“I try to show humanity and beauty”: Michael Mohammed Ahmad on rewriting Arab masculinity | Books


Michael Mohammed Ahmad will not apologize for his reality, even if talking about it sincerely makes people uncomfortable. It was about “confronting things,” he says, the cameras and barbed wire fences that were a permanent part of his upbringing at Punchbowl Boys High School; to have grown up as a Muslim at the time of the gang rapes in Skaf, September 11, the riots in Cronulla; to see classmates being stabbed.

His premier of New South Wales award-winning novel The Lebs, which was also shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, drew on so many of these experiences. But it was his frustrations with the late cartoonist Bill Leak’s cartoons about the authorship of “colored men” – portrayals which Ahmad said are racist and deeply offensive – that underpinned his desire to write more Arab and Muslim masculinity. tender and loving in her new novel. , The other half of you.

“I have the impression that the Arab fathers and the Muslim fathers, and more broadly, the indigenous fathers and the colored fathers – are always dehumanized, constructed [as not loving] our children just like white men love their children, ”says Ahmad.

He believes such depictions are part of a “strong fusion in Western culture between patriarchy and masculinity”, in which Arab men who have masculine features – Ahmad describes them as “tall, dark, hairy and extroverts” with loud voices – are immediately considered patriarchal.

“Most men of color cannot escape masculinity,” he says, saying the way men of color present themselves and speak often matches male cues and stereotypes. “[Academic and activist] Bell Hooks argues that we must be able to honor and revere what is masculine and beautiful, separate from patriarchy.

Ahmad’s latest self-fiction novel – the third installment in the life of main character Bani Adam, following on from The Lebs and Ahmad’s debut novel The Tribe – explores a young Muslim’s complex negotiation between faith, family and romance tradition. In it, a young, naive and zealous love between a Christian girl and a Muslim boy is prematurely ended by the restless tongues of the Bani community and his father’s accusation that he had “shamed the house of Adam”.

Ahmad balances his protagonist’s quest for the kind of love he had studied in the great classics of literature with his respect and reverence for his father, safeguarding his heritage and identity. “I feared my father… not as I feared barking dogs and child molesters, but as I feared the sun, which gave me life, and might as well cremate me,” Bani mused to one. given moment, of a masculinity that manifests itself both symbolically and physically in his life.

The other half of you is written with the honesty and courage that characterizes Ahmad, but the affection for his characters, despite their very clear flaws, is evident.

“My job as a writer is not to tell a positive story, my job is to tell an honest and complex story,” he says. “On the one hand, I feel a strong responsibility to take care of my community, to represent its diversity, to show its strengths. But I don’t shy away from their weaknesses and flaws, because there are flaws. And there are things in our community that we need to improve.

He lists bad fathers in the book, which includes multiple perpetrators of domestic, physical and emotional violence.

Photography: Hachette Australia

He is adamant that it is not his role to speak on behalf of Arab-Australian women. But, he says, “I want to speak honestly about problem fathers. I don’t want to romanticize them, but what I’m trying to do is counterbalance that, show their humanity… show times when they show the ability to grow, to change.

Bani’s father is one of those characters. Ahmad wanted to explore his ability to love his children, and to choose them over and over again, despite “the horrible world he came from and what he had to overcome.”

Ahmad speaks fondly of his own father, a once illiterate man who now visits Ahmad’s house in western Sydney once a week to teach Ahmad’s “half-breed” son Kahlil to read and write. Arab.

“They are having so much fun together,” he says. “They laugh a lot during the lesson, and seeing this transformation, and seeing how beautiful my son’s world is because of my father’s transformation, and mine, is beautiful.”

Ahmad thinks it’s no coincidence that there has been such a negative narrative around the Arab people, citing scholar Edward Said’s argument that the reason academic literature courses omit the Arab canon , despite its thousands of years, is that it humanizes them.

“Said argued that if you are going to invade and take these people’s land and wipe them out, you cannot show humanizing details about them. And because the Arab canon is so poetic, so romantic, so chivalrous, you might feel compassion for these people, ”he says.

“We don’t really have a terrorist story; we have a very romantic, very spiritual and loving story. And for me, in the spirit of what Edward Said was saying, this book tries to convey that image in the hope that it influences the way Australians see us.

Ahmad sees literacy and education as essential to breaking cycles of patriarchy and violence, and founded Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement to empower young people of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds through reading, writing and critical thinking, and mentor them to write their own stories.

“I wrote this book to create a humanizing and beautiful portrait of the love and connection of an Arab and Muslim father and son,” he says. “And I don’t want this to be just a representation of my love for my son, but a representation of our love, the love of men of color for their sons and daughters, and also the love and respect we feel for the women in our lives who bring our children into the world.

The Other Half of You by Michael Mohammed Ahmad is now available at Hachette

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