SWEATSHOP, the western Sydney writing collective that has become a hub for bold literary voices, along with fellow SWEATSHOP alum, the poet Omar J. Sakr, in a quiet Lebanese bakery in Bankstown. Ahmad’s voice easily commands the room, at just the right volume guaranteed to make white people nervous as it so clearly did host Tony Jones when Ahmad appeared on Q&A a few weeks earlier.
On that program, when Ahmad quipped that he was quite happy for certain white people to be afraid of him because, ‘If you are a racist, if you are a white supremacist, a bigot, an orientalist, an imperialist, a colonialist, an Islamophobe and a xenophobe, you should be afraid of me because the majority of people on this planet will say no to you and we will stop the bigotry and hatred you’re spreading.’
Jones jumped in quickly, ‘Let’s be clear, Mohammed, in your case, you’re talking about with your pen or your typewriter, correct?’ The look on Ahmad’s face could have said it all but he also voiced the incredulity shared by many of us watching at home, ‘What, because you’re worried that I’m implicating some kind of violent action?’
Why do so many white people take all of what Arab people say so literally? One thing I have noticed on social media is how often jokes or sarcastic quips I make are taken at face value, as if I am incapable of irony or metaphor, or any clever use of language; as if everything that comes from an Arab’s mouth or pen must always be an earnest or accidental manifestation of usually hidden thoughts and malicious intentions rather than a cathartic release or a sharpening of creative tools. It is as if, as Edward Said scoffed in Orientalism, ‘We are to assume that if an Arab feels joy, if he is sad at the death of his parent or child, if he has a sense of the injustices of political tyranny, then those experiences are necessarily subordinate to the sheer, unadorned, and persistent fact of being an Arab.’
It is easy to see this is how some reviewers approached Ahmad’s book, as if they were reading not the craft of a wordsmith but the diary of, in Ahmad’s words, ‘a dumb Leb’ silly enough to expose his own misogyny and racism and inform on his community in the process. ‘Mohammed went and did a PhD just to show white people how to write about Arabs,’ Sakr interjects, ‘and now I’m doing a PhD to show white people how to read it.’
James Ley’s review in the Sydney Review of Books didn’t waste any time at all getting down to its thesis: the title is ‘I’m with Stupid’. From there, Ley proceeds to castigate the novel’s fictional characters, calling them ‘gronks’, ‘imbeciles’ and mocking their ‘wispy moustaches and baby brains’. I have read Ley’s review several times, and I continue to marvel at the slippage of the mask, at the way he seemed to say the quiet part out loud, the barely contained contempt. And I wonder, does Ley even now not realise that at some point in his review he was no longer writing about fictional characters?
Ley was not the only reviewer who couldn’t seem to accept he was reading a dramatised critique of misogyny, not a documentary account of it. Even the positive reviews seemed fixated on the misogyny of the characters as if books and films about Western toxic masculinity were unheard of. ‘Yet by having fictional characters refer to real-life rape victims as “sluts”, this novel enters controversial and sensitive territory … taking creative liberties with actual victims … might not be so well received,’ wrote Clinton Caward in the Sydney Morning Herald, who has, presumably, never watched a Hollywood film about the US military’s many exploits in the Middle East.
‘This is what white men always do; they protect the bullshit in their own culture,’ Ahmad scoffs. ‘If you look at American Pie, it’s full of sexual assault.’ He is referring to Ley’s rebuke that the book failed in its attempt to juxtapose the misogyny of the Lebs with that of white society by having the characters watch the film American Pie.
‘He called it a false equivalency [but] my argument has always been that misogyny, sexism, and patriarchy is learned behaviour,’ Ahmad explains. ‘And in The Lebs, I try and show you where they learned it from, and they didn’t learn it from the sheikh.’
Nonetheless, Ahmad insists that Ley’s review ‘is great because he wrote a perfect example of a white male reading of The Lebs … he was so challenged by the book that he couldn’t review it, he just wanted to fight the boys in the book. He wasn’t able to read it, he got so personally offended that he wanted to fight the fictional characters!’
What, then, do we do about these white people who still cannot separate their racialised perceptions of us long enough to read, comprehend, and review our work fairly, and yet insist on judging it?
In September 2017, the Horne Prize, a highly regarded competition for essays on ‘who we are and how we live in this country’, attracted derision with the announcement it would not accept any entries from white authors writing on the experiences of racial minorities. Two of the judges, David Marr and Anna Funder, quit in protest, with Marr asking, ‘If we’re not going to accept whites writing about (for example) Indigenous experience, how can we have whites judging Indigenous writing?’
Marr’s question was, presumably, rhetorical but it inadvertently reveals a deep truth: how much does it really matter that there are more of us from minorities telling our stories, when they will almost always be judged through a white gaze anyway? A gaze that remains unwilling if not unable to admit to its own biases and that continues to see us through a distorted lens, even as it holds steadfast to its own pretensions of objectivity, merit and ‘quality’? It’s no wonder so many of us Lebos learned to hate ourselves almost as much as we were hated. And this too we are not spared in Ahmad’s cascading depiction of internalised racism with its desperate longing to be accepted by those who will always see you as inferior.
For much of the book, Ahmad’s Bani is what we could call a self-hating Arab, one who distinguishes himself from his peers by his love for Western literature, with a foolish and child-like appeal to be accepted as one of the good Muslims: ‘I want Muslims to embrace the values of this country. I want them to be grateful that the white people let us in.’
Bani’s words take me back to the playground and the hot flushes of embarrassment I would feel at lunchtime when it came time to pull out my lafe of either labneh or za’atar. They unsparingly deposit me back in first subject rollcall when I was still answering to ‘Ruba’ not ‘Ruby’ and all the while wishing I was a ‘Svetlana’ or a ‘Lily’. But mostly his words are forever etched in the pain on my late father’s face the first time I broke his heart when I was in year nine and elected to study Italian over Arabic.
It is my hope that, despite all the derision and hatred that still surrounds us, this crop of young Arabs will see enough of themselves represented when Arabs tell their own stories on their own terms so as not to succumb to the self-hatred that blindsided so many of my own generation. That they will be spared this internalised racism that untethered us from our own history and deprived us of the anchor that comes with language and culture, sweeping us instead to the open sea, leaving us to flail feebly against the waves crashing in from every direction, gulping for breath, longing to find solid ground under our feet just so we could know what it felt like to belong somewhere, anywhere, for once; just so we could know what it felt like to be safe.
Naturally, all of this sailed right over the heads of those white reviewers and outraged talk-back callers who harped on about the violence, misogyny and anti-Western rhetoric spouted by the Lebs in The Lebs, as if Ahmad were endorsing rather than dissecting it, because they can only ever see the world from their own vantage point. It is one that positions whiteness as innocent and Arabs as perennially guilty. So accustomed to seeing themselves dominate every story with their overbearing presence, they couldn’t see that even in their absence, the novel was just as much about them as it was about the Lebs they despised so much.
Two years ago I returned to Lebanon for the first time to research and write a feature article on Syrian refugees. From the day I landed, my would-be compatriots asked one question more than any other, and that was, ‘What is wrong with the Lebanese in Australia?’ Everywhere the Lebanese migrate, I was informed by everyone from hotel chefs to taxi drivers, they are respected and successful. Except, apparently, in Australia, where our bad reputation has reached the homeland. When I relayed this anecdote to Ahmad at one of his author events, he replied with yet more questions, laughing, ‘What is wrong with Australia? Why has Australia created such a negative image of the Lebanese Australian Other? And to what extent is that the responsibility of the Lebanese communities that live here and to what extent is that part of the culture of Islamophobia and xenophobia that begins with colonisation?’
The Lebs is an Australian story, not a Middle Eastern one. But for all its carefully crafted crassness, there is one sentence in Ahmad’s novel that suckered me with a force so strong in its unwelcome familiarity, I had to put the book down for fear of whimpering on the crowded bus. Like Bani, it is a lesson I learned the hard way, but unlike Bani, it is one I only acquired well into my adult years after it had done enormous damage to my psyche and to my creativity.
Bani, post–Punchbowl Boys, has been enlisted by a troupe of white theatre performers as part of their ‘creative development’, ostensibly to add authenticity to their community-theatre interpretation of life in Punchbowl. But our hero is slow to discover he is being exploited, that his presence is only useful insomuch as they can project their own world view onto him and manipulate him into saying what they dare not. After much frustrating beating around the bush during rehearsals, Bani finally asks his collaborators what they want him to do. ‘It’s easy,’ they reply. ‘You’re gonna say, “Aussies are the biggest sluts,” and the others are going to respond.’
You can take the Leb out of Punchbowl Boys, but you can’t take the Bad Arab out of the imagination of white Australia. •
Ruby Hamad is a PhD student in media studies at UNSW. A former Fairfax columnist, she now writes for the Saturday Paper and UK-based website The New Arab. Her first solo book, White Tears/Brown Scars, will be published by MUP in late 2019.