The Other Half of You by Michael Mohammed Ahmad

Reviewed by Rod McLary

In 2018, Michael Mohammed Ahmad won the NSW Premier’s Multicultural Literary Award for his novel The Lebs [also reviewed in these pages]; and, later that year, the novel was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

The Lebs told the story of Bani Adam as he negotiated issues such as cultural frictions, power dynamics, rape culture and toxic masculinity while he was a student at Punchbowl Boys High School in Western Sydney.  Bani is Lebanese and an Alawite Muslim in a country where ‘Lebs’ is a pejorative term – except in their own neighbourhood Lakemba.

The Other Half of You takes up Bani’s story after he graduated from university with an Arts degree and is now expected to marry but to only another Alawite.  To do otherwise would not only bring shame to his family but would also pollute the Alawites’s pure bloodline which can be traced back to the Prophet Muhammad [23].

Told in the first person, Bani is telling his newborn son Kahlil the story of Bani’s life from his university graduation to Kahlil’s birth.  The identity of Kahlil’s mother is not revealed until close to the end of the novel.

But Bani’s story is as much an outline of Lebanese culture and practices as it is of Bani’s tricky and sometimes stony pathway to marriage and family life.  Along the way, we are first introduced to Sahara – Bani’s first love – who unfortunately is a Lebanese Christian with ‘the tanned complexion of a sand-girl, a copper coating that glowed golden in the daylight’ [5].  With a nod to Romeo and Juliet, this relationship is doomed from its secretive beginning and though, unlike Romeo and Juliet, neither Bani nor Sahara dies, the implicit threat is ever-present.  Bani is warned by his father that if he ever marries an outsider, he will be disowned and banished – and then struck down by a thunderbolt from Allah.

Bani’s parents are desperate to have him marry before he has an opportunity to fall in love with another outsider.  Consequently, he begins a sometimes shameful and sometimes humorous process of meeting with eligible young women in the company of his parents and theirs.  In time, he is introduced to Fatima whom he marries but who – he soon realises – would have wed the first Lebanese man ‘who would promise her some Aussie version of freedom’ [114].  And for Fatima, her version of freedom is to be able to wear G strings.

There is however a dark side to the Lebanese culture about which the author is open and honest.  At an individual level, Fatima wants to marry to escape the control of her father which is exercised by the rather heavy use of slapping her with a sandal if she does anything which is considered to be ‘whorish’ behaviour.  More generally though, there are explicit references to violence and family abuse throughout the novel and the reader must be prepared to accept these as in the extracts below:

… and from the centre of the brawl emerged Koda, his tree-trunk-thick arms swinging and his bald head scraping the moonlight, screaming, ‘You’re dead, dog c…, you’re fucken dead! [139]

The entire left side of his face was orange and flattened.  His nose was swollen and bleeding and there was a sharp gash across its tip.  And Jesus – his right eye!  [145]

The reader must also be prepared for the rather liberal use of the ‘c’ word used both as a word of abuse and in ordinary conversation.  As the author says, ‘that’s just how we speak over here in the ghetto’ [298]; and, on that page alone, it is used 26 times.  Once these hurdles are overcome though, the reader will readily become involved in a story told with confidence and humour – but shaded by moments of sadness and emotional pain.

The author speaks with the authority of a lived experience.  In short, he knows what he is talking about and this knowledge is smoothly transferred to the reading experience.  The whole story is imbued with authenticity and an intimate knowledge of the Alawites’s customs and culture – and more broadly, the Lebanese culture as it manifests itself in Australia.  Bani’s voice is loud and proud but tempered at times with a self-deprecating wit as he speaks of himself and his negotiations with life as it confronts him.  The reader shares with Bani the frustrations of a loveless marriage to Fatima and its lack of intimacy as well as her narrow perspective and limited ambitions.

But there is happiness to be found as well.  Bani – through circumstances better left for the reader to discover – finds love with an Australian woman.  When Bani fearfully introduces her to his parents, his father responds ‘Peace be upon you, Miss Olive.  Hello and welcome’ [315]; and his mother with ‘six kisses, from cheek to cheek to cheek to cheek to cheek to cheek’ [317].

This is a challenging and often confronting book but one which deserves to be read.  Ezra Pound once said ‘The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand’ – The Other Half of You is very much that offering a glimpse into another culture, another life and, having read this book, the reader will be the better for it.

Michael Mohammed Ahmad is the founding director of Sweatshop Literacy Movement and editor of After Australia.  He received his Doctorate of Creative Arts from Western Sydney University in 2017.

The Other Half of You

[2021]

by Michael Mohammed Ahmad

Hachette

ISBN 978 073363 903 6

$32.99; 339pp

 

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