Kes emak. Your mum’s cunt. Don’t judge. I learn them from my mother. She is at Coles in Redfern, and I am nestled in her arms like a koala, and this barefoot man with flaky white skin is calling her a towel head and refusing to let us through the doorway.
Ya gotta keep rewinding and pausing the VHS tape at the exact right moment, while Van Damme is pulling up his maroon undies, in order to get a good look at his perfectly moulded arse. He plays Frank Dux, an American martial artist who competes against the world’s best fighters in the underground full-contact tournament called the Kumite. On the opening day of the Kumite, Frank Dux’s first fight is against Hossein, a shiny tanned man in a traditional Saudi headdress. As soon as the bell rings, Frank takes Hossein down with a few quick punches, breaking the world record for the fastest Kumite knockout in history. But shifty Hossein does not concede defeat, and after Frank is declared victorious, the Arab pounces up and attempts to take a cheap shot at him from behind. Frank pre-empts the attack and delivers a reverse elbow-punch combination that sends Hossein to the canvas permanently. The next time I have a fist fight at school, I will embody the spirit of Frank Dux, especially now that Mum has bought me a pair of maroon undies from Kmart. I’m wearing them – and only them – when I practise on my bed, throwing three straight punches, one roundhouse kick and one helicopter fly-kick, which is sure to concuss any foe I’m up against in a few seconds. Tomorrow at lunchtime, an older boy from Year 3 named Thomas Pearce, who has splitting blue eyes, calls me a ‘Lebanese shit’. As the other kids in his grade look on, I pick the maroon wedgie from my butt crack and then I charge, throwing a succession of punches and kicks, each of which misses Thomas by a foot. He stands back, watching me tire myself out, and then he steps in towards me, gives me one hard push and I am down like a sack of horse manure. Lying on the ground while Thomas and the other kids laugh at me and chant ‘Lebanese shit! Lebanese shit!’, I finally understand: I’m not Frank Dux. I am Hossein.
Alexandria, not that city in the Middle East but that suburb in Sydney’s inner west, is the home of my first primary school talent quest. It ends with a chubby boy named Gary Forbes attempting a stand-up routine. His first joke is, ‘What did the big chimney say to the little chimney? You’re too young to smoke.’ The students in the school hall are a plague of pale canned-corned-beef-fed faces, laughing the way only children do, ‘aha aha aha aha’, not knowing if they genuinely find it funny or if we’re just pretending to find it funny because jokes are supposed to be funny. Gary’s second joke goes: ‘Why do cows wear bells? Because their horns don’t work.’ Again, the students laugh the way only children do, ‘aha aha aha aha’, but this time, the teachers join in too, including the principal, Mr Whitehead, who chuckles out loud like a genie, ‘haaaaaahaaaa!’ Two for two, Gary is beaming through an empty mouth of missing baby teeth as he proceeds to tell his third joke: ‘Why do Chinese people have sharp eyes? Because when they go to the toilet, they do this…’ and then he uses his two index fingers to pull his eyes to the side, squats in the middle of the stage and goes, ‘eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeegh!’ The students begin to laugh out of control, and this time it really does sound for realz, with the exception of the one student that looks like the Yellow Power Ranger, sitting two seats down from me, who has sprinted out of the hall like a fat kid with a free Big Mac voucher. Above the laughter, Mr Whitehead screams out, ‘No, no, that’s racist, stop, that’s racist!’ Gary immediately springs up from his squat, hardening into a pillar of granite, and quickly, as the rest of the school watches on in a silent combination of amusement and confusion, his broad translucent cheeks turn bright red and then there is nothing but the sound of a girl weeping from the corridor outside. That same afternoon, while we are eating vine leaves for dinner, I ask my dad, ‘Do you know what racism is?’ He swallows hard, Adam’s apple convulsing as a mouthful of meat and rice trudges down his throat. ‘It’s making fun of chinks,’ he says. Then he pauses for a moment, strokes his beard and asks, ‘Do you know why Chinese people have sharp eyes?’
Three frosty-fleshed women with short hair, colourful cotton drape pants and tattoos with Chinese writing on their arms move in to the yellow-brick house next door. Sitting outside on a milk crate crushing olives, my grandmother takes one look at them and says to me in Arabic: ‘This suburb is too expensive for us to live here anymore…’ A month later, my tayta, father, mother, four uncles, four aunts, five siblings, nine cousins and me migrate to Lakemba. There’s so many Lebanese here, we call it Leb-kemba.
The red-haired woman who talks like she has a broomstick up her hole is on the prime-time news, her porcelain skin and cold blue eyes piercing my retinas as she declares that Australia will soon be facing a civil war. My father and his brothers – Ehud, Ibrahim, Osama and Ali – are huddled around our small flickering television, which has a steel clothes hanger plugged in the back as an antenna. These five Lebanese men all look concerned, their dark rustic jawlines and large Bedouin noses casting long shadows over our entire living room. Finally, my youngest uncle, Ali, contracts his broad shoulders, takes in a deep breath and bellows: ‘Tha fuck does that bitch know about civil war!’ All at once I am running through the concrete alleyways of Tripoli, beige paint on the walls of the buildings decomposing around me, shrapnel clipping my cheekbones, plasma bursting from my fingertips, bullets puncturing the back of my skull. Phuck. Phuck. Phuck. Phuck.
It begins with six habibs standing beneath the headline DIAL-A-GUN. Their fingers are criss-crossed in mourning for the Black rapper who called himself a motherfucker and shouted ‘Fuck peace!’ Hand signals and jacket collars frame their childlike smiles, and caps cast shade over their faces, camouflaging their still-black eyes. The word ‘Nike’ scars their foreheads and ‘Fila’ scalds their shoulders and ‘Adidas’ burns their chests. The subheading reads: Lebanese gang says it’s easier than buying pizza. Their eyebrows and eyelashes are those of the sand monkey and their dark copper skin belongs to the desert snake. I see their flesh, and my flesh, from the outside, like I have become Lawrence of Arabia. ‘A little people,’ he called us, ‘greedy, barbarous and cruel.’ The words drum in my head – drum from Punchbowl train station to Punchbowl Boys High School. I saunter along the outside of the school oval, which is surrounded by twelve-foot fences and barbed wires and CCTV cameras. Walking through the school’s front gates, I am greeted by the head teacher of history, Mr McDonald. He hits me with a smirk, revealing a long line of overlapping yellow teeth, and says, ‘Caught ya on the front page of the Telegraph this morn.’ All over the corridors where the Lebs congregate, there is only one thought on everyone’s mind: Today’s the day we pick up sluts, bro!
Two men who look like hippies from Woodstock are standing by the front gates of Punchbowl Boys handing a leaflet to each student walking out after school – each student, meaning that it’s either one of the fifteen Islanders or one of the 280 Lebos that make up our entire population. The leaflet contains a picture of an anthropomorphised peace symbol, which has crossed eyes and a frowning mouth and skinny arms and legs. This cranky little Peace Man is swinging an axe at a wooden cross and in a speech bubble is saying, ‘Allah, you’re next!’ As soon as the hippies who have handed out the leaflet arrive at Punchbowl train station, the Lebs are locked on them like a pack of pit bulls, calculating a strike. I watch as a drug dealer named Bassam Bin Masri throws the first punch, followed by a wave of Year 11s and 12s who swarm the two men, tumbling into them and hurling king hits and fly kicks, knocking them over and stomping on their heads until they are unconscious. I am horrified by the incident, having never seen an extreme act of religious violence before, but I am also proud of the Lebs because I hate that leaflet, which has desecrated the most sacred aspects of my life.
Rumours are spreading through the western suburbs like herpes: while the flags with five colourful interlaced rings shine from the rooftops, thirteen young men who look exactly like me are wilding down below, hunting for the local gangas. I’m standing in the centre of the school common room, staring at a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger doing a front double-biceps pose in his purple undies, when Osama walks up to me and pulls out his phone. He gawks at me with a smirk; he doesn’t have his glasses on, so his eyes look small and beady. ‘No bitch will ever be able to pin shit on me bro,’ he says with a fat tongue, like his mouth is full of McChicken. From his pocket he pulls out one of the new mobile phones that has an FM radio and built-in recorder. He flicks through the applications and then presses a button. There is a muffle that breaks from the phone speaker followed by the voice of a girl who says, ‘Is it recording? Okay. I agree to give Osama and Ali and Mohammed and Ziggy head jobs.’ In the background of the recording is the sound of cars driving by and the buzz of a broken streetlight. The girl’s voice is gentle and soft, like the way I imagine Lolita might have sounded. ‘Lowie,’ hisses Osama at the end of the message. That’s what we call a woman who is so low she’ll suck off one of us. And it reminds me: She was Lo – Lo. Lee. Ta.
The twenty-third annual sports carnival for schools in the south-west district is an excuse for the Punchbowl Boys to get hand jobs in the public toilets from the Aussie chicks of East Hills Girls. During the bus ride, fifteen of the boys suddenly flop their dicks out on the windows at a bus driving alongside us full of young women from a neighbouring Catholic school. Our driver, an old Irish guy with black glasses like a sheriff, abruptly halts the bus, the wheels skidding and cars behind us honking instantaneously. He rises to his feet, so tall that his head hits the ceiling, and screams, ‘You’re all a bunch of dune coons, no wonder they call you rapists.’ Mohammed and Muhammad and Mohammad and Mahmoud and Mustafa and Ahmad all respond with a collective ‘Braaaaaaaaaaa’. The bus driver removes his glasses, revealing a pair of bloodshot eyes, and says, ‘That’s it – get the fuck out, all of ya, even the teachers!’ Standing on the curb along the Hume Highway, somewhere between Bankstown and Liverpool, the driver takes off without us. Our PE teacher, Mr Romero, who we call ‘Nose Job’ because he has a piece of flesh blocking his left nostril, is squawking about the bad name we’re giving ‘Muzlims’, but I’m not really listening, distracted by a question I’ve been asking myself ever since I saw that long row of circumcised knobs. I whisper to Hassan al-Husseini, ‘Why are all your balls shaved, bro?’ Hassan replies, ‘The imams say you have to do it every forty days, cuz, it’s halal.’ As punishment for flopping out their dicks, Mr Romero makes us walk back to school, which takes over an hour. And that’s the story of how Punchbowl Boys is banned from all sports carnivals until 2005, and why I start shaving my pubes.
EYE FOR EYE
The Lebs of Punchbowl Boys are marching through the front office with their heads cocked and their teeth bared. Our principal, Mr Whitechurch, who sounds like a throttled mule, repeats the same words as each student steps past him: ‘Wipe that stupid smile off your face.’ Out on the quadrangle fifty lads are drumming on garbage bins and dancing in circles, their feet springing from the floor like popcorn, their hips tussling and hands waving. Riad is swinging his bloated arms like it’s his wedding day, while the boys around him sing ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth!’ There are clusters of young men scattered throughout the oval, their cracked voices spiralling at me from every direction, Bush and Allah and Bin Someone. In one corner Rajab Dib is thrusting his open hand into another Leb’s face, re-enacting the image he saw on the news this morning: an aeroplane slamming into a tower. The word ‘Terrorist’ gleams on the back of his blue-and-yellow school jersey. In another corner the boys from Year 11 are standing around Usuf Osman, an Egyptian from Lakemba who has spent the past year instructing us to read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Usuf is thumping on his chest like a gorilla, shouting ‘I prah-dick-ted it!’ The air is dry and dusty, the sun moving in and out of the clouds, searing the red bricks of the school building. I head to the end of the quadrangle, flanking the entrance to the basketball courts. As soon as I spot Shaky, half-Arab half-Anglo, he wraps his fair arms around my head. ‘We got them, brother.’ Then Omar, the Indonesian who calls himself Leb Lovin, tumbles towards us. He and Shaky hug and fist bump and laugh for the next ten minutes. Finally, Omar turns to me with a sneer, his thin lips and pronounced cheekbones swelling. ‘Don’t feel sorry for them, bro,’ he says. ‘Bin Laden’s done all kinds of evil shit to people like us, but you think this country ever gave a damn until today?’ I have turned to ash, my blood and my bones swooning towards the souls of the suicide bombers, falling faintly upon all the living and the dead.
It’s been two weeks, two days and about two hours since 5,000 crackers ‘took back’ their shire, chanting ‘Fuck off Lebs!’ and ‘No Allah at Cronulla!’ and physically assaulting anyone who looked like a falafel. Sahara – the Lebanese Christian I meet online – has her hand clenched tightly in mine, and she’s tugging us both across the beach. The seaweed is chafing between my toes and the waves are shattering upon the shore and the pink seashells are gleaming amid the horizon when four topless waxheads, all twice my size, barge through Sahara and me, pulling our hands apart. ‘Fucken sand n–’ one of them bellows, his drunken breath in my face. Then, as all four men shove past, the largest and fattest among them, who has an elephant’s forehead, turns back and scoffs, ‘No more cut cocks on our beach.’ My heart drums so loud I can hear it inside my ears as I prepare to charge at them with all my strength, swing as fast and as wild as an ape until they smother and kick the shit out of me, but Sahara grabs me tightly by the hand once again and continues to pull us both forward. ‘Just keep walking, baby. I like your cut cock.’ The moon rises high above us – leering into its third quarter, sharpening its edges against a clotted black sky, arching like an ancient dagger. Sahara breaks up with me the following night, but promises it has nothing to do with her views on circumcision.
The Grand Mufti of Australia is standing on the stage inside Lakemba Mosque, the hollow inside of a gargantuan dome looming above him as though it’s the breast of Um al-Dunya. He looks like the Ayatollah Khomeini, greenish dark skin, brown turban, long white beard, two deep grey eyes swirling into oblivion. The air inside the masjid begins sucking the sweat from my brow as Grand Mufti thrusts his chest and screams: ‘If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it, whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat?’ The hundred boys sitting cross-legged in their socks all around me nod in his direction, hook noses protruding like tiger knives. ‘The uncovered meat is the problem,’ Grand Mufti continues. ‘If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.’ Then we all stand to pray and, bending over, I thank the Lord that I’m wearing pants, otherwise it’d be my fault if the Pakistani behind me decides to fuck me up the arse…
THOU SHALT NOT
The prophet made us promise never to depict his image, but we could not stop the infidels from portraying him as a sword-wielding warlord drenched in blood or as a porn star eating out his wife. A thousand beards and hijabs march through George Street, backing up the cement mixers and racking up the cab fares, smashing the bus shelters that lionise starving women in red beach bikinis, kicking a green-eyed police officer in the testicles, sticking signs in our children’s hands that say, ‘Behead those who insult god’s messenger.’ The premier describes us as the unacceptable face of multiculturalism, and all the while we’re throwing eggs at the Opera House and laughing back at him, like: we’re not asking for your acceptance, dumb cunt.
The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbot, is promising he’ll stop the boats. I am walking down Church Street one week from election day on my way to buy a new pair of Air Maxes from the Westfield Foot Locker, $240 in my pocket. Rexies and Skylines rumble down the road blasting DMX through their bass speakers. In front of me walks a chink, at least he looks like a chink from behind – slim wiry frame and a head of dead straight dead black dead dangling hair. I trail him for at least another hundred metres, until we pass a bus stop where there sits a slender woman whose shoulder bones bulge like walnuts and whose dry black skin is shedding under the warm sun of spring’s first afternoon. She’s in a tight red singlet and a pair of torn canvas sneakers without any socks. As the chink turns to look at me – eyes sussing out the potential drug-dealing gang-raping terrorist – the woman begins to scream at him, ‘Fuck off back to Viet Cong, queue jumper!’ Stumbling in his tracks, the chink snaps back at her in a thick accent, ‘Fuck you, Aborigine!’ Then he turns to me one more time and says, ‘You wan’ trouble?’ The woman is on her feet, flat chest blistering and bony arms ready to swing, and I am frozen before the two of them, left hand digging into my pocket, clenching tightly on to my cash, and DMX is roaring from up the road, That’s how Ruff Ryders roll. Seven days later, Tony Abbott is elected Prime Minister. Observe the porch monkeys caught in this tangle of thorns.
The Nokia 8850 has a titanium silver casing and a bright blue screen, and right now it also has Oli’s pixelated name flashing in my face. She’s crying uncontrollably, forcing her words out between sobbing breaths: ‘Hey…can…you…come…get…me?’ The tyres of my Celica, which Oli calls my ‘Silly-car’, crackle over a cluster of gumnuts as I pull up to her uncle’s house, an old wooden terrace covered in cracked white paint – the site of her small family’s annual Christmas party. On the veranda, an Australian flag hangs over the metal railing, only it has a red background instead of a blue one, immediately bringing to my mind the flags of the Confederate States of America. Oli is standing on the nature strip in front of her uncle’s white picket fence – the heart of Granville. As soon as I’m standing before her, our eyes locked on one another, the white girl digs her face into her hands. She grumbles something about how her dad’s brother, an obese alcoholic who votes for Pauline Hanson, is deeply concerned that if she marries me I’ll force her to convert to al-Qaeda. Oli lifts her head from her hands, flesh pooling around her eyes like ink. She tugs down tightly on the waist of her long floral dress as she recounts her feud with the bogan: ‘My uncle said, “He’s gonna put you in a hijab.” I said, “He won’t.” He said, “He will.” I said, “He won’t.” He said, “He will.” I said, “He won’t.” He said, “He will.” “He won’t.” “He will.” “He won’t.” “He will.” Over and over, over and over.’ I take Oli in my rusted arms and kiss her forehead, which feels like recycled paper against my lips. On our wedding day, she wears a white see-through bridal veil which she buys from a second-hand store in Cabramatta. Al-Qaeda is ululating: Leleleleleleleleeeeeee!
Morning after the schizophrenic refugee takes hostages in the chocolate café, I am standing on Lakemba train station like a sad-case gronk, waiting for the red rattler to take me to Punchbowl so I can throw rocks over the twelve-foot fences at my old high-school windows and curse my mother for birthing me: kes emak, kes emak, kes emak – your mum’s cunt, your mum’s cunt, your mum’s cunt. I point my jaw towards the ground, trying to conceal the blood rupturing my eyeballs, but all the same this Aussie chick with orange braids and bright brown eyes in tight white pants and a tight white V-neck smiles gently at me and says, ‘I’ll ride with you.’ Before I can respond a fat shit Lebo in a Nike cap scoops in from behind me and says to her, ‘How about you ride me instead?’
There’s this yobbo in navy blue tracksuit pants and a fluoro vest that fails to cover his hairy shoulders standing at the counter of Punchbowl KFC demanding a Zinger burger with bacon. The Indian manager bites down hard on his lower lip, raises his hands like he’s under siege, and says in a classic curry-muncher accent, ‘Sorry sir, dis store halal certified, don’ serve pork here.’ The yobbo smashes his fists down hard on the counter like a baboon, twisting every brown neck inside the restaurant towards him as he threatens in grainy ocker to cover the entire building in pig’s blood. He turns to leave, catches sight of me and stares so hard into my eyes that I see my irises reflected in his pupils, and I know that he thinks this is all my fault – which, to be fair, it is. I contract my knuckles, and he sees me do it, and just like that he begins to deflate. The yobbo stomps past me, thudding across freshly mopped tiles in a pair of muddy steel-capped boots. I approach the counter to order a Zinger burger combo, dumb grin slapped across my face. ‘And hold the bacon,’ I tell the manager. He wipes the sweat from his brow and replies, ‘That fucka man!’ Driving home in my Silly-car, heart pumping hard from all the deep-fried faeces in my arteries, I turn on the radio and catch the last line as a high-voiced woman summarises today’s top news headlines: Why you’re being forced to eat halal.
HALF AGONY, HALF HOPE
A head that looks like a rotting potato is on the television screen, thin lips punctuating each word: ‘Out of the last thirty-three people who have been charged with terrorist-related offences in this country, twenty-two of those people are from second- and third-generation Lebanese-Muslim background.’ All of a sudden the potato head is mutating before me, a warthog grovelling up its own vomit; ex-cop hiding in plain sight. ‘The reality is Malcolm Fraser did make mistakes in bringing some people in.’ The immigration minister is talking about me, and talking about my son, who in this very moment happens to be fast asleep in my arms. I stare down at his twitching eyelashes, inhale the air from his wheezing nose, place my finger on his whimpering lips and attempt to soothe him: ‘Shhh. Shhh. Shhh.’ Kahlil, my half-caste, made from his father’s flesh and his mother’s freckles, already knows what no one-year-old should ever know – the universe did not big bang into existence just for him. A tear rolls from my eye, down my bearded cheek, off my chin and onto his forehead. ‘Please don’t take it personally,’ I whisper into his tiny eardrum. ‘All Arabs are someone’s mistake…’