Michael Mohammed Ahmad, The Tribe, Sydney, Australia: Giramondo Shorts, 2014. RRP$19.95, 168pp., ISBN: 978-1-9222146-56-4
Before you read The Tribe by Michael Mohammed Ahmad, it is necessary to go past the cover. The book is nearly square and shows stone carvings in an intricate design. Then the title, where the juxtaposition of the word ‘Tribe’ next to the author’s Arabic-sounding name conjures questions of culture and identity, of an ‘us and them’. It is a very effective way to set up the reader for this fascinating book that, through the lens of a single family, explores so much more. Each story consists of daily incidents, (some recounted below), but together they tell of relationships as ancient and complex as the carvings on the cover.
The tribe referred to is an extended Lebanese Shia family and their community in Sydney. The world we are allowed into is limited, seen through the eyes of a young boy named Bani. From this child’s-eye-view, what is not seen is as intriguing as what is shown. Through this device we are spared many of the implied problems the adults must face in the world outside of the family.
The book is published by the imprint Giramondo Shorts and consists of three connected but separate stories. They each begin with the same sentence with only Bani’s age being different. ‘I was only seven [/nine/eleven] when this happened but it always feels like right now.’ Immediately, we are taken into the memory of childhood, but occasionally this is overlaid with adult reflection. This gives the book an unstable quality that is both disturbing and refreshing. Are we looking back with accurate recall? Is the narrator talking back to his future adult self, and are the moments of Bani’s imagined futures now his lived reality, or that of the author? Either way, the insights these stories offer into a community generally unfamiliar to the reader are both compelling and confronting. Indeed, an epigram which prefaces the stories states: ‘For my family, who will never read this…’
In the first story, ‘The House of Adam’, we are introduced to Bani and Yocheved, his Tayta, a term of endearment in Arabic for grandmother. On the first page she lists the scars on her belly from the births of her eleven children, of which only eight survive. She is what holds the family to their history and connection to Lebanon, and she herself is held in the highest regard. She embodies the household, around which orbits Bani’s family, consisting of Jibreel and Leila, his parents, his three siblings and Uncle Ali, who all live downstairs with Tayta. Upstairs lives his fiery-tempered Uncle Osama and his family. In the garage is his divorced and troubled Uncle Ibrahim.
Through recounting small moments in their lives, Bani touches on the challenges of living within two cultures. He questions, sometimes naively, their customs and behaviours as he searches for his own identity. Moments are felt intensely, even described as ‘a day in my blood’. Sometimes Bani is pulled towards the idea that he is from another place, ‘back in the desert, back where I come from’. At other times he wants to move away into new ideas and places. This is the tension that pulls us through all three of these stories but that also gives this book its charm.
The second story, ‘The Children of Yocheved’, tells of the engagement and marriage of Uncle Ali to Zubaida. This is the most public of the three tales, with the wedding taking place at a local community centre with many hundreds of guests. Through this device, the cracks within the tribe are exposed: the family feuds; those on the inside and those on the outside; the petty disagreements that constantly threaten to explode into violence; the attempts to hold onto or abandon customs and traditions. The public roles of the people of the tribe are displayed here, along with the casual racism and sectarianism, and the sexist views held about women. It is a delicate balance to truthfully show these behaviours without seeming to judge them, and Ahmad succeeds. But this does not make it any easier to read, especially when we realise that Bani, now nine, does not question them. There is, however, a wider lens here that shows how the ancient mixing of cultures and the ongoing conflicts throughout the Middle East still affect the family, even here in Australia. At a moment of tension, when two young men threaten each other, Bani questions his place within the tribe. Through the wonderful (and repeated) metaphor of seeing hourglasses in his grandmother’s eyes, he sees ‘the sands of time dictating my future’. But Bani can also see other possibilities, of moving away from expectations, even of rejecting an arranged marriage: ‘I can see her face, her fair skin and her freckles and a shy smile, nothing like the girls of The Tribe.’ He sees his whole life with this imagined woman in that one moment.
In the final story, ‘The Mother of Ehud’, Bani is eleven. He has lost his closeness to his Tayta, and is almost repulsed by her as she is bed-ridden and incapacitated. Over the course of a day, we witness Tayta’s death and the immeasurable show of grief and pain that follows. Ahmad has a way of using language concisely to guide us through a moment, but he also allows us to have an intense connection with the people in this world. Bani feels like a spectator to all the happenings on that day, and as such not only describes it but also let us into the underlying tensions that surround the death of this matriarch. With Tayta dies the final direct connection they all have to their history in another place. At the very end, Bani realises he ‘never really knew anything about my grandmother’s past’, and this simple realisation resonates back through his short life. But it also reflects forward into the future and we are left with a sense of the elusive nature of Bani, the narrator, and perhaps the author, of this compelling and insightful book.
Vivienne Glance is an academic and a creative writer. She holds a BSc (Hons) from Imperial College, London, and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Western Australia (UWA). Her interests are the intersection of science and culture, particularly aspects of science in performance. Vivienne is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at UWA.