Michael Mohammed Ahmad talks to The Big Smoke about his book, The Lebs, racism, Islamophobia, misinformation, paranoia and the power of art.
On the surface, The Lebs is a coming of age story about a Lebanese-Australian teenage boy trying to find his place in a post-9/11 world, yet you explore other issues – disaffection, anger, marginalisation among them. What are you hoping readers will take away from the book?
I don’t care what readers take away from this book, so long as they know that I was honest with them.
The book’s title means so much more than simply people of Lebanese background: even Palestinian and Indonesian boys are referred to as “Lebs” and there’s a tribal element to the label. Can you tell us something about this?
Most people assume that the term “Leb” is shorthand for “Lebanese” – in such a way, we often construct the “Leb” in Australia as a foreign presence (and menace!) from Lebanon. However, growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney during the time of the 2000 Skaf gang rapes and the 2001 September 11 attacks on New York City, I encountered thousands of young men and women from Palestinian, Iraqi, Iranian, Jordanian, Syrian, Afghan and even Turkish, Malaysian and Indonesian backgrounds who called themselves “Lebs”. And even more interestingly than this, they were all Australian-born. This is because the term “Leb” had become far more than just a literal connection to Lebanese heritage, it had become the label for a new and unique Australian identity, which had emerged within the context of a xenophobic and Islamophobic climate.
The action is centred around Punchbowl Boys High. One thing that struck me is the fact that teenage boys are the same the world over; no matter their faith, their ethnicity, there’s bravado cloaked in insecurity. They’re hormonal, chauvinistic, full of double standards. The narrator Bani Adam is exactly the same but also different. Proud of being Lebanese, he also wants to be a white Australian, at least for a time. How much do Bani’s motivations reflect the experience of Muslim kids – indeed any child born in Australia of immigrant parents?
I selected the title “Bani Adam” as the fictional name given to the autobiographical character based on myself in The Lebs. But you’re not likely to ever meet someone actually named Bani Adam. In Arabic it’s not a name, but rather a term meaning “Child of Adam”, or more figuratively, “Humankind”. I gave Bani this name because I wanted him to embody both the cultural specificity of being a young man from western Sydney of Arab-Australian Muslim background, and at the same time, the universality and humanity of each person who walks this planet. This is why Bani is so full of contradictory thoughts, emotions and behaviours – he’s more than just the stereotypes that pigeonholed people like me growing up as rapists, gangsters, drug-dealers and terrorists.
You make no apologies for your characters – they are who they are. Many boys are ambivalent about the September 11 attacks; they make anti-Jewish remarks, espouse violence, disparage females and homosexuals. They don’t expect much from life. Their teachers are slack, one playing porn movies instead of conducting a class. How much of this is intended to shock readers? How true to life is this bleak picture?
The picture is true, but I’m not sure if it’s as bleak at it may seem at first glance. In 2015, SBS aired a program called The Principal which was set in a fictional western Sydney school called Boxdale Boys High School. It was clearly based on my high school, Punchbowl Boys, a dim desolate three-storey building with barbed-wire fences and surveillance cameras. Then there was the student body – boys who were foreign, hairy, tough, violent, dejected, stupid, uninterested in learning and hostile towards each other and their teachers. In the opening scenes of the show, as they were walking through the school gates, most of them looked miserable and depressed.
While there was certainly something familiar to me about this representation of Lebs and Punchbowl Boys, what seemed to be missing from the image was the stark sense of joy and humour that kept us going from day to day. “Punchbowl Prison”, as we affectionately called it, was a place of unimaginable pleasure – the boys were jubilant (not ambivalent) on the morning of 9/11, they spent all day mocking their teachers, politicians, the media and the police, and took full advantage of their “dangerous” personas to sleep with as many girls with a gangsta fetish as possible. I often ask myself how the educated and well-paid professional writers of The Principal could have missed this obvious aspect of underclass ethnic masculinity while creating their show, especially since they claimed to have conducted their research for the program by visiting some local western Sydney high schools that contained a large percentage of young Arab-Australian Muslim men, such as Punchbowl Boys High. My theory is that the writers and producers, who were all white, probably did witness the joyful and smartarse nature of these young men they were observing, but just couldn’t come to terms with the reality that poor brown kids are totally fine being poor brown kids. In order for the creators of The Principal to maintain their fantasy of cultural superiority, they had to portray us as miserable until we learnt middle class white values, as though at the centre of every Mohammed is a Michael yearning to break free.
The Lebs I grew up around were listening to Kyle Sandilands; going to football games ruled by white male stars implicated in sexual assault charges; going to watch films like American Pie, about white male teenagers coercing young white women into having sex with them.
At Punchbowl Prison, not only were the Lebs not interested in being white, but they also spent a lot of their time mocking white people, white culture and vexing white anxieties about the ethnic other. For example, on November 3, 1998, Sydneysiders woke up to find a front-page feature in The Daily Telegraph titled “DIAL-A-GUN: Gang says it’s easier than buying a pizza”. The article pictured six young men of Arab backgrounds from Punchbowl Boys High who had posed for the photograph. The boys, identified as a “Lebanese gang”, were dressed in Fila and Adidas jackets and hoodies, they had menacing expressions on their faces, and they each had their fingers crossed in the shapes of letters or cocked in the shape of a gun.
The photo caption in the article indicated that the “gang” was “demonstrating their call signs…the hand signals are used to communicate simple messages between gang members”. However, anybody who had shown an interest in African-American hip-hop culture up until the year 1998 would have recognised that the hand signals of the boys were just emulations of the “Westside” and “Eastside” and “Thug Life” gestures created by black gangsta rappers such as Biggie Smalls and 2Pac Shakur.
So why would the boys tell the journalists they were a gang with easy access to guns? Would a serious gang guilty of terrorism, murder, drive-by shootings and gang rapes really expose themselves in this way to the media, the police, the politicians and the general public?
You can clearly see from the image that 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.
These are the self-aware Lebs that I write about.
The juxtaposition of Bani’s love of literature – he even quotes Kahlil Gibran to woo a girl who doesn’t have a clue what he’s on about – with the ignorant swaggerings of his classmates is very powerful. Was it your intention to use Bani as a tool to tear down misguided stereotypes of Lebanese and others from a Middle Eastern background?
Let me put it this way…rust and stardust.
There’s a lot of pressure on Bani to be a good Muslim and when he strays – like the time he gets drunk – he’s so mortified he goes through a ritual cleansing. Sex is also regulated by religion, although the Punchbowl boys exploit what they see as a loophole to satisfy their libidos. How big a role does religion play in the lives of young Australian Muslims and how does it gel with our largely secular society?
In the year 2000, at the height of media and political campaigns around the 2000 Skaf gang rapes, I remember reading a lot of articles that argued that the reason Arab-Muslim men are prone to sexual assault is because our Muslim faith, which was allegedly “incompatible” with western values, gave us permission to dehumanise women, especially non-Muslim women. But the Lebs I grew up around weren’t listening to Muslim FM on their way to school in the morning, they were listening to Kyle Sandilands, who once asked a 13-year-old girl on live radio if being raped was the only sexual experience she’d ever had. The Lebs weren’t going to the mosque on Fridays, which is supposed to be the most holy day of the Islamic week; instead they were going to football games, which were ruled by dozens of white male football stars who had been repeatedly implicated in sexual assault and sexual harassment charges. And on weekends, the Lebs weren’t watching religious documentaries about the Prophet Muhammad, who had proclaimed 1,500 years earlier that men and women were created equal in the eyes of Allah, instead they were going to the movies to watch films like American Pie, which were always about straight middle class white male teenagers who spent their days coercing young white women into having sex with them.
The boys were having a good time exasperating the fears of journalists by convincing them that Punchbowl was Compton, that we were all gun-murdering, drug-dealing, gang-raping, ghetto gangstas. These are the self-aware Lebs that I write about.
It’s a classic orientalist tactic of white supremacy to conceal its own culture of sexism, misogyny and patriarchy by pointing the finger at men of colour and the religion of Islam. I do my best to convey this argument as a subtext to the behaviour of my characters in The Lebs.
Readers see that Bani has to constantly negotiate between two cultures. With that in mind, what place does your book have in the current political climate?
Here’s my message to our politicians and our media: The Lebs is a by-product of me, and I am a by-product of Australia. Deal with it.
What response do you have to the recent hate speech in the Australian Senate? Can art play a part in changing attitudes?
White supremacists and Nazis are no different from Islamic extremists. Those of us who still believe in diversity; black, brown and white; he, she and they; need to stand together to rid the world of both. Art, guided by critical consciousness and love, will lead the way.
Your literacy organisation, Sweatshop, based in western Sydney, is working to empower young people from culturally diverse backgrounds to give them a voice. Can you tell us a little about how Sweatshop works and what you hope to achieve?
Sweatshop is a literacy movement based in western Sydney devoted to empowering culturally and linguistically diverse communities through reading, writing and critical thinking. The best opportunity to find out about Sweatshop, as well as meet our writers, listen to our podcasts, watch our videos, and buy our publications, is to jump on the Sweatshop website: www.sweatshop.ws.
Will we be seeing more of Bani Adam in the future?
My first novel, The Tribe, charted the experiences of Bani Adam as a small boy, at ages 7, 9 and 11. The Lebs is a follow-up to The Tribe and continues Bani’s journey into teenage-hood, focusing specifically on a period in Australia when all Lebs had become the target of media and political vilification in the wake of the 2000 Skaf gang rapes and the September 11 attacks. I now owe it to my readers to show them where Bani ends up as an adult. I’m currently working on the third and final book in the Bani Adam trilogy. The story will be centred on a cross-cultural relationship Bani enters, despite his sheik’s stern warning: “You can fuck all the hoes you want, but remember, it’s a sin to marry a white girl.”
Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s book The Lebs is now available.