It’s a wet and rainy Friday in Sydney and I’m late for my meeting with the director of Sweatshop, a literacy movement homed at Western Sydney University. When I arrive at the small cafe that opens onto Marrickville Road, Michael Mohammed is just finishing his fifth crumbed chicken dinner this week. It tasted better on the first day, he jokes, adding he’ll order something different for lunch tomorrow when he comes again to work on his play.
We haven’t met before but I’ve read about Michael Mohammed and he’s easy to pick out with his usual black shirt and rimless glasses. There is an intensity and energy around him that pushes away the noise of rumbling buses on the street, planes on descent to the airport, banging and steaming at the coffee machine, a Polish conversation and overhead music.
Wafts of cigarette smoke breeze in from outside and an older man with gray bouffant hair sits alone with an open book. This inner western Sydney suburb feels alive. It reminds me at once of shabby chic parts of Paris and London and San Francisco. It’s not clean and pretty. It’s tattooed and lived in.
In fact, the place seems to reflect Michael Mohammed’s intense combination of working-class boy and passionate intellectual. Often he speaks so quickly through the metal-wired braces on his teeth that his words are drowned out by the cacophony around us and I lean in to catch every thought. Michael Mohammed, the pragmatic philosopher who co-founded what’s now known as Sweatshop to empower young people, is still picking his way to belonging.
We talk about feeling Australian, belonging, how he needs to be both Michael and Mohammed, and how a name can tether or free us. I’m not prepared for the answer when I ask him about whether he, a PhD candidate at Western Sydney University who was born in this city, feels Australian.
”No. I don’t feel Australian,” he says finishing a last French fry and pushing his plate away. ”I identify as Arab Australian.”
He thinks some more.
”No.” Michael Mohammed pauses and doesn’t move. ”No moments of belonging. That’s what my position is on the nature of being Australian and especially being from a marginalized community.”
Birth in a certain place does not automatically give people a sense of community or belonging. So Michael Mohammed set out to understand why he needed to separate and combine his identities and be both Mohammed and Michael.
”A lot of people think Mohammed is my middle name or Michael is my middle name or Mohammed is my Arab name and Michael is my English name. None of them are true. Once I was old enough to figure out that I was living strategically between two worlds I took two names.”
I ask which name he would like me to use. Mohammed, he says. Later in our conversation he explains how using Michael and Mohammed allows him to live strategically.
”It’s not one-sided and not me saying I can’t identify as Mohammed because of racist people. I actually grew up with the name Michael. I grew up in Sydney’s inner west in Alexandria. I went by the name Michael because mum and dad thought it would be easier for us because we lived in a predominantly Anglo community and Alexandria was pretty working class and there was a lot of ignorance and just overt racism. But once we moved to Lakemba, where it’s predominantly Muslim and I went to a primary school that was predominantly Muslim, I actually got the reverse kind of racism where a lot of Arab Australian Muslim kids would say, Why is your name on the roll call Michael? Are you ashamed of being a Muslim?
”When I went to Punchbowl Boys High School, which was [mainly] Arab Australian Muslim, it was an extremely disadvantaged school: cameras, barbwire, nine-foot fences, one way in, one way out, and this was by the front office so you couldn’t get out. It was like a prison system. And at that school, which was very marginalized, very disadvantaged, that’s when there was an aggressive response to me having the name Michael so I went through all my high school years as Mohammed, after being Michael for my primary school years. Once I developed a critical consciousness, I said, I’m Michael and Mohammed. And that was reconciled for me by my peers and the society I’m in.
”Being two different people with two different names is not all negative. It’s about living strategically in two communities. So part of the advantage of having the name Michael and Mohammed is not just about feeling repressed. It’s about living strategically and when I’m consciously doing it, I’m being strategic about when I can be Michael and when I can be Mohammed.
”Does that allow you to not feel repressed?’’ I ask.
”No it doesn’t allow me to not feel repressed. I don’t think being strategic is about feeling liberated. It’s about knowing you are repressed….”
Mohammed’s story is about how the forces of racism and exclusion are being used around us in ways we may not notice, acknowledge or even question. It’s something that prompted him to study race politics and the fantasy of cultural dominance as part of his PhD dissertation.
”Race politics in Australia are very complex. When I talk about racism, I don’t mean it’s racism in the way that someone would say, I don’t want to go over and shake your hand because you’re Arab or black. It’s more like ignorant, systematic racism.”
”Let me give you an explanation using the idea of objects to be governed and how this ties in with the fantasy of cultural dominance.”
”And does it tie in with belonging?” I ask.
”It will,” he says.
”So my answer to your earlier question was that you don’t really get a sense of belonging in this country, especially if you’re critical. If you’ve got a critical consciousness, your sense of belonging comes from not belonging.”
THE REAL AUSTRALIA
Mohammed outlines a case study by Ghassan Hage, author of White Nation: Fantasies of White supremacy in a multicultural society and professor at the University of Melbourne. Hage has written numerous books about identity, multiculturalism, Arab-Australians, belonging and citizenship. Hage outlines the fantasy of cultural dominance and what Australia really looks like compared to what the dominant culture thinks it looks like.
”If you went out to the western suburbs, the most densely populated part of the country, it’s very mixed there. It’s as difficult to find a white person as it is to find any other culture and it’s as easy. So what Australia looks like in reality and the way it’s being imagined by people in positions of power are two different things.
”You look at television and it’s a perfect example of what I mean. If you look at media, radio, academic circles, pretty much any industry where power is being distributed there is a fantasy of what Australia is and so Hage’s book is a deep exploration in the fantasy of cultural dominance that people who identify as white have in this country. This is the point I’m making about belonging.”
In Hage’s case study, which he outlined in White Nation, he watched how graffiti on a wall at the University of Western Sydney in the early 1990s became a cultural exchange about migration. ”Macedonia for the Macedonians” was the first line to appear. Then ”The glory of Greece ruled over the land” underneath. Later, someone wrote a longer piece demonstrating that Macedonians were slaves. After that, someone Hage calls an outsider to the conflict wrote ”You are welcome to bring yourself, your family, and your culture,… but please leave your bigotry and your racism behind.” A red pen crossed out ”culture”, a blue pen crossed out ”family”, and another blue pen crossed out ”yourself”. Two weeks later thick black ink appeared: ”Where do you think you are, you bloody wogs? Go back to your own country.’’ Hage says ”almost immediately” there was a reply, ”This is their country too! We are a multicultural society in case you have forgotten.” The language degenerated.
”This is Hage’s thesis: first two people are in a dialogue about cultural identity, the three next people, and we can probably assume they are all white or Anglo Australians, what those people are engaging in is a discussion about being welcoming or rejecting. But the anti-racist and racist, what they have in common is they both see themselves as the governors of the space and they are entering into a discussion about whether they want people of colour in this country or not.
”So what Hage is saying is the anti-racist and the racist are the rulers of this country and they have to decide whether they’ll be welcoming or not welcoming, when in reality these other two people who are having a discussion are Australian completely independently of them and they are also part of the fabric that creates Australian culture. So what I’m saying is you can see how people of colour, migrants, refugees and Indigenous people are perceived by the governing as objects that they govern as opposed to people who are Australian.
”I think Arab Australians in the last fifteen years, particularly after 9.11, really became significant again. They became the most significant Other identity in this country. The whole world changed. I’m talking about a global consciousness that impacted Australia.
”This is one of the only western countries in the world where you can actually advocate for racism legally. In the United States you could never get away with having a discussion about laws and social structures that discriminate on race. You can still do it here. Take for example, the Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad. It was established in 2006 and was specifically set up to target Arab Australian crime. African Americans who talk about being some of the most marginalised people in the world come to Australia and say that is the most racist thing they’ve ever seen. Some African Americans who’ve been here told me Arab Australians would be better off living in America. They would be treated better.
”The Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad is a good example of systemic racism, racism that is built into our system that actively discriminates.”
”I’m sure race riots happen, but the problem in Australia is it’s really clear that Australian leaders, the Australian news media and the Australian public have mixed up the right to protest with the right to be racist and hateful towards a minority. In this country we are really confused about that….”
STRUGGLING TO UNDERSTAND
Before Mohammed continues, I interrupt him: ”Are we getting away from belonging?”
”No we’re not,” Mohammed says. ”Look, this is the problem I’ve been facing in the last couple of months. I’ll do an interview, and it’s meant to be personal, but the intellectual is the personal for me. It’s just the way it is.”
”Like Michael and Mohammed?” I ask.
”Yes. So there’s no way I can talk about belonging unless we’re talking about the issues, but what I can say is that these are the issues I struggle with every day. These are the issues I don’t understand, I’m trying to come to terms with. And all of that comes out of not belonging. That’s what it is.
”You know, the fact that I spent the last six months reading Hage’s race theory. Why did I even need to do that? Why I, as an Arab Australian, even need to spend time to understand the way white Australians perceive me is because I feel I don’t belong. If I felt like I belonged I could just spend my time watching Seinfeld. I strategically chose that show because it’s meant to be a show about nothing. I could literally waste my time doing nothing. But the reason I have to do this kind of work is because I’m feeling rejected and this is how I deal with it. I intellectualize the situation, try to understand it, and then try to respond critically.
”This is probably the most important thing I can say about belonging for me. When I was growing up I had a lot of rages, real bad ones. I had a lot of violent outbursts at my family. I never physically harmed any of them but emotionally it would have been pretty hard for them. I broke walls, a lot of swearing. This is about something that is pretty intensive. You know, fighting with my father about who my life partner was going to be. That was the kind of thing that could result in a rage for me. As I’ve gotten older and I’ve become more intellectual I’ve come to know the difference between raging and resisting, which is a way of intellectualizing my sense of belonging.
”I’ll give you some good examples of how this works. The writers’ group at Sweatshop is very diverse and you get some writers saying it’s not fair, white people are getting it all real easy and similarly we see people in radical feminist circles explaining how hard it is for them. Most of the time what those people are doing is mixing up rage with resistance. Rage is about complaining and arguing and fighting and abusing people because of the problem. Resistance is about healing. It’s about identifying what the problem is and then building strategies to respond so that you can heal.
”What I can say is that in my writers’ group, my participants are always making that mistake. They’re always saying this isn’t fair, this is bullshit and they take a shot at the one white guy in the room. And I say, while I respect the politics of what you’re talking about, I don’t have any patience for your practice because the practice is about rage, which is justified in a lot of cases, but it’s just not useful. It doesn’t lead to change. Resistance leads to change and resistance is about response and formulating a response to your circumstances through critical consciousness. So for me that’s really my dream.
”I started off raging about a lot of things that were disenfranchising me, marginalising me…but none of that ever made me feel better. Once I developed a critical consciousness through my education, my university education as a creative writer, once I became critical about the politics of race, class, gender, sexuality, and the way those phenomena intersect, once I became conscious of that, I could actually start building strategies to resist models of oppression. So that is my current state. It’s a state of constant resistance.”
THE POWER OF EDUCATION
Often, when Mohammed is talking, I’m reminded of US author Dave Eggers who said ”The written word is the most democratic form of self-empowerment that we have.” Perhaps one of the many things that makes Mohammed unique is that, because he grew up in an environment where literature and even basic literacy were not commonplace, he appreciates the power of his education and how education has allowed him to move in and out of a position of privilege.
”This is another really important point for my sense of belonging. I grew up in a very marginalized community. My parents’ generation grew up in abject poverty. We grew up in more relative poverty, but poverty nonetheless. We were in Sydney’s inner west in a small house where all my aunts and uncles, the children, we slept on couches, we slept on the floor, eight kids in one room. There was a lot of love but there was a lot of violence. As I’ve become more educated, my education has actually been able to get me out of my marginalization. It’s been empowering.
”American cultural theorist bell hooks, talks about how literacy determines how we see what we see. My literacy began to determine how I saw. And through this, I’ve been able to have a literacy, and a critical consciousness enabled me to respond. So I identify as very privileged. I identify as someone who comes from an extremely marginalized background, and I identify that Arab Australian Muslims are still marginalized, but I don’t personally identify as marginalized. I identify as very privileged because of my education and a good example of that is that I’m talking to you about all these theorists. For me, growing up, those theorists influenced me and now I’m friends with them. I’m actually in constant dialogue with Greg Noble (professor at Western Sydney University and one of Mohammed’s PhD supervisors), Ghassan Hage, and Paul Tabar (associate professor at the Lebanese American University).
”The closest thing that I have to belonging is developing a critical consciousness, which is empowering and has been able to move me out of my disempowerment. When I say that I mean in a very literal way, a practical way.
”Last night, we had a Sweatshop event. Then all my friends and myself went out to dinner. There was no dominant group. It was very diverse when it comes to race, class, sexuality. We’re talking about 30 or 40 people.
”On our way to the restaurant, after the event, I was walking with my wife and another woman and ahead and behind us were other members of our group. As we were walking there was a group of eight predominantly white-looking men. A solid group. And when they walked past me, and remember I was walking with two women one of whom was my pregnant wife, it felt very intimidating. It was a very white, male presence.
”Just as a joke, once they went by, I mentioned to my friends that clearly our group was very different to that group. Quite literally that group was the embodiment of homogeneousness and our group was the embodiment of diversity. As a joke, I was saying how the hell do those people find each other? And that is what I find terrifying: that you can literally create a space, consciously and subconsciously, and people are happy to exist that way. And they’re very comfortable not noticing that they’re, to quote bell hooks, a white supremacist capitalistic patriarchal group, just because of the way our society is structured. And in complete opposite to that there is this very mixed group of people.’’
The entire time we’ve been talking at the cafe, I’ve been admiring the painting on the wall behind the bench where Mohammed sits. It’s a picture of a wide empty road flanked by buildings and everything’s speeding towards the horizon. It seems to represent Mohammed and the way that he’s moving passionately into the future, except the road in the painting is empty and Mohammed’s pathway is vibrant with ideas and people and cultures and languages and change and hope.
”I’ve said in many interviews and many panel discussions and many articles that I would like to think that at some point in my life I can pick one name. That I can just identify as Mohammed. But until then, until there has been some growth and change in my life and in the broader society I live in, I won’t. So long as I have two names I have a very clear notion of not belonging.’’
Before he leaves, Mohammed apologizes for the forcefulness of his language, the intensity of our exchange. But I love it. I want more intensity, more Mohammeds, more thinkers, more people willing to take a stand on inclusivity and empowerment, more people who want to make a difference, who want to make their community a better place and who do it with integrity and zeal and compassion.
Michael Mohammed Ahmad is the author of The Tribe and one of the 2015 Best Young Australian Novelists. He co-founded Westside in 2005 to help empower young people through literacy and the creative arts. It later became Sweatshop. Mohammed is co-writing a play, The Burrangong Affair, with Rachel Swain. He listens to verses from The Holy Qur’an when he writes to keep him connected with his people, past, present and future.
Peak into Mohammed’s past through his delightful novel The Tribe and read some of his recommended books: White Nation: Fantasies of White supremacy in a multicultural nation and Kebabs, Kids, Cops and Crime: Youth, Ethnicity and Crime and Bin Laden in the Suburbs: Criminalizing the Arab Other. Plus it never hurts to have a little more bell hooks in our lives.