Portrait

A drive with founder of western Sydney literary collective Sweatshop, Michael Mohammed Ahmad. By Omar J. Sakr.

Literary collective director Michael Mohammed Ahmad

Sweatshop founder and director Michael Mohammed Ahmad.
Credit: SUPPLIED

We’re driving up to Wollongong, a dense dose of green on either side of the highway. Michael Mohammed Ahmad, founder and director of Sweatshop – a western Sydney-based literary collective – is yelling as he drives. He’s not mad, that’s just how he talks, at a speed and octave a notch above what most people would find comfortable, but which is normal for an Arab. Siri pipes up, interrupting Mohammed’s stream of thought with rerouted directions, and he yells at her.

“Now you tell me,” he says in his Bankstown drawl. Then, “You know, I think it’s problematic that Siri is a woman. All you do is mouth off at her.”

We end up talking about women a fair bit. Winnie Dunn, a Tongan–Australian poet who is the manager at Sweatshop, is on her way to Canberra to give a keynote address at Girls Write Up, an event run by The Stella Prize. “She’s touring the country, and she’s 21,” Mohammed says, beaming. “What an overachiever.” The Stella Prize worked in concert with Sweatshop for this series of events, with the result that there will be one culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) woman on every panel.

This kind of diversity-as-activism is written into Sweatshop’s DNA. It’s not about appearances, it’s about ensuring often ignored voices are heard at every level. You can see that DNA on full display in Sweatshop’s new book, The Big Black Thing, which was launched at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. Everyone involved in it is from a migrant, indigenous or refugee background.

“Even the designer is brown,” Mohammed says. “Even the guy at the fucking printer is Asian.”

Every few minutes, as he talks, Mohammed flicks the fan on the car’s airconditioning from 0 to 1 and back again. He’s never satisfied for long, always adjusting. It’s a cool, bright day as we pass through the hilly terrain.

A sign points the way to Menai.

“Look, heaps of people came from Menai to the Cronulla riots,” Mohammed says. The infamous riots occurred more than a decade ago, but they’re never far from our minds. To paraphrase the academic Ghassan Hage, mob violence is kind of like a nuclear bomb. It only needs to be used once for the spectre of it to haunt us forever.

“We grew up in a place that had ‘Lebs rule’ written everywhere. And we had the whole country shitting itself.” Mohammed laughs. “The amount of hatred we elicited was flattering, to be honest.”

I shift in my seat. Mohammed has a boxer’s attitude in this respect: he welcomes the fight. The reaction to one of his recently published essays, “Lebs and Punchbowl Prison” (Sydney Review of Books), was muted, until it was republished by The Weekend Australian. Hate mail flooded his inbox, and Mohammed was delighted.

“There’s no point writing to white middle-class leftists. I’d much rather the paranoid white nationalists who read The Australian. Like, people actually took the time to write to me. That’s flattering.”

That they missed the irony in his essay didn’t matter. They were stirred into a frenzy, and that’s the key to both literature and boxing: hit hard and fast, knock the reader out of their stupor. We pull up at the University of Wollongong, where Mohammed is giving a lecture on Arab–Australian representation in the media. I feel like we’ve been driving for a hundred years, but it’s only been an hour.

I watch Mohammed stand in front of a student body, in his flared G-star jeans and black T-shirt, and dismantle the racist narratives in mainstream media in his not-quite-shouting way. Towards the end, he conducts a test, putting up the following blind quote from a famous historical figure and asking if anyone could guess the author:

“The so-called ‘intelligentsia’ always looks down with a really limitless condescension on anyone who has not been dragged through the obligatory schools and had the necessary knowledge pumped into him.”

One student guessed Karl Marx. Another guessed Martin Luther King jnr.

“What’s fascinating,” Mohammed says, “is that you think I put this quote up as something I agree with. Actually, this is from Mein Kampf.” There’s an audible gasp from the students, and a loud cackle from me. I laugh because it’s clear that the students see him first and foremost as a Leb, which means they assume he is showing this quote because he values the wisdom of the street over classroom education. This, despite the fact he was lecturing them as a doctor in literature and award-winning author in his own right.

“There can be no better argument for the critical framework provided by universities than knowing Hitler was against it,” Mohammed concludes. “It’s why we push for mass literacy – literacy not being the ability to read, but to critically analyse what is written and how it shapes us.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 24, 2017 as "Fighting words". Subscribe here.

Omar J. Sakr
is a poet and writer. He is the author of These Wild Houses.

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