I was seven and had just finished swimming practice at Sutherland Shire Leisure Centre. There I stood in the shower rooms—brown, nervous at the sight of so much white flesh, and very embarrassed.
Mum and I were looking for an empty shower stall when I saw her: a broad-shouldered Anglo woman, naked, tall and strong, with pale skin that had scorched an angry red from the steam. At first she seemed relaxed, easy. Then she looked at me and froze. Her lips pursed and her nostrils flared. She looked at Mum. ‘He shouldn’t be here. He’s making us uncomfortable with his staring,’ she said.
Her cold voice shrivelled my infant manhood. I felt the hot flush of shame rising through my neck and colouring my cheeks. Maybe she’s right, I thought, maybe mama was wrong to bring me. I hid behind my mother, wishing the drains would open up so that I could slip quietly down the pipes, out of the women’s bathroom and out of sight forever.
My mum came to Australia at 24 with her elder sister. The family told her that better things awaited her here. She says she always knew that she didn’t want to raise children in Egypt, that it was becoming dirty and unliveable, but the truth is she left because her sister didn’t want to be alone in a strange country halfway across the world. ‘So she took me with her,’ Mum tells me with the slightly disconsolate air of a woman kidnapped.
Thirty years later, inside the change rooms that day, with her olive skin and upright posture, Mum looked like the pamphlet model for an ethnic women’s triathlon. ‘We didn’t sacrifice and work for all of these years for someone to mistreat you,’ she said to me. Then she turned to the Anglo woman. ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ she spat, then grabbed me by the hand, walked me to the stall and proceeded vigorously to wash my head and body with soap.
I am now 28 and Mum still denies that the incident ever happened. Maybe the shame made her bury the unseemly memory of my being reduced to a brown penis dangerously close to a white woman. Would a seven-year-old white boy have been made to feel so out of place? Or maybe my mum just got busy and forgot about it, I don’t know. I never forgot, and I think that my whole life I’ve been trying to put it right, trying to vindicate my mother’s choice and to assert my place with white women and, to some extent, the white men who decide where I belong.
Similar to the fraught issues surrounding gender identity that ask whether non-binary genders should be allowed to use the bathroom of their choosing, there is a long history of constructing men of colour in this fashion: black male slaves working in homes in which white women lived were treated like dogs, useful but fundamentally dangerous and better kept outdoors.
In my own home it has always been a completely different story. Not only have I never felt out of place, I was top dog. Being the youngest and the only boy in a family of two sisters set the scene, especially in an Arab culture where boys are usually more esteemed than girls.
My entry to preschool was postponed by a year because I was ‘sensitive’. This diagnosis manifested itself in several ways: I cried easily, didn’t like roughhousing with other boys, wasn’t always running around and jumping off surfaces as my cousins did. I was effete and sometimes flamboyant. Dad discouraged the frequent and energetic Arabic-style dancing I performed for my cousins and aunties at the age of five in my grandmother’s living room. I still remember him, shamefaced and concerned at my flailing arms and rocking hips. I think he was worried that his little boy was spending too much time with the women in the family, who were all uniformly delighted by my antics. ‘Go, Daniel!’ they shouted and clapped with glee. ‘Yallah, yallah!’
I was thoughtful and liked to draw. Sometimes I played with girls’ dolls. There are many words in Egyptian Arabic to articulate this particular brand of slightly camp male showmanship, like metdalaa, which means something like ‘spoilt’ or ‘indulged one’. There are few words in English that denote this behaviour, apart from ‘mama’s boy’.
Once, when I was eight, I visited my cousin Youssef’s place and Dad noted how fit and sporty he was. ‘Why don’t you play soccer like Youssef?’ This wasn’t one-sided—my cousin got the reverse kind of competitive grooming from his family. On one of our sleepover nights, his eldest brother said to him, ‘See how Daniel does his homework every night?’
There was always an undercurrent of uncertainty, of male insecurity that ran between Youssef and me. Though he was right there playing with my sister’s dolls alongside me, he quickly grew bored, threw them aside, ran out of our grandfather’s shed before I could get hold of him and declared to all elders present, ‘Daniel likes girls’ toys!’
I noted with deep satisfaction, at the age of nine, that Youssef had left the room we were sharing to join his mother in bed one morning. What a pussy, I thought, although I did the very same thing in my own house. I longed for role models, yet growing up as a second-generation Egyptian-Australian, the only Arab men I saw on television were those conspiring to blow up something or working with white police to put their own—other Arab men—away.
Most of the time Australian television offered a conspicuous vacuum where all the non-white characters should have been. Returning home from school to watch Home and Away in the late 1990s, I was always met with a pale, alien masculinity: a culture utterly foreign, which seemed to revolve around beach shacks, yellow-haired girls in tank tops, and yellow-haired men fighting over these yellow-haired girls on said beaches. These men rarely saw and never mentioned their mothers, while mine was present, with food, new Egyptian cotton singlets, golden chains and hot milk every evening and every morning.
Meanwhile, the ‘ethnic’ men in Australian film and television who were supposed to have some kind of cultural resemblance to me were buffoonish blow-hards, such as Nick Giannopoulos in Acropolis Now and The Wog Boy. Actors like Giannopoulos certainly looked more like me, but their manners were extreme exaggerations of the Mediterranean men I knew. They stole, cheated, ‘rorted the system’ and generally exploited the good will of a dominant white society that, in turn, rejected and mocked them.
It wasn’t until 2009 that I saw the first deliberate film representations of ‘realistic’ Arab-Australian men. However, these focused on the criminal element in our community. I watched The Combination when I was 19. It told the story of John Morkos shortly after his release from prison for dealing drugs. John returns to the western suburbs of Sydney, where he falls in love with an Anglo-Australian girl named Sydney. While Sydney and John bridge their cultural differences, John’s younger brother Charlie and his fellow Arab-Australian friends fight with the local Anglo-Australian boys in their school, deal drugs, commit armed robberies and perpetrate a series of knife attacks. This ultimately leads to Charlie being killed by the local drug lord, Ibo, and the film ends with John exacting vengeance against him on a residential street in front of all his neighbours.
The Combination’s excessive portrayals of violence, of Arab male hyper-masculinity and of street crime, asserted classic stereotypes about Arab-Australian men from Western Sydney. This common portrayal of Arab-Australian youth, the hyped-up ‘gang crime’ discourse of the early 2000s, was fuelled by talkback radio presenters like Alan Jones and inflammatory news articles, such as the 3 November 1998 Daily Telegraph front page, which presented a group of ‘Lebanese’ youth making gang signs alongside the phrase ‘Dial-a-Gun: Gang says it’s easier than buying a pizza.’
The cheeky expressions and gang signs of the teenage boys in the front-page photograph were hardly menacing, as writer Michael Mohammed Ahmad rightly notes: ‘the boys were having a good time exasperating the fears of paranoid White journalists and later, paranoid White readers by convincing them that Punchbowl was Compton, South Central LA and that we were all gun-murdering drug-dealing gang-raping ghetto gangstas’.
Watching director David Field’s exploration in The Combination of what ‘wogs get up to when the sun sets’ left me with a sense of impotence. There were several examples of ethno-specific anti-social behaviour in the film, which included dealing drugs, sexually harassing and objectifying white women, conspiring against white communities and committing armed robberies and knife crimes.
I have never done drugs, never been in a fist fight, and when the sun sets, I am to be found eating a home-cooked Egyptian meal, stuffed vine leaves or perhaps okra in a stew, which my mum has made for me, and watching an Egyptian soap opera with my dad. There is, in Arab-Australian culture, this element of cognitive dissidence. Young Arab boys are all too keenly aware of the stereotypes that haunt us, which largely emerged from crimes of sexual violence in the year 2000. Lebanese-Australian Bilal Skaf and his brother, Mohammed Skaf, were part of a gang that raped several young women in Sydney. They took the girls to remote locations, sexually assaulted them and left them with cranial injuries.
The stigma that all Arab men are, at their core, no different from the Skaf gang lingers even now. Two years ago, while walking a white girl back to my car in Newtown, two white police officers pulled me aside to ask inane, prejudicial questions such as, ‘What is your cultural background?’ and ‘Where are you from?’ Then they turned to my friend and asked her, ‘Are you okay?’
Of course, in such a zero-sum game of sexual predation, the hunter easily becomes the hunted. Once a white girl in a bar sized me up from across the room, crept up to me, put her hand on my chest and whispered into my ear, ‘I like Arab,’ as though expressing her preference for a type of cuisine rather than a human being. There is a long history of this fetishisation of the coloured man, who is desired as much as he is feared, through his construction as a ‘hypersexual predator’.
Films such as The Combination may have contributed to this myth in Australia, propagating the idea that all Arab-Australian men are lusty womanisers—lascivious creeps, at once charming and dangerous. In one scene, Charlie is raking a line of coke while a sex worker sits atop his crotch, naked with her back to the camera. This sleazebag type is adopted and played-up by many men in my community. Egyptian boys at my church, mainly millennials like me who came of age in the 1990s, pose as macho Casanovas, commenting on girls’ figures with all the faux connoisseurship of a sommelier. ‘Look at the arse on this one, boys!’ they would observe at Burwood shopping centre. These young men were all virgins who were still wearing the collared shirts their mothers had bought for them for the Sunday morning service.
Meanwhile, back at church, our mothers would gather in a brood, pulling up tables and chairs in the hall, picking at cake, baklava and their sons’ and husbands’ inadequacies—‘Don’t even start, habebteey, my son can’t even be seen with me at school any more …’ Many of these women married their husbands in Sydney in the 1970s and 1980s to secure citizenship and a future. They describe their marriages in bleak, practical terms:
‘I can’t get Mahmoud out of the house …’
‘When Kamal starts talking he doesn’t shut up …’
‘Yeeeee … his idea of going out is a trip to the pharmacy.’
They cackle their frustrations in high-pitched shrieks, well into the afternoon while the men, aloof and clumsy, discuss the soccer or the prime minister or their son’s success in his medical entry exam, on the other side of the church hall. We repeat this routine every week, well into our thirties and sometimes our forties. Arab sons, and certainly daughters, often live at home with their parents until they are married.
The suburban predictability of our lives was never portrayed on screen, and the affection of our parents was unaccounted for in high-stakes, violent crime dramas that purported to explore the Arab experience. Other Australian productions about Arab-Australian identity such as the TV series East West 101 (2007–11), Cedar Boys (2009) and more recent releases such as The Combination: Redemption (2019) all take the same, pejorative stance towards Arab men. These texts are all focused on Arab-Australian men as purveyors of drugs and gang violence.
Where are our mothers in all of this? Where are the women who raised us, those whose affection and protection saved us from error and guided us down a safe and productive path? Our mothers lost and rebuilt, mourned and saved and struggled. My mum missed her mother’s funeral in Egypt because she couldn’t leave my sisters alone while Dad worked. Set adrift from her own society, she told me who I was when I couldn’t figure it out on my own or see any other examples of what I might be: ‘handsome’, ‘sunshine’, ‘a success’.
At nine years old I was bullied for being a ‘fat wog’. The boys mocked me and the girls ignored me. My mum, noting the problem, took me to see the school counsellor in the local Menai community services precinct of Sydney’s largely Anglo-Saxon Sutherland Shire. I still don’t know why she thought this would help.
Mrs Smith, thin and pale in her thirties, with a neat bob-cut that suited her neat, well-rehearsed answers, welcomed Mum and me to her office. She sat straight in her chair. Therapist to my left and mother to my right, I felt trapped and confused.
‘Daniel, I think it’s really important that whenever we’re bullied, we tell the teacher about it straight away,’ Mrs Smith said.
‘No, no,’ Mum interrupted. ‘That won’t help.’
‘Then what would you like me to do for him?’ Mrs Smith asked.
‘Show him how to talk back!’ Mum said, eyebrows arched and head shaking.
Holding my mother’s hand and looking back for a final glance as we left that meeting, I still remember Mrs Smith’s expression. She was leaning forwards in her chair, her shoulders were tight, and her face was that of a white woman who had just seen her first brown penis in the swimming pool shower. •