by Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Published March, 2018
In November 2016, Michael Mohammed Ahmad published an essay in the Sydney Review of Books titled ‘Lebs and Punchbowl Prison’. The ‘prison’ in question was his alma mater, Punchbowl Boys High School, and the essay was a reflection on his time as a student there in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At the time, the school was not exactly regarded as a hub of academic excellence, a perception that Ahmad does nothing to dispel. His recollections are a litany of educational dysfunction and outrageous misbehaviour, ranging from adolescent hijinks to acts of violence.
Ahmad’s high school years coincided with several events that transformed the young Muslim men of western Sydney into demons of the tabloid imagination. In 1998, a number of his fellow students made the front page of the Daily Telegraph as the subjects of a ludicrous beat-up about gang violence. The media’s readiness to portray Ahmad’s peers as violent criminals acquired a fresh angle when, in 2000, a group of ‘Lebanese’ men – not all of whom came from Lebanese families, and several of whom had attended Punchbowl Boys – committed a series of horrific gang rapes that targeted ‘Aussie’ girls they considered ‘sluts’. This was followed in short order by the September 11 attacks and the ‘war on terror’, which directed yet another wave of fear and loathing against Muslim communities.
The serious argument the essay seeks to make is that, seen in this context, the predominantly Muslim students at Punchbowl Boys are a case study in ‘the intersectional politics of gender, race and class’. Ahmad proposes that much of their bad behaviour can be understood as a response to their marginalisation, that it is an example of the kind of solidarity that arises among the poor and reviled. At his school, the term ‘Lebs’ did not refer exclusively to students from Lebanese families, but to anyone whose family came from the Middle East, and even extended to boys with African and Indonesian backgrounds. The common designation was a recognition that they shared a ‘unique Australian identity’, forged in a cultural environment where they were routinely stereotyped as criminals, sexual predators and potential terrorists. The defining characteristic of their masculine subculture – disdain for education, fierce tribalism, reflexive misogyny and homophobia – Ahmad presents as evidence of the Lebs playing up to their negative image, refusing to accept standards of propriety set by a society that shuns them, embracing their status as pariahs as a perverse source of pride. Though he concedes that some of their antics can be classified under the heading ‘general stupidity’, he draws attention to the note of ironic self-awareness in their unruliness, something perhaps best represented by the boy who scrawled ‘terrorist’ on the back of his Year 12 jersey. This is the crucial point for Ahmad: he celebrates the Lebs’ irreverence. They faced their objectively dismal situation with what he remembers as ‘a stark sense of joy and humour’.
‘Lebs and Punchbowl Prison’ is a companion text to Ahmad’s second novel The Lebs. Most of the anecdotes and several passages from the essay are woven into the fictional narrative, which follows a boy named Bani Adam as he navigates his way through the riotous classrooms and obscenely graffitied corridors of Punchbowl Boys High School. The novel is divided into three sections with sensational titles that evoke the tabloid hysteria surrounding its protagonists – ‘Drug Dealers and Drive-bys’, ‘Gang Rape’, ‘War on Terror’ – but The Lebs depicts no drug deals, shootings, rapes or terrorist incidents (although there are passing references to drug dealers, and at one point someone does call in a hoax bomb threat to a neighbouring school). What it offers instead is a series of pointed observations on the intersectional politics of the Lebs’ subculture, presented in the impish spirit of those teenagers amusing themselves by striking gangster poses for the camera and plying a gullible hack from the Daily Telegraph with bullshit about buying guns.
Ahmad is the director of Sweatshop, an arts collective based in western Sydney that fosters the work of culturally diverse writers, and his fiction is driven by a desire to speak back to White Australia (‘White’ is always capitalised for Ahmad). On the strength of this ambition, he has been compared to Christos Tsiolkas, whose early novels were similarly fired by a sense of righteous anger and a desire to provoke, but the tenor of Ahmad’s writing is very different. He has a well developed sense of irony. His first novel, The Tribe (2015), which was also narrated by his fictional alter ego Bani Adam, was an affectionate portrait of Bani’s extended family, which poked gentle fun at their quirks and celebrated their sense of community. The Lebs is a more overtly politicised work, but it retains traces of the earlier work’s humour and shares its attention to anthropological detail.
There is a clue to Ahmad’s intentions and his satirical approach in the way that The Lebs streamlines the divisions at Punchbowl Boys. In ‘Lebs and Punchbowl Prison’, he notes that most students were Muslim, but that the school was ethnically and religiously diverse. It was attended by a substantial minority of Pacific Islanders, whom the mostly Australian-born Lebs derided as ‘Fobs’ (an acronym for ‘fresh off the boat’), and a smaller minority of Anglo and Asian students. The Lebs were not exclusively Muslim, but included a number of boys who were Maronite Christians. Ahmad’s fictionalised version of the school is divided sharply between Lebs and Fobs. Only one Leb is identified as a Maronite, and the only other boy who falls into neither category succumbs to peer pressure and converts to Islam. Yet at the same time as the novel sharpens these divisions, it makes a point of noting that the Lebs belong to a variety of Islamic sects (Bani is an Alawite, a version of Shia Islam that hails from Syria). In this way, it aims to manipulate received assumptions: it both disambiguates and conflates the terms ‘Leb’ and ‘Muslim’, suggesting an element of fluidity and indeterminacy; it plays up to negative stereotypes and then undercuts them. The effective use it makes use of this double-movement and the ambiguities that arise from the inherent tension between individuation and a collective sense of identity is suggested (inadvertently, no doubt) by the considerable extent to which Ahmad’s portrayal of the Lebs and their ‘unique Australian identity’ reveals them to be a brash local variant of the all-too familiar Great Australian Dickhead. It would appear that the longstanding tradition among the nation’s adolescent males of behaving like massive tools transcends religious and ethnic divisions.
Ahmad’s depiction is sympathetic, but it is far from an exoneration. Most of the novel’s first section is devoted to a detailed account of the brutal, levelling, prison-like culture at Punchbowl Boys, where the gates are kept locked during school hours to prevent the students escaping. It is a school where there are ‘no bullies’, because everybody knows they are all at the bottom of the heap together and ‘what kind of a sad fuck is bothered to pick on some other sad fuck?’ The beleaguered teachers are ineffectual and, consequently, the Lebs’ behaviour is atrocious. Their ignorance of the world is near perfect; their opinions are so obnoxious as to be comical. They harbour a sneaking sympathy for Bilal Skaf, the ringleader of the Sydney gang rapists, and they are outrageously and absurdly anti-Semitic – one boy claims that Hitler was secretly Jewish and the Holocaust was a conspiracy to allow the Jews to steal Palestine. At the beginning of the novel, Bani wonders if ‘stupidity is Allah’s way of protecting us from ourselves’; later, it occurs to him that maybe the reason everyone hates the Lebs is ‘not because we are drug dealers and rapists, but because we are dumb cunts’.
At the same time as the novel depicts the Lebs’ behaviour as an unholy combination of the amusing and the appalling, it seeks to make us conscious of the connection between their acting up and their marginalisation. Though in its early stages The Lebs does not move outside the enclosed world of Punchbowl Boys, the opprobrium that is being heaped upon them in the wider world filters through. The Lebs are not so dumb that they don’t realise why they are being forced to read a play about rape at the very moment when the Sydney gang rapes are all over the news. When the September 11 attacks occur and a teacher tries to make them appreciate the gravity of the event, one boy raises his hand to make an obvious rhetorical point, which is striking in the context of the novel for its unexpected cogency: ‘I’ve been at this school since 1998 and throughout that time a million Arabs like us have been murdered by America and Israel and you never cared, then this morning some Americans die and you put the flag at half-mast.’
The emphasis shifts in the second section toward a consideration of the Lebs’ relationships with the opposite sex – one of the novel’s key points of conflict. They are firm believers in the dismal misogynistic notion, propagated by all the Abrahamic faiths, that girls are either virgins or sluts. This particular manifestation of their stupidity combines with their general adolescent horniness in predictably unlovely ways, though like most teenagers they are more talk than action. They are also subject to their own variation on this common piece of malignant religious nonsense, which leads to them being obsessed with oral sex, because as a Leb named Shaky warns: ‘You can’t root before marriage, you’ll go to hell forever!’
The novel’s depiction of the Lebs’ puerile sexuality is an indication of the way in which Ahmad is seeking to demonstrate intersectional nature of the politics of identity. In ‘Lebs and Punchbowl Prison’, he accounts for the sexism of the Lebs by citing a sociological study, which proposes that ‘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’. Given the sensitivity of these issues, it is perhaps inevitable that some of Ahmad’s attempts to complicate and subvert them don’t quite work. That the Lebs harbour suspicions about the harsh sentence handed out to Bilal Skaf is one thing, but readers are surely entitled to raise at least one eyebrow when Ahmad has Bani’s girlfriend Banika indulge in the most explicit victim-blaming: ‘I’m not saying those guys were innocent, but those girls were the biggest sluts.‘
An even more awkward attempt to short-circuit the cultural tensions around the issue of sexual violence occurs towards the end of the middle section, when some of the Lebs meet an Aussie girl named Samantha, who calmly informs them that she has been raped. They are nonplussed for a second time when she then agrees to go to the movies with them. In the middle of the film, Samantha sneaks out with Shaky, who gets a surprise when she proves to be a little more sexually assertive than he anticipated and takes his virginity. This so unnerves poor Shaky that he flees the cinema.
Of course, one of the problems with subscribing to misogynistic religious bullshit is that you never know when the slut you’re sexually exploiting might turn out to be a succubus who will damn you to hell for all eternity. The weird implication in this episode that the roles of victim and aggressor have been reversed is not only undermined by the swiftness with which Shaky regains his poise and reverts to being a sexist shit, but the fact that it unfolds as the Lebs are watching the execrable American teen comedy American Pie. At very least, there is something a little discordant if not distasteful about raising the issue of rape in this way, only to trivialise it by flicking the switch to sexual farce.
The novel establishes an appropriate ironic distance from the Lebs’ behaviour through Bani’s narration. Ahmad is careful is distinguish himself from his fictional alter ego. At one point, Bani is disconcerted to learn that Banika still keeps a photograph of her ex-boyfriend, who is named ‘Mohammed Ahmad’ and looks suspiciously like him. More importantly, Bani holds himself apart from his peers. He knows that he is one of them, that he is subject to the same racist assumptions, and he feels a certain solidarity with them: ‘we are sand niggers,’ he announces at the beginning of the novel, ‘rejected and hated and feared’. But he also believes he is better than them. He claims to be ‘unique among the lost-found Nation of Islam within this wilderness called Punchbowl Prison’. He reads books. He is in love with his English teacher, Miss Haimi. His ambition is to escape the school’s stifling culture and become a great writer, and he signals his bohemian aspirations by donning a beret and wearing flared women’s jeans. He claims to believe in religious tolerance. He is the only Leb who feels any sympathy for the victims of the September 11 attacks, the only one who thinks suicide bombing is forbidden in Islam, the only one who understands just how idiotic their anti-Semitic conspiracy theories really are. In the second half of the novel, he befriends a gay man named Bucky, an achievement that fulfils another condition of his belief in his own specialness: ‘I had longed to meet a homosexual, to become friends with a homosexual, but only ever to prove to myself that I was more open-minded than all the boys at Punchbowl and all the Muslims on earth.’
That Ahmad depicts the Lebs as adolescent numbskulls as a way of mocking the idea that they represent any kind of serious threat to society does not prevent the novel from registering the genuinely reprehensible side to their behaviour. Bani’s friendship with Bucky leads him, near the end of The Lebs, to recall that gay bashing was a common practice among the Lebs and Fobs of Punchbowl Boys, and to remember one incident, in particular, when a gang of boys lured a man to a local park and ambushed him: ‘Haroun whacked him in the face with a tree branch and then the other boys came out and joined in the attack. The boys spoke about how they kicked “the poof” in the dick until his testicles were crushed — jubilation in their eyes like it was September 11th all over again.’
A few pages before this description, Bani recalls another violent episode, which occurred when two men began handing out anti-religious leaflets near the entrance to Punchbowl Boys: ‘I watched as a wave of Year 11s and 12s, led by a drug dealer named Hussein 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.’ This is one of the many details in the novel that also appears in ‘Lebs and Punchbowl Prison’, where Ahmad writes:
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 [sic] 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’.
The juxtaposition of these two equally disgusting and indefensible assaults makes it hard not to notice that Bani is disquieted by the gay bashing, but rationalises the attack on the atheists and, like Ahmad, declares it a source of pride. The references to the Danish cartoons and Charlie Hebdo and the quotations from Hage that Ahmad appends to his account of this incident in ‘Lebs and Punchbowl Prison’ are no less striking for raising the spectre of violent religious extremism. To be ‘seriously religious’, as Hage defines the concept in Alter-Politics: Critical Anthropology and the Radical Imagination (2015), means ‘considering all aspects of one’s everyday life as ruled by the laws of one’s God’ [his emphasis]. This represents ‘a serious negation of the logic of multicultural acceptability’, according to Hage, because it inverts the fundamental principle of secular pluralism. For the seriously religious person, he observes, ‘the idea of having the laws of the nation offer a space for the laws of God is sacrilegious’.
Hage’s precise definition is worth noting because it sits so oddly with much of the substance of The Lebs. It is far from clear how Ahmad’s collection of misfits from Punchbowl Boys could claim to be ‘seriously religious’. There is nothing in the novel to suggest that their grasp of theology is any better than their grasp of history. It is difficult to imagine anyone reading The Lebs or ‘Lebs and Punchbowl Prison’ and coming away with the impression that these gronks, with their wispy moustaches and baby brains, are so pious that all aspects of their lives are governed by religious considerations – unless, of course, there is some undeclared theological principle behind harassing girls for head jobs, watching pornographic movies in class, and running through the school corridors making car noises while pretending their knobs are gearsticks.
It is significant on this point that in dating the ‘desecration’ of his life by a French satirical magazine to 2015, Ahmad appears to have confused Charlie Hebdo’s publication history with the year in which twelve of its staff were murdered by two gunmen who would similarly struggle to meet Hage’s definition of ‘seriously religious’. Charlie Hebdo had, in fact, published multiple images of Muhammad over many years as part of its consistently anti-religious editorial line, including putting the despairing Prophet on the cover in 2006 with his head in his hands, saying ‘C’est dur d’être aimé par des cons …’ (‘It’s hard being loved by imbeciles …’).
In characterising the Lebs as the kind of imbeciles who think that violence is a legitimate response to a novel or a cartoon or a leaflet, Ahmad identifies the basic conflict that arises from their defensive (and thus reflexive) tribalism and the impasse that is generated by the politics of identity. This is brought to bear upon Bani in the final section of The Lebs, when he finishes his HSC and ventures beyond the confines of Punchbowl Boys High School, but in a broader sense it is encoded in the very conception of the novel. Ahmad has written a book full of slurs against women, homosexuals and Jews. He has presumably done so with the perfectly reasonable expectation that any reader who happens to be female, homosexual or Jewish (or a combination thereof) – and who might therefore be inclined to regard the casual bigotry that infuses the Lebs’ world view as distasteful or personally offensive – will nevertheless be sensible enough to understand these slurs in their proper context, to understand that there is an obvious and important difference between placing them in the mouths of a bunch of loutish characters in a novel and, say, shouting ‘slut’ at someone in the street.
The Lebs is, in this sense, a work that claims its stake in the secular realm of ideas and imagination. It asks its readers to read in good faith, to contextualise and ironise and depersonalise its ideas, to grant its author the intellectual and artistic license to explore ideas that are unpalatable and contentious and thus potentially affronting – to accept, in other words, that notionally offensive words and concepts are not intrinsically offensive, and that giving offense can sometimes be a valid artistic strategy. In this, it does no more than claim the intellectual and creative license that should be granted to any novelist or cartoonist or pamphleteer. Yet it is precisely this conception of art as a free and open-ended space that breaks down in the novel’s culminating scene. This occurs when Bani becomes involved in a community arts project. The Bankstown Arts Centre where this is undertaken is overseen by a Mr Guy Law, a parody of the kind of impeccably right-on White dude who radiates self-satisfaction at levels that are almost certainly carcinogenic. Mr Guy Law introduces Bani to a lesbian named Jo, who needs a ‘Muslim fella’ for a performance piece she is developing. ‘I’m really interested in exploring violence across cultures,’ she explains.
The final section of The Lebs is the most dramatically effective. It draws together the novel’s various points of conflict, concentrating them in a moment of confrontation that exposes the contradictions and double-binds of Bani’s position. He initially approaches the art project with enthusiasm, as ‘the first real opportunity in my life to associate with a different race and class of people than Lebs; White writers and actors – artists – who are progressive and civilised like me!’ Yet at the same time as Bani is seizing this longed-for chance to transcend his identity as a Leb, the novel depicts him as becoming increasingly earnest about his religion. In The Tribe, he observes that the members of his extended family are not strictly observant: ‘Drinking alcohol is supposed to be forbidden but we do it anyway. Our women are meant to cover up too but we don’t do that either.’ In the final section of The Lebs, Bani swears off alcohol after a drunken night out and takes to spending his rehearsal breaks in the bathroom performing ritual ablutions, in order to cleanse himself of the shamelessness and lack of respect he detects in Jo and her cohorts. ‘I wanted to be an artist,’ he states; ‘I did not want to be godless.’
To underscore that he has chosen the path of discipline, Bani also takes up boxing, which he contrasts with the louche world of the artists he meets in Bankstown:
Boxers make sense to me in a way that the artists do not. When a boxer uses drugs and has an orgy before a fight they get knocked out like the total loser they are, but when the artist uses drugs and has an orgy before a creative development they are celebrated as though they have won a world title … A boxer fights a tangible opponent, a person they can see and hit, but the artist fights the air, figments of their imagination, ideas that are of no real threat to them … I crave discipline and order and I completely understand what it means to be a boxer.
The novel’s decisive moment arrives when the amateur acting troupe begins work on an improvised performance that draws its inspiration from random bits of graffiti, which have been sourced from the streets of Bankstown and transcribed onto the walls of their rehearsal space. One of the phrases is ‘Aussies are the biggest sluts!’ – a clear echo from the beginning of the novel, where it is shouted out by one of the Lebs (whose name is Ahmad) when, in the aftermath of the Sydney gang rapes, a teacher tries to lecture them about respecting women. To his dismay, Bani notices that another of the phrases scrawled on the wall is so blasphemous that he cannot even reproduce it in full: ‘Muhammad is a camel –’. As a warm-up, the performers begin roaming the space, calling out graffitied phrases, until inevitably someone shouts out the dreaded sentence:
The words hit me harder than any punch … I have read offensive comments about the Prophet Muhammad before, but this is the first time I have ever heard them spoken out loud, and it terrifies me because now I know that there are people who are genuinely unafraid of Allah, I know what that lack of fear sounds like, and the sound is now inside me.
This destabilising blow is notable for being described as an intimidating encounter with otherness. Bani is faced with the banal fact that his beliefs are not universally shared, behind which lurks the subversive prospect of doubt. The moment is experienced as a fearful awareness of the possibility of a lack of fear. Bani not only confronts the secular reality that he has no power or right to constrain what other people can think and say; he baulks at the prospect of intellectual and artistic liberation. The moment exposes the cracks in his identity, the tension between his religiosity and his desire to be an artist, something that becomes apparent when the troupe moves on to a more ambitious performance. Bani, under direction from Jo, skips like a boxer, then delivers the line about Aussies being sluts. The improvisation that follows quickly escalates into a screaming confrontation, in which all of the negative energy that Bani has sensed between him and Jo boils to the surface. This time it is Jo who is affronted and intimidated, even though she was the one who placed the offensive words in Bani’s mouth. The multivalent ironies of the whole farcical episode are neatly encapsulated by Bucky in one of the book’s funniest lines: ‘Did some slut just call you a misogynist?’
The overarching and rather heavy-handed irony of the novel’s final section is that as soon as Bani steps beyond the stifling world of Punchbowl Boys High School he finds himself being shoved straight back into a box marked ‘Leb’. The naivety of his belief that he could leave behind his identity as a Leb is pointed out by Bucky, who, despite telling Bani that he is ‘not interested in being the gay sub-plot in your hetero nonsense’, comes to act as Bani’s foil and the novel’s deliverer of home truths. ‘Are you aware,’ he asks Bani, ‘that the White people in your development are exploiting you?’ On this level, the novel is a more or less straightforward indictment of the racism of White Australia. ‘I tried so hard to be an artist, to be White, to be one of them,’ Bani laments near the end of The Lebs, ‘but all they wanted me to be and all they saw in me was a dirty Arab’.
But the implications of the novel’s closing pages are more complicated and interesting than this. Ahmad’s ingenious stroke is to present the novel’s climactic scene as a performance, a play within a novel. This framing device not only reveals the underlying nature of the cultural conflict between identity and art; it exposes the way in which Bani has internalised the conflict. Early in The Lebs, he claims to have read The Satanic Verses. Though he neglects to say what he thought of Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, there is no suggestion that the experience was traumatic. Bani is also an admirer of Nabokov’s Lolita, so he clearly has no problem with an art work depicting paedophilia. And yet at the culmination of the novel he discovers that he believes in creative freedom and irreverence and open-mindedness, right up until the point that he doesn’t. This is directly mirrored in Jo’s experience of feeling threatened. Both of them are affronted, even though both of them are perfectly aware that it is all a performance, that the offensive words being spoken should be considered objectively, not taken literally. Bani and Jo thus conspire in their mutual failure as artists. The Lebs is ultimately a confrontation between two rival puritanisms, between two characters who retreat into the false belief that mere words and representations have a magical power to strike at the very core of their being – an inherently regressive belief not simply that words can wound (which they clearly can), or that ideas can be dangerous (some clearly are), but that certain words and ideas cannot be represented and considered objectively at all, that some things are offensive regardless of their context. Intellectual dead ends don’t come much deader than than that.
At the conclusion of ‘Lebs and Punchbowl Prison’, Ahmad announces that he enjoys ‘scaring’ White people, but there is nothing even remotely scary about The Lebs. The novel is far too comical to be unnerving. Its ironies are ultimately as corrosive of Bani’s sense of superiority as they are contemptuous of Jo’s prejudicial assumptions. His belief in his own specialness (an extremely common affliction) comes to manifest itself in a thoroughly unimaginative way, as mere religious conservatism. He embraces this mundane form of essentialism well before his final confrontation with Jo punctures his confidence and drives him into the consoling arms of Bucky, and his piety swiftly transforms him into an arrogant Gulliver who disdains the smelly Yahoos at the Bankstown Arts Centre. Blame for his inability to reconcile his competing identities – artist, fighter, irreverent Leb, devout Muslim – cannot be laid at the feet of a single precious hippy. In the end, Bani doesn’t fly past the nets that are flung at him because he is incapable: he’s still too full of himself. Ahmad’s ability to hold all of this at arm’s length, to see not only the element of absurdity in Bani’s position but to play it against Bani’s considerable self-regard, is the novel’s real achievement, and the clearest indication that his artistic sensibility is far more sophisticated than that of his callow fictional alter-ego.