Literary realism about growing up Lebanese in Sydney
Content warning: sexual assault, racism
I first heard about this book when I saw the author speak on a special literary episode of Q+A. If you didn’t catch it, I would highly recommend watching it because there is some fantastic discussion about the Australian literary scene. The author in particular spoke so passionately and eloquently that his discussion really stuck with me, and I made a mental note to read his book. It popped up recently while I was searching for my next audiobook, and I was really excited to listen.
“The Lebs” by Michael Mohammed Ahmad and narrated by Hazem Shammas is a bildungsroman about a teenager called Bani Adam who attends a Lebanese-majority high school in Western Sydney called Punchbowl Boys. Bani Adam is a dreamy boy whose thoughtful internal voice separates him from the hypermasculine culture that surrounds him. He has a deeply romantic crush on his English teacher, and after she leaves, he begins to channel his feelings into writing. When Bani Adam has a short story published, an opportunity arises for him to develop himself as a creative. However, outside Punchbowl Boys, Bani Adam grows to realise that the main thing that society sees in him is his ethnicity.
This is an incredibly insightful book that really captures the mood of Australia in the early 2000s. Bani Adam is an incredibly complex character, and I absolutely loved the dissonance between his articulate and sensitive inner voice, and how he presents to his friends and classmates. Shammas was a fantastic narrator, and the way he captured the voice of teenage boys, written with such honesty by Ahmad, was nothing short of brilliant. As someone who was in high school in Australia in the early 2000s, the cultural references, language and even occasionally behaviour were familiar to me. However, this book is about the singular experience of a Muslim-majority all-boys public school in Western Sydney, and it was eye opening to read about an experience in Australia happening parallel to my own. Ahmad captures how Lebanese identity, Islam and masculinity are so tightly woven together not only within the microcosm of Punchbowl Boys, but by Australian mainstream media against the backdrop of anti-Arabic sentiment in the wake of September 11 and the Sydney Gang Rapes. I thought that the way Ahmad handled the complexity and nuance of racial prejudice towards the Lebanese-Muslim community, and sexist and misogynistic attitudes within the Lebanese-Muslim community, was excellent. Bani Adam is the perfect protagonist for this book because while he is not comfortable with and doesn’t share the attitudes he hears from his peers, he learns that despite his inner self, he is still seen as just a “Leb” by the broader Australian community. Even though for some people the earlier parts of the book may be more confronting, I actually found the latter half of the book much more challenging when Bani Adam, seeking to improve himself artistically among peers, finds himself made to perform a caricature of the very community he is trying to distance himself from.
I just want to make a quick note about this book in audiobook format. As I mentioned, Shammas narrated this book excellently, but I also felt that this book really lent itself to being listened to. Ahmad revisits scenes several times, in the same way that teens (and adults) rehash events trying to examine them and make sense of them from different perspectives, using slightly different language and observations each time. I felt that this narrative style was actually really great in audiobook format for someone like me who can find active listening challenging at times, by reinforcing what is happening but challenging the reader to think about the same situation slightly differently. Interestingly, a significant way through the book, there was a content warning about discussion of sexual assault. I was surprised the producers decided to put this in just prior to the particular chapter rather than at the beginning of the entire book, so if you decide to listen, don’t worry, you haven’t accidentally skipped back to the beginning of the book.
A really important and thought-provoking book that I would thoroughly recommend. I found out after reading this book that it is actually a sequel to Ahmad’s book called “The Tribe” which I haven’t yet read, and now really want to.