Michael Mohammed Ahmad talks Sweatshop, fiction, and “Leb” identity.
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Michael Mohammed Ahmad talks Sweatshop, fiction, and “Leb” identity.

Issues/Multiculturalism , Stories/337 , Issues/Arts & Culture
Lakemba NSW 2195, Australia
20th Jul 2018
Michael Mohammed Ahmad talks Sweatshop, fiction, and “Leb” identity.
Michael Mohammed Ahmad's Western Sydney literacy movement Sweatshop is reclaiming ownership of a narrative taken over by mainstream writers.

It's a quarter to three on a warm wintery Sydney afternoon. I am slightly early for an interview with Michael Mohammed Ahmad, author of The LEBS and director of the Western Sydney literacy movement Sweatshop.

I get a call from Mohammed telling me that he's had an accident and is a little shook up. He is okay but will be running late.

I bide my time at the Bankstown Library and Knowledge Centre where we agree to meet. I wander around the Reading Garden which is home to a sculpture of the Lebanese writer and poet Khalil Gibran. The Bryan Brown Theatre and Function Centre is also housed here.

It's fitting that we are meeting in Western Sydney, the birthplace of Sweatshop's literacy movement and a place that has often attracted negative media attention.

Mohammed eventually rocks up in flared jeans, a backwards hat, and an adidas bum bag. He looks like the quintessential "Leb". He reminds me of the character in his book Bani Adam, a student at Punchbowl Boys who wants to bring back flared jeans.

We talk about his literary influences and he drops names like Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, James Joyce, Audrey Lorde and Shakespeare.

Pictured: Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Pictured: Michael Mohammed Ahmad

"The genre I write in is autobiographical fiction, it's obviously based on my life [but] the tricky part is understanding that it is fiction" Mohammed tells me.

He is gesticulating with his hands and talking fast.

"If you're reading my book it doesn't mean you know anything about me as a human being. It's based on the experiences of my life, but I fictionalise characters, events, sequences, politics, ideas, which is a kind of literary form I developed from James Joyce, the Irish writer."

Mohammed is one of the few Muslim Lebanese Arab writers making noise on the Australian literary scene. He is part of a collective who are redefining Australian literature.

"What's really exciting, what's happening now in Australia, is there is a young, vibrant generation of coloured writers, minority writers who are changing what Australian literature means and they are my favourite writers, they are my inspiration."

Pictured: voices behind Sweatshop
Pictured: voices behind Sweatshop

The stories of Western Sydney are reflective of its diversity. However, they are not being told by those who hail from this part of town but rather are being imposed upon them by outsiders.

Sweatshop aims to empower such marginalised voices through literacy and storytelling. The model of Sweatshop is based on the work of Bell Hooks, an American feminist and social activist.

"We took her philosophy and said let's create a literacy movement which is about teaching marginalised people how to read and write because that will determine how they will see what they will see, and in turn that will create models and modes of justice for them" says Mohammed.

Mohammed grew up in the inner west before his family moved to Lakemba. His parents emigrated from Lebanon in the 1970s just before the civil war.

"Back then they used to call it Lebkemba because it was full of Lebs. You know that thing that Peter Dutton said about the mistakes of the Frasier Government? That's us" he says defiantly.

"I wanted to create a complex portrayal of who we are. Peter Dutton doesn't know anything about us, he can make these broad statements...but if you want to know what it is to be an Arab Muslim Australian male, you need to come to the source."

Mohammed recently completed his Phd at Western Sydney University on the topic of Arab Muslim identity in Australia. He talks to me about protest masculinity which he explains as "the symbolic display of power and aggression to compensate for marginalisation."

Following the gang rapes, 9/11, the Cronulla riots, Mohammed says "we became a demon, a folk devil, that narrative was being spoken for us... The Arab Australian Muslim male identity could be activated in different ways: one minute he's a drug dealer, one minute he's a sexual predator, the next minute he's a terrorist."

The Lebs does not shy away from topics of identity, in fact the characters have to navigate the social realities that they find themselves enmeshed in by reason of being "Leb" during and post 9/11.

"What we have in The Lebs is the performance of masculinity, of hyper masculinity, it's a show. They act more gangster than they really are because they feel empowered. There is a glamorisation and its called protest masculinity."

Pictured: Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Pictured: Michael Mohammed Ahmad

Mohammed doesn't remove himself from the stereotypes he wants to debunk. Negative epithets are frequently expressed by the characters in The Lebs.

"I didn't want to shy away from the destructive tendencies that do exist, that I saw, that I experienced growing up as a Punchbowl boy" he says.

But for Mohammed "Leb" identity is unique to Western Sydney. It is a mixture of traits that was being enacted and he explores and unpacks it through fiction and through creative writing a topic Mohammed also teaches in.

"A lot of it had something in common with African American subaltern political hype that they appropriated from the mass media. Then there were aspects about our identities that was enacting being Australian, that we have in common with white Australian men. All that came together, this type of Arabness, Australianness, and African- Americanness, to create this brand-new thing and I call it Leb."

The Lebs is part of the literary push by writers like Mohammed to achieve self-determination and retake ownership of a narrative that has been taken by mainstream white writers.

"If you look at the representation of Asian communities, Indigenous communities, Arab communities, it has been hijacked. White people hijack our narratives, they go into our spaces, our communities and they speak for us. The idea of the sweatshop, is that it's a political act, an act of self-determination, we take our stories back and we reclaim them."

Sweatshop recently published The Big Black Thing and Bent not Broken. Both are anthologies of stories by writers from diverse backgrounds reclaiming their own narratives. The Lebs is Mohammed's second book.

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