It’s a long time since I’ve been to Sydney. I haven’t had any reason to go now that I have no family there, but even in the days when I made the occasional fly-in/fly out visit for a family celebration or a conference, I never got to know the city very well. That makes me part of the audience for this small book, because it is written with firm intent. It is a political work, created with the intention of redressing what the author thinks is the misrepresentation by the media of Arab-Australians in western Sydney. You can read about Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s big ambitions for this small book in an article at The Guardian …
I know two Sydneys: fleeting impressions of the tourist attractions and conference centres I’ve visited and the fashionable inner city addresses where my sister lived – and a night of sheer terror when in my twenties I drove along up from Melbourne with my son asleep in the back of the car, to rendezvous with my husband at a suburban motel on the Parramatta Road. It was in the middle of the night and a gang of hoons in their hoonmobiles thought it would be fun to ‘escort’ me into Sydney. It was not until a police car turned up on patrol that they melted into the side streets, leaving me with an impression of Sydney as a place where a woman apparently alone was not safe on a main thoroughfare.
Neither impression is the real Sydney, of course. It’s not so different to Melbourne, and it’s like many cities overseas as well. A tourist and business centre, clean, shiny and bright - and then the vast mass of suburbs full of people who are as individual as their fingerprints. It’s multicultural in the way that Melbourne is, or London or dozens of other cities around the world. Ethnicities converge in certain suburbs, and disperse themselves. (Cheap, immigrant-rich areas in Sydney contain a mix of ethnicities rather than ghettoes, see this interactive data visualisation at the SMH). But for reasons which those who read tabloids and listen to shock jocks will know better than I do, the Lebanese of Western Sydney have acquired a bad reputation. The Tribe - a novella in the Giramondo Shorts series – sets out to redress this.
It’s a book that celebrates the customs and lifestyle of a large extended family of Lebanese-Australians, as told in first person monologue by Bani, a child of seven when the book begins. The family are minority Shi’ite Muslims in a community of Sunnis, but although their faith seems strong, they have abandoned observances such as daily prayer, they drink alcohol and the women don’t ‘dress modestly’. Bani is somewhat immune to some of the cultural norms in his community: when his mate Omar at Lakemba Public School ticks him off because he doesn’t know how to eat pies from the school canteen, and that he should open the top and eat it with a spoon, Bani ignores him.
Since I grew up in Alexandria, right next to Redfern, I know the Australian way to eat a pie. (p. 120)
The book is written in three parts, starting with the child’s emerging experience of his huge family; moving on to a 500-guest wedding when he is nine; and finishing with the death of a grandparent when he is eleven. The novella is bookended with, and each part begins with the same pattern: I was only seven [nine/eleven] when this happened but it always feels like right now. Myriads of characters comprise what is called ‘the tribe’ because uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents all have very large families by Australian standards. There is a noisy accretion of detail. Everything seems very loud. Everything seems interconnected. The baroque excesses of this style – and, it must be said, the representation of women and how their men treat them - reminded me of Palace Walk by the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz. It’s more like the oral tradition of unedited story-telling than conventional forms of writing.
The narration tumbles over itself in waves of childhood impressions connected so artfully that the reader may forget that it is an older Bani narrating these events.
Just before I have to leave for school Mum tells me to go and sit with my grandmother. I’ve been ignoring Tayta for the past couple of days. She’s up every night screaming that her legs are aching. They’re brittle and brown, with red scabs all over them. Tayta makes my younger sister, Yochaved, sit on her legs to put her at ease. Yochaved still runs around for our grandmother. She sleeps in the same bed. At night, at 1am, Tayta whispers to Yochaved that she wants her water bottle and Yochaved runs to the freezer to get it for her. There are always three bottles of frozen water for Tayta in the freezer. Yochaved goes to bed when Tayta goes to bed. She leaves Tayta to go to school and comes back to Tayta in the afternoon. My grandmother’s bed is old. I imagine it’s the bed she’s had since she first came to Australia with my grandfather, my jedoo, but I’ve never really asked. It’s a heavy steel bed with a wooden bedboard that’s been painted pink over and over. Tayta sleeps on a long double-sized pillow. Yochaved often puts her head on this pillow too. She smells just like Tayta, like mixed Arab spices. (p.113)
This last part, when Bani has to deal with the first death he has known, is less engaging that the others. The seemingly endless accretion of family members visiting the dead woman and Bani’s observations of their behaviour perhaps serves the reconciliation of estranged family members at the end, but it tempted me to scamper over the details. If the book had been longer than its 150-odd pages I probably would have.
As a window on the life and customs of this community, The Tribe can be confronting at times. More than a sense of separateness guides the culture that is represented here: while Bani is happy to play Lego and basketball, to eat KfC, and eventually to choose his own wife, there are also examples of the family rejecting Australia and Australians. Bani’s parents tell him that like all Aussies, Chuck [their local hairdresser] is scum (p.57, underlining mine). When Bani asks why there are so many interminable visits to the house of Zubaida, who is to marry into the family, the answer shows their contempt:
I asked my dad once why Uncle Ali couldn’t just go on his own, and he looked at me like I’d torn pages out of the Qu’ran. ‘Because we’re not Aussies, ‘ he said to me. ‘We’re taking this girl away from her parents, we have to show them that we will look after her.’ (pp. 43-4)
In The Tribe, domestic violence is the norm. We see that ‘looking after’ one’s own involves knocking out the teeth of a husband who beats his wife, and Bani is proud of his father for ‘protecting’ his sister like this – even though he knows that Haroun still bashes his Aunty Yasmine from time to time. However, Bani’s also confused by his father’s intervention – not because of any qualms about male-on-male domestic violence, but because in our culture we weren’t meant to butt into the affairs of a husband and wife (p.134). In another sequence, two men holding Uncle Osama back aren’t enough to stop him kicking his pregnant wife in the belly because the children had woken him up, and a damaged child may be the result – she’s still not talking at three years of age. Bani and his siblings are beaten by their father with a belt, and Bani himself punches his cousin Zena when she takes a piece of his Lego:
Our eyes meet but she doesn’t say anything to me and I don’t say anything to her. I sense that she’s about to turn around and just as her face flinches I make a fist with my right hand and punch her in the nose. It lands flat and makes a small ‘thud’ sound. It wasn’t that hard and I know it’s not going to make her bleed, but it probably hurt. After the punch she stares at me for a second longer and then her face crinkles as she screams. (p. 32)
Bani’s mother protects him from the wrath of Uncle Osama, but there is no reprimand from her. When I think of how hard we teachers try to teach our students not to solve their disputes with their fists, reading this makes me despair at the way boys are privileged in the violence they inflict on girls at home.
On the other hand, The Tribe celebrates the fact that communities can survive and thrive in Australian cities like Sydney. There are times when there are culture clashes, and sometimes Bani is uneasy about some of what he observes, particularly in relation to the roles of women, but one senses that he represents a new generation that will preserve the traditions that matter, and adapt the rest to suit. Just like the rest of us do…
Do read Matt Todd’s review at A Novel Approach too.
Author: Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Title: The Tribe
Publisher: Giramondo, 2014
Source: review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing