The education of the artist, especially if that artist is a young male, is the perennial grass of the literary field: a yearly recurrence, reassuring if often a little dull. Must we really hear again of the sensitive soul who finds himself in a homosocial world without sympathetic allies? Who longs for connection with women without having the first clue about doing so? Whose aesthete’s impulses place him at odds with family, religion or caste?
But the young James Joyce never attended Punchbowl Boys High around the turn of the 21st century – notoriously the toughest school in one of the most ethnically mixed and socially fissile pockets of Sydney. And Frédéric Moreau, restless subject of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, never had to contend with the fact that he was a Shiite Alawite in a school full of Sunnis and would-be Wahhabist co-religionists. Nor did Holden Caulfield have to deal with a historical period when September 11, 2001 rewrote the script of how the West viewed Muslims within its borders. It would be hard for any coming-of-age story, in the white Australian context at least, to begin from a position more unpromising for its wannabe author.
So while there is a traditional flavour to Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s second novel, The Lebs, the social and geographic context, the white-hot historical moment, make it something else altogether. When its young and precocious narrator, Bani Adam, quotes Nabokov’s Lolita to the English teacher he is hopelessly in love with, or reads Gabriel García Márquez at her urging and dreams of writing a story about an old man with wings, the disjunction between literary allusion and daily life is first comic, then tragic, and finally a source of profound confusion.
Because Bani’s world is destitute of poetry in the official sense. The high school he attends, a sun-baked brick compound ringed with surveillance cameras in Sydney’s south-western suburbs, is in his account a place of casual violence, misogyny, racism and a radically denuded or warped sense of what it is to be a young man and a Muslim. It appears to perform the function of a holding cell for those from the global elsewhere (the school has one white Australian student who eventually embraces Islam to fit in) who are incapable of, or unwilling to, embrace the codes or cosy assumptions of the local education system, before releasing them into the wider world, shucked of their source culture but not enfolded by the new.
Which is not to say that there aren’t moments of caustic humour that arise from Bani’s account of culture clash. There are savagely comic accounts of skirmishes between fobs, wogs, the occasional skip and the Lebanese boys of the title, along with rare moments of pubescent accord:
All the boys love Mr Smith because he lets us watch pornos while we fist the drum kit and finger the keyboards. The only instrument that really matters to the Boys of Punchbowl is a Lebanese drum called the drumbaki, which is similar to a bongo. Every exam in every classroom one of the boys will get bored and randomly start banging on their desk. Dom-dom-de-de-dom the pounding goes and all the boys begin to chant, ‘Abu Salim, yoa yah, zebu taweel, yoa yah,’ which means, ‘Father of Salim, oh yeah, his dick is long, oh yeah.’
Ahmad wrings real energy from this po-faced reportage. Teen nihilism, untethered from morality, is fun to watch through the Plexiglas screen of mature retrospect. Uncertain egos preening their masculinity like peacock feathers, children trying out adult attitudes like grown-up karaoke: it’s all great fun, until it isn’t.
For Bani, the social fault line overlays the sexual. When we first meet him he is 15, and longing for his teacher Leila Haimi “like Majnun longed for Layla”. He sees his love as pure and informed by a shared love of literature. It is his desire to be an artist that raises him above his fellows, and that Platonic vision of romance he summons places him at odds with his cohort. The Boys of Punchbowl are frankly split personality when it comes to girls. They maintain a rictus of propriety when it comes to Lebanese women whom they may eventually marry, but white Aussie girls – “Lowies”, who offer sexual favours out of a fascinated attraction to Lebanese boys – are fair game.
Bani tries and fails to join in this cruel bloodsport: he lacks the requisite indifference to the feelings of others, even when, to his chagrin some of the girls being preyed on appear to enjoy being objectified. After a shameful event with his gang the young man makes a conscious decision to shape that masculine violence to creative and disciplined ends. It is a noble decision on Bani’s part, but where such decency is desirable in the here and now, it writes a little pallidly on the novel’s page.
The final section of The Lebs sees our narrator leave school and begin the slow and painful effort of becoming what he imagines an artist might be. He falls in with an organisation in Bankstown, and there, among the multicultural fetishists of the middle-class creative community, he discovers that this supposedly better world he has escaped to is only a more subtle version of the previous.
The crisis this provokes is less engaging than the one Bani faced during his school years, perhaps because it is harder to pin down. There comes a point when elements of Bani’s own cultural conditioning are balanced perfectly against the unconscious awfulness of those who would presume to know and work with him. By novel’s end, he has fought white Australia to the point of an exhausted hug in the ring.
None of this late stasis should gainsay what Michael Mohammed Ahmad can do. There is a fine ironic intelligence glowing beneath the most jarring images, the most awful events. The author never lets his superb command of idiom or his eye for the absurd overwhelm a deeply felt exploration of the hurt and damage that can come from encounters with the Australian Other. No one who reads The Lebs deserves to come out unscathed. AF
Hachette, 272pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 3, 2018 as "Michael Mohammed Ahmad, The Lebs".
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