The Lebs is one of my favourite Australian novels of recent years, the hilarious, offensive and savage tale of Bani Adam, a teenage Lebanese Australian finding his feet in a country that espouses multiculturalism but fails to live it at pretty much every turn. As a story it barely hangs together, but as a torrent of writing I can think of few reading experiences as thrilling.
The Other Half Of You, the third in Michael Mohammad Ahmad’s auto-fictional trilogy, picks up where The Lebs leaves off, although is recounted in a rather different manner. Sometime in the future Bani is writing to his son Kahlil, named after Bani’s grandfather who left Lebanon for Australia in the 1960s and the poet Gibran Kahlil Gibran whose words form the epigraph for the novel and appear throughout. He waxes lyrical about his son’s birth: “You come tearing through your mother and into this universe like zamzam water, which sprung from the desert of your ancestors”. But quickly we’re dropped back among the world of the Lebs and their tribal dramas. Bani has finished uni and is working at his father’s army disposal store, boxing in his spare time in Lakemba, Sydney. He has a secret relationship with Sahara, a Lebanese Christian and also somewhat of a hippy. When his parents find out it’s a catastrophe; it’s time to marry him off to someone within The Tribe, Bani’s term for Alawite Muslims. What follows is a How-I-Met-Your-Mother guessing game, as various candidates for Kahlil’s parentage appear and drop out of the story. Will it be Sahara who he longs for, the woman he marries out of duty, or someone else lurking in the wings? It’s enough to drive what is a more unwieldy, sprawling narrative than its predecessor, even when there are some odd narrative choices, such as Bani’s tendency to summarise episodes from The Lebs, too thin to be helpful as reminders or to shed new light on them.
Ahmad’s main concern in these novels is masculinity, even more so in this one as it turns to the questions of husband and father. How to be a good man? Bani is “cursed” with the knowledge he’s gained from reading, reminding us that Muhammad received the same curse from the angel Jibreel, who told him to “read, in the name of your lord who created”. This puts him in a tricky position. Even as he turns to his own father and the devout other men of the Alawite community for guidance, he is all too aware of their hypocrisies and inconsistencies, such as the father of one of Bani’s possible betrotheds who is caught sexually assaulting a deaf child. “I spent so much time trying to rid myself of the rage that came with being an Arab man,” Bani writes, “That I had lost the strength that came with being one”. But equally he will never be welcome among the progressive, White community he sees himself as belonging to, a community that can only ever see him as at best a repressive patriarch and at worst a terrorist and rapist. He is condemned to live in between. “I am what I am,” Bani cries at one point, “Please just love me as I am,” and I felt his anguish and also his demand to be sovereign of his own story. Bani’s insistence in telling the story in his own words, carpet-bombed with every slur under the sun, is a one-two punch to those who would box him in.
Bani’s masculinity is often defined against what is most loathed and feared by the Lebs: homosexuality. Sauntering in again from the previous installment is Bani’s best friend Bucky, Greek and gay, “who told me I was beautiful exactly as I was, as a Leb. He was the first person to every really love me that way, and it was gay, so fucken gay”. This time though Bucky is down and out, wandering around in a suicidal fugue after his colonoscopist boyfriend left him for a cosmetic surgeon (get it? It’s a gag about buttsex and gay vanity). That’s not all that’s gay about this novel. From the waxed shiny chests of the Leb muscle jocks to his wife accidentally quoting Achilles’ undying love of Patroclus to Bani, the novel is sometimes so gay I wondered if Kahlil’s mother, the love of Bani’s life, might turn out to be rather a man. Could it be that Ahmad is flirting with classical Middle Eastern notions of sexuality (another figure quoted is the Persian poet Sadi of Shiraz, known for writing to his male beloveds)? Or is it all just a big, no-homo feint?
Equally difficult to answer are the questions around Bani’s relationship to women. “To be with a woman against her will was my greatest fear,” Bani writes. His behaviour is largely consistent with these values, as he makes what turns out to be a viscerally painful sacrifice to rescue his wife from her family. “Will you let me wear G-strings?” she asks, and it’s testament to the force of Ahmad’s writing that it is one of the book’s most devastating lines. Equally though the women in Bani’s life never quite seem to exist independently, only in relation to the men. Even his future soul mate is ultimately a vessel for the son he sees in her eyes, “a child of the sun and the desert”. It’s a book that made me wonder if it is a warts-and-all portrait of toxic masculinity, or just is toxically masculine. There is no easy, comforting answer and to expect answers may to be miss the point.
And yet. There is still the same fire in the writing that makes The Lebs such a white-hot read. Ahmad’s writing induces the thrilling whip lash of turning from fast food to street-brawls to poetry within paragraphs. Bani’s love of Gibran made me appreciate the profound beauty of his verse, particularly the recurring line about love that “grinds” to “whiteness”. As an image of love milling its participants to flour, kneading it into dough, making new life it is startling and sensual, but as the story goes on it becomes a more literal representation of Bani’s anxieties around race, class and education. Bani is also often hilarious, particularly in his cruel ability to skewer a character in a few words. At other times the writing is bracingly strange, such as a scene that takes place in a graveyard:
We hiked through the cemetery, from the crematorium to the Catholic section, where we discovered a small wood of trees trimmed into the shapes of children. It felt like we were in Narnia, with one exception – a vending machine right there in the open. This was the first time I’d ever seen the back of a vending machine; one which somehow ran on electricity even though I could not find any cables or power points. I became obsessed with locating the source of the vendor’s energy, snapping my neck from left to right and shouting, “Where the hell is it, bro?”
It is an unsettling, uncanny image, and it is moments like it throughout that hint at a much stranger story than this tale of fathers and sons at first suggests.
Gay rating: 2/5 for a gay supporting character and queer themes throughout.