Interview by Samuel Elliot
(edited by Angelina Tsinganos)
Michael Mohammed Ahmad is a Western-Sydney-based, Arab-Australian writer, teacher and editor. He is also co-founder of the autonomous literary organisation SweatShop, which prides itself on providing a platform for writers from marginalised and minority groups. Over the past two decades Ahmad’s writing has appeared in many prestigious publications such as The Guardian, The Australian, Seizure and The Lifted Brow, and his debut novel, The Tribe, won the 2015 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Award. His most recent novel, The Lebs (Hachette Australia, 2018), is the second in what Ahmad plans to be a trilogy of related works.
Even before its release, it seemed The Lebs had garnered a controversial reputation and would be approached by readers with preconceived notions. Did it feel this way to you?
Yes. It’s unfortunate for me as a writer that very few people wanted to talk about the writing. They wanted to talk about what they thought the novel would feature — gang rapes, terrorism and shootings. Still, you have to write what you write regardless, and let the reader determine how they feel. If subject matter is the reason someone’s gone and bought the novel, fine, but it’s during the reading that I have my opportunity to show readers what the literature and message are truly about.
So you expected readers to approach the novel this way?
Somewhat. There’s a whole bunch of factors that define a reader and their opinion. You might’ve been told preemptively that the book was going to be bad. As a male you might read it differently to the way a woman would, with the misogyny and locker room talk. I think women will read it a certain way and know that men talk like this, regardless of race, culture, or socioeconomic background. I think it’s not shocking to find out that misogynist attitudes happen in all spaces, but being given access to these men’s spaces in the novel can be quite confronting.
You might notice that I go to great lengths to parallel the patriarchal misogynist goings-on of white men within the novel with those of the Middle-Eastern Western Suburbs community. There’s one scene in particular that involves Bani (the novel’s main character) going to the movies with his friends and a girl. Now, ostensibly all they are doing is watching American Pie, but this is undeniably a film that raised a whole generation of young men, especially in regards to the way they behaved towards women. Within the context of my novel, there was a generation of Lebanese-Australians largely branded as being gang-rapists because of their — our — culture, yet here is American Pie, which is a film from the mainstream acceptable culture, promoting these incorrect, misogynistic ideals of women. That was what I wanted to depict and explore — I was trying to have discussions about male culture across all ethnicities.
What were the origins of the novel? Is there a semi-autobiographical element to it?
The Lebs, for me, is a fictional book, but was shaped by my growing up. As an Arab-Australian male growing up in Western Sydney, I regularly saw my friends getting stabbed, saw them on the news in relation to crime, or associated with gangs and rape. I think people want to know who these people calling themselves ‘young Lebs’ are; I think that after 9/11 and after the gang rapes, there was a lot of mystery surrounding these young men. But most of the narrative and rhetoric from that time came from journalists and politicians, from outsiders, who had never really set foot within Western Sydney. If you want to know us, you have to come to us, you have to know from a Leb, you can’t know us from a second or third-hand source. I wanted to use my voice – an authentic voice – to subvert and challenge the fake and inaccurate ones.
Did you have any reservations about depicting certain events or elements of the story?
I did find it terrifying a lot of the time. I mean, there isn’t one person I think I haven’t gone after in this book. The reason I set it in Punchbowl Boys was because I wanted it to be truthful and based on my own experience of going to school there.
I was also conflicted about how to represent some of the misogynistic attitudes and expressions, violence, and criminal activities in the book. I wanted to write about them but I didn’t want to reinforce stereotypes given to us by the white community. I think a lot of white readers in particular look for excuses to reinforce their racism and I didn’t want the book used as a platform for that. So there was fear of giving white racists more fuel, but then in addition to that, I was concerned about how the white leftist arts community was going to respond because they have a history of appearing to be aligned with marginalised artists, but then acting against their interests.
The last third of the book is actually a very long, painful critique of white leftist communities and how they engage with people of colour. I know that a lot of white middle-class artists have built their careers on this, on normalising this discourse; I think the book is going to ruffle their feathers and I expect a lot of backlash for that. Some white artists, white writers, white whatever, actively take minorities’ stories, and it doesn’t help their situation, or the situation of asylum seekers on Nauru, or refugees fleeing Syria. This isn’t just rhetoric for me, this is me saying to the country that we are tired of white writers and artists stealing our stories to win awards. It’s such destructive and painful behaviour.
Bani’s unabashed love of literature and sense of superiority over his peers often makes him appear to be an outsider. Did that sharp contrast between Bani and his friends make it easier, or more difficult, to explore the identity and issues of young Lebanese Australian men?
More difficult. Readers have said that he is contradictory, but the people making those claims are acting as if I don’t know that, like I don’t know he has contradictory thoughts or feelings. At times we’ll subvert expectations of Lebanese Australian men, and at other times we’ll play into them.
Some people will have difficulty separating fact from fiction and my writing from me. I write consciously as a creative writer. Bani, to me, is a boy that is complex and has contradictory feelings and is a critical thinker: he’ll be quoting Lolita in one sentence and then he’ll quote the Quran and then, just as quickly, say something utterly bigoted. He’s still a boy in many respects, and quite often I think it’s difficult for people to realise that he’s just trying to make sense of who he is and of his position.
For me, as a young Arab-Muslim man, it wasn’t like I wanted to throw my heritage and religion away, and ultimately neither does Bani. There were so many things about being a Leb that I wanted to escape from when I was young, but by the same token there were so many elements of my culture and religion that I wanted to hang onto — and those are the qualities I wanted to give to Bani. Complex character or not, contradictory or not, outsider or not, he is real in this regard.
Bani is shown to be terribly self-conscious. Do you think all young men battle with this vulnerability and self-doubt in regards to their identity?
Aside from Bani, I don’t think we give most young men enough credit. If you read the novel at face value and just label the characters as misogynists, you miss seeing them as people, people that usually pretend to be tougher and more ‘gangster’ than they really are. There are times when there’s extreme violence, but quite often that’s just the elaborate performance of hyper-violence and hyper-masculinity.
When the media tells you that you’re a beast, it can be empowering to agree, ‘Yeah, I’m a beast’. You feel like an enigma in your community and it seems attractive to behave and perform as the monster you’ve been made out to be. I’d argue that those boys in the book are in many ways smarter than Bani, because he thinks it’s better not to be a Leb, that it’s better to embrace white culture. But they have worked out that’s not true, and in the end Bani works that out as well. When we talk about intelligence, we don’t give those young men enough credit; true, they might not pass the HSC, but their understanding of foreign policy is beyond what most white adult Australian males know.
Bear in mind that when I use the term ‘Leb’, it’s not just shorthand for Lebanese. There are many races — Pakistanis, Iranians, Jordanians, Iraqis, etc., — that have identified with, or been pigeonholed into this definition. I use it as a totally brand-new, hybrid Australian term that emerged around the time of 9/11. If you look at the character’s behaviour, much of it is nothing like traditional Lebanese behaviour, much of it appropriates African American culture, and that is because African Americans do a great job of pointing out white patriarchy. This again ties into the self-awareness of these young men.
In the latter half of the novel, in Bani’s post-Punchbowl Boys days when he is working at the fictional BAS (Bankstown Arts Service), other performers — particularly women in the group — challenge his belief systems. Do you think our identities are challenged and changed, even after we’ve reached adulthood?
I think that that last story is the most challenging one, it’s definitely the one that white Australians are struggling with. They argue that it makes no sense that Bani is hanging out with white artists. I find that a little bit ironic, this perception that the least necessary thing for a Lebanese Australian author to do is to comment on interaction with white Australians. For me, that story is intersectional. That might be one of the best ways to look at what I’m trying to do here — I’m trying to understand the intersectional situation of coming into contact with other cultural groups.
That last story and the white characters featured in it are a commentary on the arts scene in Western Sydney. Although I wrote it about a fictional place, there are real places in Bankstown similar to that organisation. It wasn’t a comment on one particular arts group, but on all of them, and particularly on those old patriarchal ones run by white people. That is an old model and if you talk to artists or writers of colour, if you look at the way that model works, it’s built on themes of supposed multiculturalism, but actually it’s founded by white men and built around furthering their agendas. What these artists will tell you about white-run places is that they are often abusive and exploitative, and most of them will usually end up empowering white people at the expense of people of colour.
What I set out to do — and I might be the first minority writer in Australia to do this — was to expose that often overlooked and systemic world. To say, let’s explore the way this sort of institution is extremely destructive for artists and writers of colour. Bani is an example of someone who is physically attacked and exploited for wanting to participate in their art. I have also experienced being pigeon-holed and stereotyped. This sort of treatment served as the inspiration for the foundation of SweatShop, which is run entirely by those of culturally diverse backgrounds. It’s a direct response to the trauma experienced by so many artists who tried to enter white-run institutions and who’ve been treated this way.
How did your personal experience as a community arts worker serve to shape the fictional BAS organisation featured in The Lebs?
As a Leb growing up in Punchbowl, I thought the way to escape my situation and the way to compensate for my own self-hate was to enter into a white middle-class institution; like that would make me feel bigger and better and more civilised. There isn’t a shortage of places that will cater to those sort of beliefs, or a shortage of pretentious white artists you can go and hang out with. They need us, these artists — it’s their job to get as many of us as possible, to get us into as many of their arty-farty creative spaces as possible. So I went into that to try and distance myself from Lebs, to outgrow Lebs.
But the whole time I did that, I felt like I was pigeon-holed and exploited and abused. I also learned from watching other minorities go through a similar process that there was something inherently exploitative about the white-artist model of institution. My sense of identity has been moulded by the trauma and pain I experienced during this process of trying to enter into a space that was actively designed to suck the soul out of me; I learned a valuable lesson.
Do you think SweatShop is an effective springboard for culturally diverse authors to get their work noticed?
I would say that in the fifteen years I’ve been working in community arts, there’s never been such a tremendous force of young people from minorities stepping forward and claiming their narratives. SweatShop has provided a safe space for these young people, and we are now seeing a generation of culturally diverse young artists correcting the older model.
A young woman named Winnie Dunn, who has grown up in Mt Druitt, one of the most marginalised communities in Australia, has effectively established a women’s writing initiative in her own right. What we are seeing from Winnie, and what she has been very vocal about, is reclaiming the narrative that has been hijacked by people like Chris Lilley. As a young woman, she has developed the resources needed to take on that fight. Peter Polites, from the first generation of SweatShop, has also set an excellent example and the trajectory of his success shows Winnie and others like her how far they can go.
Who are some of your literary influences?
American author bell hooks, and Malcolm X, his autobiography, were huge influences on me. I used his autobiography as the main text in my university thesis. The great Arab scholar Edward Said, particularly his book, Orientalism. Ghassan Hajj, from the University of Melbourne. But also local writers, definitely them. The most exciting local writers who inspire me are Peter Polites, Ellen van Neerven, Omar Sakr, and so many others from SweatShop.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on the third book in my trilogy. There’s a conclusion to all this – it’s going somewhere. In The Tribe we saw Bani as a boy; in The Lebs we see Bani as a teenager. I think the trajectory of these books is moving towards what it takes for Bani to be a man – a relationship, an arranged marriage, and a war of sorts that he has to go through and escape from in order to be with someone he loves.
An extract from The Lebs
In the same block as the Science rooms are three Woodwork labs. Only the dumbest cunts enrol in carpentry and only the least literate teachers teach it, like Mr Ibrahim, who doesn’t even know the English alphabet. Most days I find Mr Ibrahim up in the Arabic staffroom, hanging out with the other non-English-speaking Arab teachers. He says he’s a carpenter just like Jesus. He’s poetic like Jesus too. He leaves the boys for ten minutes and when he comes back the room has been trashed.
From the corridor that joins the Science rooms to the Woodwork labs we hear him hollering like a Bedouin storyteller, ‘This classroom is my plate and when you shit on my plate you shit on my food.’ His voice is deep, all lungs and belly, and he has a fat tongue like Aladdin’s genie.
Nothing ever comes out of the Woodwork labs except desk organisers and keyrings and boys who cut themselves on Stanley knives. About five minutes into recess I see Jihad walk out of the Science block with a pocketknife stuck in his thigh. Blood has soaked his entire pants leg and is leaving a trail across the quadrangle. All the boys gather around as he walks towards the front office with a grin on his olive-oil face. ‘It’s all good, boys. Accident, just accident.’
‘What happened?’ asks Osama, the Indonesian.
‘Antony stabbed me.’
Antony Malouf is the only Lebanese Christian at our school. He’s not related to that big-time drug dealer called Danny Malouf, but no one fucks with him because Antony’s older brothers are dealers anyway. Antony asserts his dominion over us on the basketball courts, where he takes six steps without dribbling, throws the ball into the hoop and says, ‘Fuck you, ye spiks!’ That’s what Lebanese Christians call Muslims in Punchbowl, spiks.
Sheik Solomon raises his arms over his head like a weightlifter and spits back, ‘Fuck you too, ye khashby!’ That’s what we call Lebanese Christians, khashby, which means wood – because they worship the cross, which to us is nothing but a piece of timber. Solomon is the only Muslim in our school brave enough to call Antony a khashby to his face. He’s not afraid of dying for Islam; he believes jannah is waiting for him on the other side.
The basketball court becomes the closest landscape to an Arabian desert the Lebs of Punchbowl Boys have ever known, the hot air bouncing off the brick walls of the Science block, searing the tar until the ground becomes sandpaper.
Antony the khashby and Sheik Solomon the spik agree to sort out their religious differences as warriors, standing before one another on the courts like Richard the Lionheart and Salahuddin. They collide and swing wildly at each other until the Boys of Punchbowl collectively decide it’s enough and pull them apart. By the end of the fight Solomon has a black eye and a cut lip and Antony is unscathed – which is a relief. Had the fight tilted in Solomon’s favour, we all know he’d be shot at the train station in the afternoon. That’s the problem at Punchbowl Boys: even if you win, you lose.
The tension rises within these nine-foot fences and brick walls each day, after a Fob stabs a Leb or a khashby bleeds a spik, to the point where I become fully aware and fully sedated all at once, always on the lookout for a blade or bullet to penetrate my flesh but as ready for it as losing my virginity. Every Punchbowl Boy knows his limits within the school, every Punchbowl Boy knows how hard he is, and who to not fuck with, who to not even look at. I walk past drive by drug-dealer gangstas like Usuf Harris in Year 12 – a guy who doesn’t know shit about me and he says out loud to all his hard-cunt Lebo mates, ‘I fucked this guy’s mum yesterday.’ Even if I took him on and won, I’d get my head shanked at the station after school, so I keep walking without the slightest reaction, straight towards my next class. In this way my spirit is broken and reconstructed, elevated to a point so high that my effort turns to weakness. Reading means I care too much. Pulling out an exercise book means I care too much. To stop walking means I care too much. There are no bullies at Punchbowl Boys. The school captain, Jamal, screams it out at assembly like it’s thug life. ‘What kind of a sad fuck is bothered to pick on some other sad fuck?’ We are beyond this. We are the children of the desert.
We enter through the basketball courts and there it is, the oval, sprawling out before us like a prison yard. From this end there is nothing but a windowless brick wall with three cameras perched up top. They’re too high to bring down with rocks and they can see to the far end of the fence. It is here, where binding oaths are made between lions and Lebs, that The Iliad makes sense to me. I slam Usuf Harris into the dirt but the drug dealer doesn’t cap me; Sheik Solomon pins Antony but the khashby doesn’t give him a black eye; and ten Lebos surround Banjo but the Fob doesn’t pull out a kitchen knife. On this oval we are free to glare at one another, free to break each other’s noses and shoulders and ribs and ankles; free to snap back each other’s thumbs and toenails. ‘Pass! Fucken pass!’ the Boys of Punchbowl scream at me as we go at it again and again and again. There is no revenge on the oval; there is only a football.
We are fast and united because of that ball, but we are our fastest, we are most united, when we sprint across the oval not to score a try but to break out. We head for the corner of the fence, nothing to hide behind, just an open plain and three cameras staring at us from the school wall. We have ten seconds to cross before a teacher might catch us on the monitor in the front office and send for the police to find us. When I am bolting, beside Kadar Kareem, who ripped off my beret, and Samson, the Fob who nearly killed him, and Harris, the drug dealer, and Antony, the khashby, my heart pounds like iron on iron and the splints in my shins become shockwaves of fried chicken each time I hit the grass. I hurl towards the corner of the school oval where the barbed wires of Punchbowl Boys meet the clean fence of the train line. On that cross-section we scramble like rodents, up and over the railway fence and down onto the train tracks. For the rest of the afternoon I abandon any aspirations to greatness and Whiteness. I reign over the western suburbs as a sand nigger, hassling girls and picking fights with Skips and Nips and Curry-munchers. But tomorrow I will walk through the front office and once again Mr Whitechurch and Ms Aboud will be standing in the doorway. They will each have a smirk on their anaemic face, and as I casually step past they will say to me at the same time, like two coppers, ‘Young man, what makes you think you are free?’
The Lebs can be purchased from Hachette Australia (RRP $27.99).
Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based freelance literary and entertainment reporter. Having previously worked for The Australia Times, Elliott now produces a broad range of work for numerous publications in both digital and print. He currently divides his time between two jobs in the television industry and readying his next novel for publication. Find more of his work here.