by Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Published May, 2014
Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Tribe is arranged into three evocatively titled sections: ‘The House of Adam’, ‘The Children of Yocheved’ and ‘The Mother of Ehud’. Each heading has the grand ring of a rubric from the holy books – they are formal-sounding, imposing. But the stories that follow are not of the prophets or of those Semitic religions ordained in the deserts of the ancient past. Instead, Ahmad writes of a very particular community, a rich and complex community of the here and now, that is also of other places and times, and in some ways of all times.
Ahmad has a deep linguistic well available to him and he draws on this to great effect, even if what he has chosen to pull up may never be entirely shared with the members of the ‘tribe’ at the heart of his book. Like any serious writer, he is obliged to wrestle with the question of language. Am I free to borrow the words of those around me? Which words exactly? How may I use them? I began this book wondering whether Ahmad could produce a language of his own from the incongruities and multitudes and creative confusions at his disposal. The good news is that he has achieved that, and confidently so. He has found a sharp and sensual tongue with which to speak and given us a new and welcome voice in contemporary Australian literature. Ahmad’s prose is appropriate to the realities of a community he knows intimately, a community whose life he wishes to portray fully and honestly, in language and love, in its pathos as well as its bathos. The young narrator, Bani, is given a vigorous and demotic language in which to tell his stories. Significant moments are described in extended detail; longer episodes are skilfully truncated or compressed. The dry humour that is deployed from time to time also helps build a distinctive prose. The lively vernacular reminds us that ‘literary’ language is reinvigorated when voices beyond the anglophone are allowed into play.
The Tribe tells stories of people of largely Lebanese Muslim origin, stories of the young narrator’s immediate and wider circle of family, friends, associates. In relating the lines of agreement as well as the points of dissension and tension among his people, Ahmad shows that there are various streams of belonging, some that flow fiercely, some that are shallow to the point of being non-existent. As I read, I wondered about that word ‘tribe’, so fixed and permanent-sounding. A family and its friends and others, inner and outer circles – is this really a ‘tribe’? And if so, who exactly belongs to it?
Early in the book, Bani explains ‘We are Baat Adam’, meaning ‘We are The House of Adam’. He refers to a building of bricks and mortar, but also to something more. The House of Adam ‘belongs to everyone’. It is a place of inclusiveness, where polite forms count for little:
We go upstairs and they come downstairs. We don’t knock on doors and we don’t say ‘excuse me’.
In bald terms, The Tribe might be described as a book about a middle-eastern, Muslim ‘subculture’ living in Australia, recorded by one of its second generation sons. Ahmad’s people – by turns proud, confused, passionate, sidelined, abused and feared – might even be gathered up in the terms of sociology or anthropology; or the concept of the ‘tribe’ could be interpreted as ironic. But in the sheer notice he gives his characters, in his account of the makeshift world of a childhood spent in a down-at-heel suburb of Alexandria, with all its corniness and vulgarities (‘Even the handles on the wardrobes are fakes’), and in the affection and concern expressed by the child narrator, there is an authorial purpose beyond the need to simply record, or even reinvent, in fictional terms.
This small, closely-focused book contains a large intent. It aims not only to tell the lives of people who do not normally appear in Australian literature (or who are bit players when they do), but also to honour those lives. In their immediate experiences, their scrapes and encounters, the nature of their relationships is laid bare. There is a sense that all of these human experiences count and are worthy of art.
The realisation of such a purpose requires a method, and in The Tribe the prose traditions of realism and naturalism serve. Naturalism is nothing new, but there is nothing earnest or tired about the version here. The author may aim to write vividly, so as to give things their rightful notice, but establishing voice and perspective is always a high wire act. Ahmad knows that no matter how vital the child’s point of view might be, he is writing for adults who require something more. Eventually, the mature person who is in fact writing this story, and who quietly hovers over it, has to be acknowledged and given a voice: ‘A day in The House of Adam is a day in my blood – it stays with me forever.’ Such a shift between a mature and immature perspective is not easy to handle. But without its inclusion, and the sparing inclusion of other interpretative moments, the author could not capture all that needs to be said, all that is going on: those things that impact on the child, that he lives through and that will do so much to form him, that will tell whether he will be dully anchored to the earth or find his wings.
Ahmad is alert to casual prejudice – that of Aussie Chuck, who says ‘relax, you Arabs mate …’; that of Bani’s parents, who say that ‘like all Aussies, Chuck is scum’. We hear of Bani’s distress and incomprehension at some of the wilder emotions and behaviours let loose around him. The child recounts the many tears, the raised voices. He describes instances of unwarranted physicality and ugly brutality – everything from casual man-handling to outright violence, including violence towards women: ‘The slap was so hard and so fast that it sent her straight to the ground.’ Hair-trigger emotions and situations are everywhere; cries of outrage and hurt follow mere slights as well as major insults.
Ahmad’s Bani is a clever and sensitive child. Neither arch nor boring, he speaks with just enough maturity to provide his own insight into what is happening around him. Uncle Ehad says that ‘the tribe is a kind of joke’, and so the boy gains a sort of useful, distancing knowledge. This outlook gives the young protagonist a way of making sense of experience – especially compared to those who live entirely ‘inside’ the tribe and take their cues, their meanings, only from what is tribally authorised. For any writer dealing with such experiences, the form of the bildungsroman and the trope of the observant young person are always useful, providing a supposedly innocent form of recounting. But The Tribe is also blessed to have as its recording angel a member of that sub-species the ‘knowing’ child, which means that the earnest and worthy never break in – another of the book’s many strengths.
Ahmad’s tribe, like all others to have arrived in Australia since the first nations, seeks safety at minimum and advancement at best. And so Bani tracks his community’s social progress as well as its craziness, which means that eventually a change of scene occurs. There is a move from rundown old Alexandria – which will soon not be so rundown, but the site of real estate speculation and gentrification – to Lakemba, twenty or so kilometres away and south west from the old inner city, a place where we find ‘Men with beards down to their chests everywhere’.
Through all the difficulties and upheavals of the years, there is a single being to whom Bani clings most closely: his grandmother Tayta. Their love is reciprocal and unconditional, and is the emotional spine of the book: ‘My grandmother is my mother. I’ve never known a day without her.’ Some of the most moving words in The Tribe are Bani’s descriptions of the scenes around the death of beloved Tayta: ‘My heart begins to heave, like it will cave in … I am back in the desert, back to where I came from’. The things the child notices or recalls at this time are confronting, and Ahmad has done a marvellous job of presenting the devastating effect of the child’s real and deeply felt loss.
Ahmad’s attempt to render the textures and details of a particular child’s ‘outsider-insiderness’ is familiar to me. It motivated some of my own early fiction and, in a more sublimated way, some recent books as well. In a nation whose literature until the 1960s permitted or presented hardly any other fictional style than a British-Australian one (allowing for a few important exceptions, such as Judah Waten, David Martin, and one or two others), such an orientation may be inevitable for anyone whose cultural origins lie elsewhere, and whose disposition and consciousness oblige him to depict his characters with justice and fidelity.
Ahmad seeks to humanise, to give voice to those who exist only as types in the official imagination, in the ‘team’ version of Australia. And he does this in the best possible way – not by caricaturing or categorising, but by giving each creation their full humanity. There are no saintly suffering migrants or stock ‘Muslims’ or any other kinds of stereotypes in this work. Instead, there is individuation. Quirky gestures make for interesting characters; the familiar and the unfamiliar rub shoulders. One of Bani’s uncles, Ibrahim, chides another uncle, Osama: ‘fix your hair’. Osama responds: ‘If I fix it, then I can’t touch it.’ He goes on to play with his hair in a way that reminds Bani
of those birds that groom elephants. His two fingers are like a beak; pulling up at the hair and then letting it coil back down.
Quirky characterisation is always a pleasure to read. But Ahmad is also concerned to explore a psychology not easily resolved or remediated. He is interested in the strains that accompany life experienced as an exile, life experienced as if it is only ever half true. Alongside rambunctious family doings, there is also loneliness, isolation and separation. There is poignancy in the broken English, or rather in the English rearranged into a syntax more like that of the characters’ native tongue, and inflected with bits and bobs of local and international forms of popular culture. The characters cling together against ‘the outside’ of a supposedly secular nation – or as certain sectors would increasingly have it these days, a Christian nation – but the outside also has its seductions, which cannot be ignored.
Cultures are always in transition, either slowly or quickly. In the Lebanese-Muslim environment of this tribe, there is the mosque, but there is Elvis too. The rituals of life come to be cloaked in new ways, as people leave behind one set of cultural rules and expectations and take up another. They marry according to their traditions, but only up to a point – they also go to the reception in stretch limos and Hummers. The wedding scene in ‘The Children of Yocheved’ captures this movement beautifully. At one point during this event, Bani says he can
see the cleavage of the tallest girl. She’s in a black dress that folds into a V down her chest. She has straight black hair and very red lipstick. So many of the girls in The Tribe now dress this way. It’s supposed to be forbidden, just like the alcohol, but our people don’t care about this any more either.
This is not necessarily a change ‘caused’ by Australia alone, or which takes place in Australia alone – the world has long been much more interconnected than that. The complications that come with moving between worlds, from Lebanon to Australia, or from anywhere to anywhere, are not so unique or unassuageable. Elvis – or rather the idea of ‘Elvis’ – may be a special cultural marker for those in the US, but his image adorns the walls of the lonely and lost everywhere, across cultures and societies. Whether in the form of a low-cut dress or an iconic image, popular culture can ease many kinds of pain.
The transitions of personal identity, which may be resisted or ignored or remain unconscious, invite the question of where the author locates his own – or rather how he describes whatever transformations he sees occurring in himself or others. In Australia, hyphenation has served to designate a person’s imagined hybrid culture. The construction of Vietnamese- or Greek- or Lebanese-Australians, or any other kind of hyphenated type, may be personally irritating, but it is not necessarily a negative or a complication for the alert writer. Rather, it can function as vantage point from which to observe the affairs, the subjects and the purposes of a society that always needs to be reminded of its origins, its history of discrimination, as well as its possibilities.
A writer who hails from a community that has its share of internal issues and encounters a hostile broader environment might be fearful that his work will be approached only for socially illustrative purposes, or co-opted by the political establishment. Yours is the alternative voice that we ‘need to hear’, the moderating influence on your community’s supposed ‘hotheads’. So what are the gambits or the choices? Do you, in one variety of bourgeois behaviour, reposition yourself as a capital-W ‘Writer’ and settle comfortably alongside others in the great Australian accommodation, just another (if more exotic) version of a lauded and indistinct species? Do you happily accept publication and reviews as part of some benign cultural ‘exchange’ to which you are contributing (or tell yourself that you are)? Do you turn your vantage point into a literary pulpit from which to berate the system that has, in any event, provided you with a place to stand, and from which you will likely continue to benefit – one you know that so many of your family and friends will never enter?
These questions were very real for an earlier generation of writers, certainly my own ‘multicultural’ generation of the 1970s and 1980s, but I suspect Ahmad has already asked and answered them all for himself. In the end, such characterisations carry weight only if we are content to accept the terms of those who wield power. The most conventional of the older terms once applied to this kind of alternative Australian literary work – ‘migrant’, ‘NESB’ or ‘multicultural’ writing – have little purchase today. Politicians and shock jocks might still use them to describe or identify the social problems they have so assiduously created – but they mean very little to those actually inside the whale. Along with older aggregating terms, such as ‘mainstream’, ‘social margins’ and ‘ethnic’, the terminology captures or informs hardly anything in The Tribe, just as it means little for the work of Christos Tsiolkas and Omar Musa and Felicity Castagna and many other contemporary Australian writers.
The work of these newer writers needs no more complicated a nomenclature than ‘critical fiction’. And if their work needs a tradition or antecedents, then I would call it writing that is perfectly well understood and appreciated by serious writers past and present: those writers who have always refused the pigeon-holing of boss critics and interpreters, and who have challenged the incursions of destructive, dominant cultures. Today, as Christian, white monoculture rears up threateningly in Australia again, in another reactionary time, such writing as Michael Ahmad is producing is needed by people of conscience more than ever – whether such people happen to be inside or outside the tribe.