Books

Rawah Arja
The F Team

Led by Tariq Nader, a ragtag posse of Muslim Lebanese and Pacific Islander year 10 boys – who call themselves “The Wolf Pack” – are coerced by their new, no-nonsense principal into a buddy footy competition. Their disadvantaged (a euphemism for underfunded) school is at risk of closure, especially after it has been smeared all over the news for student infighting and apparent links to ISIS. In a heroic effort to repair its reputation, Mr Archie signs the four pranksters up for a rugby tournament; with four boys from the neighbouring suburb of Cronulla, they become the F team.

Lest you think this summation suggests a tale full of moralistic platitudes, fear not: Rawah Arja’s young adult novel has serious intent but is also irrepressibly cheeky and funny. Punchbowl, the place the boys call home, is described as “one of the ghetto hoods of Sydney, the place where white people locked the doors to their 2004 Hyundai Getz”. It’s also the headquarters of the “Arab Gossip Women Hotline”.

The quartet are the best of mates but their loyalties to each other, their school and their community are put to the test as they struggle to be a team off-field as well as on the ground. Elsewhere, Tariq’s attempts to woo the smart, enterprising Jamila are as clumsy as his efforts with the ball. Slam poetry also makes a surprising plot inclusion that offsets the rugby shenanigans.

With great insight, Arja portrays the demonisation that The Wolf Pack have encountered from a jumpy society keen to vilify them as homegrown terrorists in the making. At the same time, the novel also takes a well-aimed serve at teenage boys’ casual racist and sexist attitudes. Arja has a talent for crafting distinct voices, arresting in their individuality, and her attention to detail in all her characters, main or subsidiary, is impressive. (She points out, for instance, that on weekends Tariq’s father wears an abaya and green-and-gold thongs to outings.) The F Team also deals with the loving and fractious interactions of Tariq’s large family; themes of parental neglect, drugs, mental illness and bullying are all handled with aplomb.

The boys face a choice between rising above the limitations that others have placed on them or confirming every prejudice about the colour of their skin. Arja’s debut novel does not give them an easy game of oscillating between these two positions.

Thuy On

Giramondo, 368pp, $22.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2020 as "Rawah Arja, The F Team".

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Reviewer: Thuy On