Books

Michael Mohammed Ahmad
The Other Half of You

“Never marry an outsider, never have less than five children, never go against the family, never go against the village, and never question me.” So ran the script that Arab men in Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s family passed onto their sons.

Presumably such diktats had, in the past, well served the family of Lebanese Alawites into which Ahmad was born in the early 1980s. As members of a small and historically benighted sect of Islam, obedience to the letter had been once a means of survival.

But by the time the Ahmad tribe fled family discord and Lebanon’s civil strife in 1970, making a home in Sydney’s western suburbs among many compatriots and several thousand other coreligionists, those same precepts seemed less obviously fit for purpose.

The Other Half of You is the third in Ahmad’s autobiographical trilogy of novels – starting with The Tribe in 2014 and continuing with 2018’s The Lebs – to explore the clash of cultures resulting from this family’s move to Australia, as seen through the eyes of Bani Adam, a character whose childhood, boyhood and youth loosely correspond with those of his creator.

This latest work finds Bani becalmed after a few tumultuous years during which he escaped the prison of Punchbowl High to become the first member of his family to attend university. Those studies have granted him greater self-awareness. They let him judge his situation and those around him more harshly. Yet they have not included the means to move beyond critique. The guilt and self-loathing that result only push him to be a more obedient Muslim son: to live abstemiously, work hard and find an appropriate bride.

The search for love that follows is relayed in tragicomic terms – Bani first falls for a Maronite Christian girl who is wholly unsuitable to his family, then marries an Alawite who ticks all his family’s boxes but who is wholly unsuitable for him. When the narrator meets the love of his life, however – a white university student who will become mother to Bani Adam’s son, the child to whom the novel is lovingly addressed – the tensions that exist between inherited culture and Bani’s own hopes and dreams become unsustainable.

Ahmad tells this awful story with satiric vigour and strategic intelligence, as always. But this time he also expresses himself in terms of sincere and eloquent parental love. The Other Half of You remains obedient to the obligation to transmit saving wisdom between generations. It also concludes Bani’s long quest to find new wisdom to impart.

Geordie Williamson

Hachette, 344pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 19, 2021 as "The Other Half of You, Michael Mohammed Ahmad ".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Reviewer: Geordie Williamson