The House of Youssef
by Yumna Kassab
Published September, 2019
The House of Youssef, Yumna Kassab’s debut collection of stories, proceeds in four parts, all concerned variously with Lebanese Muslims in Western Sydney: ‘Motherland’, a composite of thirty carefully curated ‘short shorts’, followed by three longer pieces, ‘The House of Youssef’, ‘Homing’ and ‘Darkness, Speak’. ‘Cigarettes and Smoke’, the first flash in ‘Motherland’, opens with the words ‘Um Ali’, meaning, in Arabic, the mother of Ali. A middle-aged mother of six, Um Ali, wakes up on her couch, only to daze through the day with cigarettes, coffee and yet another classic rom com. Apart from Mohamed, her children are all absent: one son, Ali, is doing time, one is fighting in a war somewhere unspecified, one remains paralysed by a scaffolding fall, and two daughters were married away young. Why is Ali in prison? What war? Kassab’s austere and mercurial narration mobilises the aesthetics of bare life. Thoughts flow: ‘Today will be like yesterday and every other day.’ Um Ali’s inertia is momentarily interrupted by a visitor from the community; at least, propriety demands that she turn on the lights.
The haze and the ennui that suffuse the action in this diasporic ethnoscape occur on the same wavelength that Sianne Ngai calls ‘affective ideologemes’, activated in bodies that are at once pliant and ungovernable, inside and outside of the law. ‘Shoes’ is filtered through the mind of a mother, interspersed with images of her missing daughter, Hala, compulsively collecting footwear. That was when Hala still had a job; in the months before the mosque attack (another enigmatic reference), she spent her nights chatting with strangers online and slept during the day. Consumerism proves the lesser of two evils. In her thoughts, Hala’s mother is picking up after her daughter, but in reality, there is now a void: ‘And that emptiness, her disappearance, is a confirmation of the worst.’ Did Hala die in the mosque (suicide?) attack? By suturing the memories of mother and child, Kassab suspends the boundaries of personal burnout; in a flicker, radicalisation becomes another word for collective fatigue.
The slippage between generational identities tilts the problematics of integration towards the economic marginalisation of the blue-collar migrant. ‘In Hold True, Son’, Jamal is trying to make some cash during summer with a promise to make it to university – his late father’s wish – but low pay drives him further away from academic pursuit. Imagined futures are interrupted for at least another generation. He broods: ‘why couldn’t he work in an air-conditioned office, dressed in a clean shirt with shiny shoes and his face and hands free of dust? Why were his two options a construction site and a factory?’
What if the reactions to the loss of sovereignty over the marginalised body and the social conditions that re-create the ordinary are one and the same? What of the public feel of being a Muslim in post-Howard Australia? In relentless succession, Kassab’s micro-fictions scrutinise the psychopolitics of displacement in a political landscape which, fortified by a warrant for Islamophobia, has been scraping along steadily towards the security state since at least the beginning of this century.
The young man in ‘9/11: Before and After’ is a bearded university student prior to the attacks on the Twin Towers who adheres strictly to Islamic principles. In the following months, he is reduced to a ‘man of Middle-Eastern appearance’. His body starts to freeze when colleagues at the warehouse bait him about his stance on terrorism. Inwardly, he begins to nurse an all-consuming rage. Upon hearing that Muslims should not be welcomed into this country by a girl at a party, he wants to ‘shake her, rip her stupid blonde hair from its roots, smash the lipstick off her face and say, you dumb white bitch, I could kill you right now’. He chooses cheerless apathy over the fanatic animus that he is purported to harbour. It is safer for him to morph seamlessly into an obliging clean-shaven tax-payer who ‘ventured no opinions online or in person’.
The domestic scene teems with a dark ambivalence about women, typified by dispensable female bodies and the untouchable figure of the mother in the patriarchal household. Kassab’s capacity for brutal irony is on full display in ‘Births, Deaths, Marriages’:
The day after he killed his wife, Mohamed goes to visit his cousin. She has recently given birth and he has not yet been to see her. Blue balloons are taped to the door and there is a ‘baby on board’ sticker on the Corolla.
In these little universes, the mother-child dyad proves especially unkind to insubordinate daughters. In ‘Disgrace’, Sarah elopes with a white man only to risk a bitter terminal cut with her parents. Nothing, not even giving birth to two children, can mollify the maternal wrath. Boys can be choosers, after a fashion. We can even afford a joke in ‘Bridal Shopping’, where Bilal is dispatched to Lebanon by her mother with a clear directive ‘not to come back without a wife’.
Form in ‘Motherland’ is contoured at the limits of these porous home-worlds. This mosaic of ‘short shorts’ is somewhat forestalled by its teasing narrative pointillism. In this cerebral regimen, characters feel like studies of all the ineluctable disadvantages that they might suffer for exposure to fearism and patriarchy. Almost every story’s first sentence is an existentialist announcement with a tonal fidelity to Camus’s ‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte’; one starts: ‘When she turned sixteen, Abir put on fourteen kilos’. Another begins: ‘When I was five, a boy at school called me a Mozzie’. Meanwhile, namesakes drop in and out like apparitions. Doubling may as well be a part of the minimalist charm, but banking on overlap and accretion through and through bars this section from spilling into a larger and more provisional horizon.
This synecdochical quality persists in the centrepiece of the collection. ‘The House of Youssef’ is narrated by many voices, including an ‘I’, a family friend, and gossips in the neighbourhood. This long story-sequence confirms Kassab’s technical mastery in the distinction between the order of events – the Youssef family’s migration and settlement in Western Sydney – and their arrangement in the plot. We start with the absence of the very thing that the new country promises: home. Nothing is left of it, except a giant hole dug by the bulldozers in its stead. Destruction of the house reverses the process of lineage and growth.
The Youssefs’ house registers a Bayt and an Ahl al-Bayt. It signifies both a site of dwelling and those who belong to it, a machinery of community-making at the edge of a hostile society. It also harbours the interplay between the place of inheritance (where we come from) to a space of possibility (where we are going). A rift widens as the Youssefs, Najeeb and Sumaya, and their children alike, try to make a modest life in Australia.
Money is scarce, so only one of the kids, Abdullah or Mayada, can be enrolled in sport classes. And that leaves the family with an easy choice. Exercise might not be good for girls anyway; it makes them more like men. Abdullah is not exactly bursting with appetite for life. He welcomes the occasional truancy, and soon enough a smoke or two in the park. As the children grow up, conjugational expectations emerge as a way to sustain some continuity between the old and the new ways of life. Mayada takes a trip to Lebanon with her mother thinking that it will be a dip into her heritage. What to do with a line-up of men of ‘marriageable age’ who drop by for casual visits? Awkward to think that she is viewed as a visa opportunity – but this is a benign show for the most part. Things are worse in Sydney.
Boys, alcohol, short skirts, and late nights are more than enough to make Mayada the delight of the trash-talkers in the community. The news is always secondhand, but its prevalence is a reminder that solidarity and unforgiveness are two sides of the same coin in communities with rigid sexual mores. The pious ones are extra ruthless: ‘how can they lift their heads in public, how can he go pray in the mosque amongst good people when his daughter’s dirtier than a whore?’ Unidentified voices interject to say how pleased they are to have kept their children away from the plague that Mayada is: ‘Otherwise they would have ended up crazy like her, not knowing her name, walking drunk down a street, howling like a beast’.
Who are these people talking to? None of this sounds like tattling over the back fence. This internal chatter is triggered by a Delilah-figure who threatens to shatter the community’s righteousness. To a degree, sexualised violence against Mayadah symptomises the collapse of state multiculturalism upon itself. In Mayada’s unhappy neighbourhood, assimilation goes only so far, complicated as it is by the affective surplus of sorrow and cultural puzzlement.
There is little generative, or even libidinal, energy to Mayada’s transgressions. A friend reminisces: ‘She went delirious mad. Cuckoo. Over the edge, no going back’. This impasse gives ‘House of Youssef’ a hermetic atmosphere, with events tailored to come to a disastrous crescendo. Abdullah and Mayada are the only characters who exhibit some awareness as to the cause of their misery, but they are propelled by the sheer force of it. As the cultural critic Ann Cvetkovich reminds us: ‘Saying that capitalism (or colonialism or racism) is the problem does not help me get up in the morning.’ It is as if they have lost their agency to reshuffle their social cards in the new country.
Abdullah dies in a car accident in Melbourne. Najeeb withers away quietly. Sumaya grieves. We are hit by her forsaken death-bed scene:
there is no one, no one, who can talk to her, reach her or touch her in anyway. She is on an island alone without Najeeb and her children, she cannot be saved, and in the end, she dies alone and there will be no one to hold her hand.
The demise of the Youssefs draws into question the apparatus of happiness ingrained in the multiculturalist project. It speaks of the break of a trust in values of the Western world, the trust that the system, with its notional principles of inclusion and equity, is going to treat you fairly.
By the way, if you came here in the boom-boom of economic growth, put your head down and be grateful. Remember, you are here to build Australia. Right? Wrong, at least for the melancholic builder in ‘Homing’ (he doesn’t have a name, just a mode of labouring). Hard work and domestic commitments have held him back from revisiting his kith and kin for 37 years. Like many migrants, his yearning for the ancestral land sharpens as the possibilities of return narrow. Parents die and memories fade. A new home, Western Sydney, becomes an object of desire and disavowal, reclaimed and refused at the same time.
It is this bondage to (his children’s) future, unsatisfying nonetheless, that keeps the narrator indefinitely tethered to a country which barely rises above an adoptive polity with perhaps slightly better job opportunities. But after decades of living in Australia, how can he be sure where he would be better off? His interior monologue is peppered with more of the same questions:
What is a home? Is it a house? Is it a place? Is it where you are born? Is it where you will be buried? I have spent more of my life here than there but this land is not known to me. It is strange. It does not enter my dreams.
The defining quality of this ‘strange’ life is its precarity. Civil war and hope in greener economic pastures brought the narrator to Australia in his youth. ‘This country is full of work’, if you don’t mind mixing concrete and carrying bricks. He is given new boots too, a steel cap, and an orange vest. He retires at 54, already feeling ‘too tired’ to continue working.
Housing – maintenance, mortgage, renovation – yokes him to tangible reality outside of his brittle masculinity: ‘is it to me that this house and children and wife belong? Are they mine? This life could belong to someone else, and I am lost in the memory of another land.’ In some ways, fatherhood and home point to the same destiny, both threatened by insecurity and irrelevance. This cannot be emphasised enough to his children:
I always tell them: finish the mortgage first before you borrow more. … Do not forget that. Everyone needs a roof over their head. The girl too, I tell her this. Don’t wait for a husband to give you a house. Buy your own house.
Building substitutes strategies for emotional survival, a reason to feel grounded in the face of being outside of things. This attachment disposes him to a penchant for reiteration: ‘I always tell them’.
‘Homing’ turns the less-is-more credo of the collection’s first half on its head to mixed effect. On one level, the prose is unassuming and well-paced. On another, the translational element of the migrant’s tale – dreaming in one language and yarning in another – drains its dynamism to the point of sounding impoverished (try reading it aloud). But, perhaps, enjoying these lamentations is beside the point, for, after all, they are the migrant’s persistent acts of home-coming. Is this myopia, saccharine sentimentality? His audience are unsympathetic: ‘My children say it is all dirt. The dirt here is like the dirt there’.
The last story in the collection iterates Kassab’s original question of the maternal body as a site of expenditure. Addressed by a mother to her daughter, ‘Darkness, Speak’ is a kind of coda to The House of Youssef for its commentary on gendered nature of hyper-mobility and globalised labour. Kassab’s narrator looks back over her life in Australia, starting at the moment of her arrival in Sydney in 1977. She travels to marry, in spite of her parents’ wishes, with twenty dollars in her pocket and her mother’s pink cups. ‘Use these,’ she said to me, ‘and do not forget your mother.’ And so it goes.
Everything about the new country is different, but the newcomers take it in their stride. There is work for her husband in the construction industry in Lidcombe. With discipline, they manage to buy a house, and then work towards paying it off. All this is narrated in limited English with some nostalgia for post-war suburban essentials: ‘They don’t make the machines like that one anymore. The cars were made good, the clothes, the plates. They used to make these things by hand. Now it is all junk made in China.’ And the memory of the first car, a Holden Kingswood:
That Kingswood we had for seven years or eight years and it was solid metal, not like the plastic cars they make today. You always say that these plastic cars are better but young ones do not understand this.
Catastrophe strikes one fine day on what they think is a safe beach: ‘We were not looking for a minute and then we saw a white man pulling Jihad [her young son] from the water. The ambulance came and the police asked us questions and people looked at us like we were bad people.’ Why this judgement? It is not that they did not go to the beach regularly at their village back at home. But over there, they only had to worry about men changing in the bush. Beaches are beaches, aren’t they? Are we talking about the same houses, trees, birds when we talk about different geographies? Like an amateur philosopher of language, Kassab’s narrator speculates on the limits of regional locution and the actual phenomena. In her conversation with her brother, she realises that that gap is only to widen after departure from home:
I would say the streets are clean and maybe in his mind he saw a clean street but was it like a street here? I told him school was Monday to Friday and he said it is wrong, that you should have Friday off from school. … It was as if we did not speak the same language.
Things become unbearable when her eldest daughter Maryam moves out of home to live with Hilal, and shuns all conversations about having children. That can’t be: ‘Marriage is for children. Everyone knows if a husband and a wife can’t have children, the problem must be the wife.’ The memories still sting. Even after years, there can be no forgiving her closest friend, Um Khaled, for having said things behind her back after Maryam refused to marry the son Um Khaled wanted (and not the one that the speaker had in mind). Her speech dallies progressively with the effort of redistributing her social body in all different directions: ‘Your father says forgive her and the other one. Forgive her, he says, do not be like the dog with her teeth in a piece of meat. … I want none of it.’
The House of Youssef ends with the quiet victory of its moral project, that is, to destigmatise the abject as primarily pertaining to individual psyche, and instead see it in the context of the relationship between late capitalism and psychosomatic disorders. It engages, as Mark Fisher wrote, with the ‘task of repoliticizing mental illness’. That is marred by abandoning the reader to a temperamental flaw. We are left with a want for antitypes that could form a fictive dance of the things that might have existed in less despondent company.
Ann Cvetkovich. Depression: A Public Feeling. Duke University Press. 2012.
Yumna Kassab. The House of Youssef. Giramondo. 2019.
Sianne Ngai. Ugly Feelings. Harvard University Press. 2005.
Mark Fisher. Capitalist Realism. Zero Books. 2009.