CRIME CULTURE: Residents of Western Sydney have long got used to the epithet of ‘Middle Eastern crime’ being bleated equally aloud and all over the place by tabloid shock jocks and senior police alike. Ahead of this year’s BAD Sydney Festival, Therese Taylor speaks with one of its special guests – novelist Michael Mohammed Ahmad – about the realities of crime and ‘ethnicity’.
The hotly anticipated BAD Sydney Crime Writing Festival is opening later this week for its 2022 edition.
The festival – held from September 8-10 at the State Library of NSW – is a treat for all who have an interest in crime and crime fiction, as well as providing a great opportunity to see and hear from Australian writers working in all genres and styles, from novelists to memoirists to investigative journalists.
Ahead of the event, True Crime News Weekly spoke with Michael Mohammed Ahmad, author of The Other Half of You and the founding director of Sweatshop Literacy Movement that discovers and assists emerging and established writers in Western Sydney.
The panel – ‘Middle Eastern Crime’ in Western Sydney: Myths and Realities’ – will be held on Thursday, 8 September from midday inside the NSW State Library’s Dixon Room.
The topics of crime, representations of Middle Easterners, and images of Western Sydney are currently front-of-centre with the deaths of Lametta Fadlallah and Amy Al-Hazzouri in a shooting in Panania that took place just a few weeks ago.
Crime and Communities
To begin with Michael Mohammed Ahmad explained that he views the use of the term ‘Middle Eastern’ as “a problem” with media coverage of crime.
“It comes with such expectations – it is a label – which eliminates any consideration of gender, of social-economic themes, and of anything which could challenge the judgements of mainstream Australian media,” he told TCNW.
It is this, he suggested, which has made it difficult for Australians of Middle Eastern ethnicity to produce crime writing. Before telling any story, they are almost obliged to explain themselves and apologise for the actions of others.
“Our writing is taken personally, our work is creative, but if we write about crime, it can be taken as an ‘admission of guilt’ – a reflection of the nature of a distrusted community.”
– Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Crimes which reflect majority Australian society – such as the scandal of organised crime being accommodated at the casinos – are discussed without reference to the cultural identity of those who participate – unless they are Asian. Likewise, a film like BlackRock (1987), can narrate the tragic rape and murder of Leigh Leigh, in the context of surfer culture, without reference to ethnicity, which so dominated the discourse around ‘Lebanese rape gangs’ in Sydney in 2000.
“If we write about crime, it can be taken as an ‘admission of guilt'”: Novelist Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Image: Supplied / Hachette)
The Other Half of You
Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s novel is a sharp and amusing story which relates the ways that young Arab men live with themselves and others in south-west Sydney. The novel sets a cracking pace, and has the gift of capturing voices and dialogue.
The narrator, Bani Adam, sometimes laments at the tight social bonds which torment him, but at other times draws vitality from the camaraderie of people who have always known each other.
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“It started as a letter to my new born son,” the author remembers of its genesis.
The novel is much admired, and is currently on the short list for the Queensland Literary Awards.
Celebrated and Recognised
Michael Mohammed Ahmad pointed out that there has been a process of change, in the last 20 years, and that the panel itself at BAD Sydney is evidence of the emergence of talented Arab-Australian writers.
“A lot used to be said about us, but now, we are in a position to talk about ourselves,” he remarked.
To further elaborate, he pointed towards the growing high profile attained by Amani Haydar, as “one of the most respected writers” in contemporary Australia.
He went on: “Sarah Ayoub has succeeded and attracted many readers. She is able to be visible and incisive, in a media landscape which used to confine Arab women into a few, unappealing stereotypical images.”
For Michael Mohammed Ahmad, recognition from the wider literary community for the talents of the individuals and cultures who live in an area of a city that has long been viewed as ‘undesirable’ is long overdue.
“Critical acclaim is especially important to writers who are creating a three dimensional portrait – more real – and breaking through to mainstream Australian opinion. It is natural that people in minority communities very much aspire to be heard by ‘White Australia’,” he said.
“In our own communities there is love and support, we mirror an alternative image to people who have been in a negative light for so long.”
For tickets and further information, visit BADSydney.com.