Essay: Michael Mohammed Ahmadon Punchbowl

Lebs and Punchbowl Prison

‘Jail bro, jail.’ This is what the students at Punchbowl Boys said to the Ten News reporters the day they turned up to our school, filming us from the outside as we rattled the chain-link fence from the inside. We couldn’t climb over the fence because it was barbed wire, and if somehow we managed to, we would be caught on the surveillance cameras that surrounded the school building, three storeys of red brick, and the police would be sent out to collect us. On the few occasions that the barbed wire was broken, and my friends and I had attempted to jig, we would sprint away from the school building, and across the school’s sprawling oval. It felt like a prison break. This is the reason we came to call the school Punchbowl Prison.

As of 2007, Punchbowl Boys High School was finally on its way toward producing respectable and dignified young men. There was a dramatic increase in students transitioning into university education, as well as into the workforce. This was in no small part due to the efforts and achievements of the newly appointed principal, a man named Jihad Dib, a local of Lebanese Muslim heritage who also happened to be the older brother of local world champion boxer, Billy ‘The Kid’ Dib. By 2013, the incredible transformation of the school had caught the eye of a number of news outlets across New South Wales. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Dominic Rolfe wrote: ‘Punchbowl was once synonymous with trouble – all drive-bys, gangs and drugs – and Punchbowl Boys High suffered with it. But thanks to a charismatic and inspirational headmaster, the school has turned its fortunes around.’ This was Rolfe’s way of talking about the new generation of students who were coming through under Jihad Dib’s leadership while at the same time noting the destructive generation of students that came before Jihad Dib. In this essay, I will tell you about the ‘was once’ generation: my generation of young men at Punchbowl Boys High School who the teachers, politicians, community leaders, parents, and local law enforcement decided needed to be locked up, for the safety of our community and for our own safety. I will also tell you about the journalists and filmmakers who believed we needed to be put on the front pages of the newspapers and on prime-time television.

Who were we? The scholars and academics will tell you we were working class and underclass Australian Muslim males from Arabic-speaking backgrounds. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton will tell you we were second and third generation Lebanese Muslims, the mistakes of Prime Minister Fraser inviting our parents and grandparents into this country in the 1970s. On the streets of Western Sydney we went by a simpler name – Lebs.

There were 1200 students at Punchbowl Boys High School in 1985. That year a brick was hurled at Mr Stratton’s head and a gradual process of expulsions began so that by the time I arrived at the school in 1998, there were only 299 students left. This was a number that the principal, Mr Whitechurch, who had flaky white skin and wore a grey suit and black shirt every day, reminded us of at each school assembly, taking pride in the fact that he kept the population under 300. ‘I only accept the cream of your crop,’ he would say. Of the 299 students, twenty called themselves Fobs, which stood for Fresh Off the Boat and referred to Pacifika people, and twenty were a salad mix of Asian, South-Asian and Anglo-Celt. The remaining 259 students identified as Lebs, which included young men from Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian, Iraqi, Iranian, Nigerian and Egyptian backgrounds, as well as some Lebs who came from Turkish and even Indonesian backgrounds. Most of these Lebs were Muslim, from Sunni, Shi’ite and Alawite denominations, but among us were Christians too, primarily Lebanese-Australian Maronite Christians. So how is it that such a culturally diverse group of young men all became ‘Lebs’? One theory I had as a boy was that many young men of Lebanese appearance were using the term ‘Leb’ strategically to disassociate bad behaviour from their own cultural backgrounds. For example, my fellow inmate at Punchbowl Prison, Osama Al-Jaffar, who had the word TERRORIST glued onto his Year 12 jersey, was of Indonesian background. Osama told every girl that gave him a head job that he was Leb. Then he would delete her phone number.

A more complex explanation to this ‘Lebanese’ phenomenon in Australia comes from anthropologist Ghassan Hage, who recognised that ‘Lebanese’ in Australia became the marker of a new hybrid identity:

The cultural forms exhibited by some Lebanese-Australian youths … that became generalised as ‘Lebanese behaviour’ and irked so many people were clearly a hybrid formation: the forms of working or under-class masculinity that were put on show were a touch Lebanese, but nothing that you can find exhibited in this way in Lebanon, except perhaps among Lebanese Australians living in Lebanon! They also contained a touch of the black and Latino American cultural subaltern hype that has been globalised by the mass media through the propagation of particular types of music, clothing, walking, etc.

This is why, between the Sydney gang rapes in 2000, the attacks on New York City in 2001, and the Cronulla Riots in 2005, as well as any mention of drug-dealings and drive-by shootings in Sydney which involved any Australian-born citizens of Arab and or Muslim background and or appearance, the terms ‘Muslim,’ ‘Arab,’ ‘Middle Eastern,’ and ‘Middle Eastern appearance’ were used interchangeably with the term ‘Lebanese’ as a way of identifying the threat. Take, for example, Miranda Devine in the Daily Telegraph; she wrote: ‘The gang rapists, Australian-born Lebanese Muslims roamed Sydney hunting for non-Muslim teenage girls they regarded as “Aussie sluts”’. The fourteen gang rapists Devine is referring to, three of whom attended Punchbowl Boys, actually had cultural ties to a number of the 22 nations within the Arab world, not just Lebanon. Not to mention the fact that the gang rapists were, as Devine puts it, ‘Australian-born’ as well as Australian-raised. This is the reason I believe the term ‘Leb’ best represents the dominant cultural group of young men at Punchbowl Boys High School. I do not mean it as simply a shorthand way of saying ‘Lebanese’ or even ‘Lebanese-Australian’ in relation to a Lebanese or Arab homeland. What I mean by Leb is a unique Australian identity.

We can learn about this group of Australians called Lebs by taking a small tour through Punchbowl Prison between the years 1998 and 2004. Let’s start with Lebs and general stupidity. Although I am writing about general stupidity that took place within the school, the greatest act of stupidity I ever saw at Punchbowl Prison was outside the school, while we were on our way to the annual athletics carnival. This begins to explain why it was so important that the teachers had to keep us contained. On Friday 13 April 1999, a Year 11 student named Mamdo Abu Bakr, whose greatest talent was that he could bench press 130 kilograms, told the 120 Lebs on the school bus that if we all ran as fast as possible to one side while it was turning a sharp corner, we could tip it over. We were on the corner of King Georges Road and Punchbowl Road, turning toward Parry Park in Lakemba when Mamdo screamed out, ‘Hallat, hallat, boys!’ which in Arabic meant, ‘Now, now, boys!’ Then we all pounced to the driver’s side of the bus, piling on top of each other and squashing the first row of Lebs up against the glass, while we shouted things like, ‘Get your hand off my arse faggot,’ and ‘I can feel your dick on me bro.’ I can’t say for sure if the bus actually tipped, but I’d swear on Saddam Hussein that I felt the wheels on the other side rise off the ground for a moment before making a loud thud as it went back down, skidding. Then the bus driver, who wore black glasses like a sheriff, stopped the vehicle right in the middle of the intersection, holding up the traffic, and squealed, ‘Off my bus, even the teachers, get the fuck out!’

Now the act of general stupidity here is not that the Lebs thought they could tip over the bus (I personally think this was pretty clever and accurate), it was the fact that we hadn’t considered the consequences of being inside a bus that tips over – you see, the teachers had to permanently ban us from sports carnivals and lock us up inside the school, not just for the safety of the public, but also for our own safety.

After the bus incident the teachers created one way in and one way out of the school, through the front office. There was a bulletproof shield covering the reception desk because one time an administrator had had a gun put to her head by one of the students’ older brothers. Once you stepped past the shield a heavy metal door would lock shut so that the only way you could get back out was if the receptionists or the principal unlocked it from the inside, which would only happen if a student needed to be taken out to an ambulance because he had been stabbed, or if it was 3pm and the principal had to let us out by law. General stupidity was now contained in the corridors of the three levels of Punchbowl Prison. All along the walls and on the cracked vinyl floors of the hallways which lead into one hundred unremarkable classrooms, the Lebs had written in black permanent markers and liquid paper and spray paint, ‘Lebz Rule’ and ‘Fuck Aussies’ and ‘Jesus was Muslim’ and ‘Jesus is coming back to rock the Christians’ and ‘2Pac lives’ and ‘Your mum’. While inside the classrooms the Anglo-Australian history teacher, Mr Griffin, tried to teach us about JFK and a conspiracy theory which suggested there was a shooter on the Grassy Knoll, throughout the corridors the Lebs had their own conspiracy theories, most of which were associated with the Jews. Down the passageway that lead to the school hall where we conducted our afternoon Muslim prayers, the Palestinian Isa Musa, who had black skin, silver eyes and a voice like a mule, said to me, ‘Did you know that Hitler was an undercover Jew and that the Holocaust was just a bullshit conspiracy so the Jews had an excuse to steal Palestine?’ At least this theory was trying to connect actual historical incidents together. Wahhabis like Omar Morris didn’t even need an explanation for their anti-Semitism. He had a purple welt under his eye from a street brawl he’d gotten into over the weekend the day we were lined up in the Maths corridor waiting for our teacher, Mrs Flower, to arrive. ‘Ay bro,’ he said with a sharp frown, his left eye throbbing, ‘Why does an Aussie get six years in jail when he rapes a girl, but a Leb gets fifty years when he does the same thing?’

‘Why?’ I asked while I stared at the wall behind him where a one-metre circumcised penis had been drawn in red texta. Omar put his index finger to his temple and answered, ‘The Jews cuz, think about it…’

So I did think about it and although it seemed suspicious that Bilal Skaf received a penalty for the 2000 Sydney gang rapes which was higher than anyone else had ever received for these kinds of crimes, and higher than what most murderers receive, I just couldn’t work out how locking up a rapist who happened to be of Muslim and Lebanese background for fifty years could ever serve any kind of Zionist interest.

When the Lebs weren’t sprouting conspiracy theories about the Jews, they were exhibiting their general stupidity in the corridors of Punchbowl Prison by fantasising about The Fast and the Furious. Every day the boys sprinted along the hallway that joined to the front office pretending they were driving a Subaru WRX. Their heads and spines were tipped back as though they were sitting in a bucket seat, their left hands were on their cocks as though they were shifting a gearstick, and their right hands were out in front of them as though they were holding onto a steering wheel. While they moved through the corridor they made engine and gear shifting sounds, ‘Baaaaaa-baaa ba-baaaaaaaaaaa.’ Then before they turned a corner they would kick in the sound of the turbo, ‘bre-bre-bre-bre-bre-breew!’ Mustafa Fatala was moving so fast down the corridor that he crashed through a window. He tore open his hand and damaged vital nerves, which meant he couldn’t write properly anymore but that didn’t matter because he never received a grade higher than thirty per cent anyway. He started rambling on about how he was going to sue the school until one day the deputy principal Ms Isis, who was Egyptian, said to him, ‘Yeah tell the lawyer you were acting like a car.’

I will now inform you about the Lebs and racial tensions at Punchbowl Prison, which we can learn about by understanding the relationship between the corridors and the classrooms. My 2 Unit Maths room was between 3 Unit on the left and Intermediate on the right. I was sitting in Maths writing a short story about a very young boy with enormous wings instead of learning equations when there was a loud screech outside that went, ‘Fuck-en-black-cunt!’ All twenty boys in my class shot up and tumbled into the corridor like bodies through a windshield.

A Tongan student named Biro was standing there with his arms dangling by his sides, a kitchen knife in his right hand and a serrated pocketknife in his left hand. His jaw was hanging open and his eyes were filled with the fizz of Coca Cola. He looked like an ogre, towering over all the Lebs. Imran stood in front of him; a five-foot-five Lebo with a wound shaped like the centre of a strawberry across his shaved head. Blood ran down his temple and cheek, dripping from his jaw onto his shoulder, his white school shirt blotching with red like a slashed lamb.

The Lebs began to gather around Biro like a pack of wolves, ready to take revenge, but nobody bothered to chase him when he bolted down the other end of the corridor toward the school hall. We just stared at Imran who looked confused, his left cheek wincing, even though he knew, like the rest of us, that all this happened because he stole Biro’s Nokia 3210.

Two students walked Imran to the sick bay, which meant Mr Whitechurch had to unlock the front office, and everyone else was sent back into Maths. Mrs Flower’s dehydrated skin wrinkled as she scowled, ‘Concentrate.’ She turned her back to us and continued writing on the white board, her arm reaching right up over her head because she was short and stumpy. She wrote numbers that meant nothing to anyone, the silence building inside the classroom until finally a fair-skinned Leb named Shaky spat out, ‘Fucken Biro fucken pussy cunt!’

Mrs Flower twisted, her sharp nose and beady eyes snapping toward him as though she was a rat. In her tight nasal voice, she said, ‘Leave him alone. Biro’s just scared.’ The teachers always took the side of the Pacifikas. Maybe they felt sorry for them because they were so heavily outnumbered by the Lebs, or because they were even poorer than us and stood out the front of the school in the morning sharing a two-litre bottle of Coke, or maybe it was because we called them Fobs, which made no sense to White teachers because to them the Lebs were boat people too.

We can also learn about racial tensions at Punchbowl Prison between Lebs and Fobs by peering into Mr Smith’s Music room, which was on the third level of the school. All the boys loved Mr Smith because he let us watch pornos while we fisted the drum kit and fingered the keyboards.

Sonny was the oldest and the toughest of all the Pacifikas. One day he went from class to class rounding up the nineteen other Pacifikas in the school and marched them into the music room. They smothered Bilal Osman and began to pound down on him like a band of gorillas. Sonny kicked his fat nose sideways and broke it in two places. He tore open the flesh on his left eyebrow too. They smashed three of Bilal’s ribs and somehow they fractured his left shoulder. They kicked him in the penis over and over so that he looked like he had pissed blood in his pants when the teachers finally carried him through the school to the front office. Mr Smith was in the staffroom at the time drinking whisky and all the Lebs just stood aside and watched like chimps while an interracial porno played out American racial tensions in the background – A White woman groaning in a cotton candy voice, and saying, ‘Yaah, stick that black cock inside me.’ Usually we would stand up for our Muslim brother but no one was upset for Bilal. He used to stare at you in the playground until you noticed him, and then he would say, ‘What you looking at pooftah?’ He liked to bash Year 7s. He bashed Sonny’s little cousin that morning. The Fobs had had enough.

Although there were a few incidents where the Pacifikas at Punchbowl Prison came out on top, most of the time they were overwhelmed by the racial tensions. To witness this in its full capacity, we need to step outside of the corridors and classrooms, and into the quadrant at the centre of the school, which was overlooked by a bus-sized Australian flag. ‘Come on, let’s go one on one, let’s go one on one,’ said a green-eyed Lebo named Mustafa Fatala to the Samoan boy named Watti Watti as they faced off in the corner of the quadrant. This all started because Watti Watti had ankle-tapped Fatala during a game of touch football on the oval. However, while Fatala was pressing toward Watti Watti and saying, ‘one on one’, there were one hundred Lebs standing behind him, all saying at the same time, ‘Come on Watti, one on one bro, come on, go him one on one.’ Remember all those stereotypes you’ve heard about how we Lebs have hundreds of cousins who we will call if you mess with us? Well, some stereotypes are true…

Unlike racial tension which came about at Punchbowl Prison because two ethnic minority groups were forced into the same space, Leb attitudes towards women at Punchbowl Prison came from the fact that there were no young women in our space at all, aside from the 21-year-old commerce teacher Ms Claire Julia, whose G-string line could always be made out underneath her white skirts. All the other female teachers were above sixty years old – and you could make out their grandma underpants beneath their black tights and frumpy green dresses. Around the corner from the music room, overlooking the school quadrant and right in front of the Australian flag, where the Union Jack stared at us from the windowsill, was Mr Griffin’s history classroom. The white walls were wallpapered with a poster of Martin Luther King with his mouth open and a poster of John F. Kennedy with his mouth open and a poster of Nelson Mandela with his mouth open and a poster of Gandhi with his mouth closed. No one except me was listening when Mr Griffin said, ‘There is no way to peace, peace is the way.’ Three of the Lebs had their heads out the window that faced the outside of the school. They were howling at the girls walking past. ‘Give us your number!’ they screamed. ‘Head job for the boys!’ Mr Griffin would straight away snap, ‘Knock it off!’ He told me many times that he didn’t believe single sex schools should exist. ‘You see,’ he said looking my way, ‘You get this crap!’ Then he turned around to write the definition of ‘misogyny’ up on the white board and Shaky screamed out the window, ‘Show us your flaps!’

The sexist attitudes of economically challenged ethnic boys, which Donald Trump recently demonstrated are not much different from the attitudes of rich White men, became more complex in Punchbowl Prison’s Common Room, which was an empty gallery at the end of the second level of the school. This is where Ms Lion, who was approaching her seventieth birthday, brought all the English classes together to teach us Black Rock, an Australian play about a group of teenage boys who raped and killed a fourteen-year-old girl named Leigh Leigh. Ms Lion claimed it was a compulsory reading on the curriculum but we all knew the real reason she was making us read it was because the Sydney gang rapes had been dominating Australian news media coverage at the time. She broke us up into groups of three to memorise lines from the first scene. I stood in a circle with Shaky, who had a Syrian father and an Anglo-Australian mother, and the Palestinian Isa Musa, and we put on the tightest nasal accents we could muster to read out loud in unison, ‘Girls can’t surf.’ Then we laughed like hyenas at the way Aussie boys insulted Aussie girls. ‘Surfing’s for faggots,’ said Isa Musa. ‘Why are we studying this gay shit?’

Shaky scoffed out loud and then he looked around to make sure Ms Lion wasn’t listening in on us. In every other section of the common room there was a group of Lebs rehearsing a scene from Black Rock. I bet they were all talking about how the sexist Aussies in Black Rock, Jared and Ricko, were homosexuals, how Bilal Skaf got a fifty-five-year jail sentence because of a Jewish conspiracy against the Lebs, and how those girls, in both stories, were asking for it. ‘Ay boys, you think Bilal Skaf is guilty?’ Shaky whispered.

‘Nut, Bilal was just a horny cunt,’ Isa Musa said. Then he lowered his voice too. ‘Those girls were the biggest sluts cuz. Derbas got a head job from one of them.’

Shaky stared at Isa with a smirk. His eyes, which were somewhere between green and black, looked small and beady. ‘No bitch will ever be able to pin shit on me bro,’ he said in a deep voice that sounded like it was clogged with pubic hair. From his pocket he pulled out one of the new mobile phones that had an FM radio and built-in recorder. We stared while he flicked through his applications and then pressed a button. There was a muffle that broke from the phone speaker followed by the voice of a girl who said, ‘Is it recording? Okay. I agree to give Shaky, Ahmad, Ali and Ziggy head jobs.’ In the background of the recording I could hear cars driving by and the buzzing of streetlights. The girl’s voice was gentle and soft like the way I imagined Lolita might have sounded. ‘Lowie,’ hissed Shaky at the end of the message. That’s what the Lebs at Punchbowl Prison called a woman who was so low she’d have sex with one of us. And it reminded me, ‘She was Lo. The tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

In much later years I came to understand that this phone recording incident revealed the intersectional politics of gender, race and class at Punchbowl Prison. As explained by Paul Tabar, Greg Noble and Scott Poynting in On Being Lebanese in Australia, the ‘youthful masculine’ language and behaviour of these young men did not only come from a desire to control the sexuality of women, but also out of frustration and a sense of ‘injury’ and ‘defensiveness’ due to experiences of racism and marginalisation. What we see in Shaky’s recording, and his misplaced belief that it would protect him from the kinds of rape allegations against ‘Lebanese’ men he had been seeing on the 6pm news, was not only the misogynous activities of some Lebs, but also a response to a media and political machine that had transformed all young Arab-Australian Muslim men into sexual predators.

At 3pm the door to the front office was unlocked, and the Lebs at Punchbowl Prison could pour out of the classrooms and corridors to reign over Western Sydney like the grandchildren of Bin Laden. One Sahara-hot December afternoon, two men who looked like hippies from Woodstock were standing by the front gates of the school handing out a leaflet to each boy that stepped past them in order to get to the train station. The leaflet contained a picture of an anthropomorphised peace symbol, which had crossed eyes and a frowning mouth and skinny arms and legs. This cranky little Peace Man was swinging an axe at a wooden cross and in a speech bubble he was saying, ‘Muhammad you’re next!’ As soon as the hippies who had handed out the leaflet arrived at Punchbowl train station, which was around the corner from the school, the Lebs were locked on them like a pack of pit bulls, calculating a strike. I watched as a wave of Year 11s and 12s, lead by a drug-dealer named Solomon Bin Masri who threw the first punch, swarmed the two men, tumbling into them and hurling king hits and fly kicks, knocking them over and stomping on their heads until they were unconscious. I was horrified by the incident, having never seen an extreme act of religious violence before, but I was also proud of the Lebs because I hated that leaflet, which desecrated the most sacred aspects of my life in ways no different from the depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish cartoon in 2005 and by Charlie Hebdo in 2015. This is why Ghassan Hage argues that Muslims present a particular challenge for multicultural societies that are facilitated by White power structures, because within the faith are individuals who are so ‘seriously religious’ that they become ‘ungovernable’.

Last year SBS aired a new program called The Principal which was set in a fictional Western Sydney school called Boxdale Boys High School. The series was about a new principal who came from the same Arab-Muslim demographic as the majority of the school kids and would go on to transform an underclass ethnic hellhole into a place of learning and integrity. It doesn’t take Edward W. Said to recognise that ‘Boxdale’ was clearly an attempt to replicate the sound of ‘Punchbowl’ and that the whole principal narrative was borrowed from The Autobiography of Jihad Dib. The aesthetic of the school was also a replica of Punchbowl Boys, a dim desolate three-storey building with barbed-wire fences and surveillance cameras, not to mention a STOP sign outside the school which had ‘Boxdale Prison’ spray-painted over it. Then there was the student body in the program – boys who were foreign, hairy, tough, violent, dejected, stupid, uninterested in learning and hostile towards each other and their teachers. This is evident as soon as the main Leb boy in the program, a student named Tarek Ahmad, is introduced in the first episode by making his way into the school and staring up at the new principal who is standing at the front gate. With the face of Saudi King Faisal and the glare of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Tarek says, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ This is followed by a hundred more ugly and angry Boxdale boys from Arab, Asian and Pacifika backgrounds who each trudge through the school gate.

While there is certainly something familiar to me about this representation of Lebs and Punchbowl Boys, what seemed to be missing from the image was the stark sense of joy and humour that kept us going from day to day. Punchbowl Prison was a place of unimaginable pleasure – we were jubilant when the brick knocked out Mr Stratton, when tipping over the bus, when wolf whistling at the girls walking past, when one of us got stabbed, when we stood aside and watched our own Muslim brother get mauled by twenty Fobs, when a hundred Lebs said ‘one on one’ to one Fob, and when we concussed the privileged White hippies who thought they could waltz into our space and make a mockery of our Prophet. When a new teacher or principal appeared at the front gates of the school one morning in a creaseless grey suit, we didn’t grimace and say, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ Instead we put on the most charming and sincere smiles we could muster and said, ‘You’re a fucken sexy cunt bro.’ I often ask myself how the educated and well-paid professional writers of The Principal could have missed this obvious aspect of underclass ethnic masculinity while creating their show, especially since they claimed to have conducted their research for the program by visiting some local Western Sydney high schools that contained a large percentage of young Arab-Australian Muslim men, including Punchbowl Boys High School and Granville Boys High School. My theory is that the writers and producers, who were all White, probably did witness the joyful and smartarse nature of these young men they were observing, but just couldn’t come to terms with the reality that poor brown kids are totally fine being poor brown kids. In order for the creators of The Principal to maintain their sense of cultural superiority, they had to portray us as miserable until we learnt middle class White values, as though at the centre of every Mohammed is a Michael yearning to break free.

At Punchbowl Prison, not only were the Lebs not interested in being White, but they also spent a lot of their time mocking White people, White culture and encouraging White anxieties about the ethnic other. I realised this at the end of Year 7. On 3 November 1998, Sydneysiders woke up to find a front-page feature in the Daily Telegraph titled, ‘DIAL-A-GUN: Gang says it’s easier than buying a pizza’. The article pictured six young men of Arab backgrounds from Punchbowl Boys High School, who had posed for the photograph against a red brick wall in the staff car park that was tucked away in the right-hand corner of the school. The boys, who were identified as a ‘Lebanese gang’, were dressed in Fila and Adidas jackets and hoodies, they had menacing expressions on their faces, and they each had their fingers crossed in the shapes of letters or cocked in the shape of a gun.

Dial-a-gun Daily Telegraph
A clipping from the Daily Telegraph, 3 November 1998.

The photo caption in the article indicated that the pictured ‘gang’ were ‘demonstrating their call signs … the hand signals are used to communicate simple messages between gang members’. However, anybody who had shown an interest in African-American hip-hop culture up until the year 1998, which basically included every Leb in South-Western and Western Sydney between the ages of 10 and 29 years old, would have recognised that the hand signals of the boys were just emulations of the ‘Westside’ and ‘Eastside’ and ‘Thug Life’ gestures created by Black gangsta rappers such as Biggie Smalls and 2Pac Shakur. Along with the boys’ outfits, these aspects of Lebanese-ness correlate with Hage’s observation that part of the Lebs’ hybrid formation was a hint of African-American and Latino-American subaltern hype made available to them through the global mass media.

In response to the article, Jock Collins and his co-authors argued that the term ‘Lebanese gang’ here was being mixed up with what were simply the ‘friendship networks’ of young Arab-Australian men in Sydney. This is key to unpacking the hidden messages in ‘DIAL-A-GUN’. Why would the boys tell the journalists they were a gang with easy access to guns? Would a serious gang guilty of murder and drive-by shootings and gang rapes really expose themselves in this way to the media, the police, the politicians and the general public? And why did the journalists who wrote the article and took the photo approach the story so seriously? Would a journalist and newspaper editor have deemed it newsworthy if five Anglo-Australian youths from a North Shore high school had called themselves a homeboy gang?

In We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, social activist, feminist and writer bell hooks comments that in the United States ‘many black males explain their decision to become the “beast” as a surrender to realities they cannot change … Young black males, particularly underclass males, often derive a sense of satisfaction from being able to create fear in others, particularly white folks’ (2004, p.49). I believe we saw a parallel manifestation of this in the way the Lebs from Punchbowl Prison presented themselves to the White Australian public in ‘DIAL-A-GUN’. You can clearly see from the image that the boys were having a good time exasperating the fears of paranoid White journalists and later, paranoid White readers by convincing them that Punchbowl was Compton, South Central LA and that we were all gun-murdering drug-dealing gang-raping ghetto gangstas. In particular, I would like to draw your attention to one boy in the photo, standing second from the right, who was bearing a large and innocent-looking smile across his dark-olive complexion and making the gesture of a gun with his fingers – is this really all it takes for Lebs to make the descendants of the British empire tremble?

Last month, while I was standing in line at Greenacre Coles waiting to pay for a kilo of halal corn beef, I ran into the former principal of Punchbowl Boys High School, Mr Whitechurch. He was standing in front of me with a can of beetroot in one hand and a loaf of WonderWhite bread in the other. His flaky white skin, which looked like recycled toilet paper, was now drooping at the cheeks and wrinkled at the forehead, and he was dressed in the same grey suit and black shirt he was wearing on my last day of school thirteen years ago. ‘Ay Whitechurch,’ I said with a grin, and he turned to look at me like he had just run into a suicide bomber, his eyes wide and his lower lip wobbling. ‘I’m writing an essay for the Sydney Review of Books about Punchbowl Boys,’ I told him. Suddenly his eyes sharpened and turned to violet, zooming in on me, and he said, ‘Your behaviour at Punchbowl Boys was disgusting.’ It was as though he had been saving that comment for me since 9/11, a day he spent watching the Lebs parading on his schoolyard like it was the Second Coming of Christ. Then, before I could respond, Whitechurch went on to say, ‘Why don’t you write stories about Arabs and Muslims to help change the stereotypes instead?’

Whitechurch had a point: In the age of Trump, Brexit and One Nation, could I really afford to reveal what the Lebs thought of White-Australians, Americans, Jews, Pacifikas, women, homosexuals, hippies and bus drivers? Perhaps I choose to expose the negative side of the Lebs within Punchbowl Prison because I feel a moral responsibility as a writer to speak my version of the truth regardless of the consequences, or perhaps I’ve just been exaggerating this whole time because I get off on scaring the White folks who read the Sydney Review of Books.

Editor’s Note: Names have been changed in this essay.

Works Cited:

Casey, M. and Ogg, M. (1998) ‘Dial-a-Gun: gang says it’s easier than buying a pizza’, Daily Telegraph, November 3, pp. 1, 4.
Collins, J., Noble, G., Poynting, S. and Tabar, P. (2000) Kebabs, Kids, Cops and Crime, Pluto Press Australia Limited, Annandale, NSW.
Devine, M. (2011, May 15) ‘Survivor of total horror’, Daily Telegraph. Accessed 25 July 2015.
Hage, G. (2011) ‘Multiculturalism and the ungovernable Muslim’ in R Gaita (ed), Essays on Muslims and Multiculturalism, Text, Melbourne, pp. 165-186.

hooks, b. (2004) We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, Routledge, New York.
Rolfe, D. (2013, January 31) ‘A matter of principal’, Sydney Morning Herald. Accessed 25 November 2014.
Tabar, P., Noble, G., and Poynting, S. (2010) On Being Lebanese in Australia, LAU Press, Beirut.