I lie on the lush cold grass. It’s familiar and safe, a sensation I have found difficult to retrieve in my adult years. The afternoon rays of light break through the grove of trees as the sound of birds sipping softly on hanging fruit creates a soothing hum. The grass is long enough for me to fade away to watch my own private slideshow of morphing clouds. I feel the damp earth beneath me, breathe in the fresh air that flows freely into my lungs. Nostalgia for a simpler time of making up storylines, of dancing bears and fire-breathing dragons high up in the sky. What I yearn for is a place of uninterrupted peace. Somehow this is more than memory, it is home.
As I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths I feel my body become enveloped by a sudden pressure. Is it my anxiety ruining any moment of restfulness– or is it my mind sifting through a collection of unwanted thoughts and memories?
It can’t be. For just a microsecond, I’ve slipped into a daydream. In my household this means breaking Rule # 3: Never let your guard down and expose any form of vulnerability. This can only result in one of the following outcomes:
- Texta marks drawn all over your face;
- Unflattering footage of your double chin and saliva dribbling down the side of your mouth, sent to every WhatsApp group known to mankind;
- or in this case, being wrapped in a hasira (straw mat) by your four brothers until you feel suffocated and yell for your parents to come to the rescue.
I tumble out onto a pile of raked leaves, still in a daze, trying to figure out what dead insect taste is now in my mouth.
‘You know the rules, sis,’ they say, walking away and high-fiving each other as if they’d just wrapped up a hard day’s work.
How could I forget the rules? I put them in place in my very own Introvert’s Guide to Surviving an Arab Family of Extroverts. It’s not a document that anyone can see or get hold of, rather, it’s the way I’ve broken things down to guide me and my anxiety along. The extroverts are a loud, 25-strong Lebanese clan – all of us living in three houses side-by-side on the same street in Punchbowl, south western Sydney, roaming freely onto each other’s properties, with detached fences and no clear boundaries.
‘You should’ve seen your face,’ my twelve-year-old niece says, hanging upside down from a tree with her mother’s phone. ‘I made a TikTok out of it.’
She’s one of the fifteen nieces and nephews who are the human embodiment of 24-hour surveillance on our property, recording us with any device they can get their hands on, when we least expect it. Whether that be my accidentally leaving the bathroom door open, or my tripping over random objects, which I’m certain they place strategically to add to their electronic archive of family embarrassment.
I hear my mother calling my name in the distance. Ethnic parents never tell you what they want when they call your name. To find out, you have to make a journey across the house, and it usually ends up being a WhatsApp-related chore. It’s either re-explaining the process of adding a new number to my mother’s long list of friends (longer than my own) or watching a video of some Egyptian doctor listing all the health benefits of cabbage.
‘Yes, Mama,’ I say pulling out the last bits of twig from my hair. ‘You showed me this last week.’
‘No, that was about lettuce.’
Rule #2 Parents are always right.
When the video finishes playing, my dad calls for a family meeting. We sit under our vine-leaf pergola and await the list of Sunday duties my parents have prepared for us. The olives need picking from our trees.
‘Don’t pick and throw them on each other,’ Dad says, and he stares blankly at his four grown sons, who begin to argue about who ‘started it first’ for the next twenty minutes. My two older sisters also chime in, spreading the blame, and my uncle – for whatever reason – is making rice pudding in our garage kitchen. My nieces and nephews each try to sneak away from their responsibilities and before I know it, the few brain cells I have left wander off to the vines up above, and intertwine with the leaves.
Rule #5 Don’t involve yourself in conversations that don’t concern you.
It doesn’t take long for my mum to turn on the hose and threaten to soak everyone and wash away their attitude if we don’t get to work.
We lay out the straw mat beneath the row of olive trees and pick enough olives to last us through the next year. My brothers are responsible for picking the olives, which is done in one of three ways: shake the trees till the olives fall and land on the mat; use a rake to collect the top olives; or climb the trees and hand-pick them – which isn’t always the best idea since it turns into a ‘who can pelt each other the hardest without getting caught by Dad’ contest. The kids run around and find the olives that have rolled off the mat and then deliver the boxes to my sisters and me, who are stationed at the cracking and packing tables. Each olive needs to be carefully hit and then placed in buckets, then my mother brines and stores them in the garage kitchen.
Our family circus is always interrupted by a few neighbours who pop in and help out. I can sense what they’re going to ask me. I turn to my sisters, who are both a decade older than me, both married with children, and whisper a countdown.
‘And in three, two, one …’
‘So, you still haven’t found Mr. Right yet?’ one lady asks.
I pretend to lose the ability to speak Arabic and continue to bang the olives, only this time more loudly. She gets the point and moves on to her next target: my three single brothers who are now running around shirtless in the yard.
We don’t have one of those picturesque backyards from a Better Homes and Gardens magazine with flat lawns and tools kept safely in a shed. Everything in our yard can kill you. The axe left lying beside the fragile stack of logs near the spiky green plants that my mum can’t seem to get enough of, ankle-breaking grassy pits alongside the dented fence, and the bucket of pegs hanging on our clothesline that my brothers swing in my direction, aiming for my head.
Our family arrangement is broken up into three houses. House A, the family headquarters, is where we eat, where we grow our vegetables and where we meet to discuss agenda items on the family’s list of ‘your business is now my business’. It’s also the place where our fruit trees grow: fig, mulberry, mango, loquat, orange, lemon, plum, mandarin and almond. These attract people from all over the neighbourhood, each with their own bag, ready to raid the fruit.
House B is mostly for recreational purposes, either for the children playing on the outdoor equipment or our very own weekly tournaments of table tennis. There’s also a basketball ring where we shoot hoops in games of Around the World or Twenty-One that always end up in an argument about someone cheating. We have an outdoor gym where my family works out and for some reason it always sounds like someone is dying there. The grunting can be heard from the end of the street.
House C is our own mini-supermarket, where we stock our endless amount of snacks as well as the place where we store most of the unnecessary items we hoard from the Sunday Markets.
I grew up with a big family and we did everything together. I thought this was normal until I went to university and found out that most people visit family over the holidays and move out of home when they turn eighteen. I was still climbing trees and figuring out how to offer tea to our guests without burning them. Our home was a secluded Wonderland and I didn’t feel the need to leave the house to be entertained. My parents encouraged freedom of expression which my siblings took advantage of to spray paint our garage doors with the name Malcom X, or to use a roll of plastic sheets for a slip ‘n’ slide with Morning Fresh detergent, or to use a Frisbee to throw between the houses. We had everything we needed. Why would we ever leave the house? Oh … I just got it. Well played, Mum and Dad.
To the regular human or the nosy neighbour hiding behind their towels in the flats that look over the three houses, our family might seem like a little cult, hidden in plain sight from the rest of the world. In modern English, the term ‘cult’ has come to refer to a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over its members.
I stumbled across this realisation that I could be in what others might see as a modern-day cult whilst watching a YouTube video about the best and worst X Factor auditions. One of the contestants grew up in what she called a strict cult-like family where she described her freedom as ‘something her parents controlled’ and that ‘her choices always had to be family approved.’ She wasn’t allowed to come and go as she pleased and had to ask for permission to have friends over.
If that’s the criteria of being in a cult, then every single Arab on Earth is raised in one. We sign over our rights to trivial things like choices and freedom when we’re born. If I was on X Factor, my audition tape would go something like this: ‘Hi, my name is Rawah and these are my parents Matt and Lucy.’ (I thought it’d be funny to use white names.) ‘I’ve brought all 25 of my family members, including my uncle and his two wives, the three neighbours and their dog Clifford.’
Rule #6 If you can’t beat them, join them.
Once the olive-picking is done and the cleaning has been taken care of, we sit under the branches of the mulberry tree that hang above us and create a perfect amount of shade. We eat my uncle’s pudding and drink my dad’s herbal tea. We’re listening to stories when we hear the sound of police sirens and booming car burnouts in the distance. Later we learn there’s been another shooting and a young boy is dead, his body lying in the park nearby.
Growing up I felt like I couldn’t love or be proud of Punchbowl. I thought that living in Western Sydney was always going to be second best. It was in the constant news reports and newspaper articles with pictures of people of ‘Middle-Eastern appearance’ in handcuffs. It was in the way outsiders snobbishly smiled and stared at my family as we ate ice-cream at the beach. It was in school excursions to suburbs that were outside of my bubble and in job interviews that required a certain ‘look’. And because place is so connected to how we see ourselves and our identity, for a long time, I didn’t like the person I saw when I looked in the mirror. I had accepted from a young age that I was guilty by association. It’s no wonder why my parents created a blissful utopia in our backyard.
My life moves between ever-changing worlds, that of my village home- life in Punchbowl, communal living that’s close to the traditional Arab way of life, and the reality of life in Western Sydney. The expectations of each world, the need to weave in and out of those relationships: this has made me appreciate privacy. Being alone with my thoughts now and then has helped me to face the harsh realities that await me on both sides of my front door. This is why I created the survival guide for an introvert in a world of extroverts.
Choosing where to live has a profound effect not only on your relationships, but also on employment opportunities and education. That’s if you have the luxury of options and choices – something most migrants, like my parents, didn’t have. Being able to walk the earth freely is an indication of privilege and of power. My father came to Australia with fifty dollars in his pocket, which he borrowed from his cousin, and settled in a small house, the one in which he and my mother birthed seven children. He is a gifted story teller and it was only when he shared with me some experiences of his life – a life I often forget he had in a small village in Lebanon – that I began to see the beauty in Punchbowl.
‘This wasn’t the plan,’ he says, taking my mother’s hand. ‘We were supposed to come here and work but then go back to our families and take care of them.’
I don’t ask about why they didn’t go back because I can see the pain in my mother’s big brown eyes.
‘I remember not having money to pay for food but the shopkeepers in Punchbowl never left me to starve,’ he says with a smile, his sunken eyes finding my mother’s once more. ‘They stood by me and many families in the area so you children would have something for dinner.’
I can’t help but think of the African proverb about needing a whole village to raise a child.
My mind scrambles through a reel of memories. The supermarket men, who helped my mum with the groceries, to the pharmacists, who made me see the importance of remembering someone’s name and how special that can make you feel. The baker taught me what a smile can do to defuse a bad situation and a customer’s bad manners. The owner of the chicken shop showed me what a small gesture like remembering a person’s order can do, especially after a hard day’s work. But perhaps the biggest lesson was from the coffee-drinking men who told me stories of my father. There was his charity work to support struggling families. Or the fact that he was one of the first Muslims to enter politics, though not elected, still an achievement for someone that came to Australia with just his dreams.
Generosity and hospitality come with the territory. I now understand that place isn’t about what other people think or feel about my home, rather it’s about what I believe and how I see myself.
I lie back on the lush cold grass, and the familiarity lingers. I take in the fresh air. The clouds morph to fit my imagination. All is good in the world.
Rule #1 Take a deep breath and pray.