May 2018

Noted
by Emily Bitto

‘The Lebs’ by Michael Mohammed Ahmad
A fresh perspective on Muslim youth in Sydney’s west

The opening scenes from The Lebs (Hachette; $27.99) could be mistaken for speculative fiction, in which ethnic minorities are forced into guarded enclaves, surrounded by high fences and barbed wire, screened by bullet-proof glass and monitored by surveillance cameras. But Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s second novel is in fact closer to social realism: it is set within the surreal banality of Punchbowl Boys High School in Sydney’s western suburbs and narrated by Bani Adam, a young Lebanese-Australian man struggling to find his place in the world.

The year is 2001, as we learn from the fall of the twin towers in the novel’s first pages (an event loaded with ambivalence for the boys of Punchbowl). As one of Bani’s classmates remarks to the white principal, in front of the assembled school, “I’ve been at this school since 1998 and throughout that time 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 that flag at half-mast.”

In an essay originally published in the Sydney Review of Books, Ahmad explains that he uses the term “Lebs” not merely as “a shorthand way of saying ‘Lebanese’ or even ‘Lebanese-Australian’ in relation to a Lebanese or Arab homeland”. Instead, for Ahmad, “Leb is a unique Australian identity,” one that is in fact made up of a fairly diverse range of ethnic backgrounds and religious denominations, but unified by its hybridity in an Australian context.

Bani spends most of his time with two other boys, Omar and Shaky. Omar lives in the same street and was Bani’s childhood best friend until the day another boy told them that they were not the same, because Omar’s family is Sunni and Bani’s is Alawite. Shaky’s father is Lebanese and his mother is “Aussie as meat pie”, and Shaky therefore has the ambiguous luxury of “passing” as white when he wants to pick up girls or to avoid police harassment at Cronulla station. Bani, Omar and Shaky are killing time, caught in the uneasy space between cultures and between childhood and adulthood. They are desperate to get laid, but still want their future wives to be good Muslim virgins. They prefer McDonald’s and KFC to home-cooked food, but feel bad when this upsets their mothers. They watch American Pie and try to pick up “lowies” (the name they give to the girls “low” enough to give head jobs to Lebs) on the train or at the Easter Show. But when his friends get him drunk, Bani is filled with remorse and performs an elaborate cleansing ritual while his family are still asleep.

Bani is a complex protagonist and narrator. He is the quintessential insider-outsider figure, allowing us access to his world while maintaining the distance necessary to observe and reflect upon it. As he is constantly reminding us, or perhaps himself, he is different, better: a diligent student who loves books, dreams of becoming a writer, and fantasises about gazing into his English teacher’s eyes and impressing her with his knowledge of literature.

Bani’s first-person perspective is simultaneously the novel’s greatest strength and biggest limitation. Like many first-person narrators, Bani is potentially unreliable, and this puts readers at a double remove from the world of the novel. This is partly achieved through the obvious naivety of many of Bani’s views, which are freighted with dramatic irony. Then, there are the frequent references to the seminal unreliable narrator, Lolita’s Humbert Humbert. Bani has read Lolita on the advice of his adored teacher, and it functions as a kind of clue as to how we might read Bani’s own narration. And yet, even when read ironically, Bani’s narration can feel torpid in its earnest naivety, particularly in the early parts of the novel. Lolita would, after all, be a very different novel if it were narrated by “Lolita” herself, rather than the sociopathically sharp-witted Humbert, and at times it feels an effort to endure Bani’s interminable fantasies of innocent love for his teacher. What is genuinely moving, however, is Bani’s struggle between the sense of superiority and destiny he must maintain in order to do any more than survive his school days, and the shame and isolation that are its side effects.

The narrative holds more interest for an adult reader once Bani graduates from high school, and the scenes describing his training as an amateur boxer and his victorious match against a Vietnamese lightweight have a thrilling energy and pace, as well as the beginnings of a self-aware humour that signals Bani is growing up.

Although set in an utterly different world, the prose style Ahmad employs is reminiscent of the kind of unadorned, almost anthropological realism of Karl Ove Knausgård or Elena Ferrante, and The Lebs similarly reads as the “boyhood” volume in a series of novels. In its strongest moments, The Lebs thrums with what Bani describes as “the power that comes not from being on top of the evolutionary chain but rather from being at the bottom”, and even in its weakest, it is an important and affecting account of the complexities inherent in such a position.

Having once been a Punchbowl boy himself, Michael Mohammed Ahmad seems set to become a major force in Australian literature. I hope we may also get to see more of Bani Adam, to witness the development of this complex and endearing character, as he steps up and takes his own place in an adult world.

Emily Bitto

Emily Bitto is a Melbourne-based writer of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Her debut novel, The Strays, was the winner of the 2015 Stella Prize.

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