Book Review: Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s ‘The Lebs’

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Words || Ilhan Abdi

I’m beginning to think critics and publishers of the literary world have incredibly low standards for the quality of writing coming from Western Sydney.

When I received the manuscript of this book for review, I was excited because I’d heard great things about the work of Michael Mohammed Ahmad. The superlatives in the blurb gassed his writing to the extremes. One praised the language his last semi-autobiographical novel, hailed it as ‘lyrical, sharp and sensual’, and reviews for The Lebs called it ‘vivid and compelling’.

Reader, it is not vivid or compelling at all.

The story begins at break-neck speed. A whirlwind introduction of numerous characters and stories told within the first few pages, pronouns heading nearly every sentence, bombarding us with so many words that after reading five pages I found myself reaching for my inhaler – and I hadn’t uttered a single word out loud.

The dialogue is crass and awkward, the writing almost entirely exposition, the metaphors are weak, and when he tried to be poetic it felt awkward and fell flat. A lot of the evocative language seemed like afterthoughts, as if Ahmad was just checking off a list of things you should include to make a novel more engaging. He writes like the most inept writers who were relegated to intermediate English classes at my old Western Sydney high school.

The novel is an extension of a personal essay Ahmad wrote about Punchbowl Boys High School and his experiences there in the late 90’s and early 2000’s for the Sydney Review of Books.

The story is told through the voice of Bani Adam, a character based on Ahmad himself. Like his creator, he’s a Lebanese Alawite Muslim, a small sect within the Shi’a branch of Islam. Bani Adam is an outcast, not just because of his membership of a minority sect, but also because he’s a sensitive nice guy among a group of the violent and unruly boys.

‘The Lebs are the majority at Punchbowl, a school made up of mostly Lebanese Muslim students, but including some Arab, black and Asian Muslims. They are their own worst enemies, and the fact that their teachers are unsympathetic and intolerant of them turns their school into a place of confinement.

Bani Adam is the anti-Leb. While the majority of the boys do nothing to overturn stereotypes of them (rather they encourage and relish in it), Bani Adam rejects his people and culture and constantly whines about how much he hates himself, having aspirations of whiteness.

He’s the model minority. He reads. He’s a writer. He says things like, “Specks of tabouli blazed in his eyes”, to describe an angry student, and his number one descriptor for every new character is to describe their olive and copper-toned skin – because how else would you know he’s poetic and also Lebanese?

He’ll tell you he’s not a misogynist; he respects and knows women on a psychological level, much as they’re repelled by him. While the boys in his class openly lust after and objectify their young manic-pixie dream girl of an English teacher, he recites the most fake-deep passages of books (that she recommends him) whenever he catches her in the hallway, waxes lyrical about her blue eyes and milky-white skin, and objectifies her, but in a poetic and fake-deep writerly way. He loves Lolita (sideye) and sees a resemblance between himself and Humbert… Humbert and his almost 30-year old teacher as…Lolita, a 12-year-old. At one point she leaves the school, and her grooming (and abandonment) enables him to finally get a girlfriend.

“I applaud Ahmad for living his truth and trying to un-bleach the current catalogue of Australian coming of age stories, but in terms of the actual writing, he does not do it well.”

In the last quarter of the book, he’s finished school and spends his time doing…theatre exercises and has monologue after monologue about his self-hatred and the displacement he feels amongst Lebs as well as white people. I’m serious. The last quarter is essentially unreadable. After the school anecdotes are done with, Ahmad struggles to find an interesting angle for his post-high school journey to self-discovery.

An early review by Books + Publishing hopes this novel will somehow find its way into the hands of a Muslim teen struggling with themselves, but judging by the awkward explanations of even the most basic tenets of Islam, and Arabic words that anyone who has had any kind of relationship with a Lebanese-Australian would know, it’s clearly not for our consumption.

Ahmad has this strange habit of cramming every piece of cultural knowledge he has into this book to impress you, the non- Muslim, presumably white, reader with preconceived notions about Lebs from Western Sydney. He really needs you to know that he’s an educated dreamer who reads Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison and James Joyce (all while not fully understanding the message of their work). What’s even more maddening is his odd fixation with co-opting the struggles of Black Americans whenever he references their works like Malcolm X and Toni Morrison, as if it wouldn’t be more apt to allude to Edward Said, or Mahmoud Darwish.

“Why is she telling me to read Toni Morrison if I am too dumb to understand? I always thought Toni Morrison’s whole thing was that you’re not supposed to treat Africans and Arabs and Asians like buffoons.”

Well, that’s certainly a great way to insert yourself into the legacy of a writer who specifically said she unapologetically writes for and about black people, not you, a non-black person.

He also gives himself unsolicited license to repeatedly use the variations of the n-word – from negro to n***er – and to make comparisons between his, and other character’s feelings of displacement, to slavery, as if there aren’t a world of derogatory slurs towards his particular racial group to use – especially since there are no black characters in sight – and Arab-related things to find parity between. Frankly, it’s disgusting and insulting, and there is absolutely no purpose to it. Like, we get it, you know those words exist.

In a time where there’s heightened media attention and surveillance on Muslim communities in Australia, it’s valorous to write what is essentially a semi-factual memoir where a great chunk of the novel reveals the ‘extremist’ views – even if they may not be willing to act on them – of some members of the Lebanese and wider Muslim community that Ahmad grew up around. At one point in the novel, after 9/11, Ahmad describes a spectacle of celebration among the Lebs at Punchbowl in the days following the attack.

I applaud Ahmad for living his truth (no matter how brutal and hindering it is for his community) and trying to un-bleach the current catalogue of Australian coming of age stories, but in terms of the actual writing, he does not do it well.

And even if you were to say the writing is the way it is because he tries to turn the everyday Lebanese Australian accent into prose, plenty of writers, like Zora Neale Hurston, have written in culturally specific forms of English without sounding like an inept Year 9 student who has overestimated their talent for creative writing. And many authors, such as Randa Abdel-Fattah, Nadia Jamal, and Taghred Chandab, have written in the voices of Arab-Australian teens without writing like 13-year-olds who write One Direction fanfiction on Wattpad.

If publishing houses are just giving deals to just any old Western Sydney writer with a false impression of their talents, then hit me up, ’cause I reckon I can dig up a couple of the worst short stories written in my most formative years of high school.

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