To participate in the Australian literary economy as anything other than white typically involves trading in the currency of palatable assimilation. It is the white woman unpacking her internalised prejudices in a series of poetic epiphanies during a walk down the bustling streets of Lakemba, or the lovely young Indian couple who move in next door and don’t smell at all like curry. People of colour are the extras, the help, the narrative devices, the mystics, the subaltern threat, and the doting supporting character.
Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs flips the script. Ahmad is not interested in the politics of respectability or the model minority myth. Though perhaps true of some immigrant experiences, it certainly isn’t true of his. Instead, he is scathingly incisive, drawing from his own experience to tell a real story of ostracism, vilification and struggling to belong. Punchbowl Boys High School, which the novel loosely orbits, is ruled by its own set of laws and “breeds its own justice”. Students openly hurl profanities at teachers, watch pornography in the classroom and don’t defend the likes of Kadar Kareem from vicious punch-ons because he “bashed Samson’s little cousin this morning”. The book’s pages have teeth and the boys of Punchbowl are not afraid to bite. Here, “the teachers don’t give a shit about the students and the students don’t give a shit about the teachers.”
The Lebs traces the coming of age of a Lebanese-Australian Alawite Muslim boy in Western Sydney called Bani Adam, using his perspective to highlight the challenges and divisions of growing up brown and Muslim in post-9/11 Australia. Although the students of Punchbowl Boys are unique to the cultural melting pot of Western Sydney, the novel makes me nostalgic for the violent rites of adolescence and the politically tense tribalism of my own teenage schoolyard; of being chased up trees during recess and hating the other brown kid in my class for no apparent reason. It’s only much later that it strikes me: most white kids don’t experience any of that. The Lebs is an account of racial othering many people of colour can relate to, but it is also an insight into how aspiring to whiteness manifests as a cultural affliction. At one stage Bani reflects: “I want Muslims to embrace the values of this country. I want them to be grateful that the White people let us in.” Ahmad raises a multivalent periscope into diasporic Islamic adolescence in a quotidian tone that belies a sophisticated critique of class mobility, or the lack thereof.
Before reaching milestones of adolescence, the Punchbowl boys have already internalised structural racism, turning on each other with a form of lateral violence that fails to hold accountable the system disenfranchising them. Indeed, this is the experience of so many young brown and black kids in this country. Bani’s narration indicates the extent of this poignantly, “It’s shameful the way Punchbowl Boys bring each other down even when we’re on the same side.” The boyhood represented by Ahmad is competitive, unforgiving and challenging to swallow. The boys taunt each other ruthlessly, policing behaviour with labels that dislodge the direct meaning of words. “Who’s this poof?” one student mocks the Black Palestinian Isa Musa during an assembly held after news of 9/11 hits the school, “He thinks he’s Malcolm X; he’s been sitting there the whole time actually preparing a speech.” Finally, after being ignored by the teachers, Isa stands up and declares, “a million Arabs like us have been murdered by America and Israel and you never cared, then this morning some Americans die and you put the flag at half-mast.”
I hesitate to use words like raw or gritty to describe Punchbowl High because language like that dislocates the space of the novel from the here and now, from the ugly face of multiculturalism. When whiteness reigns supreme, culture cannot coexist safely and supportively without folding back into the dominant strain. Ahmad makes it brutally clear that the culture of the school, and the disobedience of the boys within it, is directly informed by a distinctly Australian experience of marginality, one that gives airtime to some people and not others: “not an Aussie like me, an Aussie like Pauline Hanson.” Ahmad positions Punchbowl Boys as a racial microcosm of Western Sydney, which concentrates many of the racial dynamics at play in wider Australia.
The students of Punchbowl High are smart enough to see the bleakness of their future and the hypocrisy of a school system that presumes to convince them otherwise. It’s no wonder that they act out. Indeed, how are the students supposed to believe in themselves when even the teachers have long since surrendered any real support? Ahmad brilliantly dismantles the myth of multicultural Australia – perpetuated by highly curated and two-dimensional diversity brochures – pulling the rug out from underneath the shallow tokenism of Harmony Day.
In the novel, the Lebs, not to be confused with Lebos, represent a unified cultural identity in the racial nexus of modern Australia. Lebs are Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian, Afghan, Iraqi, Iranian, Nigerian, Turkish, Indonesian, Egyptian and, of course, Lebanese. The particularities of origin are not important here. The more crucial identity category at play is Muslim. Ahmad does a tremendous job of depicting Muslim Australia authentically: highlighting the divisions between sects, the trials and tribulations of community forged from marginality, and the hilarious contradictions of manipulating the creed of Islam to be fuckboys with girls. At one point, Bani addresses the popularity of blow jobs among his classmates, most of whom ritually harass girls at train stations and shout “fucking slut” if they don’t pay them attention. The boys are aghast at Bani’s earnest curiosity, “You can’t root before you’re married, you’ll go to hell forever!” they proclaim. Ahmad’s characters are refreshingly real, people who may or may not subscribe to certain stereotypes of Islam, but who nevertheless maintain their subjectivity, humour, and place in modern Australia. More than even race and faith, though, what draws Lebs together most of all is a shared experience of a very particular and highly contingent breed of xenophobia, one that exalts falafel wraps and exotic techno, but fails to award Muslim women in hijab the autonomy and freedom of choice they demand.
The novel speaks to a generation of disenfranchised young people of colour, who until now have rarely seen themselves represented in Australian literature. The story’s appeal for young adults goes hand-in-hand with the starkly intellectual and deeply satirical roast of white Australia. Ahmad uses Bani’s assimilationist impulses to draw attention to the sinister consequences of Australia’s ongoing colonial project to homogenise whiteness in a society that has never been white. Through Bani’s eyes, the reader sees the institutionalising of morality along racial fault lines, whereby young people of colour are trained to equate whiteness with goodness, beauty, success and, specifically, being “morally superior to the Lebs”. This appears as Bani’s prolonged effort to detach himself from the other students in his cohort, “from every other Lebo, a builder or a plumber or a mechanic or a manager at my dad’s shop or a drug dealer or a backstabber.”
Bani seeks to do well in school, he aspires to be a poet and he doesn’t reduce the girls he encounters to sexual currency. In and of itself, this does not proximate him to whiteness. If Bani applies himself, it should be possible for him to avoid turning out “like every other Lebo”. But Punchbowl High and the wider socio-economic climate of Western Sydney, where both Bani Adam and Michael Mohammed Ahmad grew up, testify to the bleak reality of class immobility and structural racism. Bani acknowledges this during an altercation between a police officer and Osama: “He got that ticket because he was a Leb. I knew the pain.” From the underbelly of society, hard work and a good attitude are just not enough to break free.
Punchbowl High has little to no access to the rest of Australia. It is fortified from the outside world, much like a jail and the students are effectively inmates. The irony of Ahmad’s literary manipulation of place and class acts to show how schools like Punchbowl High do serve as pipelines into the criminal justice system. While useful as a metaphor for the entrapment of class, many of the Punchbowl boys will likely end up in altercations with the police. Like Lebanese-Australian Bilal Skaf, who famously broke records for the longest jail sentence ever handed down for rape in Australia, these boys are criminalised from birth. In a place like this, class can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Bani is a sensitive and intelligent young man who proactively pursues knowledge and advancement, getting published in a literary journal during high school and being paid to work on a piece of experimental theatre with the Bankstown Theatre Company soon after he graduates. Yet the exploitative nature of Bani’s participation in both initiatives is an experience shared by many young artists of colour negotiating their place in the Australian cultural sector today. The financial benefits of opportunities granted by well-meaning arts workers responding to a highly publicised crisis of representation can seem lucrative. But often these contracts are double-edged swords, especially when the terms of engagement simply perpetuate negative stereotypes. Of course, it is only much later that Bani discovers his short story has been published in a special issue of a Bankstown Multicultural Arts publication entitled ‘Thug Life’.
The name of the publication gives an overt indication of the criminalised role Muslim-Australians occupy in Western Sydney: always the thug and never the poet. Later in the novel, Bani receives a call from a stranger with an offer of creative development for a show “based on the theme of violence…he needs a Muslim fella for his research.” There is no consultation with Bani by the theatre makers to discern anything more specific about his personality than the ethnic group he belongs to. In both cases, Bani is inadvertently roped into playing a puppet in the racist imagination of white Australia, whose only frame of reference for Muslim men is one where they are terrorists, savage and uncouth. In a touching moment of exasperation, Bani reflects that over “The past three days I tried so hard to be an artist, to be White, to be one of them, but all they wanted me to be – and all they saw in me was – a dirty Arab.” Society constantly shoves this stereotype in Bani’s face, forcing him to confront the shame of his identity, like an owner forcing their dog’s snout into a piece of shit belonging to another dog.
One of my favourite subplots involves the endearingly don’t-fuck-with-me Bucky, a character drawn from the pages of Peter Polites’ Down the Hume. Ahmad and Polites write from the lived experience of growing up in Western Sydney and both authors are members of the literary collective and movement, Sweatshop, which is responsible for crafting some of the most exciting voices coming out of Australia. The overlapping of histories and characters in the fictional universe of The Lebs and the very real sociality of Western Sydney rams home the immediacy of its sense of place. Bucky is a reluctant mentor figure who sees Bani falling into the many traps of multiculturalism that he once did. What I loved about Bucky’s role in the novel is that Ahmad chooses not to foreground Bucky’s queerness, “Not a poof in black leather tights with his butt-cheeks hanging out, just some guy who casually called his ex a ‘he’ instead of a ‘she.’” For a secondary character in a novel about Muslim-dominant Western Sydney to so casually identify as a faggot is radical because it doesn’t surrender to the white gaze’s demands for confession, irreconcilability and tragedy. Ahmad uses Bucky’s admission of gayness to designate the beginning of a conversation that gives Bani one of few cherished moments of respite from the largely regurgitated ideological conservatism of the Punchbowl boys.
With the razor-sharp blade of a halal butcher, Ahmad’s piercing storytelling cuts away at the lace and trimmings of race relations in Australia today, meticulously dispelling the notion that immigrants need to be well behaved to have a place in this country. Despite being one of the most diverse schools in the country, the students of Punchbowl High will not be found in any multiculturalism brochures. The boys are unapologetically disobedient to a rule of law that does not even presume to serve or represent them. In fact, it is the collective bad attitude of the Punchbowl boys that ultimately reflects the dark and brutally honest reality of ‘multicultural Australia’ the most. Ahmad’s next novel, the third and final installation of Bani’s story that Ahmad begun in The Tribe, promises to continue posing difficult questions of White Australia while problematising its gaze.
It is truly refreshing to read a story that disrupts the rags-to-riches expectation that white readers have become accustomed to in literary encounters with class struggle and racism. There is no hero narrative for the boys of Punchbowl or Bani, neither in the student body nor among the wider population of adults surrounding the school. No epilogue is necessary. After Punchbowl, there aren’t many places for Osama, Bani, Shaky, Mahmoud and Isa Musa to end up: besides jail, the news, or baba’s kebab shop.
Bobuq Sayed is a writer, interdisciplinary artist and community organiser of the Afghan diaspora. They co-edit Archer Magazine and they are the founder of the QTPoC activist collective, Colour Tongues. Their work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Black Girl Dangerous, Overland, The Lifted Brow, ACMI, Peril Magazine and Vice.